Legal

Guest post: Judicial office launches investigation into complaint over fracking judge with alleged oil and gas ties

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By Chloe Farand, DeSmog UK

An investigation has been launched into allegations that the judge who handed three fracking protesters “manifestly excessive” jail sentences has family ties to the oil and gas industry.

Judge Robert Altham sentenced Simon Blevins, Richard Roberts and Richard Loizou to up to 16 months in prison after they were convicted by a jury of causing a public nuisance offence. The protesters had their jail sentences quashed in an appeal case last week.

Under the Judicial Code of Conduct, judges are expected to disclose personal relationships, social contacts and activities that could cause a bias or a conflict of interest and which put their impartiality into question.

In a statement, the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office (JCIO), an independent body which deals with judicial complaints of misconduct, has confirmed it received a complaint regarding Judge Robert Altham. It said the complaint would be considered in accordance with the Judicial Conduct Rules.

Complaint procedure

The JCIO deals only with complaints regarding the personal conduct of judicial office holders, such as mis-using judicial status for personal gain or failing to declare a potential conflict of interest. The body does not accept complaints about a judge’s decision or the way they managed a case.

The Guide to Judicial Conduct states that judges

“should avoid situations which might reasonably reduce respect for judicial office or might cast doubt upon their judicial impartiality; or which might expose them to charges of hypocrisy by reason of their private life”.

It states that where a close member of a judge’s family is politically active, the judge needs to bear in mind that this might raise concerns about his or her impartiality.

It adds that the principle of judicial independence extends well beyond the traditional separation of powers and requires

“that a judge be, and be seen to be, independent of all sources of power or influence in society, including the media and commercial interests”.

Under the Judicial Conduct Rules, the Lord Chancellor Conservative MP David Gauke, and the Lord Chief Justice Sir Ian Burnett share responsibility for overseeing complaints are properly investigated.

Lord Chief Justice Sir Ian Burnett heard the appeal case brought by the three fracking protesters’ last week and described the prison sentences as “manifestly excessive”.

The Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice are also responsible for the final decision regarding a judicial complaint. There is no right to appeal against their decision.

They are assisted by nominated judges, investigating judges, disciplinary hearing panel members and JCIO officials.

The JCIO is responsible for considering allegations of judicial misconduct, assessing whether the allegation could amount to misconduct and making the necessary enquiries for the investigation.

If the JCIO estimates that an allegation could amount to misconduct, the complaint is referred to a nominated judge, appointed by the Lord Chief Justice. Otherwise, the complaint is dismissed.

The nominated judge is also responsible for stating what sanctions might be appropriate if they estimate the allegation amounts to misconduct. This could include being removed or suspended from office.

The subject of the complaint can call for a disciplinary panel to be convened to review the evidence. The panel then submits a report to the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice, who oversee the decision-making process.

If the investigation concludes that there is no judicial misconduct, the nominated judge can still suggest that the subject of the complaint receives pastoral support, advice or training.

A spokesperson for the JCIO would not comment on how long the investigation into the complaint regarding Judge Altham was expected to last.

Meanwhile, in a written question, the Labour MP for Blackpool South, Gordon Marsden, asked whether the Ministry of Justice would undertake an investigation into allegations that Judge Altham breached the Judicial Code of Conduct by failing to declare his family interests.

Lucy Frazer MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice, replied:

“It would not be appropriate for me or any other government minister to comment on cases which are, or have been, before the courts.”

Allegations

During the appeal case, Kirsty Brimelow QC, the human rights lawyer representing the three men pro bono, said Judge Altham’s sister, Jane Watson, had signed a petition in Lancashire in favour of fracking.

The Mirror reported that Jane Watson signed an open letter dated 8 January 2015 which called on Lancashire County Council to “give shale gas a chance” and argued that the new industry could generate a “£33bn supply chain”.

The letter was signed by more than 100 business leaders from the North West of England and Jane Watson signed as managing director of J.C Altham & Sons, a company which provides supplies to ships and offshore oil and gas platforms. .

Following the allegations, a spokesperson for the Judicial Office said:

“Judges are required to base their sentencing decisions on the facts of each case and within the relevant sentencing guidelines and carefully explain their reasoning in court.

“There are longstanding principles, set out in case law, which guide how judges approach possible conflicts of interest. These principles are explained in the publicly available Guide to Judicial Conduct. They ensure that when hearing a case, a judge will be mindful of possible conflicts of interest, and can draw relevant matters to the attention of the parties in the case.”

Judge Altham did not wish to respond to the allegations.

A longer version of this report first published on 22 October 2018 by DeSmog UK

Categories: Legal

7 replies »

  1. It would appear Judge Robert Altham should have been prudent enough to have checked his position with a superior authority (the Lord Chief Justice?) before taking on this trial if he was in any doubt. He must have been aware of the family business and the potential for a conflict of interest, even if this was only a perceived conflict of interest. He has not done himself or his reputation any favours. We hopefully do not have a kritarchy in the UK judicial system.

  2. Their family business is connected to the North Sea oil/gas services. And I thought the North Sea industry, just like John Powney and the SNP, they hate UK shale gas coz shale take away market revenue from them.

  3. It’s worth noting that if the sister supplies the North Sea oil/gas industry, she might be expected to be opposed to onshore Shale Gas exploration since onshore gas will supply in competition with North Sea supplies. The fact that she signed a letter or petition is of course irrelevant since everyone is entitled to free speech as long as it doesn’t break the law. I personally thought the sentences were too long and just set the protesters up to be victims, but maybe the Honourable Judge just got fed up with people thinking they had the right to effectively kidnap a lorry for 3 days in the name of “protest”.

    • As you say, with reference to Judge Altham’s sister signing a letter, everyone is entitled to free speech. This is true, but in this case the letter was specifically endorsing and suppprting the shale gas industry. In doing so she has shown herself most certainly not opposed to onshore shale gas exploration.

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