A Crown court judge accused of breaking the UK's Computer Misuse Act after browsing digital documents in a case where her daughter was a witness has been discharged from court.
Her Honour Judge Karen Jane Holt, who sits as a judge under her maiden name but was charged under her married name of Karen Smith, had the case against her thrown out after her lawyers convinced Mr Justice William Davis, sitting at Southwark Crown Court, that no jury would realistically convict her.
On 30 September that year, Holt accessed the judicial Digital Case System (DCS) entry for the case of one Cecil McCready, who was jailed in March 2017 for child sex abuse offences. In August 2016, McCready entered his guilty plea.
“The range of material accessed by Karen Smith was wide,” said Mr Justice Davis as he listed the files she had accessed, adding that “the order in which the items were accessed followed no particular order.”
The DCS files she viewed included the “sending sheet” which moved the case against McCready from the magistrates’ court to the Crown court, statements from some of the witnesses including two versions of the statement provided by her daughter, some of the documentary exhibits, the Police National Computer printout for McCready, transcripts of interviews and the plea and trial preparation hearing form "as completed on 22 August 2016".
Although she had the McCready file open for just under 10 minutes, Holt’s phone records showed she was on the phone for nine minutes while they were open.
The judge said “the only sensible inference is that the trigger was the notification of the trial date to [her daughter] on 29 September 2016.”
The judge went on to state: “A reasonable jury would almost certainly conclude that the items accessed from the DCS represented a general and rather unfocused trawl through the material within the file. There is no evidence that Karen Smith took any steps as a result of her access to the DCS file.”
She phoned Guildford Crown Court, where the case was due to be heard, “to ensure that the trial judge was not someone who knew her or her daughter,” according to Mr Justice Davis’ written ruling. Judges are subject to strict rules that prohibit them from judging cases where they have a personal interest.
Holt’s access to the DCS entry for the McCready trial came to light “for tangential reasons which it is not necessary to rehearse,” in the judge’s words.
One of the Crown Prosecution Service’s key witnesses against Holt was Sarah Rose, HM Courts and Tribunal Service’s Joint Deputy Director for Crime. In her witness statement she said that “access to cases on the DCS is not limited to those cases necessary for the performance of [judges’] judicial duties,” adding later that “no specific training [was] given to judiciary on security and access when DCS was introduced.”
Mr Justice Davis himself said: “No full-time judge ever was or is given authorisation to access a particular digital file on the DCS.”
The single charge under section 1 of the Computer Misuse Act against Karen Holt was dismissed, leaving her free to go back to judging criminal cases at Isleworth Crown Court.
Towards the end of his 32-paragraph judgment, Mr Justice Davis noted that a letter was sent to all full-time judges in April 2017 warning them that browsing through DCS “out of curiosity or for personal reasons” would trigger a Judicial Conduct Investigations Office probe or even a police investigation. ®