Star Interview with Richard Blackledge: Top Sheffield judge's life in the law

In the judges' lounge at the Sheffield law courts, a long dining table is set for lunch - glasses, crockery, and napkins awaiting the city's foremost legal minds.

Tuesday, 10th January 2017, 7:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 11th January 2017, 3:20 am
Judge Graham Robinson. Picture: Marie Caley NSST Robinson MC 3
Judge Graham Robinson. Picture: Marie Caley NSST Robinson MC 3

But those glasses won’t be filled with a fine vintage come 1pm. The myth of justices swilling port before hearing an afternoon’s evidence is one in dire need of puncturing, believes Judge Graham Robinson.

“We pay market value for the outside catering, it’s not subsidised, and it’s a great opportunity to convene with our colleagues,” says Sheffield’s most senior civil judge.

“And there’s no alcohol. You couldn’t do it. It’s very isolating being a judge, or can be. It’s really important to be able to discuss things convivially.”

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It’s an interesting time for the judiciary. The Daily Mail’s front page in November declaring three judges in the Supreme Court case over Brexit ‘enemies of the people’ didn’t escape Judge Robinson’s notice - and he’s prepared to defend his profession to the hilt.

“We are utterly independent, utterly incorruptible and, putting modesty aside, pretty well-qualified. We’re highly experienced and extremely well-trained by the Judicial College.

“I think we’re held rightly in pretty high regard. We certainly deserve to be. And the public speak of judges living in ivory towers - we don’t. Very often if a judge asks a question in a criminal trial - the classic one being ‘Who are the Beatles?’ - it’s often because the judge isn’t confident that all members of the jury have understood.”

However, Judge Robinson only spends a few weeks a year overseeing jurors. As Sheffield’s designated civil judge, he is nominally in charge of civil justice throughout South Yorkshire, hearing ‘high value’ cases that have not reached a settlement, such as medical negligence lawsuits and claims following horrific injuries such as workplace accidents and road crashes.

“Most people identify with the criminal courts - everybody calls it the Crown Court in Sheffield, but actually it’s the Combined Court Centre,” says Judge Robinson, who also sits in London at the Royal Courts of Justice for three weeks a year as a deputy high court judge.

His chambers are stacked with case files, dense legal textbooks and, on his desk last week, two huge boxes of paperwork as he’s in the middle of working on, in his words, ‘a meaty judgement’.

“That was a big case. That was heard over 11 days, plus submissions. That takes a while to put together. Obviously an important case deserves time to do properly.”

Rather than being overwhelmed by the task, he finds it ‘enjoyable’.

“This isn’t an egotistical thing, but I’m in complete control. The crown court judge does very important work under difficult circumstances but the ultimate decision is the jury’s. With me the ultimate decision is mine. With privilege comes great responsibility.”

As well as making findings of fact and interpreting the law, Judge Robinson often has to calculate costs and the extent of any damages payable.

“I see really big cases, what lawyers generally call the catastrophic cases, which require 24-hour care for life. They go for big money, typically because for a number of years we’ve been able to make periodical payment orders in respect of the costs of care - so a typical big catastrophic case will attract an award of £3 million upfront and between £100,000 and £200,000 a year, index-linked.”

He is cautious about saying whether there has been an increase in people seeking compensation, but adds: “There’s potentially an element of people being more aware of the remedies that are available to them. If anything, workplace injuries have fallen in the time I’ve been practising as employers have become more safety-conscious. You’d expect that in a civilised society.”

Judge Robinson was born in Sunderland, where both of his grandparents worked for the National Coal Board, as did both of his parents to start with. But then his father qualified as an accountant and his family moved near to Southampton when Graham was still a young child.

He attended state schools throughout, then studied law at Hull University. His plan was to become an accountant too eventually - but the future judge was ‘fatally attracted to law’.

“It was just utterly fascinating. It was fast-moving, it changed like economics did, but I found I had an ability to argue persuasively orally. And so I decided the bar was for me and I was lucky enough to be able to make it.”

The move to Sheffield came in 1982, and Judge Robinson stayed with the same set of chambers - Paradise Chambers, now part of the St John’s Buildings group - throughout his practising career as a barrister.

One case sticks in his mind in particular - a lawsuit against Surrey County Council where a childminder caused a brain injury to a child she was looking after. The council was sued on the basis it knew there was a question mark over whether she was suitable to be in charge of young children, but didn’t tell the mother when she tried to check.

“The judge held that there was an obligation to give accurate information about the childminder. I don’t think there’s been another one since. It was of interest to lawyers.”

Becoming a judge was the ‘logical next step’. He became a part-time assistant recorder in the late 1990s, then a recorder, and was appointed full-time to the judiciary in 2005.

He took on more civil work because it ‘made sense to channel that area of expertise’, and when Judge Robert Moore QC retires next year, 58-year-old Judge Robinson will be the third longest-serving judge at the courts.

Father to a 22-year-old daughter and 19-year-old son who ‘absolutely haven’t gone into law’, Judge Robinson lives close to Sheffield city centre and is married to his second wife, who’s also in the legal profession, Leeds District Judge Siobhan Kelly.

The future will probably bring more ‘paperless’ trials through digitisation, and cases dealt with online, he believes.

“There will always be a place for old-time judges like me, but dispute resolution needn’t be restricted to the systems we operate in at the moment.”

Judge Robinson is heavily involved with projects such as the Personal Support Unit at the Sheffield courts, which helps people to understand the court process.

“It’s probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience for people. Anything that helps people feel more at ease has to be a good thing. I hope the days of the terribly stuffy, standing-on-principle judge are well gone.”

‘You do feel the weight of responsibility’

Judge Graham Robinson said overseeing a trial ‘requires 100 per cent concentration, 100 per cent of the time’.

“When you’re at the bar you can say to yourself: ‘This part of the case isn’t relevant to me, I can back-pedal a little bit’. When you’re a judge you do feel the weight of responsibility on your shoulders. And particularly when it comes to imposing custodial sentences.”

He first sat as a criminal judge in a case about a robbery at a Bradford petrol station.

“It was very strange stepping out as a judge for first time. I didn’t realise what a good view the judge has of everything that’s going on in the courtroom - it’s a very different perspective. The way you view a case is very different as well.”

Criminal judges are helped by sentencing guidelines, and civil judges with tables of figures for the assessment of damages.

“How do you equate the loss of an eye with the loss of an arm or leg? There’s got to be some sort of internal consistency,” reasons Judge Robinson.

“And then what if you’ve lost an eye, an arm and a leg? You don’t just add up the various prices like on a supermarket bill and come out with a total. You have to look at the overall effect on the individual.”