Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Some Light Relief

Lord Denning was one of the most important judges within English law during the twentieth century. He was Master of the Rolls - the most senior Court of Appeal Judge on the civil side. He also made news as the head of an inquiry into the Profumo Affair in the early 1960s.

As a judge, his decisions could be controversial - but he had a very readable style. I reproduce the start of his judgement in the Balogh v Crown Court at St Albans case. While a serious issue - his telling of the facts always causes me to crease up with laughter. Enjoy!

There is a new court house at St Albans. It is air-conditioned. In May of this year the Crown Court was sitting there. A case was being tried about pornographic films and books. Stephen Balogh was there each day. He was a casual hand employed by solicitors for the defence. Just as a clerk at £5 a day, knowing no law. The case dragged on and on. He got exceedingly bored. He made a plan to liven it up. He knew something about a gas called nitrous oxide, N2O2 should be inferior character? It gives an exhilarating effect when inhaled. It is called 'laughing gas'. He had learned all about it at Oxford. During the trial he took a half-cylinder of it from the hospital car park. He carried it about with him in his brief case. His plan was to put the cylinder at the inlet to the ventilating system and to release the gas into the court. It would emerge from the outlets which were just in front of counsel's row. So the gas, he thought, would enliven their speeches. It would be diverting for the others. A relief from the tedium of pornography.

So one night when it was dark he got on to the roof of the court house. He did it by going up from the public gallery. He found the ventilating ducts and decided where to put the cylinder. Next morning, soon after the court sat, at 11.15 am, he took his brief case, with the cylinder in it, into court 1. That was not the pornography court. It was the next-door court. It was the only court which had a door leading up to the roof. He put the brief case on a seat at the back of the public gallery. Then he left for a little while. He was waiting for a moment when he could slip up to the roof without anyone seeing him. But the moment never came. He had been seen on the night before. The officers of the court had watched him go up to the roof. So in the morning they kept an eye on him. They saw him put down his brief case. When he left for a moment, they took it up. They were careful. There might be a bomb in it. They opened it. They took out the cylinder. They examined it and found out what it was. They got hold of Balogh. They cautioned him. He told them frankly just what he had done. They charged him with stealing a bottle of nitrous oxide. He admitted it. They kept him in custody and reported the matter to Melford Stevenson J, who was presiding in court 1 (not the pornography court).

At the end of the day's hearing, at 4.15 pm, the judge had Balogh brought before him. The police inspector gave evidence. Balogh admitted it was all true. He meant it as a joke. A practical joke. But the judge thought differently. He was not amused. To him it was no laughing matter. It was a very serious contempt of court. Balogh said:

'… I am actually in the wrong court at the moment … The proceedings which I intended to subvert are next door. Therefore, it is not contempt against your court … for which I should be tried.'

The judge replied: 'You were obviously intending at least to disturb the proceedings going on in courts in this building, of which this is one … You will remain in custody tonight, and I will consider what penalty I impose upon you … in the morning.'

Next morning Balogh was brought again before the judge. The inspector gave evidence of his background. Balogh was asked if he had anything to say. He said:

'I do not feel competent to conduct it myself. I am not represented in court … I have committed no contempt … I was arrested for the theft of a bottle of nitrous oxide … no further charges have been preferred.'

The judge gave sentence:

'It is difficult to imagine a more serious contempt of court and the consequences might have been very grave if you had carried out your express intention. I am not going to overlook this and you will go to prison for six months … I am not dealing with any charge for theft … I am exercising the jurisdiction to deal with the contempt of court which has been vested in this court for hundreds of years. That is the basis on which … you will now go to prison for six months.'

Balogh made an uncouth insult: 'You are a humourless automaton. Why don't you self-destruct?' He was taken away to serve his sentence.

Eleven days later he wrote from prison to the Official Solicitor. In it he acknowledged that his behaviour had been contemptible, and that he was now thoroughly humbled. He asked to be allowed to apologise in the hope that his contempt would be purged. The Official Solicitor arranged at once for counsel to be instructed, with the result that the appeal has come to this court.