For some reason the Mansion House was not struck by a thunderbolt on the night in 1936 when the Chief Justice, Lord Hewart, told the guests at the Lord Mayor's Dinner: 'His Majesty's Judges are satisfied with the almost universal admiration in which they are held.' Or, for that matter, on the same occasion in 1953 when the Lord Mayor told the diners: 'Her Majesty's judges have a greater understanding of human nature than any other body of men in the world.' But who is to judge the judges? Well, there's the Court of Appeal, and beyond it the judicial committee of the House of Lords, both of them capable of rapping judicial knuckles and occasionally drawing blood; but they're just more judges. More fearsomely, there's public opinion, stoked by a less than obsequious press - although the press can wound more easily than it can strike. And what if a judge's indolence or spleen has cost someone their liberty or their job or their home? If the author of the disaster had been anybody else the victim might have expected to be able to sue for compensation: but nobody can sue a judge, however incompetent or even malicious, for anything which he or she has done as a judge. A doctor, an architect, a solicitor - certainly; a barrister - well, sometimes; a magistrate, rarely; a judge, never. In fact (though Abimbola Olowofoyeku has uncharacteristically missed this case) in 1746 the Chief Justice of the Common Pleas gave judgment for £1000 damages in favour of a Lieutenant Frye against the president of a court martial which had wronged him, and then encouraged Frye to sue the other members. When they protested through the Lords of the Admiralty to the King, the Chief Justice had the whole lot of them arrested for contempt and released them, when they apologised, with the warning: 'Whosoever set themselves up in opposition to the law or think themselves above the law will find themselves mistaken.'
LRB 7 April 1994 | PDF Download