By Simon Hetherington
“Judges are irritated but not influenced by what they read in the papers, though coverage can affect their mood”. So says Lord Falconer, the former Lord Chancellor, according to a recent tweet by PR agency Fishburn Hedges.
What, one wonders, is the use of such a remark? Whom does it serve? It is merely banal if it is to be taken at face value. We hardly need telling that the judiciary is above being swayed by media coverage. We can go further: we have been taught it as an article of legal faith. To talk about judges’ “irritation” or “mood” adds nothing to what we expect of them, but risks instead a mild opposite effect. What does the judge’s mood matter? Unless it does in some way affect the handling of a case, it doesn’t matter at all, and ought not to merit even a mention.
What is perhaps most likely is that the quoted remark was intended to convey something to the effect that judges are human, but they put their human responses to one side. This, it is implied, is a good thing. No doubt it is, but it does throw a sidelight on a certain ambivalence in attitudes towards judges. We don’t really know what we want from them. Or if we do, we don’t always appreciate quite how much we are asking. At one and the same time we seem to want the judiciary to reflect the composition of our community and to judge without reference to that section from which they come; to be both cognisant of and subject to the human condition and to rise superior to it; in other words, to be both shaped and uninfluenced by who they are.
That is a difficult equation to solve. In one version of a perfect world, neither the identity nor the background of a judge would be of any greater significance than the side of the bed he/she got out of in the morning. Perhaps, though, that is not what is desired; perhaps the human factor does actually need to be a factor in the administration of justice. Guidance may be taken from a widely accepted view that the interests of the law are best satisfied by a judiciary representative of the community: a community which is diverse not only in its make-up, but also in its interests.
A community which reads the newspapers, watches the television, surfs the internet, follows tweets and blogs and accesses media of every kind, designed to inform and influence alike. It is right that our judges should have those experiences; we cannot – and possibly should not – expect them to be utterly immune to their impact.