Interview: Judge Rinder

“There’s a lovely phrase, and in Darlington, let me tell you, they think of nothing else: it’s called ‘Caveat Emptor’.”

With a quick quip, daytime television’s newest star disposes of another case. The star in question is Rob Rinder, who presents Judge Rinder on ITV. Twenty episodes were broadcast between August and September this year. After Rinder doubled the audience to 1.2 million viewers, he was quickly signed up for another series which will be broadcast in January.

The format of the TV judge deciding real cases has a long history in the USA, going back to Judge Wapner’s The People’s Court and now Judge Judy. While those cases featured retired judges in the title role, Rinder is young, irreverent and still in practice at the bar. The success of the show lies in his charismatic personality, and waspish tongue. He told a bride who was suing her wedding photographer for being drunk at her wedding, “If you’d been at the Last Supper, you’d have asked for ketchup.” “They get even funnier in the new series,” he promises.

The show has not escaped controversy. Comments about Rinder on the website Legal Cheek give an insight into the conflicting views on whether his show makes a mockery of the legal system. Whilst many are positive, others think that, “The show is a joke. It portrays a terrible picture of the English legal system and now many will base their impression on this drivel.” Scrolling through the comments, there is anxiety about the authenticity of the cases and whether justice is prey to the needs of entertainment.

I put some of these concerns to Rinder. Does he think the show damages the image of the law and of lawyers? “No, I definitely don’t. I have had some of that feedback and I understand why people are concerned but the bottom line in our show is that I wouldn’t have done it if there were any problems.” I also asked him if all the cases and claimants who appear on his show are real, after allegations were made against courtroom reality TV shows in the USA. Rinder stresses the stringency of external regulatory bodies for shows like his, “Everyone who comes on the show is absolutely real, the stories are real, and the people are real. About ten or twelve years ago there was a controversy about the authenticity of reality TV shows, particularly panel shows.”

Since then, “the regulatory framework has really tightened and it is a very serious breach of the regulations to contrive stories. The reason I feel I can do the show is because the policing and controlling of content is so stringent.” And the quality of the judgments? “I wouldn’t have done it if there was any suggestion that my decision would be interfered with in any way… integrity lies at the heart of the show, although obviously the entertainment value is important.”

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Both parties agree to go on the show and be bound by his decision, with Rinder operating as a small claims court. Most of the cases are straightforward contractual or family disputes. I asked him about the selection criteria. “There has to be some ‘push back’, a legal dispute with a case on both sides, preferably a claim and a meaningful counter-claim. The subject matter also has to be authentic and sufficiently interesting, there’s undoubtedly a sense that it has to be interesting to watch, but there’s no hard and fast rule.”

He assures me that the claimants are not “cast” for entertainment value but admits that a lot of the show’s comedy comes from the ways in which the claimants conduct themselves. Rinder insists that he applies exactly the same principles of law as he would in any case, asking the same questions. “Is there a contract? Was there an intention to create legal relations? Was somebody lying? Who is to blame?” General opinion seems to agree with him. One QC who is a closet fan of the show said, “The legal analysis is very good. Anyone who suggests that the level of justice offered is somehow below that which the participants would have got, had they stayed in the small claims court, is wide of the mark. “As to whether the show trivializes the court process, or raises awareness of issues that affect us all, I’ll let you be the judge.”

I turn to how the show came about. Whilst working as a lead advocate on a major prosecution case, Rinder was working on scripts and television proposals in his spare time. He tried to sell one of his scripts and came into contact with Tom McLennan, the current producer of the show. He was looking to do a courtroom reality show and asked Rinder if he would be interested. The rest is history.

The allegation that the show trivialises law must be particularly annoying because Rinder is a very serious lawyer. He has appeared as a barrister in a number of high profile criminal cases, many of which had an international element. He describes his most fulfilling professional experiences as acting “as an advocate [for] people who are the poorest, or the ones that are the least able to communicate, or the ones with the most challenging issues. Standing between them and injustice is enormously fulfilling. That’s when cases really matter. You can really be a conduit to protect individual rights.” He also appeared in the trial of British servicemen accused of the manslaughter of Iraqi detainees. “It was enormously important, and challenged my preconceptions about the army, the challenging and difficult decisions that soldiers have to make every day.”

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Rinder studied Politics and History at university, and humanities students stressing about getting a job after university may be interested in his views on whether those seeking a legal career are disadvantaged by not studying law. “Definitely not. I would say that the competition of the bar is so intense, the broader your education, the better. In terms of getting a pupillage at my chamber, which is one of the leading sets for international arbitration, we have between 350-750 applicants. In some years. we take two and occasion- ally only one … There is no preference given to a law degree or a conversion, it depends so much on other factors such as quality of degree or whether you have done a masters.”

Rinder is clearly passionate about the criminal bar, and about the challenges it faces from cuts in public funding. “People don’t really think about criminal justice until it affects them. Their instinct is to think, ‘Why should criminals have access to public funds?’ It has been significantly cut, which means that now there is a significant threat to the quality of defence counsel.” While he thinks that the state of affairs can continue in the short term, “in the long term it means that chambers like mine will increasingly start to turn away that kind of work. The result of that will be injustice, it’s as simple as that … It could lead to a horror scenario, which happens in certain states of America, where a public defender fresh out of law school has to fight a case against a seasoned prosecutor. How are they, despite their best endeavour and capacity, going to effectively defend their client?” Rinder also warns us not to be misled by politicians railing against “fat cat” lawyers. “For criminal lawyers, it is very challenging. To give you a sense of the decimation, the cases that I used to take when I was first qualified are now worth about a tenth of what they used to be.”

Rinder’s enthusiasm for the law inevitably prompts consideration of whether life will in due course imitate art. Does he hold secret ambitions to exchange the role of a TV judge for the real thing? “The jury’s still out.” A very judicious response. If that day ever comes, it will bring some much needed diversity and vitality to the bench. And some court hearings which really would be worth televising.