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22 September, 2007  
London Calling

Special laws designed to kill the agenda of any meeting … Judicial appointments in gridlock as the required qualities for the bench prove elusive

imageSir Les Patterson, writing reflectively in a publication called The Traveller’s Tool, once remarked:

“The whole pommie economy is based on everyone doing a poor [not his word] job as slowly as possible, so that some other no-hoper has to do it all over again, which fills in time and clips a few inches off the dole queue.”

The observation in a book written in 1985, and which for other reasons no-one would dare publish today, is still largely true but now there is a new force of people whose job it is to stop or delay any work at all.

Their favourite WMD is one or a combination of the three Acts of Parliament: Health & Safety, Data Protection and Human Rights.

It matters little that these naysayers do not understand the laws and have probably never read them. They are soon revered as experts.

A simple mention of any of the three Acts will stop any proposal in its tracks. For example, say a parents’ group wants to build a playground for children.

“I’m sorry, you can’t.”

“Why not?”

Health and Safety, I’m afraid.”

Or someone buying a house wants to know if there have been any previous complaints about the neighbours.

“Sorry, I can’t tell you.”

“Why not?”

Data Protection, I’m afraid. And there are Human Rights issues too.”

The expression, “I’m afraid”, is always delivered with a smiling, self-satisfied sigh.

For the English professional, much like the Australian, well-planned meetings can fill the day. A meeting is an end in itself. One must be seen rushing to and from meetings. Meetings speak louder than actions.

And be assured that there will be at least one person at the meeting who will close down any fruitful discussion simply by mentioning one of the three celebrated Acts.

Picking the right time to do so is also a matter of great skill and judgement.

* * *

Some years ago, a distinguished member of the High Court was passed in the corridor by a crusty appellate judge.

“Well done, Latham,” he barked.

Puzzled, the High Court judge thought nothing of it until some weeks later when his slightly miffed clerk said, “At least you could have told me about it sir”.

“About what?”

“About your appointment to the Court of Appeal.”

The judge called the Lord Chancellor’s office. “Yes. Sorry. We did mean to tell you.”

Last week week, Baroness Prashar, the head of the relatively new (18-months old) Judicial Appointments Commission, defended her team against criticisms that it was to blame for an acute shortage of circuit judges, and trial delays.

Lady Prashar said the commission, which is independent of the executive, was itself constrained by procedures. She said that it took time to advertise posts, await replies, sift through candidates, seek references and conduct about 50 interviews.

Those taking part in Justinian’s Judge the Judges might be greatly assisted by looking at the Judicial Appointments Commission’s website and its list of qualities and abilities for the ideal judge. Three criteria are of note:

  • An ability and willingness to learn and develop professionally;
  • An ability to treat everyone with respect and sensitivity whatever their background; and
  • A willingness to listen with patience and courtesy.

    Nowhere on the list is the time-honoured:

  • An ability to behave reasonably when drunk at bar dinners.

    * * *

    A week or so ago, Sir Edward Lycett Green Bt wrote to The Daily Telegraph and told the story of an elderly British lady and her daughter who recently fled Zimbabwe with very little.

    They were refused access to a national bus service in England because, “Granny would not be able to evacuate the coach quickly enough in an emergency”.

    The stairs to the bathroom at their rented cottage were too difficult to climb so Sir Edward asked the local old people’s home if the lady could take a bath in its ground floor facilities.

    They were refused for “Health and Safety” reasons.

    Luckily, the local Travelodge agreed to let the lady use the bathroom without hesitation and without fee.

    This comes in the same week that David and Jean Davidson (aged 79 and 70) revealed they had lived in a Travelodge roadside motel for the past 22 years.

    Their room overlooks a car park and is within viewing distance of a slip road that boasts large trucks lumbering along, day and night.

    The couple say the benefits are obvious: book ahead and you get a room at £15 per night; there is no cooking to be done; there are no heating bills and as part of the price, the bedding is laundered. Best of all, there are no Health and Safety police to contend with.

    The Travelodge has responded magnificently. It intends to rename their room The Davidson Suite.