Thank you

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

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

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

Here’s to another twelve months of lawsplaining.

Thank you all

SB x

 

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Bad law reporting and a public dangerously disconnected from criminal justice

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.

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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.

Some thoughts on Charlie Alliston and death on the roads

I have been asked by several people what my views are on the tragic case of Charlie Alliston, the 20-year old cyclist who was this week sentenced to 18 months’ detention in a Young Offender Institution for causing the death of a pedestrian, Kim Briggs.

And to be honest, I’m not sure what I think. Or at least, I think a number of things, not all necessarily consistent and not all easily reducible to a pithy, logically argued conclusion. I recognise that this is far from ideal for a blog which pretends to self-righteous polemic and strident self-assurance as its hallmarks. But difficult criminal cases often fall between the cracks in our neatly-defined worldview, pinching our assumptions and stretching out our contemplations on our understanding of criminal justice.

And plainly this is a difficult case. A brief flick through the media coverage of this case, or, if you can bear, a hashtag search for “Alliston” on Twitter, offers but a snapshot of the ferociously contested issues arising out of his trial and sentence.

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There has been much said about the perceived “gap in the law” that meant that Alliston, as a cyclist, could not be prosecuted under the legislation covering causing death by careless or dangerous driving – such statutes requiring the use of a “mechanically-propelled vehicle”, which a bicycle is plainly not – and instead faced a rarely-used charge of doing bodily harm by “wanton or furious driving or racing, or other wilful misconduct, or by wilful neglect”. This offence is set out in s.35 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, a Victorian statute presented by the media as hilariously rare and antiquated, notwithstanding that every offence of violence causing injury (short of death) is still prosecuted under it. Section 35, which admittedly is seldom used, requires only that a person be in charge of a “carriage or vehicle”, broad enough to include cyclists. In practical terms, this meant that Alliston faced a much lower maximum sentence – two years’ imprisonment – than that available for a motorist convicted of causing death by dangerous driving (14 years) or careless driving (5 years).

A further apparent anomaly is that the offence of dangerous cycling (without causing death or injury) covers only the manner of the cycling, whereas the offence of dangerous driving covers both the manner of the driving and the roadworthiness of the vehicle. In other words, if you drive a vehicle that is dangerously defective, that is caught by dangerous driving. In Alliston, much focus of the prosecution case was on the fact that his bicycle had a fixed rear hub but no front-wheel brake; it was a bike designed for the racing track rather than the road. The absence of a front-wheel brake was unlawful, but would not, under the current law, have of itself amounted to “dangerous cycling”.

It is worth remembering that Alliston did however face an alternative, more serious charge of which he was acquitted by the jury – manslaughter, which carries up to life imprisonment. Without digressing into legal complexity, it can be said that manslaughter is a difficult offence to prove in relation to road traffic collisions; hence the standard practice of charging causing death by dangerous or careless driving in most cases involving a fatality arising out of bad driving, with manslaughter reserved by the Crown Prosecution Service largely for cases where a vehicle is used as a weapon. We are in some difficulty in analysing the jury verdict given the lack of clear and accurate legal reporting on this trial, and in particular how the jury were directed to approach manslaughter (which can be charged in different ways), but some help might be gleaned from the assessment of Martin Porter QC, a campaigning cyclist who did not attend the trial but has offered his own summary of the applicable law here. Mr Porter’s conclusion is that the jury’s verdicts – not guilty of manslaughter but guilty of the lesser offence of furious or wanton etc – suggest that “[Alliston’s] conduct was not so self-evidently dangerous as to amount to manslaughter but that he had been a person having charge of a vehicle whose wilful misconduct had caused death”. The average non-lawyer may find this margin so fine as to be barely discernible, but it is by such fine borders that much criminal law is delineated. [As a point of disclosure, it should be noted that Mr Porter (about whom I have written before) has campaigned for more vigorous prosecutions of motorists, for the removal of juries from motoring cases to facilitate a higher conviction rate, and has offered a sympathetic treatment of Charlie Alliston often absent from his proclamations over motorists involved in fatalities, and so his commentary, while helpful, may perhaps not be entirely disinterested.]

Putting this all together, is a new law required? Possibly. It is right to say that Alliston’s is a rare case, hence the media excitement, and the truism that hard cases make bad law is no less true for its triteness. We should be careful not to reflexively legislate in response to high profile cases. But sometimes gaps are exposed – as I argued recently in relation to upskirting – and the law requires adjusting to move with the times. I do not know the ubiquity or otherwise of the Youtube phenomenon of “alley-catting” – driving fixed-wheel bicycles through city streets, contravening red lights and weaving in and out of traffic and pedestrians – which was found by the judge to have inspired Alliston. But no bespoke offence exists to prosecute the death or serious injury caused by bad cycling, and the introduction of corresponding offences that exist for vehicles – causing death or serious injury by dangerous driving – may be appropriate to ensure that such offences are fairly labelled and prosecuted.

As for the question of whether Alliston’s sentence – 18 months’ detention (detention being the equivalent to imprisonment for defendants aged between 18 and 20) – was too long or too short (a question I dislike for reasons I’ll come to) I suppose it depends on your viewpoint. The sentencing remarks, in which HHJ Wendy Joseph QC considers the few Court of Appeal authorities dealing with similar offending, appear comprehensive and well-reasoned. As a matter of law, based on the available information there appears little “wrong” with the sentence.

The remarks are also worth reading in full as a rebuttal to misinformation that abounds online about exactly what the evidence showed that Alliston did. There is something unedifying about the way in which Alliston has been adopted as a cause celebre by certain cycling campaigners, who have presented his case as an example of prosecutorial persecution betraying a disparity in treatment between this and cases where cyclists fall victim to drivers of motor vehicles.

For the avoidance of doubt, as Alliston was told by the judge: “It was not merely the absence of a front brake but your whole manner of riding that caused this accident”. He was not a conscientious cyclist afflicted by a momentary lapse of concentration or judgment. This was, in the judge’s words, a course of cycling amounting to “callous disregard for the safety of others”.

Alliston, a cycling enthusiast who had watched a number of “alley cat” videos on Youtube, had since 2014 deliberately chosen to ride a bicycle without a front-wheel brake, which increased the stopping distance by four times. Alliston knew the dangers, as he admitted in evidence that he would fit a front-wheel brake when weather conditions made him conscious of his own safety. He chose to ride without “for the thrill”. In January 2016, he upgraded to a bike that didn’t even have the facility to fit a front-wheel brake. He had no bell to warn other road users. He was, in the judge’s words, “an accident waiting to happen”.

When he came across Mrs Briggs on 12 February 2016, she having stepped out into the road as he travelled at 18 mph, he had no means of stopping. He shouted at her twice to “get out of the fucking way” and slowed to 14mph, but kept going, of the view that she should move. Other traffic meant that she could not. He struck her, she hit the ground and she suffered catastrophic, fatal brain injury.  A husband lost his wife. Two children lost their mother. Had Alliston’s bike been legal, he would have been able to stop.

His response was to post messages on line falsely claiming that Mrs Briggs was using her mobile phone at the time. He continued to criticise her decision to cross the road in front of him.

Transposing similar circumstances onto an offence of causing death by dangerous driving – an imperfect exercise, granted – it is possible to arrive at the conclusion that Alliston was fortunate that no equivalent offence and sentencing regime exist for cycling.

The (then) Sentencing Guidelines Council (now Sentencing Council) published Guidelines in 2008 for offences of causing death by driving. The very lowest category, into which this conduct arguably falls, provides a starting point sentence of 3 years’ imprisonment.

And this no doubt lends support to the argument for reform. It is arbitrary that if you are dangerously driving or riding a vehicle which has the capacity to and does cause death, your sentence depends on the precise vehicle being driven. To reach for a clumsy analogy, if you beat someone over the head with a weapon causing injury, your maximum sentence isn’t affected depending on whether you use a metal bar or a cricket bat.

But, finally, what this case evokes, and what it is perhaps easy to forget, is how blunt a tool the criminal law is in dealing with so many cases of deaths on the road. Alliston is, in this narrow respect at least, an easy case. His culpability was high. He was a deliberately bad road user. He may not have meant to kill, but his overall conduct is blameworthy and deserving of criminal sanction.

But many road users involved in accidents are not. Even those involved in serious, life-changing, life-ending collisions. Feeding back into the complaint of cyclists, this is the most common reason for a lack of criminal charges. Causing death alone is not enough to found a prosecution. There has to be culpability – for motorists, they have to be either careless – driving below the standard of a competent and careful driver – or dangerous – driving far below the standard of a competent and careful driver.

Almost always, causing death by dangerous driving will lead to prison. But devastation caused by careless driving – which often arises during momentary lapses in concentration or judgment behind the wheel – presents the hardest cases. The harm caused can be the greatest in the criminal spectrum. But culpability can be among the very lowest; barely criminal. A sharp intake of there but for grace of God breath.

In such cases, what do we do? For many of us, the default, culturally-ingrained response is to call for prison. But if we pause and ask what we are trying to achieve by so doing, we may get back an echo rather than an answer. Often in these awful cases, the standard ‘purposes’ of criminal sentencing won’t apply. The guilty driver may not need rehabilitation; or at least certainly not that which is available behind the prison gates. Deterrence, even if prison sentences were shown to achieve this, is difficult to impose on momentary lapses in concentration. There is little meaningful restitution that can be realistically made to the victim or their family. Public safety rarely demands the individual’s immediate incarceration.

Which leaves us only with retribution. And how on earth do you quantify it in such cases, where culpability is so low, and harm is so high, and we are often dancing on the margins?

Presently the law tries to accommodate this by compromising. And the essence of a good compromise, to channel Larry David, is that both parties are left unhappy. Short prison sentences or community orders – the usual sentence for causing death by careless driving – must sometimes feel to the bereaved almost worse than no sentence at all. But there is no way of even beginning to reflect the harm caused where life is lost without disproportionately punishing the culpability.

Nevertheless, in cases where minor culpability leads to devastating harm, it can feel as if this is all the system is trying to do; bluntly punish, in the hope that in some, intangible way it will satisfy our collective need for something to mark the pain.

As I said at the outset, I can’t offer any solution. I doubt many can. Perhaps that is the unsatisfactory pseudo-conclusion for which I grasp as I close; that any claim to draw easy fixes in the wake of difficult cases should be regarded with a measure of suspicion. There are rarely easy answers in criminal justice; no more so than in tragedies where we are desperate to find someone to blame.

Goodbye Liz Truss, Hello David Lidington – a brief look at the new Lord Chancellor

Liz Truss, we hardly knew ye. Three days short of eleven months since her appointment as Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor in Theresa May’s debut cabinet, Ms Truss bows out to a slow handclap. Her achievements can be shortly listed, for they are none. Liz Truss never asked for the job, and, as became clearer each day of her eleven months-less-three-days overstay in the Ministry of Justice, was woefully ill-equipped for each aspect of it. She did not understand the policy she was promulgating wearing her Justice Secretary’s hat – having to be embarrassingly corrected by the Lord Chief Justice when she misunderstood and announced a policy about live link evidence in criminal trials –  and lacked the resolve to carry out her constitutional functions in her Lord Chancellor’s robes.

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At the time of her appointment, many people expressed concerns at Truss’ selection. They were accused by Truss’ supporters of rank sexism; in dispensing with Truss’ services after less than a year, Mrs May vindicates these critics. The painful truth is that, as suspected, Truss was never cut out for the role. Her appointment betrayed the Prime Minister’s shameful lack of understanding of the constitutional function of Lord Chancellor; indeed, it was painfully clear that May was blissfully unaware that, unlike any other cabinet position, there is a specific statutory requirement that a Lord Chancellor be “suitably qualified by experience”. This is because the Lord Chancellor has a specific constitutional role: they swear an oath which provides:

I do swear that in the office of Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain I will respect the rule of law, defend the independence of the judiciary and discharge my duty to ensure the provision of resources for the efficient and effective support of the courts for which I am responsible.

A potted history of the role of Lord Chancellor is set out here, but in short, the position exists to ensure that someone in government is explicitly charged with acting as a watchdog for the rule of law and the justice system. The Lord Chancellor should be someone of sufficient gravitas and political clout to stand up to their colleagues and say: What you are proposing offends the rule of law/independence of the judiciary/efficient support of the courts, and is wrong. It is for this reason that the ideal job specification calls for someone of significant legal and political experience, usually in the twilight of their career, who is prepared to give a merry two fingers to the Prime Minister and Cabinet in the overriding interests of our constitution.

The apparent lack of experience and fortitude, and the whiff of a Graylingesque desire to treat the Ministry of Justice as a stepping stone to better things, founded the main objections to Truss. While many of us were disappointed that she was the third non-lawyer to be appointed in a row, Michael Gove’s relative success during his short spell tempered some of our self-regard. On the day of Truss’ appointment, I wrote:

“Yes, I would have preferred the role to go to someone whose profession has been chugging towards this last stop before retirement, unbeholden to the vagaries of political caprice, rather than a young MP with her eyes, one fears, on bigger, brighter things. I would, given a choice, opt for someone who has been in the trenches, who has sat in urine-stained cells with an addict smashing his face against a chair as you try to take instructions while a Crown Court judge loftily bellows for your attendance upstairs. Who knows what it is to be a partner in a legal aid firm one delayed LAA payment away from going under. Who has a lifetime’s worth of legal and constitutional wisdom to infuse into their political decisions.

But if Mr Gove has taught us anything, it is that it is only right and fair to  pause and see what Ms Truss has to offer. Whether she is going to, as was reported happened at Environment, offer her department as a sacrificial cow in the post-referendum austerity era, or whether she is going to stick on her ceremonial wig, take soundings from experts and tell Theresa May that enough is enough, the courts are crumbling, legal aid is cut through the bone, the CPS is starved and the rule of law and access to justice are becoming rhetorical shells, and that root-and-branch reform and replenishment of the criminal justice system – from police station through to release from prison – is something she is going to physically fight for at every cabinet meeting, even if the consequences are that she is politically blacklisted from the Party, and higher office, for the rest of her career.

Because if that’s the kind of Lord Chancellor Ms Truss is going to be, fearlessly faithful to her oath of office, immersing herself in the law, doing right and fearing no-one, I don’t think I’d mind that she doesn’t have a law degree. And I don’t think my colleagues would either.”

But it quickly became clear that Truss was not that kind of Lord Chancellor. She had indeed been appointed precisely because May knew that she would not startle the horses. When May’s cheerleaders in the tabloid press and tub thumping Brexiteers, inexplicably livid at the notion of British judges doing their jobs and ruling on cases lawfully put before them in British courts, turned on the judiciary with a viciousness as dangerous as it was unprecedented, the Bat Signal for the Lord Chancellor went up. Judges were Enemies of the People. They needed sacking, or at least bringing to heel. Their sexuality was fair game, those gay ex-Olympic fencers. Their motivations and integrity were impugned. They were forced to seek advice from the police on securing their personal protection. Nigel Farage whipped up hysteria with calls for a march on the Supreme Court.

And Truss said nothing. Not a peep. When she was eventually shoved out onto stage, she muttered a brief platitude about the rule of law existing, and went on to repeatedly refuse to condemn the press or her Parliamentary colleagues for blatant attempts to intimidate the judiciary. This, it can be safely inferred, would have been on direct instruction from the Prime Minister, who responded to requests for comment with the same cowardly line.

Truss should have resigned then. She didn’t. She stayed on. By the end of her tenure, she had lost the confidence of the entire legal profession and the judiciary; some achievement in 10 months. Her epitaph was written for her by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, who in a stunning break from convention told the House of Lords Constitution Committee that Truss was “constitutionally absolutely wrong”.

But let’s look ahead to her replacement: David Lidington, a long-serving MP and former Leader of the House of Commons whose name nevertheless had many of us reaching for Wikipedia. The first thing to note is that he is a not a lawyer. Which, given the historically legal quality of the role, is not ideal. But, as I explained at the time of Truss’ appointment, the legal profession and the judiciary have over the past 5 years become accustomed to non-lawyers donning the Lord Chancellor’s robes. The question is no longer simply, Are they a lawyer? Rather, it’s a much broader, Are they up to the job?

Presently, lawyers and commentators will be scrabbling over the new Lord Chancellor’s voting record and poring through Hansard (and Wikipedia) for clues to his disposition. What we know about Mr Lidington is this. He is a historian. This is a good start, although Chris Grayling’s degree in the same discipline did not encumber him in his wanton destruction of the justice system. According to Wikipedia, Mr Lidington has a PhD in “The enforcement of the penal statutes at the court of the Exchequer c.1558-c.1576”. He has won University Challenge twice, once as a student and once in a reunion show. These are all, to varying degrees, positives.

He has held various briefs since his election as MP for Aylesbury in 1992, although has not been called to serve in the Ministry of Justice (however, he did enjoy two spells as a junior minster in the Home Office in the 1990s). He was the longest ever serving Minister for Europe from 2010 to 2016, when he was appointed Leader of the House of Commons and Lord President of the Council.

While at the Foreign Office, he spoke about the importance of international human rights and of access to justice. He was a Remain supporter, who was in the press when it emerged that he had informed Parliament, entirely correctly, that the EU referendum was, as a matter of law, only advisory. He has shown that he is prepared to stand up to his own party on matters of constitutional importance, as in last December when he slapped down a fellow MP’s call for the appointment of judges to be brought under Parliamentary control following the “Brexit ruling”, replying:

“I hope that we don’t go down the route in this country where political considerations play a part in the appointment of judges.

“And of course our current system does depend on a balance, embodied in numerous conventions over the years rather than written into law, that Parliament, Government, respect each other’s place in our constitutional settlement and I hope very much that that will always continue to be the case.”

Already, we see a politician with an appreciation of the separation of powers, judicial independence and rule of law, and a willingness to stand up to those seeking to undermine those values, both of which were notably absent from Truss’ tenure. These are encouraging signs. His Parliamentary experience – 25 years to Truss’ six (at appointment) – accords with what might be expected for the role. That his record does not betray an appearance of ruthless career advancement and manic department-hopping suggests that he may have genuine intent to stay the course. Bob Neill MP, most recently Chair of the Justice Select Committee and a stern critic of his party colleague Truss, reacted to Lidington’s appointment thus:

 There are however less pleasing aspects to Mr Lidington’s record. He has consistently voted with his party to restrict the scope of legal aid and to limit success fees in no-win no-fee cases. This does not sit easily with a professed commitment to access to justice. His record on gay rights, up to his eventual conversion in favour of equal marriage, has historically lined up squarely with the pro-section 28 wing of his party. He has voted to repeal the Human Rights Act. None of these, indeed I would venture nothing in his Parliamentary record, screams of a man prepared to torch the party whip on the altar of justice. That said, a conversion from poaching to gamekeeping is not unknown when collective responsibility is lifted. Bob Neill has been rehabilitated from Chris Grayling’s right-hand MoJ hatchet man to staunchly independent chair of the Justice Committee, dishing out the just and righteous scrutiny that the system requires. People can change.

I would suggest that there is cause for cautious optimism. This is a left-field appointment by Theresa May (and of course one which, depending on the fading vital signs of her premiership, may be brief), but there is evidence that Mr Lidington, if he will forgive being damned with faint praise, is an immediate improvement on his predecessor. How far this improvement extends, remains to be seen. For my part, I would respectfully urge  the new Lord Chancellor to start with a few visits to his local magistrates’ and Crown Courts, to see the legacy of his forebears in grim action. Once he has done so, I would urge him, as I did in futility to Liz Truss, to:

stick on his ceremonial wig, take soundings from experts and tell Theresa May that enough is enough, the courts are crumbling, legal aid is cut through the bone, the CPS is starved and the rule of law and access to justice are becoming rhetorical shells, and that root-and-branch reform and replenishment of the criminal justice system – from police station through to release from prison – is something he is going to physically fight for at every cabinet meeting, even if the consequences are that he is politically blacklisted from the Party, and higher office, for the rest of his career.

Because that is the kind of Lord Chancellor our justice system needs. And it’s the kind that millions of disenfranchised and vulnerable people deserve.

In forgetting our fundamental principles of justice, The Trial’s fascinating run fell down at the last

*SPOILER ALERT: If you have not seen the end of The Trial: A Murder In The Family, don’t read on. Unless you’ve no intention of watching it, in which case do as you please.*

Last night, Channel 4’s The Trial: A Murder In The Family drew to a close. At the end of a five-day run showing edited highlights of the augmented reality trial of Simon Davis for the murder of his estranged wife Carla, the finale dragged us inside the emotional furnace of the jury room as the twelve jurors deliberated with a ferocity belying the academic nature of their task.

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The Trial: A Murder in the Family, Photograph by Channel 4

Despite the judge giving a majority direction – where instead of a unanimous verdict, a court can accept a verdict agreed by 10 of the 12 jurors – the factfinders remained aggressively deadlocked. Eight were unpersuaded of the prosecution case, influenced by the evidence pointing to the possibility that the culprit was in fact the deceased’s scorned boyfriend, Lewis Skinner, and dutifully voted Not Guilty; four were sufficiently sure to cast a ballot for Guilty. The jury were hung, in the legal lingo, and so were discharged. At some future date in that parallel universe, Mr Davis will be retried at Berkshire Crown Court, but for now he remains a free man.

And a lucky one, we learned. For, in a curious creative decision, the producers decided to “reveal” through dramatisation what had really happened: Just as prosecuting counsel Max Hill Q.C. had told the jury in his opening and closing speeches, the defendant had indeed attended the former matrimonial home and, upon learning of Carla’s decision to end the fledgling rekindling of their relationship and up sticks to Scotland, had strangled her with his bare hands. The big reveal, it was none-too-subtly implied, was that The Jury Got It Wrong. Lest we be in any doubt as to the editorial perspective, the episode closed with close-up shots of the burdened jurors, their individual verdicts stamped across the screen, before the following captions rose:

“On average, two women are killed by a partner or ex partner every week in England and Wales.”

and

“In this case eight jurors voted not guilty, four voted guilty.

All four guilty votes were cast by women.”

and finally

“Next year more than half a million of us will be called to decide the fate of a fellow citizen.”

The official Twitter account for the programme has since run polls, including asking viewers:

I’m still struggling to make sense of this all.

Taking the above together, the only possible interpretation of the editorial line is: “This jury should have convicted. They didn’t, ergo they failed. What does this tell us about juries? (Clue: Maybe it’s sexism.)”

Which would be fine, had that been the premise of the programme. But it wasn’t. At least, not as far as we’d been led to believe. It was billed – accurately – as a groundbreaking docu-drama in which we would be given a unique insight into the way that juries operate. The opacity of the jury room means that, notwithstanding academic studies attempting to recreate its conditions, we know little about how juries approach their task. We have a fervent cultural faith in the inherent supremacy of trial by jury; let’s, Channel 4 suggested, cut open this sacred cow and have a rummage around inside.

The concept as advertised was not to present a jury with an obviously guilty man, and see whether a jury rationally assessed the evidence to come to the “right answer”, or whether they were waylaid by bias.  That may well have made for a fascinating programme – but it wasn’t the stated purpose of this exercise. Rather, this aimed to present a typically complex and borderline case, and to offer a fly on the wall insight of a jury striving to reach its verdict.

And so much was right about The Trial. Authenticity was plainly its guiding principle. We had some of the country’s very best barristers, with a retired Crown Court judge, and police and expert witnesses played by real police officers and experts. The case and evidence were expertly crafted and balanced on a knife edge by David Etherington Q.C. and Max Hardy. The 12 jurors came laden with a typical breadth of life experiences, replete with the assumptions, cognitive biases and individual prejudices that afflict us all, and which their fellow jurors were quick to identify and challenge. The conditions enabled what in televisual terms comes pretty close to a scientific experiment.

But the ending took that claim to objective inquiry and violently throttled it. Because in the final episode, we suddenly were not interested in how the jury works, but whether they arrived at the right answer. And by “right answer”, the producers meant “truth”. Thus, not only was the bulk of the final episode frustratingly concentrated away from the jury deliberations and onto the reveal of the WhoDunnit, but it risked leaving the non-lawyer viewer with a wholly distorted view of the function of juries.

Because the dirty little secret that The Trial left out is this: Jury trial is not about finding the truth. It can’t be. The truth, in most cases, is indiscoverable. It does not arrive in the courtroom, packaged with a neatly tied bow, at the end of the case, for jurors to benchmark their performance. Even after a verdict, the legal imprimatur of Guilty or Not Guilty, we are still no closer to knowing whether the verdict is factually “true” than we were when the jury retired to deliberate. While we obviously want legal verdicts to correlate with the truth – the factually guilty always convicted and the factually innocent always acquitted – our system recognises that this is unachievable. There are in most criminal cases, as with most human interactions, simply too many complexities and information gaps for us to say with certainty whether someone definitely did or definitely did not do what the state alleges they did. If we were to require juries to find the truth of every case, we would inevitably require them to indulge in speculation and guesswork, with the appalling consequence that factually innocent people would be convicted on that basis.

So we don’t ask juries to guess at the truth. Instead, we present them with as much relevant evidence as we can, and ask them one question: Are you sure that this person is guilty? If yes, the state will take coercive action. If the jury is anything less than sure, they must acquit. Not guilty does not mean innocent. It means that the jury cannot be sure to the very high standard required that, on the available evidence, the defendant is guilty. This inevitably means that factually guilty people are acquitted. But it is the sacrifice our system makes to minimise the risk of the greater peril: a factually innocent person being convicted and punished.

This cornerstone of our justice system – the burden and standard of proof – was The Trial’s glaring omission. While the judge’s summing up and legal directions were understandably edited to the bare minimum, holding (even judges would concede) little televisual interest, would it have been too much to leave in a brief few seconds of the judge reminding the jury, and the viewers, of the essential basis of how to approach their task?

In the event, a number of the jurors disregarded the burden of proof, casting themselves as detectives trying to crack the case – trying to prove the culprit was more likely to have been Lewis – rather than confining themselves to the sole question: was the case against Simon Davis proved on the evidence?

The tragedy is that this case was the perfect vehicle for a considered treatment of the burden and standard of proof. Here we had a murder where the offender could only feasibly have been one of two men – Simon Davis or Lewis Skinner – but where the evidence was arguably insufficient to prove the case beyond doubt against either. The producers could have preserved the integrity of the concept by declining to give us the “answer”, instead explaining – perhaps through the to-camera interviews with the barristers and judge – how it is that our system allows a situation in which we know that the offender was one of two violent men but cannot convict either, and how such an outcome is not an indictment of a jury “failing” in its task, but reflective of the correct course where, regrettably, the evidence is simply not enough to safely convict anyone. This is the build of our system, the programme could have said. Here’s why we do it this way, and here’s what the professionals think. What do you think about it? 

But that line of contemplation was abandoned, the producers instead deciding to grasp for an unconvincing gotcha moment and invite us to lay blame at the jury’s door. As I’ve said, if the producers were looking all along to make a point about juries failing to convict in the face of overwhelming evidence, they could have done. They could have asked the barristers writing the case to devise a deliberately strong case, littered with tripwires and victim myths designed to test the jury’s integrity. But this factual matrix was intentionally blurry. After the reveal, the prosecutor Max Hill Q.C. tweeted:

For what it’s worth, I agree. The evidence of the witness Mullen who (wrongly, we infer) placed the violent Lewis Skinner near the murder scene gave the jury reasonable cause to doubt the prosecution case. To take a knife-edge case and conclude, from the fact that the jury were on a knife edge, that something is wrong is simply bizarre.

Finally, the decision to highlight the gender of the jurors who voted to convict, without saying more, leaves me very uncomfortable. What was the message? That if you, as a juror, are sitting on a case involving an allegation of domestic violence you should be more inclined to convict? I genuinely have no idea what other interpretation we are supposed to draw. If I were defending a man accused of domestic violence today, I would be very nervous about any of the jurors having seen last night’s finale.

In fact, if it were prejudices that The Trial was hoping to root out, fuller pickings were arguably to be found among those who chose to convict. One speculated over the interpretation of DNA evidence, despite being directed not to do so. The famous Cherry, the self-professed “witch” so proud of her unfailing “gut”, appeared determined to convict from Day 1. And of the four convictors, three had direct or indirect experience of domestic violence, which they were quick to overlay on the evidence of the instant case. The final interviews with these four jurors also left us in doubt as to how sure-footedly they stood by their verdicts. There was a distinct impression that some had deviated from “beyond reasonable doubt” to the civil standard of “probably did it”. In fact, it was those who returned not guilty verdicts, despite thinking that Simon Davis probably killed his wife, who were the ones being true to their oath and to their (fictional) public duty.

This denouement is is a shame because in so many ways this programme has been a revelation in legal programming. Matthew Scott’s review of the first episode stands true – it has been in numerous ways a force for good; a powerful and gripping show educating the public on the workings of a criminal court with far greater accuracy and aplomb than is achieved by most dramas. Those involved should rightly be proud.

But by appearing to abandon its stated premise in the final episode, I feel The Trial missed a glistening opportunity to probe at some of those deeper questions about the way we do justice. Is our faith in juries misconceived? Should we entrust our liberty to the Cherrys of this world? How loyal are juries to their oath to reach verdicts on the evidence? Are they able to faithfully follow the judge’s directions on the law? Do they need greater scrutiny, or even screening? Should we demand that juries supply reasons for their decisions, instead of a binary one or two word verdict? Is our commitment to individual liberty a roadblock to catching the guilty, or an immutable principle of which we ought to be louder and prouder?

While there was enough over the five nights to allow us to entertain such thoughts incidentally, it is a shame that at the last the producers swerved off-road, rather than facing the difficult, perhaps more interesting, questions head-on.

A note on blogging – why I write

The Oxford Bread Knife story pootles on, given fresh wind each day by some hot take or other in the op-eds. There has been a lot of reaction on social media, and many people have taken the time to contact me to explain, in varying degrees of politeness, why they do or do not agree with what I’ve said. One article in particular is of interest – this blogpost here by Richard Moorhead. It is a thoughtful piece, with which I largely agree; although it leads me to worry that my position, not only on this story but on legal reporting in general, might have been misunderstood. I took it to be suggesting that, in explaining the legal framework of the Bread Knife story, I might be offering “a minimalistic defence” of the decision. Richard, rightly, said that, “Patting an irritated public on the head and saying, you don’t understand the law sweetypops doesn’t get you very far”, and, equally validly, suggested that “seeking to neutralise arguments on the basis that the law has been followed is not much help”. I don’t know if these last two were general points or aimed at my post in particular; but in any event, I appreciate that there is a risk that I have not explained myself sufficiently clearly, such that misapprehensions have been allowed to gather. So I wished to briefly clarify, as a standing disclaimer to which I can return as a shorthand in future debate, some of the ground rules underpinning my writing.

quill and parchment

My starting point is that the law, and understanding of the law, should be a shared asset. We are all bound by it, and all rely on its proper and just functioning to underpin the fundaments of our daily lives. Criminal law is of particular importance, and holds particular public intrigue, as it regulates the Golden Rules of civilised society, breaches of which are met not merely with financial penalties – as with civil law – but with the state swooping in to interfere with the subject’s liberty. To commit a crime is to break a social rule so important to our shared values that its enforcement cannot be left to private individuals. A crime against one person is a wrong against us all.

It follows that we all have an interest in ensuring that criminal law meets our expectations of “justice”. We may differ on exactly what that entails, but we can probably reach a democratic consensus on its core elements: We should all receive equal treatment before the law. We should all have a say on what the law is, through our democratically elected representatives in Parliament. We are each of us, when we are accused, entitled to a fair trial before a independent public tribunal. We are entitled to know the case against us and to receive independent professional advice on how the law applies. We should be permitted legal representation to robustly test the law and evidence against us, irrespective of our means. If we are a victim of or witness to a crime, we deserve to be treated humanely and with dignity, and our discomfort should be minimised, permitted only where necessary to ensure a fair trial for the accused. Where guilt is proved, the state response must be proportionate, striking the delicate balance between the overlapping and competing aims of punishment, rehabilitation, reduction of crime, public protection and restitution. And we should have a fair and functioning corrective; an appellate system to step in when things go wrong.

My fear, and one which propelled me when I started this blog, is that criminal justice in practice often fails our lofty ideals. Sometimes the problem is with the law itself; sometimes with its execution; sometimes the problem is that the system is financially starved or otherwise perverted by political interference. And most of the time, the public have little idea what is going on. There is, in criminal justice possibly more than any other sphere of public life, a devastating lack of public education, exacerbated by inaccurate, ill-informed media reports and political pronouncements that betray an ignorance of the legal system that stretches up to the very top of government. This lack of understanding means that politicians escape scrutiny when terrible things are wreaked upon criminal justice – such as the policy that you can be wrongly accused of an offence, denied legal aid and then denied the cost of your private legal fees even when acquitted – and that, when we see a legal story reported in the press – such as the latest “look at how much legal aid this murderer received from YOUR TAXES” – we often lack the tools to critically evaluate it.

Part of the problem, as well, is the legal profession. We do a stunningly poor job of explaining to people what the law is, and why it matters. Too many of us are content to busy ourselves in our own work, safe in the knowledge that what we do is important, but without feeling the need to deconstruct for the man on the street why two wigged figures incanting Latin before an old man wearing a giant purple robe, and the obscured codes and rules governing this mediaeval ritual, has any relevance to their everyday life. We then wonder why there is an obvious disconnect between the legal system and the people it exists to serve and protect.

This is where I hope to help. By writing about popular legal stories in the news, I aim to shine a few shaft of light on what is happening beneath the headlines. I want to give the context that you may not be getting from news reports, to explain the legal structures that inform legal outcomes, and to point out where information gaps lie. Often this will involve challenging media narratives – such as “The Ched Evans case sets a precedent for a rapist’s charter” – other times I will simply point out that the gaps in our knowledge about a particular case render it difficult to draw any conclusions as to whether a problem exists, or what its cause might be. Often I will find myself – a far cry from the day job – standing up for judges, explaining why an unpopular decision might not be their fault. Other days I might robustly disagree with a legal decision or policy, but for reasons adjacent to what has been reported.

When I do this, I am not seeking to neutralise argument or shout down opposing views with a patronising, “You wouldn’t understand, sweetypops – it’s the law”. If I ever appear to do so, or if I ever seem to be suggesting that “It’s the law” is the end to an enquiry about whether an outcome is just, I am at fault, because, to the contrary, I want to incite and inform debate. I want people to be excited, livid, passionate and furious about criminal justice. But I want that debate, so long defined by misrepresentations and outright lies by tabloid newspapers and mendacious politicians, to be informed and accurate. When we are livid at a sentencing decision that offends our instinctive conception of justice, I want us to be able to distinguish between a decision that has been foisted upon a judge by case law or Sentencing Guidelines, and a free exercise of judicial discretion, so that we can properly target the root of the “problem”. When someone isn’t charged or convicted, or prison isn’t imposed where we might expect it to be, I want to explore from professional experience what other factors might explain an apparently odd decision. If we are told that victims are being failed and the law is in urgent need of reform, I want us to understand the competing arguments about defendant’s rights, and present the law and facts that might inconvenience campaigners. If commentators wheel out the Legal Aid Fat Cats trope in support of government efforts to restrict your access to legal representation when you are wrongly accused, I want to debunk it.

None of this is intended, necessarily, as taking a position on or mounting a “defence” of the substantive decision or the law itself.  Often I won’t be able to defend a decision, for the simple reason that we don’t know enough about a given case to form a fair view, and I will give a tepid call for calm. This should not be mistaken for complacency or a denial that there is any merit in public concerns; unless I state otherwise, it will be intended as a (perhaps unsatisfactory): We Simply Don’t Know Enough About This To Draw Conclusions, But Here’s What the Law Says. If your response to that is, “Well I want to know more, and I want some conclusions” – then we are on the same page. Sometimes, where I feel I can, I will offer a view on the merits of a debate – as with the Bashir case, in which I opined that the sentence appeared lenient given the facts, or in the Ched Evans case, where I explained why the argument presented by certain politicians was factually and legally inaccurate. In other cases, I will hold up my hands and say that I am not sure which side of the line I fall – as with the Marine A case, in which I explained why both extremes of the argument were wrong.

But I repeat, because it is vital: my stridency or irritation with the presentation of the law should never be read as seeking to protect it from scrutiny, or to casually dismiss issues of concern. It is obviously proper – no, vital – that people raise questions about the law, even where there is little information. I would never blame anyone for asking, “How is it that a person can stab their partner and avoid prison?” I would not take issue with anyone using these stories as a jumping off point to call for more information into an area of criminal law, such as whether we are all really treated equally under the law.  But I do take issue with, and will challenge, people reaching settled conclusions – the judge was an idiot, or biased, or the law needs comprehensive reform – based on partial media reports of a single case. It is this rush to swallow sensationalist soundbites without pausing to gather facts, that I hope to stymie, whether with expositions of the law, data (where available) or anecdote from professional experience.

So that is why I write. I come not to bury criticism of the law, but to praise it. There is a lot wrong with the law – procedurally, substantively and culturally. Just because something is lawful doesn’t make it just. If a few years at the coalface of criminal justice teaches you anything, it is that. I will sometimes say simply: “This is the law”, and leave the deeper question of substantive justice unanswered, for others to mull over. If I ever appear to be relying on, “This is the law” as a full explanation for the justice of a decision, pull me up on it. Because they do differ. And it is occasionally too easy for those like me, stuck in the system, to fall back on that.

Finally, I don’t expect – nor do I want – universal agreement to my meandering streams of legal consciousness or precious political posturing. I want all of us to constantly re-evaluate and question the assumptions underpinning justice, assumptions which I no doubt, despite my efforts, fall prey to. I want us to argue about what the law should be, how it should work in practice and what it says about our society. I want us to care about its failings and campaign tirelessly for its improvement. My aim is simply that when you and I, or you and those Twitter armies, or you and your workmate, cross swords over a legal story, we all stride onto the battlefield equally armed with the law, facts and acknowledged gaps in our understanding.

Because ultimately this affects us all.

Convicting the dead shows that we misunderstand the purpose of our criminal courts

Monday’s column for the i newspaper, for those interested, can be found here:

“Convicting the dead shows that we misunderstand the purpose of our criminal courts” https://inews.co.uk/opinion/convicting-dead-shows-misunderstand-purpose-criminal-courts/

Oliver_Cromwell_by_Samuel_Cooper-e1478589160860

And while we’re at it, a couple of other recent pieces for iNews that I forgot to link to:

“Both sides are wrong in the Marine A controversy” https://inews.co.uk/opinion/sides-wrong-marine-controversy/ 

“At £131,000, Katie Hopkins should realise trolling on Twitter is an expensive hobby” https://inews.co.uk/opinion/comment/131000-katie-hopkins-realise-trolling-twitter-expensive-hobby/