Wednesday, September 7

Blind Woman Becomes Judge

Blind Woman Becomes Judge

Law: Justice can be blind; The blind have a future on the bench

By Grania Langdon-Down
The Independent (London), November 26, 1998

When Diane Cram takes her place today on the magistrates' bench, a
gentle squeeze on her hand by the chairman will warn her when to
bow as she can see nothing - neither light nor dark. But, with her
nine-year- old German Shepherd guide dog, Prudence, at her feet, Mrs Cram
is determined to maintain the dignity of the court and dispense justice
clear-sightedly as her fellow Justices of the Peace (JP).
Mrs Cram, 43, who has been totally blind for 15 years after
suffering penicillin poisoning as a teenager, is the first blind
fully-fledged JP to hear cases in the magistrates' court. She
admits to being very nervous before her first day on the Exeter and
Bench last Thursday. Her main concern by the end of the day was how she
could manage the magistrates' heavy chairs.
Today is her second day on the Thursday bench and her last for the year -
a new rota will start in the New Year, when she will sit regularly.

"I was terribly nervous. But I didn't feel that there was anything
I could not cope with, or missed, during the day's hearings. The
solicitors were aware of the situation, so they clarified points
verbally rather than just referring to notes or reports. "We heard
a variety of cases - bail being broken, a combination order of
probation and community service not being kept, and I wasn't out of
line with what the others on the bench were thinking." In fact, she
admits, the only concession that there was anything unusual, or
that any change had to be made in court to cater for her lack of sight was
that a bowl of water was put in court for Prudence.

Mrs Cram says that before she was appointed to the bench, she went
with a friend to listen in on a case in court. Her friend remarked that
the defendant was filthy, whereas Mrs Cram said she thought
that he sounded quite respectable. She says: "Appearances shouldn't make
difference, but some people might have thought that he was
guilty because of the way he looked. I wouldn't choose to be blind, but
there is some advantage in not being judgemental
for its own sake."
Andrew Mimmack, Clerk to the Justices at the court, says they did
not intend making any reference to Mrs Cram's blindness when she was in
court. "It would be embarrassing for her and would make the court somehow
extraordinary when it shouldn't be." The court would make sure that she
not listed to hear certain types of cases such as those involving video
identification evidence or a large amount of documents, he adds.
Three other visually impaired candidates, who will start hearing
cases in the New Year, were selected with Mrs Cram during the
summer to take part in a pilot scheme to see whether the requirement of
"satisfactory sight" should still apply to the magistracy.

The Royal Commission on Justices of the Peace concluded 50 years
ago that blind people should not be allowed to become JPs because
they could not read documents, examine plans or observe the demeanour of
witnesses, and they would not have the confidence of the public. However,
the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, has argued that, with the
exception of a minority of cases, blind people should be allowed to
become magistrates. He will review their progress after a year.

The prospect of blind magistrates has not been universally welcomed. Sir
Michael Ogden QC, who retired last year after 33 years as a part-time
judge, argues that "a zeal to avoid discrimination may in this instance
result in injustice to either prosecution or defence, in some cases
because the blind JP will not be able to observe the demeanour of a witness."

Sir Michael says he has received support for his views from magistrates
around the country. He dismisses the Lord Chancellor's
argument that blind magistrates would not be sitting alone but as
members of a bench of three which would pool its assessments. He
considers it is wrong to have anyone on the bench who is not fully
effective. Blind people do many remarkable jobs, he concedes, but
they should accept that it is not possible in a courtroom.

Lynda Belton, who will be sitting in Leicester, has no truck with
Sir Michael's objections. "No one will be disadvantaged by having
me on the bench hearing their case. "A magistrate's main job is to
listen, apart from reading the odd report, and I can listen as well
as anybody else. What other people pick up from body language, I can get
from the intonation in someone's voice."

Mrs Belton, 49, has no central vision but some peripheral vision, so
while she cannot read, recognise people or drive a car, she can
walk around "perfectly normally". Nick Watson, who is Clerk to the
Justices in Leicester,
believes that her training has gone very well. He is pressing the Lord
Chancellor's Department for authorisation for a pounds 3,000
optical character reader which scans printed documents and reads them
over headphones. This would enable Mrs Belton to consider
pre-sentence reports or doctor's certificates along with her colleagues on
the bench. Handwritten letters would have to be read out to her.

Mr Watson says: "I was led to believe that there would be no
difficulties, because of the importance the Lord Chancellor was
placing on the subject. However, wheels grind slowly. But I am confident
will get the equipment before she starts sitting." In Wiltshire, David
Brewer is the Clerk to the Justices at Swindon Magistrates' Court where
Giles Currie and Peter Carr will be sitting. He was candid about his
initial views about the ability of blind magistrates to cope.

"It soon became clear my preconceptions were absolutely ridiculous
and that blind magistrates could operate in a very effective way - it was
quite a conversion," he said.

Mr Brewer says that the principal difficulty would arise over cases
with a high element of visual evidence, such as a dangerous driving
case which hinged on a video filmed from a police helicopter. "In a
case like that, the magistrate would disqualify themselves from
hearing it, something magistrates do quite often for a variety of

There is also the concern that magistrates need to see witnesses
and defendants so they can read their body language," said Mr
Brewer. "But, first of all, body language is a fairly unreliable
measure of truth. Secondly, sighted magistrates are not trained in
any structured way about reading body language, so arguing that it
is an essential element of their decision-making is pretty curious.
And thirdly, it is open to blind magistrates to judge someone's
truthfulness from clues other than visual ones."

Mr Currie, 64, suffers from a deteriorating eye condition diagnosed
40 years ago. He cannot read but has scanned the 200-page Magistrates'
Handbook into his computer which can read it back to him. This provides
guidance on offences and penalties, given aggravating or mitigating
factors, to ensure consistency of sentencing.

"It is fair to say that if I was involved in a motoring case and the whole thing hinged on a photo of a double-decker bus wrapped around a lamp-post, I
wouldn't be very good. But they understand this at the court. They know in advance roughly what the evidence is going to be
and can steer one away from cases where it is very visual.

"It is also inconceivable that I would sit with my good friend
Peter Carr, so in a bench of three, there will always be two sighted

Mr Currie also points to another benefit: "The legal establishment
is totally mesmerised about whether people are Freemasons. If
someone starts making semaphore signals from the dock, it's not
going to influence me."

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