Roz Whistance meets the Island’s head of Judiciary, and try to find the man under the wig. With mixed success.
“You won’t get a human being’s answer out of me,” says Judge Richard Price, as he takes off his workaday wig after a hard day’s sentencing at Newport Crown Court. Removing the wig seems a good start: we are here to try to see the Court through the eyes of the man behind the robes. But getting the views of the man rather than the judge is tricky. You feel that if you were to slice him into bite-sized chunks you would find the word ‘judge’ etched right through him.
Not that the Resident Judge of Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight isn’t highly personable, charming even. You would put him in his fifties, so are surprised by his near-63 years. He has a pleasant resonating voice which you suspect has done a fair bit of singing (choral singing is one of his loves, as it turns out), and happily indulges us by changing into his ceremonial robes for the photo, even allowing his wig to be tugged straight. His has a bouncy humour which comes across when we lead ourselves up a blind alley with our questions.
For the Honorary Recorder of the City of Portsmouth (a position which makes him the second citizen, after the Lord Mayor of the City) will not answer questions to do with his own feelings (“Judges and barristers have learnt to filter out the useless emotions for the purposes of the job”), nor those to do with Government policy. “How can I criticise the Government? It is against the constitution to do so.”
Richard Neville Meredith Price was struck – convicted one might say – with the need for law since he was 12 at his boarding school in Hampshire, studying the travels of St Paul. “A centurion is throwing St. Paul into jail, but St. Paul (formerly Saul) tells him he cannot do that because of his Roman citizenship. It hit me, that’s not a bad system; you are going to put me in a cell, but I say you have to go through some sort of judicial process.”
Similarly, the Army Act, instigated after Charles 1st attempted to arrest Pym, his Prime Minister, reinforced his respect for law. It stated that no king could keep a standing army without the authority of Parliament. “What better example of anarchy than a king and his army marching down Whitehall to arrest parliamentarians?” says Judge Price.
It was at school, attending debates, that he honed his advocacy skills. “Taking a point and arguing it is what you do when you defend someone. If you start worrying about whether or not you believe him you don’t need the jury. It would be trial by lawyer.”
“The jury is the light by which freedom lives”
Lord Devlin’s aphorism “The jury is the light by which freedom lives” is a beacon to Judge Price. But because his parents could not afford to fund his training as a barrister, he became a solicitor. For twenty years he was a partner in a firm in Portsmouth. He chose the most financially draining time of his life – when he had three children of his own in public school – to move to the Bar and work in jury advocacy.
Life as a barrister can be less than glamorous. “There’s something called ‘Clerk’s Geography’,” he says, smiling ruefully, referring to being sent hither and thither by the clerk at the Chambers with no regard to the time needed to cover the miles. He recalls having finished a case in Chester, calling the clerk at his Chambers and finding he’d been set up for a job in Canterbury the following morning, after a 7.30am meeting at the motorway service station. “I said no, this is ridiculous. Then I said, ‘hang on, what’s the fee on the brief? He told me and I said, ‘ok’! If somebody’s giving you the opportunity to earn a grand before you go home tomorrow night, you earn a grand.”
Once a judge, such opportunities are gone forever. Judges expect to take a cut in their earnings. After seven years at the Bar he applied to the Lord Chancellor to be a Circuit Judge – “because I like trying crime, and I have the freedom to live where I want to live.”
So when this affable but incisive man looks down from under his wig at the defendant in front of him, does he feel compassion? “Part of the judge’s mental makeup is to have the ability to feel compassion. But not just for the defendant. On the other side there could be a bloke dead who may have left two kids. What being a judge is all about is not being partisan.”
And what if he can see a gaping hole in a case: is this the time for a Judge John Deed moment and take the relevant advocate aside? “If I thought he was missing an essential point I wouldn’t want to plunge in immediately: the barrister might not want to ask it yet. Nor do I want to start telling the prosecution and defence what questions to ask.”
He gives a measured welcome to the increasing use of forensic evidence, pointing out its limitations. “Expert evidence can be extremely valuable but no-one is liable to be right all the time. Somewhere in the world there is someone with DNA that matches yours. Does that represent reasonable doubt? No, because that person wasn’t at the scene of the crime with the hammer in their hand – you were!”
For a second you get a feeling of what it might be like to be in the dock.
What does he think about some of those emotive issues that fill the more rabid press? Should we return to the death penalty? “Parliament would never pass it because it runs contrary to the Treaty of Rome. Complete non-starter.” Should we emulate the US and carry guns for self defence purposes. “Haven’t a clue, haven’t thought about it.” What about the infamous case of Tony Martin, convicted after defending his own property? “I will not comment on individual cases.” OK, shouldn’t English people be able to protect their property as they do in America? “I will not comment on Government legislation.” Damn!
A judge’s relationship with the jury is intriguing to an outsider, and the roles, as Judge Price points out, are mutually exclusive. The jury have to look at the facts and the Judge has to decide what evidence the jury can properly hear in law. Hollywood might imply that the judge sweeps in as some sort of glorified referee, but it is the complexity of the role – the combination of the dry intellectual study involved in judging the law and preparing the case, combined with its concern for people – for example, deciding whether screens or video need to employed to protect those giving evidence – that Judge Price enjoys. “I can’t think of another profession that combines those two things,” he says.
What makes him cross, he says, is press criticism of judges for sending too many people to prison, which contrarily goes hand in hand with criticism for leniency. “Sufficient appreciation of the effects of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 didn’t happen,” the judge says.
The Act contains the “dangerousness provision”. If a person is up before him on, for example, a Wounding with Intent charge, and is deemed dangerous within the meaning of the Act, the judge is required by the law to choose between Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP), or Life Imprisonment. Then he must pick a suitable punishment period, say five years. “That’s the period before which he can’t be considered for parole. But under current legislation you are required to halve that period to under two and a half years. Then you must knock off any time spend in custody awarding trial – say six months. So this chap gets two years. That’s what the public reads about.”
“What they don’t read about is that the guy may be on licence for the rest of his life. Or, under the IPP choice, may be in prison for ten years.” What keeps the prisons at bursting point is that in order to be released after the parole period, the person needs to be assessed to be declared safe. And there are insufficient assessors. “People cannot get themselves into a position where they can apply for parole.”
He is still outraged by Government Ministers’ criticism of a judge for being too lenient in a widely reported case in 2006. “It was very counter-productive. When looked at properly the judge got it 100 percent right. He was following the law that Parliament had made at the behest of the Government.”
Meeting Judge Price certainly dispels that old stereotype of the fusty judge who hasn’t a clue what’s going on in the world. “Everyone has a very set idea of a judge,” he agrees. “The wig and gown disguises the real person, which it is supposed to do. But I was dealing with people long before I became a judge: I did it every day for 40 years. Nobody ever loses that.
“In fact, far from losing it, you use it, every day, to give you a better understanding of what’s going on.”