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.

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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/ 

Will Quince MP: An addendum

This serves as an addendum to the previous post, but I thought it was worthy of attention in its own right.

To those who missed it, a brief recap: Will Quince, MP for Colchester, publicised a letter he had sent to the Lord Chancellor, in which he expressed his view that a sentence passed in a local Crown Court on two burglars was unduly lenient, and invited the LC to agree. I took umbrage at the fact that this settled criticism had been formulated without knowledge of the full facts of the case, nor any acknowledgment of Sentencing Guidelines that judges are required to follow, and wrote a fairly impolite and intemperate rejoinder.

Mr Quince and I corresponded on Twitter, and having reflected I updated the post and apologised to Mr Quince for its original tone. Since that time, we have exchanged emails and discussed matters further. Mr Quince has then yesterday sent this letter to the Lord Chancellor, Attorney General and Bob Neill MP, Chair of the Justice Select Committee:

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The letter speaks for itself. And, if he will forgive me saying so, it also says much positive about Mr Quince.

Although (for the reasons expressed in the last post) it appears to me that the Sentencing Guidelines were properly applied in this case – and that a comment from the Lord Chancellor on a specific case is unlikely – I obviously cannot and do not take issue with him posing the question and seeking further information. It is similarly entirely proper for him to reflect the concerns of his constituents and to ask whether the Sentencing Guidelines, as presently drafted, command public support. He is not alone in his concern that Sentencing Guidelines sometimes betray inconsistencies and appear out of kilter with public expectations; many in the professions would agree. For completeness, I would add that the links to the public consultation exercise that informed the Burglary Guidelines can be found here (with an explanation of the role and functions of the Sentencing Council here).

It is rare for a public figure, when challenged or corrected on the way they have represented the law, to admit an error or a rush to judgment. It is even rarer for them to take steps to publicly adjust their position.

It is to Mr Quince’s enormous credit that he has done so with such speed and candour, not least given that I did not initially engage him in particularly cordial terms. For that, I again apologise. It is too easy to assume that all MPs who opine misleadingly on the law do so with the chronic, wilful ignorance and boastful obstinance of Philip Davies, rather than to countenance the possibility that this is a human being making a mistake in good faith. I am grateful to Mr Quince for, through his conduct over the last few days, reminding me of this.

Thank You

Some of you may have seen that, in defiance of all common sense and decency, I was today named Independent Blogger of the Year at the Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards 2016. While entirely out of keeping with the general tone of cynical nihilism that pervades these posts, I would like to sincerely thank not only the judges at EI for their generosity, but more importantly all those who follow, read, comment upon and even troll my  nonsense, both below these lines and on Twitter. At the risk of coming over all Gwyneth, I genuinely could not have foreseen when I started this blog 18 months ago that over half a million of you would take the time to read the workings of this disturbed legal mind, far less that your support would lead to any sort of recognition beyond possibly mild ridicule from established, better writers. That so many of you have supported me in my vanity project owes far more I’m sure to your collective patience than to any talent on my part, but I am nevertheless sincerely grateful to you all for joining me on my fool’s errand to bring law to the people. It is appreciated more than you know.

Thank you X

SB

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Why we need legal aid for the worst people in society

Recently, I’ve noticed an increase in the number of people getting cross about legal aid. I don’t know whether this can be causally linked to the backing tracks expertly laid down by our new Lord Chancellor, adopting the smooth jazzy beats of her pre-predecessor Chris Grayling to create a steady percussive “legal-aid-bad, legal-aid-bad” filtering through her more recent public pronouncements. Or whether it is linked to the influx of legal aid scare stories pumped out of the Ministry of Justice’s favourite tabloid antagonists. Or whether, like the tide, anger over legal aid is perennial, dipping out of eyeline only temporarily before its inevitable resurgence in deference to the gravitational pull of the moon. Or, for those of the Douglas Carswell Academy of Astronomy, the sun.

But whatever the cause, it’s always dispiriting to see the Legal Aid Monster rear its mythical head, not simply because the call for its restriction threatens my narrow self-interest (DECLARATION: I have fed and clothed myself thanks to legal aid), but because it again reinforces how poor a job we in the system are doing in explaining to people why legal aid matters.

The Legal Aid Monster. Or Honey Monster. I forget which.

The Legal Aid Monster. Or Honey Monster. I forget which.

This morning I have enjoyed a spirited exchange of views with a Twitter user who I understand to be involved with or linked to the police, whose views on criminal justice I always enjoy hearing (particularly the anonymised Tweeters with the liberty to speak freely about the chaos in which they are forced to operate, such as @InspGadgetBlogs and @ConstableChaos). Quite often, we echo each other’s despair at the non-workings of the system; sometimes, police officers offer an insight into problems that barristers don’t see first-hand, but which inform the issues that we deal with in court. Today, by contrast, my partner and I came at the issue of criminal legal aid from the polar extremes. I think there’s not enough of it, and that people are often left without adequate (or any) representation; he thinks that there is far too much, and that it should be removed entirely from repeat offenders.

His view, I speculate, is one that might prove popular with people fortunate enough to have avoided the criminal courts. He is certainly not the first person to have expressed it to me. But it’s a view which, with respect, is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose and function of criminal legal aid.

 

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Let’s start with the proposition that legal aid should be “for the needy”. A lot turns on that definition, but it is employed above in contradistinction to “career criminals with multiple convictions”. So I infer that by “needy”, the writer means “not guilty”. Or at least, “not guilty very often”. Which is problematic. For me, legal aid should be available to anyone whom the state accuses of a criminal offence. Like healthcare or education, it should be a universal civil right. You don’t choose to get ill or be born, so healthcare and education are provided by the state. You don’t choose to be accused of a criminal offence, so you should have the right to properly funded legal advice and representation when the state engages you in criminal litigation. Of course, some people invite criminal proceedings by committing the offence, but we only know that once proceedings have started and guilt has been admitted or established. I have no problem in principle with recovering the cost of legal aid and/or criminal proceedings from convicted defendants who have the means, but the flaw in the “legal aid for the innocent” argument is that you need the former before you can determine the latter.

Why do I say that? Surely, channelling the mantra of the magistrates’ court, a defendant knows whether he’s done it? Well, he may know that he’s done something. But knowing whether he’s committed the specific criminal act alleged by the state is something else entirely. He may know, for example, that he pushed past the shop assistant, nipped behind the counter, tried to grab money from the till but in fact grabbed a tenner that (unbeknownst to him) a customer had just put on the counter to pay for some cigs, and then grabbed the cigs and threw them to his mate (unwittingly striking him in the  eye and blinding him) before running off and accidentally knocking over a wonky display of uber-breakable glasses on his way out. But, as law undergraduates would be asked in this funhouse of an exam question, who is guilty of what? Is the first defendant guilty of theft? Burglary? Robbery? An attempt at one of those? If so, who is the victim? What level of assault is he guilty of, if any? Is he guilty of criminal damage if he didn’t mean to knock over the display? What of his mate? Is he guilty as a joint principal or an accessory? Or is he guilty simply of handling stolen goods? Or receiving criminal property? And what difference would the various permutations of charges make to his sentence?

My adversary suggested that a career criminal would know just as well as a lawyer which offence he has committed. My response was that his having attending a dentist once a year for 50 years does not qualify him to conduct root canal surgery. If I’d had more than 140 characters, I’d have posted the paragraph above. Criminal law is complex. It’s not something that can be absorbed by proximity. And it matters that it’s done right.

It matters because, whether you’re a nice or a nasty person, you should not be convicted of an offence that you have not committed. Not only because it offends fundamental notions of fairness and justice, but because once we accept wrongful convictions as an acceptable bargain in a cost/benefit trade-off, we endanger not just the individual but wider society.

If, as the commentator suggests, we remove legal aid from repeat offenders, we put them at the mercy of the prosecution agencies. It will not simply be a case of a defendant mistakenly pleading guilty to robbery (maximum sentence life imprisonment) when he is in law only guilty of theft (maximum sentence 7 years), but of defendants, unqualified and unable to present their own defence, being convicted of offences of which they are wholly innocent. Because the police do arrest entirely innocent people. And the CPS charge them with the wrong offences. And the only obstacle to a lengthy, undeserved prison sentence is a defence solicitor or barrister, challenging the prosecution case, testing the factual and legal correctness of the allegations and fighting their client’s corner. Without a lawyer, a defendant is often a sitting duck.

And if there were a system where the police, under pressure (as they are) to improve clean-up rates and buff their statistics, knew that charging repeat offender Big Dave with a burglary would see him being denied legal aid, whereas charging first-time offender Small Steve for the same offence would result in a defence lawyer fighting his case, there is a mighty incentive in place to pin the crime on the man with two arms tied behind his back, irrespective of the evidence. While most police would not, some would bend to the  temptation. Some already do.

We would thus roll into a system that encouraged prosecutorial malpractice. The wrong people being convicted, and the even wronger people – the real burglars, thugs, rapists – getting away with it.

Legal aid for career criminals isn’t a treat or privilege to personally enrich them. It is a safeguard that ensures, as best we can, that when the cell door slams shut, society has satisfied itself that the person inside is the person who is guilty of the offence. Removing legal aid in such cases may satisfy some primal urge to vengeance, or natural hostility towards those who repeatedly breach our social and criminal codes, but it makes us no safer, saves us no money, and, in the long run, would make our streets a far more dangerous place.

What else was Byron Burger supposed to do?

So, here’s an unpopular opinion to release into the world:

I don’t see what Byron is supposed to have done wrong.

The gourmet burger chain – previously thrust into the media spotlight as George Osborne’s late-night indulgence of choice – has enjoyed 24 hours of social media’s most vitriolic virtue signalling after 35 of its migrant workers were found to lack the right to work, having, it appears, secured employment through the use of falsified identity documents.

The circumstances in which this came to light are unclear, but in any event Byron cooperated with the Home Office, and consequently the workers were, on 4 July this year, arrested and detained. Some have subsequently apparently been deported.

Not a Byron burger

Not a Byron burger

The exact circumstances have not been confirmed, but a number of outlets have suggested that Byron hand-delivered their workers to the relevant enforcement and prosecutorial authorities by organising a “training day” at which, instead of PowerPoint slides of Double Bacon Cheeses and courgette fries, they were greeted by immigration officials. Byron has released a statement as follows:

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But as with all such modern tales, we are beyond truth. What matters, the narrative splutters, is that the big mean corporate baddie collaborated with the feds and sold out its poor, exploited workforce, some of whom had devoted years of faultless service, in what must only be characterised as an act proximate to a hate crime, and must be duly sanctioned in the court of public opinion, boycotted by all right thinking people, its CEO dragged naked through the streets of Shoreditch smeared in burger sauce and pickle juice.

Piling in with the rallying cry of the intellectually dispossessed, deputy leader of the Greens, Amelia Womack, opined that “the bosses at Byron should be utterly ashamed of themselves for turning these people’s lives upside down”.

To which I, as an inhabitant of those rather less excitable courts of law, would respectfully say this:

Your outrage is mystifying. Or, at best, utterly misdirected.

Byron, like any employer – nay, like any company or individual based in this country – is required to comply with the law. It hurts to start with such a facile point, but needs, it appears, must.

And the law says at least two rather important things in this context. Firstly, that it is a criminal offence – punishable by an unlimited fine and up to 5 years in prison – for a person or a company employing someone knowing or having reasonable cause to believe that the employee is disqualified from employment by reason of their immigration status. That’s not Byron’s company handbook talking – that’s sections 21 and 22 of the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006, as enacted by our democratically elected Parliament. If you find out that you have accidentally employed someone without the right to work, and you continue to employ them, you are committing a crime.

Also the position, with reference I’m afraid to that same unfashionable commitment to “the rule of law”, is this: those workers, if employed on the basis of fraudulent identification documents, may have committed criminal offences contrary to section 4 of the Identity Documents Act 2010. And that’s before you throw in the Fraud Act 2006 for good measure.

Now there may be an explanation. This could be a misunderstanding. Some documents may in fact be genuine. Or it may be that these workers, like many clients I have represented, will say that they themselves were hoodwinked by chancers in their home countries who sold them what they believed to be a genuine “right to work” package. In which case every sympathy must be extended to them. But the fault for that state of affairs is not Byron’s.

There may, of course, be an alternative narrative that has plainly escaped those who say, with a straight face, that Byron should have simply tipped off their workforce and let them loose into the night, rather than dob them in to the pigs. Putting aside that those Byron managers who did so would potentially find themselves before a Crown Court for perverting the course of justice, this bold suggestion starts with an enormous, unforgivable assumption about the history of the people concerned. Many undocumented migrants arrive on our shores as a result of human trafficking and exploitation. Where they are packed, twelve, thirteen, twenty to a bedroom in a small terraced house by their unscrupulous, violent gangster sponsors, who take each week’s wages as protection money and exploit them physically, financially and sexually every single day.

None of us has a clue whether that applies to any of those workers. But – and I sound my “unpopular defence of immigration laws” warning klaxon – that is one of the mischiefs that immigration laws, and the requiring of documentation and the right to remain and work, are designed to combat. That’s not a fig leaf – that is fact. I have defended and prosecuted enough of these tragic cases to tell you with authority that there are a good many people whose lives have been saved by immigration enforcement officials. And one or more of those could have been among the Byron workers.

But, and this is really the point – we just don’t know. Any or none of the above might apply. All we know is that Byron were informed of circumstances which caused them to believe that they, and their workforce, were at risk of having committed a criminal offence. And they cooperated with the authorities. The only alternatives, of turning a blind eye, or of sending the workers out into the world with a nod and a wink, may have satisfied the appetites of the Twitter hordes unaware of and unwilling to acquaint themselves with law or reason, but the reality is that in so doing Byron would have been passing the problem on to the next employer to be defrauded and exposed to prosecution, or, even worse, releasing vulnerable, exploited human beings back into the grasping hands of those who would do them harm. As well as, of course, exposing Byron and its lawful employees to risk of prosecution and, ultimately, imprisonment.

This is not to defend the principle of immigration controls. You want to campaign for global freedom of movement under the banner that “people aren’t illegal”? Sounds good to me. But we have rules that have been enacted by Parliament. And if you don’t like those rules, your recourse is the democratic process. Not ill-thought-out hate campaigns and playground chants of “tattle tale” against people or companies who, far from “making people illegal”, are simply obeying the law.

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UPDATE: Matters have progressed since this post was first published. There have been vigilante acts of vandalism, threats and abuse directed towards Byron for their perceived complicity in enforcing inhumane immigration law, but as yet I have not heard a single sensible explanation for the rage. I would recommend the comments below (in particular Oliver’s), and summarise the position as I see it:

1. Byron employed workers who were unlawfully working. That is agreed. The Home Office’s position is that Byron were duped by false identification documents when they conducted the checks required by law when employing a person. I can tell you from professional experience that fake ID documents can nowadays be of very high quality. It is easy to get a NI number with these documents, and there is nothing unusual about tax and NI having been paid on their behalf. It happens in most cases I see. If Byron hadn’t checked properly, or if they were obviously fakes, it is to me implausible that the Home Office would not make an example of them by prosecuting.

2. All we know of the circumstances of the Home Office becoming involved is what Byron and the Home Office have said, namely that it was the HO who contacted Byron first. Legally, therefore, Byron’s options were immediately singular. From that first point, Byron was under a legal obligation to cooperate. It had to supply its workers’ documents, and, when the documents were confirmed as fake, from that point onwards a criminal investigation was in effect active. If Byron had at any point tipped off the workers as to HO suspicions, the individual doing the tipping off would be liable to prosecution for perverting the course of justice, or at best assisting an offender. Any non-cooperation with what was not only an immigration but also a criminal matter risked not only Byron’s commercial reputation, but the liberty of the managers or staff who obstructed the investigation.

3. The “above and beyond” argument. By trapping the workers in the way reported, Byron acted as an executive arm of the state. They didn’t need to. They could have told the Home Office that they were not willing to facilitate the peaceful apprehending of their workers. This is the common refrain. And yes, they could have done. But to what effect? To do so would have been to invite a  raid, unpleasant and disorderly for all staff and customers, to the same ultimate effect. It’s not as if Byron could have tipped off the workers, as per 2 above. One perspective is “above and beyond”. The other is “agreeing to the most peaceful resolution of the inevitable”.

4. The only interpretation of events that justifies anger, that I can see is this: Byron deliberately hired illegal workers and shopped them in as part of a Faustian pact with the HO to avoid prosecution. This would be outrageous. But there is simply no evidence that this is the case. I would suggest that this theory appears odd on all counts – why would Byron risk prosecution by knowingly hiring unlawful workers at market rate? Why would the HO pass up the deterrent benefits of prosecuting a well-known employer for the sake of catching 35 people? – but even if plausible, there is no evidence. By all means, people can question and investigate and report their findings. But there is no safe or rational basis for concluding, as many seemingly have, that this is what has happened.

5. Anyone calling for Byron to defy an unjust law in order to take a “principled stand” against the (very real) injustices concerning immigration laws and the treatment of detainees, is calling not just for a rich company to risk a fine, but for actual people – shift managers, waiting staff – to risk prison. That is what your call amounts to. And if you feel so strongly that immigration laws call for this sort of self-sacrifice and courage, you should go do it yourself, rather than volunteer low-waged migrant proxies to take that risk for you. And it is certainly inexplicable to throw cockroaches at people when they don’t.

The new Justice Secretary – does it matter that she’s not a lawyer?

So, as anticipated, our new Prime Minister has favoured punishing disloyalty over rewarding competence and sent Mr Gove and his ambitious, compassionate prison reforms to the naughty back benches. This morning has brought a transfer-deadline-day-style frenzy to Legal Twitter, anticipation and trepidation converging as rumours and supposition threw up name after name as possible new Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor. All it needed was Theresa May leaning out of her Range Rover window teasing Sky Sports with a, “Well, we’ve got a little bit goin’ on ‘ere and there, but who knows?”

Theresa May

Theresa May

Stretching the analogy, perhaps the biggest disappointment is that established incompetent and gold-plated tit Mr Grayling didn’t get to play the role of Peter Odemwingie, driving 300 miles all pumped up with a misplaced certainty of being hired only to be cruelly turned away at the door. But he has not been let back near the levers of justice, and for that, at least, we must all be grateful, although anyone reliant on a functioning public transport system should probably prepare for 4 years of taxi rides.

So not Grayling. Nor, to the despair of several (including me), the lawyers’ favoured choice of Dominic Grieve Q.C., a serious heavyweight silk whose defenestration as Attorney General ranks among David Cameron’s most petty, stupid decisions. Anna Soubry, who has recently practised as a criminal barrister, would also, I’ve suggested, make a fine Justice Secretary, having the advantage over her three predecessors of actually having seen the inside of a criminal court in the past decade. But again, love unrequited.

Instead, Mrs May has opted for Liz Truss, an MP of six years with a background in management accountancy and particular political interests in education and free enterprise. She has no legal training, nor has she any ministerial experience in the Ministry of Justice, having instead hopped from junior minister at Education to Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It is right to note that from March 2011 to September 2012, she was a member of the Justice Select Committee, although Philip Davies‘ continued presence confirms that membership is no proof of intelligence, reason or compassion, the three qualities  required above all in the most underestimated and undervalued cabinet role.

My instinctive reaction to Ms Truss’ appointment, therefore, was one, to put it politely, of disillusionment, as, for a third successive time, the historic office of Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, charged with upholding the independence of the judiciary and ensuring the provision of resources for the efficient and effective support of the courts, has been entrusted to a politician who has, to my knowledge, no experience of the courts or judiciary in action. Similarly, when one considers the brief for the concurrent role of Secretary of State for Justice, there is little among Ms Truss’ contributions in the House of Commons to suggest a zeal for prison reform or court modernisation. Indeed, as Twitter has been quick to point out, her most outspoken contribution on the subject of justice appears to be when she proudly announced that the milk in UK prisons would henceforth all be British, returning to a theme the subject of which inspired a performance which some cruel trolls suggested did not augur well for her advocacy skills.

But, having had the day to reflect, is that fair? Why does it matter that Ms Truss is not a lawyer? Does it matter?

A brief history lesson, if I may. Lord Chancellor was, until the passage of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, a multi-faceted office starting out in medieval times as secretary to the King, and gradually accumulating a weird and wonderful collection of executive, judicial, ecclesiastical and Parliamentary functions. By 2003, the Lord Chancellor’s duties included being head of the judiciary, in which capacity he attended Cabinet, being responsible for appointing judges, acting as effective Speaker in the House of Lords, and having responsibility for criminal legal aid. In the case of Lord Irvine, he also sat as a judge in the judicial House of Lords. Appointment to the role was therefore considered the pinnacle of a distinguished legal career, rather than the preserve of ambitious politicians. (see Gee, G. What are Lord Chancellors for? [2014] Public Law 11).

While there were plainly benefits to having the independence and interests of the judiciary upheld and represented in government, you have possibly spotted the rather startling contravention of the separation of powers inherent in the Lord Chancellor’s office, allowing him to sashay between sitting as a judge, attending cabinet and holding sway in the House of Lords. And so in 2003, the government abolished the Lord Chancellor’s department and installed the LC in the newly-created Department of Constitutional Affairs, with the intention of abolishing the post of LC altogether. Due to Mr Blair having uncharacteristically taken this decision without any consultation whatsoever, people got quite cross and various committees were set up to consider the various constitutional implications. The denouement was the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, whereby the LC’s responsibilities as head of the judiciary and House of Lords speaker were stripped and transferred to others, and the power to appoint judges was diluted by the establishment of a Judicial Appointments Commission. In 2007, the Ministry of Justice was created, with responsibility for prisons and other bits that the Home Office were keen to get rid of, and the role of Lord Chancellor was thereafter conjoined with Secretary of State for Justice.

Up until 2012, the role continued to be performed by senior, experienced lawyers. However the removal of the judicial function meant that, technically, legal knowledge was no longer strictly a requirement. Rather, section 2 of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 merely requires that the Lord Chancellor be “qualified by experience”, defined as follows:

2 Lord Chancellor to be qualified by experience

(1) A person may not be recommended for appointment as Lord Chancellor unless he appears to the Prime Minister to be qualified by experience.

(2) The Prime Minister may take into account any of these-

(a) experience as a Minister of the Crown;

(b) experience as a member of either House of Parliament;

(c) experience as a qualifying practitioner;

(d) experience as a teacher of law in a university;

(e) other experience that the Prime Minister considers relevant.

(3) In this section “qualifying practitioner” means any of these-

(a) a person who has a Senior Courts qualification, within the meaning of section 71 of the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990 (c. 41);

(b) an advocate in Scotland or a solicitor entitled to appear in the Court of Session and the High Court of Justiciary;

(c) a member of the Bar of Northern Ireland or a solicitor of the Court of Judicature of Northern Ireland

So, strictly speaking, the Prime Minister “may” take into account the above, but also may not. S/he may in fact choose to appoint a block of stilton wearing a fez or, to even lesser benefit, Chris Grayling MP, the first non-lawyer in post since the 1600s. And this is where the problems began, because Mr Grayling was, and I’m sure remains, an ambitious man. He is no lawyer, no jurist and no philosopher – he is very much the epitome of a career politician, who has bounced from portfolio to portfolio, having his knuckles rapped for untruthfulness and incompetence at almost every turn, and upon entering office, saw an opportunity to assume the role of renegade outsider boldly taking on the vested interests of the legal system. He slashed legal aid like nobody’s business – aided by entirely dishonest campaigns against publicly-funded lawyers – splurged public funds on defending his unlawful policies in court, and in so doing exposed the irreconcilable tension between his self-image as an Osborne-pleasing austerity advocate and his Lord Chancellor’s oath to ensure the provision of resources for the efficient and effective support of the courts.

It was against this background that in 2014, the  House of Lords considered whether a grounding in law ought to be a prerequisite to the role. The House of Lords Constitution Committee concluded that, while it was not strictly necessary for the Lord Chancellor/Justice Secretary to be legally qualified, it would plainly be “a distinct advantage” for them to be so, and recommended that the government ensure that at least the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice be legally qualified. In a giant slap to the face to Grayling, whose policies were routinely held in judicial reviews to be unlawful – and whose solution to this problem was, rather than just acting lawfully, to try to stop the use of judicial reviews – the Lords further recommended that the Ministerial Code and Lord Chancellor’s oath be amended to remind all of the Lord Chancellor’s duty to uphold the rule of law. The government pretty much laughed in the face of the report, and here we are today.

And if that’s where the story ended, I’d unhesitatingly conclude that the experiment with a lay Lord Chancellor had been tested to destruction. But then enter Michael Gove. Also a non-lawyer, but one who from the outset made clear that he was not merely seeking to mend bridges where Grayling had burned them, but to learn, respect and embrace the constitutional and societal gravitas of his twin roles. He stopped picking fights with professionals. He seized upon prisons – simply concrete punishment cubes to his predecessor – and resolved that their overdue reform, and the transformation of the prospects of those within, would be his legacy. He overturned policy after regressive policy – from book bans to the Criminal Courts Charge – set down by Grayling.  He was by no means perfect – his failure to properly reform legal aid or employment tribunal fees stand as but two examples of enormous flashpoints that his early departure has allowed him to evade. But I, at least, while not agreeing always with everything he said or did, allowed myself to believe that he recognised his lack of firsthand knowledge of his new subject area, and rather than, as did Grayling, trumpeting his ignorance, listened carefully to professionals (experts, eh?) and treated his office not as a rung to better things, but as the career zenith it was for Lord Chancellors of yesteryear. As if it was – and indeed, it may transpire to be – his last, defining contribution to public life.

So 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.

One final, tangential observation – Ms Truss has already in Parliament fallen for the myth of the “most expensive criminal justice system in the world”. I would respectfully recommend that, if she wants to get off to the best possible start, educating herself as to the reality, and resolving to act upon it, would be among the best things she could do.

What would happen to Brock Turner in an English criminal court?

On 18 January 2015, Brock Allen Turner committed a series of serious sexual assaults against an unconscious woman on an American university campus. Two graduate students at Stanford University saw the 20-year old Turner lying on top of the motionless victim behind a dumpster. Her underwear and bra had been partially removed, and Turner was thrusting on top of her unresponsive body until disturbed by the grad students. When interrupted, Turner immediately ran from the scene, only to be fortuitously apprehended by the Good Samaritans. The police were called, and found the victim to be completely unresponsive and heavily intoxicated. When she awoke three hours later, she told police she had no memory of what had happened. Turner admitted “fingering” the victim’s vagina, but insisted that, although drunk, she was fully consenting.

In March of this year, Turner was unanimously convicted by a jury of  three felonies – assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated woman, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object.

What followed has been internationally dispersed through news organisations and a livid social media commentariat. Because, on 2 June 2016, the now-21 year old Brock Turner was sentenced by Judge Aaron Persky for offences tantamount to attempted rape, to 6 months’ imprisonment in a county jail with probation.

Due to, Judge Perksy said, Mr Turner’s youth, his positive character references and the impact that prison would have on him, he would follow the Probation Officer’s recommendation and impose 6 months in a county jail. Of which, it is reported, Turner will (as would be the case here) serve half before being released.

3 months for the attempted rape of an unconscious human being.

Brock Turner

Brock Turner

The reaction has been audible across the Atlantic. We have seen published in full the haunting victim impact statement, searing unabridged, unapologetic primal human pain indelibly into the reader’s – and one can only hope Turner’s –  consciousness, its honesty and fluency justifying every one of its 7,000 words (and I speak as someone who has read many victim impact statements, to the point, I had thought, of becoming inured). We were then treated to the gawking lack of self-awareness, nay basic humanity, demonstrated by Mr Turner’s father – and, as released on Monday, his mother – writing pleas for clemency to the sentencing judge which hovered on the fringes of crassness, before filling the tank with a gallon of denial, hitting the accelerator and ploughing remorselessly into ugly victim-blaming. Why punish my son, Turner Senior innocently enquired, for “twenty minutes of action”? The fact, repeated ad nauseum in the character references and led in the opening stanza of every media report, that Turner was an accomplished swimmer from an apple pie family, appeared to vindicate long-held suspicions that judicial attitudes towards sentencing turn all too often on from which side of the tracks a defendant hails.

The case has been raised in the House of Representatives, where Republican Congressman Ted Poe has said:

“This judge got it wrong. There’s an archaic philosophy in some courts that sin ain’t sin as long as good folk do it. In this case, the court and the defendant’s father wanted a pass for the rapist because he was a big-shot swimmer. The judge should be removed.”

And, before long, 1.2 million people worldwide had signed a change.org petition to impeach the judge (not to recall him, as has been widely reported), and it is reported that he has since, appallingly, received death threats.

Publicly, the sentiment appears to be leaning one way. In legal circles, however, consensus crumbles. The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office condemned the sentence, complaining, “The punishment does not fit the crime”, and bemoaning its impotence to challenge the sentence. By contrast, a representative from the Santa Clara County Public Defender’s Office published this defence online, applauding the Judge for his “holistic sentencing exercise” which prioritised rehabilitation over conforming to America’s “culture of mass incarceration”, and praising the judicial exercise of “discretion and mercy”.

Writing as an English lawyer with no formal training in California State Law, or U.S. Federal Law, my view on Judge Persky’s application of the law carries no authority. The (astonishing) lack of official data collated on California criminal sentencing prevents me from even assessing whether statistically this represents a major outlier.

But what I can offer, by way of (perhaps) interesting contrast, is a consideration of what would have happened to Brock Turner in an English court, had he been convicted of our equivalent offences. Could the same thing happen over here?

 

The offences

Turner faced sentence for three felonies (serious offences) – reported as assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated woman, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object, carrying, it is said, a maximums sentence of 14 years’ imprisonment. The “foreign object” is not specified in any reports that I could find, and the police report and felony complaint (the equivalent to a Crown Court indictment setting out the charges) make no reference to penetration with an object other than the defendant’s fingers, so for these purposes I shall assume that the penetration was digital. Our law doesn’t distinguish, for charging purposes, between a conscious or unconscious complainant, and so, both penetrative acts would likely be charged as assault by penetration, contrary to section 2 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. It is possible that repeated acts of digital penetration, committed initially while the complainant was conscious but incapable of consenting and continued once she had lost consciousness (as I interpret the charges to represent), would be charged here under a single count to represent the whole activity. (Either way, as below, it will make little difference to sentence).

As to “assault with intent to commit rape”, the act of removing a person’s underwear and thrusting on top of them while they are passed out would probably be charged as attempted rape (contrary to section 1(1) of the Criminal Attempts Act 1981), also carrying a maximum of life imprisonment.

Further details of the case, not widely reported, can be found in the original police report here. These have to be taken with caution, as initial police reports invariably reflect the preliminary view of the police officer author(s) rather than an objective assessment of the evidence that is before a jury at trial. But the report is nevertheless instructive.

 

The Sentencing Exercise

The court in Turner’s case was not required to follow any formal sentencing guidelines (save for the mandatory sentence that was waived, see below). By contrast, in the Crown Court judges are required, by section 125(1) of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 to follow any “relevant sentencing guideline”. A number of such guidelines have been published by the Sentencing Council (formerly the Sentencing Guidelines Council), including the Sexual Offences Definitive Guideline. The operation of these guidelines is designed to be simple, although rarely is in practice. The principle is to assess the seriousness of the offence by reference to harm caused and the defendant’s culpability, and then to reflect the features that aggravate or mitigate the position. Thus, on the guidelines, one feeds the facts of the case into the given matrix to arrive at a category for “harm” and a category for “culpability”, which combined gives you a “category range” and a “starting point”. The Judge can then move the starting point up or down within  (or, exceptionally, outside) the range to reflect the aggravating and mitigating features of the offence as specified.

Where sentencing for multiple offences, judges are required to have regard to the principle of “totality” – i.e. to pass a proportionate sentence that reflects the whole of the offending, rather than simply aggregating individual sentences for each offence. Therefore, in a case like this, where all of the offences arose out of the same incident, the court would usually pass a higher sentence on the “lead” (most serious) offence, uplifted to reflect the other offences, and pass concurrent sentences on those other offences.

So, what’s Brock Turner looking at?

For assault by penetration, this to me looks like a Category 2 case for harm, due to the judge’s finding that the victim was particularly vulnerable due to her incapacitation. For culpability, none of the factors in Category A appear to apply, so giving Turner the benefit of the doubt he would fall within Category 2B. This provides a starting point, for a single offence, of 6 years’ imprisonment after a trial (which, incidentally, is what the prosecutor in California recommended), with a sentencing range of 4 to 9 years’ imprisonment.

For attempted rape, one considers the similar-looking rape guideline, and, again, we appear to be looking at a Category 2B offence. Rape is considered more serious than assault by penetration, and so the starting point for a 2B rape is higher – 8 years’ imprisonment after trial, with a range of 7 to 9 years. However, as this was an attempt, rather than a completed act, the court will reduce the starting point to reflect that fact. So we probably again end up with a starting point around the 6-year mark.

One then considers the presence of aggravating or mitigating features. And this is interesting, because what the judge considers to operate in Turner’s favour would be viewed very differently in a Crown Court.

 

Intoxication

Judge Persky held that, “there is less moral culpability attached to the defendant who is legally intoxicated” than a sober defendant committing the same offence. Our Sentencing Guidelines explicitly provide that, by contrast, committing an offence under the influence of alcohol or drugs is an aggravating feature, public policy militating against crediting people who willingly get tanked up and commit unlawful acts. Far from limiting his culpability, Turner’s drunkeness would aggravate his position.

 

Severe psychological or physical harm

Judge Persky found this to be present, having regard to the Victim Impact Statement, and I would be inclined to agree.

 

Specific targeting of a vulnerable victim

The police report, and comments attributed to the prosecutor, suggest that Turner made persistent efforts to kiss the plainly uninterested victim and her companions throughout the night. This, I would submit as a prosecutor, represents specific targeting of a (already established to be) vulnerable victim. Aggravating feature ticked.

 

Attempts to dispose of or conceal evidence

It is arguable (although I probably wouldn’t submit it with much vigour) that Turner’s fleeing the scene ticks this box. But many defendants run to evade capture, and it is rarely factored into a judge’s final sentence.

 

No previous convictions

This is a big one in Turner’s favour. No previous for any similar offences will usually go a long way.

 

Positive good character

The best mitigation you can hope for as a defence lawyer is good character and a guilty plea. Turner doesn’t qualify for the latter, but a judge over here would be entitled to, in most cases, afford some weight to a defendant’s positive character. BUT, the Sexual Offences Guideline is different to many others, in that it provides that “in the context of this offence, previous good character should not normally be given any significant weight and will not normally justify a reduction in what would otherwise be the appropriate sentence“. So being a golden boy champion swimmer, while possibly contributing, to a limited extent, in projecting the image of a good chap who acted entirely out of character, is going to go much less further on these shores.

And what about the tone of those references? In particular Dad’s? Is that likely to help? Plainly Judge Persky was not affronted by Turner’s dad solemnly reporting that the stress of proceedings had put Brock off his favourite ribeye steak , but would this help or hinder Brock’s break for freedom?

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Personally, I would not in a sqwazillion years have submitted those references to an actual judge with eyes. I can’t think of any who would have subconsciously treated them as anything other than an aggravating factor. The musings of a father who, when confronted with the finding that his son penetrated an unconscious woman’s vagina and took steps towards raping her, suggests that what is really needed is for this woman to learn about “the dangerous of promiscuity”, are unlikely to inspire sympathy in any judge I have ever appeared before. Characterising an offence of near-rape as “20 minutes of action” is similarly an attitude I, as a defence lawyer, would wish to distance from my client. In practical terms, this letter would demolish all mitigation I had carefully laid before the court during my heartfelt plea for leniency. You want references to say how nice your boy is, how sorry he is for what he’s done to the victim and how you, as his parent, recognise he needs to be severely punished for a serious offence. Then you stick in your paragraph pleading to give him a light sentence.

 

Age or lack of maturity where it affects the responsibility of the offender

Another feature afforded much weight by Judge Persky was Turner’s youth. And he would receive similar latitude from a Crown Court. But not much. And the suggestion that he is merely a victim of accepted “campus culture” is unlikely to assist him.

 

Remorse

Judge Persky, in a feat of reasoning that I still don’t understand at the fifth time of reading, found that Turner was remorseful, even though he maintained his version of events rejected by the jury at trial. The judicial attitude can be summed up as, “Well, he said sorry today, even though it appears it’s a politician’s “I’m sorry for any offence caused” rather than a “I’m sorry for sexually attacking you” and, well, kids will be kids and the two of them are probably never going to agree on what happened, so, y’know, let’s say he’s sorry and I can justify the sentence I’m about to hand down.” Seriously. Read it and tell me if you come to any other interpretation. Nil points in my court, sunshine.

 

Media attention

This was listed by Judge Persky as pertinent to his decision; however it is a bold advocate over here who argues that their high-profile client warrants special dispensation by virtue of his infamy. Turner’s case can be distinguished, possibly, from most “celebs” in that he did not invite media attention prior to the trial, but committing a serious offence and having the press hound you for it would be considered, by most English judges, as par for the course. And certainly not reason for special treatment.

 

Impact of imprisonment

Not a specific consideration on our Guidelines, but this would be addressed in an English Pre-Sentence Report (say below), and particular difficulties in adjusting to prison may influence a borderline decision. But this usually applies where a defendant has extreme physical or medical requirements, or where they are a plain suicide risk, or have vulnerable dependents on the outside world. The fact that you’re used to the Good Life will not usually be prayed in your aid.

 

The Probation Report

The Probation Report by the county probation officer recommended the sentence that Turner ultimately got, and this has been cited in support of the Judge’s ruling. Over here, most defendants, particularly sex offenders, will have a Pre-Sentence Report prepared by a probation officer. And Judges will pay careful attention to, and often follow, the recommendation as to sentence (i.e. should it be immediate custody or should it be a rehabilitative community order/suspended sentence?) However. While most reports are excellent, some, whether through authorial inexperience, or being provided with scant details of the offence, or through plain misjudgment, do occasionally propose sentencing disposals for serious cases that, as a barrister pleading mitigation, you have to acknowledge at the outset are batshit cray cray, lest the judge transfer his apoplexy at the recommendation on to your client. “Your Honour, I recognise that the recommendation in the Pre-Sentence Report is unrealistic in this case…” is a phrase I’ve had to gabble more times than I can remember. The fact that there is a recommendation would not, in the Crown Court, save you if, as a barrister, you submitted that the Court should adopt a plainly unduly lenient sentence. And it of course does not absolve the Judge of his or her duty to impose an appropriate sentence. Some cases are so serious that only immediate custody will suffice. Rape and kindred offences, as per the Sentencing Guidelines, tend to fall within that bracket. I have seen, in exceptional cases, recommendations for alternatives to immediate custody in cases of this type, but they are in the tiny, tiny minority, and usually arise where there are truly incredible features to the case. Nothing that is listed in Judge Persky’s judgment would, in my experience, persuade a judge that the probation recommendation was realistic.

Exceptional Circumstances

Weighing everything into the balance, I would expect Turner to be looking at between 5 and 6 years, all in. But could a Crown Court judge take an exceptional course? Judge Persky was required to impose a minimum of 2 years’ imprisonment and prohibited, under Penal  Code section 220, from imposing probation except in unusual cases where the interests of justice would best be served (Penal Code section 1203.065). That interests of justice test is expanded upon in Court Rule 4.413(c) and applied by Persky, and he relies in particular upon Rule 4.413(c)(2)(C), which provides that the interests of justice may permit a departure from the mandatory prohibition on a light sentence followed by probation “where a defendant is youthful and has no significant record of prior criminal offences”. And it is on that feature, primarily, that Persky hangs his hat (before listing the various other features of mitigation that he feels assist Mr Turner). Would that be enough, in English courts, to get the sentence down to the 6 month mark? It’s difficult to compare, as we don’t have the concept of a short sentence in a county jail (rather than the state prison reserved for lengthier sentences) followed by lengthy probation conditions determined by the Judge; rather we impose a sentence (of whatever length) in a prison and the defendant, when released (usually at the halfway point) remains on licence until the expiry of the sentence (if over two years), or for 12 months after his release (if the sentence is less than two years). But my opinion, for what it is worth, is that a short custodial sentence would be the least likely outcome in our courts. The very best Mr Turner could pray for is a suspended sentence of two years’ imprisonment (the maximum for a suspended sentence), and that, on the facts reported, would appear wholly unlikely.

Notification

Judge Persky paid significant regard to the fact that Turner would, as a convicted sex offender, be required by Penal Code 290 to register with the authorities as such. This, he considered, represented a further punishment that was relevant to his consideration of sentence. Over here, “notification requirements” (or “being put on the sex offenders register” as the media have it, notwithstanding that no such register exists) automatically apply to these offences by virtue of section 82 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, and, assuming a sentence of around 6 years, those requirements would also last indefinitely. It would not be considered at all relevant to sentence, although the position in California may differ due to the public availability of information about registered sex offenders (through, for example, Megan’s Law).

 

Prosecution Appeal

The District Attorney, while professing incredulity at the sentence, has declared itself unable to challenge a sentence unless wrong in law. By contrast, our Attorney General can refer sentences in such cases to the Court of Appeal if he considers that they are unduly lenient and, if the Court of Appeal agrees, the sentence can be increased. I would, as a prosecutor, be drafting my advice to the Attorney General before I’d left court had that been my case, and I’d wager that it would take something extraordinary for the Court of Appeal to find that a 6-month sentence was not unduly lenient for offences of this type.

 

Conclusion

On the information available, including Judge Persky’s sentencing remarks, the victim impact statement and the character references published, I would be astounded if a defendant in Brock Turner’s circumstances appeared before an English Crown Court and received the sentence that he did. Sexual offending, while occasionally (in my personal opinion) dealt with leniently in our  courts, is still usually recognised as comprising the most degrading violations that one person can inflict upon another. That Judge Persky appears, notwithstanding the victim impact statement, to have overlooked the public policy imperative in imposing condign sentences for acts involving the deliberate, brutal, callous and humiliating sexual exploitation of a vulnerable victim, is a failing unlikely to be repeated in the English Criminal Justice System, and, to that extent, Turner should be eternally thankful to be an American.

 

Note: This blogpost has been compiled by an English barrister with no formal training in California State or U.S. federal law. Apologies at the outset for any error in my interpretation or explanation of the relevant law; any proposed corrections are welcomed.