Some of you might remember the case where a High Court Judge, involved in a big money commercial trial where British Airways was a party started to conduct his own inquiries of BA’s Silk into what had happened to his suitcase which BA had lost on a flight.
If you haven’t, then I suggest you read it, because it is a cracker. (It isn’t my writing that makes it funny, the situation is just ludicrous)
If you are unaware of the previous history with this Judge and the Court of Appeal, here is another to read
[The Judge had been involved in communication with partners of a law firm about an employment opportunity for himself, those communications had broken down and the Judge had sent an email to the Senior Partner expressing considerable disatisfaction and annoyance. When that firm next had a case before him, they invited him to recuse himself and he refused. The Court of Appeal decided
It may well be that the judge became somewhat carried away in the heat of the argument. But for the reasons I have given, I would hold that his attitude throughout, from the emails at the end of May, during the hearing on Friday and in his judgment show that the test for apparent bias is satisfied. As the reviewing court, this court is in a position to form its own view. I have concluded that in all the circumstances, a fair-minded and informed observer would conclude that the judge was biased against AG and its partners, including Mr Howell. It was for that reason that I concluded on Monday that the appeal should be allowed.
But if you can, read the judgment, because the transcript of the poor barrister trying to make the recusal application and the Judge getting crosser and crosser is quite remarkable]
Following the BA suitcase debacle , the Judge’s conduct attracted quite a bit of attention in the Press, including an article written by Lord Pannick of Blackstone Chambers. Lord Pannick has been involved in some very intriguing cases that I’ve written about on the blog – often involving overseas Royalty or diplomats, and has also been a trenchant critic of the legal aid reforms, so I like him a great deal. [In fact, he was in this very case in this blog article https://suesspiciousminds.com/2014/06/09/a-court-may-look-at-a-king/ ]
- On 3rd September 2015, an article (“the Article”) appeared in The Times newspaper with the headline “A case about luggage that carries a great deal of judicial baggage”. It was written by Lord Pannick QC (a member of Blackstone Chambers) who had, at an earlier stage of Mrs. Harb’s claim, represented the Prince on his CPR Part 11 (sovereign immunity) application. The Article stated:
“On July 22, 2015, Mr Justice Peter Smith stood down from hearing a complex commercial case in which British Airways is a defendant. The airline asked the judge to recuse himself after a dispute about what happened to the judicial luggage on a trip home from Florence. How we laughed. But the case raises serious issues about judicial conduct that need urgent consideration by the Lord Chief Justice. …
The judge sent a number of emails to the chairman of BA complaining about the incident. He said there was “plainly a deliberate decision to leave a whole flight’s luggage behind”. He suggested that lucrative commercial freight may have been loaded “at the expense of passengers who could go to hell at the expense of profits.” BA applied to the judge to recuse himself because the case against the airline that he was hearing raises allegations similar to those he was making, and conclusions similar to those he was asserting, in the correspondence.
The transcript of the recusal application is extraordinary. Jon Turner, QC, for the airline, began by politely stating his client’s concern. The judge intervened: “Right, Mr Turner, here is a question for you. What happened to the luggage?” Mr Turner responded that his clients would deal with such a personal complaint in the ordinary course of business and not in these proceedings. The judge was not satisfied: “In that case, do you want me to order your chief executive to appear before me today?”
Mr Turner patiently replied (his submissions were a model of courtesy and focus in very difficult circumstances) that if the judge would permit him to develop his argument he would contend “that that would be an inappropriate mixture of a personal dispute…”. The judge interrupted: “What is inappropriate is the continued failure of your clients to explain a simple question, namely what happened to the luggage?” After a lot more of this, the judge reluctantly agreed to stand down from the case. He said that there were no grounds for BA’s application but its “attitude” left him with no alternative.
There are a number of troubling features about this unhappy episode. First, the transcript repeatedly confirms what the judge refused to acknowledge: that his personal irritation (perhaps justified) was affecting his judicial responsibilities and made it impossible for him fairly to hear the BA proceedings. The judge said in his judgment that he wanted answers from BA simply because if there were an innocent explanation for the delayed luggage, then he could put the incident to one side and hear the case. But BA’s concern was the strong allegations and concluded views expressed by the judge on personal issues similar to those raised in the litigation. In any event, if BA had offered an explanation for his treatment, was the judge to rule on its adequacy?
Second, there is the inexcusably bullying manner and threats: “What has happened to the luggage? … I will rise until 12.45 and you can find out… Do I have to order you to do it, then?… I shouldn’t make any preparations for lunch because you are going to be sitting through.”
Third, there are the judge’s arrogant comments concerning the decision of the Court of Appeal in 2007 to remove him from an earlier case in which he had been unable to recognise that his personal interests made it inappropriate for him to sit in judgment. Mr Turner, QC, referred to the case for the legal principles. Mr Justice Peter Smith responded that he had “no regret” about his decision, but “plenty of regrets about the way in which the Court of Appeal went about their decision”, but he was “no longer surprised by what happens in the Court of Appeal”. That was a case where Sir Anthony Clarke, MR, described Mr Justice Peter Smith’s conduct of the proceedings as “somewhat extraordinary” and “intemperate”. Sir Igor Judge added that Mr Justice Peter Smith’s conduct of the hearing demonstrated that he “had become too personally involved in the decision he was being asked to make to guarantee the necessary judicial objectivity.” Mr Justice Peter Smith was not listening.
On hearing about this latest episode, no one at the bar or on the bench would have said, “What, Mr Justice Peter Smith? Surely not?” Litigants are entitled to a better service than this. The reputation of our legal system is damaged by such behaviour. The Lord Chief Justice should consider whether action to address Mr Justice Peter Smith’s injudicious conduct has, like his luggage, been delayed for too long.”
After that article (which remember, was complaining about a Judge acting injudiciously, and blurring his judicial functions with his personal circumstances or views) appeared, the Judge wrote to the Head of Blackstone Chambers
- By a letter dated 1st December 2015 (“the Letter”), the judge wrote to one of the two joint Heads of Blackstone Chambers, Mr. Antony Peto QC, in these terms:
“I refer to our conversation a couple of weeks ago. I am disappointed not to have heard from you.
The quite outrageous article of Pannick caused me a lot of grief and a lot of trouble. I will be taking that up with the requisite authorities in due course.
You said that you would get back to me and you have not. This has meant even more trouble for me because his article has been used as the basis for several lay people to make complaints about me. Fortunately he has never appeared in front of me so his opinion is not worth the paper it is printed on. It has caused me great difficulties in challenging it but fortunately again I have letters of support from no less than 24 Silks, 4 High Court Judges and 1 Court of Appeal Judge all of whom appeared in front of me and do not share his views of my abilities and the way I perform in Court. Some of the letters have been extremely critical of Pannick’s article. Others have commented adversely in terms I would not wish to print.
The article has been extremely damaging to Blackstone Chambers within the Chancery Division.
I am extremely disappointed about it because I have strongly supported your Chambers over the years especially in Silk Applications. Your own application was supported by me and was strongly supported by me to overcome doubts expressed to me by brother Judges concerning you. I have supported other people. It is obvious that Blackstone takes but does not give.
I will no longer support your Chambers please make that clear to members of your Chambers. I do not wish to be associated with Chambers that have people like Pannick in it.”
Unfortunately for the Judge, although Lord Pannick has yet to appear before him post article, other members of his chambers did, on this case. The letter emerged as part of the appeal.
Joshua Rozenberg’s piece about Lord Pannick’s article and the Judge’s response are very worth reading.
Anyway, the case has now come before the Court of Appeal, who were no doubt sharpening their pencils and rolling up their sleeves in readiness for this one.
Harb v HRH Prince Abdul Aziz Bin Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz  EWCA Civ 556 (16 June 2016)
The Court of Appeal granted the appeal for other reasons, so did not technically have to give a judgment on the bias point that had been raised, but in the unusual circumstances of this case, you can see why they would. They say that the Judge’s behaviour was regrettable, but did not satisfy the test of bias. (some readers might find that surprising, so I will include the totality of their judgment in this regard)
- There is no dispute as to the test for appearance of bias. In Porter v Magill  2 AC 357, Lord Hope said at para 103:
“The question is whether the fair-minded and informed observer, having considered the facts, would conclude that there was a real possibility that the tribunal was biased.”
- The Letter has assumed significance in this appeal because the Prince was represented at the trial by Mr. Ian Mill QC and Ms. Shaheed Fatima QC, both of whom were (and still are) members of Blackstone Chambers. It led to the Prince amending his grounds of appeal to add a fifth ground alleging apparent bias.
- The following particulars of alleged apparent bias are relied on. First, a fair-minded and informed observer would conclude that there was a real possibility that the judge became biased against the Prince after the publication of the Article because it was critical of him and he knew that the Prince had been represented by Lord Pannick and was continuing to be represented by Mr. Mill and Ms. Fatima. Secondly, the content of the Letter would cause such an observer to conclude that there was a real possibility that the judge harboured a personal animus against all members of Blackstone Chambers. Thirdly, the observer would conclude that there was a real possibility that the judge’s apparent bias against Blackstone Chambers might have affected his decisions in relation to this claim because, as a matter of timing, the Article preceded (a) the date on which the draft judgment was sent to the parties (21st October 2015), (b) the date on which the judgment was handed down in its final form (3rd November), and (c) the date on which the judge determined costs (9th December). Fourthly, the observer would conclude that there was a real possibility that the judge was biased because he refused to correct a material inaccuracy in the draft judgment even after it had been drawn to his attention. The particular inaccuracy relied on is the judge’s failure to correct the statement at para 106 of the judgment that “it was not put to the claimant” that she had been aware of the Prince’s capacity as the agent of his father, King Fahd. Fifthly, the observer would conclude that there was a real possibility that the judge had been biased against the Prince because his judgment is in key respects inconsistent with the evidence, the inherent probabilities and, in particular, his questions and observations during the trial. There was a change of stance by the judge after the hearing which it is impossible to explain except by attributing bias to the judge. This submission is founded on a detailed analysis of the judge’s interventions during Mrs. Harb’s evidence. These are said to demonstrate hostility by the judge towards her and incredulity about her evidence at that time. Sixthly, the observer would conclude that there was a real possibility that the judge became biased against the Prince in view of his change of mind regarding the explanation given by the Prince during the trial for not attending to give oral evidence. This is the subject of the fourth ground of appeal.
- It is necessary to have in mind some key aspects of the chronology. The starting point is that on 23rd July, after the conclusion of the evidence, the judge asked the parties whether they wished him to give an indication of his provisional views. In response to their request that he should do so, he said:
“on the evidence at the moment I am of the provisional view that there was an agreement as the claimant alleges. However, the question of the capacity of the agent I find very troubling at the moment, the capacity of the agreement. I suspect, I have not looked into it, there is some law about whether or not an agent, [where there] is an undisclosed principal, can assume personal liability under the contract.”
- The parties then made their closing submissions and the judge reserved judgment. He dictated his judgment during the last week of July and first week of August. On 5th August, a written note was submitted on behalf of the Prince commenting on the authorities relied on by Mrs. Harb in relation to the agency issue. The judge says that he dictated a short addendum to the relevant section of the draft judgment relating to the agency issue, but that the draft was not otherwise materially altered.
- He handed the tapes to his clerk for typing later in August. On 21st August, there was a further hearing before the judge to purge the Prince’s contempt for failing to attend the hearing. The judge said that he had hoped to release his judgment in draft form that day. He was on leave between 2nd and 16th September. As we have already stated, the Article was published on 3rd September. The judge’s clerk started typing the judgment on 6th October. She believes that she completed transcribing the tapes on 14th October. She says that she printed off a hard copy of the judgment for the judge to check and approve and that she made the amendments required by him on 19th October. The draft judgment was circulated to the parties on 21st October. It was handed down on 3rd November.
- The judge spoke to Mr. Peto QC in about mid-November and complained about the Article. Having not received an answer from him, he wrote the Letter on 1st December.
- To meet the point that the judge had indicated a provisional view in favour of the claimant before the parties made their closing submissions and before he drafted his judgment, Lord Grabiner says that the judge made some amendments to his draft judgment after reading the Article and before handing down the judgment. We do not know the nature of the amendments. We do not know what the judge’s thinking was in relation to this case after the publication of the Article. In short, he submits, the fair-minded observer would consider that there was a real possibility that the final judgment was influenced by the Article, if only by the judge’s refraining from making changes that he might otherwise have made.
- More broadly, in his oral submissions Lord Grabiner illustrated his case in this way:
“If I were a client and I was using a Blackstone Chambers barrister to argue a case for me and these facts were drawn to my attention, I would be very concerned indeed about who the trial judge was going to be. If I were told the whole of this story, my reaction to that—and I am simply saying that as a reasonable client, given the knowledge of all the facts—the question for this court is: what would be the reaction of that reasonable client?
In my submission that is susceptible of only one answer. He would say—particularly if he were a foreign client who the reason that he comes here in the first place is because he holds the English court system in such high regard. To be given this story, he would be astonished and he would say ‘Well I must say I hope there’s some other judge who can hear my case’, and he would be right” (Transcript 1/107-108).
- In response to Lord Grabiner’s submissions, Mr. Hollander makes a number of points. First, although he accepts that it is possible for a bias for or against an advocate to be sufficient to give rise to a case of apparent bias against the client, of its nature this is likely to be exceptional. It should be borne in mind that the judge has sworn a judicial oath.
- Secondly, the Letter was a complaint in relation to an article by Lord Pannick, and not against Mr. Mill or Ms. Fatima. These are two of 100 self-employed barristers practising at Blackstone Chambers. They are not in partnership. Nor is there any suggestion that Mr. Mill or Ms. Fatima had any involvement in the writing of the Article. If the appellant’s argument were accepted, it would follow that in any case at any time in which any of the 100 barristers of Blackstone Chambers appeared before Peter Smith J, the fair-minded and informed observer would take the view that the client could not expect a fair trial because of the prejudice of the judge through the advocate’s membership of Blackstone Chambers. That would be the case irrespective of the advocate’s lack of involvement in the Article or the date of his or her joining those Chambers. The fair-minded observer would not take such an extreme view.
[I am obviously not a fair-minded observer, because I did take that view…]
- Thirdly, what irked the judge and provoked him into writing the Letter was the failure of Mr. Peto to provide a considered response to his oral complaint some two weeks earlier rather than the Article itself.
- Fourthly, there was no change of mind by the judge in his assessment of Mrs. Harb’s evidence. The informal indication at the close of the evidence that, subject to the agency issue, he was minded to accept that there was an agreement “as the claimant alleges” is a complete answer to the allegation of change of mind.
- In summary, Mr. Hollander submits that it is fanciful to suppose that, in these circumstances, the fair-minded observer would consider that there was a real possibility that the judgment that was handed down on 3rd November was infected by bias as a result of the Article.
- In his letter to the claimant’s solicitors dated 12th February 2016, the judge accepted that he should not have written the Letter. It is difficult to believe that any judge, still less a High Court Judge, could have done so. It was a shocking and, we regret to say, disgraceful letter to write. It shows a deeply worrying and fundamental lack of understanding of the proper role of a judge. What makes it worse is that it comes on the heels of the BAA baggage affair. In our view, the comments of Lord Pannick, far from being “outrageous” as the judge said in the Letter, were justified. We greatly regret having to criticise a judge in these strong terms, but our duty requires us to do so. But it does not follow from the fact that he acted in this deplorable way that the allegation of apparent bias must succeed. It is to that question that we now turn.
Shocking and disgraceful is very strong stuff to say about a Judge’s behaviour.
- As we have said, the legal test is not in doubt: see para 54 above. We would, however, emphasise two important points. First, the opinion of the notional informed and fair-minded observer is not to be confused with the opinion of the litigant. The “real possibility” test is an objective test. It ensures that there is a measure of detachment in the assessment of whether there is a real possibility of bias: see Helow v Secretary of State for the Home Department  UKHL 62,  1 WLR 2416 at para 2 per Lord Hope. As Lord Hope also said in Porter v Magill at para 103, the “real possibility of bias” test “is in harmony with the objective test which the Strasbourg court applies when it is considering whether the circumstances give rise to a reasonable apprehension of bias” (emphasis added). We mention this because it demonstrates that the approach urged on the court by Lord Grabiner is incorrect. The court does not ask whether a litigant who is being represented by a member of Blackstone Chambers and knows of the Article would be content to have his case heard by Peter Smith J. We have little doubt that most, if not all, litigants represented by a member of Blackstone Chambers, knowing of the Article, would prefer to have their case heard by another judge. We are prepared to accept that some, indeed many, might have very strong feelings on the subject. But the litigant is not the fair-minded observer. He lacks the objectivity which is the hallmark of the fair-minded observer. He is far from dispassionate. Litigation is a stressful and expensive business. Most litigants are likely to oppose anything that they perceive might imperil their prospects of success, even if, when viewed objectively, their perception is not well-founded.
- The facts of Helow illustrate the point well. The petitioner was a Palestinian refugee living in Lebanon. She claimed asylum in the UK on the ground that she feared that, if she were returned to Lebanon, she would be attacked by Lebanese and Israeli agents on account of her Palestinian ethnicity and political opinions. Her claim was refused by the Secretary of State, whose decision was upheld by an adjudicator sitting in Glasgow. Her petition to the Court of Session was dismissed by the Lord Ordinary, who was a member of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, whose magazine had carried a number of extreme pro-Israeli articles. The petitioner sought to set aside the Lord Ordinary’s decision on the ground that a fair-minded and informed observer would have concluded that there was a real possibility that she was biased by reason of her membership of an association which was actively antipathetic to the interests with which the petitioner was identified. The House of Lords dismissed the appeal. In doing so, it conducted a detailed examination of the facts to ascertain the nature and significance of the Lord Ordinary’s membership of the association and its published aims and objectives. The House also said that it could be assumed (and took into account) that the judge was able to discount material that she had read and reach an impartial decision according to the law. We expect that the petitioner would have been very unhappy that her petition had been determined by the Lord Ordinary. No doubt she would have preferred a judge who had no involvement with a body like the association. From her subjective point of view, it might have appeared that there was a real possibility that the judge had been biased. But the test is an objective one and the focus is on the fair-minded informed observer. The approach advocated by Lord Grabiner fails to draw that critical distinction.
- It also fails to take account of the important point that, even if a judge is irritated by or shows hostility towards an advocate, it does not follow that there is a real possibility that it will affect his approach to the parties and jeopardise the fairness of the proceedings. From time to time, the patience of judges can be sorely tested by the behaviour of advocates. Sometimes, a judge will overreact and unwisely make an intemperate comment. But judges are expected to be true to their judicial oaths and not allow their feelings about an advocate to affect their determination of the case they are hearing. The informed and fair-minded observer is to be assumed to know this.
- Secondly, the informed and fair-minded observer is to be treated as knowing all the relevant circumstances and it is for the court to make an assessment of these: see Competition Commission v BAA Ltd and Ryanair Ltd  EWCA Civ 1097 per Maurice Kay LJ at paras 11 to 13 and the authorities cited there. It is common ground before us that the relevant circumstances in this case include all the facts set out at paras 57 to 59 above, although some of these were not in the public domain. It was held in Virdi v Law Society  EWCA Civ 100 that the hypothetical fair-minded observer is to be treated as if in possession of all the relevant facts and not only those that are publicly available. Stanley Burnton LJ gave a number of reasons for this conclusion at paras 43 to 48 of his judgment. This reasoning is binding on this court. In any event, we are satisfied that it is correct.
- With these introductory comments in mind, we can now deal with the allegation of apparent bias in this case quite shortly. We start by saying that we do not accept the submission of Mr. Hollander that the Letter was merely a complaint about Mr. Peto’s failure to respond to the judge’s earlier oral complaint. It is true that the third paragraph complains that Mr. Peto “said that you would get back to me and you have not”. But the rest of the letter is about the “outrageous” Article and his reaction to that. It is impossible to describe the Letter as confined to a complaint about Mr. Peto’s failure to respond.
- We are prepared to assume that the informed and fair-minded observer, knowing of the Article, would conclude that there was a real possibility that the judge was biased against all members of Blackstone Chambers, at least for a short period after the publication of the Article. But for the reasons we have given, the observer would not conclude without more that there was a real possibility that this bias would affect the judge’s determination of the issues in a case in which a party was represented by a member of Blackstone Chambers.
Let me just quickly try to count the number of angels dancing on the head of this pin. An informed and fair-minded observed would conclude there was a real possibility that the Judge was biased against all members of Blackstone Chambers, but NOT that this would affect the outcome of any hearing in which they were involved. Okay….
- But there is a further reason why this ground of appeal must fail. The assessment of whether an informed and fair-minded observer, having considered the facts, would conclude that there was a real possibility of bias depends on an examination of all the relevant facts. It is fact sensitive. In our view, the facts in the present case show that the possibility that Peter Smith J was actuated by bias against the Prince is unrealistic. We accept the submission of Mr. Hollander that the chronology of events is very powerful. The judge indicated in open court immediately after the conclusion of the evidence that he was of the provisional view that “there was an agreement as the claimant alleges”. This was despite his (at times) aggressive questioning of Mrs. Harb. The only caveat he entered was in relation to the agency issue. But his concern in relation to that issue seems to have had nothing to do with the credibility of the witnesses. Rather, at that stage it concerned a question of law as to whether an agent may be liable where there is an undisclosed principal. That may be an elementary question (as Lord Grabiner suggested), but that is neither here nor there.
- The critical point is that the question whether a binding agreement was concluded at the meeting on 20 June 2003 was at the heart of the case. It turned to a large extent on the credibility of the oral evidence of Mrs. Harb and Mrs. Mustafa-Hasan and the witness statement of the Prince. We are not persuaded that there is a real possibility that the judge changed his mind about their evidence after reading the Article. It is true that the judge could have amended his draft judgment after reading the Article so as to make findings favourable to Mrs. Harb which were not contained in the original draft. But the judge said that the only amendments that he made were to deal with the note on the agency authorities and otherwise the amendments were not material. We see no reason to disbelieve this and we did not understand Lord Grabiner to submit that we should do so. More fundamentally, we think it fanciful to suppose that the judge made major changes to his assessment of the evidence simply as a reaction to the Article or that his decision on the agency issue owed anything to a bias against the Prince. There is no evidence to suggest that he did so. In our view, the informed and fair-minded observer would not conclude that there was a real possibility that the judge behaved in this way.
- For all these reasons, regrettable though the judge’s conduct was in writing the Letter, we reject the allegation of apparent bias.
Whilst Judges can get things wrong and make mistakes, we do have a system that allows those mistakes to be put right on appeal. (Even then, we probably don’t get everything right, and not every mistake is corrected and not every appeal succeeds)