It isn’t easy being a judge. It isn’t easy getting to grips with the factual and legal complexities of a case, listening to evidence, weighing up the parties’ cases and reaching findings of fact on credibility. The task is more difficult where a case is badly or incoherently pursued, or where one or more parties acts in person. (Those two categories are not mutually exclusive). Or where a judge is faced with the pressures of an inadequate time estimate for a hearing, additional cases being added into the list or the occurrence of one or more of Sedley’s Law of Bundles.
Judges tempers occasionally snap. They are, after all, human.
However, sometimes it goes well beyond that.
Serafin was a claim for libel arising out of articles published in a Polish language newspaper (Nowy Czas/ New Time) which called into question the claimant’s reputation as a businessman.
The trial took place before Mr Justice Jay in October/ November 2017, best known for his role as leading counsel (as Robert Jay QC, prior to his appointment in 2013) for the Leveson inquiry.
By the time of the trial, the claimant (Jan Serafin) was acting in person; hardly an easy proposition in a libel claim involving considerable legal and factual complexity (the article in dispute was alleged to have had thirteen defamatory meanings/ imputations (titled ‘M1’ to ‘M13’), listed before a High Court judge in the QBD, and where the claimant’s first language was not English.
Once the wheels of justice had finished grinding, the claim was dismissed in its entirety. Mr Serafin (who re-instructed his lawyers) appealed to the Court of Appeal on three main grounds, the last being the judge’s conduct of the trial (i.e. ‘serious procedural or other irregularity’: CPR r.52.51(3)(b))
Court of Appeal
The Court of Appeal (Lewison, McCombe, Haddon-Cave LLJ) allowed the appeal, both on substantive grounds relating to the trial judge’s legal rulings (which fall outside the scope of this blog [a.k.a. defamation is not my area of law]) including that the judge was wrong to find that the statements complained of were already in the public domain. The third ground (judicial unfairness) was addressed by the Court of Appeal in its judgment, in a passage (from §108 to 118) which begins, somewhat portentously:
“…It is a fundamental tenet of the administration of law that all those who appear before our courts are treated fairly and that judges act – and are seen to act – fairly and impartially throughout a trial”
The court reminded itself that it is wrong for a judge to descend into the arena and give the impression of acting as advocate (§ 110), before concluding that:
“…It will be immediately apparent from reading these extracts (in particular the passages which we have underlined) that the Judge’s interventions during the Claimant’s evidence were highly unusual and troubling. On numerous occasions, the Judge appears not only to have descended to the arena, cast off the mantle of impartiality and taken up the cudgels of cross-examination, but also to have used language which was threatening, overbearing and, frankly, bullying. One is left with the regrettable impression of a Judge who, if not partisan, developed an animus towards the Claimant.“
The CA proceeded to annex extracts from the transcript, demonstrating the judge’s “serious transgressions”.
So far, so bad, from the point of view of Mr Justice Jay. While judges periodically see their decisions overturned on appeal, and on occasion find some (often veiled) criticism of their conduct in a given case, it is vanishingly rare for pages of transcript to appear, appended with criticism to a Court of Appeal judgment.
But in part due to the incoherence of the Court of Appeal’s order, the matter did not end there. On 3 June 2020, the Supreme Court weighed in.
Law on unfair trials
Between §§ 37 and 46 of the court’s judgment, Lord Wilson reviewed the law relating to unfair trials:
 The leading authority on inquiry into the unfairness of a trial remains the judgment of the Court of Appeal, delivered on its behalf by Denning LJ, in Jones v National Coal Board  2 QB 55. There, unusually, both sides complained that the extent of the judge’s interventions had prevented them from properly putting their cases. The court upheld their complaints. At p 65 it stressed in particular that “interventions should be as infrequent as possible when the witness is under cross-examination” because “the very gist of cross-examination lies in the unbroken sequence of question and answer” and because the cross-examiner is “at a grave disadvantage if he is prevented from following a preconceived line of inquiry”.
41. In London Borough of Southwark v Kofi-Adu  EWCA Civ 281, Jonathan Parker LJ, giving the judgment of the Court of Appeal, suggested at paras 145 and 146 that trial judges nowadays tended to be much more proactive and interventionist than when the Jones case was decided and that the observations of Denning LJ should be read in that context; but that their interventions during oral evidence (as opposed to during final submissions) continued to generate a risk of their descent into the arena, which should be assessed not by whether it gave rise to an appearance of bias in the eyes of the fair-minded observer but by whether it rendered the trial unfair.
42. In Michel v The Queen  UKPC 41,  1 WLR 879, it was a criminal conviction which had to be set aside because, by his numerous interventions, a commissioner in Jersey had himself cross-examined the witnesses and made obvious his profound disbelief in the validity of the defence case. Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, delivering the judgment of the Privy Council, observed at para 31:
“The core principle, that under the adversarial system the judge remains aloof from the fray and neutral during the elicitation of the evidence, applies no less to civil litigation than to criminal trials.”
43. The distinction, drawn expressly or impliedly in all three of the cases last cited, between interventions during the evidence and those during final submissions was stressed by Hildyard J in para 223 of his judgment in the M & P Enterprises (London) Ltd case, cited in para 38 above. He suggested at para 225 that, upon entry into final submissions, the trial had in effect entered the adjudication stage.
In relation to the previously unexplored question of how the conduct of a trial might be unfair to a litigant in person, Lord Wilson added:
“ … Every judge will have experienced difficulty at trial in divining the line between helping the litigant in person to the extent necessary for the adequate articulation of his case, on the one hand, and becoming his advocate, on the other. The Judicial College, charged with providing training for the judges of England and Wales, has issued an Equal Treatment Bench Book. In chapter one of the edition issued in February 2018 and revised in March 2020, the college advises the judges as follows:
“8. Litigants in person may be stressed and worried: they are operating in an alien environment in what is for them effectively a foreign language. They are trying to grasp concepts of law and procedure about which they may have no knowledge. They may well be experiencing feelings of fear, ignorance, frustration, anger, bewilderment and disadvantage, especially if appearing against a represented party.
59. The judge is a facilitator of justice and may need to assist the litigant in person in ways that would not be appropriate for a party who has employed skilled legal advisers and an experienced advocate. This may include:
Not interrupting, engaging in dialogue, indicating a preliminary view or cutting short an argument in the same way that might be done with a qualified lawyer.”
Training and experience will generally have equipped the professional advocate to withstand a degree of judicial pressure and, undaunted, to continue within reason to put the case. The judge must not forget that the litigant in person is likely to have no such equipment and that, if the trial is to be fair, he must temper his conduct accordingly.”
Lord Wilson concludes at § 49
“No cause is lost until the judge has found it so; and he cannot find it without a fair trial, nor can we affirm it.”
Lord Reed observed during the hearing that a judgment which results from an unfair trial is written in water. An appellate court cannot seize even on parts of it and erect legal conclusions upon them. That is why, whatever its precise meaning, it is so hard to understand the Court of Appeal’s unexplained order that all issues of liability had, in one way or another, been concluded. Had the Court of Appeal first addressed the issue of whether the trial had been unfair, it would have been more likely to recognise that the only proper order was for a retrial. It is no doubt highly desirable that, prior to any retrial, the parties should seek to limit the issues. It is possible that, in the light of what has transpired in the litigation to date, the claimant will agree to narrow the ambit of his claim and/or that the defendants will agree to narrow the ambit of their defences. But that is a matter for them. Conscious of how the justice system has failed both sides, this court, with deep regret, must order a full retrial.
As with the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court’s judgment concludes with several pages of juicy extracts from the transcript, with the Supreme Court’s commentary which is perhaps unique in an English case (“…stops a relevant question”, “…introduces a note of sarcasm”, “… further sarcasm”, etc.)
So, beyond the extraordinary facts of the case, and the (possibly unique) example of a High Court judge being defenestrated in such a public way, what is the interest in the case for a family practitioner?
- Serafin contains a helpful precis from the highest court in the land of the expected standards of judicial conduct of trials (§ 37-46)
- In Serafin, the court considered to what extent this applied (or might be extended) to litigants in person, by reference to the Judicial College’s Equal Treatment Bench Book.
- Most of all, Serafin is a good example of the rule of law and how the adversarial system works in practice. As Lord Denning once said (cited with approval by Lord Wilson in Serafin): “No cause is lost until the judge has found it so; and he cannot find it without a fair trial, nor can we affirm it.”
Alexander Chandler, 3 June 2020