Thursday, 10 June 2010

Cherie Blair wins misconduct claim. No reasons given.

In a terse statement released today, the Office for Judicial Complaints dismissed a complaint brought by the National Secular Society against Cherie Booth, QC. Mrs Blair, you may recall, told a convicted assailant - a supposedly devout Muslim - that she was giving him a non-custodial sentence "based on the fact you are a religious person". "You are a religious man and you know this is not acceptable behaviour."

It's Miss Booth's misfortune that anything she does is news. But that doesn't excuse bad judgement. On the face of it, it looked like faith-based favouritism - and so it was reported. It's easy to understand the NSS's position. At the very least, it suggested a prejudice on Ms Booth's part that being religious was evidence of good character. Why else would she have said it? Many observers, including myself, assumed that the assailant's religious convictions had been raised in mitigation by his lawyers. But, as top legal blogger David Allen Green discovered, that doesn't seem to have been the case. She made the link all by herself.

That's strange. Especially when you consider that she's married to Tony Blair, who managed to involve the country in an unnecessary, disastrous and probably illegal war. As a religious man himself, surely he realised that this was not acceptable behaviour - as both the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury pointed out at the time.

The suspended sentence imposed on Shamso Miah, the "devout Muslim", who had been convicted of fracturing a man's jaw during an altercation in a bank queue, was not unduly lenient. It was, "indeed perhaps at the harsher end of the applicable scale" thinks the blogger otherwise known as Jack of Kent. Presumably this was why the OJC decided she had no case to answer. Unfortunately the statement doesn't give any explanation, however. It simply says that the "investigation has concluded and found that Recorder Booth's observations did not constitute judicial misconduct."

Not exactly a triumph for transparency. As the NSS complains, "how can we decide when the whole thing is kept behind closed doors and away from scrutiny?" It's not even clear whether Cherie's words were accurately reported. I suspect they probably were, though, if only because at no point did Cherie Booth or the Justice Ministry deny it.

The mystery remains. And, despite what OJC has concluded, so does the taint of misconduct. For - if she did indeed make those remarks - Ms Blair/Booth must have lied in court. She quite explicitly said that "the fact that you are a religious person" was the "basis" for her decision not to impose a custodial sentence on Mr Miah. Whereas in fact she was merely following the guidelines. Why make such a misleading comment? To convince the defendant that he was lucky not to find himself behind bars? Or to convince the press that she was no soft touch, but would only show leniency to someone if there was a Very Good Reason. Like being religious, for example.

JoK has probably the best explanation - "many judges make trite admonishments when handing down sentence; anyone is free to go into a Crown Court or Magistrates’s Court and cringe at hearing them." That may be true. It's hardly a ringing endorsement of the modern judiciary, though.