There is a discussion elsewhere on the Interweb about this judge who seems to have got himself worked up about the type of surly attitudinally-challenged youth that we have all seen in our courts. Dumb insolence is an Army concept, beloved of the stereotypical sergeant-major type,but it needs to be treated with great caution in the courts.
This country is so culturally diverse that the judiciary, at whatever level, have to use great care in assessing behaviour. For example, I understand, thanks to a West Indian colleague, that a Jamaican youth, faced with authority, will not make eye contact, because that is seen as disrespectful. To some people it looks shifty, rather than polite. Chinese and Vietnamese defendants may stand with their heads hung low for the same reason. Half-educated and gormless lads from the rough estate down the road are incapable of expressing themselves in structured speech, and content themselves with a series of grunts, that do not necessarily show disrespect, but rather disadvantage. When I was new to the job I commented to a wise old colleague about the appallingly scruffy appearance of the 20 year-old before us. "Think about it" he cautioned. It's very likely all he's got". As you can see at almost any funeral service, a substantial proportion of the young people attending don't so much as own a tie and a shirt with a proper collar, but no matter. As my old mum used to say: "It's the thought that counts". The well-spoken young lad from the grammar school who tells us clearly and confidently how sorry he is that he crashed his mum's car is not necessarily any more deserving of our understanding that the illiterate simian from the estate. The average sentencer is about 57, the average offender 18; that is bound to affect the level of mutual understanding.
Another factor to take into account is facial expression. Some unfortunates (like my friend Dodgy Keith) have a natural mien that makes them look as if they are smirking when that isn't the case. Many primates express fear with a rictus grin; I still cringe with embarrassment about the chairman of twenty years ago who had it in for young lower-class men and was wont to rant along the lines of: "Do you think this is funny? Take that grin off your face". The stress only makes him grin further and the court looks foolish and bullying.
So we need to be highly selective about what we choose to notice. Court is a very stressful experience for most people, so if I tell some young man that he will be absent from his usual haunts for a while, it is up to me whether or not to hear the muttered imprecation as he goes down the steel stairs to a stark cell on his way to Feltham or the Scrubs.
I have never uttered the word 'contempt' in court, and I plan to keep it that way. Exceptionally I may have decided to take the bench out, after asking the Clerk to give the troublemaker 'appropriate advice'. One of our ushers, an ex-forces NCO is brilliant at this. He can calm and warn people, and defuse impending trouble.
Dignity is the word - Some people can do it and some cannot.
(By the way, I looked for a cartoon judge to illustrate this piece, and couldn't find one without a gavel - bah!)
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