A mentally ill man has been jailed for 10 days for contempt in the face of the court after yelling racist abuse at a judge at Bristol Magistrates’ Court.
His Honour Judge Cotter QC said it was not in dispute that Timothy Legge, who suffers from a personality disorder, had called District Judge Woodburn “a black bastard” and “a black cunt”.
HHJ Cotter said: “There are clear aggravating features here. It would be, in my view, serious if a judge were to be referred to as either ‘a bastard’ or ‘a cunt’ by a person attending a court, but the racial element is an aggravated feature must take this into a different category.
“It is wholly unacceptable that any person, even more a person in public service, should receive racially aggravated abuse.”
HHJ Cotter said two medical reports had been served on behalf of Mr Legge, one dating back to 2013, the other to January 2019.
The first one said Mr Legge’s involvement with psychiatric services began in 1970, and the diagnosis “was then, and appears to continue to be, of a personality disorder”.
The first medical report concluded that the defendant had a “severe personality disorder” with compulsive hoarding syndrome, and he lacked capacity. The second medical report agreed with the diagnosis of a hoarding disorder but said Mr Legge had capacity.
HHJ Cotter said counsel for Mr Legge did not submit that he lacked capacity “in the sense of knowing that he should not be racially abusing a judge, but that, as I have indicated earlier, when in circumstances of stress, he is prone to behaviour that he would not engage in when not under such stress”.
The judge said Mr Legge “apologises and recognises that what he did was wrong”.
HHJ Cotter took into account evidence that imprisonment might have a “negative effect” on Mr Legge’s mental state and trigger episodes of aggression, but the matter had passed the “custody threshold”.
Delivering judgment at Bristol County Court, sitting in Bristol Magistrates Court, HHJ Cotter said Mr Legge shouted the abuse “on entering the court” and before committal proceedings for breach of an injunction could commence.
The court heard in Bristol City Council v Legge  EW Misc 12 (CC) that the defendant was removed from the court and proceedings continued in his absence.
DJ Woodburn went on to impose an eight-week jail sentence on Mr Legge, suspended for a year.
HHJ Cotter said Bristol City Council had initiated proceedings “long in the past” against Mr Legge, described as a “compulsive hoarder”. The hearing where the abuse was shouted, in July this year, was part of “long-running injunctive proceedings” related to Mr Legge’s council tenancy.
Previous incidents showed that he had “a tendency to resort to extreme abuse”. Mr Legge was arrested in May this year, having been the subject of a warrant for breaching an order to self-refer to Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Trust.
HHJ Cotter said the court had a power under section 118 of the County Court Act 1984 to deal with a person who wilfully insulted a judge during his attendance or misbehaved, with a maximum sentence of 28 days.
“I do not take the view that this is a case which can properly be dealt with by a suspended sentence, rather in my view, this requires an immediate custodial sentence.
“I have, however, kept it as short as possible. I do recognise what the doctor has said, but it is important the courts of this land operate and anyone attending at them can do so without fear of this type of abuse.”
Meanwhile, a circuit judge has criticised the way a district judge handled an application for care and placement orders in relation to a one-year-old girl.
His Honour Judge Mark Rogers in Nottingham found the substantive grounds for appeal against the decision of District Judge Mian had been made out even without having to consider the question of her conduct of the hearing.
He recounted the child’s counsel’s grounds of appeal, which said the judge’s improper conduct was exemplified by “blasphemous words, shouting, storming out of court and general intemperate behaviour”.
In her submissions, counsel “also referred to sarcasm, the judge shaking with rage, the judge turning her chair away from the court and sitting with her back to everyone for several seconds, mimicking the advocate’s words and to intimidating the guardian”.
HHJ Rogers highlighted “the pressures under which the judiciary at all levels operates” and how the relentless and gruelling nature” of family work could take its toll on all involved, including judges.
But her conduct “not only derailed the substance of the hearing but created an atmosphere where completing a fair hearing became impossible. She seems to have alienated even those whom she sought to praise and encourage”.
HHJ Rogers said the district judge “crossed the line” and ruled that the hearing amounted to a serious procedural irregularity.
But for a “fortuitous change of circumstances” shortly before the appeal was heard, he said would have been bound to allow the appeal on this ground also and direct a full rehearing. “Mercifully, that is not now necessary.”
He added that he decided to identify the judge by name, having heard argument on the point.
“I have no wish to embarrass or discomfort the judge, but I am convinced that the public interest in the Family Court being transparent and open to scrutiny is the decisive factor.”
Leading family law blogger Lucy Reed, a barrister from Bristol, urged observers to take care before condemning DJ Mian, “although it is right to condemn her behaviour”.
She wrote on her Pink Tape blog: “A judgment provides a lot of information but it cannot tell the whole story – and this one hints at a nuanced background.
“It is clear that the appeal judge had no enthusiasm for sticking the boot in, and although he understood the need for transparency in publishing both the judgment and the name of the judge, he was mindful of the potential impact upon her.
“Judges are human and fallible. The work our care judges do is emotionally draining, upsetting and ultimately traumatising – the weight of responsibility on judges tasked with deciding if a child should be taken forever from a family that wants and loves them is huge.
“If we pile pressure upon pressure on our overworked and poorly supported district and circuit bench, we will see more of this sort of thing. It is no coincidence that a number of DFJ areas have introduced documents explicitly reminding professionals of the importance of a culture of respect.
“We are all so much more brittle than we were and our collective resilience is worn thin… We are frankly lucky that what we read in this appeal judgment is still genuinely shocking to us rather than commonplace.”