Judges are humans too, says Lord Neuberger

Supreme Court justice opens up about impact of dad’s death on his judicial career


The president of the Supreme Court has treated lawyers to a very candid look at what life is really like serving as a judge.

Lord Neuberger, speaking in Singapore about what the proper role of a judge actually is, admits that he — as a human being — is “fallible”.

In an honest look-back at a time early on in his judicial career, Neuberger remembered:

I was listening to an oldish man who was giving evidence which was inherently unconvincing, and I noticed that I was trying to justify or explain away his inconsistencies and evasions to myself. I pulled myself up and tried to examine why I was doing this, and then I realised that, through his physical and vocal mannerisms, he reminded me of my father who had recently died, and that this caused me to want to believe him.

Though Neuberger admits this was an example of bias, he says it’s “nothing to be ashamed of”, because “one cannot be a functional human being without having preconceived ideas and notions”. Continuing, he explained:

Nobody is going to know all their prejudices and nobody is going to be able to allow in a perfect way for all the prejudices they know about. But that is no excuse for not trying to assess and allow for them. The fact that we cannot get the answer right every time is no excuse for not doing our best to get the right answer.

Later, Neuberger went on to remind judges how important it is to follow the law, even if this means getting a result they might not be happy with. Perhaps in response to growing media commentary suggesting judges are too lenient and/or unfair, he explained:

When it comes to issues of law, there is sometimes a strong temptation to ‘bend’ the law, or even simply to cheat, if strict application of the cases or statute appears to lead to what appears to be an unmeritorious result in the particular case to be decided… As a matter of principle, a judge should plainly resist the temptation to misapply the law in such a case.

You can read Lord Neuberger’s full speech here:


Not Amused

Would he consider it an ordinary human frailty if a man in charge of a supreme court spent years writing articles about how much we need more women judges in the supreme court but yet somehow failed to actually appoint any?

Because I think a lot of us read those articles and we want to believe the man writing them. But of course when we look at the actual evidence all we see is such a total failure to deliver that the actual words written simply can’t be plausible.

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Lord I can haz cheezburger is right, judges are fallible. One day computers will be able to judge cases far more effectively and impartially than a human judge ever could (I know this sounds like science fiction, but I’m completely serious).

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Lol at people negging me for this. Look at how far computing and artificial intelligence have advanced in the past 30 years. You luddites need to get out from under your idealist rocks and recognise that these things are completely changing the nature of legal practice, not to mention every other aspect of our lives.

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Dave Barrister

Neuberger makes fantastic points here. Not enough is said of judicial bias, and advocates’ preconceptions. We are all humans and we are all fallible; moreover, we all have intricate personal lives and have all broken a law or or six. No doubt as a result we each have our own nuanced views about the value or merit of certain criminal wrongs and general conduct. These should never interfere with our professional lives.

Aside from sound legal knowledge, the skill necessary to overcome this is simple but encompassing objectivity. The profession assumes years of study and the abrasion of daily professional encounters to equip lawyers with enough of this to function adequately. Yet, as Neuberger deftly portrays here, we could all do with being more mindful of the need to abstract and be objective, or at least better recognise when we are failing to do so.

I hope that instead of the endless box-ticking regime of CPD the Inns continue to consolidate their continuing-education mandate and assist members address much more important but less spoken about – perhaps even taboo – issues like this in the friendly collegiate style they purvey.

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