A judge who told a barrister to “get a life” has been criticised by a recorder who overturned his decision on appeal.
Mr Recorder Cohen said that, in the case before him, Deputy District Judge Swales “had forgotten that all litigants are entitled to a fair hearing of their cases which must be decided on the evidence rather than prejudice”.
The recorder emphasised that he reached his decision “purely as a matter of law on the substance of the matter”, but said he had “considerable concerns” about the conduct of the DDJ.
The decision in Vassilliou v NFU Mutual Insurance Society was handed down in July but only just obtained by well-known barrister and legal blogger Gordon Exall.
It was a road traffic accident case that concerned credit hire charges. The claimant was already driving a hire car because of a previous, unrelated, incident and that was the vehicle damaged in the accident caused by the defendant insurer’s policyholder.
The claimant was liable, under his agreement with Helpline, to pay its charges even when the car was off the road. The question was whether the defendant had to cover them.
DDJ Swales decision that it should not was overturned by the recorder. There was also a dispute about the credit hire rate, which the DDJ found disproportionate. The recorder noted that one of the DDJ’s reasons was “You are having a laugh”.
After awarding the claimant the £4,500 in damages he claimed, Recorder Cohen ended his ruling by saying that the DDJ’s “manner of dealing with the matter has caused me considerable concern in several respects”.
He continued: “The district judge expressed himself in intemperate and unfortunate terms at various stages of the hearing.
“I quote one of them… as an illustration. When addressing counsel for the claimant he said: ‘Get a life. I mean, who would sign an agreement like this knowing that they had to pay? Nobody would.’
“A remark by a judge telling counsel to ‘get a life’ is not to be expected from a judge in a court room.”
While a court could take the view that the hire agreement could not have been sensibly signed after it had heard evidence and proper argument, this did not happen here.
“Even the way in which the substantive point was expressed by the district judge might well be considered to be indicative of pre-judgment, the more so when taken in the context of the offensive remark to counsel which preceded it.”
Recorder Cohen said the DDJ’s comments and ruling indicated his view that there was “something wrong” with Helphire.
“The district judge on this occasion, I am sorry to say, had forgotten that all litigants are entitled to a fair hearing of their cases which must be decided on the evidence rather than prejudice.
“In starting without evidence or argument or even a pleaded point that Helphire and its contracts were disreputable, the district judge was stepping outside the evidence and was deciding the case on the basis of prejudice or bias. I am not satisfied that a fair trial occurred on this occasion…
“I feel bound to say that I am sorry to have read the judgment and transcript of the proceedings.”