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The Spike: or, Victoria University College Review, June 1929

Educating Our Judges

page 28

Educating Our Judges

To any civilised being there is scarcely anything more alarming than a few visits to the stuffy dignity of our Supreme Courts when penalties for crime are being inflicted. On the bench sits a man who may be the soul of courtesy to the dullest of counsel in the most obvious of cases (I once saw the late Sir William Sim allow a ponderous fellow to read a statement of claim for half-an-hour), but whose common humanity deserts him when it comes to dealing with a fellow creature in the dock. Judges, of course, are in their place to put into opeartion the law and to state the penalties for failure to observe that law. And no matter what our philosophical convictions on the subject of property laws, we all feel natural resentment against a burglar. But one does not feel also that these penalties might be inflicted without insult being added to incarceration.

I should have a great deal more confidence in our bench if I did not know it so well. There are one or two judges who show not the slightest understanding of the nature of a sexual offence; there is at least one judge who does not know the difference between reformative dentention and imprisonment with hard labour, or did not until recently; there is another who does not desire to know anything about a prisoner's mental state— he is "weak," or easily led," or else he is "dangerous," and it is "plain duty to punish him". In either event, gaol is the way out. There is one judge who hates motor-cyclists so heartily that he recently gave a young man who stole to purchase a cycle (and for whom even the Crown Prosecutor pleaded) the same sentence as that which was inflicted upon a youth who had committed a long series of carefully planned burglaries. And not long ago one of the most distinguished of our judges, in a murder case where an old man was plainly insane, directed the jury to find the man guilty of murder unless they were satisfied that he did not know the difference between the child he murdered and a log of wood. One wonders how it would be possible to conduct mental hospitals if no inmate could tell the difference between another inmate and a log of wood.

This fatal prejudice and ignorance upon our bench is the worst feature of the system of justice. More intelligent sentences than are passed in our Courts every week could be devised by a committee of three men in the public gallery. The thing arises from the fact that barristers, for all their work, are seldom men of the world. Leaders of the profession—the men who find their way upon the bench—are more usually men versed in legal argument than in criminal pleading, and they are forced to spend so much time at legal problems that their experience of living is limited. Naturally, their ability removes them from poverty and realisation of the precariousness of the footing of many of our people, and, equally naturally, their sympathies are restricted. In their eyes, the higher a man in the world, the more inexcusable his offence-They have no realisation that the early circumstances which mould a man's character may be just as unfortunate in a good family as in the worst slum. They have scarcely any appreciation of mental conflict. page 29 and thus we had one of our best-known judges in recent years describing the thefts of an hysterical and unfortunate woman as "original sin." A prey to the intolerance of ill-health, as was the late Chief Justice for some months before he went into hospital, the natural reaction to hardening arteries, and the conscious dignity of their positions, they are human—all too human. And they are squeezing human feeling out of Courts, subject to the most extraordinary vacillations. The remedy appears to be education for our judges. A course of experimental work in psychology, and some experience of psychiatry would be invaluable to them. Some action must be taken if our system is ever to be altered for the better; and this way, only, can the judge learn to discriminate between the man to be punished and the patient.—C.Q.P.