An investigation has been launched into allegations the judge who handed three fracking protesters “manifestly excessive” jail sentences has family ties to the oil and gas industry.
Judge Robert Altham sentenced Simon Blevins, Richard Roberts and Richard Loizou to up to 16 months in prison after they were convicted by a jury of causing a public nuisance offence. The protesters had their sentences quashed in an appeal case last week.
Under the Judicial Code of Conduct, judges are expected to disclose personal relationships, social contacts and activities that could cause a bias or a conflict of interest and which put their impartiality into question.
In a statement, the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office (JCIO), an independent body which deals with judicial complaints of misconduct, has confirmed receiving a complaint regarding Judge Robert Altham and added that it will be considered in accordance with the Judicial Conduct Rules.
The JCIO only deals with complaints regarding the personal conduct of judicial office holders, such as misusing judicial status for personal gain or failing to declare a potential conflict of interest. The body does not accept complaints about a judge’s decision or the way they managed a case.
The Guide to Judicial Conduct states that judges “should avoid situations which might reasonably reduce respect for judicial office or might cast doubt upon their judicial impartiality; or which might expose them to charges of hypocrisy by reason of their private life”.
It adds that the principle of judicial independence extends well beyond the traditional separation of powers and requires “that a judge be, and be seen to be, independent of all sources of power or influence in society, including the media and commercial interests”.
Under the Judicial Conduct Rules, the Lord Chancellor Conservative MP David Gauke, and the Lord Chief Justice Sir Ian Burnett share responsibility for overseeing complaints are properly investigated.
Lord Chief Justice Sir Ian Burnett heard the appeal case against the three fracking protesters’ prison sentence last week and told the court it was “manifestly excessive”.
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The Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice are also responsible for the final decision regarding the judicial complaint and there is no right to appeal against their decision.
They are assisted by nominated judges, investigating judges disciplinary hearing panel members and JCIO officials.
The JCIO is responsible for considering allegations of judicial misconduct, assessing whether the allegation could amount to misconduct and making the necessary enquiries for the investigation.
If the JCIO estimates that an allegation could amount to misconduct, the complaint is referred to a nominated judge, appointed by the Lord Chief Justice. Otherwise, the complaint is dismissed.
The nominated judge is also responsible for stating what sanctions might be appropriate if they estimate the allegation amounts to misconduct. This could include being removed or suspended from office.
In this case, the subject of the complaint can call for a disciplinary panel to be convened to review the evidence. The panel then submits a report to the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice, who oversee the decision making process.
If the investigation concludes that there is no judicial misconduct, the nominated judge can still suggest that the subject of the complaint receives pastoral support, advice or training.
A spokesman for the JCIO told DeSmog UK he could not comment on how long the investigation into the complaint regarding Judge Altham is expected to last.
Meanwhile, in a written question, Labour MP for Blackpool South Gordon Marsden asked whether the Ministry of Justice will undertake an investigation into allegations Judge Altham breached the Judicial Code of Conduct by failing to declare his family interests.
Lucy Frazer MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice, replied:“It would not be appropriate for me or any other government minister to comment on cases which are, or have been, before the courts.”
A week before the appeal case which saw the three fracking activists being freed from Preston prison, The Daily Mirror reported that Judge Robert Altham’s family business was “believed to be” part of energy company Centrica’ supply chain.
John and Linda Altham are listed as the company director of J.C Altham & Sons, a company that provides ships’ stores and offshore supplies for oil and gas platforms.
The company’s website says it is under reconstruction and has been locked behind a login and password.
Kirsty Brimelow QC, the human rights lawyer who was representing the three men pro-bono, told the Court of Appeal that Judge Altham’s sister had signed a petition in Lancashire in favour of fracking.
The Mirror reported that Jane Watson signed an open letter dated 8 January 2015 which called on Lancashire County Council to “give shale gas a chance” and argued that the new industry could generate a “£33bn supply chain”.
The letter was signed by more than 100 business leaders from the North West of England and Jane Watson signed as managing director of J.C Altham & Sons.
Following the Mirror’s allegations, a spokesman for the Judicial Office said: “Judges are required to base their sentencing decisions on the facts of each case and within the relevant sentencing guidelines and carefully explain their reasoning in court.
“There are longstanding principles, set out in case law, which guide how judges approach possible conflicts of interest. These principles are explained in the publicly available Guide to Judicial Conduct. They ensure that when hearing a case, a judge will be mindful of possible conflicts of interest, and can draw relevant matters to the attention of the parties in the case.”
Judge Altham did not wish to respond to the Mirror’s allegations.
Fracking in Court
The three fracking protesters, who were arrested for spending between two and four days on top of lorries that were making their way to the Preston New Road fracking site in Lancashire where Cuadrilla Resources has started to frack for shale gas, were freed from Preston prison a few hours after the appeal case overturned their sentences last Wednesday.
Outside the courtroom in London there was an explosion of joy from the three men’s families and girlfriends and anti-fracking campaigners upon hearing the judges’ ruling.
Platon Loizou, Richard Loizou’s father, told DeSmog UK: “I am over the moon and the fight will continue against fracking. The first phase was to get my son out of prison. Now the fight continues”.
Speaking outside the court, Michelle Easton, Roberts’ girlfriend, said that while the men were still convicted of causing public nuisance, the latest sentence was aligned with “the rights that we have in this country”.
“You do not lock up protesters who are peaceful, who have strong convictions and who stand for what is right. That should not be allowed to happen in this country,” she said.
Image Credit: Royal Courts of Justice in London/Pixabay/CC0