Thank you

Some of you may have seen that, in further defiance of all common sense and decency, I was yesterday named joint winner of the Independent Blogger of the Year award at the Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards 2017, defending my barely-deserved crown, to be shared with the wonderful Liz Gerard (@gameoldgirl), author of the superb SubScribe blog.

Last year, I came over all Gwyneth when thanking you, my long-suffering readership, for your support. Time has both weathered and hardened my soul, so if I may, I will say only this:

Thank you, again, for all of your support, comments and criticism. That this blog did not wither two months into infancy is down to the unmerited attention and generous engagement of all of you who read these half-formed thoughts and follow me on the Twitter. Its success lies as much with you as me.

Here’s to another twelve months of lawsplaining.

Thank you all

SB x

 

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Bad law reporting and a public dangerously disconnected from criminal justice

I have today written a piece for Legal Cheek, in which, like a stuck record, I bemoan the standard of public legal education and tabloid law reporting, and submit that the public should be outraged by the justice system — but not for the reasons they think.

If this sounds like your sort of thing, the article is here.

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Why those of us in the system must share the blame for the lack of public faith in criminal sentencing

Good news breaks from Newcastle Crown Court, where four men have been convicted and sentenced for serious offences involving child sexual exploitation. Soran Azizi, Palla Pour, Ribas Asad and Saman Faiaq Obaid each received sentences of imprisonment for crimes including trafficking for sexual exploitation, sexual activity with children and supplying controlled drugs, the latter a grimly familiar tool used by abusers to achieve the former.

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As I say, good news, and a good job by the Crown Prosecution Service. So why does it sound as if I’m taking a run-up to go off on a peevish tangent? Well, it’s because – and I accept that it sounds like a little thing, but bear with me – it’s because of this tweet from the official CPS account:

For now, let’s put to one side the question of whether this feeds into an increasing, Americanised tendency by the CPS to publicly cheer “tougher” sentences (this traditionally not being the role of the prosecutor in England and Wales, in stark contrast to the US system). I instead want to look briefly at that number – 32 years – because I think it’s an example of a deeply unhelpful trend in modern reporting.

The figure of 32 years is arrived at by aggregating the sentences of the four defendants. Azizi got 6 years, Pour got 12 years, Asad got 9 ½ years and Obaid received 4 years 9 months. And this aggregation, when you think about it, is an entirely pointless exercise. It tells us nothing about the seriousness of the offences committed. It tells us nothing about the sentence imposed in respect of each man. It tells us nothing about how long they will serve, and – importantly to many people – when they will be released.

Its only purpose appears to be to present an eye-catching headline figure to draw the reader in to the story. In a tabloid newspaper, this is one thing. But by the CPS?

The problem is not just that this headline does little to educate the casual reader who doesn’t study the press release down to the Notes to Editors. It’s that it contributes to a serious disconnect we have in criminal sentencing between the system and the general public. One of the most common complaints we hear from non-lawyers is that sentences frequently don’t mean what people think they mean. Part of this is because of the inherent complexity of sentencing legislation and early release provisions, which even judges struggle to interpret (Lord Philips in the Supreme Court famously said that “hell is a fair description” of this legislation). But part of the issue is because even in straightforward sentencing cases, the basics are not reported in their full context.

Anyone scanning the CPS Twitter account and seeing the words “32 years” would be forgiven for thinking that the men convicted in Newcastle were likely to be serving at least the best part of a decade in prison. In the case of Obaid, he will serve a maximum of 2 years and 4 ½ months, minus any time he has served on remand awaiting his sentence. None of the defendants will serve anything even close to half of 32 years. The most any one of them will serve is 6 years (Pour). Nowhere in the press release, or even in the notes to editors, is this spelt out. One can only hope that the vulnerable young victims of this predatory offending have had the real position fully explained to them.

I appreciate that the CPS tweeter was no doubt aiming for snappy, 140-character brevity, and that the main takeaway is that serious criminal behaviour has been successfully prosecuted and justly dealt with; but I do think this is a problem. This kind of headline inflation of sentences is how we end up with ridiculous red-top myths about serious sex offenders being released only a couple of years into a 22-year sentence, which in turn serves only to feed a toxic circular narrative of “soft sentences” and “joke justice”. We can’t possibly expect the public to have faith in criminal sentencing if the system adopts the same clickbait tropes.

I devote a lot of words on this blog to chiding journalists about accurate reporting of criminal cases. It’s regrettably evident that some need to be directed at those of us in the system as well.

9 reasons why this vile murderer should be given taxpayers’ cash to sue the government

Just a quick one. A number of people online were yesterday disturbed by this tweet from court reporting Twitter account @CourtNewsUK, relating to Michael Adebolajo, one of the two murderers of Drummer Lee Rigby:

The story has been picked up by The Mirror, which gasped with similar horror that a “top judge” has “insisted [Adebolajo] should be given taxpayer cash to pay for his court fight against the Ministry of Justice.”

The anger has burned through the night and looks set to smoulder for the rest of the day, Radio 4’s Today programme finding space for a mention among its bulletins. And I understand why. On its face, this appears an instinctively unjust state of affairs. A High Court Judge loftily calling for yet more taxpayers’ hard-earned money to be poured into the pockets of a man guilty of unspeakable savagery.

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But scratch beneath the surface, and you quickly see that there’s more to this story than the tweet suggests. For a start, no decision has been made to grant Adebolajo legal aid for his personal injury claim against the Ministry of Justice, which arises out of injuries he sustained while being restrained by prison officers. Indeed, personal injury practitioners will correct me if I’m wrong, but I understand that legal aid for claims of this type is vanishingly rare. And proceedings are still at an early stage; today’s hearing at which the judge’s comments were made was a preliminary hearing. Details are scant. It is not clear whether the claim has any merit at all; whether it will run to trial, or whether it will be struck out as entirely frivolous.

But let’s suppose that the claim is heading for a trial. And let’s suppose the judge’s comments above were fairly and accurately reported in their full context [SPOILER – they were not, and we’ll come to that]. Here, resuscitating a thread I posted yesterday, are my thoughts on why legal representation should be made available to Michael Adebolajo, at taxpayer cost if need be:

  1. Any trial will take far longer if he is not legally represented. The conclusive experience of the courts is that legal proceedings involving unrepresented parties take far, far longer than when lawyers are instructed. The reason is simple – law and court procedure is hideously complicated. It cannot be – despite what some DIY law websites will tell you – be mastered through Google. Unrepresented litigants, even those who are impressive experts in their own professional fields, will make errors and cause delays. Lawyers are trained to hone in on the issues of law and fact that best support their case. Litigants-in-person may not appreciate their best points, or how to concisely argue them, or how to apply the law. Judges loyal to their judicial oaths are required to assist litigants as best they can to ensure fairness, but this all takes time. The experience of the family courts, in which 34% of cases now involve unrepresented litigants on both sides since legal aid cuts in 2012, bears witness to this.
  2. Any trial will be far more expensive if he’s not represented. This follows logically from 1. The more court time that is taken up dealing with a case, the greater the cost to the court, and ultimately, if the money can’t be recouped from the losing party, the taxpayer. Providing legal aid will usually save money in the long run, as lawyers will (a) advise the client robustly if the claim is devoid of merit, potentially avoiding the need for any further hearings; and (b) ensure that any trial is conducted much quicker, and therefore much cheaper, than if the individual was self-representing.
  3. The experience for the witnesses will be much more unpleasant if he’s not represented. Have you ever watched a sadistic criminal cross-examine a witness in court? Put another way, would you like to be cross-examined by a wild-eyed terrorist blundering his way through a series of irrelevant and potentially abusive questioning over several hours, punctuated by interruptions from the judge shepherding the questioner back on track? Or would you rather be cross-examined for 20 minutes, politely (and slightly ineffectually) by me, with my natty court dress and solemn demeanour? The prison officers who are the subject of the allegations by Adebolajo will have to give evidence and be cross-examined by someone. For their own comfort and dignity, I’d be prepared to chip in for this to be done professionally. Which brings us to the next point.
  4. The allegations are serious. Adebolajo claims that the prison officers held him by the head and arms in such a manner that he lost two teeth. If he is right, the truth is far more likely to emerge if his case is presented, and the questions are asked, by a trained professional.
  5. Convicted murderers have rights. Our darker selves might secretly welcome the news that a convicted murderer has had a good roughing up. No more than he deserves, right? But the mark of our civilisation is that we hold ourselves up as better than the people who harm us. We do not descend to vengeance, much less vigilantism. For what he has done, Adebolajo will be imprisoned for the rest of his life. That is his punishment. It does not follow that public servants have carte blanche to use unlawful violence against him. As despicable as we may find him, we cannot let his actions degrade our basic standards of justice. If we do, he has won. Therefore if his rights are breached, he is entitled to a remedy. It may not taste nice. But the rule of law does not require that justice be dispensed only to people we like.
  6. There is a wider issue of public safety if he is being truthful. Aside from Adebolajo’s rights, there are also the rights of other prisoners to consider. If he is truthful, and prison officers have used unlawful force against him, this needs addressing. Because prison officers are not just in charge of the Adebolajos of this world, but many other prisoners who, by nature or circumstance, are inherently vulnerable to abuses of power. And some of these prisoners will be remand prisoners awaiting criminal trial. They have not yet been convicted of an offence, and some will never be. There are innocent people in the charge of the state in our prisons. They deserve an environment where they are not subject to gratuitous state-sanctioned violence.
  7. Adebolajo will not be “given taxpayer cash” whatever happens. The beloved tabloid trope envisages giant, Wheel of Fortune-style novelty cheques being proudly handed over, or oodles of cash being ladled into wheelbarrows and delivered to Adebolajo in prison, for him to fritter as he sees fit. This is a nonsense. Any legal aid granted would be paid – at modest rates – directly to regulated solicitors and barristers. There is no financial benefit to Adebolajo at all. If we start from the premise that he has no money, and so will not be able to pay for legal representation come what way, the options are stark: either he doesn’t pay and is unrepresented, with the consequences above; or he doesn’t pay and is represented in some form, whether under a conditional fee agreement (“no win, no fee”), by lawyers acting for free (pro bono) or through legal aid. We don’t know the details, but the judge who does appears to think that only the latter is a viable option at this time.
  8. The law is for the benefit of us all. As the Supreme Court was at pains to point out to the oblivious Ministry of Justice when recently ruling employment tribunal fees to be unlawful, court cases do not only matter to the parties involved. I’ll leave the articulation of this point to Lord Reed:ED5B7877-8DF4-4B9E-AF62-6788697419CBEF549A28-9FDD-401E-B9AE-B90811A0C157C045B493-201C-4163-8BDC-266582F788FAD8CEEB25-B763-4E8A-889C-407412406379
  9. The outrage isn’t that Adebolajo might be granted legal aid, but that so many others are denied the legal aid and help they need. This is borrowed in its pithy entirety from a tweet by barrister Douglas Lloyd (@DouglasLloydUK). There is certaintly an argument of disparity and unfairness here; but not the one upon which most are alighting. The devastation of legal aid and soaring increase in court and tribunal fees over the past decade have served to exclude vast swathes of mostly poor and desperate people from the justice system. This case raises questions – but distracted by our own uncritical rage, we are asking the wrong ones.

Putting the above together, I think there’s a compelling case for saying that justice – to all involved – is best served by having this man legally represented. Legal aid may or may not be granted; I do not know enough about this field to opine. But if it is, it will not be a taxpayer-funded privilege lavished on an ungrateful terrorist; it will be a sensible and restrained direction of public funds towards ensuring that justice is served to all involved – government, claimant, prison staff, prisoners and taxpayers.  Which, when one looks at the judge’s comments in context, is exactly what he was saying:

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A reply to Lord Adonis on sentencing, prisons and judges

I’ll be honest, out of all the ‘robust debates’ I’ve had online about criminal justice and sentencing of offenders, I would not have expected the most frustrating, fiery and ill-informed to be with someone advocating for less use of prison. It takes a special talent, I would suggest, to present an argument in such a way that you manage to alienate those who agree with your conclusion. Arise for your special badge, Lord Andrew Adonis, former Head of Policy at Number 10 Downing Street and erstwhile Transport Secretary.

The past few days have seen Lord Adonis stagger around Twitter swinging aimlessly at lawyers and judges like a punch-drunk case study on a late night police reality TV show. Every effort to gently usher him into the back of the van for some calm, reasonable, evidence-based discourse is met with another wild lunge towards camera – he has now blocked nearly every lawyer on Twitter – compounding the schadenfreude of rubbernecking passers-by. Unfortunately for Andrew, his identity is not pixellated to spare his embarrassment; rather emblazoned across each and every one of his (increasingly peculiar) assaults on the “cobwebbed judicial system”.

Let’s start with the common ground: Adonis believes that we have too many people in prison. I agree. As do, I would expect, most people who work in criminal justice. The statistics are trite, but no less shocking for that: England and Wales currently has around 85,500 people in prison. We imprison more people per capita than any other country in Western Europe (146 prisoners per 100,000 citizens). We have more prisoners serving indeterminate sentences – sentences for which there is no guaranteed release date – than the other 46 countries in the Council of Europe combined. Sixty-nine per cent of our prisons are overcrowded. Violence has soared by 68 per cent since 2006, with a 32% increase alone between 2015 and 2016 (a total of 25,000 assault incidents). Assaults on prison staff have risen by 40% in a decade. Deaths in custody have risen by 38% in between 2015 and 2016. The horror correlates with the £1bn cut to prison budgets by the last government and the 30% reduction in prison staff. And whatever else prison is supposedly achieving, stopping reoffending is not it: 44% of adults are reconvicted within one year of release. For those serving sentences of less than 12 months this increases to 59%.

And numbers have increased steeply over the past two decades. The prison population rose by 90 per cent from 1990 to 2016. This is a recent, and peculiarly English-and-Welsh, problem.

For Adonis, the prescription is simple. The problem is the judges, whacking their gavels and sending people to prison for longer:

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Why are judges doing this? “Fear of tabloids”, Adonis posits:

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Extracts cannot really do justice to the tirade of tweets that Adonis launched towards the judiciary on this theme, and I’d recommend reading his Twitter timeline (with a glass of something stiff) to get the full flavour, but this is the nub:

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Now some of us hacks did indeed offer a defence of judges (who, by constitutional convention, are not permitted to speak out publicly to defend themselves). And we did so not because, as Adonis suggests, we have a desire to become a judge (I think I have successfully set fire to that particular lifeboat for myself through this blog and my forthcoming book), or because we think all judges are wonderful (SPOILER: They’re not – most are excellent, but some are significantly less so), but because we see criminals being sentenced every single day, and have a certain experience in this field. And I struggle to think of many cases I’ve been in, either prosecuting or defending, where I have suspected that a sentence has been inflated because of an eye on reporters in the public gallery.

As for Adonis’ experience, I did ask how many judges he had seen passing excessive sentences out of fear of tabloid retribution, but received the following, less-than-full response:

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The thing is, while to a layperson Adonis’ criticism would seem to make sense – judges are the ones passing these sentences, after all – a little knowledge of the law teaches that, to a large extent, judges’ hands are often tied, or at least lightly bound with handkerchiefs. That is because sentencing is not, as many might imagine from pop culture, an exercise in plucking a figure out of the air, whacking a (non-existent) gavel and intoning, “Take him down”. Crown Court judges are instead required to apply a horrendously complex morass of sentencing law and guidelines, which severely limit their room for manoeuvre. While they have discretion to pass a sentence that meets the justice of an individual case, it is a fallacy to presume that this discretion is at large.

Firstly, there are Sentencing Guidelines for most criminal offences, which judges are required by law to follow. We’ve looked at these guidelines in previous posts dealing with specific cases, but in short, they provide judges with a mixture of flow-charts and grids, setting out sentence “starting points” and “ranges” depending on which factors are present in a particular case. There is ultimately discretion built in as to where on the guidelines a judge pitches a case, but you can see for yourself that there is often not a great deal of wiggle room. Guidelines are set by the Sentencing Council, whose members are drawn from the judiciary, magistracy, legal practitioners, academics, police and the Director of Public Prosecutions. Guidelines are subject to public consultation, and the Council is accountable to the Ministry of Justice and has a statutory duty to consult with Parliament. The Sentencing Council is not, lest you be confused by Adonis’ complaints, a gaggle of judges operating under a cloak of secrecy.

Now I make clear – I do not agree with all of the guidelines. I think, for example, the way in which drugs are sentenced is largely ludicrous. A starting point of 4.5 years’ imprisonment for someone selling a few wraps of crack cocaine to fund their own habit is, with respect, the hallmark of a society that doesn’t have a clue what it is doing with drug policy, although the malaise for that lies with political culture at large, not the Sentencing Council. But even if you accepted Adonis’ view that the Council was a bunch of industry insiders fixing oppressively long sentences out of a desire to placate the red tops, it does not explain how, as Adonis postulates, it is fair to level cowardice charges at the several hundred other judges who are required day-to-day to follow the guidelines.

And, more importantly, judges must follow the law. Sentencing legislation is made by Parliament, which includes among its members Lord Adonis, as a member of the House of Lords. And judges have to follow the law set by Parliament. There is no discretion here. That is the essence of the rule of law and our basic constitutional settlement. I say this, because Adonis has suggested that judges should have “argued against” the government’s “policy” – by which he can only mean that they should have revolted and refused to follow the law that the government enjoined Parliament to make. So let’s get that sixth-form concept straight: judges have to follow the law set by Parliament.

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Now, as for what the law says, we can see that over the past two decades, politicians have scrambled to salute Michael Howard’s prison works squawk and increase the ways in which they can force judges to pass longer sentences. This included “mandatory minimum” sentences for repeat offenders – such as the 3-year minimum sentence for repeat burglars and the 7-year minimum for repeat drug traffickers – brought in by the New Labour government of which Adonis was a part. This same legislation – the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 – also introduced mandatory life sentences for offenders committing a second serious offence (a provision later abolished, re-imagined and re-enacted).  And there are many, many others.

But for now, I want to look briefly at one area to which Lord Adonis refers in the above tweet – indeterminate sentences.

In 2003, when Adonis was ensconced in the bosom of Downing Street as Head of the Policy Unit, New Labour brought forth the Criminal Justice Act 2003, a huge, unwieldy piece of legislation which did many things, including introducing the notion of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPPs). You may have heard of these – they have been in the news recently, as people given short “minimum terms” of as little as 10 months ended up serving over a decade under such sentences. The way that IPPs worked in theory was as follows: The judge would set a “minimum term”, after which the defendant would be eligible for release on licence, as long as he could satisfy the parole board that he was no longer dangerous. If he could’t satisfy the parole board, he would be detained until he could, potentially forever. As it happened, the government decided that they couldn’t afford to provide the rehabilitation courses that prisoners were required to pass in order to satisfy the parole board, meaning IPP prisoners were trapped in a Kafka-esque nightmare. For this reason, the Court of Appeal found that then-Justice Secretary Jack Straw had acted unlawfully in failing to provide the rehabilitation programmes, and in 2012 IPPs were repealed (although those passed before that date remained).

Now when IPPs were first introduced, if a defendant convicted of certain violent or sexual offences was found to be “dangerous” – the legal test for which was that he posed a significant risk of serious harm to the public – an IPP had to be passed. The judge had no discretion – the law was clear. If the offender met the risk threshold, the judge was not allowed to deal with him in any other way. This, unsurprisingly, led to an explosion in prison numbers – around 3,700 prisoners were serving IPPs by 2007.

This was the law until 2008. Parliament, realising its error, then amended the legislation to give judges discretion as to whether to impose IPPs where certain criteria were met. The word “must” was changed to “may”, and the threshold for imposing IPPs was heightened, to remove the scenario of tiny minimum terms (one as low as 28 days) resulting in years being spent behind bars. And, given discretion, judges stopped imprisoning as many people under IPPs.

Why do I focus on IPPs? It’s because they are the prime factor responsible for the increased use of prison. As the Parliamentary statistics that Adonis himself cites shows (thanks to @ProfChalmers), the length of sentence for all offenders has remained relatively stable across the 11 year period (2005 – 2016) except for a notable increase in indeterminate sentences.

That is not to say that all IPPs imposed were rightly so. Judges after 2008 did have discretion, and no doubt there will have been instances where it can be argued that an IPP was imposed where it need not have been (and many such cases will have been argued successfully before the Court of Appeal).

But what this incontrovertibly shows is that far from judges imposing increasingly lengthy sentences “out of fear of tabloids”, it was in fact politicians – Lord Adonis and his colleagues – forcing judges to impose certain types and lengths of sentence that was the greatest contributing factor to the increased use of prison. As for why politicians felt compelled to act in this way, you would have to ask them. But it may be there that “tabloid fear” finds its rightful resting place.

As for other factors of note that we can identify, we can see from the chart above an increase in determinate sentences of over 4 years. We can also see over the past 16 years a surge in prisoners convicted of violent and sexual offences:

Partly, this will be because of the increase in violent crime. Partly this will be attributable to the fact that the CPS are prosecuting more sex offences than ever, particularly allegations of historic (or “non-recent”) sexual abuse. Neither of these factors have anything to do with the judges. And, faced with serious sexual or violent offending, the guidelines and the legislation make clear what judges are required to do.

Conclusion

Ultimately, this is a silly argument, given the broad area of agreement between Lord Adonis and most lawyers. But I waste my Sunday afternoon to unpick Adonis’ complaints, even though I think we are on the same side, because there is no point embarking upon a remedy if you have mis-diagnosed the illness. And what is increasingly clear from Adonis’ tweets is that he lacks some fairly rudimentary understanding of the legal system.

For example, he suggests that Lady Hale, as the new President of the Supreme Court should “call out the trend to ever longer sentences”, apparently oblivious to how the Supreme Court operates.

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Sentencing policy has nothing to do with the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court’s only role in criminal sentencing is to rule on the infinitesimal number of criminal sentence appeals that make it to the Supreme Court from the Court of Appeal. Why are so few criminal sentence cases heard at the Supreme Court? It’s because in order to appeal upwards from the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court, either the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court has to certify that “a point of law of general public importance is involved in the decision”. This is a high threshold, and excludes the vast majority of sentence appeals (which tend to turn on their individual facts, rather than wider points of public importance). If you think that this threshold is too high, and that more criminal sentence cases should be capable of being litigated before the Supreme Court, you know who you can blame? Either the Parliament which enacted s.33 of the Criminal Appeal Act 1968. Or the Parliament which created the Supreme Court and defined its jurisdiction under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. Head of Policy Unit at Number 10 Downing Street when the Supreme Court was created in 2005? Andrew Adonis.

Nor, regrettably, can the Lord Chief Justice, who is head of the judiciary and president of the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division), which hears sentence appeals from the Crown Court, decide of his own motion to “cut most sentences”. What on earth does this mean? That every sentence appeal he sits on must be allowed, irrespective of merits, in order to achieve an overall reduction? That the current legal test that the Court of Appeal applies, allowing appeals against sentence where sentences are “wrong in law or principle” or “manifestly excessive” be lowered to something less? If so, that is not within the gift of the Lord Chief Justice alone.

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I fear that Adonis has a rather childlike conception of the interaction between our various courts. If the Big Judge at the top says something, then all the other little judges will do it, seems to be the gist. It is alas not that simple. Sentences will not become shorter across the board simply because Lady Hale decrees, a propos of nothing, that it should be so. It is the same simplistic view of the world that claims, with a straight face, that the judges should, somehow, have stopped Adonis’ government from doing the reckless and damaging things it did:

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The solution, unfortunately for Lord Adonis, lies closer to home. Politicians, who are paid to make the arguments, need to change the tone of public debate on criminal sentencing. The corrosive tabloid culture that Adonis rightly decries is not going away. Parliamentarians need to be brave, and confront the toxic narrative of longer sentences and prison holiday camps that has informed Ministry of Justice policy for the past decade. Constituents should be told about the realities of prison and its proven limitations in reducing crime. The Dutch model that Adonis has held up as an example should be advocated by mainstream politicians on prime time interviews, not relegated to social media spats between ex-policy wonks and lawyers. The statutory manacles forcing judges to impose long sentences for certain offences should be re-examined and, where appropriate, released. The Justice Secretary could consider using s.128 of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which would allow him to change the test for releasing the 4,000-odd remaining IPP prisoners who have served beyond their minimum terms. The plan to double the powers of magistrates – non-legally trained volunteers – to imprison people, allowing them to lock defendants up for a year for a single offence, could be snuffed out. If short prison sentences don’t work, why not consider a presumption against their use, as proposed by the Lib Dems at the last election? The increasingly popular trend for the Attorney General to “refer” (appeal) sentences as “unduly lenient” to the Court of Appeal – and to feed the prison works narrative by boasting about its successes – could be challenged. There has been a 108 per cent increase in AG References since 2010, no doubt attributable in part to media campaigns whipping up anger at perceived “soft sentences”, opinions often formed in wholesale ignorance of the facts.

There is a lot that could be considered as part of a remodelling of criminal sentencing. And no doubt judicial inclinations will form part of it. I don’t deny that some judges use prison too readily; of course they do. They are subject to the same human frailties and cognitive biases as the rest of us. But it is Adonis’ eagerness to pin the bulk of the blame on the judiciary, and the unsubstantiated assertion that they habitually falter out of genuflection to the tabloids, that I consider to be unfair. Because as we can see, that is not where the real problem lies.

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POSTSCRIPT

In case anyone saw, listed amongst his various grievances with the legal system, the following tweet by Lord Adonis, I should like to make two brief points.

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  1. The Law Commission is a statutory independent body that conducts detailed research and consultations and makes recommendations, usually accompanied by weighty published reports, for changes in the law “to ensure the law is as fair, modern, simple and as cost-effective as possible.” The decision on whether to implement a recommendation by the Law Commission is for Parliament alone. Parliament. Which includes Lord Adonis. If “nothing changes”, the fault is entirely with the politicians.
  2. But it’s not right to say that “nothing changes”. Two thirds of the Law Commission’s recommendations have been implemented. For a look at exactly what recommendations have been accepted, implemented and are pending, there is a handy list here, with which Lord Adonis may wish to familiarise himself. A subsequent apology to the Law Commission for his ill-informed and intemperate tweet as a senior Parliamentarian would, he might feel, be the very least he can do.

UPDATE: An Oxford medical student stabbed her boyfriend with a bread knife. So why did she not go to prison?

Lavinia Woodward, the 24-year old Oxford student who pleaded guilty to stabbing her boyfriend with a bread knife, was sentenced yesterday at Oxford Crown Court for unlawful wounding. The case caused a splash back in May when, having entered her plea, the defendant was told by the judge that she was unlikely to receive an immediate custodial sentence, in part due to her promising medical career. Thus was born the tale of the rich, blonde, white Oxford student who was “too clever” to be sent to prison. “Too clever” appears in all headlines in quotation marks, notwithstanding that no-one in court, not least the judge, ever used these words; rather this is one of the those splendid auto-generated media myths, where one tabloid shorthand was adopted by all until everyone came to accept that these words must have been said.

What actually happened, as far as we can tell from the limited press reports, I dealt with at the time here. In short, the judge was impressed by various features of personal mitigation and deferred sentence, in essence giving the defendant an opportunity to show why she shouldn’t go immediately to prison. HHJ Pringle QC explained yesterday his reasons for deferring:

“[F]irstly, to allow you to continue with your counselling; secondly, for you to demonstrate over a lengthier period of time that you had truly rid yourself of your alcohol and class A drug addiction.”

Four months passed, and Ms Woodward returned to court yesterday to be sentenced to 10 months’ imprisonment suspended for 18 months. After a little delay, the full sentencing remarks were published this morning here. They are mandatory reading for anyone expressing a view about the case, but to assist, let’s look briefly at how the sentencing exercise was carried out.

The facts, as summarised by the judge, were as follows:

“Having met a few months before, in October 2016 you [the Defendant] began a relationship with a student from Cambridge University. Sadly, you were still suffering from the effects of a very damaging previous relationship with another who had introduced you to class a drugs. You clearly had both drug and alcohol addictions. On 30 December 2016, your partner paid you a visit in your accommodation in Christchurch College in Oxford. It rapidly became clear to him that you had been drinking. He tried to discourage you from continuing your drinking without success. As the evening progressed, you became increasingly volatile. At one stage your partner contacted your mother over Skype in order to seek her assistance over what to do about you. When you discovered this, you became extremely angry, starting to throw objects around. It is clear from the transcript of the 999 call that your partner summoned the help of the police before you picked up a bread knife which was in the room and struck a blow with it to his lower leg. In the course of the incident two of his fingers also received cuts. Your partner managed to partly restrain you, albeit you then started to turn the knife on yourself and he had to further disarm you to prevent further self-harm. When the emergency services arrived it was abundantly clear that you were intoxicated, deeply distraught and mentally disturbed. You were taken to a police station in a very distressed state.”

Fortunately, the wounds that your partner received were relatively minor. The two 1 cm cuts to the fingers were treated at the scene with steri-strips and the cut to the leg was closed with three stitches.

The offence was unlawful wounding, contrary to section 20 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which carries a maximum sentence of 5 years. When sentencing, courts are required to follow the Sentencing Guidelines for assault, produced by the Sentencing Council (unless it would be contrary to the interests of justice to do so). So let’s turn to the pages dealing with unlawful wounding and feed these facts into the matrix:

First, the court works out what Category the case falls into, by looking at what specified features of harm and culpability are present. The judge formed the view that this was a Category 2 offence. There was lower harm due to the relatively minor nature of the injuries in the context of this type of offence – note that no-one is saying that wounds caused by a knife are not serious; but it’s all relative. An offence of unlawful wounding covers a wide range of injuries, from small breaks of the skin right up to life-threatening, body-scarring lacerations. A 3cm cut to the leg, closed by three stitches, and minor cuts to fingers treated with steri-strips, while undoubtedly horrible for the victim, are minor in the context of wounding offences. Looking at culpability, there was higher culpability by virtue of use of a knife.

Category 2 provides a starting point of 18 months’ imprisonment, with a range of 12 months’ imprisonment up to 3 years. In order to work out where a defendant falls in this range, the court looks at and applies appropriate weight to other features of aggravation and mitigation, listed here:

What do we know about the mitigation and aggravation in this case?

As far as aggravating features are concerned, the judge said:

[T]here is one non-statutory aggravating feature, namely that at the time of the offence you were heavily under the influence of alcohol. Whilst that in part was as a result of a previous and highly damaging relationship, you were old enough and intelligent enough to realise that over-indulgence would severely affect your behaviour.

But it is regarding the mitigating features that the judge had the most to say:

When I turn to look, however, for mitigating features the picture is very different. There are many mitigating features in your case. Principally, at the age of 24 you have no previous convictions of any nature whatsoever. Secondly, I find that you were genuinely remorseful following this event and, indeed, although it was against your bail conditions you contacted your partner to fully confess your guilt and your deep sorrow for what happened. Thirdly, whilst you are clearly a highly intelligent individual, you had an immaturity about you which was not commensurate for someone of your age. Fourthly, as the reports from the experts make clear, you suffer from an emotionally unstable personality disorder, a severe eating disorder and alcohol drug dependence. Finally, and most significantly, you have demonstrated over the last nine months that you are determined to rid yourself of your alcohol/drug addiction and have undergone extensive treatment including counselling to address the many issues that you face. In particular, you have demonstrated to me since I adjourned this matter in May a strong and unwavering determination so to do despite the enormous pressure under which you were put and which has been referred to by your learned counsel.

A further matter advanced in mitigation by the defendant’s counsel (as reported by the  BBC) was that she had suffered domestic violence in a previous relationship, which contributed to her substance misuse.

Taking these strands of mitigation together, it would appear that the judge considered that the starting point should be adjusted downwards from 18 months to 15 months. I say that because it seems that the defendant pleaded guilty at an early stage of proceedings, which would attract “credit” or a discount on her sentence of up to one third. Judges like starting point sentences that are easily divisible by three, so it stands to reason that, although he does not explicitly state as such in the published remarks, he took 15 months and reduced a third to arrive at his final sentence of 10 months’ imprisonment.

As for the decision to suspend the sentence, we dealt with this last time, but I’ll repeat here:

While there is no strict test for suspending a sentence of imprisonment, the Guideline offers the following pointers:

We do not know enough to say whether any of the left hand column is made out; but it could be argued that at least two of the factors on the right apply. The court must have regard to the statutory five purposes of sentencing – punishment, reduction of crime (including by deterrence), reform and rehabilitation of offenders; protection of the public; and making reparations – and will need to assess the appropriate emphasis in any given case. While stabbing with a bread knife is plainly serious, if the injury is not particularly grave, and if the court is of the view that more can constructively be achieved by avoiding sending a promising young defendant to prison and shattering their future life prospects, instead offering in the first instance a sentence focussing on rehabilitation to address deep-rooted problems laying behind the offending, then it is arguably in service of those five principles that a suspended sentence of imprisonment, with punitive and rehabilitative requirements attached, might be imposed.

The features of mitigation identified – the mental health difficulties, the efforts to address drug and alcohol abuse, the good character, the genuine remorse – would all further support the decision to afford a defendant a chance on a suspended sentence.

Indeed, this further colour, in particular the mental health dimension, shifts the perspective significantly. It’s not just a rich white girl getting a let-off; it’s also a victim of domestic violence with severe mental health and substance misuse problems being given a chance to rebuild her life. You may not care for that latter interpretation, but it’s no less valid than the former preferred by today’s front page “Toff Justice” tabloid headlines, implicitly recycling the nasty myth that money confers mental health immunity.

So that’s the post-script. In summary, there doesn’t appear to be anything unusual in this sentence. You may disagree with its merits; you may think that all violent knife offences should result in immediate prison regardless of circumstances or personal mitigation. You may think there should be more women with mental health problems clogging up our prisons rather than receiving treatment in the outside world and trying to forge careers for themselves. But from a legal point of view, there’s little out of the ordinary. Not based on what we see in the courts in practice, with defendants of all races and social backgrounds. And I’ll close by repeating the conclusion from the earlier post:

Lest anyone be seduced by the reflexive narrative that such merciful sentences are only afforded to white, middle class defendants, let me assure you: this course (as I said in the Bashir posts) is not unusual. Where a defendant who has never been in trouble is facing a custodial sentence of  2 years or under, and where they have the prospect of employment, education or caring responsibilities, judges will often strive to avoid passing a sentence of immediate imprisonment. That is not to deny that unconscious social or racial bias plays a part in judicial decisions; basic psychology teaches us that it does, to some degree at least. But the suggestion that this exceptional course is only ever reserved for the Prom Queens (or whatever our British equivalent is) is tired and lazy. The reason you don’t hear about the suspended sentences handed down for less photogenic defendants – for the 19 year-old lad starting his apprenticeship, or the 48 year-old mobile hairdresser – is mainly because the media tends not to report on them.

As a final observation, the Telegraph reports that Ms Woodward’s QC invited the court to consider imposing a conditional discharge – the lowest form of sanction that a court can impose. The judge refused, clearly of the view that a sentence of imprisonment was required. Had the judge acceded to that invitation, the complaints that the sentence was inexplicably lenient would carry more force. As it is, for the reasons above, there appears nothing unusual, and indeed much humane, about the approach taken in this case.

Note: This post has been updated following the publication of HHJ Pringle QC’s sentencing remarks this morning.