Lawyer Vs judge bust-ups are so much more civilised on this side of the pond

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By Judge John Hack on

Barrister’s live-tweeting of his appeal against contempt of court fine is about as rebellious as English lawyers get.


The US and England — two legal professions separated by the common law (with apologies to Bernard Shaw).

And there is no better comparison of the two jurisdictions than a couple of recent criminal court cases involving lawyer-bench relations.

Legal Cheek devotees will recall the recent tale from a Florida court when Judge John Murphy berated public defender Andrew Weinstock for refusing to waive his client’s right to a trial.

That contretemps resulted in the two professionals stepping outside the courtroom and engaging in some good old fashioned Queensberry Rules behaviour. There was also much robust language, with the judge asking the lawyer: “Do you wanna fuck with me?”

Now, it’s a fair bet that even down Highbury Corner mags, you don’t get comments like that from the bench.

Unbeknownst to those two American legal profession pugilists, a couple of months earlier an English judge and defence counsel had a similar disagreement, although the result was significantly different.

On this side of the Atlantic, back in April at Durham Crown Court, the combatants were Judge Peter Kelson QC and criminal law barrister Ian West (pictured), a senior junior at Middlesbrough’s Fountain Chambers. The two disagreed over an issue around West’s client, who was facing charges of theft and perverting the course of justice.


The row escalated, both sides alleged the other was rude, and the judge finally slapped the barrister with a contempt order and a fine of £500.

To be fair, 500 knicker is quite a lot of cash to hard-pressed criminal barristers working on legal aid rates these days (or anyone else outside City law firms), so perhaps a chance of straightforward fisticuffs to settle the dispute would have been preferable for West.

Instead, he’s chosen the very English option of taking the matter to the appeal court, where it was heard within the last few days by media darling Sir Brian Leveson QC.

According to Gazette Live, the court has been told — by West’s QC, Artesian Law’s Bryan Cox — that Judge Kelson had been “terse and laconic” during the April case and had “told Mr West to sit down six times within a few seconds” while he was trying to speak. As he did so, the judge had apparently been “banging the bench”. Cox added that Judge Kelson had himself accused West of being “rude” and then ordered him to return to face him again in the afternoon “on pain of imprisonment”. When West apparently failed to do so, the judge hit him with the contempt of court fine.

Loathe to be silenced, West has been tweeting updates from the appeal hearing.

Referring to himself as “the Durham one”, West’s most recent update was that judgment had been “reserved” with a decision to be handed down at a later date.

Follow West on Twitter for updates on the case.

Previously: Let’s go out back’ judge tells lawyer — before allegedly punching him