Should We Let Sleeping Judges Lie?

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By Alex Aldridge on

Alex Aldridge found it hard to stay awake while marshalling as a bright-eyed 26-year-old, so what hope do judges – another of whom was caught napping on the job last week – have of remaining conscious in court?

When I did the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), a good few years ago now, I spent time marshalling for a county court judge. Unlike the reams of other work experience placements I did at barristers’ chambers and law firms, it was really interesting.

Hanging out with a man whose job is to make decisions which have a huge impact on people’s lives, and sometimes discussing why he came to those decisions over lunch, made me feel powerful. For a week, I wasn’t just some emasculated work experience loser, I was the law’s Louis Theroux.

As it turned out, my judge had pretty good judgement. But as the week I spent with him wore on, I realised that he was as human as anyone else. Hearing cases every day from 10am-4pm, there were always going to be times when he wasn’t on top form.

To prevent himself from day dreaming, the judge used to write notes summarising what the lawyers and witnesses were saying. He urged me to do the same. Sometimes, though, proceedings became pretty repetitive, and there wasn’t much point in writing the same thing over again. At was at these times, particularly in the sessions after lunch, that I found myself fighting to stay awake.

I’m never surprised, then, when I hear stories about judges falling asleep in court, like this judge (videoclip below) did last week in the US. “We dropped water bottles, we tried coughing, we tried jumbling our books to help stir him awake, but it wasn’t working,” said one of parties in the proceedings.

Despite apologising, the judge in question, who was on drowsiness medication, has been forced to resign.

A British magistrate who fell asleep during a youth hearing at Lancaster magistrates court in 2010 lost his job, too. A review into the incident found John Harrison’s nap “risked bringing the magistracy into disrepute”.

However, as the Magistrate’s Blog points out, sleeping judges usually get off with a slap on the wrist in the UK. The late judge Michael Coombe fell asleep during a robbery trial in 2002 and his career survived – despite the fact that three of the defendants convicted in the trial had their sentences reduced on appeal. And Judge Gabriel Hutton hung onto his job even though he fell asleep twice during a rape trial in 2001.