The prosecution of Gazza raises some troubling questions

I am going to break my cardinal rule and offer comment on a legal case without having read the judgment or sentencing remarks. My excuse is that the case in question was a guilty plea at Dudley Magistrates’ Court, and my exhaustive research suggests that the District Judge has not followed the modern fashion of making his sentencing remarks publicly available. Therefore it is armed only with what I accept at the outset are (inevitably) incomplete media reports that I step up to bat for Paul Gascoigne.

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Gazza yesterday, on the day of trial, pleaded guilty to what was widely reported as “racially aggravated threatening or abusive words or behaviour”, which I assume to be a reference to an offence contrary to section 31(1)(c) of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. This law provides for a racially aggravated version of the offence of using threatening or abusive words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to thereby be caused harassment, alarm or distress (section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986).

The facts, as reported, are that Gascoigne, while presenting “An Evening With Gazza” at a venue in Wolverhampton, said to a black security guard working at the show and standing in a dimly lit part of the auditorium, words to the effect of, “Can you smile please, because I can’t see you.” The audience were understandably unimpressed at this unwitting spontaneous tribute to Bernard Manning, and several walked out. The guard, for his part, felt sufficiently upset by what he perceived to be an attempt to humiliate him in front of a large audience to contact the police. A remorseful Gazza told the rozzers that he didn’t mean to upset the target of his quip, but it was too late – cue a decision to charge Wolverhampton’s newest failed comic under the legislation above, and, ultimately, his guilty plea, criminal conviction and sentence.

It is undeniable that what Gascoigne said was offensive. It is wholly understandable that his manifestly unfunny joke based on the race of the blameless security guard would have caused the man significant embarrassment (although, for context, the £1,000 compensation he was awarded by the court for his hurt feelings is the maximum that a victim of a moderate sexual assault could hope to receive from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority). One cannot ignore the cultural and historical context of such remarks, redolent of an era when marking the otherness of minority racial groups was not merely a source of ribaldry but a necessary precursor to normalised discrimination and violence.  As the District Judge said in terms when passing sentence, Gascoigne’s comments – and the suggestion advanced on his behalf in mitigation that such bantz are standard fare in football dressing rooms – betray an attitude ill-fitting with the progressive 21st century.

But – but but but but – it is not a criminal offence to hold or display attitudes ill-fitting with the progressive 21st century. It is not a criminal offence to give offence. It is not a criminal offence to tell bad jokes. Even racist jokes. And the application of the law in this case causes me some concern. Not least as the Judge, if his comments have been reported accurately, appears to himself have misunderstood the scope of the legislation. “As a society, it is important that we challenge racially aggravated behaviour in all its forms,” he observed. Which as a meme, is fine. But as an authoritative statement of law is simply wrong. “All forms” of “racially aggravated behaviour” are not prohibited by law. By social codes and contemporary standards of decency, yes, but the particular sanction of the criminal law is reserved for contraventions of accepted norms that Parliament deems sufficiently serious for the state to mark through impinging upon individual liberty.

The legislation sets out the conduct that carries the unique stigma of a criminal conviction. An offence under section 5 of the POA 1986 is itself a dubiously-deployed law, often the tool of first resort of police officers faced with low level disorder, but even its broad scope is limited as follows. To commit an offence, a person has to do two things:

  1. Use threatening or abusive words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour
  2. Within the sight or hearing of someone likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress.

After much effort by free speech campaigners, this law was modified in 2014 so as to remove the reference to “insulting” words or behaviour. Insulting someone is no longer a crime. To trigger section 5, your words or behaviour must be abusive or threatening, or your conduct disorderly. On the available information, we can discount that Gascoigne’s words amounted to threats or “disorderly behaviour”. Which leaves us with abuse. It is ultimately a matter of fact for a court whether words are abusive, but given that there is an explicit distinction between abusive and insulting, the former must amount to more than the latter. You can insult someone without being abusive. You can offend someone without being abusive. You can be unpleasant, without being abusive. You can, as the legislation provides, threaten someone without being abusive. And you can display racist views, without being abusive. You can, for example, posit in a lecture theatre that a certain race is genetically inferior, and politely or jovially back this up with cod science and debunked theories off the internet, causing all manner of offence, without being abusive. I labour the point, but it is important, because as offensive, insulting, demeaning, humiliating and upsetting as Gascoigne’s off-the-cuff remark may have been, categorising it as “abusive” does not, in my mind, work. There are words for what this was, but “abuse” isn’t one of them. “Abuse” contemplates a measure of ill-will; or as Merriam-Webster has it:

“language that condemns or vilifies usually unjustly, intemperately, and angrily”.

It is difficult to see how this applies to the reported conduct. And this leads into a second issue arising from the legal definition of “racially aggravated”, as provided by section 29(1) CDA 1998. Prohibited conduct is “racially aggravated” if:

(a)at the time of committing the offence, or immediately before or after doing so, the offender demonstrates towards the victim of the offence hostility based on the victim’s membership (or presumed membership) of a racial […] group; or

(b)the offence is motivated (wholly or partly) by hostility towards members of a racial […] group based on their membership of that group.

In other words, there must be either objectively demonstrated hostility, or a subjective hostile motivation behind the offence. And again, I accept that something may have been lost in reporting or translation, but an offensive joke from a performer towards a person in an auditorium, based on race or otherwise, would not ordinarily be an automatic indicator of hostility. It can be, and much depends on delivery. But hostility is difficult to infer from what we have been told. Again, I emphasise, there is a distinction between expressing racist views and doing so with hostility. Both are socially unacceptable. Both are ripe for mockery, condemnation, shunning and re-educating. But only the latter brings the might of the state to bear upon an individual.

Gascoigne, by pleading guilty on the day of his trial, is deemed to have admitted that his conduct was both hostile and abusive, and he will no doubt have been fully and competently advised by his lawyers that he should not plead guilty unless he accepts those elements of the Crown’s case. But people do plead guilty for various reasons, not least the desire to avoid the stress or public exposure of a trial, notwithstanding whether the evidence truly supports the prosecution charge (and it is noted that his solicitor, when mitigating, still maintained that there was “no malice” behind the comments). Given that this is a man with a well-documented history of personal, medical and psychological difficulties, it is difficult not to wonder whether his vulnerabilities played a part in his decision not to mount a defence. At the very least, those vulnerabilities, and the apparent borderline criminality of his conduct, raise questions over whether the public interest was truly satisfied by dragging this damaged man through the criminal courts.

The criminal law has no business interfering in bad relationships

On 29 December 2015, to relatively little fanfare, a well-meaning but ultimately silly criminal law was brought into force. Today, some 8 months on, the Guardian reports that the number of people being prosecuted under this silly law is low, inviting remedy under David Allen Green’s so-prescient-that-it-surpasses-satire Something Must Be Done Act 2014.

The silly law itself could in fact have been enacted pursuant to the SMBDA’s untrammelled prohibitionist jurisdiction, satisfying the Act’s requirement that things that can be banned shall be “the things which a Minister of the Crown says are bad for us”. And what is bad for us, in this instance, is unpleasant, non-violent conduct in private relationships. Hence the birth at the eve of last year of section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015, creating a criminal offence of engaging in controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship, an offence which, it emerges, the police and prosecutorial agencies are not wielding with the vigour that campaigners had anticipated. Only 62 people have been charged under the legislation, as opposed to 20,000 for offences involving domestic violence over the same period.

The reason for this, I politely suggest, is twofold. First, this is a largely pointless law, re-criminalising already-criminalised conduct. And second, where it does provide for something new, it trespasses on territory over which the police cannot reasonably be expected to ride.

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The Law Against Bad Relationships

The intention behind this law, I add as a rider, is noble. The genesis of many violent domestic relationships can be located in non-violent but controlling and coercive behaviours exhibited early on. If we can address the latter, we can hopefully reduce the former. So far, so unobjectionable. It’s the next step of the argument that trips up the logician – namely that the best way to address controlling or coercive relationships is to pass a shiny new law threatening a 5-year prison term for those whose relationships do not cut the mustard. Like a pissed-up Premier League chairman on transfer deadline day throwing good money after bad, Parliament convinces itself that unwanted, ingrained human behaviour can be eradicated if we just chuck another law at it and send the bobbies in. Or, in the official argot of the Guidance to the Act:

“This offence sends a clear message.”

As any lawyer will tell you, and as I’ve said before in relation to the utterly useless stalking legislation, creating criminal offences to “send a message” is the golden ticket to ensuring the enactment of thoroughly bad law.

The law

So what is the law? An offence under section 76 is committed by a person (A) where:

(a) A is or was previously in an intimate or familial relationship with another (B);

(b) A engages in repeated or continuous behaviour towards B that is controlling or coercive;

(c) That behaviour has a “serious effect” on B, in that it causes either (i) B to fear, on at least two occasions, the use of violence; OR (ii) serious alarm or distress which has a substantial adverse effect on B’s day to day activities; and

(d) A knows or ought to know that their behaviour will have that effect.

The offence carries the same maximum sentence (5 years’ imprisonment) as inflicting grievous bodily harm, in presumed observance of the (unreferenced) assertion in the Statutory Guidance that “a repeated pattern of abuse can be more injurious and harmful than a single incident of violence”.

The legislation is silent as to what constitutes “controlling and coercive behaviour”, but the Statutory Guidance Framework offers examples of “types of behaviour associated with coercion or control”.

And these are, well…problematic.

Some of these example “behaviours” are, as the Guidance acknowledges, already crimes. And crimes carrying a rather pricklier stick than section 76:

  • Threats to kill (Max sentence 10 years)
  • Child neglect (Max sentence 10 years)
  • Assault (Depending on injury, max sentence of 6 months, 5 years or life imprisonment)
  • Criminal Damage (Depending on quantum of damage, max sentence 6 months or 10 years)
  • Rape (Max sentence life imprisonment)

As for the rest of the list, it stands as a glistening example of the problems inherent in attempting to regulate the intangible, indefinable dynamics of other people’s relationships. Highlights include:

  • Repeatedly putting [a person] down such as telling them they are worthless;
  • Threats to reveal private information;
  • Financial abuse, including control of finances, such as only allowing a person a punitive allowance;
  • Monitoring a person via online communication tools;
  • Monitoring their time;
  • Preventing a person from having access to transport or from working.

These are all, in certain contexts, indicators of toxic, damaging and unhealthy relationships that will spiral into violence. They are also, in certain contexts, the hallmarks of toxic, damaging and unhealthy relationships that won’t. Relationships that will sail their ghastly, destructive, hateful course through to natural completion without accelerating towards physical altercation. Relationships which, in a liberal society, people must be free to pursue and to endure, as long as that is their choice. Neither section 76, nor the police officer charged with enforcing it, has any way of predicting which route a shit relationship is going to trail. Whether it is going to turn violent – in which case, the criminal law should intervene to obviate objective harm – or whether it will remain simply miserable. If the latter, lovely as it would be if relationships were universally sprinkled with mutual respect, courtesy and affection, it is no role of the state to criminalise all deviations from the Richard Curtis romantic ideal, on the statistically vague hypothesis that some of these will turn violent. And to suggest that the police should be more proactive in identifying “coercive and controlling relationships,” and lining them up for prosecution, is broadening the ever-expanding role of overstretched and under-resourced police officers beyond law enforcement and into the arena  of relationship analysis.

If this sounds like a counsel of despair, that is not the intention. Rather it is an attempt to recognise the limited scope of the criminal law in modulating complex, intimate human relationships. If the government believes that it could “save” more women from potentially violent relationships by intervening to “fix” them when they are merely “controlling and coercive”, then that is surely the preserve of social workers, not police officers or prosecutors, and not least in a climate where police and prosecutorial resources are so depleted that cases of serious domestic violence are collapsing on a daily basis. If you try to legislate against every inappropriate personal interaction, you end up with a fuzzy mess like section 76, criminalising everything and nothing.

That, more than anything, might explain why only 62 prosecutions have been pursued. Key to good law is certainty and consistency. ‘Don’t use violence’ is a legal imperative that everyone understands. ‘Make sure you don’t excessively monitor your spouse’s time, and ensure that you don’t give them only a punitive financial allowance’ is the kind of sentiment which no doubt makes sense to well-meaning campaigners, but offers little clarity to the average Josiah or Josephine. Or to the poor sod of a police officer expected to enforce it.

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UPDATE: A number of people have pointed out a rather glaring topical omission from this discussion, given that this is the week of Helen’s attempted murder trial in The Archers. Helen, of course, was the longstanding victim of controlling and coercive behaviour at the hands of her husband, Rob, culminating in her stabbing him with a kitchen knife. She also provides an instructive example of the inadequacy of laws such as section 76. The difficulty in Helen’s case, and indeed the difficulty with many cases of domestic abuse, is that Helen for a long time did not consider herself to be a victim. Had concerned friends and family contacted the police, attending officers might have observed an isolated, dominated and deeply unhappy woman, bereft of self-worth living with a controlling, manipulative man, but without Helen’s recognition of her circumstances, and her willingness to support a prosecution, there would have been no chance at all of successfully prosecuting Rob under section 76. And here lies a further problem: Any criminal lawyer will tell you that the greatest obstacle in prosecuting allegations of domestic violence is securing the lasting cooperation of the complainant, for obvious and often understandable reasons. The power dynamics in abusive relationships are such that, even if the police manage to obtain a witness statement from a complainant at the time of an alleged assault, she will often have withdrawn support for the prosecution before trial. While allegations of assault can occasionally be successfully tried without the support of a complainant – through evidence of third parties or medical evidence of injury – cases such as will be brought under section 76 will inevitably require the complainant to give evidence not just of the facts of the coercive behaviour but of the personal impact upon her. In short, a successful prosecution under section 76 will usually require two things – (i) sufficient self-esteem and awareness of one’s circumstances, and (ii) unwavering support for a criminal prosecution – that for all too many victims of domestic abuse, for entirely understandable reasons, are absent. This too may explain why few successful prosecutions emerge under this legislation.

If MPs are going to attack judges, they should at least understand the law

I don’t want defending the indefensible to become my default position. At least not outside the courtroom. And I’m well aware that what I’m about to say amounts to a defence of a section of society whom very few – particularly among lawyers – would leap to support. And that, following the reaction to my previous blog, there’s a risk of perceived contrarianism creeping into these posts.

But a word must be said sticking up for our judges. At least in this following, narrow, context.

Today, UKIP MP Douglas Carswell took to Twitter to retweet a nonsense article by Daily Telegraph leader writer Philip Johnston berating Mr Justice Hickinbottom. He, for the uninitiated, is the High Court Judge who this week ruled that the Labour Party National Executive Committee (NEC) breached its contractual obligations towards its members through the imposition of the 6-month “cut-off” designed to prevent a large number of party members who joined post-January 2016 from voting in the upcoming leadership election.

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The thrust of the article, endorsed by Mr Carswell, was that this being a party political matter, the courts had no place determining it. Johnston stormed:

“In his judgment, Mr Justice Hickinbottom said he accepted and fully endorsed the proposition that “the courts must be careful not to interfere in political matters”. He should have stopped there and declined to hear the case.”

This too is the view of Mr Carswell, who in less temperate words declared:

And:

 

I’ve asked Mr Carswell to define his understanding of judicial activism, but he has declined, preferring instead to simply insist that there are cases which he is unable to name which disprove the point I’m about to make. Which is this. Judicial activism is a term commonly used to criticise judicial decisions where a judge is perceived to be straying out of the legal arena and into politics. Going beyond his or her Judicial Oath to apply the law and instead shaping it in his or her own image. And understandably this is something of which many people are wary. Carswell’s position appears to be that, in agreeing to hear the claim, the Judge is guilty of straying into politics. And not just a bit guilty, but “foolish” and “appalling” for having done so.

But here’s the problem: This is not judicial activism, you ninnies. Carswell and Johnston are both naughty boys who have failed to do the most fundamental research into how the legal system works. It’s a shame, because if they’d bothered to read the judgment of the case that they both deem themselves qualified to comment upon, they’d have seen that early on, at paragraph 8, the Judge takes the trouble to explain the entirely non-contentious legal principle that the Labour Party, as an unincorporated association, is subject to the law of contract, and therefore an alleged breach of contract (in this case, the terms of membership) is a matter firmly within the jurisdiction of the courts. The Judge even helpfully provides the long-established line of case law confirming this. When I say it’s not contentious, I’m not underplaying it – there was never a suggestion, not even by the experienced Queen’s Counsel appearing for the NEC, that the court shouldn’t hear the case. And that’s because all involved, all those who know the law, know that it’s beyond moot. The court has jurisdiction, so the judge has to hear the case. It’s not a matter of discretion. This isn’t “judicial activism” where Mr Justice Hickinbottom has rolled up his sleeves, winked at the gallery and giggled, “I know I shouldn’t but…”. It’s a judge applying the law. As he swears an Oath to do. He can’t refuse to apply the law of the land because it might upset some twit of a Telegraph hack and an MP who, even when proved wrong, clings to his crumbling life raft of ignorance rather than issuing the simple apology that would lift him back on to dry land. To do so would, in fact, be an act of the very judicial activism that these twin nincompoops deplore.

This may seem a small thing to get upset about, but it’s important. I don’t mind Carswell saying that party politics should sit outwith the jurisdiction of the court. I don’t agree, but he’s free to say it and to call for change. But that’s not what he’s done. He’s attacked a judge as “foolish” and “appalling” for following the law as it stands. And as an elected representative, Mr Carswell, if he’s going to throw around words like “appalling” and “awful”, should at least have the common decency to ensure that his factual premise is correct. Here, as he has embarrassingly demonstrated, his ignorance of the law is dwarfed only by his arrogance in refusing to accept that his legal understanding might not match that of the many many lawyers who have lined up today to correct him. Like a low-budget UK Donald Trump, Mr Carswell has fired off a barrage of abuse at an entirely blameless target, and rather than say sorry would prefer to obfuscate, block and repeat. There’s something appalling and awful about this little tale, alright, but it’s certainly not the judiciary.

And my offer to Mr Carswell remains open. If I’m wrong, and the court could have refused to hear the claim, I will happily apologise. It will be my misunderstanding. The cases that he claims to know which show that the courts can disapply the law when it suits can be posted in the comments below.

What else was Byron Burger supposed to do?

So, here’s an unpopular opinion to release into the world:

I don’t see what Byron is supposed to have done wrong.

The gourmet burger chain – previously thrust into the media spotlight as George Osborne’s late-night indulgence of choice – has enjoyed 24 hours of social media’s most vitriolic virtue signalling after 35 of its migrant workers were found to lack the right to work, having, it appears, secured employment through the use of falsified identity documents.

The circumstances in which this came to light are unclear, but in any event Byron cooperated with the Home Office, and consequently the workers were, on 4 July this year, arrested and detained. Some have subsequently apparently been deported.

Not a Byron burger

Not a Byron burger

The exact circumstances have not been confirmed, but a number of outlets have suggested that Byron hand-delivered their workers to the relevant enforcement and prosecutorial authorities by organising a “training day” at which, instead of PowerPoint slides of Double Bacon Cheeses and courgette fries, they were greeted by immigration officials. Byron has released a statement as follows:

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But as with all such modern tales, we are beyond truth. What matters, the narrative splutters, is that the big mean corporate baddie collaborated with the feds and sold out its poor, exploited workforce, some of whom had devoted years of faultless service, in what must only be characterised as an act proximate to a hate crime, and must be duly sanctioned in the court of public opinion, boycotted by all right thinking people, its CEO dragged naked through the streets of Shoreditch smeared in burger sauce and pickle juice.

Piling in with the rallying cry of the intellectually dispossessed, deputy leader of the Greens, Amelia Womack, opined that “the bosses at Byron should be utterly ashamed of themselves for turning these people’s lives upside down”.

To which I, as an inhabitant of those rather less excitable courts of law, would respectfully say this:

Your outrage is mystifying. Or, at best, utterly misdirected.

Byron, like any employer – nay, like any company or individual based in this country – is required to comply with the law. It hurts to start with such a facile point, but needs, it appears, must.

And the law says at least two rather important things in this context. Firstly, that it is a criminal offence – punishable by an unlimited fine and up to 5 years in prison – for a person or a company employing someone knowing or having reasonable cause to believe that the employee is disqualified from employment by reason of their immigration status. That’s not Byron’s company handbook talking – that’s sections 21 and 22 of the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006, as enacted by our democratically elected Parliament. If you find out that you have accidentally employed someone without the right to work, and you continue to employ them, you are committing a crime.

Also the position, with reference I’m afraid to that same unfashionable commitment to “the rule of law”, is this: those workers, if employed on the basis of fraudulent identification documents, may have committed criminal offences contrary to section 4 of the Identity Documents Act 2010. And that’s before you throw in the Fraud Act 2006 for good measure.

Now there may be an explanation. This could be a misunderstanding. Some documents may in fact be genuine. Or it may be that these workers, like many clients I have represented, will say that they themselves were hoodwinked by chancers in their home countries who sold them what they believed to be a genuine “right to work” package. In which case every sympathy must be extended to them. But the fault for that state of affairs is not Byron’s.

There may, of course, be an alternative narrative that has plainly escaped those who say, with a straight face, that Byron should have simply tipped off their workforce and let them loose into the night, rather than dob them in to the pigs. Putting aside that those Byron managers who did so would potentially find themselves before a Crown Court for perverting the course of justice, this bold suggestion starts with an enormous, unforgivable assumption about the history of the people concerned. Many undocumented migrants arrive on our shores as a result of human trafficking and exploitation. Where they are packed, twelve, thirteen, twenty to a bedroom in a small terraced house by their unscrupulous, violent gangster sponsors, who take each week’s wages as protection money and exploit them physically, financially and sexually every single day.

None of us has a clue whether that applies to any of those workers. But – and I sound my “unpopular defence of immigration laws” warning klaxon – that is one of the mischiefs that immigration laws, and the requiring of documentation and the right to remain and work, are designed to combat. That’s not a fig leaf – that is fact. I have defended and prosecuted enough of these tragic cases to tell you with authority that there are a good many people whose lives have been saved by immigration enforcement officials. And one or more of those could have been among the Byron workers.

But, and this is really the point – we just don’t know. Any or none of the above might apply. All we know is that Byron were informed of circumstances which caused them to believe that they, and their workforce, were at risk of having committed a criminal offence. And they cooperated with the authorities. The only alternatives, of turning a blind eye, or of sending the workers out into the world with a nod and a wink, may have satisfied the appetites of the Twitter hordes unaware of and unwilling to acquaint themselves with law or reason, but the reality is that in so doing Byron would have been passing the problem on to the next employer to be defrauded and exposed to prosecution, or, even worse, releasing vulnerable, exploited human beings back into the grasping hands of those who would do them harm. As well as, of course, exposing Byron and its lawful employees to risk of prosecution and, ultimately, imprisonment.

This is not to defend the principle of immigration controls. You want to campaign for global freedom of movement under the banner that “people aren’t illegal”? Sounds good to me. But we have rules that have been enacted by Parliament. And if you don’t like those rules, your recourse is the democratic process. Not ill-thought-out hate campaigns and playground chants of “tattle tale” against people or companies who, far from “making people illegal”, are simply obeying the law.

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UPDATE: Matters have progressed since this post was first published. There have been vigilante acts of vandalism, threats and abuse directed towards Byron for their perceived complicity in enforcing inhumane immigration law, but as yet I have not heard a single sensible explanation for the rage. I would recommend the comments below (in particular Oliver’s), and summarise the position as I see it:

1. Byron employed workers who were unlawfully working. That is agreed. The Home Office’s position is that Byron were duped by false identification documents when they conducted the checks required by law when employing a person. I can tell you from professional experience that fake ID documents can nowadays be of very high quality. It is easy to get a NI number with these documents, and there is nothing unusual about tax and NI having been paid on their behalf. It happens in most cases I see. If Byron hadn’t checked properly, or if they were obviously fakes, it is to me implausible that the Home Office would not make an example of them by prosecuting.

2. All we know of the circumstances of the Home Office becoming involved is what Byron and the Home Office have said, namely that it was the HO who contacted Byron first. Legally, therefore, Byron’s options were immediately singular. From that first point, Byron was under a legal obligation to cooperate. It had to supply its workers’ documents, and, when the documents were confirmed as fake, from that point onwards a criminal investigation was in effect active. If Byron had at any point tipped off the workers as to HO suspicions, the individual doing the tipping off would be liable to prosecution for perverting the course of justice, or at best assisting an offender. Any non-cooperation with what was not only an immigration but also a criminal matter risked not only Byron’s commercial reputation, but the liberty of the managers or staff who obstructed the investigation.

3. The “above and beyond” argument. By trapping the workers in the way reported, Byron acted as an executive arm of the state. They didn’t need to. They could have told the Home Office that they were not willing to facilitate the peaceful apprehending of their workers. This is the common refrain. And yes, they could have done. But to what effect? To do so would have been to invite a  raid, unpleasant and disorderly for all staff and customers, to the same ultimate effect. It’s not as if Byron could have tipped off the workers, as per 2 above. One perspective is “above and beyond”. The other is “agreeing to the most peaceful resolution of the inevitable”.

4. The only interpretation of events that justifies anger, that I can see is this: Byron deliberately hired illegal workers and shopped them in as part of a Faustian pact with the HO to avoid prosecution. This would be outrageous. But there is simply no evidence that this is the case. I would suggest that this theory appears odd on all counts – why would Byron risk prosecution by knowingly hiring unlawful workers at market rate? Why would the HO pass up the deterrent benefits of prosecuting a well-known employer for the sake of catching 35 people? – but even if plausible, there is no evidence. By all means, people can question and investigate and report their findings. But there is no safe or rational basis for concluding, as many seemingly have, that this is what has happened.

5. Anyone calling for Byron to defy an unjust law in order to take a “principled stand” against the (very real) injustices concerning immigration laws and the treatment of detainees, is calling not just for a rich company to risk a fine, but for actual people – shift managers, waiting staff – to risk prison. That is what your call amounts to. And if you feel so strongly that immigration laws call for this sort of self-sacrifice and courage, you should go do it yourself, rather than volunteer low-waged migrant proxies to take that risk for you. And it is certainly inexplicable to throw cockroaches at people when they don’t.

Criticisms of Liz Truss have nothing to do with lawyers’ sexism

Let’s knock one evolving conspiracy theory on the head before court starts. Since the new Prime Minister appointed Liz Truss as Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice in lieu of the defenestrated, and relatively popular, Michael Gove, a number of lawyers and politicians have suggested that Ms Truss – the third consecutive non-lawyer appointed to a specialist Cabinet role traditionally reserved for senior qualified lawyers – is a poor choice.

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Former Labour Lord Chancellor Charlie Falconer thundered that the Prime Minister had failed to ensure that Truss was “qualified by experience” as required by section 2 of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, which imposes a unique (although extremely loosely drafted) criterion upon prospective Lord Chancellors, and that Truss’ appointment was therefore “unlawful”. (For what it’s worth, I think he’s wrong in law on this point – section 2 affords the Prime Minister a discretion as to what “experience” means which is so broad as to be meaningless).

This was accompanied by the resignation of Lord Faulks from the Ministry of Justice, whereby he complained that Ms Truss lacks “clout” to fulfil her statutory and constitutional duties to uphold the rule of law and defend the independence of the judiciary, echoing Falconer’s suggestion that Truss’ relative juniority and presumed career ambitions marked her out as wholly unsuitable for the role. There followed unconfirmed reports that Anna Soubry, a fellow Conservative minister and qualified criminal barrister, had refused the offer of a junior ministerial position under Truss as “an insult”. Bob Neill, chair of the Justice Select Committee, of which Truss was briefly a member, piled in, asking whether her lack of legal knowledge, senior ministerial experience and – that word again – clout, would stymie her ability to stand up for the judiciary.

Immediately, the Truss spin machine whirred into action. How did it respond? Did she, like Gove, seek immediately to reassure the profession that she understood the validity of their concerns, that she understood and valued the magnitude of her position, and wanted to listen to and work with solicitors and the Bar to remedy what those on the inside know is a justice system in a state of collapse?

Sadly no. Instead, her people told the Guardian that what we were witnessing was simple, ingrained misogyny from a legal profession that couldn’t cope with being presided over by a woman.

“I don’t see the basis of [the criticisms]. This is coming from old, white, male judges and politicians. She [Liz] will of course be having a series of meetings with the relevant stakeholders. She will be doing those in to summer recess. But as far as I can see, this is thinly veiled misogyny,” the source said.

This narrative has now taken hold. In particular, people have been quick to leap on what they assume is a contrast in the reception afforded by lawyers to Truss and to her male predecessors, Messrs Grayling and Gove.

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These being but two among too-many-to-embed comments by people who, with respect, were presumably wearing particularly heavy duty ear muffs at the time of the appointment of Chris Grayling. Because when one indulges in a cursory google, it is obvious that the initial hostility towards Grayling – the first non-lawyer in the post – blows any criticism of Truss out of the water.

This selection of comments by lawyers reacting to Grayling’s appointment, compiled at the time by Legal Cheek, is of particular note. But that is the tip of the iceberg. While Grayling deserved every drop of criticism for his conduct while in post, it is fair to say that he was immediately up against it from a profession aghast at the notion that a non-lawyer with no ministerial experience in justice could be awarded such an historic role.

It wasn’t just lawyers, of course, giving Grayling a tough time. Political commentators remarked upon the wisdom of his appointment, although in light of the above tweet this was presumably a different Michael Crick decrying how Grayling’s arrival had resulted in a government with a “dangerous lack of legal experience”. Crick also referred in this piece to the broader lack of heavyweight legal talent in Cameron’s reshuffled cabinet, including the Attorney General Jeremy Wright, a junior barrister parachuted into the most senior legal position in government solely on the basis that, unlike his predecessor Dominic Grieve Q.C., he wouldn’t tell Mr Cameron the truth about the European Convention on Human Rights. The legal profession’s reaction to Mr Wright’s appointment is also worthy of remembrance. It is not just underqualified Justice Secretaries who incur the derision of Legal Twitter.

Such was the relief when Grayling was removed by the men in white coats from further experimenting his scorched earth policies on the justice system, that Gove, it is right to say, received a comparatively warm welcome. But that is the privilege of the person who turns up at the picnic with a tray of plain digestives after the shit-sandwich course. (Although the comments threads on legal websites demonstrate the number of lawyers hostile to Gove’s lack of legal bona fides.) That Truss’ welcome has fallen somewhere between these two stools is a result, partially, of her immediate predecessor having acquitted himself rather well as a listening, liberal reformist and having been rudely removed due to internal party politics rather than competence. Truss was also not helped by the thwarted anticipation that Dominic Grieve Q.C.’s support of Theresa May during the leadership elections might just propel him into the Lord Chancellor’s Office.

But, putting aside the airing of grievances from Parliamentary lawyers, my perception has been that the reaction among the profession, while inevitably of disappointment given the qualified alternatives open to May, has also been of cautious wait-and-see-ism. My blogpost on this very theme has received near-unanimous agreement from my fellow legal readers. From many quarters, she has been welcomed with open arms – such greetings often accompanied by favourable (if factually incorrect, according to Lord Pannick) comment on her becoming the first female Lord Chancellor. The Law Society, the Bar Council, the Lord Chief Justice, The Howard League, to name but a handful, all extended cheerful how-dos to the new incumbent. Where criticism has been expressed among lawyers, it has been related solely to qualification, and in terms no more strident than were directed towards her male forebears.

This is not, I should disclaim, to suggest that the legal profession does not have a problem with sexism. It does. I see it every day. I have written about it. But I don’t think that’s what we’re seeing here. At least not from the profession. We’re seeing resistance from a loud minority of politician lawyers, each with their own agenda. Charlie Falconer was, until a few weeks ago, Shadow Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor, for example. Anna Soubry’s chagrin, if as reported, can safely be attributed to understandable indignation at being passed up for someone objectively far less qualified, rather than sexism.

At Faulks and Neill, however, I should pause. Because there is something else at play there. The credibility of Bob Neill’s professed concerns for justice is borne witness by how readily he merrily prostituted himself over the airways to support Grayling’s insane proposal to forbid defendants from choosing their own lawyer – a policy so fundamentally stupid that even Grayling himself abandoned it. Lord Faulkes’ principles, allowing him to serve for 18 months under that despicable, dangerous, mendacious constitutional vandal Chris Grayling but prohibiting him from serving one day under the unproven Ms Truss, appear similarly transient. It would be nice if, instead of simply regurgitating their protestations of concern, the press had asked these two men why they felt able to wholeheartedly support the least-qualified, most incompetent Secretary of State of all time, yet not an equally under-qualified woman.

This – at politics – is where dark questions as to malign intent should be directed. Not at the professions. As Mr Gove would no doubt tell you, we can be quite nice sometimes.

The new Justice Secretary – does it matter that she’s not a lawyer?

So, as anticipated, our new Prime Minister has favoured punishing disloyalty over rewarding competence and sent Mr Gove and his ambitious, compassionate prison reforms to the naughty back benches. This morning has brought a transfer-deadline-day-style frenzy to Legal Twitter, anticipation and trepidation converging as rumours and supposition threw up name after name as possible new Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor. All it needed was Theresa May leaning out of her Range Rover window teasing Sky Sports with a, “Well, we’ve got a little bit goin’ on ‘ere and there, but who knows?”

Theresa May

Theresa May

Stretching the analogy, perhaps the biggest disappointment is that established incompetent and gold-plated tit Mr Grayling didn’t get to play the role of Peter Odemwingie, driving 300 miles all pumped up with a misplaced certainty of being hired only to be cruelly turned away at the door. But he has not been let back near the levers of justice, and for that, at least, we must all be grateful, although anyone reliant on a functioning public transport system should probably prepare for 4 years of taxi rides.

So not Grayling. Nor, to the despair of several (including me), the lawyers’ favoured choice of Dominic Grieve Q.C., a serious heavyweight silk whose defenestration as Attorney General ranks among David Cameron’s most petty, stupid decisions. Anna Soubry, who has recently practised as a criminal barrister, would also, I’ve suggested, make a fine Justice Secretary, having the advantage over her three predecessors of actually having seen the inside of a criminal court in the past decade. But again, love unrequited.

Instead, Mrs May has opted for Liz Truss, an MP of six years with a background in management accountancy and particular political interests in education and free enterprise. She has no legal training, nor has she any ministerial experience in the Ministry of Justice, having instead hopped from junior minister at Education to Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It is right to note that from March 2011 to September 2012, she was a member of the Justice Select Committee, although Philip Davies‘ continued presence confirms that membership is no proof of intelligence, reason or compassion, the three qualities  required above all in the most underestimated and undervalued cabinet role.

My instinctive reaction to Ms Truss’ appointment, therefore, was one, to put it politely, of disillusionment, as, for a third successive time, the historic office of Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, charged with upholding the independence of the judiciary and ensuring the provision of resources for the efficient and effective support of the courts, has been entrusted to a politician who has, to my knowledge, no experience of the courts or judiciary in action. Similarly, when one considers the brief for the concurrent role of Secretary of State for Justice, there is little among Ms Truss’ contributions in the House of Commons to suggest a zeal for prison reform or court modernisation. Indeed, as Twitter has been quick to point out, her most outspoken contribution on the subject of justice appears to be when she proudly announced that the milk in UK prisons would henceforth all be British, returning to a theme the subject of which inspired a performance which some cruel trolls suggested did not augur well for her advocacy skills.

But, having had the day to reflect, is that fair? Why does it matter that Ms Truss is not a lawyer? Does it matter?

A brief history lesson, if I may. Lord Chancellor was, until the passage of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, a multi-faceted office starting out in medieval times as secretary to the King, and gradually accumulating a weird and wonderful collection of executive, judicial, ecclesiastical and Parliamentary functions. By 2003, the Lord Chancellor’s duties included being head of the judiciary, in which capacity he attended Cabinet, being responsible for appointing judges, acting as effective Speaker in the House of Lords, and having responsibility for criminal legal aid. In the case of Lord Irvine, he also sat as a judge in the judicial House of Lords. Appointment to the role was therefore considered the pinnacle of a distinguished legal career, rather than the preserve of ambitious politicians. (see Gee, G. What are Lord Chancellors for? [2014] Public Law 11).

While there were plainly benefits to having the independence and interests of the judiciary upheld and represented in government, you have possibly spotted the rather startling contravention of the separation of powers inherent in the Lord Chancellor’s office, allowing him to sashay between sitting as a judge, attending cabinet and holding sway in the House of Lords. And so in 2003, the government abolished the Lord Chancellor’s department and installed the LC in the newly-created Department of Constitutional Affairs, with the intention of abolishing the post of LC altogether. Due to Mr Blair having uncharacteristically taken this decision without any consultation whatsoever, people got quite cross and various committees were set up to consider the various constitutional implications. The denouement was the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, whereby the LC’s responsibilities as head of the judiciary and House of Lords speaker were stripped and transferred to others, and the power to appoint judges was diluted by the establishment of a Judicial Appointments Commission. In 2007, the Ministry of Justice was created, with responsibility for prisons and other bits that the Home Office were keen to get rid of, and the role of Lord Chancellor was thereafter conjoined with Secretary of State for Justice.

Up until 2012, the role continued to be performed by senior, experienced lawyers. However the removal of the judicial function meant that, technically, legal knowledge was no longer strictly a requirement. Rather, section 2 of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 merely requires that the Lord Chancellor be “qualified by experience”, defined as follows:

2 Lord Chancellor to be qualified by experience

(1) A person may not be recommended for appointment as Lord Chancellor unless he appears to the Prime Minister to be qualified by experience.

(2) The Prime Minister may take into account any of these-

(a) experience as a Minister of the Crown;

(b) experience as a member of either House of Parliament;

(c) experience as a qualifying practitioner;

(d) experience as a teacher of law in a university;

(e) other experience that the Prime Minister considers relevant.

(3) In this section “qualifying practitioner” means any of these-

(a) a person who has a Senior Courts qualification, within the meaning of section 71 of the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990 (c. 41);

(b) an advocate in Scotland or a solicitor entitled to appear in the Court of Session and the High Court of Justiciary;

(c) a member of the Bar of Northern Ireland or a solicitor of the Court of Judicature of Northern Ireland

So, strictly speaking, the Prime Minister “may” take into account the above, but also may not. S/he may in fact choose to appoint a block of stilton wearing a fez or, to even lesser benefit, Chris Grayling MP, the first non-lawyer in post since the 1600s. And this is where the problems began, because Mr Grayling was, and I’m sure remains, an ambitious man. He is no lawyer, no jurist and no philosopher – he is very much the epitome of a career politician, who has bounced from portfolio to portfolio, having his knuckles rapped for untruthfulness and incompetence at almost every turn, and upon entering office, saw an opportunity to assume the role of renegade outsider boldly taking on the vested interests of the legal system. He slashed legal aid like nobody’s business – aided by entirely dishonest campaigns against publicly-funded lawyers – splurged public funds on defending his unlawful policies in court, and in so doing exposed the irreconcilable tension between his self-image as an Osborne-pleasing austerity advocate and his Lord Chancellor’s oath to ensure the provision of resources for the efficient and effective support of the courts.

It was against this background that in 2014, the  House of Lords considered whether a grounding in law ought to be a prerequisite to the role. The House of Lords Constitution Committee concluded that, while it was not strictly necessary for the Lord Chancellor/Justice Secretary to be legally qualified, it would plainly be “a distinct advantage” for them to be so, and recommended that the government ensure that at least the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice be legally qualified. In a giant slap to the face to Grayling, whose policies were routinely held in judicial reviews to be unlawful – and whose solution to this problem was, rather than just acting lawfully, to try to stop the use of judicial reviews – the Lords further recommended that the Ministerial Code and Lord Chancellor’s oath be amended to remind all of the Lord Chancellor’s duty to uphold the rule of law. The government pretty much laughed in the face of the report, and here we are today.

And if that’s where the story ended, I’d unhesitatingly conclude that the experiment with a lay Lord Chancellor had been tested to destruction. But then enter Michael Gove. Also a non-lawyer, but one who from the outset made clear that he was not merely seeking to mend bridges where Grayling had burned them, but to learn, respect and embrace the constitutional and societal gravitas of his twin roles. He stopped picking fights with professionals. He seized upon prisons – simply concrete punishment cubes to his predecessor – and resolved that their overdue reform, and the transformation of the prospects of those within, would be his legacy. He overturned policy after regressive policy – from book bans to the Criminal Courts Charge – set down by Grayling.  He was by no means perfect – his failure to properly reform legal aid or employment tribunal fees stand as but two examples of enormous flashpoints that his early departure has allowed him to evade. But I, at least, while not agreeing always with everything he said or did, allowed myself to believe that he recognised his lack of firsthand knowledge of his new subject area, and rather than, as did Grayling, trumpeting his ignorance, listened carefully to professionals (experts, eh?) and treated his office not as a rung to better things, but as the career zenith it was for Lord Chancellors of yesteryear. As if it was – and indeed, it may transpire to be – his last, defining contribution to public life.

So yes, I would have preferred the role to go to someone whose profession has been chugging towards this last stop before retirement, unbeholden to the vagaries of political caprice, rather than a young MP with her eyes, one fears, on bigger, brighter things. I would, given a choice, opt for someone who has been in the trenches, who has sat in urine-stained cells with an addict smashing his face against a chair as you try to take instructions while a Crown Court judge loftily bellows for your attendance upstairs. Who knows what it is to be a partner in a legal aid firm one delayed LAA payment away from going under. Who has a lifetime’s worth of legal and constitutional wisdom to infuse into their political decisions.

But if Mr Gove has taught us anything, it is that it is only right and fair to  pause and see what Ms Truss has to offer. Whether she is going to, as was reported happened at Environment, offer her department as a sacrificial cow in the post-referendum austerity era, or whether she is going to stick on her ceremonial wig, take soundings from experts and tell Theresa May that enough is enough, the courts are crumbling, legal aid is cut through the bone, the CPS is starved and the rule of law and access to justice are becoming rhetorical shells, and that root-and-branch reform and replenishment of the criminal justice system – from police station through to release from prison – is something she is going to physically fight for at every cabinet meeting, even if the consequences are that she is politically blacklisted from the Party, and higher office, for the rest of her career.

Because if that’s the kind of Lord Chancellor Ms Truss is going to be, fearlessly faithful to her oath of office, immersing herself in the law, doing right and fearing no-one, I don’t think I’d mind that she doesn’t have a law degree. And I don’t think my colleagues would either.

One final, tangential observation – Ms Truss has already in Parliament fallen for the myth of the “most expensive criminal justice system in the world”. I would respectfully recommend that, if she wants to get off to the best possible start, educating herself as to the reality, and resolving to act upon it, would be among the best things she could do.

A truly remarkable democratic mandate

On last night’s BBC Question Time, Dominic Raab, Minister for Human Rights at the Ministry of Justice and noisy Vote Leave campaigner, mounted his high horse and trotted up to what has swiftly been informally assigned the next frontier in the Referendum fall-out war – “democratic legitimacy”.

Unprompted, Mr Raab described the 51.9% vote in favour of leave as:

“[A] remarkable direct democratic mandate to leave.”

He went on to venture:

“In my lifetime I’ve never seen anything or anyone get a democratic mandate like that.”

The remarkable direct democratic mandate is an intriguing, and it appears malleable, concept. For Mr Raab, along with almost every Conservative MP who supported leaving the EU, voted in favour of the Trade Union Bill (now the Trade Union Act 2016), seeking to impose minimum voting thresholds on Trade Unions balloting members over industrial action.

A stonking great hypocrite

A stonking great hypocrite

The 2016 Act, in short, requires, in order for industrial action to be lawful, a 50% turnout of “those who were entitled to vote” (section 2 of the 2016 Act, amending section 226 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992), and, where those voting are “engaged in the provision of important public services”, an additional requirement applies, namely that “40% of those who were entitled to vote answer “yes”” (section 3(2) of the 2016 Act).

The rationale, as set out in the Conservative Party manifesto for the 2015 General Election, is:

“Strikes should only ever be the result of a clear, positive decision based on a ballot in which at least half the workforce has voted. This turnout threshold will be an important and fair step to rebalance the interests of employers, employees, the public and the rights of trade unions. We will, in addition, tackle the disproportionate impact of strikes in essential public services by introducing a tougher threshold in health, education, fire and transport. Industrial action in these essential services would require the support of at least 40 per cent of all those entitled to take part in strike ballots – as well as a majority of those who actually turn out to vote.”

To paraphrase, actions which have significant consequences for the general public, particularly where such actions carry a threat of enormous disruption to people’s everyday lives, should only be performed where a “clear, positive decision” is indicated by, not just a majority of those who turn out to vote, but a significant proportion (40%) of all of those entitled to vote.

Whether this is a good argument does not matter for these purposes. What matters is that the Parliamentary Conservative Party – including Boris Johnson, Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, Michael Gove, Priti Patel and John Whittingdale – thought that it was. So good that they voted for it. So important to them was the principle that important decisions affecting the public at large should attract the support of 40% of the registered electorate, they attended the House of Commons on behalf of their constituents to cast their “aye” and ensure that the Bill became law.

So what of the vote to leave the EU? The most important decision our country will ever make, in the unchallenged words of the (now outgoing) Prime Minister.

Well, 51.9% of a 72% turnout equals 37.4% of the registered electorate voting to take the country out of the European Union.

37.4%.

The “most remarkable democratic mandate” in Dominic Raab’s lifetime is one which would not be sufficient, under his own law, for train drivers to withdraw their labour for an afternoon.

When I tweeted this yesterday, a number of Leave supporters were irritated by what they perceived as speculative ifs-and-buts by a bitter Remainer. The Trade Union Act doesn’t apply to referendums, they quite correctly said. There’s no threshold required for a General Election; we don’t seek to re-run GEs until there is a special majority (or even a simple majority) of voters in favour of one governing party, was another common refrain. But the latter argument is to misunderstand the distinction between a referendum and an election. A referendum – much like a strike ballot – is a binary choice between the status quo and change. Between the relative certainty of remaining as we are, and the unknown consequences of all walking out. And the point I am making, academic as it may be, is not that we should definitely have a second referendum. Nor that we retrospectively impose a voting threshold.

But simply that those who are leading us into this brave new world, reneging on a new preposterous election vow as regularly as Corbyn loses a fresh shadow minister, are not merely charlatans for the new clothes they’ve peddled to our plebeian emperors, but unspeakable hypocrites of the highest order when they doll up their victory as a remarkable democratic mandate, secretly knowing that, under their own terms of engagement as publicly committed to statute, they ought honestly to be proclaiming this as a victory for the status quo.