Monday, May 20, 2024
HomeEducation / CultureCourt in the act

Court in the act

By Anthony Deyal

When a lawyer criticised one of my recent columns (Come Lie With Me), I wanted to ask him “What do you call a lawyer with an IQ of 20?” The answer is, “My Lord.” Or I could have said, “A lawsuit is a machine which you go into as a pig and come out of as a sausage.”

However, that is not entirely fair and some judges, especially the English Lords and Barons, are in a league of their own. For instance, Lord Ackner made the point, “Prison is a most expensive way of making bad people worse.” The 1st Baron Evershed, remarked at a trial, “This contract is so one-sided that I am surprised to find it written on both sides of the paper.” Lord Birkett outdid the Baron with a response to a convicted criminal who pleaded, “As God is my judge – I am innocent.” The Lord’s judgement was, “He isn’t; I am, and you’re not!” For good judgment, there was nobody like William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield.

In the case of an old woman who was accused of being a witch and was charged with walking through the air, the Judge took in all the evidence and then dismissed the matter stating, “My opinion is that this good woman should be suffered to return home, and whether she shall do this walking on the ground or riding through the air, must be left entirely to her own pleasure for there is nothing contrary to the laws of England in either.”

The 1st Baron Green quoted a Country Court judge who claimed that the overwhelming amount of his time on the bench was taken up with people who are persuaded by persons whom they do not know, to enter into contracts that they do not understand, to purchase goods that they do not want, with money that they have not got. Baron Bowen, another of that time and genre, commented in the court, “When I hear of an ‘equity’ in a case like this, I am reminded of a blind man in a dark room- looking for a black hat – which isn’t there.”

The British Judge, acclaimed as the best known and best-loved of all time, was Lord Alfred Thompson Denning. His observation about parliament shows that he richly deserved the praise, “The House of Commons starts its proceedings with a prayer. The Chaplain looks at the assembled members with their varied intelligence and then prays for the country.” Even the Americans, can sometimes reach the high levels of the Brits. Leon R. Yanwich, author of the “Art of Being a Judge” made what, for me, is the best of all observations, “There are no illegitimate children, only illegitimate parents.”

If the great American journalist, H.L. Mencken, was right and “A judge is a law student who marks his own examination papers”, then all those I’ve quoted would have passed with honours. Yet, despite this, the comedian, Peter Cook, would have failed them all. He believed, “All in all, I’d rather have been a judge than a miner. And what’s more, being a miner as soon as you are too old and tired and sick and stupid to do the job properly, you have to go. Well, the very opposite applies with judges.”

Unfortunately, in too many cases that might be the case. In fact, there was the case of the case of the man who took British Airways to court after the company lost his luggage. The Judge threw it out because the man had no case. Or the writer who, when found guilty for over-using commas, was warned by the Judge to expect a long sentence. This next one really happened though. The redoubtable actress, stripper and comic, Mae West, accused of “indecency on stage”, was being tried in court and she, in turn, tried to take over from the judge. Greatly annoyed he asked, “Miss West, are you trying to show contempt for this court?” She answered, “On the contrary, your honour, I was doing my best to conceal it.”

It was the same emotion but expressed differently by the Irish lawyer, John Philpot Curran, which I pulled, together with many of the others in this article, from my bible, “The Little Brown Book of Anecdotes”. One of the High Court judges had a dog he occasionally brought into the courtroom. During a trial in which Curran was expounding a particularly involved argument, the judge, perhaps intending to indicate disregard of Curran’s case, bent down and began ostentatiously to pet the dog. Curran stopped. The Judge looked up enquiringly, “I beg pardon, my lord,” said Curran. “I thought your Lordships were in consultation.”

Even though Curran was good, the best of all time was F.E. Smith, later 1st Earl of Birkenhead. His responses to Judges are legendary. He was an extremely capable lawyer with a very quick wit that caused the great Margot Asquith, herself a very formidable quipster, to say of him, “He’s very clever, but his brains go to his head.” In one matter, the Judge rebuked F.E. for making “an improper remark” which, as Smith retorted, was “Prompted by an equally improper suggestion”.

Pretending not to pursue that one, the Judge tried to quash the young lawyer by quoting philosopher and former Lord Chancellor, Francis Bacon, “Youth and discretion are ill-wedded companions.” F.E., who later in his life also became Lord Chancellor, was very quick on the draw and immediately countered, “My Lord, the same Bacon also said that a much-talking judge was like an ill-tuned cymbal.” The judge frowned, “Now you are being offensive, Smith,” the Judge rebuked. Smith, not to be put down, agreed, “We both are. The difference is that I am trying to be, and you can’t help it.”

In one case where Smith was conducting a lengthy and complicated matter before a judge he regarded as slow and pedantic, he was forced by the Judge to clarify the issues. Smith did so with a short but very cogent explanation of all the matters and their implications.

Despite this the Judge then stated, “I’m sorry, Smith, but I regret that I am none the wiser.” Smith rose wearily to his feet and responded, “Possibly, my lord, but you are better informed.” Another Judge, who’d had enough of Smith, demanded respect with, “What do you suppose I am on the Bench for, Smith?” F.E. replied, “It is not for me, Your Honour, to attempt to fathom the inscrutable workings of Providence.” My favourite F.E. rejoinder was when in the court he explained to the Judge, “At the time, my client was as drunk as a judge.” The Judge quickly interjected, “Smith, I think you’ll find the phrase is ‘as drunk as a lord’.” F.E. returned, “As your Lordship pleases.”

When the Master of the Rolls (the judge who presides over the Court of Appeal) was forced to tell F.E., “Really Smith, do give this court credit for some little intelligence”, F.E. made it clear, “That is the mistake I made in the court below, my lord.” Grand dame, Lady Astor, was so angry with F.E. who, by then had become Lord Birkenhead she declared, “Sir, if you were my husband, I would poison your drink.” Demonstrating that he had lost none of his wit, F.E. retaliated, “Madam, if you were my wife, I would drink it.”

*Tony Deyal was last seen saying that when the Judge was told that the man with three wives was charged by the Bailiff with “bigotry”, he adamantly changed the sentence to “trigonometry.”



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