An idiot’s guide to navigating pupillage interviews

The Times has today published a fine piece on applying for pupillage, reflecting the advice and experience of some survivors of the process, both applicants and interviewers. Having had the privilege of seeing life from both sides of the interview table, I thought I’d offer my own, largely worthless musings on the things I have learned.

A stock photo entitled “three women in suit sitting” which could also feasibly depict an interview.

  1. Have a good answer to the inevitable.

You will be asked why you want to be a barrister. You will be giving a variant of an answer the panel has heard a thousand times before. That is unavoidable. So don’t strain yourself stretching for originality; aim for simple honest sincerity. At my first ever interview, I span a fluffy cat story about how I was inspired by the story of somebody I met on a mini-pupillage, and how I aspired to tread in their footsteps. The disdain from the panel was palpable. For several interviews thereafter, I cleared my throat and proudly declared my thirst for justice, passion for advocacy and burning need to help the helpless, voice the voiceless and improve the unimprovable. Looking back, I was fortunate not to have a chair thrown at me. Forget cliché and invention and speak plainly. If I were transported back and asked once again why I want to be a barrister, my answer would be simple: because I want to do something exciting with my life. And at the criminal Bar, whatever brickbats we throw at the system and the punitive lifestyle the Bar engenders, life is never, ever dull.

 

  1. Why did you apply to this chambers in particular?

For the most part, the truthful answer will be: “Because you are a chambers, any chambers, and I would literally accept a pupillage in a chambers run by bees at this moment in time.” Again, it’s a nasty question that interviewers know is near-impossible to answer. If you’ve done a mini-pupillage at that chambers, that will help formulate a complimentary response. If not, scour the chambers website for self-congratulatory guff about “ethos” and “values” and try to pass those off as your own. Failing that, tickling the ego of your interviewers with a non-grovelly acknowledgment that the chambers is a “leading set” (all sets like to consider themselves leading) in the particular area of practice is a reasonably safe line.

This outstanding design is the talent of @teaforpterosaur

  1. Have something memorable or quirky on your CV or application

The blunt fact is that everybody being interviewed will have a good 2:1 or 1st class degree. Many will have Master’s degrees. All will have (or will shortly have) at least a Very Competent mark on the BPTC. All will have done debating, mooting and other forms of public speaking. Presidents of University Law Societies are ten-a-penny. The well-advised will also have squeezed some pro bono legal advisory work into their non-existent free time. These are all necessary but insufficient. None, I’m afraid, will stand you out in the memory of the panel. However, the fact that you are a decorated Morris dancer, or were thrashed by Daphne and co on Eggheads, or once interviewed Mike Tyson for your student newspaper with the opener (and closer), “For our readers who may not have heard of you, what do you do?” – these will remain with the panel afterwards. They show that you are human, intriguing and the kind of person that the interviewer actively wants to find out more about. And that is the very best impression you can leave.

 

  1. Have a non-legal topic in mind that you can talk about freestyle

Linked to the foregoing, make sure you have prepared to talk about something – anything – that is not law. There will be a lot of law chat. But there will almost always be a tangential diversion into matters of non-law, often preceded by a vicious, “Tell us more about yourself”. One interview I attended was even more brutal; we were given five minutes to think up a 2-minute presentation on a topic of your choice. Line up a few of these during your interview prep. Think of something non-legal (to demonstrate your glorious diversity) on which you have personal experience or strongly-held views, and have it wrapped up and ready to fire in the event it is called upon.

 

  1. Immerse yourself in current affairs

 Again, an interview staple. Read the newspapers. Gobble up Times Law, Legal Cheek, Legal Twitter, and blogs by proper lawyers and academics for hot takes on vexed issues of law and politics. A common interview trick is to ask you to argue one side of a debate, before immediately inviting you to argue the opposite. Draw up a list of likely topics and think about your arguments in advance. Also be aware of industry-specific issues that are of no interest to anybody outside the Bar, but of enormous importance inside our bubble. If you’re interviewing for a criminal pupillage, be prepared to answer, “What are the biggest challenges facing the criminal Bar?” Be opinionated without being obnoxious; political without being partisan. Stand your ground under pressure from smug interviewers, but be prepared to make concessions if your argument is expertly blown apart.

 

  1. Don’t be intimidated by chambers profiles.

Looking at the profiles of other junior tenants on the chambers website can be a sobering experience. You will read how your contemporaries spent a year as an intern on an international human rights case, or have written starry and brilliant articles, theses or even books on esoteric and impressively complex aspects of your chosen legal field. Many will have impressive previous careers, either in law or outside, and as a twenty-something BPTC graduate, it is easy to be gripped by inferiority. Don’t be. Your CV counts for absolutely nothing when you’re sitting in a cell opposite a screaming heroin addict who has stabbed his cellmate in the eye and is threatening to exact upon you his frustration that his solicitor hasn’t been to visit him. Nor does it matter a jot when you’re in front of a judge or jury pleading the unwinnable case (or worse, the eminently winnable). Your judgment and powers of advocacy are the skills that can’t be reflected on pornographic CVs, and are the ones that matter most. Practise on demonstrating those in interview.

 

  1. Don’t gabble

It sounds obvious, but nerves in interview upend the most poised performers in your advocacy classes. Your interview is a chance for you to demonstrate advocacy under pressure. Deep breaths, slow and considered responses and substituting a brief pause for “umm” or “err” or, heaven forfend, “like”, are mandatory habits. Even if the topic is your Mastermind subject, you win no points for speed.

 

  1. Prepare for the unexpected

Some chambers do things the old-fashioned way. China tea-pot, warm smiles, civil conversation. Some take a sadistic pleasure in setting you Total Wipeout style obstacle courses at a second’s notice. Impromptu presentations on random subjects; a Dragon’s Den pitch on something I had two minutes to invent; idiotic Oxbridge-interview questions (“If you were a banana, what car would you drive?” etc); deliberately confusing written exercises and needlessly aggressive interview styles were, and probably still are, all common features. In reality, “prepare for the unexpected” is fairly useless advice; the best antidote for this kind of stuff is experience. But try not to be fazed.

 

  1. Do have a question at the end

You will hear competing theories over whether you do in fact need to have a prepared response to the final, dreaded, “Do you have anything you’d like to ask us?” My advice is to have at least three questions in your back pocket (just in case the panel unhelpfully answer one or two of them in the course of the interview). Even if it’s something as simple as, “Roughly how long does it take for your junior tenants to start appearing regularly in the Crown Court?” If you really can’t think of a good question, don’t ask a bad one. But it shouldn’t be beyond your wit to come up with a couple, just to keep the conversation flowing. Oh, and under no circumstances ask, “Did I get the job?! LOLZ!” You will deserve everything you get.

 

  1. It all comes down to dumb luck

This, I’m afraid, is the reality. The pupillage statistics speak for themselves. Your odds are slim, and unless you are particularly brilliant (and most of us aren’t), you are competing against hundreds of people of comparable ability, intellect and experience. What separates you from the herd in the eyes of the interviewers is often wholly arbitrary and unexpected. I was lucky enough that a flippant topic I’d picked up on was of enormous interest to a wonderfully fun and quirky member of chambers on the panel, who quickly turned the conversation round to 1980s power ballads. That, I was later told, was the clincher. Others will have friends or family in chambers, or relatives in the judiciary. Nepotism and inherited privilege shouldn’t have their place at the modern Bar, but they linger. There are a million variables that may influence your chances in any given interview. Ask for feedback from unsuccessful interviews, and use anything constructive, but don’t let a run of rejections cause you to lose heart. All it takes to break a losing streak is just one lucky win.

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Some thoughts on Dr Bawa-Garba and our faith in the jury system

I’m loath to tread onto terrain that I do not usually cover in my modest knockabout criminal practice, but the case of Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba has caused such tremors in the medical profession that I thought, vainly, that I might throw my two pence in.

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Misery is so ubiquitous in the criminal law that it feels trite if not otiose to start with the observation that this – as inevitably with any that makes the news – is a very sad case, but there is something about the cumulation of tragedies spinning out from Bawa-Garba that stands it out as particularly upsetting. A seriously ill six year-old child, Jack Adcock, died in hospital on 18 February 2011 after what were alleged to be  – and accepted by a jury as being – serious failings in diagnosis and treatment by Dr Bawa-Garba, the responsible doctor.

On 4 November 2015, she was convicted of gross negligence manslaughter and sentenced to a suspended sentence of imprisonment, having been initially informed by the CPS in 2012 that she would not be prosecuted at all. Her fitness to practise was found to be impaired by the Medical Practitioners Tribunal in June 2017, and she was suspended for a period of 12 months. Last week, the High Court ruled, following an appeal by the General Medical Council, that this sanction was insufficient, and substituted the sanction of erasure from the medical register – effectively ending Dr Bawa-Garba’s career.

I shan’t rehearse the complex medical evidence and arguments advanced at Dr Bawa-Garba’s original trial; a summary of the arguments can be found in last week’s judgment here (and in the judgment from the Court of Appeal dismissing her application for leave to appeal against conviction, here). But, reducing the arguments down to a digestible core, the prosecution, relying on the testimony of medical experts, argued that the decisions and omissions of Dr Bawa-Garba were so serious, and her conduct fell so far below the standard of care expected by competent professionals – “truly exceptionally bad” being the test set for the jury – that she was guilty of manslaughter by gross negligence, it being said that these failings caused Jack to die significantly sooner than he would otherwise have done. Dr Bawa-Garba, for her part, denied gross negligence, arguing (also with the support of expert evidence) that Jack’s case was complicated, and that excessive demands placed upon her by a multiplicity of systemic and (other) individual failings meant that she had done her clinical best in difficult circumstances.

The jury returned a guilty verdict, and professional disciplinary proceedings followed. The decision by the High Court last week to allow the GMC’s appeal has caused widespread upset among the profession (see this excellent blog by Dr Rachel Clarke for an explanation).

The reason for the High Court’s decision was that it found that the Tribunal had, in imposing a suspension instead of erasure, attached significant weight to the aforementioned “multiple systemic failures” at the hospital at the time, which included

“failings on the part of the nurses and consultants, medical and nursing staff shortages, failings by nurses and consultants, IT system failures which led to abnormal laboratory test results not being highlighted, deficiencies in handover, accessibility of the data at the bedside, and the absence of a mechanism for an automatic consultant review.”

What is the problem with this? Well, the High Court ruled that these systemic failures had already been considered by the jury at the criminal trial, and that the jury’s guilty verdict represented their finding that Dr Bawa-Garba’s mistakes were “truly exceptionally bad”, even taking into account the conditions in which she was forced to work. Therefore, the High Court concluded, the Tribunal fell into legal error in effectively disregarding the verdict of the jury and reaching its own views as to the level of culpability. If a jury has found Dr Bawa-Garba’s actions to be truly exceptionally bad notwithstanding the systemic conditions, it’s not for a professional disciplinary tribunal to try to form its own opinion based on the systemic failings and downgrade the doctor’s actions to only ‘really quite bad’, in other words.

Doctors who are plunged regularly, if not daily, into the type of systemic chaos that prevailed on that fateful day are now understandably panicked about the ramifications in the event of an avoidable tragedy. Not only, it seems to them, is there a risk of criminal sanction, but the professional regulator – the GMC – will seek to have doctors struck off for what are partially – if not mainly – failings caused by understaffing, lack of resources and defective working practices. What, it has been asked, is a doctor to do upon arriving at work to find themselves in Dr Bawa-Garba’s position? Do one’s best to help patients and risk the same fate? Or down tools citing unsafe working conditions?

For what little it’s worth, I understand the anxiety entirely. But I do wonder whether the consternation in fact burrows deeper than last week’s decision. Because there’s an undeniable logic to the High Court’s judgment: If a criminal court has found, beyond reasonable doubt, that someone’s actions are truly exceptionally bad, it’s a bit off for a different legal tribunal to decide that, actually, the actions were simply honest mistakes. And while anger at the lack of sympathy displayed by the GMC is natural, the ultimate “fault” lies a few stages back – with the verdict of the jury.

It was after all the jury that heard all the evidence of the systemic failures, the clinical decisions taken and not taken, and the errors on the ground, and was still sure of Dr Bawa-Garba’s extremely high personal culpability. It was the jury that weighed the competing expert evidence as to best clinical practice and concluded that these were not simple honest errors but something far, far more serious. And while I don’t seek to second-guess the verdict, nor the competence of the twelve men and women who tried what was no doubt an extremely difficult case to the best of their ability, this case provokes difficult questions as to the suitability of a lay jury to determine complex matters of professional competence.

Trial by a jury of one’s peers is one of the most proudly-hugged rudiments of our criminal justice system – Magna Carta and all that jazz – predicated as it is partially on the notion that disputes of facts falling within the experience of everyday folk should be settled by everyday folk. But where criminal liability hinges on competing interpretations of professional standards, we can see a tension rippling across the surface of our definition of “peers”.

There has been online debate among medics as to whether, based on the evidence summarised in the publicly-available judgments, Dr Bawa-Garba’s conduct was correctly determined to be grossly negligent. Clinical opinions have clashed and war stories of identical climates and narrowly-averted tragedies have been traded as doctors re-litigate the nub of the criminal trial, and in particular the question over whether the jury did, or could, fully appreciate and understand the reality on the ground. While I ordinarily fall into reproachful tutting at armchair juries, there is something about all of this that resonates, louder and more violently than I expected.

I think it’s because, for me, the thought of 12 non-lawyers being called upon to make judgments on my professional standards fills me with horror. Working in the criminal justice system on any given day is, I have no doubt, akin to working in the climate of systemic failure suffered by Dr Bawa-Garba and her colleagues. There is insufficient everything, both material and temporal. What there is, doesn’t work. It is often a miracle that anything resembling justice is fired out at the end of the production line of disorder that comprises many criminal cases. I worry about every single case I have – not simply because of the high stakes or the complexity, but because I cannot trust a single other element of the system to work as it should. Disaster is a heartbeat away at every turn. If I avoid its icy grasp, it’s been a brilliant day. When mistakes happen – and they do, for all of us – it is our individual responsibility of course, but I would plead that they usually arise against that backdrop. And if I found myself in a court of law, trying to convey that reality to twelve laypeople, I know for a fact that I could not even begin to make them understand. Neither could any expert, nor any other witness, no matter how eloquent.

I couldn’t do justice in words to the panic of having several hundred pages of tardy disclosure dumped on you by the indolent prosecution on the morning of a trial where your client is facing a possible life sentence, and having to take full impromptu instructions in the court cells as your violent, psychiatrically unwell client screams and smashes his head against the cell door, while the unsympathetic judge, conscious of the need to “get things started”, tannoys every ten minutes for you to return to court. I cannot paint an adequate portrait of the problems posed when the Crown Prosecution Service instructs you the night before on a trial that they have hitherto kept in-house, and which has not even been looked at by the CPS advocate, and the thudding pressure of arriving at court with a shopping list of urgent missing evidence, disclosure and legal applications, to find that the court WiFi is down, the CPS caseworker assisting you is covering two other courtrooms, the court forgot to book an interpreter for your witness  and your police officer in charge of the case has phoned in sick and sent a replacement bobby who knows nothing about the trial. I cannot convey to a layperson the sheer madness of the magistrates’ “list” system, where the most junior lawyers are dumped at a few hours’ notice with half a dozen badly prepared trials, all listed in the same courtroom before a bench of three non-legally qualified magistrates, and expected to prepare the trials, plug the gaps, chase the missing witnesses, advise and take instructions from overwrought CPS lawyers over the crackling phone lines, soothe the impatient bench and somehow run a series of seamless, effective, just trials.

 Unless you’ve been there, you simply can’t understand.

It is no different, I expect, for NHS staff. Unless you have been there, unless you know, you cannot absorb the experience vicariously. And if you don’t understand the reality, how can you properly, fairly, judge standards of competence exercised by someone ragged in the winds of unpredictability and chaos?

I make clear-  I am in no way doubting or otherwise seeking to undermine the verdict in this case. I was not present at trial, I was not privy to the evidence that went before the jury, and my personal knowledge of matters medical is at best below average. I am confident that the complexities of the evidence and the conflict between the competing experts was clearly explained and made intelligible to the jury by the highly experienced counsel and judge. Furthermore, Dr Bawa-Garba’s conviction has been considered by far better informed and brighter lawyers and judges than me, and has been upheld as safe. Nor am I calling for an immediate revolution in jury trials on the back of this single emotive case. But I do think this raises provocative questions that we in the system perhaps do not pause to examine.

Maybe it’s simply special pleading. Maybe I’m guilty of rank arrogance in assuming that mere members of the public can’t begin to understand the pressures upon us in the ‘traditional professions‘, and am dismissively oblivious to the extraordinary strains placed upon all manner of people outside of law and medicine, and the ability of juries to digest and empathise. I may well be – subconsciously or otherwise – simply writing out my mitigation, or my excuses, to be relied upon at a later date when my professional competence is held up to scrutiny and found wanting. I don’t know. It’s difficult to write objectively about these things.

But what I think I do know is that, while the virtues of jury trial are drummed home from first-year law school, we shouldn’t be afraid to re-examine our shibboleths, particularly when the underlying concepts – juries of our peers – are stretched and strained. I like to think that the expert presentation of complex criminal cases is sufficient to ensure that juries have all the tools to arrive at informed and just verdicts. But I do have sympathy for the anxiety of those who feel that explanation and experience are too different, too far apart, for the former to be a proper substitute for the latter.

Guest post by Mary Aspinall-Miles: We must confront the criminal justice system’s warped attitude to time

I am delighted that the wonderful Mary Aspinall-Miles (@MAM12CP) has agreed to write a guest post for this blog. Mary practises criminal law at 12 College Place Chambers, with a particular expertise in sexual offences. She also sits on the executive committee of the Criminal Bar Association. 

NOTE: This article was written long before the recently-reported case of R v Itiary, and is not a response to or a comment on any reports in the media concerning that case.

I used to work in commerce. I was a headhunter/recruitment consultant. It was soul-destroying stuff for me, but was very well paid. Lord knows why I left, though my boss who nearly sacked me does (“I am glad you’re off to Law School. We never could work out why the likes of you worked here”).

But here’s the thing.

I had set hours I was expected to be in the office. Arrive by 9.00, leave at 17.30 and an hour for lunch. I was expected to call leads, clients and candidates out of hours, but I was incentivised to do it by commission. There was a direct correlation between hard work, success and monetary reward.

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A friend was a teaching assistant at a primary school; she had contracted hours for which she was paid, but at the end of the school day/her day, she left and did not have to THINK about her job at all. My father is an eminent scientist but self-employed. His work ethic and self-discipline is astonishing and may appear punishing, but his work is his passion and his life. There are deadlines to be met which can lead to stressful periods, and financial worries caused when projects are pulled without warning or when politics intervenes. My best friend from uni was a successful banker (boo hiss!) but found it wanting and is now a “super head” for a free school for which he is paid in six figures, but he is enthused and driven to help. One of my best gigging mates is a partner at a city firm. He is kind, generous, fun and constantly raising funds for charity, BUT when it comes to the business – and it is a business – he will not do a single thing that is not financially rewarded. He is paid for expertise and expects to be paid. Of course he’ll do some things to keep the client sweet, but largely for money. Time is money for him and money is time.

They will give a first rate service to clients as they have strict work divisions based upon cost, because the client pays. He and our mate ( a lawyer in a bank ) look after me because they see me as a “social worker rather than a lawyer.” Ditto my friend “Sphinxy”, a senior and well-respected PI (personal injury) barrister and Twitter addict; an absolute sweetheart in real life, but all about the money.

I was married to a civil barrister who used to practise crime, who taught me that criminal barristers are too keen to be liked and too scared to play the elitist hand, because we are beholden to public money and thus the vagaries of public opinion and politics. We are in the middle of an identity crisis, not knowing whether we are professionals or social workers. Most of all, he would say, we have to accept we will never be liked, and to stop trying. We are a necessary evil. We have to stop hiding behind egocentric notions that we matter but that we serve the public.

 What is the point of all of the above?

Time.

The Criminal Justice System is ill-managed over its approach to time. There is simply not enough of it for any of the major “stakeholders” (vomits) in the CJS. Police officers do not have enough time to investigate properly or liaise with aggrieved parties, which is why they think they are marginalised and defendants think they are treated unfairly. The Crown Prosecution Service does not have enough time to review cases or prepare appropriately. Defence solicitors do not have enough time to go to police stations, go to court, speak to families and prepare cases. The Bar do not have enough time to draft documents and prepare cases to the level required. Judges don’t have time – never ending lists; administrative duties and increasing managerialism.

There is a constant pressure, like a blister on the heel whilst wearing vertiginous high heels. No one can stand, let alone walk properly.

And yet the powers that be load up with more targets and demands whilst they sit in their glass towers (as government towers tend to be), surrounded by resources and playing the political game with the press, whipping up them up in whatever direction suits. They appoint meaningless posts like the Victim Tsar to pay lip service to victims whilst actually failing to tackle the endemic problem of poor funding and a lack of transparency. How, for example, do most of HMCTS and CPS staff get their jobs? Especially at local level? And there is the poor training – it astonishes how many in HMCTS, the CPS and the police have never been inside a court. These are the things that fail victims, witnesses and defendants. As does the legal profession’s arrogance of “knowing best” when it comes to the business of running, well, an actual functioning organisation albeit an important and special one. We should stick to lawyering and justice but we need to have a sea change of how we achieve that – collective bargaining is a start (and post-Brexit, if EU laws are no longer to apply, why shouldn’t we have a union?), as are muscular professional bodies whose leaders cannot be bought off with professional reward by being properly paid to do it, and, as the Bach Report suggests, an independent pay body. Time to change. Time to behave like lawyers.

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.