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Interview: Mark Hedley, retired High Court judge

23 June 2023

‘The fundamental problem is the vicious penal culture in our country. Sentences have virtually doubled since 1970s’

I left school wondering whether to be a barrister, teacher, or a vicar, and spent a VSO [Voluntary Service Overseas] year teaching in the Sudan. It was fascinating, but it convinced me that teaching wasn’t for me; but I became a Reader ten years later.

Meanwhile, parents and teachers steered me into law. I went to a notorious poisoning trial with very classy advocates in my first year. I became absorbed in court process, and also I felt I belonged there.

I regarded my calling to be a barrister as a vocation, and I’d do the same again, though the practice is now more complicated, particularly in the field of family law. My generation didn’t have to think about the dilemmas posed by surrogacy, IVF, or sick babies and people in persistent vegetative states kept alive until a decision is made to turn off machines.

It’s colossally important for lay people to understand vocation is for everyone, though you wouldn’t know if you went to a diocesan vocation conference. Full-time Christian work? What do you think I did for 45 years? I concerned myself with justice for those at the bottom of the social pile: their housing, care proceedings, crime, and suchlike community matters. Our Christianity is intended to work — the burden that prompted me to write my book.

I specialised in family law, because solicitors began to instruct me in that area and I found it congenial, particularly the law relating to children. It’s peculiarly distressing, though, the more so the more senior you become. Criminal law’s usually worked out in accordance with clear rules, but family matters are generally the only cases that people have ever been involved in, and they have levels of emotion about what’s at stake. Since the abolition of capital punishment, the most serious thing a court can do is remove your children for ever and place them for adoption; and that happens every day.

We had two children, and drifted into fostering babies when we had an 18-month-old. Two of our foster children had nowhere to go — the younger was seriously physically disabled. So we adopted them in due course, and the younger one became my wife’s full-time job. I’d been working in this area beforehand, but it gave me real understanding of what was at stake in adoption and care cases.

I’m keen on the press scrutinising what we do. It’s our best protection by far. My father and two brothers were journalists, and my confidence that journalists are decent people was usually borne out. Judges of the family division have extraordinary discretionary powers over life and death, and people absolutely need to be aware of what we do.

In taxation, property, and commerce, certainty is often paramount. In family law, judges have more discretion, and compassion is particularly important. That said, most judges would reach the same conclusion in most cases.

When I was a High Court judge, I kept a notice before me: “The real world is not in this court.” You’re seeing the last half per cent of human awfulness most of the time, and it can be a distorted view.

The Coronation rite affirmed that justice is for everyone, and that everyone lives under the rule of law. But, as an Edwardian judge once cynically observed, “The law, like the Ritz Hotel, is open to all.” With increasingly restricted legal aid, your income and area will affect the legal services that you can access, and impacts on the quality of justice you receive.

Hundreds of new criminal offences have been introduced by recent governments — sometimes motivated to appeal to Daily Mail readers, sometimes to make things better. It’s vital that there’s a serious public conversation about how much we’re prepared to pay for justice.

The fundamental problem is the vicious penal culture in our country. Sentences have virtually doubled since the 1970s, and there are far more offences. The public and press are persuaded that, if there’s no prison sentence, there’s no punishment, and it’s a conviction all political parties tap into: if you punish sufficiently, crime will stop. But it doesn’t. Even when we had 300 offences punishable by death, it didn’t. Criminals don’t consider the consequences of what they’re doing: that’s a human fallacy our society chooses to believe.

There’s a tension between reformation, deterrence, and punishment. You can’t have all three, and we tend to opt for the deterrence and punishment. Twice as many people go to prison now as 50 years ago. The critical thing is to find them employment, homes, and emotional relationships within the first three months after release. Otherwise, they will drift back into criminal circles.

I was brought up in central London with three younger brothers, and went to boarding school in Suffolk. Our parents had been wartime army officers, and my father became the chief sub-editor of a Fleet Street daily. We were a churchgoing family, but my parents were pretty alarmed by the intensity of my teenage faith. I made a specific Christian commitment just before my 12th birthday.

I believed it was my vocation to live in inner-city Liverpool, which was fairly grim in the ’70s. I’d set up a free legal-advice centre there in 1972, married the following year, and thought: “Either you play your little lawyer role, or you get stuck in.” My wife said she’d only do this if we could have a garden. When the Diocesan Secretary rang up and offered us the chance to buy a redundant vicarage with a garden, we moved in.

We could tell lots of horror stories about the early years. There were very few professionals locally — perhaps only clergy — but we supported each other, and our children grew up together. We eventually bought a redundant lemonade factory and felt very at home there.

My wife, Erica, made friends at the school gate, offering skills to other mothers. We had small children and a dog, and I made friends in Liverpool’s strong volunteering groups. We were always a bit different, but very much accepted for who we were. Our sons, now a doctor and an engineer, speak warmly about growing up in the poorest part of Liverpool, because it equipped them to deal with people from every background. They’re both very good friends with our adopted sons.

We’ve recently celebrated our golden wedding. I’m a chaplain at Liverpool Cathedral, and Visiting Professor in Law in a local university, as well as being a trustee of several charities. We keep busy enough.

Looking back, what I did was bet my whole life on Jesus being who he said he was. I developed that faith through personal study and my consciousness of the love and protective hand of God. I remember in the Sudan being trapped alone on a small mountain with a large tribe of baboons. I froze and prayed . . . and they walked past me as though I wasn’t there.

When we first moved to Liverpool, we found profound Orange and Green issues. Almost all the local community volunteer workers went to church; so we invited Catholic and Protestant lay people to pray and study the Bible with us. Eventually, the clergy joined in, but didn’t lead. One day, the Vicar said: “When are we going to discuss the issues we disagree on?” A Catholic layman promptly replied: “But we haven’t found any that matter that we disagree on.” What unites us is so much more than what divides, and, today, working together seems completely normal.

Abuse of power, whether by president or parent, makes me angry.

Being with family or friends, without an agenda, makes me happiest.

I love the sound of the sea running up a pebble beach and then receding.

I have great hope for the future for the people of God living in the strength of the Holy Spirit; but much less hope for the Church until it becomes people living in God’s world as salt and light, and stops obsessing about its own needs and issues.

I’ve never found prayer easy, but I’ve always persisted. I practised the presence of Christ in court because it gave me a sense of perspective. I pray that Christ’s Kingdom will come and his will be done on earth. I also value the ministry of prayer for healing.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with St Paul. He had a legal training, but never let that constrain the originality of his thought. I’d be able to follow him, and I’d be challenged by him.


Sir Mark Hedley was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

The Salt of the Earth? Living Christianly in a secular culture is published by Olympia Publishers at £7.99 (Church Times Bookshop £7.19); 978-1-80074-577-3.

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