Guest post by James Chalmers and Ryan Whelan: Melanie McDonagh is plain wrong on “upskirting”

I am delighted to host a guest blog by James Chalmers, Regius Professor of Law at the University of Glasgow, and Ryan Whelan, an Associate at Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher LLP.

Readers may be aware of the events of recent days in relation to the campaign by Gina Martin to create a specific criminal offence to address “upskirting” (about which I wrote here). Last Friday saw the second reading in the House of Commons of the Private Member’s Bill introduced by Wera Hobhouse MP, and an objection to the Bill by Sir Christopher Chope.

The Spectator published a comment piece by Melanie McDonagh in which she wrote in support of Sir Christopher and against the merits of the proposed law. Here, two partners in Gina Martin’s campaign respond to that article. 

Upskirting is on the political agenda because of the tireless campaigning of Gina Martin, a 26 year old woman who was upskirted at the British Summer Time Festival last July. On Friday, to the shock of Parliament, Sir Christopher Chope blocked Wera Hobhouse’s Private Member’s Bill in support of Gina’s campaign.

After months of work by Gina’s campaign, Wera’s Voyeurism (Offences) Bill had earlier in the day been supported by the Government. With the Government on board it was widely expected that it would pass through the House and progress to committee stage, where details would be examined and amendments possibly made.

Sir Christopher put a spanner in the works by objecting to the Bill’s progress, a decision met with calls of “shame” from his Conservative colleagues. The disappointment and anger across the House – particularly among the Tory benches – was clear to see (and has been underlined by numerous subsequent tweets, and the Spectator’s own leak of Whatsapp messages between Tory MPs).

While the optics are poor, it is not fair to characterise Sir Christopher’s objection as being a defence of perverts. As he confirmed in conversation outside the chamber, Sir Christopher had not looked at the detail of the Bill and was not even familiar with upskirting. Sir Christopher’s objection is neither personal nor related to the Bill’s content. He objected because he feels that Private Members’ Bills should not be passed without debate.

Given the basis for this objection, a point of principle on the scrutiny of Bills in Parliament, we were perplexed to read Melanie McDonagh’s Spectator article “In defence of Christopher Chope’s ‘upskirting’ objection”.  McDonagh’s article (which is the most read on the Spectator website as at the time of writing) does Sir Christopher a disservice by associating him with a view that is utterly confused about both the current law and the proposed reform.

On the current law McDonagh states that “bad behaviour of this kind” – her euphemism for upskirting – is “dealt with under the offence of outraging public decency, as voyeurism”. This is legally illiterate. Outraging public decency and voyeurism are two entirely separate offences. To conflate the two is to miss the point.

Upskirting often takes place in populated public places. Outraging public decency, a common law offence which requires two or more people (other than the defendant) to be capable of seeing the act, is therefore available to prosecute most upskirting. But it is neither an adequate nor appropriate solution.

First, the offence does not provide full protection to women. If the prosecution cannot prove that two persons other than the defendant could have seen him take the “upskirt” photo, the offence cannot be used. So, for example, that if upskirting takes place when a woman is on a street or in another public place alone, no prosecution is possible. That is not acceptable.

Second, the offence does not reflect the wrongdoing. Upskirting is a sexual offence with a victim. The public are rightly outraged by upskirting but this outrage is secondary to the harm it causes. A charge of outraging public decency fails to acknowledge the harm to the victim, and fails also to recognise upskirters for what they are – sexual offenders.

The more appropriate offence of voyeurism is, in contrast, not generally available to prosecute upskirters. The reason: to prosecute for voyeurism the upskirting victim needs to have been observed doing a “private act”, which is not normally the case. This is why the Scottish Parliament modelled the Scottish offence of voyeurism on the English one but added extra provisions to that offence in 2010 to ensure it would cover upskirting.

As to the proposed reform as contained in the Bill, McDonagh says in her article that dealing with upskirting as voyeurism “sounds about right”. It might therefore have been expected that McDonagh would welcome the bill, that being not only the effect but the title. Not so. Instead, for reasons that are hard to fathom, McDonagh considers the bill to be a “preposterous exercise” that has been heroically “seen off” by Sir Christopher. You couldn’t make it up: McDonagh thinks (without realising it) that the bill is “about right” but characterises it as “preposterous”.

Continuing the theme in her views on sentencing, McDonagh inexplicably thinks upskirting does not “warrant” an individual being put on the sex offenders register (really?!). Consistent with her suggestion that upskirting is a minor irritation rather than the violation that it is, McDonagh also takes exception to the proposed two year maximum sentence, describing it as “excessive”. These points, she seems to suggest – with no basis – may have factored into Sir Christopher’s thinking. But we know that not to be the case (from Sir Christopher) and her points are again ill-informed: the bill makes no provision for sex offender registration (albeit that the Government had proposed to make this amendment at a later stage) and while voyeurism carries a maximum two year sentence, an offender prosecuted for outraging public decency could theoretically face a life sentence.

In defending Sir Christopher, McDonagh inexplicably seeks to ride two horses: insinuating on the one hand that upskirting is too trivial to warrant the attention of the criminal law, while on the other suggesting that prosecutors should target it with an offence allowing for life imprisonment. Which is it?

The Bill is on no view the “preoposterous waste of time” that McDonagh alleges.  It is an unobjectionable, necessary and proportionate response to a problem that is inadequately and inappropriately addressed in the current law. Those who have engaged on the detail and know the relevant law agree: upskirting is a gap in the law and that gap needs to be filled with legislation that will allow upskirters to be prosecuted appropriately in all circumstances.

Any proposal to modify the criminal law requires careful scrutiny. While we think that Sir Christopher should have allowed the Bill to progress and receive that further scrutiny in due course, we understand his position. McDonagh, however, in seeking to defend that decision, does Sir Christopher a disservice by associating him with a series of ill-informed claims that he has never himself made.

James Chalmers is Regius Professor of Law at the University of Glasgow.

Ryan Whelan is an Associate at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP. Mr. Whelan has been advising Gina Martin on her campaign (pro bono) since August 2017.

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Don’t wear skirts, and nine other ways people can protect themselves from crime

I wrote something for , building on Nick Freeman’s incisive analysis on how women can avoid becoming victims of upskirting by “taking responsibility” for how they dress.

If you so wish, you can read my response here.

What on earth happened to poor Tommy Robinson? 10 Things You Should Know.

It can now be reported that Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the English Defence League, convicted fraudster, sometime-football hooligan and self-reinvented free speech advocate, was on Friday 25 May 2018 imprisoned for 13 months for contempt of court after livestreaming a broadcast, including footage of participants in a criminal trial, outside Leeds Crown Court.

Some people will have seen reference to this on social media; others may have had the plight of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – to use his real name – drawn to their attention by the hordes of protestors storming London over the May bank holiday weekend. But there has not, until today, been mainstream coverage of the case due to a reporting restriction – what is known as a “postponement order” – that forbade publication of these facts until after the conclusion of the trial upon which he was purporting to “report”.

While, as we’ll see below, the reasons for the postponement order appear sound, the consequence of preventing fair and accurate reporting by responsible journalists was that there was no factual counterpoint to the selective and inaccurate details of Yaxley-Lennon’s situation that were inevitably flooded through social media by his knuckle-dragging cheerleaders, not least his racists-in-arms across the pond. Thus sprung a (largely unchallenged and unchallengeable) narrative of Tommy The Brave being arrested outside court for no reason and imprisoned in secret by the deep state, culminating in petitions for his release and a march on Downing Street.

On the day itself, I attempted a post aimed at shining a little light on what might have happened (having no knowledge of the proceedings myself), but having been alerted by a reporter to the terms of the reporting restrictions, took the post down out of an abundance of caution. Now, however, with the restrictions relaxed we can try to restore a little order.

The full judgment is still awaited (expected imminently). For now let’s take this story in pieces based on what we know. I shall update the blogpost regularly as further information arrives.

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1. Why was Tommy Robinson arrested?

Robinson was arrested outside Leeds Crown Court having video recorded a number of men – including defendants involved in a live trial – entering the court building, and livestreaming the footage on Facebook in what he claimed was an attempt at legitimate court reporting. West Yorkshire police, having been alerted to his activities, arrested Lennon at the scene. The initial reports suggested that he was arrested for a suspected breach of the peace, but what is now clear from the facts published today is that his actions in broadcasting details about the trial were in breach of reporting restrictions.

2. What are reporting restrictions?

The starting point of our criminal justice system is that justice must be seen to be done. However the law provides for exceptions to open justice, known generally as “reporting restrictions”. Reporting restrictions apply in a wide range of situations – from automatic restrictions preventing the identification of a complainant in a sexual allegation, to restrictions preventing reporting of Youth Court proceedings, to discretionary restrictions protecting the identity of child witnesses in the adult courts. Further details, if you are interested, can be found here.

One breed of restriction order is something called a “postponement order”, under section 4(2) of the Contempt of Court Act 1981. Postponement orders are not unusual, particularly where there are a series of linked trials – for example, where allegations of drug networks involving 30 defendants are concerned, there will be several trials (it not being physically possible to accommodate 30 defendants in a single courtroom). To avoid jurors having their deliberations contaminated by what they might read or hear about the earlier linked trials, reporting of all of them is often postponed until the end. Where there is a separate-but-related issue, such as a contempt of court involving a third party, this can also be the subject of a section 4(2) order. The test is:

  1. Would a fair, accurate and contemporaneous report of the proceedings (or part thereof) published in good faith create a substantial risk of prejudice to the administration of justice in those or other proceedings?
  2. Is an order postponing the publication of such reports necessary and are its terms proportionate? Would such an order eliminate the risk of prejudice to the administration of justice? Could less restrictive measures achieve the objective?
  3. On the specific facts of this case, does the public interest in protecting the administration of justice outweigh the strong public interest in open justice?

This is what we had here. The judge had imposed a postponement order preventing the media from reporting on the ongoing trial until all linked trials had concluded.

Breaching a reporting restriction amounts to a contempt of court. Which is what Yaxley-Lennon admitted doing.

3. But I heard Tommy Robinson was arrested for a breach of the peace. What is a breach of the peace? How is a breach of the peace caused by someone simply filming?

Police officers have common law powers (i.e. powers not set out in statute) to arrest somebody where a breach of the peace is committed or where the officer reasonably believes it will be committed in the immediate future. As to what constitutes a breach of the peace, it is defined in case law as follows: “there is a breach of the peace whenever harm is actually done or is likely to be done to a person or in his presence to his property or a person is in fear of being so harmed through an assault, an affray, a riot, unlawful assembly or other disturbance.” (R v Howell [1982] Q.B. 416) As we can see, it’s a fairly broad definition.

The courts have confirmed that it covers situations where, for example, there are reasonable grounds to fear that a demonstrator or protestor is likely to incite violence, even violence against themselves. This appears to be applicable to the present case. Robinson provocatively filming defendants and streaming on Facebook for the edification of his cult, is the kind of thing which could, it might be argued, lead to a breach of the peace.

Once a person has been arrested for breaching the peace, the police have the power to detain that person where there is a real apprehension that if released they will renew the breach of the peace within a short time, and where the police believe that further detention is necessary to prevent this. Given Robinson’s history of interfering with criminal trials and his defiance towards court orders, one can see why the police may have genuinely feared that he would have simply returned to court if not detained. The power of detention is time-limited – the detainee must be released within 24 hours (if not charged), or for serious (indictable) offences, detention may be authorised up to 96 hours.

 4.  How can it be legal for somebody to be arrested for breach of the peace and then imprisoned for contempt?

It is perfectly common for a person to be arrested on suspicion of one offence, and then ultimately charged or dealt with for another. In this case, it appears that Yaxley-Lennon was arrested and detained for causing or threatening a breach of the peace, and that the court, upon being made aware of his activities, directed that he be brought to court to be dealt with for contempt of court. Even if his original arrest and detention had been unlawful (and there is nothing at all to suggest that it was), this would have absolutely no bearing on the contempt proceedings. The “breach of the peace” angle is a red herring.

5. So back up a step – what exactly is contempt of court?

Contempt of court is a broad, catch-all term for various offences against the administration of justice. The law(s) of contempt are designed to safeguard the fairness of legal proceedings and to maintain the authority and dignity of the court. Some contempts are set out in statute, including the aptly-named Contempt of Court Act 1981. This sets out what is referred to as “strict liability contempt” – the rule that it is a contempt to publish any matter which creates a substantial risk of serious prejudice or impediment to the course of justice in legal proceedings, irrespective of the intention behind the publication. There is a defence available to publishers (which includes newspapers, TV and social media users) who can show they were providing “a fair and accurate report of legal proceedings held in public, published contemporaneously and in good faith”, thus giving some latitude to the press and ensuring that the media do not shy away from accurate, factual reporting of criminal proceedings.

Other contempts are more eclectic, such as the prohibition on taking photographs or moving images inside a court building (or even drawing a picture – court sketch artists have to draw outside the court from memory – section 41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925).

There is also a common law offence of “criminal contempt”, which is defined by the courts as “conduct that denotes wilful defiance of, or disrespect towards the court, or that wilfully challenges or affronts the authority of the court or the supremacy of the law itself.” This might include refusing to answer questions in court, physically disrupting court proceedings, interfering with witnesses or jurors (where not charged as a distinct offence of witness intimidation or perverting the course of justice) or defying a judge’s order.

Which brings us back to Mr Yaxley-Lennon, and a sunny day in May last year at Canterbury Crown Court.

6. What happened at Canterbury Crown Court?

On 8 May 2017, during the course of a rape trial at Canterbury Crown Court involving four (Asian) defendants, Yaxley-Lennon attended court and attempted to film the defendants for an online broadcast entitled “Tommy Robinson in Canterbury exposing Muslim child rapists”. He was thwarted by the judge making arrangements for the defendants and jurors to leave court through alternative routes, and so settled for filming himself on camera, both on the court steps and inside the court building, preaching to his online followers about “Muslim paedophiles”. He was interrupted and told by court staff that recording was prohibited (section 41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925, as we’ve discussed above), but continued to record, insisting that he had been told by a different court that he was entitled to film the defendants (notwithstanding that court buildings are plastered with signs reminding people not to do this). His video diatribe – in which he said that “the paedophiles are hiding”, that the police had asked him not to “expose” them as paedophiles (presumably on the basis that they were, at that time, defendants in a live trial) but that “we will”, and that he would be “going round to their house” to catch the defendants on camera – thus continued. The judge hearing the rape trial was made aware, and he was brought before court to be dealt with for contempt of court.

The judge, HHJ Norton, dealt with Yaxley-Lennon on 22 May 2017. She found that he was in contempt by having filmed inside the court building, contrary to section 41, but was also in common law contempt by having continued to film having been told to stop by the court staff. The judge considered the content of his broadcast, and the real risk of his actions derailing the trial, and committed him to prison for 3 months, suspended for a period of 18 months. In practical terms, a suspended sentence means that the prison sentence (3 months) hangs over you for the operational period (18 months). If you remain offence-free and comply with any requirements the court makes, you will never have to serve your sentence. If you reoffend, the presumption in law is that you will serve that prison sentence, additional to whatever sentence you receive for the new offence.

7. So what you’re saying is that Tommy Robinson was given a suspended sentence simply for trying to report on a case? Free speech is truly dead.

No, ye of little brain. He was found to be in contempt of court and given a suspended sentence because his actions put a serious criminal trial in jeopardy. Running around a court building shouting “paedophile” at defendants during a live trial, or live-streaming defendants and members of the public – potentially including jurors – entering and exiting a court building against a tub thumping narration of “Muslim paedophile gangs”, is hardly conducive to ensuring a fair trial. And if there can’t be a fair trial, nobody gets justice. Not the accused, not the complainants, not the public. This is not theoretical – serious criminal trials have nearly collapsed because of the actions of people like Yaxley-Lennon.

We have a quaint tradition in England and Wales that trial by media should be avoided, and that trial on evidence heard in court is the fairest way to determine a person’s guilt. Therefore while criminal courts are open to the public, and it is absolutely fine to report soberly and accurately about ongoing criminal trials, anything which might prejudice or intimidate the jury is strictly forbidden. And this makes sense. It would be a nonsense, for example, to have strict laws preventing individuals from walking up to a juror to say, “The defendant you are trying is plainly a dirty paedophile”, but to allow broadcasters or tabloid columnists to trumpet that message to jurors through the media. Self-defined “free-speech advocates”  – particularly a number on the other side of the Atlantic – have difficulty understanding this, so it’s worth pasting in full what HHJ Norton said:

“This contempt hearing is not about free speech. This is not about freedom of the press. This is not about legitimate journalism; this is not about political correctness; this is not about whether one political viewpoint is right or another. It is about justice, and it is about ensuring that a trial can be carried out justly and fairly. It is about ensuring that a jury are not in any way inhibited from carrying out their important function. It is about being innocent until proven guilty. It is not about people prejudging a situation and going round to that court and publishing material, whether in print or online, referring to defendants as “Muslim paedophile rapists”. A legitimate journalist would not be able to do that and under the strict liability rule there would be no defence to publication in those terms. It is pejorative language which prejudges the case, and it is language and reporting – if reporting indeed is what it is – that could have had the effect of substantially derailing the trial. As I have already indicated, because of what I knew was going on I had to take avoiding action to make sure that the integrity of this trial was preserved, that justice was preserved and that the trial could continue to completion without people being intimidated into reaching conclusions about it, or into being affected by “irresponsible and inaccurate reporting”. If something of the nature of that which you put out on social media had been put into the mainstream press I would have been faced with applications from the defence advocates concerned, I have no doubt, to either say something specific to the jury, or worse, to abandon the trial and to start again. That is the kind of thing that actions such as these can and do have, and that is why you have been dealt with in the way in which you have and why I am dealing with this case with the seriousness which I am.”

 

8. How is all that relevant to what took place on 25 May 2018?

It is relevant because, when passing the suspended sentence, HHJ Norton gave some fairly clear warnings to Yaxley-Lennon:

“[Y]ou should be under no illusions that if you commit any further offence of any kind, and that would include, I would have thought, a further contempt of court by similar actions, then that sentence of three months would be activated, and that would be on top of anything else that you were given by any other court.

In short, Mr Yaxley-Lennon, turn up at another court, refer to people as “Muslim paedophiles, Muslim rapists” and so and so forth while trials are ongoing and before there has been a finding by a jury that that is what they are, and you will find yourself inside. Do you understand?”

And what did Yaxley-Lennon go and do?

9. What did he go and do?

As we know now, he went and committed a contempt of court by reporting on court proceedings. He did so in a way that expressed his “views” on the guilt or otherwise of the defendants, creating a substantial risk of serious prejudice to the proceedings by jurors seeing or becoming aware of his ill-informed ramblings. If this wasn’t enough, he was also in breach of reporting restrictions which he accepted he knew about. He was therefore, it seems, in contempt twice over. This could have led to an application by the defence advocates to discharge the jury and start afresh, potentially meaning vulnerable complainants having to go through the trauma of a trial all over again, or even an application to “stay” (bring to an end) the proceedings altogether.

Importantly, Yaxley-Lennon admitted that he was in contempt of court.

And he was committed to prison for 10 months, with the suspended sentence of 3 months activated and directed to run consecutively. Exactly as he’d been warned.

10. He was tried in secret on the day he was arrested, with no lawyers and the media were banned from reporting what had happened. This is Kafka on steroids, surely?

Contempt proceedings do not attract a jury trial. The procedure for a court dealing with a criminal contempt is set out in the Criminal Procedure Rules. These allow for a “summary procedure”, where the court, having made its own enquiries and offered a contemnor (for that is the official term) the chance to seek legal advice, can deal with the offender straight away. The Crown Court can commit a contemnor to prison for up to two years. There is nothing unusual in him being dealt with on the day of the contempt. Courts are required to deal with contempts as swiftly as possible. There is no suggestion  of any prejudice;  Yaxley-Lennon was legally represented by an experienced barrister and would have received full legal advice.

He also wasn’t tried in secret; his contempt hearing was heard in public, with members of the press present. However, the judge imposed temporary reporting restrictions (under section 4(2) of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 again), postponing reporting of the details of Lennon’s contempt until the trial, and the subsequent related trial, had concluded. This, you may think, is for obvious reasons. A media circus and orchestrated attempt at martyrdom by Lennon and his followers – as was indeed attempted when the restrictions were defied by far-right blogs and foreign news outlets – would present exactly the sort of distraction that threatened to disrupt the very serious criminal proceedings that the judge was desperately seeking to keep on the rails.

In the event, the repeated breaches of the order by foreign news outlets and social media users meant that the judge’s intentions were thwarted. An application to discharge the reporting restriction was made on 29 May 2018 and the judge agreed that, in light of what had happened over the Bank Holiday weekend, restrictions should be lifted to allow publication of the facts.

It is also worth noting that there is a Practice Direction dealing with situations where defendants are imprisoned for contempt of court. This requires that full judgments be published online and handed to the media where a person is committed to prison for contempt. As we can expect imminently.

As for the suggestion (by UKIP among others) that nobody has ever before been found in contempt of court and a postponement order made preventing the media from immediately reporting it, a handy example can be found on 22 May 2017, where one Stephen Yaxley-Lennon was found to be in contempt at Canterbury, and a postponement order was made restricting publication until the end of the substantive trial.

 

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UPDATE:

In light of the (frankly ingenious) conspiracy theories that are now doing the rounds after the rather mundane truth above was revealed, some bonus Q&As are required:

11. I heard that Tommy Robinson was denied his own lawyer, and had to have a duty lawyer who was in fact a PROSECUTION lawyer and who didn’t properly defend him.

The barrister previously instructed by Yaxley-Lennon has confirmed that she was not present at court for these proceedings. She is understandably declining to comment further unless or until authorised to do so. But in any case, Yaxley-Lennon was defended by an experienced member of the independent criminal Bar. He may have been offered the duty solicitor at the police station if his chosen solicitor was not available, but in the Crown Court hearing he was advised and represented by a specialist criminal barrister with over 16 years of experience of cases including murder, people-trafficking, serious violence and serious sexual offences. As an independent barrister, this professional prosecutes as well as defends (most of us do), but his website profile in fact emphasises his experience as a defence advocate. In other words, Yaxley-Lennon had a top-notch defence barrister fighting his corner.

12. No trial has ever taken place on the same day as a suspect’s arrest, oh FAKE LAWYER. This was special treatment dished out to a man who is a thorn in the side of the establishment. What do you say about that?

If we were talking about jury trials, I’d agree with you. But Yaxley-Lennon was not “tried”. The contempt proceedings were held on the same day, as is entirely standard (see details of the summary procedure for contempt above), and he admitted that he was in contempt of court. There is no special treatment here whatsoever. Anyone, infamous far-right totem or otherwise, would have been subject to the exact same process for contempt in breaching a reporting restriction. Not everyone would have been sent straight to prison; but then not everyone has a suspended sentence hanging over them for a near-identical offence.

13. I’ve seen a photo of the judge who sentenced Tommy watching his arrest from inside the court building. This judge was biased.

Even supposing the photograph shows what it is said to show, this is entirely irrelevant. If, as has happened in one of my cases, a member of the public starts shouting out at a judge mid-proceedings, the judge may direct the arrest of that person, and deal with them immediately for the contempt. Witnessing the arrest of an individual does not preclude a judge from dealing with that individual in these circumstances. This is, again, a complaint devoid of argument.

14. But the BBC reported on the same trial that Tommy did, and they’re not in prison. Why not?

Because any BBC reports, which as far as I have seen relate entirely to the outset of proceedings before the judge made the reporting restriction, were not in contempt of court. They were fair and accurate, rather than propagandist rants seeking to disseminate information that a judge had specifically ordered should not be in the public domain (such as details of charges against the defendants that had been dropped), and were not in breach of reporting restrictions.

15. Do you have to be so snarky in your lawsplaining? Aren’t you just turning off people who you need to convince?

This is a fair question. Ordinarily, I do my best in these posts to embrace rather than alienate in an effort to explain or persuade. But cases like this, involving co-ordinated transnational campaigns disseminating blatant falsehoods about our legal system and gaslighting the public are, I feel, different. And call for a different approach. As I see it, there are two types of people currently propagating the Free Tommy Robinson myths: far-right sympathisers deliberately sowing discord and falsehoods, whose concern for due process is a cipher for hero-worship; and good people confused and worried about what they’ve heard about the “threat to free speech” posed by the overbearing English and Welsh justice system. The first category are never going to be swayed by facts or rational argument. That is plain from their every interaction on social media, and their every appearance on Fox News. Their motives are clear, their integrity irretrievable and they are not only beyond reach but, frankly, not worth the effort. The second group will, I hope, realise from this explanation that the toga party they have wandered into is in fact a Klan meeting, and will understand the urgency and frustration that underpins the argument.

However the reality is that most people out in the world are probably paying little attention to the ballad of St Tommy, but may form partial views based on what snippets they read and hear. I want this – the truth – to be that snippet. If the key to turning up the online volume is a snappy tone and uncompromising beatdown of idiots and liars, then that’s the game I’ll play.

Did this kitten really conduct a criminal trial by itself… and WIN?

I am informed that one of the liberties you can take as a writer with a (undeserved and long-suffering) loyal following is to indulge in a little creative sleight of hand. One might, for example, in an effort to gain wider attention for a mundane-sounding issue, attach a ludicrous and unrelated clickbait headline to draw in the unwary – possibly including a shareable photo – with quiet confidence that you’ll be forgiven once the Greater Good of your evil plan becomes apparent.

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Let’s put that theory to the test.

Because, and this will surprise you, there is no kitten conducting criminal trials (or at least not winning them). The cat in the photo is not a registered practitioner. Instead, now that you’re three paragraphs in, we’re going to talk about the Ministry of Justice Single Department Plan.

Stay with me – we’ll be quick. Anger is conducive to brevity. This is the document published today setting out the MoJ’s “priorities” for the year ahead. The four key objectives are identified as:

  1. Provide a prison and probation service that reforms offenders
  2. Deliver a modern courts and justice system
  3. Promote a global Britain and the rule of law
  4. Transform the department

Of themselves, these objectives are inoffensive enough. Indeed, what the plan says about prisons has much to recommend it, particularly the emphasis on tackling reoffending through a focus on education and employment opportunities for prisoners. We’ll overlook for now whether bold solutions to improving prisons such as “preventing and disrupting serious and organised crime in prisons” are really solutions as much as vaguely-defined objectives. And whether any strategy to “ensure a sustainable prison population” can sensibly say nothing whatsoever about the steady increase in the average length of custodial sentences imposed by the courts. Those are quibbles for another day.

Because the silence that rings the loudest is that surrounding the dismal state of the criminal justice system. While, true to form, the MoJ trumpets its digital court modernisation programme at every turn (a counterpoint to which was provided the other week by the early progress report of the National Audit Office pointing out that said programme is already behind schedule, has “unresolved funding gaps” and will not deliver the benefits that the MoJ has claimed), much less is said about the problems that have forced criminal barristers to take urgent action and caused the entire system to grind to a halt. Below are just a selection, with the “Single Department Plan” response in bold.

  • The dilapidated state of our court estate is a matter of national shame. Ceilings are literally leaking human waste and falling in mid-trial. Courts all over the country now have no catering facilities – defendants, witnesses, jurors and lawyers are required (some under threat of imprisonment) to spend the day in a building where the public cannot even get a glass of water.  Nothing beyond a vague pledge to “continue the modernisation of our courts”.
  • The widespread scheme of court closures means that many people now have to travel several hours to reach their local court. Close even more courts: “Use fewer, better, more flexible court buildings more effectively for the benefit of citizens.”
  • The Crown Prosecution Service has lost a third of its staff since 2010 through budget cuts of over 25%. The problems this causes to the competent prosecution of cases is covered at length in the press (and in Chapter 4 of my book). No mention, save for a vaguely declared ambition to “improve the experience of victims of crime within the criminal justice system”.
  • Disclosure – the vital part of the criminal procedure where the police and prosecution provide the defence with material in their possession which could help establish someone’s innocence – remains a shambles. As a result, innocent people risk convictionNo mention.
  • The Innocence Tax continues to strip the homes and life savings away from innocent people wrongly accused of criminal offences. If you have a modest joint household disposable income, the state will refuse to give you legal aid, force you to pay privately for lawyers, and then when you are acquitted will refuse to fully reimburse you for your fees, potentially leaving you out of pocket to the tune of hundreds of thousands of poundsNo mention.
  • Legal aid rates, cut by around 40% in real terms, continue to force local solicitors’ firms out of business. Bright young people are either deterred from joining the criminal Bar, or forced out after a few years of earning below minimum wage. No mention.
  • Court listing practices continue to operate to please MoJ statisticians, to the detriment of victims, witnesses and defendants. People are dragged to court for their trial (thus allowing a court listing officer to say that the trial has been listed) only to find that their case cannot in fact be heard due to courtrooms sitting empty, as the MoJ won’t pay for judges to hear the trials. Trials are therefore adjourned repeatedly, sometimes until witnesses lose faith entirely and walk away from the process. No mention, save for a vaguely declared ambition to “improve the experience of victims of crime within the criminal justice system”.
  • Chris Grayling’s policy to deny victims of miscarriages of justice any compensation for years wrongly spent in prison continues to bite. Unless you can prove your innocence, you do not get a penny. No mention.
  • The number of unrepresented defendants in criminal proceedings is on the rise, and judges have expressed their concern in a report which the MoJ tried to hide (over which the MoJ has now been reported to the Information Commissioner). No mention.

All of these share a common diagnosis: they are the result of the unparalleled cuts that the Ministry of Justice budget has suffered since 2010 – 40% will have been slashed by the end of the decade.

What does the MoJ’s Grand Plan for 2018/19 say about this? Does it acknowledge the problem? Does it vow to fight the Treasury for the funds that the system desperately needs if it is not to collapse altogether?

Not quite. The MoJ promises instead to:

Maintain a continued tight grip on departmental finances

Which really says it all. This is not a department with an interest in improving the quality of justice. It is a cabal of ideologues playing financial chicken, tossing vulnerable people onto the motorways of fate with little care for the outcome, as long as they can boast to their betters about the tightness of their fiscal grip.

As of Friday, the criminal Bar will be withdrawing the goodwill on which the justice system runs. Documents such as this from the MoJ, making quite plain how utterly unimportant they consider our criminal justice system to be, make me seriously consider just walking away entirely.

 

No Returns: A non-lawyer’s guide

Last night, following an intriguing debate in the House of Commons in which members displayed the full gamut of understanding of criminal justice, MPs voted to bring forth the “cost neutral” changes to the way barristers are paid on legal aid, which in some cases amount to cuts of 40%. (Technically the Commons voted against Labour’s motion to annul the statutory instrument heralding the new Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme, but that’s more of a wordy opening sentence).

This marked the latest step in the ongoing dispute between the Criminal Bar and the Ministry of Justice. More details are here, but in short we say that the criminal justice system is desperately underfunded and requires immediate and significant investment (there’s some book or other that goes into more detail). Part of this – but only a part – relates specifically to legal aid rates, on account of how we think it’s a bit unfair that junior criminal barristers are often working 80-hour weeks for rates sometimes working out as low as 50p per hour, and are concerned that bright young barristers are being forced out of the profession. The Ministry of Justice is firmly in This-Is-Fine-Dog-meme-mode, and is pressing ahead with its plans to (a) further “reform” criminal legal aid (by shuffling the deckchairs in such a way as to amount, in some complex cases, to a 40% cut); and (b) do absolutely nothing about the chronic underfunding of the courts, Crown Prosecution Service, police, Probation, prisons and many other decaying limbs of the criminal justice system.

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Presently, criminal barristers are not accepting any legal aid cases under the new fees scheme (which has applied since 1 April 2018). Today, in the face of governmental refusal to take the issue seriously, matters have escalated. The Criminal Bar Association has recommended to its members that, as of Friday 25 May 2018, they implement a “No Returns” policy. If you are a non-lawyer who follows legal types on Twitter, you may well have seen criminal barristers enthusiastically discussing this topic, but without necessarily understanding what it entails.

In a nutshell, a barrister’s work falls into two camps: First, there are cases on which a barrister is instructed in their own name (a solicitor calls the barrister’s clerks and asks specifically for a particular barrister). Secondly, there are “returns”. The reality of the courts, in particular the criminal courts, is that things rarely go to plan. In crime, numerous unstable elements – disorganised defendants and witnesses, the understaffed CPS and police, unreliable private contractors failing to bring prisoners to court, broken video link technology, absent interpreters, sick jurors and so forth – compound with resultant ubiquitous chaos. Trials overrun, or cases are suddenly listed without warning by a judge wanting to raise an urgent issue with the parties, or the court decides for its own convenience to move a hearing to a different date, and frequently the instructed barrister is not able to attend. What presently happens is that a colleague who has a gap in their diary, usually from the same chambers, agrees to accept the case as a “return”, and steps into the breach to cover. This usually happens between 4.30 and 6pm the night before the hearing, when it becomes clear that the instructed barrister is stuck, and their clerks desperately shuffle everybody’s diaries to arrange cover and accommodate the work, often with a spiralling domino effect.

In practice, accepting returns is often an unrewarding task. You are basically required to master an entire case – which can take several hours – at very short notice, and (unless it is a trial) for very little to no pay. Covering a “mention” for a colleague – that’s an umbrella term for a hearing covering a multitude of sins, which can last anything from 5 minutes to 6 hours, depending on the particular issue that needs thrashing out and how long the court keeps you waiting – pays £46.50 plus VAT if you’re prosecuting. And if you’re defending, you get £87 (which is paid to you by the instructed barrister). Gross figures which, after deductions, amount to between £20 – £40. If you’re travelling to a far-flung court, as the most junior practitioners are often required to (it’s not pretty at the bottom of the barristerial food chain), your train fare will often exceed your fee for the day.

So why do we do it? The first reason is self-interest; particularly when you are very junior, and are trying to build a reputation so that solicitors and the CPS will send you work in your own name, returns make up the bulk of your practice. For more established practitioners, returns fill gaps in your diary that arise when a trial you had listed is suddenly taken out of the court list the night before and kicked 6 months down the line because the court discovers it does not have any judges to hear the trial (a depressingly regular occurrence, and an abominable way to treat witnesses, victims and defendants).

But the second reason we accept returns is tradition; as a professional courtesy. We recognise that, if we didn’t volunteer to help out when our colleagues found themselves required to be in two places at one time, the courts would come to a halt almost overnight. No progress would be made on any case at any mention hearing, unless and until the instructed barrister became available to attend. Trials would be called on with no advocate to prosecute or defend. Defendants due to be sentenced would have no prosecutor to open the case, or no defence advocate to advance mitigation. Chaos would be piled upon chaos.

So, in what judges refer to (rather fawningly, usually when trying to get you as an advocate to agree to do something for free) as “the best traditions of the Bar”, barristers just accept that part and parcel of the job involves picking up other people’s mess, at very short notice, in order to help an under-resourced and madcap system maintain some semblance of order. We do so out of goodwill; we are not required to. (So low have legal aid rates fallen that barristers, usually professionally bound by the “cab rank rule” to accept instructions on any case, are not required to accept legal aid cases on account of the Bar Code of Conduct deeming the rates since the mid-2000s to be not a “proper professional fee”). We accept returns out of a sense of duty.

It follows that deciding not to accept any returns is a serious step. The impact will be instant, and it will be significant. Trials will not be able to go ahead. Mention hearings, plea hearings and sentence hearings will be listed and no barrister will be available to attend. We take absolutely no pleasure in this. But, like junior doctors forced to the streets by the mendacity and vandalism of Jeremy Hunt, we feel that we have no choice. It will place a particular financial burden on the most junior in our ranks, deprived of their regular £46.50 gruel, and as a profession we will do what we can to support them. It will inevitably have an impact on those who rely upon the courts; for this we are sincerely sorry.

But the Ministry of Justice is not listening. It is burning your criminal justice system to the ground and cutting adrift those, usually the most vulnerable, who depend upon our courts. And it is incumbent upon us, in the best traditions of the Bar, to speak up for unpopular causes to our own financial detriment. Even a cause as unpopular, and politically unloved, as the fate of our justice system.

Guest Post: The Secret BPTC Student on legal aid cuts and the criminal Bar

I am delighted that a current law student, and soon-to-be criminal pupil, has taken the time to write the following explainer on the ongoing dispute between the criminal Bar and the government over legal aid fees and the funding of the criminal justice system. A point which would be easy to lose – and which, more importantly, the Ministry of Justice hopes will be lost – in the clamour is that this is not simply about lawyers’ fees. The Ministry of Justice’s new legal aid pay rates for advocates (“Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme”), which amount in practice to a cut of up to 40% in complex cases, is simply the final straw. Our argument is that criminal justice across the board has been subjected to financial cuts unrivalled in other government departments, with the result that every aspect – from the police to the Crown Prosecution Service to legal aid to the crumbling fabric of our courts – is on its knees. Something has to change. This is the message that needs dutifully repeating to the public, as the below post emphasises. It also contains a very kind plug for my book, which I am obviously going to support.
 
The Criminal Bar is taking direct action as a result of new legal aid cuts. This post explains why action is being taken and why everyone should care about it. 
 
Since 3 April, 90 criminal chambers (at the time of writing) have refused to take on new government funded legal aid cases; this means that defendants will be unrepresented in the Crown Courts (where the most serious cases are tried). Such action could bring the courts system to a halt – a matter not lightly embarked upon. 
 
Action is being taken because the criminal justice system is in crisis.
 
Chronic underfunding of the criminal justice system has resulted in: 
  • cases not being heard for months if not years after an incident, 
  • victims and witnesses unsupported through the process, 
  • defendants on low incomes go unrepresented (being ineligible for legal aid),
  • police fail to disclose vital evidence until the 11th hour, 
  • prosecutors given only 15mins to prepare trials in the Magistrates’ Courts (where most cases are heard),
  • despite the backlog of cases, judges are unavailable to hear them and courts are being closed,
  • the prison estate is in meltdown, with violence and drug use soaring each year,
  • the probation service fails to appropriately manage offenders in the community, 
  • some forensic labs operate without proper certification, affecting the reliability of scientific evidence presented in court, 
  • and in one incident, part of the ceiling of a Crown Court fell in. A terrifyingly apt metaphor for the current state of our justice system. 

The most likely result of a broken criminal justice system? Miscarriages of justice.

This is not theoretical. 

On 27 March 2018, the Chief Inspector of the Crown Prosecutor Service gave evidence to MPs on the Commons Justice Committee. He approvingly quoted from a report (by the Criminal Cases Review Commission), which stated that, “…disclosure failings were the single most frequent cause in the steady stream of miscarriages of justice.” 

Miscarriages of justice have already occurred. You might be its next victim. And the situation is about to get worse…

From 1st April, legal aid rates have been cut by approximately 30%. This is on top of previous cuts to legal aid. Why should anyone care about this?

The principal consequence is that it makes it more likely that guilty people will go free and innocent people will be imprisoned. 

Barristers are independent, self-employed individuals who represent clients at court; as a result, they must prepare for cases during the evenings and at weekends, often at low rates or sometimes for free. Currently, the average yearly earnings for a junior criminal barrister starting out is around £12,000 gross, less than the minimum wage. 

As a result of these cuts, swathes of the bar will no longer be able to survive in practice, with women, those from BAME backgrounds and those at the most junior end bearing the brunt. If the bar remains a profession where only those with wealthy parents can afford to enter, it will neither become representative of the people nor will it guarantee high quality advocacy. Moreover, judges are predominantly drawn from the bar and their judgments have enormous impact upon the country. We need talented advocates who are representative of our society, at all levels of expertise, in order to ensure a fair justice system. We must retain our advocates and call for proper funding of the system as a whole.

As the late Sir Henry Brooke said, “This is not about money for lawyers. The liberties of England are at stake.”

 

Lawyers are taking action to save the criminal justice system. Please support them. 

How you can support our criminal justice system:
  1. Please share this blog post with everyone you know. 
  2. Please buy and read a copy of The Secret Barrister’s book ‘Stories of The Law and How It’s Broken’. It will both inform and entertain you about the crisis in our justice system. No legal knowledge needed. Published only two weeks ago, it has made the Sunday Times best sellers list, been quoted in Parliament, and lawyers have crowd funded to send a copy to every MP. Available on Amazon at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Secret-Barrister-Stories-Law-Broken/dp/1509841105
  3. Write to your local MP. Let them know that their copy of the Secret Barrister’s book will be arriving; ask them to put it at the top of their reading list and ask them to take action to save the criminal justice system.

The Secret BPTC Student