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Star Interview: ‘This is for the long-term’: Sheffield’s new top judge Jeremy Richardson QC

Judge Jeremy Richardson QC, the new Recorder of Sheffield. Picture: Chris Etchells
Judge Jeremy Richardson QC, the new Recorder of Sheffield. Picture: Chris Etchells
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“I always appreciated it was a plum job to have,” says Jeremy Richardson QC, newly settled in his chambers on the top floor of Sheffield Crown Court where he’s been appointed as the city’s resident judge.

His office is a secluded eyrie set above a courtyard. Robes and wig are neatly stored in an alcove, a bookcase is lined with legal texts, an enormous bunch of flowers stands winningly in a vase on the desk and there are prints of Lowry paintings on the walls – while through open, sun-inviting windows his colleagues can be glimpsed in their own quarters, quietly reading through case papers.

Judge Jeremy Richardson QC, the new Recorder of Sheffield. Picture: Chris Etchells

Judge Jeremy Richardson QC, the new Recorder of Sheffield. Picture: Chris Etchells

“All judges have to retire at 70, and I will be 70 in 10 years’ time, April 2028. So this could well be the last full-time judicial job that I do. This is for the long-term, it’s as simple as that.”

Judge Richardson was resident judge for Hull before coming to South Yorkshire, where he gains the title Recorder of Sheffield, an honorary term awarded by the council, intended to mark the link between the administration and judiciary.

“Getting the job, and doing it, is a mixture of pure delight and trepidation,” he says. Entertainingly, he speaks with the same considered, deliberate cadence familiar to anyone who’s heard sentencing remarks being delivered to a defendant. “Delight outweighs trepidation markedly, because this is such a nice job to have in a really nice court centre, with excellent colleagues and a first-rate staff.”

It is, he says, a ‘real pleasure’ to be back in Sheffield – he lived here for nearly a decade as a barrister in the 1980s, was a pupil to now-retired city judge Robert Moore and has childhood memories of the place.

“We used to come here from Retford, where my grandparents lived, on a very regular basis. I’m old enough to remember coming to Sheffield when there were bomb sites still – it’s transformed.”

He succeeds Judge Julian Goose QC, who was promoted to the High Court – Jeremy and his husband, architect David Carruthers, have a house in Derbyshire, as well as a home in Beverley near Hull, so applying for the Sheffield post ‘seemed the obvious thing to do’.

Primarily, he will be trying cases – serious crime, mostly, although he will pitch in elsewhere if needed. But the resident judge is also expected to lead their counterparts at each court, promoting good practice and making sure cases are managed properly. He will not, however, be telling others what to do.

“I have no power, nor would I want it, to direct anybody, particularly a judge, to do anything. I can’t do it. We are all independent. We do not have line management.”

He will also be making sure judicial reforms – “I prefer to call it transformation,” he says – are implemented in Sheffield. “It’s working much better than it did because of the new ways of working. For example, my desk is not cluttered with cases – all the cases are on the computer. We are consulted a lot, much more than I have ever known before. I think historically judges felt things were done to them from on high.”

In addition, he inherits an outreach programme that allows schools to visit the court; judges will also be visiting classrooms, in keeping with the lord chief justice Lord Ian Burnett’s new initiative to teach children more about the judicial system. “I think there is a deficit of understanding in society as a whole, and perhaps among young people in particular, of what we do.”

Jeremy was aged 14 and a schoolboy at Forest School, north London, when his father – an ex-Navy serviceman who became a teacher – sensed he might be interested in the law. “Probably because I was a relatively argumentative child, in the nice sense.”

He was given a biography of distinguished barrister Norman Birkett to read and was ‘captivated by the life he led’.

“It enthused me to become a lawyer, and a barrister in particular. I didn’t really look in any other direction. I was unusual, I had a pretty clear idea what I wanted to do.”

He was called to the bar in 1980, becoming a QC in 2000, and looks back on those years ‘with the greatest of affection’.

“That’s not to say there weren’t days when I thought ‘My goodness, what am I doing’. The workload is huge, the demands are mountainous, but I loved it. There are times when I would still like to be doing it.”

Really? “Yeah. I don’t want to, and I can’t – once you take the King’s shilling, you are forbidden from going back – but there are days when I think, wouldn’t it be nice to be asking the questions.”

After sitting for several years part-time as a recorder, he was properly admitted to the judiciary in 2009, on his 51st birthday. “I always thought it would be something I would like. I enjoy being a judge enormously. A lot of barristers wouldn’t dream of it at all.”

The annual salary is exceptionally generous – £145,614 – but the hours are long. Is it an all-consuming job?

“It could be, you’re unwise if you allow it to be. You have to make sure you have a life outside the law, otherwise I think you’d probably end up going potty.”

He very rarely remembers cases, but one has lingered. Last year he made a highly unusual home visit to a brain-damaged 16-year-old who was knocked off his bike and left for dead by a drink-driver in East Yorkshire. Judge Richardson was so moved by the victim Kiernan Roberts’ plight he went to see him after jailing the culprit, former business leader Owen Finn, for three years. The case was over – he wouldn’t have considered the idea otherwise – and he’d be ‘very cautious’ about doing it again.

“He was a bright young man, who was very grievously injured. As an act of compassion, I thought I should visit him if it would help him recover. We had a very pleasant hour together, we did not talk about the case. We talked about him and his future and I’ve every reason to believe it did him some good, and I wish him well.”

Meanwhile, in 2013 he famously sent a criminal to the cells for wearing a ‘slovenly’ outfit of a fleece and tracksuit bottoms in court. He told the defendant, facing a GBH charge, that it was ‘not a football match’ – undeniably funny, but the judge remains unamused.

“When people do not show respect for the court I tend to take a very dim view. Looking slovenly is not the point.”

These cases both made the headlines. He is a strong believer in a free press, but is concerned about the impact of the internet. “It’s called to my attention, the nonsense that goes out through social media that passes for journalism. I think it behoves newspapers and other outlets to properly report what is going on.”

Things can become sidetracked; Jeremy is openly gay, which he says is ‘hardly an issue’, but less than two years ago Mail Online saw fit to run an angry headline mentioning the sexuality of a High Court judge who ruled Theresa May should parliamentary approval before triggering Article 50 and the UK leaves the EU.

“It’s irrelevant,” he insists.

The judiciary is striving not to be too white, old and male, but this will take time – judges aren’t recruited at 20, and the balance needs to be struck when barristers enter the law.

“The numbers of men and women going into the profession are pretty much equal. Thirty years down the road you will probably get that much more accurately reflected. I hope so. But we will not do anything other than get the best people. You’re not going to just have artificial quotas.”

‘Nobody can tell me what to do’

Judges have become less secretive and are more willing to ‘reach out’ as the field has modernised, says Judge Jeremy Richardson QC.

The so-called Kilmuir rules, named after a Lord Chancellor and now revoked, discouraged judges from making out-of-court statements and giving interviews, but now individuals can decide for themselves.

“As a group of people, we were very private. There was a vow almost of monastic silence. That has changed and I think over the years we have gradually become more willing to reach out appropriately. But we must never, in doing that, compromise judicial independence. We are public figures, we are not politicians, and we have to be very careful in any public comment.”

Autonomy, he says, is ‘the core of being a judge’.

“Nobody can tell me what to do. Of course I’m bound by the law, but in terms of what I do in a particular case and the way I implement the law, is entirely a matter for me. Nobody can say to me, ‘Do it this way, that person’s going to win’, or anything of that kind. That is fundamental to our constitution.”