Britons shake their heads over judges' far-out rulings Aloof men's notions often ensnare women, children

June 14, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- John Mortimer, the creator of the book and television series "Rumpole of the Bailey," made a fortune exposing the pomposities and indiscretions of British judges and lawyers. He mined a rich vein.

Consider the latest, by Judge Ian Starforth Hill, who last week put a young man, Karl Gambrill, on probation for two years for trying to have sex with an 8-year-old girl.

Mr. Gambrill was more than relieved. He had expected to go to prison. He even admitted it was his fault.

But the judge decided that the girl was "not entirely an angel," and it was Mr. Gambrill, 18 at the time, who was judged the immature one.

The case has ignited outrage. It has been referred to the attorney general for review. And every time Judge Starforth Hill comes out of his house in Hampshire, he is besieged by photographers and reporters, whose questions he declines to answer.

"When we first heard of the case, we wondered whether some of the judiciary come from the same planet," said Angus Stickler of the Children's Society, a protective charity for juveniles. "How can an 8-year-old child be blamed for her own sexual assault?"

Tom White, the chief executive of the National Children's Home, had a similar suspicion that the judge was somehow a stranger to reality. He conceded, "There has been some improvement in the judiciary in recent years [in terms of the judges' sensitivity about rape and gender cases], but it is clear enough there are still some of our judges who are living in a different world."

The incident itself occurred three years ago in Southampton. Judge Starforth Hill based his decision on reports given to him by social workers that the girl had had sexual experience, that she was involved with a 'sex gang.' "

According to the girl's mother, the "sex gang," which encouraged the judge's unfortunate remark, was engaged in the usual experiences of sexual exploration most children go through at one time or another. In this case it was a game of doctors and nurses when she was six.

The girl, 12 now, is said to feel defamed. Her mother is disgusted; she wants an apology. "How can a judge say that about my daughter when he has never met or seen her?" she asked.

Indiscretions like Judge Star forth Hill's aren't hurled down like bolts every day in British courts. "But every time it happens is too much," said Prof. Michael Zander, an expert on the legal system who teaches law at the London School of Economics. "There are some of these old duffers who still make silly remarks."

Rarefied circles

Mr. White thinks it is a matter of training, or lack of it, in contemporary social issues that come under the purview of the law. "It has been a tradition that once a judge has been appointed, no further training is needed," he laments.

He also suggested they tend to live fairly exclusive lives, "with fewer opportunities to mix with a wider range of the population," and are thus out of touch with the sensibilities of ordinary people.

Judges in Britain tend to be a fairly homogeneous group and not reflective of the population. They are usually white, elderly, male, graduates of Oxford or Cambridge or other famed and somewhat privileged institutions. They belong to the same kinds of clubs and mix almost exclusively with their own kind.

Out of thousands across the country, there are only six female judges, only two Asians. No black judges.

Judges here are not appointed by the prime minister, nor confirmed in parliament. They are chosen in a process involving the lord chancellor's office and senior judges. Their own kind, as it were.

Also, a legal expert wrote in The Times last week, part of the problem is the exaggerated deference that judges receive here. This "courtroom sycophancy," he wrote, is "a disease that can afflict perfectly decent modest lawyers the moment that they don the judicial ermine, giving them an exaggerated notion of their own importance."

Inciting outrage

Though Judge Starforth Hill has a history of ill-considered remarks (he once suggested those who spend their welfare money on drink should have their ears cut off), he is not the lone embarrassment to the bench.

This past February, Judge John Prosser freed a 15-year-old boy in Wales, who had raped a 15-year-old schoolgirl, because the boy came from "a good and honest family." He ordered the boy to pay 500 pounds ($750) to the girl for a holiday so she could "get over the trauma."

That case provoked an outrage similar to the current one, and an appeal. Judge Prosser was overruled, and the boy was sentenced to two years' detention.

A couple of years ago, in York, another judge gave a man three years for raping a prostitute, instead of the standard five. The lighter sentence was imposed because the rapist wore a condom, which in the words of the judge "showed concern and consideration."

The same year, there was the judge who sympathized with a man driven to burglary because he had "problems with a woman." Six months earlier in London, a judge advised the jury during a rape trial:

"As the gentlemen on the jury will understand, when a woman says 'No' she doesn't always mean it."

The man was acquitted.

Neither Judge Starforth Hill, nor any of the judges involved in the cases above, are considered representative of the judiciary as a whole, at least not by everybody.

Roger Singleton, for instance, says he meets a lot of senior judges involved in family law and has been "enormously impressed" by many. Mr. Singleton heads Barnardo's, the oldest and largest children's charity in Britain. Still, he says:

"It is sometimes said that the judiciary are, some members, chauvinistic . . . When you read of a case like this [Judge Starforth Hill's], you are rather inclined to think those attitudes are still around and thriving."

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