James Pickles

JAMES Pickles, the controversial and outspoken Yorkshire judge who was one of the judiciary's more colourful characters, has died aged 85.

He was in many ways a man ahead of his time, calling for cannabis and brothels to be legalised in the 1990s saying they served only to hound people and encouraged robbery by pushing up prices, and challenging the law's Oxbridge old boys establishment.

But his criticism of the secrecy in the way judges were appointed eventually led to a fundamental change in the procedure, with appointments being opening advertised.

He once described himself as an outspoken maverick, but he was strict with his sentencing which, coupled with his often well chosen newsworthy comments in court – including declaring not knowing who the Beatles were – made him for a time one of the best known judges in the land and endeared him to the public and Press.

But he infuriated the legal hierarchy, in particular the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, when he flouted the voluntary code laid down in the 1950s by one of Hailsham's predecessors, Lord Kilmuir, that the judiciary do not speak out in public.

Judge Pickles was born in Halifax, the eldest of a family of five – his siblings all being sisters – of Arthur Pickles, the elder brother of Wilfred Pickles, the radio presenter who was the first newsreader to speak with a regional accent.

His father moved from a working class background to middle class having been a builder who became an architect, then an investment fund manager, and was also a former mayor of Halifax and an alderman. His son James never forgot his roots.

Educated firstly in Halifax then at Worksop College, he gained an English degree at Leeds University and an MA in law at Christ Church, Oxford. After being called to the Bar in 1949 he joined chambers in Bradford, of which he eventually became the head.

He was appointed Recorder of Bradford in 1972 and a circuit judge in 1976 sitting mainly in the north-east until he retired in 1991. His harsh sentencing was not always welcomed. His decision to jail a young single mother for six months for helping shoplifters, and send her 10-week-old baby to prison with her, sparked a furore. The Court of Appeal later substituted the sentence with a probation order.

The judge said he needed to let women know that they could not avoid custody just by becoming pregnant. He then compounded what the judicial hierarchy saw as unacceptable behaviour for a judge by holding a press conference in a pub adjacent to the court to defend himself, calling the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Lane, who disapproved of him, "a dinosaur living in the wrong age".

He escaped dismissal after threatening a judicial review of any sterner legal rebuke.

And he was also criticised by the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Lane, after he jailed a young mother who refused to give evidence against her former boyfriend.

MPs and women's groups were furious and the Court of Appeal quashed the decision, but Judge Pickles was unapologetic saying: "The only sentence people really take notice of is loss of liberty."

The judge's view of himself was that: "I am the human face of the judiciary, unlike the majority who adopt a Trappist-like silence."

As a young barrister his radical views saw him twice stand for Parliament, the first time fighting the West Yorkshire constituency of Barkston Ash for Labour in the 1958 general election, and then Brighouse for the Liberals in 1966.

In retirement Judge Pickles, who lived in Halifax, and whose love of drama was probably inherited from his uncle Wilfred of Have a Go italicsfame, wrote plays for Radio 4's Saturday night slot and for Halifax Playhouse, and right up to his death he was dictating ideas for new plays.

He also wrote novels and autobiographical books, was a columnist for tabloid newspapers and appeared regularly on television although increasingly he commented on topics he knew little about.

He was never without an outrageous opinion, variously describing the Duchess of York as a "scrubber", and Freddie Mercury as a "greedy bisexual".

Paying tribute to Judge Pickles in Bradford Crown Court yesterday, the present Recorder of Bradford, Judge James Stewart who was in chambers with him for a time, described him as courageous for some of his statements. He said he was a strict sentencer who "controlled his court with a rod of iron".

He had a wide practice and told many engaging tales at lunches. "He inspired mixed emotions, some believing he was quite right to speak out, others thought he was a publicity seeker," said Judge Stewart.

Judge Pickles' sister Christina, is an actor based in Los Angeles, who has appeared in the TV sitcom Friends. His daughter, Carolyn, is also an actor, having played Shelley Williams in Emmerdaleitalics.

Despite being ill for about a year Judge Pickles was still taking on new interests, including studying endangered species, especially the ape family and its closeness to humans. Judge Pickles, whose wife Sheila predeceased him in 1995, is survived by his three children, Roger, Carolyn and Simon, seven grandchildren, a great granddaughter, and his partner Denise.