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When misjudgement becomes misconduct

What did the MoJ hope to gain from the public sacking of three judges, asks Kevin Poulter

14 April 2015

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The news that three judges were dismissed from their roles for, allegedly, viewing porn while
at work (using official judiciary computers) has led to some curious commentary – from inside and outside the legal community.

To my mind, the dismissal itself is not especially surprising, sitting perfectly well with established employment law. What is more surprising is the manner in which it was announced.

The decision to dismiss the judges, and to accept the pre-emptive resignation of another (‘he resigned and took his pension’), was taken following an investigation by the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office (JCIO).

Judges, like the majority of the adult population, are employees. They get paid a salary and a pension, take holidays, and work under a contract of employment. Like most of us, they are also subject to certain workplace policies – rules which govern how both employers and employees operate in (and increasingly, outside) the workplace: how to record sickness absence, how to report a grievance, how you are expected to behave generally.

However, judges have an extra responsibility. They are held out as the perfect citizens, beyond reproach, beyond corruption, and beyond criticism. What is surprising is that some commentators have suggested that the viewing of adult films does not impact on a judge’s ability to judge. Perhaps it doesn’t, but that isn’t really the issue.

Although the adult content was confirmed as being ‘not illegal’, the viewing of it in work time, on work hardware, and on court premises is likely to have been a breach of any number of workplace policies. Worse, it suggests a complete absence of common sense in the 21st century.

The reasons given for the dismissals were ‘inexcusable misuse’ of IT accounts and
‘wholly unacceptable conduct’ from people in positions of such responsibility. I would add to
this the absence of common sense, which is worrying. This is an indication of how separated from real life some members of the judiciary remain. Some newspapers have since hunted through past cases, looking for potential miscarriages of justice, questioning what other judges may be up to on taxpayers’ time.

The reasons for dismissal noticeably omitted any reference to the potential to bring
the judiciary into disrepute. Regardless, this has now become an unfortunate by-product, brought about solely at the hands of the, err, Ministry of Justice?

Much of the noise around these dismissals could have been avoided. As with the private sector, dismissals for misconduct happen every day, even at a senior level. It is typically in
both parties’ interests to keep the circumstances leading to dismissal confidential, for reasons that are now all too apparent.

What the Ministry of Justice hoped to gain from making public the sackings of these judges is unclear. It has done nothing to support the standing of the majority of just, sensible, fair and publicity-free judges sitting across the country.

In fact, it has only done damage that so easily could have been avoided at a time when the legal system is already suffering. This is just another example of the MoJ having scant regard for the principles it is commissioned protect and the officers of the law who work under it. 

Kevin Poulter is editor at large of Solicitors Journal @kevinpoulter | editorial@solicitorsjournal.co.uk

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Termination Courts & Judiciary