As a Circuit Judge for 24 years, in Oxford and elsewhere, I met every kind of character – the malign and the angelic, the astute and the foolish, the lucky and the unlucky, the tough and the vulnerable, writes Charles Harris.

The cases varied greatly – from brain-damaged babies to the lost pearls, wrongful eviction to unreliable horses. It was interesting work and usually possible to do some good, putting wrongs right and awarding damages.

Some people regard the law as dull and unworthy of interest, or think it only deals with crime. These are serious errors. The very foundation of our country is its system of civil law, which should enable everyone to enforce their rights, and protect themselves from physical and financial damage, injustice or exploitation. In theory it does. But in practice it often does not.

There are three reasons. Firstly, the law is not clear. Much legislation is simply too complicated to understand – not just in areas like tax and data protection, but also consumer credit, housing, discrimination, or even, if it interests you, sex change.

Secondly, if you do decide to go to court, you are met by a morass of procedural rules (these were supposed to have been re-drafted to be short and simple, but, inexplicably, were instead made lengthy and hard to follow).

Thirdly, with this complexity, heavily increased court charges, and the severe reduction of legal aid, very few people can afford to litigate. They therefore have no access to justice. Where there is no simple redress for wrongs, there is no value in rights. This is both grave and sad, for England used to have a fine legal system, the envy of the world.

Oxford Mail:

Trial and Error, recently published, explains all this. It does so against the background of the courts, the judges, the advocates, the staff and litigants forced to cope on their own (though nobody is expected to deal with medical problems themselves, and legal problems can be far more serious). The book also describes how bureaucrats often make matters worse, and how some parts of the criminal law have been so badly drafted that a Cambridge professor was employed to explain to judges what the relevant legislation might mean – an ultimate absurdity.

Oxford Mail:

It is becoming notorious that only a tiny and diminishing proportion of an increasing number of criminal offences ends up in court. Serious crimes like burglary are often neither investigated nor charged – a clemency not extended to motorists, who are relentlessly prosecuted, often for modestly exceeding arbitrary speed limits on roads where this causes no danger. What is more, convicted burglars, and other very unpleasant criminals, are often not imprisoned, but left free to re-offend. Our ill-maintained courts frequently sit unused, yet still prisons strain beyond capacity. It would be sensible spend less on overseas aid, and more on English justice.

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There is difficulty with judicial recruitment. The prestige of the law has diminished. Top judges and advocates are unknown people. The public prefers celebrities without intellectual attainment. All this is food for anxious thought.

However, you may still feel that law in any of its aspects is not for you.

Don’t worry. Would you rather take part in a ski race without hope of victory, drown in the Zambesi, stand for Parliament, crash-land a balloon in Madras, ignite large fireworks, seek deer in the Highlands, or enter a New York night club where the members wore no clothes? All this you will find in Trial and Error, which is in part a light-hearted memoir of a life which began in the Black Country shortly before the end of the Second World War – there were V bombs, rationing, trams, smog and an exhausted British Empire.

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What makes a stimulating hymn? Or a bad table in a restaurant? Why is My Fair Lady not regarded as opera? How good was Botticelli ? What is wrong with the Royal Shakespeare Theatre? Are buffalo dangerous? There is something for everyone. The book costs less than a decent bottle of wine, and once finished (unlike the wine, or indeed life) can be enjoyed again. It was pleasant to write and is, I hope, good to read.

From the bench:

  • Judge Charles Harris QC was the most experienced and longest-serving of England’s civil judges.
  • He worked for 24 years as a circuit judge, covering Oxford. Notable cases included the sale of London’s Ritz Hotel.
  • He stood for election as a Conservative in South Yorkshire in the 1974 General Election.
  • Trial & Error is published by Mereo, Cirencester, priced £14