Boris Johnson and misconduct in public office: 8 things you should probably know

On 7 June 2019, the High Court brought to a halt the attempted private prosecution of Boris Johnson for misconduct in public office. Today, the full judgment has been published. There has been a lot of commentary surrounding this case, not all of it based on a firm (or even rudimentary) grasp of the facts. So breaking it down, what exactly has gone on here? Eight (likely-to-be) FAQs spring to mind.

  1. What the dickens is going on, legally speaking?

 On 29 May 2019, District Judge Coleman sitting at Westminster Magistrates’ Court granted an application by Marcus Ball and Brexit Justice Limited for a summons against Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, the proposed defendant, in respect of a contemplated private prosecution seeking to charge the aforementioned Mr Johnson with three counts of misconduct in public office, contrary to common law. On 7 June 2019, the Administrative Division of the High Court granted permission in respect of a claim by Mr Johnson for judicial review of the District Judge’s decision and quashed the granting of the summons, having found that the District Judge erred in law in her findings.

 

  1. And for the English speakers among us?

 In 2016, Marcus Ball set up a crowdfunding website inviting donations to fund a private prosecution of Boris Johnson for misconduct in public office, arising out of statements made by Mr Johnson during the 2016 referendum campaign, at a time when he was Mayor of London and a Member of Parliament. The offending statements relate to the well-known “We send the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund our NHS instead” claim. The first step in a criminal prosecution is to apply for a summons, which compels an individual to appear before a magistrates’ court. The District Judge (DJ) sitting at Westminster Magistrates, having heard legal argument from lawyers for Mr Ball and Mr Johnson, granted a summons. Mr Johnson “appealed” by seeking a judicial review of the decision to grant a summons, arguing that the decision was wrong in law. The High Court agreed, and quashed the decision to grant the summons.

 

  1. Why is a summons so important?

Quite simply, in this context no summons means no prosecution. Summonses are routinely issued against defendants in criminal prosecutions, usually with absolutely no challenge. But this being a private prosecution, opposing the granting of the summons was a way of trying to derail the prosecution at the very earliest stage (and very successfully, as it turned out).

An application for a summons will be granted by a magistrate (or a District Judge) if the magistrate is satisfied that the allegation is an offence known to law, and if the essential ingredients of the offence are prima facie (on its face) present. The court is not deciding whether a person is in fact guilty of an offence; simply whether there is, on the face of the case, evidence of its core ingredients. The court must also consider whether there are compelling reasons not to issue a summons, including – importantly for our purposes – whether the application is vexatious (which may involve the presence of an improper ulterior purpose).

In most public prosecutions, these things are not even an issue: the case will have been investigated by the police, referred to the Crown Prosecution Service and reviewed by a lawyer to check that it meets the evidential and public interest tests for charging, and the threshold for issuing a summons will obviously be met. But the issue is less clear cut in cases where the law is being used for a novel purpose. And using the law of misconduct in public office to prosecute a politician for false or misleading statements made during a political campaign is certainly novel. Hence things got a little sticky.

 

  1. What is “misconduct in public office”?

Misconduct in public office is a centuries-old common law offence (so developed by the courts rather than set out in legislation), which has been used to prosecute such varied allegations as MEPs claiming irregular expenses, police officers selling stories to journalists, healthcare professionals engaging in relationships with prisoners, the false statement given by a police officer in the “Plebgate” affair, and the Bishop of Gloucester entering into relationships with trainee priests.

If you think this sounds somewhat wide-ranging, you’d be right. And this – the vague and ill-defined scope of the offence – is one of the reasons that misconduct in public office is currently the subject of a consultation by the Law Commission, which is considering recommendations for how it might be reformed. Nevertheless, there has been a steady rise in the number of prosecutions for the offence, from 2 in 2005 up to 135 in 2014.

The test, as set out in a 2005 judgment of the Court of Appeal, has four key elements. Misconduct in public office arises where:

i. A public officer acting as such

ii. wilfully neglects to perform his duty and/or wilfully misconducts himself

iii. to such a degree as to amount to an abuse of the public’s trust in the office holder

i.v without reasonable excuse or justification

 

  1. How was it said that misconduct in public office applies in this case?

The argument of Mr Ball was quite simple: at the time of knowingly making plainly misleading statements, Boris Johnson was a holder of public office. There was little argument that the statements were misleading. Lying to or misleading the public amounts to an abuse of public trust in that office, hence there is, on its face, evidence to meet the ingredients of the offence. The District Judge broadly agreed.

 

  1. Why did the High Court disagree?

Firstly, a word about judicial review. An application to the High Court for judicial review is not simply a rerun of the case before a different court; it is a claim that there has been an error of law in the way the judge in the court below approached the case. If the High Court feels that it would have reached a different decision to the magistrates, but is not satisfied that the magistrates were wrong in law, it will not interfere.

In this case, Boris Johnson’s arguments were twofold: firstly, the District Judge made an error of law in finding that (i) and (ii) of the ingredients were prima facie made out. That error of law meant that the judge had no power to grant a summons. Secondly, the District Judge’s finding that Mr Ball’s application was not vexatious (which if found would afford a ground for not granting a summons) was “Wednesbury unreasonable”. “Wednesbury unreasonableness” is a legal concept wearily familiar to law undergrads, but for the lay person is perhaps best summarised as “batshit cray cray”. If the High Court finds that a decision of a court was “so unreasonable that no judge properly directing itself could reasonably have reached that decision”, it can quash it.

So, taking the contested elements in turn:

While Boris Johnson undoubtedly held public office (times two), the key three words are “acting as such”. It is not enough that someone be a public official; they must be acting as such in committing the alleged misconduct. As the High Court made clear:

It was not sufficient to say that he made the statements when in office as a MP and/or Mayor of London, and that “the public office held by Mr Johnson provides status but with that status comes influence and authority”. That does no more than conclude that he occupied an office which carried influence. This ingredient requires a finding that as he discharged the duties of the office he made the claims impugned. If, as here, he simply held the office and whilst holding it expressed a view contentious and widely challenged, the ingredient of “acting as such” is not made out.

 As for whether he had “wilfully neglected to perform his public duty or wilfully misconducted himself”, the High Court was scathing of the way in which the District Judge had approached this question. The notion of false political statements falling within the ambit of “wilful misconduct” has no precedent. The High Court observed that certain types of false statement made during election campaigns are offences, having been specified as “illegal practices” by Parliament (for instance publishing a false statement about a candidate). Parliament had not chosen to specify generally false claims about, say, statistics, as illegal practices; for the courts to extend the ambit of “misconduct in public office” to encompass such things would be a significant and far-reaching decision. The law requires that people know clearly what conduct is and isn’t criminal; common law offences like this therefore should not be enlarged by the courts “with one large leap”. None of this, the High Court found, had been given proper consideration by the District Judge.

Therefore, while the threshold for granting a summons is low compared to, say, the threshold for convicting a Defendant (where the evidence has to make the magistrates or jury sure of guilt), a magistrate is still required to conduct a rigorous analysis of the legal framework and whether there is on the face of the evidence enough to satisfy the ingredients of the offence. The District Judge had not conducted such an analysis, and her conclusions were, in the High Court’s view, wrong in law.

 

  1. What did the High Court say about the political motivations of the private prosecution?

 Boris Johnson’s lawyers argued that Mr Ball’s application was politically motivated and vexatious, and that this provided another reason as to why it was wrong in law for the District Judge to issue a summons. The District Judge’s findings on this argument left something to be desired:

“I accept the defence submission that when the applicant commenced his consideration of whether to bring a private prosecution against the proposed defendant three years ago, there may have been a political purpose to these proceedings. However the information for the summons was laid on the 28th February 2019 and that argument, in my view, is no longer pertinent.”

The apparent suggestion that a political motive conceived in 2016 arising out of the EU Referendum has dissipated now in 2019 is, with respect to the judge, a curious reading of the current political temperature. When one considers the catalogue of public statements made by Marcus Ball about the proposed prosecution between 2016 and 2019, it is troubling that the District Judge’s certainty in dismissing the presence of political motivation isn’t supported by any meaningful reasoning. The High Court described the DJ’s finding as “flawed” because of the absence of reasoning, and said that it would have quashed the decision to issue a summons on this ground alone. (Because of this, the High Court said it was unnecessary for them to go on to consider whether, as well as being flawed for lack of reasoning, the finding was also “Wednesbury unreasonable”).

 

  1. So this is a moral victory for the future Prime Minister, surely? He has been found to have acted entirely properly.

No, no, no, no and no. No. Just no. And no again. No. The judgment can absolutely not be interpreted as any sort of vindication of Boris Johnson’s character. Indeed, the High Court judgment reads very much as if the judges were proceeding on the assumption that he certainly had lied, or misled, and the challenges to the District Judge’s decision by Boris Johnson’s own lawyers were not concerned with a defence of his character or conduct. Rather his case succeeded on the basis that he may well be a liar or a rotter or a charlatan, but such conduct does not of itself meet the legal criteria for misconduct in public office. So a victory, certainly. But hardly the glowing character reference his supporters might suggest.

Advertisements

Guest blogpost: Why we should accept the deal

I am pleased to host this guest post from a junior member of the criminal Bar, who argues why we should vote to accept the deal arising out of the Criminal Bar Association’s negotiations with the government.

I’m a junior criminal barrister. I’m not a member of the CBA Executive, nor associated with them. This post was drafted to help me decide how to vote; perhaps it will be useful to you too.

I am deeply concerned that we are not looking at the whole picture. There are so many other concerns intimately wrapped up in how and how much we are paid for a case; ultimately a sense that justice, despite our best and most valiant efforts, is not being done.

We must look more broadly when we consider this deal, and so I publish this anonymous piece in the hope that my colleagues will also consider all the issues.

I am deeply concerned by what we already agree upon:

  1. Money for legal aid is not a vote winner. The public, parliament, and papers laud us as fat cats, leaving politicians to cut deeply the budgets of the MoJ and CPS. No department has lost so much, with so little uproar, that affects so many people. Just today, we see stories of the families of the London Bridge terror denied legal aid, and Sir Brian Leveson warning that the Justice system is on the brink of collapse. Yet there are no protests, no angry marches – no public backing at all. Compare this to the doctors strikes of 2015. If there is a PR battle over legal aid, we are in full retreat; our villages burning, and our castles broken.
  2. Cuts have consequences. Courts are closed, Recorders are told there is “not enough work”, and cases are now being listed well into 2020 – at the same time, fewer criminal are caught and prosecuted, and police numbers are at record lows. We know that the impact is that there are both miscarriages of justice, and that prosecutions are not brought while crime rises. Without cases being brought to court, there is no work for barristers to do. Without cases being brought to court, the guilty walk free.
  3. The CPS has ignored our complaints for too long. We are not paid for key parts of our jobs – the hours of preparation required, the endless chasing for disclosure, and reviewing unused. These are vital – not just to prosecute and defend effectively, but to uphold our ethical duties to ourselves, our profession, and the administration of justice.
  4. The only promise we have is a review of AGFS. No new money has been promised. No new principles have been published. The only promise we have is a review.
  5. Fees are not being paid when honestly earned. The CBA’s Monday message has regularly highlighted appalling conduct from the CPS, with civil servants deliberately setting out to deny fees and ongoing work.
  6. Fees have not increased for 20 years. While we are not mathematicians, even a cursory knowledge of numbers will tell you that 20 years of static fees is a massive real term pay cut. Far from being wealthy, most juniors 0 – 2 years’ Call would be better off on benefits or working at McDonalds. Many leave the profession with back-breaking debt, their loans, credit cards, and parental patience finally exhausted. Those outside London fare better, it is true. But it is the future of the Bar who are leaving. Already we hear of the decrease in quality of advocacy – how will we sustain ourselves for the next 20 years? The next 50?

Here, our paths diverge. I believe there are 6 compelling reasons to vote for this deal, right now, as a tiny, incremental, step to safeguarding the future of the Criminal Bar.

  • Voting for this deal gives juniors an immediate financial boost from September 2019.Fees are not what they once were, nor does accepting this allow us to forget what rates used to be, but a 25-40% improvement will sustain junior juniors for a little longer. For senior juniors, this ameliorates the cash flow problems that many CC trials run into, with payment now made when a case ends but is adjourned for sentence. Day 2 of trial will be paid, and the start of trial will now be defined correctly, as the day the trial actually starts. It’s important to note that this is new money from the Treasury, not from the CPS budget. That money can, and will, be reallocated if we do not take it.
  • Voting for this deal results in a promise to review AGFS by November 2019. This review will focus on three areas: PPE, cracks, and unused material. Banking this deal now does not take away from the need to advocate, persuade, and push forward with the AGFS changes we need. Further, the AGFS review separates the money for AGFS from the overarching Criminal Legal Aid Fees review – rather than fighting over one giant pot, we can have a separate, focussed review of AGFS alone.
  • Voting for this deal acknowledges its interim nature and retains our power to strike. This is not the final chapter, the last word, or the end of the conversation. We were given 50% of what we asked for. The remaining 50% is constrained by the Parliamentary timetable, something that not even the most fearless of us would contend with. Banking this offer does not prevent us from taking future strike action, if the government’s promises are not kept.
  • Voting for this deal gives us time to get the public onside.This deal is portrayed as a doubling of fees– if we reject it, we will lose credibility and what little public support our most high-profile advocates have gained for us. As a profession, we have done a shockingly awful job of explaining why justice is the vital thread that holds the fabric of society together. While the UK’s highest circulation paper blasts legal aid, and another perpetuates the myth that all lawyers earn vast sums, we are losing the PR battle. We have been losing the PR battle for so long that we have to clamber out of the ravine, schlep across vast fields, and slog through the forests before we finally reach the behemothian mountain we have to climb.
  • Voting for this deal demonstrates political acumen. Changes to AGFS require parliamentary time. Where are those parliamentarians? On holiday. Until September. We cannot ignore the fact that who we are negotiating with matters; if, as is likely, there is a change of government and a change of leadership at the CPS and MoJ. We cannot guarantee that a future justice secretary (perhaps Mr Raab?) will be particularly endeared to the Criminal Bar. Taking this deal results in progress, and still leaves us our most powerful option – a full-throated strike – when or if future promises are not kept. Further, it allows us to plan strikes more carefully. We need a proper PR strategy. We need a hardship fund for juniors. We need a detailed protocol for the unavoidable ethical dilemmas. We need the backing of the regional chambers to not break the strike. We need the backing of senior juniors, of Silks, and of the entire Bar. This takes time to build.
  • Voting for this deal allow us to be united for the first time. We all have competing interests, we all are fiercely independent, and we all cannot own up to that – until we do, we will not succeed, either for ourselves or society. Those competing interests broadly split into 5 categories: pupils, junior juniors, juniors, senior juniors, and Silks. Many of those now calling for action are those who stood by last time, and the time before that, and the time before that. We have long been content to pull the ladder up after ourselves, caring little for the most junior. You cannot claim unity while ignoring the issues of the most junior. You cannot claim unity when the future of the Bar are leaving.

 

We are not united

As a profession, we do not care that the most junior are struggling. For the last 10 years, low junior fees were seen as the “price to be paid” to ensure that work was brought into chambers for the most senior. Junior juniors were expected to be grateful to be thrown scraps of work, and told never to complain if you want to rise up the ranks.

Cash flow is a raging, pulsating anxiety in the minds of all juniors. Many have aged debts of £20,000, or more, on top of student loans. Rent does not wait. Bills do not wait. Travel must be paid. Those with 20 years’ experience forget that fees are the very same amount right now, while housing costs have increased by 400%. In 1998, the average UK monthly rent was £199.75– now, it stands at £934(and £1,602 for London). Those figures are typed correctly; we, the most junior, are expected to survive on the junior wages of 20 years ago, with today’s costs. Those who continue to expect the “price to be paid” will likely find that the price is the collapse of the Criminal Bar.

Making it to 10 years’ Call does not smooth the road ahead. With fee cuts taking hold in complex trials, many juniors have diversified their practice or taken secondments to stay afloat. Did those Silks and senior juniors need to diversify to pay the mortgage? Opportunities to be a junior on a serious trial are few and far between – some who manage it must do so for free, while still paying huge rents and bills. Being a junior on a trial is essential to grow and learn; without those juniors, who will prosecute or defend the alleged criminals of the future?

What of life at the Bar? The world outside has changed; look at Google’s luxurious officesor the 32-weeks maternity pay at Accentureto recognise how seriously the rest of the world takes wellbeing. At the criminal Bar, we expect women to choose between family and career. At the criminal Bar, we expect you to be in court or in hospital.At the criminal Bar, we expect you to witness the full uncensored horror of humanity, with no counselling, therapy, or support. Would anyone in the commercial world accept this? The grinding hours? The unpredictable commutes?

Finally, we arrive at the peak of the issue. We so often work for free. So much of our time and effort is unpaid. The juniors work for free to benefit the seniors. The juniors work evenings and weekends – unpaid – to prepare cases. We cannot build a career, a justice system, or a life on thin air. Until everyone, everyone, agrees that this is unacceptable, we cannot fight this properly.

What we, the most junior, are asking for is simple:

  1. To be properly, and quickly, remunerated in line with our skills and the complexity of the case.
  2. To talk honestly and openly about unpaid work, work paid months late, work not paid at all, and the demands it places on us and our families.
  3. To agree on how the system should reflect the frankly skewed nature of London living. Does the Bar even have a future in London?

 

The path lies ahead, yet untrodden

Those who path calls differently, for action – what are your goals? Your objectives? What will action result in? How much money is enough? What plans do you have to protect juniors who will inevitably struggle? How many of your solicitors have you persuaded to buy in to action?

Those who yearn for action have no business going on strike without being clear, and realistic, about what you want for your livelihood and profession. Otherwise, you will repeat the vicious circle of the past – brief action followed by swift and total capitulation. Again, the most junior will lose.

The brutal, broken reality is that we do not, right now, have the strength to fight. Our junior juniors will crack under the financial pressure and break the strike or leave entirely. Our reputation and public image will sink lower. Our chambers and colleagues are not prepared for sustained action.  To make a mistake now will compel even more to leave.

Those that leave are the Bar’s future. They are the Judges that will never judge, the Silks that will never take it. They are the advocates who are not being fiercely advocated for, by those who have already made it.

Guest Blogpost by Greg Powell: A brief history of legal aid

I am delighted to publish this guest blogpost by Greg Powell of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association (LCCSA). There is presently a lot of discussion in the media about legal aid, and in particular the rates paid to lawyers under legal aid. This analysis is vital to understanding how we have arrived where we are, and is essential reading for anybody reporting or commenting on the dispute between criminal justice professionals and the government concerning legal aid.

 

  1. The Expansion of Legal Aid

1.1      In the 1970s and 80s there was a large expansion of Legal Aid which was at that time essentially an adjunct to the other work of solicitors firms, there being some 7000 suppliers, Legal Aid work sitting alongside normal commercial work like conveyancing, probate and contract.

1.2      Administered by the Law Society the hourly rates were not as high as those prevailing in the private client and commercial world but nevertheless were related to the cost of time.

1.3      The cost of time was calculated by assigning a target for chargeable hours for each fee earner, usually 1200 hours per annum, a notional salary for solicitors and partners and dividing overheads by the numbers of fee earners to find out applicable hourly rates.

1.4      Provision was made for lower hourly rates for travel and waiting, a problem that has always been apparent in legal aid work which is often not office based but court based, and in the case of crime, prison and police station based, with the consequence that large parts of chargeable hours were consumed in lower paid hourly rates. Fixed fee schemes containing ‘rolled up’ time spent travelling and waiting ‘hide’ the true costs of cases within their simplicity.

1.5      However, in terms of cost benefit it is also to be noted that the organisation of courts and the interaction of advocates and the tribunal and particularly the flow of work provided by ushers in Magistrates Courts is highly efficient; face to face interactions provide courts with good quality information upon which to base decisions.

 

  1. A Changing Supplier Base

2.1      As Legal Aid expanded the Law Society administration was unable to cope. Delay in payment became a well-known public fact and eventually the decision was made to move the administration of Legal Aid away from the Law Society into the hands of an independent Legal Aid Board. This was at inception essentially a cashier organisation but it also had within it a desire to promote and implement policy.

2.2      What had also happened is that a number of more specialist Legal Aid suppliers had come into being whose main purpose was to provide Legal Aid services in the community, usually both civil and crime covering the full range of civil, family law, welfare benefits, housing, mental health and immigration. In essence a numerous and independent “legally aided” sector was a by-product of the expansion of funding and scope.

2.3      It had been, and remains, a major component of this system that the supplier base provides its own capital in order to set up organisations, provide premises and employ people.  In this sense it is a free market where entrepreneurs have invested their own capital identifying gaps in the market and establishing businesses.

2.4      There were parallel changes in the private solicitor marketplace as conveyancing lost its fixed fee structures and in the more successful private client firms partners often became dissatisfied with low hourly rates of return in legal aid work and began shedding that work, a process accelerated from the 1990s as Legal Aid rates became frozen and eroded by inflation. Lord MacKay decided to abolish his Legal Aid Advisory Committee.  The current panel constituted to assist in the review of criminal Legal Aid is a distant echo of that forerunner.

 

  1. The Rise of Contracting

3.1      The Legal Aid Board brought forward the idea that suppliers would be contracted to supply Legal Aid services coupled to the idea of a quality mark. This had some basis in academic research (see the book, Standing Accused by McConville and Others which lamented poor standards in criminal work).

3.2      Other major structural developments were the establishing of the Crown Prosecution Service following major public scandals involving forced confessions by police officers and also the technological development of tape recording which allowed a new mode for conducting interviews.  The 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act also introduced the idea of the delivery of rights by independent Custody Officers whilst extending police powers.  One particularly significant development was the decision to allow the police 24 hours in which to detain a person before charge.  This was fiercely debated with 12 hours as a viable alternative but this was rejected and 24 hours underpins the subsequent development of a lackadaisical approach to the investigation whilst the person is in custody. Providing access to legal advice in the Police Station was a major costs driver.

3.3      Initially contracting was to be voluntary and was expressly said not to be a policy which would become compulsory.  Of course it did and very unfortunately contracting become a major dividing factor, there being separate crime and civil contracts.  This rupture of services had profound consequences on the market causing firms to choose between spheres and although many continue to operate both there was also a large bureaucratic burden.  That burden was another factor in private client firms continuing to abandon Legal Aid services.

 

  1. A Rich Ecology

4.1      What the entrepreneurial activity had created, in the context of the expansion of Legal Aid to meet need, was a rich fabric of firms and services. We have sometimes likened this to the ecology of a rainforest, diverse, valuable and especially establishing in local communities a variety of client choice and a feeling amongst clients, usually poorer and working class, that they had access to justice through “their” solicitor.

 

  1. Reform and the Market

5.1      The foundation of reform was a myth, that Legal Aid expenditure was “out of control” accompanied by a sinister subtext that the forces driving expenditure were the supplier base improperly exploiting Legal Aid. Academic research showed that the driving factor was in fact the rise in need and volume of cases and a tsunami of legislation, especially in crime.  Nevertheless this myth took hold.

5.2      The Paradox in the early 2000s was that the government was substantially investing in workers compensation schemes and rightly so, but whilst it spent billions on the one hand in those schemes it sought to cut Legal Aid expenditure by millions on the other.

5.3      Lord Carter proposed a crude simplistic trade off of volume for price a theme that has bedevilled so called “reform” ever since and dominated proposals for change.

5.4      The proposals that came forward were administratively complex and essentially foundered as they were unable to resolve contradictions between rewarding incumbent suppliers with market share and providing opportunities for new entrants, whilst also hopelessly confusing the nature of the market with other markets where there are multiple opportunities for suppliers to bid for work.

5.5      This is worth spelling out.  The Ministry of Justice is a single purchaser of Legal Aid services.  It sets prices.  The suppliers when they bid for work (however defined) face an existential crisis.  If their bid fails then they are out of business.  There is no alternative place for them to bid.

5.6      In other words this Legal Aid market for services is not like, for example, the NHS, which procures across a vast organisation for multiple services offering bidders the opportunities to bid for difference sizes of contract in different geographical areas in circumstances where, therefore, the failure of a bid is not terminal to their business.

5.7      It was an historic strength of the system that it was open. In other words there were no limits on the number of contractors and sufficient prices allowed a degree of entrepreneurial activity to fill in gaps in the market place. As prices have declined so has that activity.  However there are two other benefits from the way in which this market has operated.

5.8      A key element to successful entrepreneurial activity has been establishing reputation and this has been driven by the other key element of client choice.  The introduction of the Duty Solicitor Schemes enabled firms to source a more “captive” work stream and gain clients through duty solicitor activity in courts and police stations. Nevertheless it still remained and remains an important element for all firms that the quality of what they do is sufficient to draw that client back to them or achieve word of mouth referrals. In this way client choice drives quality.

5.9      Unfortunately restrictions on the ability to transfer Representation Orders have led to a decline in consumer/client choice.  There is a consumer paradox for people who are initially arrested, represented by a duty solicitor and bailed or released under investigation.  At that stage, pre-charge, there is no Legal Aid available and they are actually free to make enquiries in the marketplace to find out if the solicitor they have accessed accidentally as the duty solicitor is the person best placed to represent them or whether they could find an alternative with better reputation. In this way consumers are free to move around within the market.

5.10    However, if for example, a person is arrestedfor murder, has a duty solicitor and is remanded in custodythey then find it very difficult to change due to the rules which to this degree undermine an aspect of client choice.

5.11    Contracting has also restricted the market by restricting the opportunities for new entrants to the start of each contract cycle as well as being a system which has severed civil and criminal services. The most startling reform that could be contemplated would be ending contracting completely.  This would be a return to a pre-contracting era where all firms needed to do was to keep within the rules in respect of claims and payments.  In other words that the work was properly done and claimed.  Such a more open system would certainly allow new entrants and with other incentives and structural changes, allow firms to re-establish mixed practices of civil and crime and provide more local integrated services needed to meet the vast unmet need.

5.12    It is not difficult to be imaginative about what is possible in the Legal Aid market.  The Legal Services Commission as the successor to the Legal Aid Board had a worthwhile initiative through which firms took on trainees who were subsidised directly by the LSC in return for a contractual commitment to stay in Legal Aid work for a period of time.

5.13    Legal Aid as a bespoke subject ought to be an option within law school courses and participation can be leveraged through grant, the relief of debt and payments to suppliers to provide subsequent training contracts.

 

  1. AFundamental Problem

6.1      Underpinning access to justice are the rights to a fair trial and equality of arms between the parties.  Crucial is the adversarial system working properly to ensure that the court has before it all admissible evidence in order that the fundamental objective, which is the pursuit of truth, is achieved.

6.2      No one is facing up to the work, time and costs issues posed by the explosion of electronic material.   It simply means that in cases where it is relevant (and there is often a contest about what is and what is not properly served as evidence or unused material) the evidence has got be examined and deployed by prosecution and defence.  These are tasks which have made the process of litigation more time intensive and more costly.  This is for the police as investigators, the prosecution as an independent prosecutorial body assessing the evidence and for the defendants. All require extra resources in the long term in a degree of magnitude to properly cope with the technological development.  There is no shortcut and it simply requires more money and acceptance that this will be a demand led system that cannot be contained with fixed “envelopes” of cost.

 

  1. The Erosion of Value

7.1      The above argument in relation to the explosion of electronic material forms a context for the major other issue which has been the erosion of value.  It is not possible for solicitors and counsel to continue negotiating around the same envelope of money being deployed for cases in new ways.  Inventing other proxies for value or combining proxies with time or combining other structures of payment such as standard fees, non-standard fees, higher-standard fees still has to account for both the explosion in evidence and the fact that current values have been eroded to a degree where the work is unsustainable.

7.2      That unsustainability is evidenced by the recruitment and retention crisis within solicitors firms conducting criminal work.  It is also evidenced by the almost complete separation of private client work and Legal Aid work within the solicitor’s profession and by the advancing age of the cohort of duty solicitors.

7.3      Research might also reveal a very similar pattern in relation to the ages of partners or directors of firms within the supplier base which is also similarly advancing. Career opportunities have been truncated by the short horizon of business, the uncertainty of profits and the lack of career paths.

7.4      One way of exiting is to the Crown Prosecution Service which now offers substantially better terms than are available generally within the defence community.  Another way of exiting is to simply abandon the work and take up different careers. For students with vast debt Legal Aid is deeply unattractive.

 

  1. Access toJustice

8.1      It was a by-product of the expansion of Legal Aid and the availability of firms within communities providing a range of legally aided services that many millions of people could buy into the ideathat there was a degree of access to justice.

8.2      Much is written about alienation, voices not being heard, and the unrepresentative nature of politics, inequality and the socially excluded. Legal Aid cuts, in particular LASPO, have formed a backdrop which has accentuated exclusion.

8.3      Exclusion also has direct economic consequences.  A family with less income because they are unable to challenge welfare benefit decisions live in greater poverty.  Children in greater poverty   are more likely to fail in the education system, often being excluded, more vulnerable to drift into gangs, crime and county lines drug dealing. Similarly challenging are living in conditions of disrepair, losing housing and the gross disruption of family life where there are cycles of imprisonment, alcohol and drug abuse and devastating adverse immigration decisions and deportation.  Many live and are brought up in deeply hostile environments and too often the inability of fathers to access contact and maintain parenting has potentially disastrous consequences.

8.4      Add to these other factors such as loss of youth clubs, social workers, and the pressure of schools to exclude pupils.  It is no wonder that the world of gang affiliation with its sense of identity and drug dealing giving access to otherwise unattainable riches is such a lure to young people and indeed older people involved in organised crime.

8.5      The extent of organised crime has been highlighted by the National Crime Agency in its bid for between £2-3billion to combat what it describes as a major threat to security and wellbeing.  Will that funding and these initiatives drive more cases into the Criminal Justice System?  The idea that more cases will arise which demand more resources stands in stark contrast to falling volume as a result of the debacle of the RUI stance adopted by many police forces in relation to the many thousands of people arrested.

8.6      What all of this means, including the review itself, is an extremely unstable environment for Legal Aid practitioners. Low margins make firms highly vulnerable to changes in case volume and case mix.  A two year “review” is irrelevant to the immediate crisis.    What is required is at least a short term injection of funds, the making good of the last 8.75% cut which was predicated on the manipulation of the supplier base producing fewer suppliers with higher volumes, which never took place, and which was in itself arbitrary and unfair.  What is also needed however are not only higher levels of remuneration, but an imaginative reworking of incentives and structure to support an independent legal profession and a degree of stability which would allow businesses to flourish whilst meeting need.

 

  1. London and its Hinterland

9.1      At over 650 square miles with the largest concentration of population in the country London poses particular problems for Legal Aid lawyers.

9.1      It is an area of higher cost. Those costs relate to the costs of business premises, higher wages and higher costs for employees for accommodation and travel.  In a recent Reed Business Support Salary Guide for 2019 an Office Manager in London is said to command a wage of £40,100.  In the East Midlands the figure £23,700 and the North East £29,200 and the North West £23,900.  In the South West and Wales the figure falls to £22,300.

9.3      Traditionally the particular costs base of London were recognised by additional London Weighting supplements on hourly rates.  There is a powerful case for the reintroduction of London Weighting within any newly devised scheme.

9.4      Another myth is that there was an oversupply of firms in London. This is not true and the number of firms is proportionate to the population.  This was established in passing by the KPMG report in the failed debacle of tendering Duty Solicitor Schemes.

9.5      London is the centre of political protest and government and inevitably public protest type crime tends to arise more often and so does financial crime attached to London being the centre of financial services.

9.6      A fundamental problems for practitioners has been the complete absence of planning.  There is no court near a police station which is near a prison, they are spread haphazardly. The system has developed without the slightest regard for efficiencies that might arise from locating services together.  Indeed plans to relocate remand prisoners only in Wandsworth, Belmarsh and Highdown, which is actually outside London in Sutton, would only exacerbate the problems.

9.7      Very large distances must now be traversed across London for defendants, ‘victims’ and witnesses and indeed all the participants in the court process.

9.8      The idea has been advanced frequently by the LCCSA for over a decade that there ought to be reform of the Duty Solicitor Scheme.  At present solicitors join two courtschemes plus associated youth court schemes but are allocated to as many as eight or nine 24 hour police station schemes depending on the location of their office.  This thins volume in any particular court.  Bringing the schemes into line so that solicitors are allocated two or three police stations schemes most contiguous to their office and the court schemes ought to produce a greater volume of work for firms in their local courts.

9.9      Incidentally scheme inflation, by which many more people joined each individual scheme, was a product of a policy decision by the LSC to automatically allocate all qualifying solicitors, depending on the whereabouts of their office to every scheme that was available.

 

  1. Opportunity or Threat? The Criminal Legal Aid Fee Review

10.1    The immediate impulse for the review was the promise to the Bar to review the AGFS arrangements.  That promise was then conflated with the existing idea of a review of the LGFS (no doubt more urgent from the perspective of the MOJ after the successful JR of their plan to cut £30M or so from the LGFS Scheme) and then in turn extended to encompass all fee schemes, police stations, magistrates’ courts and the VHCC scheme.

10.2    Three elements dominate legal aid fees for the last twenty five years. The erosion of fee structures by inflation.  The endless cuts to EVERY fee scheme. The hugely bureaucratic, unmanageable and failed ‘reform’ proposals encompassing Best Value Tendering, Price Competitive Tendering and 2 tier contracting of duty solicitors schemes and other similar debacles including VHCC and family contracts. The 2 Tier debacle was accompanied by a completely arbitrary 17.5% cut in fees.  What is extraordinary is the sheer scale of that cut; 17.5%, not 1.5 or 2% but this huge figure.  Subsequently 8.75% was restored after the failure of the scheme, still leaving practitioners with a completely arbitrary 8.75% cut.

10.3    The common theme has been an approach to Legal Aid as a ‘market’ (fundamentally misunderstood, see para 5.) to be manipulated with the sole objective of driving down price (cuts) encouraged by overtures from a handful of ‘larger’ suppliers who sought greater volume and market share.  In civil the hatchet of LASPO simply removed access to justice for millions of people and further disrupted and eroded the supplier base. .

10.4    What has been absent is any coherent view of Legal Aid based on principles of fair trial, equality of arms or access to justice through increasing the resource that enables people to believe they have the means (legally aided lawyers) to pursue their rights, that their stake in society and belief in its fairness, in the application of the rule of law to them, has meaning because they can rebalance the unfair advantage of ‘others’ who have the power (landlords, Councils, the DWP, insurance companies, the Home Office, Police) by instructing ‘their’ lawyer. This is the real context of rearranging fee structures; it is not an end in itself but only one component of policy that ought to have this enabling outcome. This Review perpetuates the division of crime and civil being confined to criminal Legal Aid fees when the reality is that legal aid services are accessed across lifetimes in multiple ways as need overlaps the civil and criminal boundaries.

10.5    That vision is entirely absent from this Review which is framed as the ‘right time to think more widely about the future of criminal legal aid schemes’, without any commitment to any funding increase, only to the ‘right level’ of legal aid provision. It is most likely to be a missed opportunity and actually another ‘cut’.  The ravaging of value by inflation will not be addressed by a permanent compensatory mechanism, and any ‘ambitious’  attempt to manipulate the market will yet again misread its reality and lead to JR and debacle.  Is this to be a moment (actually a year or two with continuing ministerial reshuffles) for reinvigorating access to justice (restoring the £1 billion about 1/800thof government expenditure) or another episode in the erosion of Legal Aid and its supplier base?

10.6    In the period 2004/2005 to 2019 Government Expenditure rose from around £400 billion to over £800 billion.  In that period removing £1 billion from Legal Aid was a political choice.  The courageous and correct political choice would be to restore access to justice by expanding the Legal Aid spend by £1 billion.

10.7    The complete absence of a commitment to restore funding levels and the absence of vision are depressing.  There is little to indicate that the trajectory of the history of Legal Aid will change.  Rather that the reality that will emerge will remain one of cuts, loss of services and more people who believe that justice is not to be found within the society in which they live.

Ignorant, dishonest or both? Boris Johnson’s ramblings about prisoners and spa breaks are divorced from reality.

As today’s resignation announcement by the Prime Minister prefigures, in bookmakers’ eyes at least, the dawn of a Boris Johnson premiership, I thought it worth typing up a thread I posted earlier this week in response to Mr Johnson’s latest column for the Daily Telegraph.

On Monday, the former Foreign Secretary proudly promoted his article on Twitter:

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Taking a swipe at “our cock-eyed crook-coddling criminal justice system”, Mr Johnson alighted upon a story, reported by outlets including the Telegraph, concerning a convicted drug dealer called Luke Jewitt. Mr Jewitt was sentenced to imprisonment in 2014 for his involvement in a multi-million-pound conspiracy to import or supply cocaine, only to be released to enjoy a “luxury spa break” with his mother before his sentence had been served. According to the Telegraph,

“He is believed to have spent the day at the Santai Spa in Birmingham for Mother’s Day, at the end of March.

The spa boasts an outdoor jacuzzi with lake views, salt cave and mosaic hot-stone loungers. Packages at the luxury venue cost up to £140 per day.”

There is no suggestion that this was paid for by anyone other than Mr Jewitt; rather outrage is invited at the notion of a prisoner being released early, which, the writer assures us, “is becoming more and more regular”. As the headline has it, “Letting drug dealers out of prison to go on spa breaks is criminally stupid”. Unfortunately, in making this argument Mr Johnson’s characteristic fidelity to facts and detail abandons him.

Let’s see if we can reacquaint them.

Luke Jewitt was sentenced in 2014. The precise sentence he received is unclear. If you believe The Telegraph (left), it was 10 years’ imprisonment. If you believe Boris Johnson writing in The Telegraph (right), it was nine years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

But either way, at something approaching the halfway point of his sentence, he was released on temporary licence (or “let out on day release”, in the tabloid argot), during which time he attended the aforementioned spa. Mr Johnson’s apoplexy is untrammelled:

Not merely a jacuzzi, dear readers, but a visit to the National Sea Life Centre. Is nothing sacred?

From this starting point, Mr Johnson lines up a medley of propositions. Some highlights are below.

In summary:

  • Drug dealing causes untold misery (undoubtedly true);
  • Prisons are at once too ghastly and too cushy (the record rates of violence, death, suicide and self-harm cast a degree of doubt on the latter);
  • We need to be “tough” on those who carry knives (standard political fare, with the standard blank space when it comes to offering a practical working definition of what being “tough” should entail).

We are then offered the writer’s considered views on the thorny issue of stop and search. Fortunately, contrary to research suggesting that stop and search is deployed in a racially discriminatory manner, Mr Johnson reassures us that it, in fact, isn’t. He is not able to offer any evidence for this claim, but his word is surely his bond.

As for his primary concern, the early release of offenders, Mr Johnson has identified the culprits: it is the “politically correct” Parole Board, responsible for endangering public safety by licensing rapists to reoffend and drug kingpins to purify and replenish with naturally detoxifying algae leaving the skin looking refined, toned and beautifully radiant. The release of Luke Jewitt, Johnson posits in a puddle of consciousness, is an example of the “need to root out the Leftist culture of so much of the criminal justice establishment.”

There are a few problems with this thesis. Firstly, the case “earlier this month” to which Mr Johnson refers involving “the convicted rapist out on early release”, who “allegedly commit several more rapes immediately”. Assuming that this is the case which has made headlines (and about which we must be cautious due to criminal proceedings now being live), the man involved was not a convicted rapist, but a burglar. And this was not a case in which the Parole Board had directed his release; rather it was reported that due to an administrative error, he was released by the prison having erroneously bypassed the Parole Board. To lay this at the Parole Board’s door is, to quote Mary Whitehouse (probably), pretty fucking dishonest.

But beyond this mangled non-example, the foundation of Johnson’s argument betrays a woeful ignorance of the entire subject matter. He seems to be under the impression that a prisoner’s release is always governed by the Parole Board. It’s not. For the vast majority of prisoners serving a standard determinate sentence, release on licence is automatic once you’ve served half of your prison sentence. I’ve blogged before on this, as it’s frequently misunderstood.

Parole Boards tend to focus their attentions on dangerous prisoners, including those sentenced to life imprisonment or to other types of sentence for which release is not automatic, such as now-abolished imprisonment for public protection (IPP), or “extended sentences” imposed on a dangerous offenders. In order to be released from such sentences, a prisoner has to persuade the Parole Board that his incarceration is longer necessary for the protection of the public. Now Parole Boards are far from perfect; the case last year of John Worboys gave a troubling insight into the errors that plagued the Parole Board’s decision to direct his release, and it would be naive to conclude that this is an isolated case. No doubt errors occur, and quite possibly more frequently than we perhaps wish to imagine. However, Johnson’s claim that “It is becoming more and more regular for prisoners to be let out early – even when they have been convicted of the most serious and violent crimes” is accompanied by absolutely no evidence whatsoever. Indeed, if we were trading in boring facts, we might observe that England & Wales has more prisoners serving indeterminate and life sentences than any other country in Europe, suggesting that neither courts nor Parole Boards are overly eager on the frivolous release of dangerous prisoners. But the assertion that there is a recent acceleration in the release of dangerous offenders is simply that. There is not even a whiff of evidence tendered in support.

But back to drug lords, and other prisoners whose release is not dependent on the approval of the Parole Board. They are all entitled to automatic release at the halfway point of their sentence, and as they approach that point can be entitled to release on temporary licence (ROTL), subject to a risk assessment. Full details are available here, but a summary of the types of ROTL is below.

It is this scheme which Johnson describes as “criminally stupid”. Letting prisoners out for the odd day here and there – what possible good can it do? Well, quite a lot, the evidence suggests. A recent government report – a government of which Mr Johnson was, until toys exeunted the pram, a member – concluded that the analysis was is “consistent with the conclusion that ROTL reduces reoffending”. So even if the notion of somebody serving a few days’ less on their sentence fills you with righteous indignation, the evidence that it makes us all a little safer is a fairly important fact to omit from an honest discussion.

That all said, there remains an understandable public bugbear when it comes to the concept of automatic release at the halfway stage of a prison sentence. I’ve written about this in my book. The public hear or read “10 years”, and feel justifiably deceived when they discover that 10 means 5 (minus any time already served on remand awaiting trial or sentence). Now there are reasons as to why we grant automatic release halfway through a sentence. One reason is that this mechanism saves the government money, gifting them the tabloid headlines of long prison sentences without the Treasury having to actually pay for them. Less cynically, it is also argued that it helps reintegrate prisoners into society and aids rehabilitation. If they reoffend on licence, they can be recalled to serve the remainder of their sentence.

But let’s park that debate to one side. Instead, let’s ask why we have automatic halfway release at all? Which MPs were in Parliament when such a thing was introduced?

Well, automatic release at the halfway stage of all determinate sentences has been a fixture since the enactment of section 244 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Present in Parliament as an MP when this legislation passed was one Boris Johnson. Can you guess how many impassioned speeches he gave in the Commons against the “criminally stupid” idea of automatically releasing prisoners early? In fact, how many times has he ever spoken in Parliament about early release, or the Parole Board, or release on temporary licence?

From wherever springs this yearning to draw public attention to the horrors of early release on licence, it has lain dormant for a good sixteen years. Heaven forfend that this newly-discovered zeal for making the lives of prisoners more miserable and antagonistic baiting of “politically correct” and “left wing” criminal justice is merely the latest exploit of a populist charlatan tossing bucketfulls of cheap fatty red meat to the Party Faithful just as a certain job opening emerges.

Shamima Begum may not deserve your sympathy, but she is entitled to legal aid

Another weekend, another flurry of anti-legal aid stories finding their way into the tabloids. On the criminal legal aid front, The Mirror splashed outrage at the notion of Andrew Hill, the pilot acquitted of manslaughter following the Shoreham Airshow tragedy, “getting” legal aid to mount his successful defence at his criminal trial last year.

It’s one thing when The Mirror – a market leader in legal aid trash news – whips its readers into uninformed apoplexy over criminal legal aid being granted to those who are, after a fair trial only possible because of legal aid, convicted. But it breaks bold new ground even for this organ to resent legal aid being granted to a man whom a jury has found to be not guilty.

Then this morning, the Daily Mail, in a headline which may stand out as the apotheosis of journalistic legal ignorance, announced:

“Shamima Begum is on legal aid despite being stripped of UK citizenship”.

In much the same way that the people I prosecute and defend are granted legal aid despite being accused of criminal offences. Or diabetes patients are treated on the NHS despite having diabetes.

Shamima Begum is, of course, the tabloid ghoul du jour. A 15-year-old Bethnal Green schoolgirl fleeing her home country to join a terror cult abroad, and, four years later, intending to swan back in as if nothing had happened, is the stuff of a red top news editor’s wettest dreams. In February, Home Secretary Sajid Javid, in apparent defiance of his own Home Office advice and with a Fleabag smirk to the cameras, took the decision to revoke Ms Begum’s British citizenship. She is now appealing the Home Secretary’s decision to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission  and is likely to be eligible for legal aid.

Today’s Mail “scoop” follows allegations in The Telegraph that Ms Begum, while an “ISIS bride” in Syria, served as an enforcer in the “morality police” and sewed suicide vests onto her fellow jihadis, playing a far more active role in the group’s activities than she had previously suggested. The veracity of these reports is unclear, but let’s take as face value that they are correct, and that she was not merely a stay-at-home ISIS bride, but an enthusiastic accessory to the most appalling crimes against humanity.

Would this make her despicable? Yes. Meritorious of opprobrium, disgust, contempt and fury? Yup. A criminal? Among the very worst. Deserving of legal aid? Without a shadow of a doubt.

We’ve trodden these boards a thousand times before, but as the basics are yet to be learned by those with the biggest megaphones, they need repeating.

Everybody – no matter what they have done or are alleged to have done – is entitled to equal treatment before the law. That is the building block not only of the rule of law, but of our entire democracy. You don’t earn equal treatment, or qualify for it through good behaviour. It applies universally. The day we start making exceptions for the people who offend us the most is the day our civilisation crumbles.

Everybody is also entitled to a fair hearing where a legal decision has been taken which affects them. The removal of a person’s citizenship – a government telling a British-born citizen You have no right to exist within our borders – is one of the most far-reaching decisions the state can make. We do not want to live in a country where politicians can act with unchecked power; the rule of law requires that those affected have a route to challenge a decision and have an independent court review the evidence and decide whether that decision was taken in accordance with the law.

In this case, while there will be a lot of material to which the public will never have access upon which the government will rely, there are obvious concerns on the face of what we do know. International law prohibits domestic governments from rendering citizens stateless. Ms Begum is a British national born and bred; the Home Secretary is relying on her supposed eligibility for Bangladeshi citizenship (through her parents) to comply with international law. Bangladesh is a country which Ms Begum has never visited and which, for what it is worth, has publicly rejected the notion that she would be granted Bangladeshi citizenship.

It is far from certain that the Home Secretary has acted lawfully. It is obviously vital to establish that he has. This can only properly be done at a fair independent hearing at which the legal and factual arguments for and against are fully and competently presented. The Home Office will not spare any expense in instructing counsel to fight its corner (Theresa May was a fan of instructing multiple QCs for single cases to try to give herself an advantage). Equality of arms, another basic principle of the rule of law, requires that the citizen, Shamima Begum, be competently represented. As she is currently unable to pay for her own lawyers, lying destitute in a Syrian refugee camp, she will need to rely upon legal aid. Without legal aid, the case will not be properly argued; indeed, as she is currently banned from entering the country, without representation it will not be argued at all.

The benefits of the case being argued and a judgment being given flow not only to Shamima Begum, but to all of us. This is not merely a private matter of concern to her; all of us live under the law, and all of us need to know that our government is acting lawfully. Moreover, there will be many more cases of this type over the coming years. This decision could ultimately set a precedent, making clear the circumstances in which the government can revoke British citizenship from British-born citizens. Such a precedent is of value to all of us. Because while today, it’s Sajid Javid making a decision affecting Shamima Begum, tomorrow it could be a different Home Secretary making a decision affecting you, or someone you love. And while you may not care what happens to Shamima Begum, you will sure as heck want the law to be fairly applied to you. And this is the point about the law: it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. A decision affecting one of us affects us all. We all have a shared interest in ensuring that the law works as it should. As Lord Reed said in a famous Supreme Court decision:

At the heart of the concept of the rule of law is the idea that society is governed by law. Parliament exists primarily in order to make laws for society in this country. Democratic procedures exist primarily in order to ensure that the Parliament which makes those laws includes Members of Parliament who are chosen by the people of this country and are accountable to them. Courts exist in order to ensure that the laws made by Parliament, and the common law created by the courts themselves, are applied and enforced. That role includes ensuring that the executive branch of government carries out its functions in accordance with the law. In order for the courts to perform that role, people must in principle have unimpeded access to them. Without such access, laws are liable to become a dead letter, the work done by Parliament may be rendered nugatory, and the democratic election of Members of Parliament may become a meaningless charade. That is why the courts do not merely provide a public service like any other.

Shamima Begum herself, of course, will not receive a penny of taxypayers’ money. Legal aid is claimed from the Legal Aid Agency directly by her lawyers. A grant of legal aid is also not a bottomless pit, despite what the tabloids falsely claim. It is paid at fixed rates set by government, far below market value – and usually far below what the state pays its own lawyers. And it is designed, like the NHS, to ensure that all of us have our basic rights and dignity respected, whatever we have done. We do not withhold publicly-funded medical treatment for criminals, terrorists or other social undesirables; we recognise that to do so would be barbaric, the mark of a country that has badly lost its way.

So when the Mail invites its readers to fulminate and howl and ask Why should the public pay for this awful woman’s legal aid?, the answer that should be given – by our Lord Chancellor, preferably, as the person with the statutory obligation to uphold the rule of law – is because that is the price of living under the rule of law. If you’d rather exist in a society where the rules are not applied equally, where your entitlement to a fair trial is dependent on the whims of government officials or the roar of the effigy-burning mob or the deepness of your pockets, there are plenty of countries out there willing to oblige.

 

*****************

UPDATE: A common response to this story today has been from people who, understandably, feel aggrieved that more attractive (or “deserving”) causes than Shamima Begum were denied legal aid. Inquests are a particular area where legal aid has been refused for bereaved families, but the non-availability of legal aid stretches across the justice system, from the family courts to employment law to housing to welfare to personal injury to crime to immigration and so on. Many, many people have been denied justice due to refusal of legal aid. But to attack the granting of legal aid to Shamima Begum is, with respect, to miss the point. The scandal is not that Shamima Begum is eligible for legal aid in complex legal proceedings carrying life-changing consequences, but that so many other people have had legal aid refused and removed as part of the appalling attacks on legal aid that successive governments have wrought. It is not party political – all three main parties in government have fed the lies about legal aid to the press and public that have purchased political cover for them to obliterate legal aid and prevent ordinary people from accessing justice. In the 1980s, 79 per cent of the population was eligible for legal aid. By 2015, this had plummeted to 25 per cent. Public anger should be directed at the politicians who have convinced us that cutting legal aid is a good thing, not the few people who are still able to access justice.

Peter Hitchens’ comments about Jo Cox’s killer betray a fundamental ignorance of the basic facts

A familiar sound for readers of the Mail on Sunday is the deafening cymbal-clash of Peter Hitchens colliding with reality. This last Sunday offered a particular highlight, which, although there is undoubted wisdom in leaving him alone to figuratively wander the 21stcentury in his dressing gown shouting at clouds, cannot pass without comment.

Summarised by this tweet:

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

he shared his considered view that Thomas Mair, who was convicted by a jury of the murder of Jo Cox MP and sentenced to imprisonment for life, has wrongly been tarred a terrorist.

Undeterred by the fact that there was a wealth of evidence before the court which he, as somebody who was not in court for the duration of the trial, has neither seen nor heard, Mr Hitchens, armed with a fistful of second-hand newspaper reports of snippets of the case, assured readers that he, the clear-sighted rationalist, can see the case for what it is: “a tragedy twisted into a bogus ‘terror plot’”.

The premise of his thesis, as he expanded in a further blogpost on Monday, appears to be twofold. Firstly, it is “absurd” for anyone to claim that Mair was a “rational, coherent political actor”, as his actions “predictably achieved more or less the exact opposite of what he supposedly intended – and he would have grasped this in a second had he been in a normal state of mind”.

Allied to this is the second proposition: in Mair’s trial, there was evidence of mental ill health, which was suspiciously omitted from the legal proceedings. “Mair’s lawyer said he would not bring his medical history into the case. But why not?” “Why does the authority ignore such vital facts?” he demands, fingers twitching towards the tin foil with millinery intent. “Does the government want to believe, and to spread the idea, that there is some organised Right-wing terror plot?”

We can deal with the first argument swiftly: irrationality and mental ill health are two discrete concepts. The former may be a symptom of a latter, but they are not necessarily linked. Most of the people who cross the threshold of the criminal courts are irrational.  I’ve prosecuted more burglars than I can count who, despite their extensive experience, have still failed to process that climbing through a broken window is likely to result in your blood being left at the scene. The number of young men who, disqualified from driving and flagged down by the police, decide not to cut their losses and take their dues but instead to lead the police on a merry 90mph pursuit through residential areas and red lights before, inevitably, being caught, adding dangerous driving to the charge sheet – irrational? Tick. Incoherent? Tick. Achieving the exact opposite of what they supposedly intended? Tick. Colloquially they might be said to, in Hitchens’ words, be “roaming along the outer frontiers of sanity”, but mentally ill? That’s something different.

But amateur diagnostics aside, let’s consider Hitchens’ overarching theory: the suspicious omission of medical evidence of mental ill health from Mair’s trial. Referring to comments in news reports, he finds various examples of people claiming to know Mair – none apparently medically qualified – and offering anecdotes and opinions on Mair’s mental health. There is also a suggestion that Mair was in receipt of psychotropic medication. From this, Hitchens decries the “puzzling decision to ignore the plentiful evidence of Mair’s mental abnormality, reported at so many different times by so many independent people, but not discussed before the jury.”

Well this is only suspicious and puzzling if you don’t understand the first thing about how a defendant’s mental health is relevant in criminal proceedings. And it is regrettable that, given how frequently Mr Hitchens finds novel ways to be wrong about the criminal law, he did not think to ask anybody involved in criminal justice for their insight. Had he done so, he may have been told something along the following lines.

Evidence is carefully filtered in every criminal case. The court is only allowed to receive evidence that is relevant. Many defendants in criminal proceedings have lengthy histories of mental health problems. But it is only in a handful of trials that their condition is relevant to the issues that the jury have to determine.

How might mental ill health be relevant?

If a defence solicitor or barrister believes that a client may be suffering from mental ill health, they will as a matter of course obtain the client’s medical records and commission a psychiatric report. That report may be asked to comment on one or more of a variety of matters.

A psychiatrist may be asked to assess whether a defendant is “fit to plead” – legalese for being fit to participate in the trial process. This involves an assessment of whether a defendant can: understand the charges; decide whether to plead guilty or not guilty; exercise his right to challenge jurors (if, say, he knows one of them); instruct his legal representatives; follow the course of proceedings; and give evidence in his defence. If he can’t do one or more of those things, and if a judge hearing the evidence of two psychiatrists finds that the defendant can’t, he will be unfit to plead. This means that instead of a criminal trial there is a modified process (known as a “trial of the facts”), where a jury decides not on guilt but whether the defendant “did the act”. If so found, the court’s powers are limited to strictly rehabilitative options.

A psychiatrist may alternatively or as well be asked to opine on whether a defendant has a defence of insanity, defined as:

at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong

In murder trials, there is also a partial defence of diminished responsibility:

Furthermore, if a defendant were not capable of forming the specific intent to kill or cause grievous bodily harm (the mens rea for murder), whether because of a psychiatric condition or because of intoxication, that would also provide a defence to murder.

Finally, a psychiatric report may help with sentence. It may afford mitigation, if the offence was committed against the background of a mental health condition that reduced his culpability. It may make recommendations for particular disposals, such as hospital orders. And it may comment on issues that the court have to consider such as future risk.

Now the headline with all of these is that any such reported obtained by the defence attracts legal privilege. This means that the defence do not have to show anybody else – the court or the prosecution – the contents of the report if they do not wish to. So if a psychiatric report does not help the defence case, there will usually be no point in serving it. Many, many psychiatric reports are prepared for court cases every day and ultimately not relied upon. Often, the conclusion will be, “The Defendant suffers from psychiatric or psychological disorders, namely X, Y and Z, but not to the extent that any of the legal defences apply”. Sometimes, worse still, the report will be positively harmful to the defence. “The Defendant expressed no remorse and in my view presents a significant risk of serious harm to the public” is the last thing you want the court to read if you are trying to do the best for your client in mitigation. But, and I will repeat this, the fact that mental health issues were not “discussed before the jury” does not mean that all relevant mental health issues were not considered and dealt with appropriately.

Now we do not know why Mair’s lawyer did not rely on medical evidence. But we do know, because the defence barrister told the court at a pre-trial hearing, that Mair had been subject to an assessment.

So that leaves us with two possibilities:

  1. The defence lawyers considered that the contents of the psychiatric evidence, although perhaps showing that the defendant had mental health problems, did not assist the defence case;
  2. The defence lawyers ignored the psychiatric evidence, or negligently failed to appreciate that it was legally relevant and of assistance, and Peter Hitchens, who has never seen the evidence and is not legally trained, has correctly guessed this by piecing together things reportedly said by friends and neighbours.

Mistakes happen, of course. Negligence happens. Lawyers and judges are far from infallible. We see awful cases on appeal where the courts and/or defence representatives failed to appreciate the significance of a defendant’s mental health. But there is absolutely nothing to suggest that this is what happened in Mair’s case; to the contrary, his highly experienced lawyers indicated to the court that mental health had been considered and was not, for reasons that they do not have to state openly, going to be relevant to the issues the jury had to decide. Nor, from the sentencing remarks, was there any mental health issue relevant to mitigation. You’ll note that Hitchens does not suggest in respect of which legal issue – fitness to plead, a defence (and which one) or mitigation – the evidence of mental ill health ought to have been adduced. He just vaguely asserts that it should have been “discussed before the jury”, without deigning to tell us to what end.

Hitchens’ hang-up appears to stem from the false presumption that because an issue wasn’t raised before the jury, it wasn’t considered. That is wrong. No such deduction can safely be made. If Hitchens has spoken to those involved in the case, or has somehow seen Mair’s medical records or psychiatric reports, he may be onto something. Without any of those, it is nothing more than a conspiracy theory, and, given the imputation that Mair’s lawyers have been professionally negligent in service of a government agenda, a potentially libellous one at that.

Despite this all being pointed out to him, by numerous people, Hitchens remains characteristically recalcitrant. He insists that he is not seeking to excuse or defend Mair’s conduct, but he remains strangely keen to leverage minimal evidence of mental ill health to distance Mair from the “terrorist” label. The evidence of political motivation behind Mair’s actions was abundant, as the sentencing remarks made plain, but Hitchens goes to tortuous lengths to try to rebut this, climaxing with: “To me, his very insistence to police that “I am a political activist” shows that he was nothing of the sort.” Or as Brian’s followers would have it, “Only the true Messiah denies his divinity.”

Quite why Hitchens is so wedded to a thick black line that does not exist – attempting to separate mental ill health and terrorism into mutually exclusive camps – is also a mystery. Why he cannot accept the proposition that a person can be mentally unwell whilst still capable of committing deliberate and knowing acts of political carnage is as baffling as his determination to cast Mair as a victim of a state fit-up. The whole argument, as with so much of what Hitchens writes, is achingly bizarre. By the time you’ve finished deconstructing it, you almost forget why you started. Like the time he mistook the origins of the term “county lines” and got himself in a week-long tantrum, his thinking on this issue betrays a millefeuille of irrationality, incoherence and counterproductive reasoning. Hitchens has a term for that, but I expect he would not take kindly to it being applied to him.

The assault on Jack Grealish – is 14 weeks’ imprisonment the right sentence?

I fired off a quick thread last night offering my rough take on yesterday’s conviction and sentence of Paul Mitchell, the Birmingham City supporter who ran onto the pitch during Sunday’s match between Birmingham and Aston Villa and assaulted Villa footballer Jack Grealish. Below are my provisional thoughts.

What were the charges?

Paul Mitchell was charged with battery, contrary to s39 Criminal Justice Act 1988. He was also charged with an offence of encroaching onto a football pitch (presumably s4 Football Offences Act 1991). He pleaded guilty to both offences at his first appearance today before Birmingham Magistrates’ Court, the offences having been committed yesterday. A good live account of today’s court proceedings can be found here.

Why was the case dealt with so quickly?

Many people have remarked on how quickly this case was processed – barely 24 hours between offence and sentence. But this is not unusual where a defendant is arrested, charged with a summary offence (one that can only be tried at the magistrates’ court) and refused police bail. The police have the power to charge this type of battery without needing the Crown Prosecution Service to authorise the charge (see the Director’s Guidance on Charging), so the process is quicker. A defendant charged and kept in police custody will be produced at the magistrates’ court the next day. If a defendant pleads guilty, the court will usually require a Pre-Sentence Report to be prepared by the Probation Service, to make recommendations as to how best deal with the offender. It’s now common for this to be done the same day. Given that the offence was captured from multiple angles by high-definition television cameras, there was little choice but to plead guilty.

What about the sentence? How did the court arrive at 14 weeks? 

Mr Mitchell received 14 weeks’ imprisonment, as well as a 10-year football banning order. He was ordered to pay £100 in compensation to Mr Grealish, £135 in prosecution costs and a mandatory £150 Victim Surcharge.

When assessing sentence, the magistrates are required to follow the Sentencing Guideline for Assault. Here it is:

The maximum sentence for battery is 6 months’ imprisonment. (If injury had been caused, it would likely be charged as causing actual bodily harm, which carries a maximum sentence of 5 years). The maximum sentence for going onto the playing area is a fine.

A defendant who pleads guilty at the earliest opportunity – i.e. at his first appearance – is entitled to one third off his sentence. That applies to all defendants, even where, as in this case, the evidence is overwhelming.

This means that the maximum sentence the magistrates could have passed was 17 weeks.

14 weeks is therefore almost as high as they could go.

Looking at the Guidelines, in order to reach this sentence, the magistrates must have put this case in Category 1. This requires a finding of “Greater Harm” and “Higher Culpability”. On its face, it’s not easy to see how they did this (and without full sentencing remarks, we are somewhat in the dark).

There was no injury, and it was a single blow (rather than a sustained or repeated attack), so the only possible feature of Greater Harm was the particular vulnerability of the victim. It might be argued that as a man going about his job surrounded by tens of thousands of excitable spectators and relatively limited security, Mr Grealish qualifies as particularly vulnerable, although it’s a bit of a stretch.

Similarly, the features of “Higher Culpability” don’t immediately recommend themselves. Arguably there was an intention to cause greater harm than was in fact caused, but a single blow without a weapon makes this a tricky argument. Significant premeditation? Doesn’t look like it, unless Mitchell had told others in advance of his plans. Again, we may be left trying to characterise Mr Grealish as vulnerable to get this box ticked.

As for the other aggravating and mitigating features, there hasn’t been a lot of detail provided. The location and timing of the offence are aggravating features (the victim’s place of work in front of a national audience). We don’t know what the Pre-Sentence Report said about Mr Mitchell’s personal circumstances. We know that he had previous convictions for non-violent offences, but it’s not clear what they were and how relevant they were (whether, for example, they related to football). We know that his solicitor expressed remorse on his behalf, and that Mr Mitchell was a father of one with a second child on the way. How these were all balanced is unclear without knowing the magistrates’ full reasons.

I’m loath to draw any firm conclusions without knowing the magistrates’ reasoning, but on its face, it looks as if there would have had to be a fair bit of creative interpretation to get Mr Mitchell into Category 1 and towards the top end.

There is an alternative explanation. The magistrates made clear the need for deterrent sentencing for this kind of offence, and it may be that they held that, even though the offence would ordinarily fall within Category 2 or 3, the circumstances were such that it was in the interests of justice to move outside the category range on the Guideline and into Category 1. This, I’d guess, would be how they would justify the sentence.

The potential for widespread public disorder, as others have pointed out, may well have been a factor which the court treated as seriously aggravating. Context is everything. Those saying “he wouldn’t have got this for a punch in the street” miss the point. This wasn’t the street. It was a deliberate assault involving trespass onto a playing area, calculated to hurt and humiliate a man lawfully going about his job in front of a stadium of thousands and a television audience of millions. I have little doubt that Mr Mitchell has been treated particularly severely because this was a high profile assault; but he deliberately chose to make it high profile. He selected the location and the occasion. Those are aggravating features.

As ever, this whole exercise involves a fair bit of guesswork, because our justice system still struggles to do basic things such as providing a copy of the sentencing remarks in cases of enormous public interest. But that’s my rough take. A stiff sentence, but probably justifiable.

 

How does this compare to other cases of football spectator violence?

It is difficult and somewhat artificial to compare sentences, but one I’ll mention (because I’ve commented on it before) is the racially aggravated assault on Raheem Sterling. While  taking place outside the training ground rather than on the football pitch, this offence involved a much more serious assault, with repeated kicking (characterised by the Guidelines as using a weapon) which caused bruising, and the use of racist language. The offender was sentenced to 16 weeks’ imprisonment (the maximum sentence for racially aggravated battery is 2 years). I wrote at the time that I thought this sentence, based on the reported facts, was lenient, and this case arguably casts it into even starker relief.