District Judge Naomi Redhouse interview: 'In my view, every type of criminal offence is serious’

"If you're arrested for appalling behaviour, drunk in the middle of Sheffield and you're kept overnight by the police, I'm the first person you're going to see when you come up in court," says Naomi Redhouse, explaining how, if asked at a dinner party, she would describe her job as the area's most senior district judge in the magistrates' courts.

Monday, 25th February 2019, 09:24 am
Updated Monday, 25th February 2019, 09:27 am
Naomi Redhouse.

"Sometimes people remember us being called 'the beak' - up before the beak. But to most people I'd say everything in the criminal justice system comes before the magistrates' court. From murder, to drunk and disorderly, to not paying your TV licence, all the road traffic offences..."

A national expert in the youth court system who once worked at a club for children and teenagers in Hackney, she was appointed a full-time district judge based in Sheffield nine years ago. Welcoming me into her office to talk, fussing over tea and biscuits, she's warm and engaging – far removed from the stereotype of a judge as a stern, detached figure.

Naomi Redhouse.

"They'll be alright," she says, inspecting a packet of digestives dubiously. "Little bit stale. I don't keep biscuits because I'd just eat them all."

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Hers isn't a job for snacking, she admits - or drinking, as no hot beverages are allowed in the courtroom, even though the days can be long.

"If you're here until seven, you're here until seven. Quite often I don't see much daylight."

Most people associate the magistrates' courts with lay justices, she says, who sit in a trio with a legal advisor.

Naomi Redhouse.

"But I'm a professional judge, so I sit alone. I don't even have a legal advisor these days - I used to, but now I have a court associate who has more of an administrative function. I advise myself, I'm a qualified lawyer."

The crown court, of course, is where the most grave matters are tried, but Judge Redhouse sees little distinction between the severity of cases.

"In my view, every type of criminal offence is serious. If you have your window broken in your car, it's really horrible - your children will be upset, you'll be upset, you're going to lose time... If you see people behaving badly in the street and you're out with your kids or an elderly person, it's really frightening."

Also, where a crown court judge sits with a jury, Judge Redhouse is the sole decision-maker in a trial, and can only impose a sentence of 12 months' imprisonment at the most.

"I never have the burden of putting someone in prison for 10, 12, 15 years. I don't want to say we're rough and tumble - we're still a very formal setting, but we're summary justice. And that describes it best."

When we meet she has just completed a session in the remand court, where sentences are issued, cases are mentioned and people's bail conditions are changed. "But we also had whatever was in the cells, some of which was from yesterday because they couldn't get an interpreter," she says. "That could be anything - you do literally get, 'Next case on your list, murder'."

Her seniority means she holds 'tickets' to handle particular cases. She is the only local district judge qualified to deal with serious sexual offending in the youth court and 'unlimited fines' - very large penalties often levied on corporations for health and safety breaches.

Across England and Wales there are just over 150 district judges in the magistrates' courts. In Sheffield, Judge Redhouse is joined by DJ Paul Healey, while DJ Joanne Hirst sits in Doncaster. They are, she says, quite a rare breed.

"We tend to be very egalitarian. I wouldn't describe myself as the senior judge. If you've got to have one, it would be me, but between ourselves we try to treat each other as equals."

She grew up in Finchley, north London and, after graduating from university with a degree in economics, social and political sciences, moved to Greater Manchester where she worked for a community centre in Salford. "We did welfare rights advice, housing advice, a drop-in for mums - that sort of thing," she says. "Really interesting work."

She drops her voice to a whisper. "I'm always saying to students, don't do law, unless you're fascinated. Do something you're interested in because the conversion is an extra year. And I appreciate the pressure on them now for money. If you enjoy law, it's fine, but most people haven't done law at school, so it's not necessarily the best thing to do at university."

After spending time as a supervisor for the probation service, she decided she wanted to qualify as a lawyer, getting a part-time job as a youth worker in Hackney to support herself while training. It meant that, when she began taking on criminal defence work, she was able to become a specialist in youth cases.

"I already had certain skills for getting on with young people, I suppose," she says.

Judge Redhouse has co-written guidebooks on youth justice, including a volume in the Blackstone's series which has just been reprinted, and is the director of youth court studies for the Judicial College. In November she oversaw a three-day training course which involved a trip to a Young Offender Institution. Was this a tough visit?

"It was actually. We've all been to prisons, but it's still very hard-hitting. It was really worth doing, I'm glad we took the time to do that."

The principle aim of the youth justice system, she says, is to prevent reoffending. "And you always have to consider the welfare of the child - that includes victims of course, and witnesses, but also the defendant. Sentencing is individualistic. You must look at maturity, culpability, all those circumstances - it's not that you don't do that with an adult, but there's a lot of different considerations. Young people are still growing and changing, they don't always have free choice in their lives - things that, by the time you're an adult, we're not going to have the same regard to."

Adults, she remarks, 'are only children who grew up'. "The law applies differently to them, but often they're still operating in the way they did when they were children."

Judge Redhouse would like to see courts being given the power to review youth orders, to make sure young defendants are making progress and altering their ways. There is a piece of legislation covering this but it has never been enacted, although a pilot has been happening in Northampton.

"In the adult court, we've got drug rehabilitation reviews. To me that's the court enabling somebody to come and demonstrate, in a way they don't get an opportunity anywhere else, that they're trying and doing well. You become, in that function, something rather different to what you are when you're sitting sentencing - hopefully someone who can be encouraging. For a lot of people, they've never had anybody in authority who takes an interest in what they're doing. But there's a limit - I can't do that for every case."

She has always preferred to work in the magistrates' courts, which offered a 'regular lifestyle' when she had small children.

"Plus you could book me, and you'd be sure you'd got me. It doesn't always work like that for the Bar. If it was in my diary I was going to be there."

She learned the ropes for seven years as a part-time judge, then applied for a full-time post. 

"It's a real privilege to judge people. When you start to see people you know sitting as judges, it makes you look at it in a different way. When you're a lawyer in court you see the judge as 'other', but then you think 'Oh, maybe I could do that'. I used to worry a lot more than I do now about what I'd done, which is a very odd thing. When you've made the decision you've weighed it all up, so you can leave it behind."

Since 2010, more than half of all magistrates courts in England and Wales have closed, despite the workload of Judge Redhouse and her colleagues becoming greater. Decisions are made by the Government, she stresses, before saying: "We're very aware of the fact people have to travel to court. One of the things I think is really important is for me to know where I'm talking about."

Judges are allowed to have their say on proposals - "We will participate in consultation where we can" - but in London the closures have had 'a lot of impact', she says.

"It's so dense that people don't often travel as far as you think they might. It's a series of villages. Are you going to ask your youth to travel somewhere they've never been?"

On a similar note, she is concerned about a decline in court reporting in the media, a trend this month's Cairncross Review aimed to remedy. "We see a lot of journalism students - sadly, we don't see many journalists. I don't know why. Sometimes I think 'This is a case that will surely attract press interest', and there's nobody there. I presume it's pressure on local reporting, and cuts. I'd like to see more members of the public come and watch."

Judge Redhouse, 63, lives just outside Sheffield in North Derbyshire. She loves being based in the city, and rhapsodises about the growing number of high-end food halls locally. "To be in a court where you can have sushi for lunch is very rare."

Her job, she observes, has an unusual quality.

"We're always seeing people you hope never to see again, and I'll tell them that. If you make a difference to one person in 1,000 by what you say, that's still worth saying."

Keeping children in care out of court

District Judge Naomi Redhouse, an expert in the youth court system, warns that children in care are at risk of being 'criminalised' despite there being fewer young defendants generally.

A new national protocol intended to keep looked-after children out of trouble - aimed at the police, NHS, councils, the CPS and others - was published in November in response to fears there were 'a disproportionate number of children in the care system coming before the courts'.

"We're aware of that, and other bodies are trying to look at it," she says. "There's a real recognition that things happen to children in care that might not happen in a family. We have to make sure they're not being criminalised because they're not in a family."

There has been 'a real drop' in the number of children appearing in court, she says, and the rate at which youths are being sent to custody has 'massively reduced' too.

"Generally we feel the work we therefore have tends to be more serious, and that the young people may have more complex difficulties."

The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 introduced multi-agency youth offending teams that Judge Redhouse believes 'made a huge difference'.

"It's a joined-up approach - health, education, probation, police, social services, all in one team."