High Court judge finally faces misconduct hearing

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Oct 06, 2017
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Mr Justice Peter Smith has been suspended on a full £181,566 salary for 18 months

Chris Ison/PA 

A High Court judge who has effectively been suspended for 18 months is to face a disciplinary hearing that could lead to him being removed from office.

The case of Mr Justice Peter Smith, who is on a salary of £181,566 and is the senior judge in the High Court Chancery Division, poses one of the biggest headaches for the judiciary in decades.

He faces two serious complaints: first, that he made repeated comments over his own missing luggage when hearing a case involving British Airways; and second, that he wrote a letter about a barrister that the Court of Appeal condemned as “shocking” and “disgraceful”.

Mr Justice Peter Smith, 65, agreed not to sit on the bench from May 2016 pending investigations, meaning that he was effectively suspended on full pay.

However, disciplinary proceedings were stalled after doctors agreed that he was mentally unfit to attend any hearing or respond to allegations.

A hearing date has finally been set for two days at the end of this month. However, the proceedings of the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office (JCIO) are shrouded in secrecy and the office will not confirm the hearing date or who will sit on the four-member panel.

Nor will it confirm whether Mr Justice Peter Smith will attend, although it is thought that his lawyers will put his case for him. A spokesman for the investigations office said: “The JCIO can never comment on the detailed progress of cases.”

After the hearing the judge has ten days to respond before the panel makes a recommendation to the lord chief justice and the lord chancellor, who jointly decide any further action.

If the recommendation is that he should stand down, senior judges hope that he will do so voluntarily, without the lord chief justice and lord chancellor having to seek an embarrassing and unprecedented motion before both houses of parliament — the only way to remove a High Court judge.

The first complaint arose during a case in July 2017 in which the judge fired off angry emails to British Airways when his luggage failed to arrive at Gatwick after a trip to Florence. The judge then berated BA’s counsel when a dispute involving the airline came before him in court.

He threatened to order the airline’s chief executive, who was appearing before him, to explain how the luggage could accidentally go missing. He told Jon Turner, QC, for the airline: “Right Mr Turner, here is a question for you. What happened to [the] luggage?”

The QC replied that they were not dealing with that issue. The judge then repeated: “I am asking you: what has happened to the luggage?”

The second complaint arose in a case in which the judge awarded £20 million to the socialite Janan Harb against Prince Abdul Aziz, son of the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia.

The award was overturned and a retrial ordered by the Court of Appeal, where Lord Dyson, who was then Master of the Rolls, castigated him and said that he had written “a shocking, and we regret to say, disgraceful letter”.

Lord Dyson was referring to correspondence that Mr Justice Peter Smith sent to Blackstone Chambers, whose barristers were representing Prince Abdul Aziz.

The letter was sent by the judge in response to an article in The Times in September 2015 by Lord Pannick, QC, a member of that set. Lord Pannick’s article criticised the judge for his comments about his delayed luggage in the BA dispute and in turn Mr Justice Peter Smith wrote to Blackstone Chambers, criticising the article as “quite outrageous” and saying it had caused him “a lot of grief and trouble”.
He added: “I will no longer support your chambers” and “I do not wish to be associated with chambers that have people like Pannick in it”.

Mr Justice Peter Smith has a colourful record. In 2006 he ruled that the author Dan Brown had not breached copyright when writing his bestseller The Da Vinci Code, and then inserted a code himself into his ruling.

He has run into trouble before. He was reprimanded by what was then the Office for Judicial Complaints in 2008 after failing to step down from a case involving a law firm he had negotiated with over the possibility of joining, on a £750,000-a-year package.

The Court of Appeal criticised his “wholly inappropriate” behaviour case and his actions were found to amount to misconduct.

In 2011 the same court ordered him to stand down from a case brought against the law firm Mills & Reeve after he expressed views seen as sympathetic to the firm.

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