Last week, we received sad news of the death of occasional contributor and Friend of SR, Iain Macmillan. The following is an extract from his book 'I Had It From My Father', which was published by Standfirst in 2011:
The newspapers like to amuse their readers by telling them how our sheriffs and judges have all been to public school, all aristocrats, with no understanding or sympathy with the common man. This varies a lot of course. If the press disapproves of the sentence the judge has just pronounced, it’s because he lives on a different planet. If, on the other hand, the judge has been heard to criticise the bungling bureaucrats in the Home Office, then he suddenly becomes a paragon of virtue. Four sheriffs were already in place in Hamilton (I made the fifth) – of these, Len Lovat was an accomplished mountaineer; Sandy MacPherson, a judge of piping; Andrew Bell, an Edinburgh solicitor; and James Fiddes... I'm not sure about James, who didn't talk about himself much... but otherwise there was not a public schoolboy among us.
There was quite a heavy work-load at Hamilton. It is not always realised that in addition to the customary civil actions for damages and the like, and the criminal trials, whether by jury or with the sheriff sitting alone, we also conduct fatal accident inquiries, and much domestic work such as divorce, custody, children's hearings etc, as well as a wide variety of administrative tasks – commissary practice (trusts and executries), liquidations, bankruptcies, appeals, licensing, special marriage, and even closing graveyards. Our jurisdiction in Hamilton covered some heavy industrial areas, particularly Motherwell with its Ravenscraig Steelworks (as it then was), as well as Hamilton itself and many smaller towns and villages. In addition we took in an extensive rural and agricultural area. So there was plenty of work.
It has to be acknowledged that some of it was boring. One spent tedious hours sitting in the Fines Court, giving offenders further time to pay their fines, or making an eviction order for some tenant who was in arrear with his rent. It was dull routine work, and a waste of manpower, since that sort of work could have been done just as well, possibly better, by the clerk of court. I read with some amusement a comment by an American politician who said – 'We have to find ways to clear the courts of the endless stream of "victimless crimes" that get in the way of serious consideration of serious crimes. There are more important matters for highly skilled judges and prosecutors than minor traffic offences, loitering and drunkenness'.
The commentator? – Richard Nixon!
But otherwise, I found the work absorbing, the criminal jury trials especially, when it was up to the jury to decide what the verdict was to be, and the civil litigation, often involving nice points of law which I enjoyed wrestling with, sometimes until a late hour in the evening. With the experience of Reggie Levitt in mind, I tried to get my judgements out in reasonable time.
The only part of the work that really troubled me was the family disputes. I found it difficult to keep my patience with parents who put their own selfish interests before those of their children. A mother would invent all sorts of spurious excuses to prevent her husband, or former husband, having the access to the kids that she had earlier agreed to. Sometimes, after a divorce, the woman would re-marry, and she and her new husband would then apply for an adoption order for her children for no other purpose than to deny their father, her former husband, any legal right to the children. We all found these cases particularly distressing.
But there was a lot of fun too. Sometimes when I had to impose sentence on a youth who repeatedly offended, I would ask if his mother was in court. A stout wee woman would then make her way from the public seats, but instead of standing in front of me as expected, she would laboriously climb up the steps and sit beside me on the bench, despite the vigorous protests of the clerk of court and my bar officer. She would sit there, placidly telling me that she 'didnae know whit tae dae wi' that boy' and 'maybe I should jist gie him the jile'. It was disarming. More effective than the most heart-rending plea in mitigation that any solicitor might have urged.
Sentencing in criminal cases could be difficult of course. The difficulty lay in balancing the various and usually conflicting factors that had to be taken into account – the seriousness of the offence and its effect on the victim; the circumstances of the offence, whether there had been provocation; the circumstances of the accused, his age, parental responsibilities, loss of employment, which would affect his whole family; whether he had a record; whether there was any reasonable alternative to custody; and of course the expectation of the public to see that criminal offences were 'properly' punished.
So it was not easy, although newspaper comment often suggests otherwise. On one occasion I told a young man that I would give him one last chance. He had been stealing cars, and had done so on many previous occasions. Everything had been tried – probation, fines, community service, and finally custody. He had served short sentences of three months, six months. I could not understand it, and neither could the social worker, whose report I studied closely.
He was a fine, upstanding young man, only 19 as I recall, with his whole life before him, which he seemed bent on ruining. I told him I could not bring myself to impose the heavy custodial sentence which the case clearly demanded, if there was any hope of helping him to break out of this cycle of offending. I put him on probation for two years with the condition that he would return to court at six monthly intervals when I would have a report from the procurator fiscal. If he had re-offended he would receive a substantial sentence; if not, he would be dealt with leniently.
I was surprised to see him in the dock three months later, charged with a succession of further motor car offences, to which he pled guilty. Surprised and disappointed; but the public are entitled to expect that sheriffs mean what they say. I sent him away for two years. Maybe it was three, I can't remember. I never saw him again.
Shortly after I was appointed I bumped into that delightful judge, Lord Dunpark, who asked me how I was getting on. I must have said something fatuous such as that I hoped I wouldn't make too many mistakes. 'Just do what you think is right' was his monosyllabic and wise advice, which I tried to follow. That's really all you can do.
I hope I never lost sight of the honour conferred upon me by allowing me to sit in judgement on my fellow men. Joan Ure once wrote a very funny and very moving monologue called 'The Hard Case'. In it the anti-hero, an old lag, appears before the court charged with breach of the peace. He addresses the judge thus –
Judge, I know it is not easy, a job such as yours is, that only through a deep sense of responsibility to the community, would a thoughtful man like yourself take it on. I know it’s not just because of the sense of importance. I know that the wig is weighty, the robes no sinecure. I know all that. Over the years, I have not been slow, sir, not slow to have pity for the likes of you all who have to bear the burden of a seat on the bench in judgement over your fellows.
The heavy irony was not lost upon me. As a sheriff you are deferred to, addressed as 'Your Lordship', and preceded into court by your bar officer. Everyone has to rise in your presence. You are given the power, not of life or death, but certainly of liberty or restraint. You are made to feel that you hold an office of importance, as indeed you do. It is tempting, in these circumstances, to allow yourself to suppose that you have become important, as the 'old lag' insidiously suggests. If you are to be any good at the job it's as well to keep your feet on the ground. I'm told that one English judge used to keep a chamber pot on the ledge below the bench to remind himself of his common humanity.
Shortly after my appointment a lady astonished me by asking if I had a chauffeur. In truth we had no chauffeurs, and no limousines. We did not even have a dining room at Hamilton Sheriff Court. We ate lunch seated at our desks in our own rooms. We also had no secretaries or assistants. Instead we wrote our own reports and judgements, and we did our own research often, at least in my case, quite late at night. I provided myself with a word processor (this was before the days of computers) but I had to pay for it myself.
Peter Hamilton, one of the 'temps' whose visits to Hamilton we regarded as a treat, because he was a superb raconteur, told us one day how, as a newly appointed temporary sheriff, he had been asked to sit in the Sheriff Court in Falkirk. At lunch-time, in need of some toothpaste, he set off for Boots, still dressed in his 'blacks' – pin-striped trousers, black jacket and bowler hat. At the cash desk the lady standing next to him remarked to her little girl with a knowing glance in Peter's direction – 'That's something you don't often see nowadays'. Peter preened himself a little. 'Madam?' he enquired. 'Yes', said the lady, 'a butler!'
The months and the years flew by. Hamilton was a good place to work. The Lanarkshire people were decent, friendly folk. Three more sheriffs had joined us by now – Frank Lunny, Vincent Canavan and Will Gibson – James Fiddes having retired. We had a wonderful working relationship and a very close personal connection. The solicitors who appeared before me remained polite and respectful, no matter how much I berated them for being too slow, or too late, and they even invited me to their dinners and their golf matches. I enjoyed my work, and felt that I was not wholly unfitted for it. It almost never occurred to me in these days that I had really intended to be an author.
And then, at age 68, I decided to retire. I sat on the bench for the last time while the court lawyers said some nice things about me, and I bade them farewell. The local Society of Solicitors took me to lunch and presented me with my portrait. My fellow sheriffs gave Edith and me a farewell dinner, and they also gave me the three volume Oxford Book of Poetry, handsomely inscribed. The secretary of state sent me a very nice letter explaining about my pension.
My leave-taking coincided with the closure of the Ravenscraig steelworks, and I could not but reflect on the contrast between the circumstances in which the steelworkers were giving up their employment and those in which I was leaving mine. I had worked in this courthouse for 12 happy years, and thought I was a very lucky man. I looked forward to my retirement.