A JUDGE who used the term “nigger in the wood pile” in a case in which a black man was seeking damages for alleged malicious prosecution was cleared by the Appeal Court of race prejudice allegations.
Judge Bernstein used the expression while summing up to a Liverpool county court in an action where the man, Valentine Reid, sought damages from Merseyside Police. Although she said it proverbially and was not referring to the plaintiff, she apologised immediately, saying: “I know I am not suppose to use words like that.”
At the end of the April 1994 hearing, the eight jurors, all white, rejected Reid's £50,000 claim based on the allegation that he had been maliciously prosecuted by the police on a charge – of which he had been acquitted – of possessing crack cocaine with intent to supply.
Reid's counsel, Peter Herbert, former chair of the Society of Black Lawyers, argued in the Court of Appeal last week that the judge had shown racial bias and should have stopped the hearing, dismissed herself and ordered a retrial. The word “nigger” was a “significant problem” and was even more serious when used on the bench, he told Lords Justice Beldam, Waite and Morritt.
But Lord Justice Beldam said: “In our multi-racial society, no tribunal should use this figure of speech. It can give offence and lead to suggestions it is indicative of the attitude of the person using it.
“But in that particular case its use was impersonal and immediately withdrawn and there was no danger it could have unfairly influenced the jury.”