Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
For judges and magistrates, the principle of impartiality is all. It is necessary, to the best of human ability, for those who judge court cases to interprets laws to a common standard, and not be perturbed by their personal feelings and prejudices. This is because a defendant must be trialled against the laws of the legislature, and not the beliefs of individual judges. Their duty is to apply the law, not their own values. This impartiality is the crux of our judiciary system, separating the creation and amendment of laws from their administration.
Yvonne Davies was a Justice of the Peace at Manchester and Salford Magistrates Court, but chose to resign after a reprimand from the Office for Judicial Complaints (OJC). Mrs Davies decided to address defendant Christopher Duncan about the death of her brother, who had used cannabis and also suffered from epilepsy, schizophrenia and depression. In court, Mrs Davies stated:
That was a horrendous time for the family. Cannabis is serious. It puddles the brain apart from anything else. You’ve got to stop using it, so jack it in.
Following four complaints, including one from cannabis legalisation campaigner Peter Reynolds, the OJC launched an investigation into Mrs Davies’ court conduct – the expression of her “personal views” – concluding:
The investigation found the views expressed in court were inappropriate. The Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice agreed and concluded that her combined actions fell below the standard of behaviour expected of a magistrate and have issued Mrs Davis with a reprimand.
Rather petulantly, the former JP said it was “astounding that the views of a pro-cannabis campaigner were used to build a case against me. As far as I am aware, cannabis is still very much illegal in Britain”. Cannabis is illegal, but wishing to change the legal status of cannabis does not automatically discount Mr Reynolds’ complaint.
Peter Hitchens’ Mail on Sunday column decided to focus on these events, declaring them part of the “Great Cannabis Con”. Mr Hitchens states Mrs Davies was “enforcing the law as it is written down, trying to do a bit of good by sharing her own grief”. By introducing “her own grief”, Mrs Davies was undermining the court, leading to questions of its impartiality. This impartiality should be vigorously defended, and it is not “a bit of good” to weaken it.
Ultimately, the views of Mrs Davies and any dangers of cannabis were irrelevant to the inquiry into Mrs Davies’ conduct. If Mrs Davies wishes to “hold the line against this evil”, which Mr Hitchens says deserves “praise”, then the correct place for this activism is not on a magistrates’ bench, but campaigning on the streets and in open forums.
Mr Hitchens and other commentators have portrayed the common case of Mrs Davies as part of a great acquiescence to cannabis and other drugs, but it was a simple matter of court misconduct. Instead of signifying a systematic weakening or “revolution”, the reprimand is a sign of strength in our courts.