The Majesty of the Law

The British judge who professed not to know about the Internet continued an honorable and quite proper practice.

Judge Peter Openshaw:

…broke into the questioning of a witness about a Web forum used by alleged Islamist radicals.

“The trouble is I don’t understand the language. I don’t really understand what a Web site is,” he told a London court during the trial of three men charged under anti-terrorism laws.

Prosecutor Mark Ellison briefly set aside his questioning to explain the terms “Web site” and “forum.” An exchange followed in which the 59-year-old judge acknowledged: “I haven’t quite grasped the concepts.”

A judge is charged with making the facts clear to a jury of laypeople, and asking simple questions is the best way of achieving that.

However judges can use the technique mischievously, as in this possibly apocryphal incident from pre-email days.

It concerns a commercial case in the High Court. At the end of the Friday afternoon hearing, Defense Counsel confessed that an essential document had just that moment come to light.

The judge offered to take it with him to his island off the coast of Scotland and review it over the weekend, so as not to lose court time on the Monday. However he explained that he needed the document immediately, because his train left in one hour.

Defense Counsel confessed that the paper would not be available until that evening, well after the judge had departed.

After a moment’s thought, he said to the judge “Fax it up?”.

“Yes, it does rather”, replied the judge.


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