“Just in case [Chris Grayling MP] is to be completely airbrushed from history, can we have a debate on his legacy as former Justice Secretary? It need not be a very long debate.”
When you’re standing in Parliament having your political career mocked by an ex-vicar best known for posting online pics of himself in his pants, it’s perhaps fair to suggest that your shot at high office may have passed you by. With these words from Chris Bryant MP yesterday dovetailing reports that Mr Grayling’s successor as Justice Secretary is considering abolishing the festering Criminal Courts Charge (about which more here), these have not been a good few weeks for Chris Grayling.
It could all have been so different, as well. Sometimes, in my quiet moments – usually waiting in vain for G4S to bring a defendant to court – I allow my imagination to pirouette around the shadows of those universes, parallel and infinite, in which the raft of life carries me down an alternative tributary culminating in my ultimate incarnation as a trout tickler, cheesemonger or worthy adversary to WWE’s The Undertaker. And I wonder whether Mr Grayling permits himself the same indulgence.
In case he is firm enough to resist, I’m prepared to have a go for him. Channelling Laura Barnett’s summer bestseller “The Versions of Us” – a charming hybrid of Sliding Doors and One Day – I’ll muse, if I may, on how Christopher Stephen Grayling’s life may have contoured had things just been ever so slightly different…
The knock on the door came shortly before noon. Chris Grayling MP, Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, would forever remember the sound of that knock, although as time ebbed he would come to forget whether it was the door on his house in Ashtead, Surrey, or the door on his taxypayer-funded flat in Pimlico, dolled up to the nines courtesy of redecoration claimed on expenses, up to the maximum allowed as it happened.
It was the police. They had questions, Mr Grayling, just a few sir, just in relation to that decorator. You remember, sir? The decorator who you said had invoiced you for £2,250 in July 2006 for works carried out in June 2005? Well sir, although we can’t find this decorator – and so can’t substantiate suggestions that this was a ploy designed to allow you to in effect claim more than the maximum expenses for work done in 2005 (by falsely asserting that you weren’t invoiced until the following year) – our enquiry has led us to look a bit closer at the various hefty second home and expenses claims you did make, and your financial affairs in general. Is it right, sir, that your secretary – paid £40,000 of public money – is also your wife? And did you ever sell your second property and pay the profit back to the taxpayer, as you publicly promised to do? Just curious. You’re of course welcome to speak to your solicitor if you like, sir. But this is just a friendly chat…
“They jury will never convict”, chortled Sol through a cloud of smoke. “You’re in safe hands, Chris. Only the finest legal representation here, and we’ll get you a top Q.C. as well. You’ll walk that trial.” There was no evidence of false accounting, Chris was sure of that, but he kept a nervous eye on the clock as his solicitor reclined. The price for being an innocent man, he mused, was a high – and hourly – one. Not qualifying for criminal legal aid due to his annual household disposable income being in excess of £37,500 meant he had had to pay privately for his defence at his forthcoming Crown Court trial. Commercial rates of £300 per hour for his solicitor – and £2,000 per day for his Q.C. – were squeezing his pips.
“But I was acquitted!” cried Chris. “I know,” sighed Sol, “but the Costs in Criminal Cases (General) (Amendment) Regulations 2012 that you signed in to law mean you can only recover your defence costs at legal aid rates.” “But…you charge ten times legal aid rates, Sol! And I didn’t even qualify for legal aid! It’s not as if I was offered it and turned it down! This was my only option! And I’ve been found not guilty!” Sol shrugged. “I don’t know what to tell you, Chris.” As Chris looked down at the invoice – £400,000 for a nine-week trial – his mind scrabbled for a way out. I know how Nigel feels, he muttered darkly.
Bankruptcy was not what Chris had expected. Being forced to step down as MP for Epsom after admitting misleading the House of Commons over his Judicial Review reforms was inevitable in this febrile climate of public mistrust in MPs, but the divorce had knocked him for six. Penniless, and unable to obtain legal aid to help him with the family proceedings, his ex-wife’s privately-funded barrister had kicked him across the courtroom. His attempt at securing new employment had foundered – his new employer expressing an irrational hatred for “bald quisling men”, and sacking him without notice, or indeed any pay for his last month, upon a whim. Chris considered making a claim for sex discrimination at the Employment Tribunal, but then remembered the fees he had introduced. How on earth, he pondered, do I, as a recently-sacked person, find £250 just to issue the claim? Let alone £950 for a hearing? And that’s before I even consider paying for legal advice or representation, legal aid playing no part in employment cases. I could try a Legal Advice Centre, he considered, before remembering that one in three had closed down due to his own legal aid cuts. Silly me, he giggled.
Chris took to homelessness better than he anticipated. Relying, like Blanche Dubois, on the kindness of strangers, he managed to make friends on the street. One in particular, Pedro, would from time to time pass Chris a bite to eat. It was in relation to one such bite – a Mars bar, passed to Chris by Pedro outside a supermarket – that Chris was reacquainted with the boys in blue. “Shoplifting, eh Grayling?” snarled Plod, as Chris and Pedro were tossed into the back of the van. “But I…I had nothing to do with it!” wailed Chris. “Tell it to the magistrates,” laughed Plod.
In fact, Chris told it first to his duty solicitor, a newly-qualified fresh-faced ferrety type with a 2:2 from some college on the internet. (The graduates with the more prestigious backgrounds presumably, Chris thought to himself, have taken the commercial decision to head for the bright lights of city firms who will pay more than £17,000 p.a. for a fifty hour week (including being on call at night)). Mr Ferret listened nervously, advised Chris to give no comment in his police interview, and told Chris that he would see him at court the following day. Happily, thought Chris, my lack of disposable income means I qualify for legal aid! He laughed so hard at the irony that he started to cry.
The chair of the bench tapped his magisterial fingers on the bench. “If your client is not here, Mr Ferret, we’ll have to issue a warrant for his arrest”. Mr Ferret looked around hopelessly. Unaware that Chris had found it impossible to find public transport that would get him the 100 miles to court in time – Chris’ local court having been closed due to cuts – Mr Ferret could not resist the inevitable warrant being issued. When Chris was arrested and brought before the magistrates the following day, he entered his not guilty plea to theft and the trial was listed for four months’ hence (listings being forever jammed due to the number courtrooms sitting empty because of the cost of running them). As he had failed to surrender on bail the previous day, Chris was remanded in custody by the magistrates, Mr Ferret putting up a fairly weak fight, Chris felt. In the cells, Chris asked Mr Ferret about his qualifications. He was, Mr Ferret, explained, one of two newly-qualified employees at a firm financially-fisted by the 17.5% cuts to criminal legal aid. Oh well, Chris reassured himself, I’m sure it’s fine. After all, we have the most generous legal aid system in Europe. Only the highest calibre of lawyer would pour their souls into criminal litigation. “Are you trained in crime?”, Chris asked. “Not really,” admitted Mr Ferret. “But don’t worry – my lack of training allows me to be completely impartial when I’m representing you and making decisions related to criminal justice.” Chris nodded. He understood completely.
Chris’ trial didn’t go as hoped. He heard about the result from his cellmate, who was one of the prisoners who hadn’t been missed off the list by G4S and so had been taken to court. The magistrates, unimpressed by Chris’ failure to attend, and mindful of the importance of expediting justice, tried Chris in his absence, and duly convicted him. His sentence had been adjourned for six weeks, Mr Ferret mistakenly believing Chris required a psychiatric report before being sentenced. In the end, no psychiatrist would agree to work at the new legal aid rates, so it was a fool’s errand, albeit one that required a further three-week adjournment for the Probation Service to prepare a Pre-Sentence Report. When the matter came back to court, there was regrettably no report available, due to further I.T. problems caused by Chris’ privatisation of the Probation Service, so yet another three-week adjournment was needed. When the Probation Service did eventually attend on Chris at HMP Spartan, they were told, erroneously, by the prison officers that Chris had refused to come out of his cell. Gosh, Chris chuckled to himself, this is getting silly! Encore une adjournment! When Chris eventually appeared at court for an effective sentence hearing, Pre-Sentence Report at the ready, his co-defendant Pedro found himself absent an interpreter – Capita having again failed to send one. Lordy, Chris grinned. Who on earth would give such an important contract to those silly billies? Finally, 8 months after his first appearance, having served the equivalent of a 16-month prison sentence, far in excess of what he would ever get for shoplifting, Chris could be sentenced. Despite the CPS prosecutor, Mr Ferret and magistrates spectacularly misapplying the Sentencing Guidelines, the sentence passed meant that Chris would be released immediately. Just the matter of the mandatory Criminal Courts Charge, the magistrate added. “That will be £720 for a summary trial, Mr Ferret. How does your client offer to pay that?” Chris tugged at Mr Ferret’s sleeve – “Surely they know I’m homeless, penniless and have been inside for 8 months?” “We hear you, Mr Grayling”, said the magistrate sympathetically. “But the law you introduced tells us that we cannot take your means into account.” Chris nodded. It’s only right, after all, that those who use our criminal courts should pay towards the cost of running them, reducing the burden on taxpayers. “You have to pay,” the magistrate continued, “and, if we think you’re wilfully failing to pay, you know what will follow…”. Christ, thought Chris. I hope if I do find myself before the enforcement court for non-payment that there won’t have been a sudden exodus of all the good-hearted magistrates.
Prison was not, Chris reflected, what he had expected. He had become a bit peeved at certain things – for example the way that, when prison officers wrongly accused him of disciplinary offences, he was no longer entitled to legal aid for the adjudication – even though an adverse finding could see his sentence extended. The regular suicide attempts were also a downer, although, he noted, certainly not a crisis. He would also have appreciated a bit less time in his cell and a bit more time learning a trade. If he was being extra picky, he wouldn’t have minded something new to read, either. Still, Spartan is as Spartan does, he told himself. Chris’ cellmate, Bazza, was something of a prison lawyer, and, having heard how the enforcement court dealt with Chris’ failure to pay the Criminal Courts Charge, suggested that Chris consider challenging the lawfulness of the charge by way of Judicial Review. No no no, Chris shook his head. Judicial Review is simply a promotional tool for left-wing campaigners. Well alternatively, Bazza opined, it strikes me that there may be a human rights point here. It’s got to be a breach of your Article 5 right to liberty to be locked up for not paying something you can’t pay, surely? Chris sighed – Bazza was well-meaning, but deeply unworldly. “The Human Rights Act is being repealed, Bazza, and rightly so. All it’s good for is allowing illegal immigrants to look after their cats.”
“Cheers!” Chris and Pedro clinked their tins of special brew. “And look how far we’ve come!” Chris surveyed the yellowed walls of their hostel room, momentarily ruminating on the changes he’d make to the decor with an expenses account, but dismissing such thinking as ungrateful. He had his freedom, he had a (temporary) roof over his head, and all that unpleasantness with the law was far behind him. He felt fully vindicated, the Crown Court having allowed an out-of-time appeal against his conviction upon Mr Ferret examining the unused material in the case and finding CCTV footage casting doubt over whether Chris was involved with the shoplifting. It was a shame, Chris thought, that, in spite of that, I’m not able to claim a penny for being wrongfully imprisoned for a total of 12 months, but still. Could be worse. Could be in Saudi Arabia! Lord knows we could teach them a thing or two about justice. Anyway, freedom is what counts. The world, he told himself, is my oyster. As he rolled off the bottom bunk and padded towards the sink, there was a rat-a-tat-tat at the door.
“Morning, Mr Grayling”.
“Good morning, constable”.
“Would you mind coming with us, please? We’ve just had a visit from this decorator…”
The above story is entirely fictional, although, plainly, if there was a god, it would not be.