UPDATE: At 8am on Monday 23 March 2020, the Lord Chief Justice announced a suspension of new jury trials. The details are vague, and hint at a resumption “where specific safety arrangements have been put in place”, but for now, at least, it seems as if a level of sense has prevailed. Regrettably the announcement came far too late to reach many jurors, who will have already embarked upon needlessly risky travel by public transport, but joined up thinking has never been part of the justice system’s core values.
Today, thousands of citizens of England and Wales will attend their local Crown Court in answer to a summons compelling them, under threat of imprisonment, to do their civic duty and serve on a jury.
They will queue with dozens of other strangers to be herded into a packed jury waiting room. Once selected for a jury panel, they will pile into a dirty, windowless courtroom and sit next to each other for five hours a day. At lunch they will mingle with the hundred or so other jurors in the building. At the conclusion of the trial, they will shuffle into a tiny unventilated retiring room, where they will make a decision which could ultimately determine whether somebody spends years of their life in prison.
This is because, even though the government has closed schools, restaurants, pubs, cafes and leisure centres, one area of public life in which, to quote a government minister, we are “operating normally”, is in the criminal courts.
So while Scotland and Northern Ireland have temporarily suspended jury trials, in England and Wales the Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland and the Lord Chief Justice have decreed that jury trials lasting up to three days – estimated to be 75 per cent of trials – must take place.
They will do so in filthy conditions where lack of hot water, soap and paper towels is widespread; where broken hand dryers and leaking toilets and burst pipes and crumbling roofs and walls are par for the course; conditions which in the good times we in the courts accept as a permanent feature of a chronically underfunded justice system, but which in the current climate present a far more alarming proposition.
Criminal courts are, basic sanitation aside, a petri dish. Scores of defendants are piled into waiting areas. Most travel by public transport; some travel in “sweatbox” security vans from our infested, overcrowded, virus-rivenprisons. Defendants and their families mix with their barristers, who mix with court staff, who mix with witnesses, judges and jurors, who mix with other witnesses, judges and jurors. Courtrooms vary in size and style; in some of our more antique Victorian courts, jurors are squeezed onto hard wooden benches without an inch between them, let alone the government-recommended two metres. In a fairly typical court I was in last week, the defendants, barristers, clerk, usher, witness box and jury box were all within a two-metre radius of each other.
And by insisting that the shortest trials go ahead, the government is ensuring the highest possible churn of cases; the highest possible turnover of strangers coming into contact with each other.
Over the past few days I have been flooded with messages from terrified jurors, witnesses and court staff aghast that, at a time when the government is frantically urging social distancing on the ground that “infections spread easily in closed spaces where people gather together”, they are being required by law to expose themselves to such conditions. In a closing speech last week, one of my colleagues thanked the jury for their dedication at a time when they were no doubt worried about themselves and their families. One of the jurors burst into tears.
This situation is appallingly unfair to all concerned. How on earth can jurors be expected to concentrate on their task? How can any defendant or victim of crime have faith that the twelve people trying their case are paying full attention to the nuances of the evidence, when those twelve are burdened with the knowledge that, as a direct result of their jury service, they, or someone they love, could die?
And contrary to MoJ dicta, we are not operating normally. Judges are self-isolating; defendants, jurors and witnesses are staying at home as they break out with symptoms; and trials are collapsing all over the country. The Witness Service, the organisation responsible for looking after witnesses at court, has withdrawn its volunteers. Many Crown Court judges are making no secret of their disdain for what the MoJ would wish to term a “strategy”, but which more closely resembles a tribute act to Monty Python’s Black Knight chirpily dismissing each collapsed trial as a mere flesh wound.
The official government line is that “justice is not optional”. A sweet homily, betrayed only by the evidence of the past decade, in which victims, defendants and witnesses have found their cases mishandled or delayed for years due to enormous cuts to the budgets of the police, CPS, courts and legal aid. Justice has been optional whenever financially or politically convenient.
The three-day trial rule has no public health basis behind it, other than a chipper optimism that a trial of such a length might have an outside chance of completing before too many of its core participants drop down. The three-day trials will in general concern the less serious and more straightforward criminal allegations which could realistically wait another few months without too much harm being done.
The primary reason for the intransigence appears to be Mr Buckland’s fear of being the Lord Chancellor Who Closed The Courts, a disfiguring blemish on the CV of any aspiring careerist in this Tough On Crime government. There is also a secondary, practical concern: because of cuts, we have a backlog of over 30,000 Crown Court trials and are currently trying cases for offences said to have occurred two or more years ago. The government knows that a standard two-year delay could quickly become three.
The government should adjourn all jury trials listed in the next twelve weeks. In the Autumn, when it may be safer to do so, we can resume with the adjourned cases, only with the financial firehouse turned on. Instead of running at half-capacity, every Crown Court should run at maximum; the Treasury’s largesse must be extended to the justice system so that we don’t endure the farce of perfectly usable courtrooms sitting locked and empty due to “lack of sitting days” while judges get paid to sit at home. The backlog, both Covid-caused and historic, can be blasted away.
In the meantime, of course, justice and the courts cannot halt completely. Technology may – subject to the disastrous history of IT procurement in the courts – be capable of keeping shorter hearings on the road over the coming weeks and months. Video-links and telephone hearings have a poor record in practice, but offer a theoretical throughroad. Penal policy will have to change; early release of low-risk prisoners, hugely reduced sentences for guilty pleas and a statutory presumption against imprisonment may not be popular, but have to be given serious consideration. By minimising the number of participants required to attend hearings, reducing prison overcrowding and ensuring the court estate is fit for human habitation, urgent court business can tick along until we are through the worst.
Justice need not – indeed cannot – stop. Urgent court business must carry on. But jury trials as we know them cannot continue. It is telling that, when it first published its “priorities” in “managing our response to coronavirus”, the Ministry of Justice included no reference at all to the welfare of those actually using the courts. On the day that the “three-day rule” was announced, Robert Buckland tweeted that he was cancelling his constituency surgery because of “the government’s social distancing advice”.
The Lord Chancellor, and Lord Chief Justice, need to afford jurors, witnesses and court professionals the same consideration, and recognise the human cost of their stance before any more lives are unnecessarily put at risk.
I am delighted to host this guest post by Joanna Hardy of Red Lion Chambers, articulating better than I can the appalling legacy of the Ministry of Justice’s continued selling-off of our courts.
The idea of living in the converted entrance hall of Acton Magistrates’ Court would surprise most lawyers. It used to be a sad place. Chewing gum used to cling to the floor, tackily collecting a thousand stories. The waiting-area seats groaned whenever a defendant rose to tell the local Magistrates why he had stolen the bicycle, punched the man or skipped his railway fare. The graffiti in the toilet documented the rights and wrongs of many stories and sub-plots. Defendants, victims and their respective families filed in to see justice being dispensed, case by case, crime by crime.
It was the turnstile of local justice.
Living in a converted Magistrates’ Court is not cheap. In 2017, the going rate was around £1.4 million. “Be the judge of this three-bedroom home” quipped a property article, “sleep in what used to be the grand entrance hall of Acton Magistrates’ Court”. The chewing gum has, presumably, gone and been replaced by a “rooftop terrace and steam room”. It looks happier now.
Acton might be at the start of the alphabet, but she is not alone in her dramatic makeover. Brentford Magistrates’ Court is now a luxury building that retained the cell area for trendy bicycle storage. Old Street Magistrates’ Court is a fancy hotel where you can “have a tipple” in the spot the Kray brothers once stood.
Time and again the sites of local, gritty justice have been transformed into luxe properties with corresponding price tags.
Recent figures reveal half of all Magistrates’ Courts have closed since 2010. Those pursuing local justice are increasingly finding that it is not very local at all. Courts are being consolidated and warehoused into larger centres spread out across the country. Community justice now needs to hitch a ride to the next town.
The benefits of justice being dispensed within a local community are keenly felt by those involved. For better or for worse, defendants can sometimes lead difficult, chaotic lives. Someone who is addicted to alcohol or drugs is unlikely to make a cross-county trip by 09:30am. Someone dependent on state benefits might not prioritise a peak train ticket to their court hearing if they are budgeting to feed their children. Their delays will cost society money. It might cost complainants and witnesses their time and a considerable amount of anxiety. If a defendant does not turn up at all then stretched police resources may be diverted to locate them. The community suffers.
Victims and witnesses might also struggle to make an expensive, time-consuming trip to a far-flung court. Those with childcare or employment responsibilities might not be able to spare an entire day to give evidence for twenty minutes. In some areas, the additional distance may cause witnesses a real discomfort and unease. There have been suggestions that some courts are so poorly served by public transport that witnesses and defendants could end up inappropriately travelling together on the same bus.
The benefits of local justice are clear in the day-to-day running of our courts. In some local cases, police officers still attend bail hearings. Put simply, they know their beat. They know the shortcut alleyway behind the pub, the road that is notorious for teenage car racing, the park where trouble brews. Their local knowledge helps to improve the practical decisions of the courts and to keep society safe.
The neighbourhood officer joins a long list of local benefits. Youth defendants attending a courthouse in their community can go back to school or college after their hearing. That preserves a shred of stability during a chaotic time. Probation officers sometimes know repeat offenders from earlier court orders or programmes. That helps with continuity of services including mental health, drug and alcohol treatment – often being coordinated by a GP down the road. Magistrates themselves are regularly drawn from the immediate geographic area. A community problem emerging at a particular football stadium, pub, school or street then attracts a consistent approach and a local focus.
Our justice system will be immeasurably poorer by the aggressive, short-sighted contraction of our court estate. Local knowledge, neighbourhood agencies and community justice have been gambled for large court centres making rulings from afar. The inevitable delays will waste public money. Complainants and witnesses will be inconvenienced. Police officers will be stretched. Decisions will be made in far-removed buildings distanced (in more ways than one) from the real crime on our streets.
The next time an advertisement surfaces for a luxury converted “Courthouse” building we ought to remember the real value of community justice and how much losing local courts might cost us all.
Joanna Hardy is a criminal barrister at Red Lion Chambers.
Partly, the fault is internal: the ridiculous costume; the alienating hybrid of legalese and obsequious formality that renders court hearings nonsensical to anyone in the public gallery; the impenetrability and inaccessibility of updated statute and case law; the historic failure of those of us in the system to lawsplain to those outside how justice works and why our founding principles are so important.
But part of the problem is broader: the refusal of successive governments to provide any meaningful legal education in schools; irresponsible and inaccurate news reporting; and legal illiteracy indulged and expounded by politicians using the law as a cheap crop to beat their hobby horse of choice.
The result has been inevitable. Centuries of compounded negligence have culminated in a disconnect between the criminal justice system and those it purports to serve. And most days it feels as if it’s getting worse. No longer are rabble-rousing mis-reports of legal stories confined to a day’s news cycle before being scrunched around tomorrow’s cod-and-chips; the rags are now frequently doused in the kerosene of social media and sizzle with white hot rage for days, weeks and even months on end.
While I don’t pretend that this is a problem confined to criminal law, it is often the tales of “soft sentences” and “putting criminals’ rights ahead of the victim” that burn the brightest. The formula is predictable: there will be a headline attack on an “out of touch” judge (pictured, for enhanced ludicrousness, in their ceremonial wig), with a decontextualised snippet of the judicial remarks and a gaping absence of informed fact or sober analysis.
And over the past twelve months, we’ve suffered 365 Groundhog Days of these. The case of Ched Evans kicked things off, with outlets eager to report the outright untruths of politicians suggesting that this case set a dangerous precedent allowing complainants in sex cases to be gratuitously humiliated in court over their sexual history. A campaign to not just reform section 41 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, but to issue a blanket ban on any questions about sexual behaviour, is still being propelled by several MPs. It matters not that to do so would result, inevitably, in vital defence questions being prohibited and innocent people being convicted. A straw man effigy of section 41 has been hoisted onto the bonfire along with the presumption of innocence, with Harriet Harman proudly holding aloft the matchbox.
A run of sentencing “outrages” has followed.
The man who beat his wife with a cricket bat and was spared jail, because the judge deemed that the victim was “not vulnerable” (except the judge didn’t say those words, and it wasn’t the reason for the custodial sentence being (initially) suspended). The paedophile released only five years into a 22-year prison sentence (except it wasn’t a 22-year prison sentence, and he served longer than five years). Lavinia Woodward, the Oxford undergrad whose gratuitous bikini shots accompanied the squeals of horror that this rich white girl had been spared prison for stabbing her boyfriend, just because the rich white judge thought she was “too intelligent” to be locked up. Was that the reason she was spared jail? Did the judge ever say those words? Are any more rhetorical questions needed?
Rarely, if ever, is the reader informed of the Sentencing Guidelines and case law that constrain judges as to their approach in these cases, and which explain certain terms deployed in the sentencing remarks. Rarely are those remarks published in full — a flaw in the channels of official judicial communications for sure, but also the responsibility of those trained in shorthand in the press gallery. And rarely is there any voice of expertise explaining the apparently inexplicable, or offering a counterpoint to the incitement to fulminate.
Sometimes, of course, decisions will be made in court which do horrify, and for which there is no sensible justification. But most often, a straightforward, prosaic explanation exists. It’s just not reported. Neither editor nor politician will deal in full facts, whether through ignorance or malice.
The greatest tragedy is that if, instead of scything the low-hanging, rotten fruit the reporters reached a little higher, they would find that there is so much in criminal justice for their readership and Twitter followers to get angry about.
There’s the obliteration of legal aid, cutting the middle-classes out of publicly-funded legal assistance if they are wrongly accused of a criminal offence. There’s the ‘innocence tax’, which means that if, having been refused legal aid, you pay privately for your defence, you are not allowed to reclaim your full fees even if acquitted. Everyone in the system can speak for hours about the stack-em-high, sell-em-cheap model of warehouse justice in the magistrates’ courts, which is being rolled out in the crown courts under the euphemism of glorious efficiency. Disclosure — the means by which most innocent people secure the key to their escape — is found by report after report to be an abomination due to a hybrid of poor training and insufficient resources at the cut-to-the-bone police and Crown Prosecution Service.
But these problems evade meaningful public scrutiny, perhaps through ignorance, or perhaps because it’s simply far easier to report, and get angry about, a pervert getting help in the community rather than rotting in our violent, suicide-ridden prisons.
Public legal education is needed now more than ever. The Solicitor General, to his credit, appears to recognise this. His new Public Legal Education Panel is a start. Something needs to change if the public are going to have a hope of recognising where the real problems in justice lie; and who, in reality, poses the greatest threat to their rights. The thing about criminal justice is that, for all too many people, the realisation of how far basic protections have been eroded only dawns when it’s too late.
This article first appeared on Legal Cheek, and is available here.
On 29 December 2015, to relatively little fanfare, a well-meaning but ultimately flawed criminal law was brought into force. Today, some 8 months on, the Guardian reports that the number of people being prosecuted under this law is low, inviting remedy under David Allen Green’s so-prescient-that-it-surpasses-satire Something Must Be Done Act 2014.
The issue at hand is coercive but (generally) non-violent conduct in private relationships. Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 created a criminal offence of engaging in controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship, an offence which, it emerges, the police and prosecutorial agencies are not wielding with the vigour that campaigners had anticipated. Only 62 people have been charged under the legislation, as opposed to 20,000 for offences involving domestic violence over the same period.
The reason for this, I politely suggest, is twofold. First, this is a largely pointless law, re-criminalising already-criminalised conduct. And second, where it does provide for something new, it trespasses on territory over which the police cannot reasonably be expected to ride.
The Law Against Bad Relationships
The intention behind this law, I add as a rider, is noble. The genesis of many violent domestic relationships can be located in non-violent but controlling and coercive behaviours exhibited early on. If we can address the latter, we can hopefully reduce the former. So far, so unobjectionable. It’s the next step of the argument that trips up the logician – namely that the best way to address controlling or coercive relationships is to pass a shiny new law threatening a 5-year prison term for those whose relationships do not cut the mustard. Like a pissed-up Premier League chairman on transfer deadline day throwing good money after bad, Parliament convinces itself that unwanted, ingrained human behaviour can be eradicated if we just chuck another law at it and send the bobbies in. Or, in the official argot of the Guidance to the Act:
“This offence sends a clear message.”
As any lawyer will tell you, and as I’ve said before in relation to the utterly useless stalking legislation, creating criminal offences to “send a message” is the golden ticket to ensuring the enactment of thoroughly bad law.
So what is the law? An offence under section 76 is committed by a person (A) where:
(a) A is or was previously in an intimate or familial relationship with another (B);
(b) A engages in repeated or continuous behaviour towards B that is controlling or coercive;
(c) That behaviour has a “serious effect” on B, in that it causes either (i) B to fear, on at least two occasions, the use of violence; OR (ii) serious alarm or distress which has a substantial adverse effect on B’s day to day activities; and
(d) A knows or ought to know that their behaviour will have that effect.
The offence carries the same maximum sentence (5 years’ imprisonment) as inflicting grievous bodily harm, in presumed observance of the (unreferenced) assertion in the Statutory Guidance that “a repeated pattern of abuse can be more injurious and harmful than a single incident of violence”.
The legislation is silent as to what constitutes “controlling and coercive behaviour”, but the Statutory Guidance Framework offers examples of “types of behaviour associated with coercion or control”.
And these are, well…problematic.
Some of these example “behaviours” are, as the Guidance acknowledges, already crimes. And crimes carrying a rather pricklier stick than section 76:
Threats to kill (Max sentence 10 years)
Child neglect (Max sentence 10 years)
Assault (Depending on injury, max sentence of 6 months, 5 years or life imprisonment)
Criminal Damage (Depending on quantum of damage, max sentence 6 months or 10 years)
Rape (Max sentence life imprisonment)
As for the rest of the list, it stands as a glistening example of the problems inherent in attempting to regulate the intangible, indefinable dynamics of other people’s relationships. Highlights include:
Repeatedly putting [a person] down such as telling them they are worthless;
Threats to reveal private information;
Financial abuse, including control of finances, such as only allowing a person a punitive allowance;
Monitoring a person via online communication tools;
Monitoring their time;
Preventing a person from having access to transport or from working.
These are all, in certain contexts, indicators of toxic, damaging and unhealthy relationships that will spiral into violence. They are also, in certain contexts, the hallmarks of toxic, damaging and unhealthy relationships that won’t. Relationships that will sail their ghastly, destructive, hateful course through to natural completion without accelerating towards physical altercation. Relationships which, in a liberal society, people must be free to pursue and to endure, as long as that is their choice. Neither section 76, nor the police officer charged with enforcing it, has any way of predicting which route a shit relationship is going to trail. Whether it is going to turn violent – in which case, the criminal law should intervene to obviate objective harm – or whether it will remain simply miserable. If the latter, lovely as it would be if relationships were universally sprinkled with mutual respect, courtesy and affection, it is no role of the state to criminalise all deviations from the Richard Curtis romantic ideal, on the statistically vague hypothesis that some of these will turn violent. And to suggest that the police should be more proactive in identifying “coercive and controlling relationships,” and lining them up for prosecution, is broadening the ever-expanding role of overstretched and under-resourced police officers beyond law enforcement and into the arena of relationship analysis.
If this sounds like a counsel of despair, that is not the intention. Rather it is an attempt to recognise the limited scope of the criminal law in modulating complex, intimate human relationships. If the government believes that it could “save” more women from potentially violent relationships by intervening to “fix” them when they are merely “controlling and coercive”, then that is surely the preserve of social workers, not police officers or prosecutors, and not least in a climate where police and prosecutorial resources are so depleted that cases of serious domestic violence are collapsing on a daily basis. If you try to legislate against every inappropriate personal interaction, you end up with a fuzzy mess like section 76, criminalising everything and nothing.
That, more than anything, might explain why only 62 prosecutions have been pursued. Key to good law is certainty and consistency. ‘Don’t use violence’ is a legal imperative that everyone understands. ‘Make sure you don’t excessively monitor your spouse’s time, and ensure that you don’t give them only a punitive financial allowance’ is the kind of sentiment which no doubt makes sense to well-meaning campaigners, but offers little clarity to the average Josiah or Josephine. Or to the poor sod of a police officer expected to enforce it.
UPDATE: A number of people have pointed out a rather glaring topical omission from this discussion, given that this is the week of Helen’s attempted murder trial in The Archers. Helen, of course, was the longstanding victim of controlling and coercive behaviour at the hands of her husband, Rob, culminating in her stabbing him with a kitchen knife. She also provides an instructive example of the inadequacy of laws such as section 76. The difficulty in Helen’s case, and indeed the difficulty with many cases of domestic abuse, is that Helen for a long time did not consider herself to be a victim. Had concerned friends and family contacted the police, attending officers might have observed an isolated, dominated and deeply unhappy woman, bereft of self-worth living with a controlling, manipulative man, but without Helen’s recognition of her circumstances, and her willingness to support a prosecution, there would have been no chance at all of successfully prosecuting Rob under section 76. And here lies a further problem: Any criminal lawyer will tell you that the greatest obstacle in prosecuting allegations of domestic violence is securing the lasting cooperation of the complainant, for obvious and often understandable reasons. The power dynamics in abusive relationships are such that, even if the police manage to obtain a witness statement from a complainant at the time of an alleged assault, she will often have withdrawn support for the prosecution before trial. While allegations of assault can occasionally be successfully tried without the support of a complainant – through evidence of third parties or medical evidence of injury – cases such as will be brought under section 76 will inevitably require the complainant to give evidence not just of the facts of the coercive behaviour but of the personal impact upon her. In short, a successful prosecution under section 76 will usually require two things – (i) sufficient self-esteem and awareness of one’s circumstances, and (ii) unwavering support for a criminal prosecution – that for all too many victims of domestic abuse, for entirely understandable reasons, are absent. This too may explain why few successful prosecutions emerge under this legislation.
Friday 27 May 2016. The day on which the following events were deemed worthy of historical record on the front pages of the English press:
It is also the day, you may be interested to know, that the criminal justice system was officially declared “close to breaking point”. Not by me or my kindred professional complainers, but by Parliament. The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee today published a report, “Efficiency in the Criminal Justice System”, in which the very first line is:
“The criminal justice system is close to breaking point.”
Easy pickings, one might think, for magpie subs struggling to summon a splash on a topic of public interest beyond facile comments by a fame-chasing wannabe TV bimbo, or something that happened on Britain’s Got Talent. [If that sentence had been pasted closer to the first two front pages above, that joke might have worked. As it is, we’ll move on and pretend nothing happened. But just so you know, that could have been something really special.]
But no-one took the bait. Notwithstanding that the facts of the report would have been available, and known, prior to last night’s print deadlines, the tumbling of justice was apparently considered not of general interest. Let alone worthy of usurping Johnny Depp’s divorce.
In truth, much of what’s in the PAC report is drawn from other non-reported reports, and there is nothing new to surprise those stuck festering in the system. The procession of complaints can be recited rote by anyone involved with criminal justice, like a contestant trapped in a Groundhog Day version of the Generation Game conveyor belt:
Unacceptable delays – months, years – in cases getting to trial;
A consequent enormous backlog of serious criminal cases;
Gross inefficiencies in preparing and reviewing prosecutions;
An overall system that is both underfunded and overstretched;
A lack of accountability;
“Cost savings” which simply shunt costs from one part of the system to another;
Callous treatment of witnesses and victims;
Insufficient judges, CPS staff and court sitting days to manage the caseload;
No credible plan by the Ministry of Justice to use its court buildings efficiently – e.g. £100,000 was recently spent on installing new windows at Torquay magistrates’ court even though the MoJ intended to close the building down;
No thought given to how defendants, jurors and witnesses might physically get to court once the MoJ has closed down all the smaller rural courts, and they have to travel 100 miles without access to regular public transport.
Those familiar friends all feature for express criticism in the report, to which I might add, for completeness, the mischief caused by interpreters not turning up, prisoners not being brought to court, legal aid being removed from middle-class defendants, the disastrous privatisation of the Probation Service and the omnipresent shadow of CPS disclosure failings. And of course many, many other prizes, none of which present as novelty to lawyers, defendants, victims or witnesses.
But to those fortunate enough to currently find themselves outside the criminal process, who may one day, through the vagaries of fate or circumstance find themselves dragged screaming into the system, either as the victim of a crime or accused of one, this surely has to be big news? It cannot be a story that peaks at item 3 on the Today programme 7am bulletin, before being folded and put away in a drawer until the next revolution of this relentless cycle of despair.
It deserves more. It deserves anger. Passion. Rage. Frustration. Umbrage. Indignation. Shock, awe, outrage, hysteria – everything that social media is accused of being, and often is, our entire society should be right now. Because a functioning justice system is vital to a functioning society. It is as crucial as health. Education. Economic policy. Because without proper justice, the social contract by which we all live crumbles. I cringe as I write this because of its sixth-form general studies simplicity, but plainly somewhere in our society there is a blockage. And people have stopped caring, beguiled by an implicit cocksure certainty that the courts – and crime in particular – is something that only affects Other People.
Early on in my career, due to CPS failings, a defendant got bail. He went on to kill. I have seen – we have all seen – provably guilty people walk free, and not-guilty people locked up. There’s no use in squealing for extra bobbies on the beat if nearly 40% of the wrong-uns they catch don’t have their cases reviewed by the CPS, and as a consequence don’t get justice. There’s no point in reporting an assault where you’re going to be cross-examined on the minutiae of that day two years after the event, with the inevitable gaps and inconsistencies in your truthful account providing the key to your tormentor’s acquittal. And if you are accused of something you didn’t do, for which you could lose your job, your home and your liberty, it’s too late at that point bemoaning the delay in your case being heard, the failure of the CPS to disclose crucial material that would secure your acquittal, or the injustice of a third, fourth or fifth adjournment of your trial because the MoJ refuses to keep open enough courtrooms.
Criminal justice matters. If the House of Commons had published a report that opened with the conclusion, “The NHS is close to breaking point”, that would be headline news. Editorials would be screaming for ministerial accountability. If the report concluded that the Department for Health had “overstretched” hospitals and “exhausted the scope to make further cuts” – and yet the DoH insisted that a further 15% would be cut from the budget by 2019/20, no-one would believe it. The injustice – the human casualties of this macabre, sadistic approach to administering a fundamental pillar of developed nationhood – would be the headlines. Their stories, their misery, their pain.
“Right.” The legal advisor looked at me, then back at the defendant. “And are any of them going to be witnesses for you today?”
“Any of who?” replied the defendant.
The legal advisor looked at me again and cleared his throat. “Any of the aliens?”
The defendant shook his head angrily. “No! My case isn’t that aliens did make me do it – it’s that at the time I believed they were making me do it. I was insane, yeah? Insane!” He brandished his antique copy of Archbold triumphantly, as I, a newbie to this prosecuting lark, took my seat and settled in for what proved to be a particularly long trial.
Notwithstanding the years that have passed since that remorseless day, defendants in person, and the attendant idiosyncrasies they bring to criminal proceedings, are far from a bygone relic.
Transform Justice, a charity campaigning for a fairer justice system, last month published a report, self-explanatorily titled, “Justice denied? The experience of unrepresented defendants in the criminal courts”. Drawing on statistical and anecdotal evidence from professionals and court users, the report concludes that magistrates’ courts are encountering DiPs in ever greater quantities.
As a prosecutor, it must be said that certain defendants in person do not inspire sympathy. Aliens Man, a frequent flier in this particular court, certainly gave a damn fine impression of someone determined to get himself convicted, with his refusal to swear an oath or affirmation and tactical decision to meet every question – regardless of context – with an increasingly angry, “I was insane, yeah?” It was impressive how creatively (and doggedly) those four words were deployed to expand the trial into the late evening.
But sympathetic or not, everyone – even a man furiously declining to give evidence in his own defence “until that prosecutor goes into the witness box first” – is entitled to justice. And what we see all too often, as reflected in the report, is that injustice – perceived and real – waddles hand-in-hand with a lack of access to legal representation. Occasionally it will be a conscious choice to eschew professional assistance, as with every criminal advocate’s favourite Magna Carta-quoting oddballs, Freemen on the Land, who with a defiant ignorance of constitutional law and a fistful of printed internet “legal” advice, try valiantly to persuade the court that is has no jurisdiction to try them without their consent, coz Magna Carta. But the recent proliferation of DiPs is largely attributable directly to conscious executive fiat.
A low means-testing threshold (a disposable household income of £22,325 in the magistrates’ court,) and punitive legal aid contributions for those who do qualify force many middle-income defendants into self-representing. Thrashing through the administrative process if you’re self-employed is a nightmare, the impenetrable ambiguity of the Legal Aid forms seemingly designed to ensure rejection at the first attempt. The Legal Aid Agency is the institutional embodiment of jobsworthiness, kicking out valid applications for the most trivial – and occasionally non-existent – of perceived slights.
Putting aside the truism, attested by any Judge, solicitor or barrister, that any costs saved in depriving litigants in person of public funding are spunked ten times over by the added court time and resources needed to deal with their cases, the danger, particularly in the magistrates’ court, is of significant miscarriages of justice.
I’ve had years of dubious pleasure watching magistrates deal with defendants in person. Many benches do their best to assist the bewildered through the process. But many don’t. I recall vividly watching agog as the bench – abetted by their legal advisor – invited a defendant in person to plead guilty to having an offensive weapon – a hammer – on the basis that he said in interview that he had it with him but intended only to frighten with it. A hammer not being offensive per se, the offence could only be committed if he’d intended to use it to cause injury. Fortunately another solicitor, exchanging raised eyebrows with me, interjected to inject some law into proceedings.
And the fear has to be, as courts are smoothly re-engineered as whirring production lines of justice through Better Case Management, putting the emphasis on speed ahead of quality, that defendants in person will get dragged between the grinding mechanism beneath, their cries unheard and their cases undiscovered.
There’s little more to cheer in the Crown Court. While the figure for defendants in person is currently steady, this won’t last. The indefensible removal in 2014 of legal aid from defendants with disposable household incomes of £37,500 will collide, I grimly predict, with the exponential increase in prosecutions of historical sexual allegations – in which many defendants will find themselves bitten by the threshold – with what can only be forecasted as appalling consequences for justice.
The brave new digital world pioneered by the Ministry of Justice is currently predicated on the assumption that all will be represented, the MoJ Jekyll seemingly blissfully ignorant of the MoJ Hyde’s bloody night-time trampling over legal aid. Quite how a defendant-in-person is expected to muster the wherewithal to extricate disclosable Social Services records from an exhausted Crown Prosecution Service, or manage the inevitable 500-page-strong Notice of Additional Evidence casually tossed onto the defence on the first day of trial, Lord alone knows.
Many of these problems could be ameliorated by the simple automatic grant of legal aid to anyone accused by the state of a criminal offence, with provision to recoup that money, where available, in the case of convictions. Utterly unobjectionable in principle. Sadly the modus of successive Justice Secretaries has been subservience to the false economy of plundering legal aid, plunging other departmental budgets into the red in satisfaction of a laughably dishonest public commitment to “fiscal responsibility” and “tough spending decisions”.