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Interview: Anthony King, retired circuit judge, PACT trustee

07 August 2015

‘There are quite a few laws I don’t agree with, but my job was to apply them fairly’

A circuit judge tries all cases (family, criminal, and civil) too serious or complex for district judges or lay magistrates, or which are not reserved to High Court judges. More experienced circuit judges are authorised to try serious crimes like murder, rape, and complex fraud.


Family circuit judges try private-law cases — residence, and contact with children — and public-law issues like care cases and adoption. I was authorised to try all crime, and used to be authorised to try all family proceedings.


I found it all interesting. Family cases I thought the most important. Sometimes they provided the more difficult decisions, even if the law was not complex.


One was about a teenage girl who gave birth to her child secretly in hospital, and then abandoned it. The child was placed with ideal adoptive parents, and by the time the teenage mother had been traced and identified, at least 18 months had passed. When the mother’s own parents learned what had happened, they were both able and eager to support their daughter with the child. On an application for the child to be freed for adoption, I had to decide whether the child should remain with the adoptive parents or be returned to her birth mother. Wisdom of Solomon?


There is no time for regrets once one has made a decision. You must pass on to the next case. When I was a barrister, about 30 years ago, I had to defend a well-known paedophile who chose victims so young that there was little evidence against him.


Since he denied his guilt, it was my duty to defend him as best I could, whatever my personal views. He was acquitted by the jury and soon afterwards abused another small child and then murdered her. He pleaded guilty to the murder of the child at the Old Bailey — the evidence couldn’t have been more terrible. I first learned what he had done listening to the car radio, and had to stop the car and get out.


No one is convicted unless the jury is sure of the guilt of that person, or he admits it. But the law has changed since this case 25 years ago: juries are allowed to know about previous convictions if they are relevant to the case they are trying. Also, the right to remain silent remains, but juries are allowed to know that a defendant has chosen not to answer police questions.


If the individual concerned admits his guilt to you, you can encourage him to admit guilt in court and ask for a lighter sentence. Some cases do get through to you — and it’s a good thing they do. Once, I was prosecuting an otherwise extremely decent young man. He was quite rightly convicted: he had lost his temper with his girlfriend and strangled her. I remember the cry from his parents in the public gallery, hearing the verdict. It was as if their child had died.


If the death penalty were still in force, I would never have become a judge. The legal system does make mistakes. There are very few circumstances in which any person is entitled to take the life of another. War is different, and self-defence, but I think it’s extremely difficult to envisage a situation in which it’s right for a penal system to take away a life.


Thank goodness, there’s often unconscious humour, and sometimes a private joke shared between bench and bar; but we always had to remember the seriousness and importance of any case to the people involved. I can remember the court in fits of laughter as a dodgy used-car-dealer defendant tried to sell a Mercedes to the jury from the witness box. Convicted!


As originators of the Convention on Human Rights, we’d set a poor example to other nations less punctilious than us by “abolishing” the Human Rights Act. No human right is absolute, however, and frequently the right of one may conflict with a different right of another. It is at those margins that the perceived injustices may occur. In the light of some apparently bizarre decisions, particularly in the European Court of Human Rights, there’s some argument for our democratically elected Parliament to amend the Human Rights Act to define more carefully the priorities in those areas of conflict.


I also think we should concentrate more on our concomitant human obligations to others. Where there’s a right, there’s also a duty. I think we should think about what are our duties and obligations.


No, I’ve no burning wish to enact a law: I think perhaps there are already too many laws. There are quite a few laws that I don’t wholly agree with, but it was my job to apply that law fairly and objectively. The only other option would be to resign. Most bad laws are amended subsequently, in any event.


Any legal system, since it is administered by human beings, is bound to be imperfect. It’s fundamental that everyone, without exception, is subject to the same law, and most failures of the system can be put right by an Appellate Court, or if necessary, by Act of Parliament. Judges can only do their best to administer justice in accordance with the law, and I hope we all have the humility to believe that we’re not perfect. In any legal dispute there is likely to be one party dissatisfied with the result, but that isn’t an injustice to an individual.


When I’ve been involved professionally with young offenders, it’s frequently because of a disastrous home and family situation, so one really wants to stop the damage before it’s happened. I can remember seeing one particular family over three generations, and each time I could see that what went wrong in one generation had a disastrous impact on the next generation.


PACT (Parents and Children Together) is a voluntary, independent, charitable adoption and fostering agency. It was founded under the auspices of the Oxford diocese. I’d just retired, and heard they were looking for new trustees.


Our main function is finding a secure and loving home for children who can’t be safely brought up within their own family, and finding and supporting suitable adults who wish to bring up those children as their own family. We also support and train adults to foster children.


We provide a specialised service at Alana House to support vulnerable women who may be the victims of domestic violence, or have come into conflict with the criminal justice system; and we help children traumatised by domestic violence in a project called Bounce Back for Kids.


PACT specialises in the adoption of children who are more difficult to place. We’ve won an award for our work in supporting adoptive families before, during, and particularly after the adoption process.


I was fortunate enough to be brought up in a Christian family, and attended schools with a strong Christian ethos. I’ve had the opportunity of learning about God all my life.


Of course, we must all one day face God’s judgement; but I do not look on my God as a judgemental God. I see God as a loving God only too willing to reach out to us if we will turn to him. I’ve sometimes found it difficult to sit in judgement on my fellow men when I am aware of my own limitations.


I’m conscious that I have had a very privileged and comfortable life, brought up in a middle-class home in north Somerset, with a private education and the opportunity to go to university. I’ve been very happily married for 43 years to Camilla (known as Berti). We have three children. One is a head of a Severe Learning Difficulties school for children with dyslexia, and often with personality and emotional difficulties. I admire her colossally. Another is a naval submariner, and I couldn’t do his job, either. Our younger son works for a bank in Australia. We have four grandchildren.


Of course we like to travel to Australia, and also to Italy and Greece; but most of all to our beloved Cornwall.


I’m happiest when I’m with my family, walking the dog, and fishing.


At my age of 72, I am happy that my unfulfilled ambitions will remain so. I was never made a QC: having heard that silk was being refused to me, I happened to be in Cornwall on Easter Day. The sermon was about God meeting those who have met disappointment in life. My life took a different direction from that moment on. It was a very significant moment for me.


I love the sound of Allegri’s Miserere soaring up to the roof of a great cathedral; and the chatter of my family on the rare occasions we are all together round the table.


I pray for my family, of course, as well as the state of the world; but I find my private prayers mostly take the form of an attempted dialogue with God in moments of peace, such as when I am fishing, to try to understand his purpose for me and the world.


Perhaps it’s a strange wish, but I’d choose to be locked in a church with my great-great-great-grandfather, to learn all about my family history.


His Hon. Anthony King was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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