When It Happens Panel Get involved: send your photos, videos, news & views by texting 'OXFORD NEWS' to 80360 or email
Profile: Christopher Compston - a grand old man bows out
Like a scene from a cartoon His Honour Christopher Compston was incredulous to glance over at the jury and find one reading a magazine and filing her nails.
His leniency was notorious, but only stretched so far. He was a judge, after all.
He fined her, scolding; “My first thought was to send you to jail”.
On some level he would have revelled in the absurdity of that scene from Reading Crown Court 10 years ago I quickly see, as he tells me that, actually, he always wanted to be an actor.
“The law is theatre, you see.”
This a man who freed a paedophile because he believed in the man’s character, let off three who brutally beat a thief “because prison would make them worse”, and scorned sentencing countless others.
Jail, he reasons, is a horrid place, only for the truly wicked. Punish sparingly but effectively.
We are inside his northern Oxfordshire home, roaring fire, on the first day of his retirement from Oxford Crown Court as the country’s longest serving sitting judge of 26 years.
Outside is an immaculately tended garden, the 72-year-old’s true passion, which finally has his full-time attention after many years of darting for the train in order to catch time at the flower beds.
History books, thick art and travel books litter the tables, as do the works of both his journalist daughters, Emily and Harriet.
A busy mind always churning, thinking, it will be a while before he can turn off the instinct to solve a puzzle, deliver a verdict.
“There are far too many people in prison. Of those people, far too many have mental health problems. Far too many are plain inadequate. I think just to punish and do nothing to rehabilitate is folly, it is daft.”
Redemption is central to Compston’s life.
A committed Christian, he converted after a divorce in 1980. His own parents were divorced.
“Christians should be able to punish, we are not wet. Having had a particularly difficult time myself, and having lost two sons I can tell you, there is a small hardcore of people who are bad and dangerous, and even evil, but most people, although criminal, are essentially inadequate, and many of them have a horribly difficult time in life. I feel very sorry for them, because they are so ill equipped.”
His experiences formed the basis of two successful books on divorce, the latter, Breaking Up Without Cracking Up cited often as the absolute authority on the matter.
Cancer, a stroke, the death of two children, one at birth, one at 25, he has experienced loss and tragedy in almost every manner a life could inflict, and yet I have not seen a smile as warm or infectious outside of a newborn.
If I thought judges were scowling misanthropes itching to start me on a diet of porridge and hard labour I was very wrong. He insists I take tea, and a biscuit, as he tells me of his birth in Ryde in the Isle of Wight and early years.
“My father was a Naval officer, he ran away with a mean heiress when I was 12. I took holiday jobs and took jobs in kitchens, I was ‘Chris the barman’ in a holiday camp, a waiter.
“We were middle class-plus, but we were very broke.
“If I wanted to do anything my mother hadn’t the money, I did these holiday jobs to get money to travel. There is an awful cafe in Ryde, where I cut potatoes. I later became a barman at a place run by Paul McCartney’s cousin in 1959.”
“Your education is nothing when the two of you are sharing a chalet and someone has to change the barrel, someone has to deal with customers. It was great.
“I wanted fairly seriously to go on the stage. My mother very sensibly said, ‘why don’t you go to the bar, see what the bar is like?’.
“Which is the same as theatre if you think about it. I read law at Oxford, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I did a little amateur acting too. But, you see, the law is theatre.”
At Magdalen College he got a third, joking that today it would not be enough to secure a position even as a court clerk.
He was called to the Bar in 1965.
“Back in the 60s, Abingdon, Banbury, Oxford and Reading had their own local courts.
“It was like provincial theatre. Most of us learned in fairly comfortable surroundings. In the robing room it was all the same, it was a school but quite a good school, and intimate school. I did divorce, and crime, and civil disputes.
“I was always dealing with human problems, and there was not much law in it. I was a GP, a general practitioner.
“We always think we are nicer than we are but in those days there were some real, difficult, crusty people.
“They may have had some difficult war or life experience. There was no judicial complaint procedure then. In hindsight they were a very good experience, but not at the time. It was all an education.
“Quite a lot of people I have met in the legal profession have never had to do it, and it does tell, they don’t quite understand how the other half live.”
He found religion in the shards of a life shattered by divorce and the death of two sons.
The glinting spectrum shone lucidity on and brought purpose into his life, and he began to dedicate time, helping others as a missionary.
Today he is a director of ZANE, a charity which helps disadvantaged Zimbabwean children.
“I was old; it was through my divorce in 1980, when I became a committed Christian.
“I was appalled that the church didn’t help people that were recovering from a divorce or separation. It is a hellish thing to happen. So I wrote two books and started running these courses.
“They were very helpful and they are still going on around the country, using my notes. It is something I am proud of.”
The 15 years in London, Wandsworth, the 12 in Oxford, and sitting in the family division of the High Court have given him a rare glance at life pared right down.
Christians tell us we are all the same under God, and we are all the same when facing the judge.
“The human situation, be it rich or poor, is identical. Some of the High Court barristers may have been grander but the actual problem, the adultery or the violence was just the same, despite the background.
“They talk about revolving doors and it is terribly difficult. The answer is always to send fewer people to prison. Divert some of the prison money into monitoring and mentoring these people.
“I am quite a friend of Jonathan Aitken, and he told me when you leave prison you have all your belongings in a black bag — you are given £40 and that is it.
“It is absurd. What I would like to see is before anyone actually goes to prison they have a mentor, and during and after they have a mentor that can befriend them.
“There are so many middle-aged people, or over 40, between 40 and 65 that may be out of work, essentially decent people, they could agree to mentor one person.
“So many of these jailed have no father, no money, and no hope.
“When you go to prison your parents will be at the gates; that is the point. For so many of these people, no.”
I ask him about losing a son aged 25 and whether he saw the boy in the many 25-year-old men who passed through his court. Did it soften him?
“Yes it must have done. I think if you are any good as a judge you must be affected by your life experience.
“You have a job to do and a role to play. Our discretion is more limited now, which is unfortunate, but we are affected by what happens to us.
“There a few threats to the judicial system today. First is the general breakdown of family life.
“The second is the Government is so wrong to take too much money out of the legal system. It now means as of April many people won’t be able to get legal aid.
“They think it is an economy. I, as any judge in the country can tell them, know it isn’t. “The court systems will get clogged up in litigants. In family courts you will see it, which is very unfortunate.
“I think the third point is the world has got so large and complicated. The individual, who matters more than anything, is in real danger of being treated like a unit. I think passionately that everyone matters, but a lot don’t think they do.
“That is why small is beautiful. Small units are the answer. It is family, friends, it is the village shop the village pub.”
He will miss the court, but it will miss him more, and besides, he has a garden to tend.
If any of the criminal element gave a silent prayer of thanks when they saw him at the bench let us hope they took their chance at redemption because judges, men, like Judge Compston are all too rare.