The truth about the government’s claims to have “ended the rough sex defence”

Following a lot of media coverage of this issue, I wrote a Twitter thread looking at the law behind it. I’ve reproduced it here in case it’s of interest.

Postscript: Unforgivably, I suggested in the thread that R v Brown was a Court of Appeal decision when, as every first-year law student knows, it was a House of Lords judgment (the predecessor to today’s Supreme Court). The link, should you wish to read the gory case in full, is here.

Guest post by Rebecca Penfold and Aparna Rao: Covid-19 and the right to protest

I am pleased to host this guest post by Rebecca Penfold of St John’s Buildings and Aparna Rao of 5 Paper Buildings.

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The death of George Floyd has sparked a wave of protests from Minneapolis to Manchester, Los Angeles to London. Never before has the international community been subject to such restrictions as those now felt during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This note is intended to give a practical overview of the right to protest whilst under ‘lockdown’.  What rights do individual citizens have to protest, whilst subject to lockdown restrictions in England?

 

Overview

The right to protest is a human right. It cannot be abrogated except in accordance with law. But a global pandemic of a life-threatening virus creates some unprecedented problems for both protesters and law enforcers.

Indeed, many fundamental lawful rights have been limited by our legislative responses to COVID-19. For example, several rights contained within the European Convention on Human Rights (‘ECHR’):

  • The right to liberty has been qualified by the need to detain persons for the prevention of the spreading of infectious diseases (as anticipated by Article 5(1)(e)).
  • The right to a fair trial (Article 6) has been qualified by remote video hearings taking place, at least at the start of the lockdown, for all practical purposes in private, and by changes to the way in which witnesses can “attend” and give evidence.
  • The right to manifest religion or belief (Article 9), and the right to marry (Article 12), have both been limited while people have been prevented from attending places of worship.
  • Article 15 (derogation in time of emergency) has been invoked by several countries during COVID-19. To date, the United Kingdom has not done so.

Articles 10 and 11 of the ECHR are, it would seem, unintended victims of COVID-19. This note concludes that the freedom of assembly and association is limited in significant ways during these very unusual times. However, the limitations are slowly being relaxed, and seem to mirror the fluctuating severity of infection rates in England.

 

Law

Freedoms in the ECHR

The ECHR provides what is often called a ‘right to protest’, in Article 10 “Freedom of expression” and Article 11 “Freedom of assembly and association”.

Despite the ‘European’ element, Brexit does not stop us from being able to exercise these freedoms.

Neither Article 10 or 11 are ‘absolute’ rights.

Article 10(2) sets out the limits to the freedom of expression: “The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary”.

 Article 11(2) sets out the limits of peaceful assembly: “No restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of these rights other than such as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. This article shall not prevent the imposition of lawful restrictions on the exercise of these rights by members of the armed forces, of the police or of the administration of the State”.

 

Police powers in England

These powers were in place before COVID-19 and continue to be in force:

The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1986 (PACE) created a legislative framework to protect both the police and the public in the exercise of police powers.

Stop and search powers. Section 1 of PACE (stop and search powers) can be exercised during a protest. Police can stop and search any individual, generally if they have reasonable grounds to suspect that the individual is carrying drugs, weapons, stolen property or something that could be used to commit a crime. Police must also provide to the person being searched various details such as name and station, and the reason for the stop and search. These rules apply to protest and non-protest situations alike.

Ability to request details. The police can also stop an individual and ask for their details, but there is no positive obligation in law to comply. The individual can move away from the police officer; this does not give the police the power to arrest and/or search that individual. However, providing false details can be a criminal offence (obstructing a police officer, s.89 Police Act 1996, with a maximum penalty of a fine and/or one month’s imprisonment).

Power to require details. The police can specifically ask for an individual’s personal details under s.50 of the Police Reform Act 2002. Failure to give details, or the giving of false details, is a criminal offence (for which the maximum penalty is a fine). The police can only lawfully exercise the s.50 power if they hold a genuine and reasonable belief that the individual has been engaged in anti-social behaviour (defined as behaviour that causes or is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to one or more persons not of the same household).

Arrest powers. Section 24 of PACE provides a general power to arrest without warrant anyone who is, or who the officer has reasonable grounds for suspecting to be, about to commit an offence or anyone who is, or who the officer has reasonable grounds for suspecting to be, in the act of committing an offence.

Wider powers relating to assemblies. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 broadens the powers of the police and is often used when large-scale events, such as protests, are organised. It is intended to prevent serious violence. If a sufficiently senior officer gives authorisation under s.60, the police can stop and search any person or vehicles within a specified area and time frame, without any requirement for suspicion or reasonable grounds. Any failure to stop is a criminal offence (maximum penalty is a fine and/or one month’s imprisonment).

Removal of items concealing identity. A s.60AA order gives police the power to require an individual to remove and surrender any item “which the constable reasonably believes that person is wearing wholly or mainly for the purpose of concealing his identity”. In the COVID-19 world, wearing a face mask while at a protest may have a very different, and legitimate, purpose. However, this law has not been amended to take account of this. Failure to remove such an item is a criminal offence (maximum penalty is a fine and/or one month imprisonment).  If a s.60 authorisation is in place, a section 60AA order automatically follows. If no section 60 authorisation is in place, a stand-alone section 60AA notice can be authorised.

Conditions on processions and assemblies. The police can impose conditions on protests through s.12 (public processions) and s.14 (public assemblies) of the Public Order Act 1984. These conditions can limit the number of people involved, the location and its duration. Under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, the police can obtain powers of dispersal, forcing people to leave and not return to a certain place within a specified time frame. Again, further criminal offences attracting imprisonment flow from any failure to comply.

It remains to be seen whether any such case-specific authorisations or conditions will be made for upcoming protests.

 

Lockdown laws

It is worth noting that the ‘lockdown’ laws vary throughout the UK. This article focuses on the law as applicable in England.

Until 31st May, the relevant aspects of the ‘lockdown laws’ in England were:

  • Regulation 7 of the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 (as amended), which criminalised gatherings of 3 or more people in a public place. Under the Regulations, Police have the power, if considered necessary and proportionate, to direct a gathering to disperse, to direct people in a gathering to return home, and to use reasonable force to remove a person to their home;
  • Regulation 6 also criminalised being outside of one’s home without ‘reasonable excuse’. Specific examples of reasonable excuse are included, such as to exercise, but the defence is not exhaustive.

 

On 1st June, the Regulations were further amended and relaxed as follows:

  • Regulation 7 now prohibits outdoor gatherings of more than 6 people.
  • Regulation 6 prohibits anyone from staying overnight, without reasonable excuse, any place other than the place where they are living.

Schedule 21 of the Coronavirus Act 2000 is important to note. This law is unlikely to come into play in these circumstances as there is a requirement for an officer to have reasonable grounds to suspect one is a ‘potentially infectious person’. Nevertheless, we should all heed Government advice and ‘stay alert’, as there have been multiple instances of the police and CPS wrongly charging offences under this Act.

 

What does this mean for protests?

The effect of the lockdown laws is that, as of 1st June 2020, a gathering of 7 or more people outdoors is unlawful. It does not seem to matter that the purpose of that gathering is the exercise of a lawful right, nor does it matter if all pre-COVID-19 laws are being followed in respect of the specific protest.

It is important to note that the “2 metre” concept and other ‘social distancing’ measures are just guidance. They are not legal requirements.  So, P1 protesting 2m apart from P2 could still mean that both are breaking COVID-19 laws.

According to regulation 7(3), there is a gathering when two or more people are present together in the same place in order to engage in any form of social interaction with each other, or to undertake any other activity with each other.

A protest would fall within “any other activity”. So even if you go out to protest “by yourself”, if you are there as a result of an organised activity and others are also present doing the same activity, this would be a “gathering”. To adopt any looser interpretation would be to defeat the purpose of the regulations. For example, it would allow unlimited numbers of people to “individually” attend a movie being screened in a park, each “by themselves”. The purpose of the regulation is to confine group meetings to small numbers of people; if one of them is infected, this slows the exponential progression of the virus.

Thus, a protest with more than 6 people, who are physically near each other for prolonged periods of time, even if many are trying to maintain a 2m distance from each other, would likely be a breach of regulation 7.

Is this a permissible limitation on the right to freedom of assembly and association?

In order to argue otherwise, one would need to be able to show that, far from the limitation on gatherings being an unavoidable side-effect, the COVID-19 regulations are being used, or misused, as a means of silencing free expression.

The decisive factor here is the “public safety” and “protection of health” exception in Article 11(2). This is highly likely to be sufficient to justify the infringement of Article 11(1) created by regulations 6 and 7. Moreover, the restriction is only on geographically-specific physical assembly and association. Article 10 freedoms are largely unaffected except insofar as they can only be exercised by physical gatherings. The regulations are not a restriction on expression of views in other ways, e.g. via news websites and papers, social media, advertising, videos, telephone, or letter.

Bearing in mind that there is a 28-day review on the infringement, and that the regulations are clearly being amended to relax the restrictions over time, it is unlikely that the “right to protest” would triumph over these temporary restrictions.

Disclaimer: This article is intended as an overview of the law. It is not legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Law accurate for England at the time of publication. Coronavirus-related laws change regularly.

Does it matter that Quiz got the law so hopelessly wrong?

Last week, ITV premiered the three-part drama Quiz, based on the real-life story of the “coughing Major” Charles Ingram (who, despite his popular title, in fact engaged in no coughing himself), and his wife Diana, who along with co-conspirator Tecwen Whittock were convicted at Southwark Crown Court in 2003 of procuring the execution of a valuable security by deception, having apparently cheated their way to the £1million prize on Who Wants to Be A Millionaire.

Adapted from a successful stage play, it was in many respects an accomplished and entertaining piece of television, boasting a fine cast (topped by a terrifyingly Tarrant-like Michael Sheen) and compelling storytelling, gently inviting the viewer to question the safety of the convictions (which have always been denied). But the part which, inevitably, caught the attention of Legal Twitter was the re-enactment of the trial at Southwark Crown Court, which, it is fair to say, departed from reality in almost every conceivable respect.

As many have rightly pointed out, dogmatic fidelity to tedious reality does not make for great TV. And not even the most precious legal pedant – and I obviously include myself in this sad category – expects a three-hour drama to painstakingly chronicle the full in-and-out-of-court proceedings surrounding this four-week criminal trial. Selectivity and artistic licence are the bedfellows of a successful courtroom drama. Nobody wants to see three hours of junior counsel sitting in Southwark Crown Court waiting for a turgid pre-trial review to be called on for legal argument, or twenty minutes of embarrassed silence as the jury wait for the court to find a working DVD player.

But the number of errors that Quiz managed to cram into a relatively short space of time was remarkable. No legal consultant was listed on the credits (albeit there was a curiously-titled “court advisor”), leaving the writing and direction reliant on what I can only presume was either reruns of Judge Judy or uncredited legal consultancy from Vincent Gambini. From the very beginning to the very end, the most basic elements of the judicial process were misconstrued and misunderstood, leaving an unrecognisable portrayal of any criminal trial that has ever taken place in England and Wales.

The obvious question, again fairly raised by several non-lawyers (and repeatedly by my non-lawyer other half, head in hands, as we watched) is Does This Matter? Is this not simply what anybody has to endure when watching a fictionalised representation of their specialism? Is it any different to medics watching Holby City, or IT consultants watching anything with technology, or – to draw on perhaps the most unforgivable aspect (if true) of the Ingram saga, namely his claim not to recognise David Hasselhoff – lifeguards watching Baywatch?

The only difference, surely, is that lawyers are prima donnas sufficiently precious to compose laborious Twitter threads and blogposts on how and why the errors offend them?

These questions are, I’ll say it again, fair. And there is no doubt that I am being an arse. Let’s please make that clear. Pedantry is our stock-in-trade, and we can and do deploy it indiscriminately and, inevitably, sometimes needlessly. But I do think there’s a distinction, and a point, here. I think there is validity among the snark.

Before turning to why, it may help to list the errors, helpfully gathered by, among others, Fiona Robertson, Ishan Kolhatkar and Tom Sherrington:

  1. Tecwen Whittock introducing himself for the first time to the Ingrams on the day of trial. Unless this was designed to be a deliberate misdirection by Mr Whittock for the benefit of those in the public gallery, this is nonsensical. There would have been numerous court hearings prior to trial at which the defendants would have been present.
  2. The prosecution barrister strolling around the courtroom during his opening speech to the jury. Unlike in America, advocates in English and Welsh courts stand still when they are speaking. If you walked around like this clown, you would be immediately told to stop.
  3. The prosecution barrister telling the jury that “You have a 50/50! Guilty or not guilty.” The burden and standard of proof, the foundation of the modern criminal justice system, is that the prosecution have to prove the case so that the jury is sure (or “beyond reasonable doubt” as it used to be known – “sure” is now the standard, although supposedly means the same thing). Cases in the civil courts are decided on the balance of probabilities – or ‘which scenario is more likely’. This “fifty fifty” bon mot from the prosecution barrister would have confused the jury, and, however tempting, would not have been used in this way.
  4. The Ingrams being interviewed together by the police. For what might strike you as obvious reasons, the police do not interview suspects side by side. Alleged co-conspirators have to be interviewed separately, so that they each independently have an opportunity to give their account and answer questions (and so that the police can see if any defences advanced match up). There was also no solicitor present. We all have a right to free and independent legal advice when arrested and interviewed by the police.
  5. The defence barrister being visited by the Ingrams alone at her chambers. Unless specially registered to conduct what is nowadays called “public access” work, barristers are only allowed to take cases that are referred to us by solicitors. The solicitor is the one responsible for all the litigation, and will attend any conferences (meetings) between barrister and client.
  6. “We never thought a high-profile barrister would touch our case with a bargepole”. Apart from the laughable notion of any barrister not wanting a case because it has had too much publicity, this perpetuates a misunderstanding of the role of criminal barristers. We don’t choose our cases based on the clients we like, or believe, or think have a “good case”. The “cab rank rule” means that, put simply, we take the next case that comes along. This is central to the running of our criminal justice system. It means that everybody gets represented, whatever they are accused of having done.
  7. Helen McCrory representing all three defendants. While in rare cases it may be possible for one lawyer to act for multiple defendants, in a conspiracy such as this, where there is ample scope for conflict of interest between defendants, it is inconceivable that only one barrister would be instructed. Even one as mellifluous as Helen McCrory. (And indeed, at the real-life trial, each defendant was represented by their own Queen’s Counsel.)
  8. The judge eating sweets in court. No judge would be seen eating sweets on the bench. (Emphasis on “be seen”)
  9. Witnesses merrily giving their own theories on guilt. Rules of evidence are strict. Witnesses are there to answer questions about what they saw, heard and know. They are not there to speculate, offer theories of guilt, or answer “why would X have done such a thing?” This is vital to a fair trial, as it is not the partially-informed opinion of the witness that matters, but the opinion of the jury, who has heard all the evidence. Any barrister asking such questions would be judicially smacked across the head. Any lay witness offering their own views on guilt would be immediately stopped.
  10. Barristers telling the jury that the charge, if proven, will result in a prison sentence. It is strictly verboten to address the jury on what sentence is likely to follow upon conviction. The jury should be focusing on whether the evidence proves the prosecution allegations, not on, for instance, whether they think the defendant “deserves” to go to prison.
  11. Barristers stopping halfway through questioning a witness to give an impromptu speech to the jury. Barristers are present to ask questions and make comment. The two are strictly delineated. You ask questions of witnesses, designed to elicit facts. And you then comment on those answers, and the other evidence, at the end of the case in your speech. You are not allowed to pepper your examination of a witness with off-the-cuff speeches. It simply doesn’t happen. And here it’s even worse, because we have…
  12. Barristers giving evidence. Barristers are not allowed to give evidence. We can, in speeches, comment on the evidence that others have given, but we are not witnesses, and cannot offer our own evidence on, say, the workings of human memory. The reason is simple: we are not witnesses, and cannot be questioned. So if the defence barrister offers cod science evidence about memory, for instance, there is no opportunity for the prosecution to cross-examine her, as they would do if that evidence came from an actual witness. Giving evidence is a cardinal sin.
  13. Mark Bonnar’s witness summons arriving mid-trial. There is no way (save for enormous cock-up) that a key prosecution witness would only find out after the trial has started that he is required to give evidence. He would have given a witness statement to the police at the outset of the investigation, and would have been warned to attend trial months in advance. He would only be summonsed if he had indicated an unwillingness to attend voluntarily. And as for the summons itself – what madness is this? EVtxOeEXQAEPS0a It is a mock-up of a summons from a civil case. There is no “claimant” in a criminal case. The party are “The Queen” and “[the defendants]”. There is no “claim number”. Somebody has gone to the effort of creating this bespoke document, which is as wrong as it is possible to be. And on a similar note…
  14. “The plaintiff”. The defence QC has apparently forgotten that this is a criminal trial, pitting the Crown against the Defendants, and is using the pre-1999 term for a claimant in civil proceedings.
  15. Witnesses sitting in the public gallery watching the evidence. Having answered to his unlawful summons, Mark Bonnar sits in the public gallery to watch the trial before giving evidence. This is strictly forbidden. And it’s important: witnesses should not know what evidence has gone before them. You want to minimise the opportunity for their evidence to be consciously or unconsciously influenced by what other people have said. Again, it’s essential to a fair trial.
  16. “Hello Kevin!” Questioning a witness is rarely as seen on TV. For one, examination in chief and cross-examination are seldom distinguished. (Examination in chief is questioning of a witness by the side calling the witness. These questions should be open and non-leading. Cross-examination is questioning by the other side, and is designed to be leading.) Secondly, the questioning of a witness can take a long time in real life. There is often a lot of groundwork-laying, a gaggle of pedestrian build-up questions, stuff that doesn’t make for good TV. And for dramatic purposes, this exercise has to be truncated, I accept. I’m not going to criticise that, as grating as it is to see conflation of cross-examination and evidence-in-chief, or the barristers not put key questions to the witnesses, or QCs sit down having asked just one ineffective question of the other side’s star witness. Creative licence can have this one. But “Hello Kevin”?! Any barrister greeting a witness in that way would have something heavy thrown at them. Not a gavel, however, because…
  17. GAVELS HAVE NEVER BEEN USED IN AN ENGLISH AND WELSH CRIMINAL COURT. During the trial, there is the sound of a gavel being frantically rapped as the judge shouts “order!” and threatens to “suspend the session!” Neither of these are phrases ever heard in our courts. Likewise..
  18. “Objection!” “Withdrawn” Again, just, no. These things do not happen. These are Americanisms, never seen in our courts. See also: “strike that from the record”, “sustained” and anything else that might conceivably be said by somebody whacking a gavel.
  19. Okie dokie!” As a candidate for “the very worst way to respond to a judicial reprimand”, this takes some beating.

These infractions vary in their seriousness. But I do think it matters. It matters because the law affects us all, yet we understand so little about it. And while we may not all understand everything about other areas of public life, the point about justice – and criminal justice in particular – is that it is not merely an important public service, like health or education, but serves a key democratic function. Any of us can find ourselves dragged into a criminal courtroom – whether as a defendant, victim, witness or juror – and the role we play will be instrumental to the outcome. The discussions we hold publicly about the functioning of justice influence policy, which become laws, which have a direct bearing on our day-to-day lives. And if we don’t understand how justice works, and what our roles in it are, we can’t be expected to meaningfully contribute or participate to shaping it, or to performing whatever part we may one day be expected to. To give a colour example, it doesn’t matter whether or not you understand what your heart surgeon is doing, as long as it is done correctly. But it matters very much, to all of us, whether or not you understand what the rules are if you are a witness in a criminal case. It matters because if you do it wrong, there are significant consequences for you and for the person on trial. It matters because you deserve to know what the reality is likely to be. What actually happens in court. How you are going to be treated, and how you are expected to behave.

It matters to jurors. Expectations are moulded by what we see on television. It’s why there is despair at the semi-fictional presentation of forensic science – there is a despondency among prosecutors that many juries expect it to hold all the answers, and often it does not and cannot. If jurors don’t understand the role of the parties, including the advocates, they may draw unfair or irrational conclusions. Well that barrister didn’t cross-examine that witness by shouting at them and then pivoting to give us a mid-question speech about the fallibility of memory – maybe their case isn’t much cop.

It matters to defendants and victims. If you are arrested, it matters that you know your basic rights – e.g. the right to legal advice. Whether prosecuting or defending, I have lost count of the times that a client or complainant has observed, usually unhappily, that what happened in court wasn’t like they saw on TV. “Why didn’t you say X?” “Why didn’t you shout objection when the other barrister asked me that?” “Why didn’t you argue with the witness when they said Y?” Again, we can firefight those questions with relative ease, but the problem is that the further expectations and reality diverge, the less faith people have in their justice system, and the less cooperation we can expect from them. American criminal justice bears no resemblance to our version. Much of the pantomime, and the horror, that we read about concerning the conduct of lawyers and the system’s treatment of defendants and complainants in the US system is fortunately rare over here. But repeating the fiction that our models are the same compounds the confusion and the fear. We risk losing even more people before they set foot in the court building.

And I don’t lay all these responsibilities at the door of TV writers, by any means. Public legal education is something we as a society – and in particular we in the legal profession – have done abysmally for years. We have not communicated anything to the public about how the justice system works; we have jealously guarded its secrets for our own purposes. This is one reason why I am happy to spend hours each week answering (often the same) questions about law and justice over email and social media, and why many colleagues do likewise. The government has until very recently been content with this state of affairs, as it allows politicians to do what they like to the justice system under a blanket of public ignorance. And I don’t expect people paid to create entertaining drama to make public legal education one of their aims.

But I find it frustrating that, when there is a platform, an opportunity, to show millions of us how the criminal courts operate, to add a dash of education to the entertainment, it is wholly disregarded for absolutely no good reason save for, I’m afraid to say, basic laziness. Where it takes place in the context of a drama advertised as the telling of a real-life story, whose climactic episode revolves around a trial that actually took place, to get so much wrong is frankly unforgivable. Given that this has been adopted as a platform for the Ingrams to launch an application to appeal out of time against their convictions, and that there is now apparently some fairly widespread public sympathy for their plight, there is surely a responsibility to avoid completely misleading the public. I’ve had a number of people asking me if I agree that the drama “proves” that the Ingrams got a raw deal. If that is how the trial was conducted, I would completely agree that it does. But it wasn’t. And this wasn’t simply edited highlights, drawing from the real transcripts; it was a child’s re-imagining of the court process.

And it is possible to get these things right. Asking a practising criminal lawyer to look over your script is commonplace. In the context of the budget for this show, paying a few hundred quid to somebody to cast their eye over the courtroom scenes – or even taking a day or two to visit a criminal court yourself, as the person writing a courtroom drama – does not seem a stretch. I think it’s the nihilism of low expectations to shrug away accuracy as anathema to entertainment, or unworthy of striving for. Great drama nourishes the viewer as well as sating them. I have faith in our best writers not only to aspire to this goal but to achieve it.

Of course some of the errors matter more than others. Individually, some can be filed under “legal arsewittery”. But collectively, inaccuracies in the way we depict our justice system damage our understanding of something that matters to us all, more than I think we realise.

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UPDATE: I was remiss in omitting this from the list of errors, spotted by the eagle-eyed Max Hardy:

 

Televising sentencing remarks is a gimmick that has not been thought through

As somebody who spends more time than is healthy banging the drum for better public understanding of the justice system, today’s announcement from the Ministry of Justice that sentence hearings in the Crown Court will be televised should be right up my wheelhouse.

The proposal sidesteps any worries about a rush to an Americanised celebrification of court participants by providing that only the sentencing remarks made by the judge will be filmed and broadcast; victims, witnesses, Probation, caseworkers, court staff, lawyers and the attending public will not appear in shot. This follows the broadcasting in recent years of proceedings in the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court, and is on its face a show of ministerial faith in the principle of transparency and open justice. Which is very much A Good Thing.

So why am I concerned?

There is the obvious observation that striking broadcasting deals is an odd priority for a Ministry overseeing a justice system in a state of collapse. The courtrooms that haven’t been flogged off (half of all magistrates’ courts have been sold since 2010) are in the main decrepit, crumbling hovels with broken heating, perennially out-of-order lifts, peeling walls, sporadic running water, holes in the ceilings and clogged toilets, wholly unfit to service the people who work there, let alone the public compelled to attend for what is already one of the most stressful days of their lives. Legal aid has been slashed so deep that there are hardly any new entrants into criminal law, with the Innocence Tax – the indignity inflicted on those people wrongly accused of a crime, refused legal aid and, when acquitted, forced to foot the bill for their legal costs – now a permanent fixture. Crown Court sitting days have been cut, leading to delays of years between an offence occurring and criminal proceedings concluding, prolonging the agony of all involved and increasing the likelihood of miscarriages of justice as memories fade and witnesses lose faith. The police and the Crown Prosecution Service still don’t have anywhere near the resources required to discharge their basic functions. In short, there is plenty that you might imagine a government which was serious about criminal justice would want to achieve as its first order of business.

But even if this initiative is simply something shiny to cynically wave at journalists in the hope of distracting from the real problems, it doesn’t follow that it’s necessarily a bad idea. If it has the effect of increasing public awareness of the sentencing process, that is an evident good.

The problem is that I don’t think it will do that.

The difficulty is in the compromise that has had to be reached to avoid deterring victims and witnesses from attending court and engaging with the criminal process. Victims often attend sentence hearings, and have the right to read their Victim Personal Statements aloud in court. It is plainly right that they not be dissuaded from doing so by a fear of having their most intimate trauma broadcast or retweeted to the nation. So it is that the decision has been taken not to broadcast the prosecution advocate opening the facts at the sentence hearing (during which the Victim Personal Statement will be read), nor the defence advocate advancing mitigation, but solely the judge’s sentencing remarks.

However sentencing remarks, while essential for anybody wishing to report or pass comment on a criminal case, are not by themselves sufficient to give a comprehensive understanding of what has happened in a case. A sentence hearing is a dynamic process. The advocates will advance often-conflicting submissions as to how particular case law or Sentencing Guidelines apply – whether a certain aggravating or mitigating feature is present, for instance, whether an offence is a “Category 1” or “Category 2” offence, whether a victim is “particularly vulnerable” or just plain “vulnerable”, whether a defendant is “dangerous” and so liable for a particular kind of sentence. The judge will usually interrogate these submissions, challenging the advocates to justify their position.

There will be mitigation advanced, which will usually include reference to detailed Pre-Sentence, psychiatric or psychological reports, as well as character references, letters from the family and so forth. Again, the relevance and significance of this will vary from case to case, but it all forms part of the picture.

And the thing about sentencing remarks is that they don’t – can’t – rehearse everything that has been said in a sentence hearing. They only set out the headlines. They should, plainly, explain why a particular sentence has been passed, but they don’t include all the evidence that was heard at trial, all the arguments that were advanced by the prosecution and defence during sentence, or a full examination of the law.

And sentencing remarks are set to become even less detailed thanks to a decision of the Court of Appeal last year, which appears to have completely bypassed our justice ministers. In the case of R v Chin-Charles [2019] EWCA Crim 1140, the Court of Appeal went out of its way to criticise judges who produce what in the eyes of the Court of Appeal are overly detailed sentencing remarks:

  • There has been a tendency in recent years, understandable but unnecessary, to craft sentencing remarks with the eye to the Court of Appeal rather than the primary audience identified by Parliament. This has led to longer and longer remarks. It is not unusual to find the equivalent of a judgment, with extensive citation of authority, detailed discussion of the relevant guidelines, expansive recitation of the various arguments advanced and a comprehensive explanation of the resolution of factual and legal issues. This should be avoided. The Court of Appeal always has the Crown’s opening and any note for the sentencing hearing, and a record of mitigation advanced. In many cases both sides have produced notes for sentencing. The Court of Appeal will have the pre-sentence report. None should be exhaustively rehearsed in sentencing remarks and, if mentioned, only briefly. 
  • The task of the Court of Appeal is not to review the reasons of the sentencing judge as the Administrative Court would a public law decision. Its task is to determine whether the sentence imposed was manifestly excessive or wrong in principle. Arguments advanced on behalf of appellants that this or that point was not mentioned in sentencing remarks, with an invitation to infer that the judge ignored it, rarely prosper. Judges take into account all that has been placed before them and advanced in open court and in many instances, have presided over a trial. The Court of Appeal is well aware of that. 
  • On occasion authority is cited by parties. Save in exceptional circumstances sentencing remarks need not refer to it. 
  • The sentence must be located in the guidelines. In general, the court need only identify the category in which a count sits by reference to harm and culpability, the consequent starting point and range, the fact that adjustments have been made to reflect aggravating and mitigating factors, where appropriate credit for plea (and amount of credit) and the conclusion. It may be necessary briefly to set out what prompts the court to settle on culpability and harm, but only where the conclusion is not obvious or was in issue, and also to explain why the court moved from the starting point.
  • Findings of fact should be announced without, in most cases, supporting narrative.
  • If in play, a finding of dangerousness contrary to statute must be recorded. Supporting facts should be set out only when essential to an understanding of the finding, not as a matter of course. 
  • Victim personal statements might merit brief reference (Criminal Practice Direction VII Sentencing F3d). Limited brief reference to the contents of reports will be apt only if essential to an understanding of the court’s decision.

For my part, sentencing remarks which cite the law, contain detailed discussion of the guidelines, recitation of the arguments and a comprehensive explanation as to how legal and factual issues in the case have been resolved are absolutely what are required to help the public understand why a judge has passed a particular sentence. This decision appears to have been made with an eye on reducing the workload of the Court of Appeal by trimming the number of pages they have to read on sentence appeals, and is in my view wholly at odds with the notion of sentencing as a public function. Sentencing remarks should be written like a judgment, for that is what they are: a judgment determining a person’s liberty.

Of course the Court of Appeal hearing an appeal has a transcript of the prosecution’s opening and the record of mitigation, as well as the reports, but the public watching a Crown Court judge pass sentence does not. And if – as is proposed – they are not to be shown any of that – no prosecution opening, no mitigation, no reports – and the judge is told that there should usually be no supporting narrative, that supporting facts should be set out “not as a matter of course” and that case law should only be referred to in “exceptional circumstances” – how on earth is the public going to be fully informed? How will the complexity of criminal sentencing – the delicate balancing exercise of competing aims and interests – be fully explained to a non-legal audience?

And so we have a perfect storm. Judges are now mandated by the Court of Appeal to include as little detail as possible in their sentencing remarks, while the government proposes to broadcast those remarks – and nothing more – in an alleged effort to enlighten the public.

We already see with regularity fully-explained sentencing remarks divorced from their context, misquoted or distorted by lazy reporters and special interest groups, and judges unfairly monstered as a consequence. The ability of anyone so inclined – from bad-faith editor to Twitter troll – to clip decontextualised video footage and circulate it virally to make a dishonest point about ‘soft sentencing’ or ‘loony judges’ is a modern reality. To increase the risk of misunderstanding by showing the public only a fraction of the process is a move at odds with full transparency.

A cynic might point to this government’s overt anti-judiciary agenda and suggest that, far from enhancing public faith in justice, this is a ploy designed to expose judges to the wrath of the partially-informed mob. But even if the Prime Minister’s judge-bashing is just unhappy coincidence, it is clear that at the very least there are obvious flaws in this plan which, in the true spirit of the Ministry of Justice, have not been thought through.

10 things you should know about the London Bridge attacker and “early release”

No time can be afforded in 2019 to respect the dead. Not when there’s an election at stake, and the tantalising prospect of scoring cheap political points winks coyly at you from a special advisor’s email. So it is that, within 24 hours after the killings by Usman Khan at London Bridge, politicians have lined up in descending order of deplorability to exploit the tragedy for their own ends. The Prime Minister obviously went first, leaping in front of Sky cameras last night to claim:

” I have long argued that it is a mistake to let serious and violent criminals out of prison early and it is very important that we get out of that habit and that we enforce the appropriate sentences for dangerous criminals, especially for terrorists that the public want to see.”

This, one presumes, is a nod to his well-publicised manifesto pledges to “toughen up sentences”, although (as we shall see) it is well worth reminding Mr Johnson, as he seems to have forgotten, that absolutely nothing in his manifesto would have made the slightest difference to the sentence or release in a case like that of Usman Khan. There followed a dash to ascribe culpability for the fact that Mr Khan had been released from prison after serving 8 years of a 16 year custodial term for a terrorism offence; it was the Parole Board, then the judges who had passed sentence on Khan, then, somehow, the EU, then, in perhaps Twitter’s lowest moment today, Khan’s blameless lawyers. This afternoon, Labour and Conservative figures took turns to cast blame, each frantically trying to plunge the hands of the other into the victims’ blood before it dried, notwithstanding the pleas of victims’ families not to make political capital out of lost lives.

Amid all the shouting and, in the case of the government, outright lying, the truth about how and why Khan was sentenced as he was has barely had a look in. So it is worth taking a quick look at ten things we actually know.

 

1. What was Usman Khan convicted and sentenced for?

Usman Khan, then aged 20, pleaded guilty on 31st January 2012 to an offence of engaging in conduct in preparation for acts of terrorism, contrary to section 5(1) of the Terrorism Act 2006. This is an offence carrying a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Although widely reported as relating to a plan to bomb the London Stock Exchange, the full facts (reported here) are worth reading, as the reality is more complicated. Khan, then aged 19, was part of a group based in Stoke who in November and December 2010 were engaged in a well-developed plan to raise funds to build a madrassa in Kashmir to train terrorists. While they had contemplated that some of those trained might return to the UK and involve themselves in terrorism, the basis on which they were convicted was that although they had discussed perpetrating a terror act in Stoke, they did not intend to participate in an act of terrorism in the UK in the immediate future. What they did do, however, was liaise with other groups in London and Cardiff, who were actively planning to leave an explosive device in the Stock Exchange. The groups, including Khan, had meetings and discussed common interests, such as how to make a pipe bomb, but by the time of conviction, the prosecution and defence had agreed that the Stoke group were not in fact involved in the Stock Exchange plot, and the guilty pleas that were entered by the various defendants reflected this, as they were pleas to different counts on the indictment.

Nervtheless, Khan was an obviously dangerous individual. He demonstrated “a serious long term attitude to establishing, funding and recruiting British Muslims to attend the madrassa and to then be available to commit terrorism abroad and at home.” And for that reason, on 9th February 2012, he was sentenced as a dangerous offender to detention for public protection (“DPP”) with a minimum custodial term of 8 years (minus time served on remand).

2. What is “detention for public protection”?

Detention for Public Protection (DPP) is a relative of the slightly more famous Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP). Someone aged between 18 and 21 is sentenced to detention, rather than imprisonment, but the sentences are substantially the same. They were introduced in 2005, and where a defendant convicted of certain serious offences was assessed by a court as dangerous – meaning they posed a significant risk of serious harm to the public – but the seriousness of the offence they had committed did not justify a life sentence, IPP (or DPP) could be imposed instead. The effect was similar to a life sentence. The Crown Court would set a minimum term (tariff) which a defendant would have to spend in prison. After serving the minimum term, he would have to satisfy the Parole Board that his imprisonment was no longer necessary for the protection of the public. If he did so, he would be released on licence for at least 10 years. If he couldn’t, he would stay in prison until he could, potentially forever.

The minimum term was half of the equivalent sentence that a defendant would have received if he’d been sentenced to a standard determinate sentence. Why half? Because (as we’ll see below), since 2005 defendants serving determinate sentences have been automatically released at the halfway point. So in theory, if a dangerous offender fully rehabilitated himself in prison, he could be out at the same time as if he hadn’t been assessed dangerous in the first place.

So in Khan’s case, the sentencing judge found that, taking into account Khan’s young age and his guilty plea, the appropriate determinate sentence would have been 16 years, meaning the minimum term was 8 years.

3. So why was Khan’s sentence reduced by the Court of Appeal?

As ever, the best explanation is in the full judgment, which I’d urge you to read. Boiling the appeal down to its barest bones, the argument made on behalf of Khan was this. The London defendants – the ones who had planned to bomb the Stock Exchange – were deemed by the sentencing judge to be less dangerous than the Stoke defendants. This was because, although their criminality was, to quote the prosecution, “equally serious”, the Stoke defendants, including Khan, demonstrated a level of sophistication that made them more dangerous. The Court of Appeal, having heard arguments from the prosecution and the appellants, reached the conclusion that the judge was wrong to distinguish between the groups in this way. “If the plans of the two groups were “equally serious”, the risk posed to the public could not be greater from those who were very much further away from realising their apparent goal [the Stoke lot] than those who were far closer to doing so [the London Stock Exchange lot],” in the word of Lord Justice Leveson.

Accordingly, the Court of Appeal gave Khan and his Stoke associates the same type of sentence as the London group received – an extended sentence. They disagreed with Khan’s argument that the custodial term of 16 years should be reduced.

4. What is an “Extended Sentence”?

This is where things get messy. Because we have had a lot of versions of Extended Sentences over the past 15 years, as governments have battled to secure headlines by tweaking and amending the various regimes on numerous occasions. The best summary is in this document by the Prison Reform Trust. In simple terms, if a defendant was found to be dangerous (as defined above), and a determinate sentence could not manage his risk, the court had to consider whether an Extended Sentence would do; if not, it would be IPP or life imprisonment. An Extended Sentence involved a custodial term (the same as would have been imposed for the offence for a “normal” defendant), with an extended period of licence of up to 5 years (for a violent offence) or 8 years (for a sexual offence).

So when the Court of Appeal passed an Extended Sentence on Khan, his custodial term was 16 years (as the sentencing judge thought it should be) and his period of extended licence was 5 years (the maximum).

5. When is somebody released from an Extended Sentence?

This is why it’s complicated. Successive governments changed the law governing release on multiple occasions. The full history is in the Prison Reform Trust document above, but suffice to say that in 2012, when Khan was sentenced, prisoners serving Extended Sentences were released automatically at the halfway stage of their custodial term, just like determinate prisoners. It therefore looks as if Khan was automatically released having served 8 years of the 16 year custodial term, and would have been on licence for the remaining 8 years, plus the extension of 5 years.

6. A dangerous offender being released automatically? That doesn’t sound very safe

No. It wasn’t, really. “EPPs” as they were called (Extended Sentences for Public Protection) were introduced alongside IPPs in 2005. Up until 2008, an EPP prisoner would be referred to the Parole Board at the halfway point of their custodial term. If they satisfied the Parole Board that their imprisonment was no longer necessary, they would be released on licence. If not, they would serve the full custodial term. In 2008, the law changed so that at the halfway point offenders were automatically released – no Parole Board input. This was in large part because the way in which the existing legislation required courts to treat dangerous offenders meant that the prison population had spiralled to uncontrollable levels. People were being given IPPs for relatively minor offences and finding themselves stuck in prison years after their minimum terms had expired. The prisons were unable to provide the courses that dangerous offenders needed to satisfy the Parole Board that their risk had reduced, and so many EPP prisoners were serving their full terms. The Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 tweaked the law to give judges greater discretion as to when to pass an IPP, and also sought to introduce a release valve by automatically releasing EPP prisoners.

As for why we have automatic release at all, it’s worth addressing this briefly, as there remains an understandable public bugbear when it comes to the concept of automatic release at the halfway stage of a prison sentence. I’ve written about this in my book. The public hear or read “10 years”, and feel justifiably deceived when they discover that 10 means 5 (minus any time already served on remand awaiting trial or sentence). There are various reasons as to why we grant automatic release halfway through a sentence. One reason is that this mechanism saves the government money, gifting them the tabloid headlines of long prison sentences without the Treasury having to actually pay for them. Less cynically, it is also argued that it helps reintegrate prisoners into society and aids rehabilitation. If they reoffend on licence, or breach the conditions of their licence, they can be recalled to serve the remainder of their sentence. Automatic early release has varied throughout the years. The Conservatives in 1991 introduced the framework for the modern system, but it was in 2005 that the Labour government introduced automatic halfway release for all determinate sentences (as well as the IPP and EPP sentences) – more detail here. Worth remembering whenever one party accuses the other of being to “blame” for automatic release that all parties have at one time or another thought it a jolly good idea.

7. So at the time Khan was sentenced to an EPP, he would have been eligible for automatic release with no Parole Board oversight?

This now becomes even messier, because Khan’s appeal was heard after EPPs had been replaced by EDS, albeit he was originally sentenced when EPPs were in force. The Parole Board has emphasised that it had no part to play, but there has been much confusion over this, due in part to the BBC’s decision in its 2013 news report of the appeal to quote a part of the judgment completely out of context. The BBC reported this:

“Lord Justice Leveson said: “There is no doubt that anyone convicted of this type of offence could legitimately be considered dangerous.

“There is an argument for concluding that anyone convicted of such an offence should be incentivised to demonstrate that he can safely be released; such a decision is then better left to the Parole Board for consideration proximate in time to the date when release becomes possible.””

This sounds very much as if Leveson LJ is imposing a sentence that involves the Parole Board, right? Well put in its proper context, my interpretation is that, to the contrary, he was simply weighing up the competing arguments before concluding that an EPP, even though it meant automatic release, was appropriate:

Dealing first with the question of dangerousness, at the time that these appellants were sentenced, in our judgment there is no doubt that anyone convicted of this type of offence could legitimately be considered dangerous within the meaning of the legislation: that includes Hussain and Latif to whom we refer below. Furthermore, given that it is difficult to identify the extent to which those who have been radicalised (perhaps as a result of immaturity or otherwise) will have modified their views having served a substantial term of imprisonment and there is an argument for concluding that anyone convicted of such an offence should be incentivised to demonstrate that he can safely be released; such a decision is then better left to the parole board for consideration proximate in time to the date when release becomes possible.

On the other hand, the extent to which the evidence demonstrated that the threat of a terrorist attack had progressed beyond talk (however apparently determined) is relevant to the risk posed by the offender and the need to protect the public. The judge certainly concluded that the London planning had not progressed so far as to demonstrate such a risk that imprisonment for public protection was necessary and although we recognise that training terrorists in the use of firearms could only lead to potential loss of life, whereas the intention of the London defendants did not encompass death or serious injury (while recognising the serious risk that such would result), on any showing, the fulfilment of that goal was further removed and there were other obstacles (not least as a consequence of the fact that their activities had come to the attention of the security services in Pakistan). Furthermore, there is no suggestion that any of the Stoke defendants had, in fact, been trained, let alone that they would be in a position to activate, operate or participate within a training facility not then built, however keen they might have been to do so and however much they might have talked up their prospects between themselves or to others whom they sought to influence.

Notwithstanding the considerable respect that the conclusion reached by Wilkie J merits, we have come to the conclusion that if, as he concluded, the plans of the two groups were “equally serious”, the risk posed to the public could not be greater from those who were very much further away from realising their apparent goal than those who were far closer to doing so.

So it appears as if the Court of Appeal understood that it was imposing an old-style EPP, which makes sense given that the Court of Appeal’s powers on allowing an appeal against sentence are to “pass such sentence or make such order as they think appropriate for the case and as the court below had power to pass or make when dealing with him for the offence. This would have meant that the Court of Appeal imposed the same type of old-style Extended Sentence as was passed on the London co-defendants, and that therefore, as it has confirmed, the Parole Board had no role to play in Khan’s release.

8. Are dangerous offenders still automatically released at the halfway stage of their sentence?

A lot has changed since 2008. IPPs have now gone. The failure of the prison system to make available to prisoners the rehabilitative programmes they needed to take to secure their release, due to the horrendous overcrowding, was a genuine Kafkaesque nightmare, which the European Court of Human Rights in 2012 declared was unlawful.  The coalition government responded by abolishing IPPs in 2012 (although not for prisoners still serving those sentences), and introducing new Extended Determinate Sentences. It is worth emphasising, to rebut nonsense published by Breitbart contributors today, that the ECtHR ruling on IPPs had nothing whatsoever to do with the Court of Appeal decision in Khan’s case. The Court of Appeal could have lawfully upheld the IPP if it wanted. It was not forced, either by government or by the ECtHR, to change the sentence.

These new Extended Determinate Sentences (EDS) worked like old EPPs, except that you would be automatically released at the two thirds stage of your sentence if your custodial term was under 10 years, and would go before the Parole Board at the two thirds stage if your custodial term was 10 years or more or you were convicted of certain specified offences.

9. So the coalition government were still automatically releasing dangerous offenders?

Yes. They were being kept in for slightly longer, but there was still no Parole Board oversight, except for the most dangerous of dangerous offenders. This changed in 2015, when all EDS prisoners were required to secure Parole Board approval for release at the two thirds stage. That remains the position today.

10. What is the government proposing to do?

To listen to the Prime Minister’s rhetoric, plenty. To read his manifesto, nothing. The changes that are proposed to release provisions relate specifically to offenders who do not receive EDS – the government wants to make it so that a tiny handful of defendants who are possibly a bit-sort-of-dangerous-but-maybe-not will serve two thirds of their sentence before automatic release. So they are not proposing to introduce any further Parole Board oversight of these prisoners – simply to keep them in a bit longer so that Johnson can boast about increasing sentences.

Much of what has been said today by government ministers is completely false. Priti Patel claimed:

This is a lie. The courts had several options to deal with “dangerous terrorists” that would have avoided automatic release. The reason for Khan’s sentence was that the Court of Appeal ruled (to be proved tragically wrong) that Khan’s risk did not require the input of the Parole Board that an IPP would have guaranteed.

Brandon Lewis said, in response to Yvette Cooper getting bogged down in confusion over Leveson’s comment about the Parole Board:

This is a lie. Nowhere has the government proposed in its manifesto to “ensure that people serve their full term”. Likewise Ms Cooper spread misinformation when she suggested that the government’s 2012 reforms had a bearing on the sentence. This, as we’ve seen, is simply untrue.

And, of course, the Prime Minister:

Repeating Lewis’ claim, if this is something Johnson has “long said”, one might ask why ensuring defendants serve the full term of their sentence is not mentioned in the manifesto. If this is such an obvious failing, why not promise to remedy it? Heaven forfend this is ad-hoc, evidence-free electioneering.

11. So where does the blame lie?

Blame is rarely helpful, as with almost all of these cases, the tragedy is multi-causal. Labour introduced automatic release for EPP prisoners in response to its own prisons crisis (caused by its own “tough on crime” rhetoric), but the Coalition government was responsible for the statutory regime at the time of Khan’s case. It’s nonsense to suggest that Labour’s changes in 2005 prevented judges from passing adequate sentences on dangerous offenders; for one, the government had plenty of time until 2012 to amend the sentencing regime it inherited from Labour if it considered it to be so inadequate. The Court of Appeal finds itself in the unusual position of being criticised for being too lenient; almost every criminal law practitioner would tell you that the Court of Appeal is (in)famous for its reluctance to interfere with convictions and sentences, finding sometimes ingenious/disingenuous ways of upholding Crown Court decisions. The judgment appears well-reasoned given the known facts, but hindsight casts it in obvious doubt. For what it’s worth, the Sentencing Guidelines that now exist for terror offences would, on my interpretation of the facts, be likely to lead to a life sentence for Khan were he being sentenced today. And something that has been missed is that since 2015 nobody imprisoned for a terrorism offence is automatically released; in the unlikely event that he is not sentenced to EDS or life imprisonment, the court is required to order him “an offender of particular concern”, meaning that at the halfway point of his sentence he has to apply to the Parole Board for release.

Perhaps the focus, rather than on “tougher sentences”, ought be trained a little closer to the less tabloid-friendly dimension of criminal justice: Prisons and probation have been ravaged by huge cuts and disastrous reforms, meaning that Khan would have likely received little meaningful rehabilitation while in custody. If I were directing an inquest, I’d start there.

***

UPDATE: Overnight, the Prime Minister’s posturing has crystallised into hastily scrawled new policies, announced in op-eds in the Sunday tabloids repeating various untruths dealt with above, including falsely suggesting that we still have the same system as in 2008 and claiming that he has been talking about “abolishing automatic early release” for “four months”, despite not devoting a single word to this is his manifesto, nor making any effort to include this change in the recently enacted Counter Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019, a flagship piece of anti-terror legislation which focussed specifically on sentencing for terrorism offences. He also claimed, with characteristic fidelity to accuracy, that Khan was “sentenced 11 years ago”. Anyway, the overnight brainwave will apparently now herald a minimum 14 year sentence for defendants convicted of (unspecified) terrorism offences, with a suggestion that they will be required to “serve every day of their sentence, with no exceptions.”

As this is likely to run and run today, forgive me if I repeat this: In 2019, no terrorist sentenced to a term of imprisonment is subject to automatic early release. The Prime Minister’s attempts to suggest that we have the same system as applied at the time of Usman Khan’s sentence, and that he is the man to fix it, are dishonest, cynical and exploitative.

“Life means life for child killers” – the truth behind the headlines

There used to be a time, once Chris Grayling had hung up his butcher’s apron at the Ministry of Justice and Theresa May ushered in a quieter, more respectful justice strategy of wanton neglect, that I wrote about something other than Boris Johnson. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister keeps booting the justice football around the pitch with the swagger and fervour he usually reserves for tackling small children, so I feel that the decision is being taken largely out of my hands.

Today, in advance of tonight’s first leadership debate, a raft of Tuff On Crime initiatives have been peppered across the bulletins. We woke up to whole life sentences for child killers, and are ushering in twilight with a guarantee of immediate arrest, charge and court appearance for those carrying knives. Short, snappy policy snackettes that have the advantage of electoral delectability and tabloid acclaim, and only the minor drawback of being entirely pointless and/or unworkable.

As with so many recent announcements on criminal justice, there is a risk that fact-checking the substance only serves to amplify unreliable headlines, but it is worth looking closer at exactly what this “life really will mean life” for “child killers” policy means.

What is the headline policy?

The appeal is obvious. Monsters who murder children should be put away for a very long time indeed. As Justice Secretary Robert Buckland says today, writing in The Sun:

“Any adult who commits the crime of killing a child should spend the rest of his or her life behind bars. It is as simple as that.”

But is it?

Before considering what the Conservatives are actually proposing, let’s look firstly at how the law currently works.

 

What is murder?

The first point to note is that despite the false claim by the Conservative spin machine that the proposed policy targets “child killers”, it doesn’t. It targets child murderers. There are, unpleasant as it undoubtedly is to dwell on, many ways in which people can be unlawfully killed. Unlawful act manslaughter, gross negligence manslaughter, corporate manslaughter, causing death by dangerous or careless driving, infanticide, causing or allowing a child or vulnerable adult to die, and murder. These are all discrete legal concepts.

Murder is the most serious. Murder, in law, is where a person unlawfully (i.e. not in self-defence or for any other lawful purpose) kills another person, intending either to kill them or to cause grievous bodily harm (really serious harm, is how it’s explained to juries). That may surprise you. You can be convicted of murder even if you didn’t intend to kill someone.

It follows, in case the point needs making, that, while all murders are serious, some are more serious than others. A distraught mother struggling with severe depression who shakes her child intending to cause really serious harm and unintentionally causes death is in a different category to a predatory paedophile who abducts, tortures and intentionally kills a toddler. Likewise a man who acts in genuine self-defence when attacked but goes overboard and, using unreasonable force, unintentionally kills a burglar is to be distinguished from a gangster who guns down a rival drug dealer. Forgive me labouring the point, but when politicians demand blanket “whole life” sentences for all people convicted of certain broad categories of murder, it is necessary to highlight the obvious injustice that would follow.

And this truism is reflected in how murder is currently sentenced.

 

What is the sentence for murder?

While all offences of murder carry a mandatory life sentence, what a life sentence means can vary. This is because a court has to firstly identify a “minimum term”, which is the minimum period that the defendant will spend in prison before becoming eligible for parole. If a person is deemed safe for release by the Parole Board (the test being whether the Board is satisfied that imprisonment is no longer necessary for the protection of the public), they will be released on “life licence”, with conditions. If at any time it is considered that they are a risk to the public, they can be recalled to prison.

How is the minimum term calculated? Judges must have regard to principles set out in Schedule 21 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. This provides starting points, and the judge can then move up or down from the starting point to reflect further aggravating or mitigating features.

It’s worth a brief look at the different categories.

 

Whole life orders

We can see that if the court considers that the seriousness of the offence is exceptionally high,and the offender was aged 21 or over, the appropriate starting point is a whole life order – in other words, no prospect of release. There is then a non-exhaustive list of examples of cases that would normally fall within this category, including, multiple sadistic or sexually motivated murders, terrorism, murder of a serving police or prison officer, and, significantly for our purposes, the murder of a child if involving abduction or sexual or sadistic motivation.

30 year starting point

If a defendant is aged 18 or over and the seriousness is not exceptionally high, it may fall into the next bracket down, which provides for a 30 year starting point:

25 year starting point

This category covers cases where the offender took a knife or other weapon (not a firearm – this goes into the 30-year bracket) to the scene of the murder and used it.

15 year starting point

For all murders that do not fall within the other categories, the starting point is 15 years. Unless the defendant is under 18, in which case the starting point is 12 years.

The court then considers the aggravating or mitigating factors which may result in the starting point moving up or down. Critically, the legislation allows for a “minimum term of any length (whatever the starting point), or in the making of a whole life order”  – in other words, even if a murder is not specifically included as an example of a whole life order, the judge still has a discretion if she thinks the seriousness is exceptionally high.

So that, put crudely, is the existing framework. What does the Conservative Party want to do?

 

What does the Conservative Party want to do?

Notwithstanding Robert Buckland’s boast to The Sun above, or his widely reported assertion that:

“any murderer who denies a young, innocent child the right to life surrenders their own right to liberty. They do so permanently, and they do so without exception.”

the truth is that there are a number of exceptions to this new policy, as admitted in the press release. For one, as we have already seen, it applies only to crimes of murder, not to all “child killers”. Many homicide offences which capture public attention do not in fact involve murder, and will not be affected. Secondly, whole life orders will still only be available for offenders aged 21 and over. Thirdly, although Schedule 21 defines a child as a person under 18, this new policy would be more restrictive, applying only to children under 16. Fourthly, only murders which are “premeditated” are caught by the policy. Fifthly, the press release concludes by stating that “the sentencing decision will continue to rest with the judge”. At its height, this policy appears to introduce a presumption that qualifying cases will be met by a whole life order, but this is by no means the automatic, life-means-life that has been sold to the tabloids.

On this final point, it appears that the government has majestically failed to understand how the current system works, as the press release claims, falsely, that:

“The current rules require the murder to be of multiple children, or to be sexually or sadistically motivated, to attract a Whole Life Order, which is too restrictive.”

As we have seen, this is not what Schedule 21 says at all. It in fact expressly states the opposite – just because a type of murder is not listed in the examples of appropriate “whole life” cases does not stop a judge imposing a whole life order if she thinks the seriousness is exceptionally high. So the worst cases of the murder of children, say where an adult defendant commits a premeditated murder of a very young child, are already eligible for whole life orders.

In summary therefore, the Conservative Party either doesn’t understand (or is lying about) the law, and is pushing a policy to give judges a discretion to impose a sentence they can already impose.

 

How many cases will actually be affected?

Perhaps the most important question that has still not been answered by the government is how many cases this policy will actually affect.

The Office of National Statistics has been quoted in news reports as calculating a figure of 67 relevant cases involving the killing of children in 2018, but closer inspection suggests the true figure is much, much smaller. This figure of 67 includes offences of manslaughter and infanticide, not just murder. It includes the terrorist attack in Manchester. It also appears to includes child-on-child killings, which are regrettably common in inner-city inter-gang warfare. There is no apparent way of ascertaining how many of these 67 were murders, how many involved defendants over 21, and how many were premeditated. Nor can the government tell us how many of the cases which did involve the premeditated murder of children by adults in fact resulted in a whole life order anyway, and how many resulted in a minimum term which was unacceptably low.

The actual answer may well be in single figures, if not zero.

Don’t fall for Boris Johnson’s criminal justice con tricks

Yesterday morning, newly-appointed Justice Secretary Robert Buckland told Radio 4’s Today programme of his pleasure that the Prime Minister is taking an interest in the criminal justice system. And certainly, after three years of wilful abandonment under Theresa May, I would in principle gladly welcome some Downing Street-level political attention on the ruinous state of our criminal courts.

When this attention is coupled with more money for the criminal justice system, this sounds very much like the sort of thing those of us working within have been crying out for. So surely we should all join hands with Mr Buckland and celebrate that in Boris Johnson we finally have a leader taking criminal justice seriously?

Don’t believe a word of it. The entire project is a con.

Starting with the “new money”. Mr Johnson has announced that 20,000 new police officers will be recruited over the next three years. This is vital, certainly, but falls far short of what is required, given that that figure barely replaces the number of officers cut since 2010. Meanwhile, not only is crime increasing, but investigations are becoming ever-more complex, with digital evidence sucking resources and quadrupling the effort that would have been required a decade ago.

There’s £85m for the Crown Prosecution Service, which sounds like a healthy sum, until you realise that it’s a fixed payment over two years, and that the CPS budget for 2018/19 was a quarter of a billion pounds less in real terms than in 2009/10. The CPS has lost a quarter of its staff and a third of its lawyers since 2010. Two tranches of £42.5m will not begin to fix the problems that plague prosecutions up and down the country.

There’s a promise of 10,000 new prison places, when the previous promise of 10,000 places in 2015 fell short by 6,000, and another 9,000 places alone are required simply to address the present, longstanding overcrowding. There is £100m for technology to aid prison security, but no mention at all of the extra prison staff needed to safely manage the new offenders, given that even after a recruitment drive in 2017, numbers are 15 per cent down since 2010. There has been a huge drain of experience since 2010, as the most experienced officers were among the first to go when the government decided to slash prison staff by over a quarter, at a time when the prison population has climbed.

But the problem extends far beyond inadequate promises to redress chronic underfunding. The propaganda accompanying these announcements betrays not only the Prime Minister’s trademark opportunism and dearth of intellectual rigour but the sticky, putrid tar clogging the heart of the Johnson Crime Agenda.

Announcing his plans in a series of weekend puffs in tame newspapers, Boris Johnson declared, “Left wingers will howl. But it’s time to make criminals afraid – not the public.” Declaring his mission to ensure that criminals “get the sentence they deserve,” Johnson continued a theme begun in his Telegraph columns on the campaign trail, when he railed against “early release” from prison and inadequate prison sentences being passed. The solution to our criminal woes, the subtext screams, is to lock up more people for longer.

And let’s make no mistake, punishment is a legitimate and important part of criminal sentencing. It is one of the five purposes of sentencing listed in statute, alongside the reduction of crime (including by deterrence), reform and rehabilitation, protection of the public and making reparations to victims. Few if anybody involved in criminal justice would disagree with the notion that people who commit crime should be punished in a way that reflects their culpability and the harm they have caused, and that for some people, notably the most serious violent offenders, lengthy prison sentences are inevitable.

However, the notion that longer prison sentences by themselves make any of us any safer is a fantasy. The notion in particular that knife crime will be solved if we simply lock up young men for years on end is a hoax. The public may well be protected from that particular individual for the duration of their incarceration, but the idea underpinning this rotten philosophy – that longer sentences have a deterrent effect on crime – has been shown to be bogus. What does act as a deterrent is not severity of sentence, but certainty. The likelihood of being caught and dealt with swiftly, in other words.

But crime reduction and prevention is not achieved solely by deterrence. Rehabilitation is a vital part of protecting the public. This is why, when dealing with complex, multi-causal offending intractably rooted in social and cultural problems, the courts may take the view that more can be done to protect the public by keeping a young man on the cusp of custody out of the prison warehouse estate, and offering focussed intervention in the community. Sending someone to prison usually means ripping them away from all and any stabilising factors they may have. They lose their job, their social housing and their relationship, and exit prison with no support network other than the new friends they’ve made inside. This is why the evidence suggests that reoffending rates are lower when offenders are kept in the community.

But the evidence is of no concern to the Prime Minister. This is why he is forced into infantile ad hominems as a pre-emptive rebuttal against the people who have read and studied the evidence, and might be minded to offer some as a counter to his claims that our system is soft.

We already have the highest incarceration rate in Western Europe. Prison sentences have on average got longer year-on-year. We have more prisoners detained on indefinite and life sentences than all the other countries in the Council of Europe.

The notion that our courts routinely hand out “soft sentences” is simply not true. When we do see “soft justice” stories in the headlines, they will either be an aberration, usually corrected on appeal, or they will be the product of inaccurate or dishonest reporting, removing context or omitting facts.

Which brings us to Johnson’s public statements. Because at the centre of his musings on criminal justice is a rich stuffing of bullshit. He has lied and lied and lied. He lied when he claimed that “a convicted rapist out on early release” had raped again (the man in question was neither a convicted rapist nor out on early release). He lied when he suggested that the notion of allowing some prisoners to be released on temporary licence was “criminally stupid” (the government’s own evidence shows that reintegrating prisoners into the community in this way cuts reoffending). When he told the Mail this weekend that there are “thousands of “super prolifics” – criminals with more than 50 convictions to their name – who are being spared jail altogether”, he did not tell you that one of the reasons they were spared jail might be that they were being sentenced for non-imprisonable offences. He is lying to you when he tells you that the solution to crime is More Police, More Prisons.

He is lying so that he can turn the volume up to 11 on his remix of “Prison Works” to ensure the oldies at the back of the conference hall can hear in the run-up to the inevitable autumn general election.

And while Mr Johnson is lying to you, the rest of the criminal justice system rots.

Courts are being closed down and sold off all over the country. Half of all magistrates’ courts have been closed, meaning that defendants, victims and witnesses are forced to travel for hours on ineffective public transport to their “local” court.

Of those courts remaining standing, many are unfit for purpose. Decaying, crumbling buildings with no working lifts, holes in the roofs, sewage leaking into public areas, no air conditioning in summer and no heating in winter. In some, the public cannot even get a glass of water.

Of the courts that remain unsold, all are now run at artificially low capacity due to Ministry of Justice restrictions on “court sitting days”. We have, in many large city Crown Courts, the farce of full-time, salaried judges being forced to sit at home taking “reading days” – their perfectly serviceable courtrooms sitting locked and empty – while trials are fixed for Summer 2020 due to an alleged “lack of court time”.

We still have the abominable system of “floating trials” and “warned lists” – where defendants, witnesses and lawyers are expected to give up days or weeks of their lives just sitting around at court on the off-chance that a courtroom suddenly becomes free to take their trial. When, inevitably, no courtroom becomes free (because the MoJ won’t pay for the sitting day, ibid), their case is adjourned for months, and the cycle begins again.

The one thing that does act as a deterrent to criminals – certainty – is being eroded by ensuring that justice is doled out literally years after the event, because the government will not pay for the courts to process cases clogging the pipeline.

Meanwhile legal aid is being stripped away from citizens, forcing them to self-represent in cases in which their liberty is on the line.

This is why I am angry. Not because I’m a “lefty” inherently resistant to Boris Johnson’s white hot public service reforms. I’m angry because as a prosecutor I am still having to sit down with crying witnesses week after week and explain that their torment is being prolonged for another six months because the government refuses to pay to keep courtrooms open. I’m angry because the Innocence Tax – the policy that forces the wrongly accused to pay privately for their legal representation and then denies them their costs, bankrupting them, when they are acquitted – is not even in the political peripheral vision. I’m angry because our Prime Minister is a man who looks at the record rates of death, violence, suicide, overcrowding and self-harm in our prisons and whose first question is, “How do we get more people in there?”. I’m angry because the notion that you “crack down on crime” by chucking a few more police officers onto the streets and shoving more and more people into our death-riven prisons is a con. It is a con to victims of crime, and it is a con to you, the public. I’m angry because we have the indignity of a dishonest, cowardly and exploitative Prime Minister fiddling with his Party’s g-spot while the criminal justice system burns.

Don’t fall for his con trick.