Sunday, May 27, 2007

What is a website?

A week or so ago The Times reported:

A judge overseeing the trial of three alleged Muslim “cyber-terrorists” has been given a basic lesson in the internet – after admitting that he did not know what a “website” was.

Mr Justice Peter Openshaw, who is conducting the trial at Woolwich Crown Court, stunned prosecutors when he said: “The trouble is I don’t understand the language. I don’t really understand what a website is.”

His remark looks destined to join a list of comments by judges that are forever trotted out in support of the legend of judicial ignorance.

In response a niggly Statement from the Judicial Communications Office retorted:
A media report on a judge reported as saying “I don’t really understand what a website is” has been taken out of context

News reports have appeared implying that Mr Justice Openshaw, in the course of proceedings, did not understand the term ‘website’.

In fact the Judge is currently in the fifth week of presiding over a trial which is largely based on computer generated evidence. Evidence is being provided by expert witnesses that will inevitably be of a specialist nature.

Trial judges always seek to ensure that everyone in court is able to follow all of the proceedings. They will regularly ask questions – not for their own benefit – but on behalf of all those following a case, in the interests of justice.

In this specific case, immediately prior to the judge’s comment, the prosecution counsel had referred to various internet forums with postings of comments relevant to the case. Mr Justice Openshaw was simply clarifying the evidence presented, in an easily understandable form for all those in court.

Mr Justice Openshaw is entirely computer literate and indeed has taken notes on his own computer in court for many years.

My Dad worked as a forensic consulting engineer, so he was essentially a professional expert witness in court. Years ago he explained to me that the reason that judges ask stupid questions in court is that a judgement may only be based on the evidence that has been submitted. There is a limited amount of information that can be taken for granted (that the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening for example) but everything else must be specifically stated in court. If for example it was essential to a case that it was understood that David Beckham was a professional footballer, but nobody had got around to saying it the judge would be compelled to peer owlishly over his spectacles and enquire how Mr Beckham made a living, because if he didn't, the fact would not appear in the transcript and any verdict based upon it would be vulnerable on appeal.

This seemed obvious to me once explained but I've never heard or read it elsewhere, and hence state it here m'lud. (If I've got it wrong, the fault lies with my memory not my illustrious parent.)

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