The Guardian (UK): A noble cause: Why should judges who quit early keep their knighthoods? Plus, legal aid - the forgotten scandal: “In 1964 one of England's greatest judges of the last century, Lord Devlin, shocked the legal world by suddenly retiring as a law lord at the extraordinarily early age of 58.”: “Had he stayed - and there was no retiring age at the time - his impact on the law would have been prodigious. I do not think the same will be said of Mr Justice Laddie.”: Tuesday 28 June 2004
Tuesday June 28, 2005
The furore (well, the legal world thinks it is) over Mr Justice Laddie's resignation as a high court judge because he found the work not stimulating enough raises another issue. I'm not making a point about Sir Hugh Laddie personally, but if the lord chancellor decides soon that judges, contrary to the present practice, should be allowed to go back to the bar if the bench doesn't suit them (or if an increasing number take up employment elsewhere), the question of judicial knighthoods must surely be tackled.
High court judges get a knighthood (or damehood) automatically on their appointment. I do not know of another profession or activity where taking on a job means simultaneously becoming Sir. In other spheres of life someone is given an honour when they have proved to be good, or at least successful, in whatever it is they do - not on the first day of their new job, at which they may turn out to be rubbish.
But if they stay on the bench only a little while, why should they continue to keep the honour? At least judges who stay on can be said to have earned it retrospectively. Not so those who pocket the knighthood and run.
The result of Mr Justice Laddie's alleged ennui - the "I'm gettin' outa here" syndrome - has at least two precedents. One, that of Sir Henry Fisher, who left the high court for a job in the City, I coincidentally wrote about when he died recently. The other featured a far more illustrious judge.
In 1964 one of England's greatest judges of the last century, Lord Devlin, shocked the legal world by suddenly retiring as a law lord at the extraordinarily early age of 58. He had found that being in Britain's highest court failed to satisfy him intellectually, not least because, as a law lord, he was only one of five judges hearing an appeal, his brilliance too often negated by the views of his more humdrum colleagues.
He went on to chair the Press Council, write an acclaimed biography of US president Woodrow Wilson and conduct extremely lucrative international arbitrations. He did not for a single moment, he told me, regret his premature bolt from the judiciary. Had he stayed - and there was no retiring age at the time - his impact on the law would have been prodigious. I do not think the same will be said of Mr Justice Laddie.
For a bunch of lawyers whose reason for existence is slowly ebbing away, they were remarkably jolly. "We're the band playing as the Titanic sinks," a solicitor told me jovially.
The Titanic in question is our system of legal aid, being battered into demise by the iceberg of a lord chancellor. Those still clinging to the wreckage (I'm getting tired of this metaphor) turned up at the annual awards ceremony run by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group and the Independent Lawyer magazine, exchanging horror stories of the latest engine rooms to flood (enough of this, please) - OK, of the latest governmental attacks reducing legal aid even further.
Reading between the jokes, I believe more than ever that this government's policy is denying access to justice to more people who need legal help than ever before. This is the forgotten scandal and disgrace of Tony Blair's government; but it's not a very sexy subject and doesn't arouse the political and media anger it deserves. Nor does it help that public perception still seems to treat all lawyers as fat cats consumed only by greed. In the world of legal aid it's just the opposite - low pay and a lot of altruism.
The award for legal aid lawyer of the year, by the way, went to Ole Hansen, a south London solicitor recognised for his "radical and innovative" use of legal aid in housing and social welfare law.
Simonetta Agnello Hornby is one legal aid solicitor not struggling for a living, but that's only because she's newly become a best selling writer. Her first novel, the Almond Picker, set in her native Sicily, was big in Italy, has been translated into 10 languages and is published here this week (by Viking).
I first spotted her when she smoked a pipe during a lecture I was giving. I remember thinking at the time: "Here's someone who will start a pioneering and much lauded solicitors' firm in Brixton, making a particular impact in the fields of child care and domestic violence. She will then write an excellent atmospheric book, a mystery about a peasant woman and a rich Sicilian family. It will be a success." How right I was.
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