|Names of judges found guilty of misconduct to stay secret
• Straw wins four-year battle to keep identities hidden
Guardian | June 15, 2009
Guardian | June 15, 2009
The government and the judiciary can continue to conceal the names of more than 170 misbehaving judges, a freedom of information tribunal has ruled.
The judge heading the tribunal decided that some members of the judiciary who have been sacked or reprimanded for misconduct would suffer "great distress" if details of their misdemeanours were made public.
The judges' authority in the courtroom would be undermined, and their privacy unjustifiably invaded, if the public were allowed to know how they had been disciplined, according to the tribunal.
The ruling came out in favour of justice secretary, Jack Straw, and the judiciary as they have fought a four-year battle to hide the identities of miscreants.
The three-member tribunal, led by David Marks QC, dismissed a challenge from the Guardian which had argued that the public should know which judges had been disciplined and why.
Straw and Igor Judge, the lord chief justice, are in charge of deciding how to punish judges, members of tribunals, magistrates and coroners if they behave badly in the courtroom. They can also be disciplined if their conduct outside the courtroom "tarnishes the reputation of the judiciary".
It is known that judges have been admonished for being convicted of drink-driving, falling asleep in a rape trial and viewing porn on their official computers. An immigration judge who had an affair with his Brazilian cleaner and sent her text messages calling her "chilli hot stuff" was rebuked for showing "poor judgment" in hiring her. The cleaner was cleared of blackmailing him.
In their verdict, Marks and the two members of the tribunal said it was not "at all far-fetched to assume" that the courts would be disrupted if the public were allowed to know about judges' misdemeanours. They cited the example of an unnamed "very senior judge who was reprimanded by the lord chief justice".
Marks and his colleagues said that if barristers had known about the behaviour which had led to the reprimand, they would have used the information to try and get an adjournment of hearings or "in some cases an application that the judge in question not hear the particular case.
"This clearly has adverse implications for the public and for the administration of justice generally," they said.
Marks also said judges could also experience "intrusive" and overblown reporting by the media of their misconduct. This could "cause an undermining of authority generally and thus prejudice any further employment prospects of whatever sort in the wake of a reprimand", they added.
They were "impressed" by the Ministry of Justice's argument that judges were entitled to a "reasonable expectation of privacy".
They recognised that disclosure of the data requested by the Guardian would "admittedly ... further the interests of transparency and accountability". However they decided that "enough" information about the "fact and scope" of the reprimands over the past decade had already been made public.
The Ministry of Justice had published information outlining the number of times judges have been disciplined, a description of the system for adjudicating complaints, and broad categories of misconduct committed such as "inappropriate behaviour" and "misuse of judicial status" without giving further details of individual wrongdoing.
Marks rejected the Guardian's arguments that publication of the misconduct would "enhance public confidence in the administration of justice and that secrecy is more likely to engender resentment, suspicion and contempt than enhance respect".
The public should know if those who pass judgment on others were being disciplined correctly when they transgressed, the paper said.
The Guardian had also argued that openness would also help to ensure that judges were not persecuted unfairly by ministers.
Following pressure from the Guardian, the Ministry of Justice has pledged to be more open about judges who have been sacked in future.