A need for greater empathy (2)


There have been over 800 “views” of the short piece I posted two days ago, which has attracted some very kind comments in Twitterland, for which I am grateful.

I see that David Lammy MP has returned to the same theme today, and I feel emboldened to add a few more reflections of my own about the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.

It seems to me that the Inquiry presents three huge challenges (not assisted by politicians who have unrealistic ideas about the speed with which a judicial inquiry might be able to produce a worthwhile interim report).

The first is to identify a judge who has the intellectual skills and expertise to collect, collate, master and interpret a colossal amount of highly technical (and much other) information within a realistic timespan.

The second is to devise a way in which any initial fact-finding process does not have to stand completely still pending the completion of the criminal investigation and any subsequent criminal trials that take place.

The third is to endeavour to do everything possible to gain the trust of those who have suffered so terribly as a consequence of what took place on the night of the fire.

As to the first, Sir Martin Moore-Bick joined the Court of Appeal a year before I left it, and I do not know him as well as Lord Judge and Lord Falconer who spoke of his suitability for the first of these tasks in glowing terms on BBC radio today. But from what I do know of him, I would agree with their view, and he has the great merit of being immediately available. [Incidentally, the Court of Appeal is the engine-room of the English judicial process. It handles many difficult cases with great speed and it is quite heavily dependent, in tricky cases, on the quality of the arguments it hears – which have very often changed quite radically by the time the case reaches the House of Lords/UK Supreme Court).

I agree with David Lammy that it would have been good if a female or BAME judge with the requisite skills and experience could have been found for the job. I would like to think that in ten or fifteen years’ time the field of choice would be greater. But such embarras de richesse does not exist at present. At all events things have moved on a bit since 1990 when my Bar Council Race Relations Committee used to provide funding to the South Bank Polytechnic to send one Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic (BAME) member of its Law access course each year for two months to the United States to be mentored by a BAME judge or lawyer over there because we did not then have any suitable role models in this country.

The second challenge – the interrelation between the fact-finding inquiry and criminal process – is phenomenally difficult. It does not seem to have yet attracted the media attention that it deserves, although I am sure it is being debated behind the scenes. Elementary fairness, not to mention English law, protects a witness from answering a question in civil proceedings that might tend to incriminate him or her at a criminal trial. This does not create much difficulty when no criminal proceedings are in contemplation, but when we are hearing through media-inspired megaphones how vital it is to secure criminal convictions, it makes the task of achieving a fair compromise on this issue an extremely elusive one.  Often in the past the fact-finding inquiry has been simply put on ice until after the criminal proceedings are over, but that solution would not lend itself readily to the mood of the moment today.

But it is the third of these challenges to which I want to return in this blog.  I have reproduced elsewhere (in the section of this blogsite entitled “Diversity”) some of my writings between 1991 and 1994 when I was chairing the first ever specialist committee of the Judicial Studies Board (JSB) to advise how training about BAME practices and culture might be fitted into the mainstream training courses for judges and magistrates. In those days the judiciary was attracting great distrust among increasingly vocal representatives of minority communities. I only got the job because as chair of the Bar Council’s race relations committee I told the secretary of the JSB in no uncertain terms that from what I had heard and read I feared that this new committee would simply be seen as a whitewash exercise and that it would not achieve what was hoped and needed of it.   I received a letter by return from that very great judge, Sir Iain Glidewell, then chair of the JSB, appointing me to the chair of the committee. I could hardly refuse.

But we still had to achieve the trust of those whom we were trying to help.

It was at this point that John Heritage, the senior civil servant in the Lord Chancellor’s Department who represented the Lord Chancellor on the Board of the JSB, had an idea that reeked of genius. After the Brixton riots the Home Office had appointed Trevor Hall, a man of very great wisdom, to be its black Community Relations Adviser.  On John Heritage’s advice Trevor was appointed the vice-chair of my committee and we never looked back.

I remember going to talk to him at the Home Office about the membership of the Committee, which was to include a handful of judges and magistrates nominated by the JSB.  The Commission for Racial Equality had sent us a list of ten names to consider. We agreed that this was “the second eleven” and only one of them survived the final cut, when people like Navnit Dholakia and Patricia Scotland and other stars from the different communities took their place: many of them were later honoured by the Queen for their services to race relations.  I am sure I have written elsewhere how Goolam Meeran (later Sir Golam Meeran, Chair of Industrial Tribunals) turned down my initial invitation because he feared this was yet another window-dressing initiative. He wrote to me again almost immediately for permission to withdraw his rejection as soon as he had seen the quality of those who had agreed to serve.

And Trevor Hall became a friend for life. I have published a description of the trip we made to Canada together 24 years ago to study training methods there. When the time came to roll out a series of 24-hour residential teach-ins at Crown Court centres round the country, for which we needed to invite at least 12 members of the local community, it was Trevor who contacted all the invitees personally, and it was Trevor’s tact, experience and wisdom (coupled with the obligation that rested on me to obtain the trust of judges and magistrates) that made this trail-blazing programme such a success. Of course 10% of the judiciary thought that this was the finest thing the JSB had ever done, and a rather vocal further 10% thought that it was political correctness gone wild (a view not shared by Sir William Macpherson when he wrote his report at the end of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry), while the other 80% quietly considered that we had been telling them something quite useful for the difficult jobs they had to do.

So if I had anything to do with this Inquiry, I would give the modern equivalent of Trevor Hall (if such a paragon of virtue exists) a very important and very senior advisory role within the Inquiry team.  He or she would need to fulfil two roles. To tell Martin Moore-Bick what he needs to do and how he needs to do it, in order to win and maintain people’s trust.  And to tell the community, as Trevor did so brilliantly all those years ago, that at the very head of the initiative was a very senior judge who could be trusted.



2 thoughts on “A need for greater empathy (2)

  1. Keith Hollis

    As an early, and enthusiastic, participant in some of the splendid and eye opening courses referred to, I endorse what Henry is saying about the lessons to be learned from that early work for the present enquiry. It is vital to have authoritative, wise, and confident supporting members of the enquiry who can help demonstrate empathy from the enquiry as a whole to the community affected.


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