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Who judges the judges?

Expert Witness February 19, 2024

Witnesses can often feel themselves as the centre of attention in court. It doesn’t matter how mundane the case or evidence may be, it is only human nature that a witness is apprehensive that the outcome will hang on their evidence, and that poor performance in the box, especially under cross examination, will lead to the case collapsing. Humans catastrophise, that’s nothing unusual, and it is something we at La Touche Training are keenly aware of and routinely experience across our suite of courtroom skills courses.  

If asked what individuals a witness fears most, it would probably be a close race between the opposing counsel, often visualised as a snarling Rottweiler clad in a wig and silk, and the judge, seen as a stern, austere, unforgiving, patrician figure.  

We try to reassure clients that more often than not, they are not the centre of attention in a trial. It is unlikely that they will be the state’s “star witness”, upon whose shoulders the entire case rests. In most cases, the witness will be but one of many on a conveyor belt processed by the court.  

Witnesses will also be reassured to know that, internationally, in this age of social media, judges themselves and their behaviour in court increasingly come under scrutiny. 

In the UK, the actions of Deputy Senior District Judge Tan Ikram in a recent case have caused uproar, given that they concern the prosecution of three women, Heba Alhayek, Pauline Ankunda and Noimutu Olayinka Taiwo, for terrorist offences. The three women had carried images of paragliders on their clothing at a public protest, indicating support for the paraglider attacks of Hamas militants on an Israeli concert on the 7th October 2023. Hamas are a proscribed terrorist organisation in the UK and the three were accused of “celebrating” and supporting terrorism.

The law and prosecution itself are highly controversial, given the extreme polarisation of views on Israel and Palestine. 

The three were spared punishment, as Judge Tan Ikram decided that although their actions had “crossed a line”, he was satisfied that their actions did not indicate support for Hamas’ actions. He said that their “lesson was well learnt” and spared them jail. 

The prosecution and conviction were controversial enough, without subsequent accusations of bias made against Judge Ikram. He has been accused of liking a pro Hamas post on his LinkedIn, and it has been alleged that he showed political sympathies to the three accused, leading to a light sentence. In recent days the matter has threatened to escalate, with senior political figures such as Suella Braverman calling for the circumstances of the case to be investigated. Downing Street has already referred the matter to the Attorney General. 

Even more serious allegations of egregious judicial misconduct have been made in the US, in the state of Oklahoma, against Judge Traci Soderstrom, who resigned in early February 2024. CCTV footage emerged apparently showing Judge Soderstrom actively texting and using her mobile phone during the June 2023 trial of Khristian Tyler Martzall, accused of the murder of a two-year-old boy. The footage resulted in an investigation of the circumstances by the Oklahoma Supreme Court, who found that Judge Soderstrom exchanged approximately 500 text messages with her bailiff, in which they discussed and mocked participants in the trial, including lawyers, witnesses and jurors.  

Judge Soderstrom is alleged to have described a prosecution witness as a “liar”, mocked a prosecution lawyer as “sweating through his coat” and to have described a defence lawyer as “awesome”.  

Judge Soderstrom resigned, acknowledging that her texting during the trial was “inappropriate.” She stands accused of “gross neglect of duty, gross partiality, and oppression” as well as a “lack of temperament to serve as a judge.” 

Witnesses will be nervous ahead of giving evidence, and sometimes it will be the case that their evidence is pivotal to the case and that they will be heavily scrutinized. But they can rest assured that the judge themselves are not beyond reproach, as the experiences of Judges Ikram and Soderstrom demonstrate. 

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