The judge who won’t budge

There’s one story that has absolutely flabbergasted the legal world this week – the Court of Appeal’s savaging of Mr Justice Peter Smith.

The Court of Appeal has been known to criticise judges before. Indeed, Peter Smith J has had his fair share of wrist-slapping. The Da Vinci Code, which could have been his crowning glory, ended with his judgment being labelled “not easy to read or to understand”. But this case is something else.

We have a High Court judge discussing leaving the bench for a national law firm and falling out spectacularly when discussions foundered.

It seems that Addleshaw Goddard saw the recruitment of Peter Smith J as an opportunity to market a unique selling point to clients: “Look, we’ve got an ex-judge on your case!”It would have been a very bold lateral hire, but not many lateral hire negotiations go this sour.

Everything about this case is unprecedented, but where Peter Smith J has shown an astonishing lack of judgment is in not recusing himself from a case that involved a law firm with which he had been in discussions.

On page 4 we detail the often bitter exchange of emails. It is astonishing readingIf Peter Smith J had withdrawn from the case all this acrimony could have been avoided. It would probably have ended up as a bit of unsubstantiated gossip on the bar grapevine.

But avoiding controversy is not exactly his style. Peter Smith J comes from the old school of abrasive judges. Anyone who has appeared before him will be unsurprised by the Master of the Rolls’ description of him acting like a “defence advocate”.

Not for the first time Peter Smith J has been the talk of the bar. When The Lawyer contacted numerous barristers, clerks and solicitors, the reaction was uniform: that his position is untenable.

If he does stay put – and it looks like he has no current plans to go anywhere else – then he seems to have lost the confidence of many of those who appear before him. It is not a happy situation.