‘Hey-ho the witch is dead.’
This isn’t a piece about Margaret Thatcher’s life or death. But as with a handful of court cases from the past year, I’m struck by the language used – that, and the fact it often passes without comment.
At the start of the book Witchcraft, excellent late-historian Christine Larner recalled a scene from the preparation for a left-leaning demonstration held while Thatcher was PM.
Seeing a placard that read ‘Ditch the Bitch’, a teenage girl pointed out to the grizzled progressives who had made the sign that it sounded a bit sexist. They conceded that on reflection it did, and changed the wording to ‘Ditch the Witch’, whereupon the girl gave up in despair.
Personally I don’t share the instincts of those who would stifle negative comment on the ex-premier’s life and times.
But perhaps our teenage protester should have persevered, as today’s progressives seem to be making pretty much the same signs.
If protest sign-writers have failed to move with the times, then the same can be said of some of our judges. It may well be that former-MP Chris Huhne’s ex-wife Vicky Pryce is right to serve a custodial sentence for perverting the course of justice by taking his speeding points (a lie both maintained for years).
But Mr Justice Sweeney’s sentencing remarks for Pryce struck an odd note: ‘You have demonstrated that there is a controlling, manipulative and devious side to your nature.’ Gosh – was he taming a shrew, or sentencing someone?
Huhne, the judge noted, was the more culpable of the two – but his conduct didn’t attract the same choice words. He wasn’t, apparently, devious, manipulative or controlling.
Would a female judge handle sentencing better?
I accept I’m drawing on a small number of samples here, but I suspect she would. Here’s Mrs Justice Thirlwall sentencing Mairead Philpott – who, after all, went along with a repugnant plan hatched by her husband, that resulted in the death of her children.
‘I accept that you feel their loss profoundly and that your grief is real,’ Thirlwall noted, going on to cover the issues of coercion and dishonesty thus: ‘You had stood up to [Michael Philpott] in the past… It is inescapable therefore that when something was important enough to you, you were capable of exercising a choice which was not his choice.’
Stronger language was reserved for the more culpable defendant, Michael Philpott himself.
By comparison Sweeney’s remarks manage to leave something uncomfortable in the air, and on a far less serious case.
It isn’t just on gender that members of the judiciary can seem to misfire in remarks made in court.
Here is then-lord chief justice Lord Judge dismissing appeals against lengthy sentences for those involved in, or inciting involvement with, the 2011 riots. Judge found the use of social media in assisting rioters to be a ‘sinister’ aspect of the riots, which were typified as a ‘ghastliness’ creating ‘fear to even the most stout-hearted of citizens’.
All of which make his comments the perfect remarks for, say, a spot of bother that had to be put down in, what, 1782?
Why does all this matter?
It matters for a few reasons – none of them trivial.
Judges have some important audiences in these cases. In addition to those being sentenced, the remarks should have an impact on their family and friends, and on those who we want to avoid the same errors.
How many errant youth now fear doing something ‘ghastly’, I wonder? And as for stout citizenry – isn’t that what Jamie Oliver is worried about our children becoming, or something?
I notice that Thirwall shares a sure touch with Lady Hallett – the latter highly praised for her sensitive and clear handling of the ‘7/7’ inquests. So might it not be the case that a more diverse judiciary would more consistently produce their levels of skill in delivering appropriate messages?
When war journalist Martha Gelhorn covered the Nuremberg trials, she noted the importance of judicial tone and language – it stood, she said, for all the decency and fairness that been missed in a world-gone-mad.
That’s what we want our judges to achieve, even in more mundane cases. The judges who can’t meet that standard miss an important opportunity here.
Worse, whether it is for want of skill or self-knowledge, some go so far as to harm the judiciary’s reputation. When that happens, we all lose something.
Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor
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