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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Summarised by this tweet:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How might mental ill health be relevant?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So that leaves us with two possibilities:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What were the charges?

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

Why was the case dealt with so quickly?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Guest post by Joanna Hardy: Court closures and the cost of losing local justice

I am delighted to host this guest post by Joanna Hardy of Red Lion Chambersarticulating better than I can the appalling legacy of the Ministry of Justice’s continued selling-off of our courts. 

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The idea of living in the converted entrance hall of Acton Magistrates’ Court would surprise most lawyers. It used to be a sad place. Chewing gum used to cling to the floor, tackily collecting a thousand stories. The waiting-area seats groaned whenever a defendant rose to tell the local Magistrates why he had stolen the bicycle, punched the man or skipped his railway fare. The graffiti in the toilet documented the rights and wrongs of many stories and sub-plots. Defendants, victims and their respective families filed in to see justice being dispensed, case by case, crime by crime.

It was the turnstile of local justice.

Living in a converted Magistrates’ Court is not cheap. In 2017, the going rate was around £1.4 million. “Be the judge of this three-bedroom home” quipped a property article, “sleep in what used to be the grand entrance hall of Acton Magistrates’ Court”. The chewing gum has, presumably, gone and been replaced by a “rooftop terrace and steam room”. It looks happier now.

Acton might be at the start of the alphabet, but she is not alone in her dramatic makeover. Brentford Magistrates’ Court is now a luxury building that retained the cell area for trendy bicycle storage. Old Street Magistrates’ Court is a fancy hotel where you can “have a tipple” in the spot the Kray brothers once stood.

Time and again the sites of local, gritty justice have been transformed into luxe properties with corresponding price tags.

Recent figures reveal half of all Magistrates’ Courts have closed since 2010. Those pursuing local justice are increasingly finding that it is not very local at all. Courts are being consolidated and warehoused into larger centres spread out across the country. Community justice now needs to hitch a ride to the next town.

The benefits of justice being dispensed within a local community are keenly felt by those involved. For better or for worse, defendants can sometimes lead difficult, chaotic lives. Someone who is addicted to alcohol or drugs is unlikely to make a cross-county trip by 09:30am. Someone dependent on state benefits might not prioritise a peak train ticket to their court hearing if they are budgeting to feed their children. Their delays will cost society money. It might cost complainants and witnesses their time and a considerable amount of anxiety. If a defendant does not turn up at all then stretched police resources may be diverted to locate them. The community suffers.

Victims and witnesses might also struggle to make an expensive, time-consuming trip to a far-flung court. Those with childcare or employment responsibilities might not be able to spare an entire day to give evidence for twenty minutes. In some areas, the additional distance may cause witnesses a real discomfort and unease. There have been suggestions that some courts are so poorly served by public transport that witnesses and defendants could end up inappropriately travelling together on the same bus.

The benefits of local justice are clear in the day-to-day running of our courts. In some local cases, police officers still attend bail hearings. Put simply, they know their beat. They know the shortcut alleyway behind the pub, the road that is notorious for teenage car racing, the park where trouble brews. Their local knowledge helps to improve the practical decisions of the courts and to keep society safe.

The neighbourhood officer joins a long list of local benefits. Youth defendants attending a courthouse in their community can go back to school or college after their hearing. That preserves a shred of stability during a chaotic time. Probation officers sometimes know repeat offenders from earlier court orders or programmes. That helps with continuity of services including mental health, drug and alcohol treatment – often being coordinated by a GP down the road. Magistrates themselves are regularly drawn from the immediate geographic area. A community problem emerging at a particular football stadium, pub, school or street then attracts a consistent approach and a local focus.

Our justice system will be immeasurably poorer by the aggressive, short-sighted contraction of our court estate. Local knowledge, neighbourhood agencies and community justice have been gambled for large court centres making rulings from afar. The inevitable delays will waste public money. Complainants and witnesses will be inconvenienced. Police officers will be stretched. Decisions will be made in far-removed buildings distanced (in more ways than one) from the real crime on our streets.

The next time an advertisement surfaces for a luxury converted “Courthouse” building we ought to remember the real value of community justice and how much losing local courts might cost us all.

 

Joanna Hardy is a criminal barrister at Red Lion Chambers.

Don’t let the Jack Shepherd stories on legal aid distract you from the government’s cynical agenda

Jack Shepherd is a coward. A pathetic, mewling quisling of a man. He is also a convicted killer, having been found guilty of gross negligence manslaughter. He caused the death of 24 year-old Charlotte Brown by taking her out on the Thames in his defective speedboat – bought, he boasted, to “pull women” – and, fuelled by alcohol, allowing it to be driven at high speed until it fatefully struck a submerged object and capsized. The breathtaking self-regard displayed by Shepherd in the moments that followed – calling for help for himself alone, not the stricken Charlotte Brown – was matched only by his decision to abscond while on bail, meaning that the trial, conviction and imposition of a 6-year custodial sentence all took place in his absence. The police having not yet located him, Shepherd has not yet served a single day of the 6-year sentence. He is refusing to take a scintilla of responsibility for what he has done; the very least, one might have thought, he could do to begin to atone for the unbearable, irrevocable grief he has inflicted on Charlotte’s family.

In a final twist of the knife, as has been reported over the last two days, while on-the-run – presumably abroad – Shepherd has, through his lawyers, applied for permission to appeal against his conviction and sentence. And the Court of Appeal has granted permission, in relation to conviction at least. As Mr Shepherd qualifies for legal aid, which the Court has now granted for the appeal hearing, it means that, in the words of the Daily Mail, Shepherd can “milk taxpayers for cash while on the run”. MPs and tabloids have since lined up to condemn this state of affairs; a fugitive flipping the finger at justice while still benefitting from the largesse of the country whose laws he brazenly flouts. “If the legal aid rules permit a man on the run, who did not even attend his trial, to receive legal aid…then the rules need to be changed,” declared Lord Garnier QC, a former Solicitor General. Eager to soothe the Mail’s wrath, the Ministry of Justice has “ordered an urgent review” to see what can be done to close this “loophole”.

Jack Shepherd

I can perhaps help. To begin, I’d urge anyone with an interest in this case to read this response by Tuckers Solicitors,the firm instructed by Jack Shepherd, which was published in reply to the Mail’s article. It sets out a few essentials that you may not have gleaned from the breathless reporting. For one, the claim that Tuckers Solicitors received “nearly £100,000” in legal aid to represent Shepherd is untrue – it was less than £30,000, which for a complex 4-week trial involving a homicide and, no doubt, technical expert evidence (experts who are paid out of that gross, VAT-inclusive figure), is not an unusual gross fee. I emphasise “gross” because, as with all legal aid expenditure “gotchas”, the headline figures (where accurate) always represent gross payments, inclusive of VAT, and represent months of work in advance of the trial by numerous legal and medical professionals, as well as the trial itself.

But the Tuckers response also helpfully sets out the duties of defence lawyers in situations where defendants abscond. It is not as uncommon as you may think. The first thing to note is that a defendant failing to attend court on bail does not automatically forfeit his right to legal representation. Sometimes, where a defendant fails to engage entirely with his lawyers and disappears, the solicitors and barrister will have insufficient instructions to act, and so will have to withdraw before the trial. But where a defendant has given instructions as to what his case is, and then refuses to attend court, his solicitors and barrister are under a professional duty to represent his interests as effectively as they can. They can’t simply assume guilt and walk away in disgust at the cowardice of their client – to do so would fly in the face of the role of defence lawyers. We do not judge our clients; that is the court’s job.  In Shepherd’s case, Tuckers had prepared “95%” of the case for trial before Shepherd absconded, and so they, and the instructed barrister, were able to continue to act.

Where a defendant on bail doesn’t attend his trial, the court has two options. It can either adjourn so that he can be arrested and brought to court. Or it can proceed in his absence. All defendants are warned at their first hearing before the Crown Court that this can happen if they fail to attend. There is case law to guide judges on the situations where it will be appropriate to have a trial in absence, but in general terms, deliberately absconding will be viewed as you foregoing your right to attend your trial. The consequences of that are serious: you surrender your right to give evidence in your defence, or to hear any of the evidence against you. And, of course, because failing to surrender to bail is a criminal offence in its own right, you will be arrested and subsequently dealt with for that. This is a key point absent from most of the media commentary – whatever happens in this case, even if Shepherd wins his appeal, he still faces a custodial sentence for fleeing.

But underpinning all of this is the right to a fair trial. The Mail attributes this right, with typical misplaced hostility, to the European Convention on Human Rights, but while the right to a fair trial is indeed guaranteed by the Convention in Article 6, it has been ingrained in English and Welsh law for centuries. It is the foundation of our criminal justice system. It is not a privilege, but a right. And rights are not something that we only give to people we like. Justice is not earned, it is not dependent on a person being “deserving”; the core of our civilisation is the notion that we deal with everybody, however reprehensible, by the same fair standards. Even the most despicable criminals have the right not to be wrongly convicted.

So it is that, even if a defendant flees before his trial – even if he is a repeat offender who has previously committed the most odious crimes against us – the justice system ensures that his right to a fair trial is upheld. It doesn’t simply tell a jury to convict him on the basis that he has done a runner; the usual rules of procedure and evidence, carefully designed over centuries to ensure, as best we can, that the guilty are convicted and the innocent acquitted, still apply.

What then, of appeals? Surely, the question is posed by the reporting, if you flee the country, you shouldn’t be allowed to appeal? Certainly not with taxpayers’ money?

At face value, I agree – this looks like a shocking and baffling state of affairs. But stripping it down to its principles, it makes a little more sense. A key element of the right to a fair trial – to not be wrongly convicted – is a mechanism to appeal where the trial court gets things wrong. This, when you think about it, stands to reason. The right to a fair trial is meaningless if there is no way to enforce it. That is what an appeals system offers – a check on the safety of a conviction. Because even people who are convicted of appalling offences and abscond are still entitled not to be wrongly convicted. And the duties of defence lawyers to ensure that their clients – even horrid clients who have absconded – are not unfairly convicted, still apply.

The right to appeal can mean different things in different jurisdictions. Some countries give an automatic right to a full retrial; others, like England and Wales, impose strict criteria. You firstly have to successfully obtain permission (or “leave”) to appeal against a Crown Court conviction or sentence. This is done by a written application by the lawyers, which sets out the grounds of appeal and argues why the conviction is unsafe. On the legal aid point – the barrister and solicitors do not receive a penny extra for advising on appeal or drafting the application and grounds. It is all done for free. In practical terms, it provides a disincentive to the lawyers to positively advise on appeal unless they really believe it has merit.

For a conviction to be found “unsafe” is a very high threshold. If a High Court judge reading the application considers that you have a good argument that deserves a full hearing before the Court of Appeal, they will grant permission. To put this in context, 90% of all applications for permission to appeal are refused.

Jack Shepherd has been granted permission to appeal against his conviction (but not, contrary to the Mail’s claim on its front page today, his sentence). The reasons are not yet publicly known; Tuckers refer in their statement to “legal errors made during the trial”, but the full picture will become clear when the appeal is heard. However, the numbers alone tell you that, in order for permission to have been granted, there will be merit in these arguments. There is a genuine concern that something at his trial went seriously wrong. This is not some speculative attempt by lawyers to drum up funds by launching spurious appeals; if there was no merit, the application would be in the bin with the other 90% of applications and no legal aid would be authorised at all.

Where permission to appeal is granted – as in this case – the Court of Appeal will issue a representation order (legal aid), usually for a barrister only, to prepare and present the appeal at a full hearing. If the solicitor is required to do work for a criminal appeal, most of the time it is expected that they do it for free. So the implicit suggestion that Tuckers will receive some 5-figure windfall from the appeal is a fantasy. They will in all likelihood receive nothing. The cost to the legal aid budget of this appeal will be minimal – the gross fee for a junior barrister defending an appeal at the Court of Appeal will usually run to a few hundred pounds. For a QC, the rate will be higher.

So if this case isn’t actually about money, what is it about? I’d suggest it’s about two things. Firstly, there’s unarguably a jarring feeling caused by this case. I understand the rage. It is raw and primal and exacerbated by frustration. We can’t get Shepherd – the police have so far proved unable to track him down – but we can lash out at the fallible system which gives rights to people who don’t deserve them; who offend and re-offend and then offend again. But we have to temper these urges with a sober reminder of our first principles: justice is not dependent on good behaviour. Equality before the law does not mean equality for people we like. Absconding to avoid prison is dreadful, pusillanimous behaviour, but it is not the worst we see in the courts. What about those who perjure themselves? Or those who, after being convicted, take revenge against witnesses? Or commit contempt of court by shouting out? Or who breach prison rules by smuggling in contraband? All of these, and many more offences, demonstrate a complete disrespect for the legal system and an arrogant lack of remorse. Do we remove the right of appeal to these people too? Or do we just remove the few hundred quid in legal aid payable to the lawyers, meaning that only absconders with the means to pay privately are able to appeal?

Secondly, this case, and the way it has been presented, fits with a popular narrative about legal aid. It’s for people who don’t deserve it. It’s a gravy train, cash cow or whatever culinary or zoological metaphor the chief sub-editor prefers. And this, again, fails completely to understand why we have legal aid in the first place. Legal aid – modest sums far below market rate paid to lawyers acting for the public – is central to access to justice. If you don’t have legal advice and representation, you can’t meaningfully enforce your legal rights. If the state comes to take your child, or wrongly accuse you of a criminal offence, or if your landlord unlawfully evicts you, or your boss sexually harasses you, you want to be able to assert your rights. If you can afford to pay privately for lawyers, good for you. If you can’t, then, like the NHS, legal aid offers the safety net. Without it, we have a two-tier justice system. Those who can afford to pay represented by lawyers, and you, who can’t, left by yourself standing in court fighting the legal professionals instructed by the state or corporate behemoths. To revert to the health analogy, you’d be left to operate on yourself. This is why legal aid matters.

The problem is that, for successive governments, legal aid has provided a giant political football, to be kicked and slashed at in the name of sport, political distraction and saving a tiny amount of money. The cost of the criminal legal aid budget, following 40% cuts to the criminal justice system, is £850m per year – around 0.1% of total public spending. Yet we are encouraged at every turn to believe it is a extortionate burden, filling the pockets of greedy lawyers (many of whom in reality often work on legal aid cases for hourly rates below minimum wage). It’s a lie.

And the effects of the lie are devastating. In 2012, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act removed legal aid entirely from swathes of the country’s most vulnerable. The results have been catastrophic. Victims of sexual and domestic violence have been cross-examined by their abusers in family proceedings; penniless victims of rogue landlords and employers have been denied legal representation; people wrongly refused benefits by DWP cock-up have been left destitute and unable to challenge the decisions; and innocent people have been forced to pay privately for criminal defence lawyers and, upon being acquitted, have been unable to claim their costs back, effectively bankrupting them. All of this was predicated on lies told by the Ministry of Justice about our spending on legal aid (“we have the most expensive legal aid system in the world” being the headline whopper), and dutifully trumpeted by the tabloids.

The MoJ promised to publish a full review into the devastating impact of LASPO by the end of 2018. They broke their promise. Six years after implementation, we are still waiting. Within 24 hours of the Mail calling for legal aid to be stripped from unpopular criminals like Jack Shepherd, the Ministry pledged to hold an “urgent review”.

This is the real agenda of this flurry of media reporting. Calculated, cynical and dishonest fearmongering of what legal aid is, how much it costs and what it is for, with a clanging silence when it comes to explaining to confused readers why legal aid exists. If I were equally cynical, I’d suggest that this antagonising of the public against legal aid is a precursor the publication of the overdue LASPO report which will be damning of the damage done to people’s lives, in the hope that public rage will be diverted onto the Jack Shepherds and their lawyers, instead of the real villains in the legal aid scandal – the government.

Without legal aid, the rule of law collapses

The Guardian is currently running a brilliant series on the effect of the legal aid cuts turbo-charged by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. Owen Bowcott and Amelia Hill have put together an in-depth investigation drawing on case studies and interviews to demonstrate the dire impact upon access to justice.

One such interview, should you be interested, was with me, and can be found here.