Why was a homeless man jailed for pretending to run the London Marathon?

A homeless man who picked up a lost race number and “completed” the London Marathon has been jailed for 16 weeks.

Yesterday at Uxbridge magistrates’ court, Stanislaw Skupian (38) was sentenced by magistrates having pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing on 18 May to fraud, after he picked up a race card number dropped by runner Jake Halliday at the 23-mile mark and illicitly joined the race himself. He crossed the finish line and celebrated with the medal intended for Mr Halliday, who found himself removed from the race 300 metres from the Finish line when marshals spotted that he was not wearing a race number.

The Chair of the bench passing sentence told Skupian, a homeless father-of-one who had recently suffered a temporary breakdown in his mental health, “The offences are so serious [that] only a prison sentence will suffice”. 13 weeks’ imprisonment was passed, with three weeks’ imprisonment imposed consecutively for unrelated matters of theft.

The Chief Executive of the London Marathon, Nick Bitel, reportedly said that “justice has been done”. His apparent pleasure with the sentence was not matched by many people on social media, who expressed consternation at a mentally-unwell homeless man being squeezed into our bursting prisons for a non-violent offence.

So what the Dickens has gone on?

The offences

Stanislaw Skupian was charged with fraud by false representation, contrary to sections 1 and 2 of the Fraud Act 2006. The “false representation” being, presumably, the implied representation that he was the rightful owner of Mr Halliday’s race number and was entitled to complete the race and claim the finishers’ medal. This offence carries a maximum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment in the Crown Court, or six months’ imprisonment in the magistrates’ court. He was sentenced to 13 weeks’ imprisonment.

He was also charged with three unrelated offences of theft. He was arrested at the multi-faith prayer room at Heathrow Airport, where he was found with items including a primary school worker’s identity card and a pink diary holding overtime hours worked by airline staff. It was said that Skupian viewed the airport as a temporary home and had picked up items discarded. This would amount to theft (referred to in court as “theft by finding”) under s.1 of the Theft Act 1968. He received three weeks’ imprisonment for these offences, to run consecutively to the 13 weeks imposed on the fraud (it is unclear whether this was one week consecutive for each of the three theft charges, or three weeks on each directed to run concurrently to each other, or some other mad configuration dreamed up by the magistrates).

He was further made subject to a Criminal Behaviour Order, which is the new replacement for the old-fashioned ASBO. These can be imposed where the court is satisfied that a defendant has engaged in behaviour that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to any person, and where a Criminal Behaviour Order will help in preventing the defendant from acting in that way. In this case, the court deemed that banning the defendant from Heathrow Airport for three years, unless he has a pre-booked flight, was an appropriate use of that power.

 

The Sentencing Guidelines

To look at what sentence we might expect, we have to look at the Sentencing Guidelines, which are published by the Sentencing Council and which courts are required by law to follow. So let’s look at the Definitive Guideline for Fraud, Bribery and Money Laundering Offences. The seriousness of an offence is judged by considering the “culpability” of the offender and the “harm” caused by the offence.

On the Guideline for straightforward fraud, the first step is to assess culpability by reference to the below factors:

There are plainly no elements of “High culpability” in this case. It would appear, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, that this was an opportunistic, one-off offence with very little planning, which points towards Lesser culpability.

Now we turn to the assessment of harm:

For fraud, you take as your starting point the financial loss to the victim. Here, it is very low indeed. The cost of entering the London Marathon ballot, at £39, is probably the closest financial value you can attach to this unusual offence (the value of the medal not being easily assessed due to it not being something purchasable on the open market). This puts us in the lowest category, Category 5.

But then we have to look at the impact upon the victim, to see whether it warrants the sentence being moved upwards. This is a slightly unusual case, because although (I expect) the charge would have been drafted with London Marathon as the nominal victim, the person most directly affected is arguably Jake Halliday. He was stopped 300 metres from the finishing line and told that he was not allowed to cross due to his number having fallen off. He had raised £49,000 for a charity, Bloodwise, and was prevented from completing the race, having run the best part of 26 miles, in the cruellest of circumstances. What was (one might expect) a lifetime ambition was snatched away. That no doubt had a considerable detrimental effect on him.

However. Can it really be suggested that Skupian was responsible for depriving Mr Halliday of his moment of glory? It was said in court (and seemingly not disputed) that he spied the discarded race identifier on the floor and saw an opportunity. He did not steal or otherwise remove the number from Mr Halliday. It does not appear that he watched it fall and swooped in. If, as the court apparently accepted, he had simply seen it on the ground, was the damage not already done? Perhaps he could have handed the card to an official, but it is unclear how it could have been reunited with Mr Halliday in order for him to have been able to complete the race. The London Marathon Final Instructions to runners emphasises the importance of taking care of the running number – “Duplicate numbers cannot be issued under any circumstances”. It is also stated that anybody taking part without a number will be removed from the race by marshals “before you cross the Finish line”. Once that number had fallen, it would appear (and I’ll be happily corrected if I’m mistaken) that the game was over for Jake Halliday.

Against this backdrop, it might realistically be argued that while Skupian exploited Mr Halliday’s misfortune, his criminal behaviour did not cause it. The anger and humiliation felt by Mr Halliday when he learned that somebody had claimed his number and completed the race in his stead may well be significant, but is it so great as to move the harm out of “Lesser impact”? I suppose it might. Just.

My assessment is that for these reasons, this case probably falls somewhere between, categories 4C and 5C:

We can see that the latter provides a starting point of a ‘Band B fine’, which equates to around 100% of somebody’s weekly income. The category range is a discharge – a slap on the wrist – up to a medium level community order. If the harm caused is deemed serious enough to lift it up to the next category, the starting point is a medium level community order. Still the category range does not extend to custody. In order to arrive at a category where a custodial term is available, the court would have to have assessed culpability as “B”. I find it tricky to see how this was done.

We then look at aggravating and mitigating factors:

 The defendant had a previous conviction for attempted theft. That was the only matter mentioned in court. So while it is a similar type of offence, this is hardly the kind of record which would seriously aggravate a defendant’s position to make the difference between custody and not-custody. No other aggravating features listed are relevant.

In mitigation, the court heard that the defendant has lived in the UK for 11 years. He suffered a neck injury in a serious car crash last year, forcing him to take sick leave from his catering job. His marriage broke down and he lost his home. Shortly before the race, he had suffered a “short, temporary breakdown in his mental state”. It was also submitted that he had committed the offence out of excitement, without fully appreciating that what he was doing was wrong.

Putting all this together, I’d say there’s more to mitigate his position than to aggravate it. This would mean moving below the starting point on the Guidelines.

We then have the issue of credit for guilty plea. He admitted the offence at the very first hearing, and so is entitled to one third off his sentence. This means that the magistrates must have taken a starting point of 20 weeks in order to arrive at a final sentence of 13 weeks for this offence.

[The thefts we shall put to one side as we do not know their value. What we can infer, however, is that they were considered significantly less serious than the fraud.]

 

Conclusion

Based on what we know, this appears to be a very harsh sentence. While this is not the type of fraud envisaged by those who drafted the Guidelines, it is difficult to see how a straightforward assessment of culpability and harm could lead a court to a starting point of 20 weeks for this single offence. The defendant has an automatic right to appeal his sentence to the Crown Court. I would not be surprised if he exercised it.

There are unknowns, of course. There would have been a Pre-Sentence Report prepared by the Probation Service, whose views would have informed the court’s. It may be that they were unable to offer any alternative to custody, although experience would dictate that a homeless man with a limited criminal record and mental health problems is the kind of person the Probation Service try to persuade the courts to let them help. It would be a sad day indeed if all that our justice system could offer to improve this man were two pointless months of incarceration.

I have written about magistrates before, including in my book, and one of my criticisms is that sometimes a sense of perspective is lacking when these non-legally qualified volunteers are sentencing offenders. Just because a power of imprisonment exists does not mean that it has to be used. This sentence, based on what we know, appears to be one such example. That it can be said that the offence was so serious that only a prison sentence can suffice is, with respect to the sentencing court, perverse. Courts often find ways to avoid immediate custody in cases which are far more serious, involving offenders with significantly worse records.

And I’ll seize on those words – “based on what we know” – to pirouette into a final flourish on my soapbox, if I may:

This case had received national media attention when Mr Skupian made his first appearance at court and pleaded guilty. It was plain to the court administration and to the magistrates that the outcome of this case would be widely reported. Yet still the magistrates did not see fit to publish written sentencing remarks explaining their decision.

This is a drum I have unapologetically beaten for some considerable time. Because while good court reporters should accurately reflect the full reasons given for a sentence passed, inevitably there will be occasions where something is missed in the hustle of a chaotic magistrates’ court list. Submissions and decisions as to where the case falls in the Sentencing Guidelines, for example, hold little interest to the average reader and may understandably not make it into the final copy, but to lawyers analysing and explaining the decision these can be critical.

Magistrates, judges and lawyers cannot complain that their remarks or decisions have been unfairly portrayed if they don’t bother to do the basics. It would have taken an extra ten minutes, one supposes, for the remarks to have been committed to paper, copied and distributed before being read out, and then everybody would be able to see how and why the decision was reached.

As it is, we are once again left groping in the dark, or at best the dusk, in trying to understand how our criminal justice system is – or in this case is apparently not – working.

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

Today marked a milestone in the magnificent campaign by Gina Martin to persuade Parliament to legislate against “upskirting”, the intrusive practice of taking photographs of a person under clothing (usually their skirt) without permission. A Private Member’s Bill to create a specific criminal offence of upskirting was introduced by Wera Hobhouse MP, before being blocked by Sir Christopher Chope, and aimed to eliminate an existing loophole in the law which means that some instances of this behaviour cannot be prosecuted. This, it seems, was not welcomed by the man who brands himself ‘Mr Loophole’, solicitor Nick Freeman. Mr Freeman, channelling his best Aunt Lydia, tweeted:

The response was critical, to put it mildly. And I confess to being one to initially reproach Mr Freeman for his comment. However upon reflection, it might be that he has hit on something. After all, there are ways in which women – indeed all victims of criminal offences – might better help themselves, which are well-known to us legal beagles, but perhaps not to the general public. So in the spirit of public service, herewith some tips on how, by taking responsibility, we might all keep ourselves a bit safer:

  1. If you are a shopkeeper, take responsibility for the plague of shoplifting (section 1 of the Theft Act 1968) by locking all your produce in the stock room and keeping your shelves conscientiously empty.
  2. Save yourself from an impending physical assault by punching yourself on the nose. If the court can’t tell whether your broken schnoz was caused by you or by your assailant, they cannot formally declare you a victim of assault occasioning actual bodily harm (section 47 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861).
  3. The legal definition of burglary includes entering a “building” as a trespasser (section 9(1) of the Theft Act 1968). A tent is not a building, so avoid the scourge of burglary by razing your provocative dwelling house to the ground and setting up camp in the front garden.
  4. Landlords, if you have any self-respect you will protect yourselves from drunk and disorderly troublemakers (section 91 of the Criminal Justice Act 1967) by barring all except your regular punters. And then bar them too, just to be sure.
  5. See that fluffy kitten? He’d be immune from all acts of cruelty under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 if only he weren’t so damn kickable.
  6. Nobody is blaming you for being a victim of witness intimidation (section 51 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994), but if you will choose to witness a criminal offence and cooperate with the authorities, you have to be accountable for your decisions.
  7. While there is no excuse for racist abuse, victims could help themselves by trying – just trying – to be a different race.
  8. Yes, online banking fraud is bad, but knowing that it exists, shouldn’t you sensibly be eschewing the concept of money and transactional capitalism altogether?
  9. Murder is indefensible; however having your vital organs clustered together under such easily-perforated skin is a lifestyle choice of which you need to take ownership.

This post was first published in the i paper, here.

Why Criminal Justice Matters: Live Event at the RSA

On Tuesday evening, the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) hosted an event, “Why Criminal Justice Matters“, at which a panel of industry experts (plus me) discussed the plight of the criminal justice system, and what can be done to remedy its failings.

The discussion was chaired by Joshua Rozenberg QC, and the panel featured:

  • Penelope Gibbs, Founder of Transform Justice
  • Angela Rafferty QC, Chair of the Criminal Bar Association
  • Jonathan Black, Partner at BSB Solicitors
  • Nazir Afzal, Former Chief Crown Prosecutor for Northwest England at the Crown Prosecution Service
  • Me, via live Twitter feed.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable event, and I am extremely grateful to all  concerned for their participation and support. Tickets sold out quickly, I’m told, but for anybody who wasn’t present and didn’t catch the live-stream, the event can be watched for free here:

 

Bashing burglars and the law of self-defence

The headlines and news bulletins over the past two days have focused on this story:

(Your attention is respectfully drawn to the headline, rather than the libido-boosting diet to beat the menopause (no HRT required.))

I make clear at the outset that I offer no comment whatsoever on this particular case. While the editorial slants of the tabloids may hint at two-fingered salutes to the law of “strict liability” contempt of court, I am going to play safe by disclaiming that, as criminal proceedings in this case are “live” within the meaning of Schedule 1 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 (a suspect having been arrested without a warrant), what follows is intended as a contribution to a discussion in good faith of public affairs or other matters of general public interest.

What I want to look at briefly, therefore, is the law of self-defence in what lawyers euphemistically refer to as “householder cases” – where force is used by a householder against a trespasser in a dwelling. In dipping into this legalese, I do not for a moment seek to minimise or cloak the stark reality that confronting a burglar in your home is one of the most terrifying experiences imaginable. Burglary of somebody’s home is an offence which, in my view, is treated with relative disdain by the criminal justice system. Its ubiquity means that insufficient resources are made available to police to investigate (hence shocking reports of 9 out of 10 burglary investigations being closed without a suspect being identified). Its prevalence means it is considered by the CPS to be one of the least serious criminal offences for the purpose of instructing prosecuting barristers, attracting a miserly fee (£480 for a 2-day trial requiring on average 20 hours’ work (2 days at court plus a conservative 4 hours’ preparation), so around £24 gross an hour, of which I would take home about £12), and is therefore prosecuted often by the least experienced in our ranks. And, while I am not one predisposed towards longer sentences, I have a lot of sympathy with members of the public who feel that a Sentencing Guideline starting point of 1 year’s imprisonment, of which a defendant will serve a maximum of 6 months, does not adequately reflect the harm done by the violation that breaking into someone’s home represents. The after-effects can last forever. It is not a mere property offence; it is an encroachment into a person or a family’s safest space. And I think many of us in the system can become inured to that truth.

So there is my opening salvo: I hold no affection for burglars. Don’t allow the clinical nature of what follows to lead you to think otherwise.

But, since the tale of Tony Martin in 1997, elements of the press and the Conservative party have become fixated on the notion that an Englishman’s home is no more his castle; that, confronted by an intruder in the dead of night, the householder is required to deferentially hand over the code to the safe and ensure that the burglar is safely escorted from the premises with his bag of swag bulging and his bodily integrity intact. What followed, under the intellectual guidance of Chris Grayling, was a change to the law in 2012 seeking to persuade Middle England that, in the words of the prematurely-celebratory Sun headline, “It’s Official: You Can Batter a Burglar“. We’ll have a look below at what that means in practice.

 

The law of self-defence

It is a longstanding principle of English common law that a person is entitled to use reasonable force in self-defence, or in defence of another. There are also statutory defences of using reasonable force in defence of property or in the prevention of crime and arrest/apprehension of offenders.

In 2008, the common law defence of self-defence was put on a statutory footing in section 76 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. What it means in practice is as follows:

  • A person acting in genuine self-defence is entitled to use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances as he believes them to be. This provides a defence to any charge of violence, up to and including the use of lethal force;
  • The first question that a jury must ask is Did the defendant believe or may he have believed that it was necessary to use force to defend himself an attack or imminent attack on himself or others or to protect property or prevent crime?
  • The second question is Was the amount of force D used reasonable in the circumstances, including the dangers as D believed them to be?
  • The burden is on the prosecution to disprove self-defence. It is not for a defendant to prove that he was acting in self-defence. The prosecution have to prove beyond reasonable doubt (so that a jury is sure) that the defendant was not acting in reasonable self-defence.

Let’s break down what this means.

“A genuine belief that force is necessary”

The question here is subjective – i.e. did the defendant genuinely believe he needed to use force in self-defence? It does not matter if the defendant was in fact mistaken, as long as he believed that at the time. So if a 6-foot man wearing a terrifying bear costume runs towards you brandishing what looks like a machete, and you genuinely believe he is about to attack you, the fact that you later realise the “machete” is a hunnypot and that you’ve KO’d Winnie The Pooh in front of a distraught crowd of Disneyland toddlers does not matter. The fact that your belief in the need for force was, by objective standards, unreasonable – who would mistake a hunnypot for a machete, for Lord’s sake? – does not matter at this stage. It might make the jury less likely to accept your insistence that your belief was genuine; however the bottom line is that a mistaken, unreasonable but genuinely-held belief in the need for force is enough. (The only exception is if your mistaken belief is due to your voluntary intoxication. Because, frankly, getting tanked on Stella and raining fury on Winnie The Pooh in a fountain is not something the courts can condone).

 

“Reasonable force”

Whether force is reasonable has to be judged by the circumstances as the defendant believed them to be, even if, as above, he was in fact mistaken. So if you genuinely believe that a machete attack is imminent, what is reasonable has to be assessed by reference to that belief. What is reasonable will obviously depend on the individual case, but section 76 reflects the famous words of Lord Morris in the case of Palmer v R 1971 AC 814, which are distilled in some form to juries when they are given their directions of law by the trial judge:

“If there has been an attack so that self defence is reasonably necessary, it will be recognised that a person defending himself cannot weigh to a nicety the exact measure of his defensive action. If the jury thought that that in a moment of unexpected anguish a person attacked had only done what he honestly and instinctively thought necessary, that would be the most potent evidence that only reasonable defensive action had been taken …”

Further pointers in section 76 include the provision that if force is “disproportionate”, it cannot by its nature be “reasonable”. Which sounds self-evident, one might think, but we’ll come to this more in a second. It is also made explicit that, while the possibility of a defendant having been able to retreat is a factor to consider when assessing reasonableness, there is no “duty to retreat”. It is also long-established that a person may strike pre-emptively – you do not need to wait to be hit.

So in a nutshell, the law of self-defence means that the prosecution must make a jury sure that either a defendant didn’t really believe he needed to use force, or that he did but used unreasonable force – for example killing someone with a gun in response to a slap to the face – bearing in mind the broad scope of appreciation allowed in these cases.

Simple, right? Well, not, sadly, in cases involving burglars. As we shall now see…

 

Householder self-defence

In 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron, having promised in his party’s manifesto to afford “greater protection” to householders who use force against burglars, said:

‘We’ll put beyond doubt that homeowners and small shopkeepers who use reasonable force to defend themselves or their properties will not be prosecuted.’

Quite how Mr Cameron intended to guarantee that fetter on the discretion of the independent Crown Prosecution Service was never explained, but the public was thereafter treated to Chris Grayling’s party piece at the Conservative party conference, which went someway beyond Mr Cameron’s hashed restatement of the existing law. And, as you might expect, Mr Grayling’s idea was as poor in execution as it was stupid in policy.

Grayling, having dissembled to the crowd about what the existing law of self-defence said, insisted that a new law was needed which changed the test.  No longer was “reasonable self-defence” a sufficient litmus. Instead, householders should only be convicted where they had used “grossly disproportionate” force. Merely “disproportionate” force, it followed, was no more than burglars deserved. Section 76(5A) was duly inserted into the Act.

Inevitably, once reality bit, Grayling’s dreams came crashing down around him. He lost the support of the Mail once they saw guidance sent to judges and prosecutors “admitting that the provision does not give householders free rein to use disproportionate force in every case they are confronted by an intruder.” (You can just hear the disappointment jumping off the page). The exemption did not apply to the use of force to protect property, for example. Nor did it apply to “non-dwelling buildings”. So if you saw someone stealing your lawnmower from your shed, you could not use disproportionate force to stop them.

But worst of all, when the High Court was called upon to interpret section 76(5A), it confirmed that its drafting did not in fact have the effect that Grayling had desired. The CPS had interpreted s.76(5A) in accordance with the newspaper headlines – only where the prosecution could prove grossly disproportionate force would it be appropriate to prosecute. But the High Court said otherwise: all the new law did was to confirm (as if confirmation were needed) that anyone using “grossly disproportionate” force could not, by definition, be using reasonable force. Force which was “merely” disproportionate could be reasonable in householder cases, but would not always be. The test, as with all cases of self-defence, remained whether force was “reasonable” in the circumstances.

So, in conclusion, where a householder is confronted by a burglar, if they genuinely believe they need to use force in self-defence, they can use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances. If they use “grossly disproportionate” force, they cannot rely on self-defence. If they use merely “disproportionate” force, that may or may not be reasonable. Got it? If not, you can blame Grayling for the unnecessary confusion injected by the pointless test of “gross disproportionality”.

 

Arrest

Much has been made about the fact that the 78-year old householder in the present case has been arrested and (presumably) interviewed by the police, before being released. It is worth remembering that the police have a legal duty to investigate cases where there has been a loss of life. Part of the investigation may involve arresting a suspect so that they can be interviewed.

Whether an arrest is necessary in a given case – as opposed to inviting a suspect in for an interview – depends on whether certain statutory factors have been satisfied. But on its face, there is little unusual in the police arresting somebody suspected of killing another person. The police will usually have a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed – because somebody has died a non-natural death – and the arrest will usually be necessary to allow a prompt and effective investigation, the combination of which means that an arrest is permissible. It is no indication of whether a charge will follow; rather it is on its face the police complying with their legal duties. When a suspect is arrested and detained at a police station, they have a panoply of rights, including the right to independent legal advice. If they are interviewed under caution (as one would expect), they will have the opportunity to advance any account of self-defence, which will then form part of the file that is passed to the Crown Prosecution Service for a charging decision.

 

The charging decision

The Code for Crown Prosecutors provides that when a charging decision is being taken the test is two-fold – (i) is there a realistic prospect of conviction on the evidence? (ii) Is a prosecution in the public interest. If a suspect offers self-defence as an explanation in their police interview, the CPS will have to be satisfied that there is sufficient evidence to disprove this beyond reasonable doubt, applying the above test. Even if they are satisfied of the evidence, they must then consider the public interest. CPS Guidance says:

When reviewing cases involving assertions of self-defence or action in the prevention of crime/preservation of property, prosecutors should be aware of the balance to be struck:

  • the public interest in promoting a responsible contribution on the part of citizens in preserving law and order; and
  • in discouraging vigilantism and the use of violence generally.

There is often a degree of sensitivity to be observed in such cases; this is particularly important when the alleged victim of an offence was himself/herself engaged in criminal activity at the relevant time. For instance, a burglar who claims to have been assaulted by the occupier of the premises concerned.

 

Conclusion

Upon inspection of most of the tabloid’s causes celebres, one will often find a fairly sensible explanation for a decision to prosecute a householder who has injured or killed a burglar. Sometimes, as with Tony Martin, the homeowner will have used lethal force on a burglar fleeing the property, or will have chased him down the street and given him a sound thrashing. The bottom line, as has always been the bottom line notwithstanding the dishonesty of Chris Grayling, is that using reasonable force against a burglar will rarely result in a prosecution, much less a conviction.

Bad law reporting and a public dangerously disconnected from criminal justice

The criminal law has long had an image problem.

Partly, the fault is internal: the ridiculous costume; the alienating hybrid of legalese and obsequious formality that renders court hearings nonsensical to anyone in the public gallery; the impenetrability and inaccessibility of updated statute and case law; the historic failure of those of us in the system to lawsplain to those outside how justice works and why our founding principles are so important.

But part of the problem is broader: the refusal of successive governments to provide any meaningful legal education in schools; irresponsible and inaccurate news reporting; and legal illiteracy indulged and expounded by politicians using the law as a cheap crop to beat their hobby horse of choice.

The result has been inevitable. Centuries of compounded negligence have culminated in a disconnect between the criminal justice system and those it purports to serve. And most days it feels as if it’s getting worse. No longer are rabble-rousing mis-reports of legal stories confined to a day’s news cycle before being scrunched around tomorrow’s cod-and-chips; the rags are now frequently doused in the kerosene of social media and sizzle with white hot rage for days, weeks and even months on end.

While I don’t pretend that this is a problem confined to criminal law, it is often the tales of “soft sentences” and “putting criminals’ rights ahead of the victim” that burn the brightest. The formula is predictable: there will be a headline attack on an “out of touch” judge (pictured, for enhanced ludicrousness, in their ceremonial wig), with a decontextualised snippet of the judicial remarks and a gaping absence of informed fact or sober analysis.

Broken-Justice-System

And over the past twelve months, we’ve suffered 365 Groundhog Days of these. The case of Ched Evans kicked things off, with outlets eager to report the outright untruths of politicians suggesting that this case set a dangerous precedent allowing complainants in sex cases to be gratuitously humiliated in court over their sexual history. A campaign to not just reform section 41 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, but to issue a blanket ban on any questions about sexual behaviour, is still being propelled by several MPs. It matters not that to do so would result, inevitably, in vital defence questions being prohibited and innocent people being convicted. A straw man effigy of section 41 has been hoisted onto the bonfire along with the presumption of innocence, with Harriet Harman proudly holding aloft the matchbox.

A run of sentencing “outrages” has followed.

The man who beat his wife with a cricket bat and was spared jail, because the judge deemed that the victim was “not vulnerable” (except the judge didn’t say those words, and it wasn’t the reason for the custodial sentence being (initially) suspended). The paedophile released only five years into a 22-year prison sentence (except it wasn’t a 22-year prison sentence, and he served longer than five years). Lavinia Woodward, the Oxford undergrad whose gratuitous bikini shots accompanied the squeals of horror that this rich white girl had been spared prison for stabbing her boyfriend, just because the rich white judge thought she was “too intelligent” to be locked up. Was that the reason she was spared jail? Did the judge ever say those words? Are any more rhetorical questions needed?

Rarely, if ever, is the reader informed of the Sentencing Guidelines and case law that constrain judges as to their approach in these cases, and which explain certain terms deployed in the sentencing remarks. Rarely are those remarks published in full — a flaw in the channels of official judicial communications for sure, but also the responsibility of those trained in shorthand in the press gallery. And rarely is there any voice of expertise explaining the apparently inexplicable, or offering a counterpoint to the incitement to fulminate.

Sometimes, of course, decisions will be made in court which do horrify, and for which there is no sensible justification. But most often, a straightforward, prosaic explanation exists. It’s just not reported. Neither editor nor politician will deal in full facts, whether through ignorance or malice.

The greatest tragedy is that if, instead of scything the low-hanging, rotten fruit the reporters reached a little higher, they would find that there is so much in criminal justice for their readership and Twitter followers to get angry about.

There’s the obliteration of legal aid, cutting the middle-classes out of publicly-funded legal assistance if they are wrongly accused of a criminal offence. There’s the ‘innocence tax’, which means that if, having been refused legal aid, you pay privately for your defence, you are not allowed to reclaim your full fees even if acquitted. Everyone in the system can speak for hours about the stack-em-high, sell-em-cheap model of warehouse justice in the magistrates’ courts, which is being rolled out in the crown courts under the euphemism of glorious efficiency. Disclosure — the means by which most innocent people secure the key to their escape — is found by report after report to be an abomination due to a hybrid of poor training and insufficient resources at the cut-to-the-bone police and Crown Prosecution Service.

But these problems evade meaningful public scrutiny, perhaps through ignorance, or perhaps because it’s simply far easier to report, and get angry about, a pervert getting help in the community rather than rotting in our violent, suicide-ridden prisons.

Public legal education is needed now more than ever. The Solicitor General, to his credit, appears to recognise this. His new Public Legal Education Panel is a start. Something needs to change if the public are going to have a hope of recognising where the real problems in justice lie; and who, in reality, poses the greatest threat to their rights. The thing about criminal justice is that, for all too many people, the realisation of how far basic protections have been eroded only dawns when it’s too late.

This article first appeared on Legal Cheek, and is available here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Harriet Harman’s proposal to keep sexual histories out of court will put innocent people in prison

I have today written a piece for iNews on Harriet Harman’s resurrected plans to ban all evidence of sexual history from the courtroom, and why this is quite simply one of the most dangerous and stupid ideas of recent times.

Full piece is here:

https://inews.co.uk/opinion/harriet-harmans-proposal-keep-sexual-histories-court-will-put-innocent-people-prison/

Angela Eagle Challenges Jeremy Corbyn For The Labour Leadership