I wrote a piece for Esquire on the Netflix true-crime drama The Staircase, looking at how the trial might have been different had the case taken place in our fair nation. You can read it here.
I wrote a piece for Esquire on the Netflix true-crime drama The Staircase, looking at how the trial might have been different had the case taken place in our fair nation. You can read it here.
A homeless man who picked up a lost race number and “completed” the London Marathon has been jailed for 16 weeks.
Yesterday at Uxbridge magistrates’ court, Stanislaw Skupian (38) was sentenced by magistrates having pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing on 18 May to fraud, after he picked up a race card number dropped by runner Jake Halliday at the 23-mile mark and illicitly joined the race himself. He crossed the finish line and celebrated with the medal intended for Mr Halliday, who found himself removed from the race 300 metres from the Finish line when marshals spotted that he was not wearing a race number.
The Chair of the bench passing sentence told Skupian, a homeless father-of-one who had recently suffered a temporary breakdown in his mental health, “The offences are so serious [that] only a prison sentence will suffice”. 13 weeks’ imprisonment was passed, with three weeks’ imprisonment imposed consecutively for unrelated matters of theft.
The Chief Executive of the London Marathon, Nick Bitel, reportedly said that “justice has been done”. His apparent pleasure with the sentence was not matched by many people on social media, who expressed consternation at a mentally-unwell homeless man being squeezed into our bursting prisons for a non-violent offence.
So what the Dickens has gone on?
Stanislaw Skupian was charged with fraud by false representation, contrary to sections 1 and 2 of the Fraud Act 2006. The “false representation” being, presumably, the implied representation that he was the rightful owner of Mr Halliday’s race number and was entitled to complete the race and claim the finishers’ medal. This offence carries a maximum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment in the Crown Court, or six months’ imprisonment in the magistrates’ court. He was sentenced to 13 weeks’ imprisonment.
He was also charged with three unrelated offences of theft. He was arrested at the multi-faith prayer room at Heathrow Airport, where he was found with items including a primary school worker’s identity card and a pink diary holding overtime hours worked by airline staff. It was said that Skupian viewed the airport as a temporary home and had picked up items discarded. This would amount to theft (referred to in court as “theft by finding”) under s.1 of the Theft Act 1968. He received three weeks’ imprisonment for these offences, to run consecutively to the 13 weeks imposed on the fraud (it is unclear whether this was one week consecutive for each of the three theft charges, or three weeks on each directed to run concurrently to each other, or some other mad configuration dreamed up by the magistrates).
He was further made subject to a Criminal Behaviour Order, which is the new replacement for the old-fashioned ASBO. These can be imposed where the court is satisfied that a defendant has engaged in behaviour that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to any person, and where a Criminal Behaviour Order will help in preventing the defendant from acting in that way. In this case, the court deemed that banning the defendant from Heathrow Airport for three years, unless he has a pre-booked flight, was an appropriate use of that power.
The Sentencing Guidelines
To look at what sentence we might expect, we have to look at the Sentencing Guidelines, which are published by the Sentencing Council and which courts are required by law to follow. So let’s look at the Definitive Guideline for Fraud, Bribery and Money Laundering Offences. The seriousness of an offence is judged by considering the “culpability” of the offender and the “harm” caused by the offence.
On the Guideline for straightforward fraud, the first step is to assess culpability by reference to the below factors:
There are plainly no elements of “High culpability” in this case. It would appear, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, that this was an opportunistic, one-off offence with very little planning, which points towards Lesser culpability.
Now we turn to the assessment of harm:
For fraud, you take as your starting point the financial loss to the victim. Here, it is very low indeed. The cost of entering the London Marathon ballot, at £39, is probably the closest financial value you can attach to this unusual offence (the value of the medal not being easily assessed due to it not being something purchasable on the open market). This puts us in the lowest category, Category 5.
But then we have to look at the impact upon the victim, to see whether it warrants the sentence being moved upwards. This is a slightly unusual case, because although (I expect) the charge would have been drafted with London Marathon as the nominal victim, the person most directly affected is arguably Jake Halliday. He was stopped 300 metres from the finishing line and told that he was not allowed to cross due to his number having fallen off. He had raised £49,000 for a charity, Bloodwise, and was prevented from completing the race, having run the best part of 26 miles, in the cruellest of circumstances. What was (one might expect) a lifetime ambition was snatched away. That no doubt had a considerable detrimental effect on him.
However. Can it really be suggested that Skupian was responsible for depriving Mr Halliday of his moment of glory? It was said in court (and seemingly not disputed) that he spied the discarded race identifier on the floor and saw an opportunity. He did not steal or otherwise remove the number from Mr Halliday. It does not appear that he watched it fall and swooped in. If, as the court apparently accepted, he had simply seen it on the ground, was the damage not already done? Perhaps he could have handed the card to an official, but it is unclear how it could have been reunited with Mr Halliday in order for him to have been able to complete the race. The London Marathon Final Instructions to runners emphasises the importance of taking care of the running number – “Duplicate numbers cannot be issued under any circumstances”. It is also stated that anybody taking part without a number will be removed from the race by marshals “before you cross the Finish line”. Once that number had fallen, it would appear (and I’ll be happily corrected if I’m mistaken) that the game was over for Jake Halliday.
Against this backdrop, it might realistically be argued that while Skupian exploited Mr Halliday’s misfortune, his criminal behaviour did not cause it. The anger and humiliation felt by Mr Halliday when he learned that somebody had claimed his number and completed the race in his stead may well be significant, but is it so great as to move the harm out of “Lesser impact”? I suppose it might. Just.
My assessment is that for these reasons, this case probably falls somewhere between, categories 4C and 5C:
We can see that the latter provides a starting point of a ‘Band B fine’, which equates to around 100% of somebody’s weekly income. The category range is a discharge – a slap on the wrist – up to a medium level community order. If the harm caused is deemed serious enough to lift it up to the next category, the starting point is a medium level community order. Still the category range does not extend to custody. In order to arrive at a category where a custodial term is available, the court would have to have assessed culpability as “B”. I find it tricky to see how this was done.
We then look at aggravating and mitigating factors:
The defendant had a previous conviction for attempted theft. That was the only matter mentioned in court. So while it is a similar type of offence, this is hardly the kind of record which would seriously aggravate a defendant’s position to make the difference between custody and not-custody. No other aggravating features listed are relevant.
In mitigation, the court heard that the defendant has lived in the UK for 11 years. He suffered a neck injury in a serious car crash last year, forcing him to take sick leave from his catering job. His marriage broke down and he lost his home. Shortly before the race, he had suffered a “short, temporary breakdown in his mental state”. It was also submitted that he had committed the offence out of excitement, without fully appreciating that what he was doing was wrong.
Putting all this together, I’d say there’s more to mitigate his position than to aggravate it. This would mean moving below the starting point on the Guidelines.
We then have the issue of credit for guilty plea. He admitted the offence at the very first hearing, and so is entitled to one third off his sentence. This means that the magistrates must have taken a starting point of 20 weeks in order to arrive at a final sentence of 13 weeks for this offence.
[The thefts we shall put to one side as we do not know their value. What we can infer, however, is that they were considered significantly less serious than the fraud.]
Based on what we know, this appears to be a very harsh sentence. While this is not the type of fraud envisaged by those who drafted the Guidelines, it is difficult to see how a straightforward assessment of culpability and harm could lead a court to a starting point of 20 weeks for this single offence. The defendant has an automatic right to appeal his sentence to the Crown Court. I would not be surprised if he exercised it.
There are unknowns, of course. There would have been a Pre-Sentence Report prepared by the Probation Service, whose views would have informed the court’s. It may be that they were unable to offer any alternative to custody, although experience would dictate that a homeless man with a limited criminal record and mental health problems is the kind of person the Probation Service try to persuade the courts to let them help. It would be a sad day indeed if all that our justice system could offer to improve this man were two pointless months of incarceration.
I have written about magistrates before, including in my book, and one of my criticisms is that sometimes a sense of perspective is lacking when these non-legally qualified volunteers are sentencing offenders. Just because a power of imprisonment exists does not mean that it has to be used. This sentence, based on what we know, appears to be one such example. That it can be said that the offence was so serious that only a prison sentence can suffice is, with respect to the sentencing court, perverse. Courts often find ways to avoid immediate custody in cases which are far more serious, involving offenders with significantly worse records.
And I’ll seize on those words – “based on what we know” – to pirouette into a final flourish on my soapbox, if I may:
This case had received national media attention when Mr Skupian made his first appearance at court and pleaded guilty. It was plain to the court administration and to the magistrates that the outcome of this case would be widely reported. Yet still the magistrates did not see fit to publish written sentencing remarks explaining their decision.
This is a drum I have unapologetically beaten for some considerable time. Because while good court reporters should accurately reflect the full reasons given for a sentence passed, inevitably there will be occasions where something is missed in the hustle of a chaotic magistrates’ court list. Submissions and decisions as to where the case falls in the Sentencing Guidelines, for example, hold little interest to the average reader and may understandably not make it into the final copy, but to lawyers analysing and explaining the decision these can be critical.
Magistrates, judges and lawyers cannot complain that their remarks or decisions have been unfairly portrayed if they don’t bother to do the basics. It would have taken an extra ten minutes, one supposes, for the remarks to have been committed to paper, copied and distributed before being read out, and then everybody would be able to see how and why the decision was reached.
As it is, we are once again left groping in the dark, or at best the dusk, in trying to understand how our criminal justice system is – or in this case is apparently not – working.
Today marked a milestone in the magnificent campaign by Gina Martin to persuade Parliament to legislate against “upskirting”, the intrusive practice of taking photographs of a person under clothing (usually their skirt) without permission. A Private Member’s Bill to create a specific criminal offence of upskirting was introduced by Wera Hobhouse MP, before being blocked by Sir Christopher Chope, and aimed to eliminate an existing loophole in the law which means that some instances of this behaviour cannot be prosecuted. This, it seems, was not welcomed by the man who brands himself ‘Mr Loophole’, solicitor Nick Freeman. Mr Freeman, channelling his best Aunt Lydia, tweeted:
Whilst this is totally unacceptable conduct, if women
assumed some responsibility for their attire, they would not be in jeopardy. Prosecutions will only utilise valuable police and CPS
resources that should be prioritised elsewhere. #upskirting https://t.co/dkUGnIVCpV
— Nick Freeman (@TheMrLoophole) June 15, 2018
The response was critical, to put it mildly. And I confess to being one to initially reproach Mr Freeman for his comment. However upon reflection, it might be that he has hit on something. After all, there are ways in which women – indeed all victims of criminal offences – might better help themselves, which are well-known to us legal beagles, but perhaps not to the general public. So in the spirit of public service, herewith some tips on how, by taking responsibility, we might all keep ourselves a bit safer:
This post was first published in the i paper, here.
It can now be reported that Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the English Defence League, convicted fraudster, sometime-football hooligan and self-reinvented free speech advocate, was on Friday 25 May 2018 imprisoned for 13 months for contempt of court after livestreaming a broadcast, including footage of participants in a criminal trial, outside Leeds Crown Court.
Some people will have seen reference to this on social media; others may have had the plight of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – to use his real name – drawn to their attention by the hordes of protestors storming London over the May bank holiday weekend. But there has not, until today, been mainstream coverage of the case due to a reporting restriction – what is known as a “postponement order” – that forbade publication of these facts until after the conclusion of the trial upon which he was purporting to “report”.
While, as we’ll see below, the reasons for the postponement order appear sound, the consequence of preventing fair and accurate reporting by responsible journalists was that there was no factual counterpoint to the selective and inaccurate details of Yaxley-Lennon’s situation that were inevitably flooded through social media by his knuckle-dragging cheerleaders, not least his racists-in-arms across the pond. Thus sprung a (largely unchallenged and unchallengeable) narrative of Tommy The Brave being arrested outside court for no reason and imprisoned in secret by the deep state, culminating in petitions for his release and a march on Downing Street.
On the day itself, I attempted a post aimed at shining a little light on what might have happened (having no knowledge of the proceedings myself), but having been alerted by a reporter to the terms of the reporting restrictions, took the post down out of an abundance of caution. Now, however, with the restrictions relaxed we can try to restore a little order.
The full judgment is still awaited (expected imminently). For now let’s take this story in pieces based on what we know. I shall update the blogpost regularly as further information arrives.
1. Why was Tommy Robinson arrested?
Robinson was arrested outside Leeds Crown Court having video recorded a number of men – including defendants involved in a live trial – entering the court building, and livestreaming the footage on Facebook in what he claimed was an attempt at legitimate court reporting. West Yorkshire police, having been alerted to his activities, arrested Lennon at the scene. The initial reports suggested that he was arrested for a suspected breach of the peace, but what is now clear from the facts published today is that his actions in broadcasting details about the trial were in breach of reporting restrictions.
2. What are reporting restrictions?
The starting point of our criminal justice system is that justice must be seen to be done. However the law provides for exceptions to open justice, known generally as “reporting restrictions”. Reporting restrictions apply in a wide range of situations – from automatic restrictions preventing the identification of a complainant in a sexual allegation, to restrictions preventing reporting of Youth Court proceedings, to discretionary restrictions protecting the identity of child witnesses in the adult courts. Further details, if you are interested, can be found here.
One breed of restriction order is something called a “postponement order”, under section 4(2) of the Contempt of Court Act 1981. Postponement orders are not unusual, particularly where there are a series of linked trials – for example, where allegations of drug networks involving 30 defendants are concerned, there will be several trials (it not being physically possible to accommodate 30 defendants in a single courtroom). To avoid jurors having their deliberations contaminated by what they might read or hear about the earlier linked trials, reporting of all of them is often postponed until the end. Where there is a separate-but-related issue, such as a contempt of court involving a third party, this can also be the subject of a section 4(2) order. The test is:
This is what we had here. The judge had imposed a postponement order preventing the media from reporting on the ongoing trial until all linked trials had concluded.
Breaching a reporting restriction amounts to a contempt of court. Which is what Yaxley-Lennon admitted doing.
3. But I heard Tommy Robinson was arrested for a breach of the peace. What is a breach of the peace? How is a breach of the peace caused by someone simply filming?
Police officers have common law powers (i.e. powers not set out in statute) to arrest somebody where a breach of the peace is committed or where the officer reasonably believes it will be committed in the immediate future. As to what constitutes a breach of the peace, it is defined in case law as follows: “there is a breach of the peace whenever harm is actually done or is likely to be done to a person or in his presence to his property or a person is in fear of being so harmed through an assault, an affray, a riot, unlawful assembly or other disturbance.” (R v Howell  Q.B. 416) As we can see, it’s a fairly broad definition.
The courts have confirmed that it covers situations where, for example, there are reasonable grounds to fear that a demonstrator or protestor is likely to incite violence, even violence against themselves. This appears to be applicable to the present case. Robinson provocatively filming defendants and streaming on Facebook for the edification of his cult, is the kind of thing which could, it might be argued, lead to a breach of the peace.
Once a person has been arrested for breaching the peace, the police have the power to detain that person where there is a real apprehension that if released they will renew the breach of the peace within a short time, and where the police believe that further detention is necessary to prevent this. Given Robinson’s history of interfering with criminal trials and his defiance towards court orders, one can see why the police may have genuinely feared that he would have simply returned to court if not detained. The power of detention is time-limited – the detainee must be released within 24 hours (if not charged), or for serious (indictable) offences, detention may be authorised up to 96 hours.
It is perfectly common for a person to be arrested on suspicion of one offence, and then ultimately charged or dealt with for another. In this case, it appears that Yaxley-Lennon was arrested and detained for causing or threatening a breach of the peace, and that the court, upon being made aware of his activities, directed that he be brought to court to be dealt with for contempt of court. Even if his original arrest and detention had been unlawful (and there is nothing at all to suggest that it was), this would have absolutely no bearing on the contempt proceedings. The “breach of the peace” angle is a red herring.
5. So back up a step – what exactly is contempt of court?
Contempt of court is a broad, catch-all term for various offences against the administration of justice. The law(s) of contempt are designed to safeguard the fairness of legal proceedings and to maintain the authority and dignity of the court. Some contempts are set out in statute, including the aptly-named Contempt of Court Act 1981. This sets out what is referred to as “strict liability contempt” – the rule that it is a contempt to publish any matter which creates a substantial risk of serious prejudice or impediment to the course of justice in legal proceedings, irrespective of the intention behind the publication. There is a defence available to publishers (which includes newspapers, TV and social media users) who can show they were providing “a fair and accurate report of legal proceedings held in public, published contemporaneously and in good faith”, thus giving some latitude to the press and ensuring that the media do not shy away from accurate, factual reporting of criminal proceedings.
Other contempts are more eclectic, such as the prohibition on taking photographs or moving images inside a court building (or even drawing a picture – court sketch artists have to draw outside the court from memory – section 41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925).
There is also a common law offence of “criminal contempt”, which is defined by the courts as “conduct that denotes wilful defiance of, or disrespect towards the court, or that wilfully challenges or affronts the authority of the court or the supremacy of the law itself.” This might include refusing to answer questions in court, physically disrupting court proceedings, interfering with witnesses or jurors (where not charged as a distinct offence of witness intimidation or perverting the course of justice) or defying a judge’s order.
Which brings us back to Mr Yaxley-Lennon, and a sunny day in May last year at Canterbury Crown Court.
6. What happened at Canterbury Crown Court?
On 8 May 2017, during the course of a rape trial at Canterbury Crown Court involving four (Asian) defendants, Yaxley-Lennon attended court and attempted to film the defendants for an online broadcast entitled “Tommy Robinson in Canterbury exposing Muslim child rapists”. He was thwarted by the judge making arrangements for the defendants and jurors to leave court through alternative routes, and so settled for filming himself on camera, both on the court steps and inside the court building, preaching to his online followers about “Muslim paedophiles”. He was interrupted and told by court staff that recording was prohibited (section 41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925, as we’ve discussed above), but continued to record, insisting that he had been told by a different court that he was entitled to film the defendants (notwithstanding that court buildings are plastered with signs reminding people not to do this). His video diatribe – in which he said that “the paedophiles are hiding”, that the police had asked him not to “expose” them as paedophiles (presumably on the basis that they were, at that time, defendants in a live trial) but that “we will”, and that he would be “going round to their house” to catch the defendants on camera – thus continued. The judge hearing the rape trial was made aware, and he was brought before court to be dealt with for contempt of court.
The judge, HHJ Norton, dealt with Yaxley-Lennon on 22 May 2017. She found that he was in contempt by having filmed inside the court building, contrary to section 41, but was also in common law contempt by having continued to film having been told to stop by the court staff. The judge considered the content of his broadcast, and the real risk of his actions derailing the trial, and committed him to prison for 3 months, suspended for a period of 18 months. In practical terms, a suspended sentence means that the prison sentence (3 months) hangs over you for the operational period (18 months). If you remain offence-free and comply with any requirements the court makes, you will never have to serve your sentence. If you reoffend, the presumption in law is that you will serve that prison sentence, additional to whatever sentence you receive for the new offence.
7. So what you’re saying is that Tommy Robinson was given a suspended sentence simply for trying to report on a case? Free speech is truly dead.
No, ye of little brain. He was found to be in contempt of court and given a suspended sentence because his actions put a serious criminal trial in jeopardy. Running around a court building shouting “paedophile” at defendants during a live trial, or live-streaming defendants and members of the public – potentially including jurors – entering and exiting a court building against a tub thumping narration of “Muslim paedophile gangs”, is hardly conducive to ensuring a fair trial. And if there can’t be a fair trial, nobody gets justice. Not the accused, not the complainants, not the public. This is not theoretical – serious criminal trials have nearly collapsed because of the actions of people like Yaxley-Lennon.
We have a quaint tradition in England and Wales that trial by media should be avoided, and that trial on evidence heard in court is the fairest way to determine a person’s guilt. Therefore while criminal courts are open to the public, and it is absolutely fine to report soberly and accurately about ongoing criminal trials, anything which might prejudice or intimidate the jury is strictly forbidden. And this makes sense. It would be a nonsense, for example, to have strict laws preventing individuals from walking up to a juror to say, “The defendant you are trying is plainly a dirty paedophile”, but to allow broadcasters or tabloid columnists to trumpet that message to jurors through the media. Self-defined “free-speech advocates” – particularly a number on the other side of the Atlantic – have difficulty understanding this, so it’s worth pasting in full what HHJ Norton said:
“This contempt hearing is not about free speech. This is not about freedom of the press. This is not about legitimate journalism; this is not about political correctness; this is not about whether one political viewpoint is right or another. It is about justice, and it is about ensuring that a trial can be carried out justly and fairly. It is about ensuring that a jury are not in any way inhibited from carrying out their important function. It is about being innocent until proven guilty. It is not about people prejudging a situation and going round to that court and publishing material, whether in print or online, referring to defendants as “Muslim paedophile rapists”. A legitimate journalist would not be able to do that and under the strict liability rule there would be no defence to publication in those terms. It is pejorative language which prejudges the case, and it is language and reporting – if reporting indeed is what it is – that could have had the effect of substantially derailing the trial. As I have already indicated, because of what I knew was going on I had to take avoiding action to make sure that the integrity of this trial was preserved, that justice was preserved and that the trial could continue to completion without people being intimidated into reaching conclusions about it, or into being affected by “irresponsible and inaccurate reporting”. If something of the nature of that which you put out on social media had been put into the mainstream press I would have been faced with applications from the defence advocates concerned, I have no doubt, to either say something specific to the jury, or worse, to abandon the trial and to start again. That is the kind of thing that actions such as these can and do have, and that is why you have been dealt with in the way in which you have and why I am dealing with this case with the seriousness which I am.”
8. How is all that relevant to what took place on 25 May 2018?
It is relevant because, when passing the suspended sentence, HHJ Norton gave some fairly clear warnings to Yaxley-Lennon:
“[Y]ou should be under no illusions that if you commit any further offence of any kind, and that would include, I would have thought, a further contempt of court by similar actions, then that sentence of three months would be activated, and that would be on top of anything else that you were given by any other court.
In short, Mr Yaxley-Lennon, turn up at another court, refer to people as “Muslim paedophiles, Muslim rapists” and so and so forth while trials are ongoing and before there has been a finding by a jury that that is what they are, and you will find yourself inside. Do you understand?”
And what did Yaxley-Lennon go and do?
9. What did he go and do?
As we know now, he went and committed a contempt of court by reporting on court proceedings. He did so in a way that expressed his “views” on the guilt or otherwise of the defendants, creating a substantial risk of serious prejudice to the proceedings by jurors seeing or becoming aware of his ill-informed ramblings. If this wasn’t enough, he was also in breach of reporting restrictions which he accepted he knew about. He was therefore, it seems, in contempt twice over. This could have led to an application by the defence advocates to discharge the jury and start afresh, potentially meaning vulnerable complainants having to go through the trauma of a trial all over again, or even an application to “stay” (bring to an end) the proceedings altogether.
Importantly, Yaxley-Lennon admitted that he was in contempt of court.
And he was committed to prison for 10 months, with the suspended sentence of 3 months activated and directed to run consecutively. Exactly as he’d been warned.
10. He was tried in secret on the day he was arrested, with no lawyers and the media were banned from reporting what had happened. This is Kafka on steroids, surely?
Contempt proceedings do not attract a jury trial. The procedure for a court dealing with a criminal contempt is set out in the Criminal Procedure Rules. These allow for a “summary procedure”, where the court, having made its own enquiries and offered a contemnor (for that is the official term) the chance to seek legal advice, can deal with the offender straight away. The Crown Court can commit a contemnor to prison for up to two years. There is nothing unusual in him being dealt with on the day of the contempt. Courts are required to deal with contempts as swiftly as possible. There is no suggestion of any prejudice; Yaxley-Lennon was legally represented by an experienced barrister and would have received full legal advice.
He also wasn’t tried in secret; his contempt hearing was heard in public, with members of the press present. However, the judge imposed temporary reporting restrictions (under section 4(2) of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 again), postponing reporting of the details of Lennon’s contempt until the trial, and the subsequent related trial, had concluded. This, you may think, is for obvious reasons. A media circus and orchestrated attempt at martyrdom by Lennon and his followers – as was indeed attempted when the restrictions were defied by far-right blogs and foreign news outlets – would present exactly the sort of distraction that threatened to disrupt the very serious criminal proceedings that the judge was desperately seeking to keep on the rails.
In the event, the repeated breaches of the order by foreign news outlets and social media users meant that the judge’s intentions were thwarted. An application to discharge the reporting restriction was made on 29 May 2018 and the judge agreed that, in light of what had happened over the Bank Holiday weekend, restrictions should be lifted to allow publication of the facts.
It is also worth noting that there is a Practice Direction dealing with situations where defendants are imprisoned for contempt of court. This requires that full judgments be published online and handed to the media where a person is committed to prison for contempt. As we can expect imminently.
As for the suggestion (by UKIP among others) that nobody has ever before been found in contempt of court and a postponement order made preventing the media from immediately reporting it, a handy example can be found on 22 May 2017, where one Stephen Yaxley-Lennon was found to be in contempt at Canterbury, and a postponement order was made restricting publication until the end of the substantive trial.
In light of the (frankly ingenious) conspiracy theories that are now doing the rounds after the rather mundane truth above was revealed, some bonus Q&As are required:
11. I heard that Tommy Robinson was denied his own lawyer, and had to have a duty lawyer who was in fact a PROSECUTION lawyer and who didn’t properly defend him.
The barrister previously instructed by Yaxley-Lennon has confirmed that she was not present at court for these proceedings. She is understandably declining to comment further unless or until authorised to do so. But in any case, Yaxley-Lennon was defended by an experienced member of the independent criminal Bar. He may have been offered the duty solicitor at the police station if his chosen solicitor was not available, but in the Crown Court hearing he was advised and represented by a specialist criminal barrister with over 16 years of experience of cases including murder, people-trafficking, serious violence and serious sexual offences. As an independent barrister, this professional prosecutes as well as defends (most of us do), but his website profile in fact emphasises his experience as a defence advocate. In other words, Yaxley-Lennon had a top-notch defence barrister fighting his corner.
12. No trial has ever taken place on the same day as a suspect’s arrest, oh FAKE LAWYER. This was special treatment dished out to a man who is a thorn in the side of the establishment. What do you say about that?
If we were talking about jury trials, I’d agree with you. But Yaxley-Lennon was not “tried”. The contempt proceedings were held on the same day, as is entirely standard (see details of the summary procedure for contempt above), and he admitted that he was in contempt of court. There is no special treatment here whatsoever. Anyone, infamous far-right totem or otherwise, would have been subject to the exact same process for contempt in breaching a reporting restriction. Not everyone would have been sent straight to prison; but then not everyone has a suspended sentence hanging over them for a near-identical offence.
13. I’ve seen a photo of the judge who sentenced Tommy watching his arrest from inside the court building. This judge was biased.
Even supposing the photograph shows what it is said to show, this is entirely irrelevant. If, as has happened in one of my cases, a member of the public starts shouting out at a judge mid-proceedings, the judge may direct the arrest of that person, and deal with them immediately for the contempt. Witnessing the arrest of an individual does not preclude a judge from dealing with that individual in these circumstances. This is, again, a complaint devoid of argument.
14. But the BBC reported on the same trial that Tommy did, and they’re not in prison. Why not?
Because any BBC reports, which as far as I have seen relate entirely to the outset of proceedings before the judge made the reporting restriction, were not in contempt of court. They were fair and accurate, rather than propagandist rants seeking to disseminate information that a judge had specifically ordered should not be in the public domain (such as details of charges against the defendants that had been dropped), and were not in breach of reporting restrictions.
15. Do you have to be so snarky in your lawsplaining? Aren’t you just turning off people who you need to convince?
This is a fair question. Ordinarily, I do my best in these posts to embrace rather than alienate in an effort to explain or persuade. But cases like this, involving co-ordinated transnational campaigns disseminating blatant falsehoods about our legal system and gaslighting the public are, I feel, different. And call for a different approach. As I see it, there are two types of people currently propagating the Free Tommy Robinson myths: far-right sympathisers deliberately sowing discord and falsehoods, whose concern for due process is a cipher for hero-worship; and good people confused and worried about what they’ve heard about the “threat to free speech” posed by the overbearing English and Welsh justice system. The first category are never going to be swayed by facts or rational argument. That is plain from their every interaction on social media, and their every appearance on Fox News. Their motives are clear, their integrity irretrievable and they are not only beyond reach but, frankly, not worth the effort. The second group will, I hope, realise from this explanation that the toga party they have wandered into is in fact a Klan meeting, and will understand the urgency and frustration that underpins the argument.
However the reality is that most people out in the world are probably paying little attention to the ballad of St Tommy, but may form partial views based on what snippets they read and hear. I want this – the truth – to be that snippet. If the key to turning up the online volume is a snappy tone and uncompromising beatdown of idiots and liars, then that’s the game I’ll play.
I am informed that one of the liberties you can take as a writer with a (undeserved and long-suffering) loyal following is to indulge in a little creative sleight of hand. One might, for example, in an effort to gain wider attention for a mundane-sounding issue, attach a ludicrous and unrelated clickbait headline to draw in the unwary – possibly including a shareable photo – with quiet confidence that you’ll be forgiven once the Greater Good of your evil plan becomes apparent.
Let’s put that theory to the test.
Because, and this will surprise you, there is no kitten conducting criminal trials (or at least not winning them). The cat in the photo is not a registered practitioner. Instead, now that you’re three paragraphs in, we’re going to talk about the Ministry of Justice Single Department Plan.
Stay with me – we’ll be quick. Anger is conducive to brevity. This is the document published today setting out the MoJ’s “priorities” for the year ahead. The four key objectives are identified as:
- Provide a prison and probation service that reforms offenders
- Deliver a modern courts and justice system
- Promote a global Britain and the rule of law
- Transform the department
Of themselves, these objectives are inoffensive enough. Indeed, what the plan says about prisons has much to recommend it, particularly the emphasis on tackling reoffending through a focus on education and employment opportunities for prisoners. We’ll overlook for now whether bold solutions to improving prisons such as “preventing and disrupting serious and organised crime in prisons” are really solutions as much as vaguely-defined objectives. And whether any strategy to “ensure a sustainable prison population” can sensibly say nothing whatsoever about the steady increase in the average length of custodial sentences imposed by the courts. Those are quibbles for another day.
Because the silence that rings the loudest is that surrounding the dismal state of the criminal justice system. While, true to form, the MoJ trumpets its digital court modernisation programme at every turn (a counterpoint to which was provided the other week by the early progress report of the National Audit Office pointing out that said programme is already behind schedule, has “unresolved funding gaps” and will not deliver the benefits that the MoJ has claimed), much less is said about the problems that have forced criminal barristers to take urgent action and caused the entire system to grind to a halt. Below are just a selection, with the “Single Department Plan” response in bold.
All of these share a common diagnosis: they are the result of the unparalleled cuts that the Ministry of Justice budget has suffered since 2010 – 40% will have been slashed by the end of the decade.
What does the MoJ’s Grand Plan for 2018/19 say about this? Does it acknowledge the problem? Does it vow to fight the Treasury for the funds that the system desperately needs if it is not to collapse altogether?
Not quite. The MoJ promises instead to:
Maintain a continued tight grip on departmental finances
Which really says it all. This is not a department with an interest in improving the quality of justice. It is a cabal of ideologues playing financial chicken, tossing vulnerable people onto the motorways of fate with little care for the outcome, as long as they can boast to their betters about the tightness of their fiscal grip.
As of Friday, the criminal Bar will be withdrawing the goodwill on which the justice system runs. Documents such as this from the MoJ, making quite plain how utterly unimportant they consider our criminal justice system to be, make me seriously consider just walking away entirely.
Last night, following an intriguing debate in the House of Commons in which members displayed the full gamut of understanding of criminal justice, MPs voted to bring forth the “cost neutral” changes to the way barristers are paid on legal aid, which in some cases amount to cuts of 40%. (Technically the Commons voted against Labour’s motion to annul the statutory instrument heralding the new Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme, but that’s more of a wordy opening sentence).
This marked the latest step in the ongoing dispute between the Criminal Bar and the Ministry of Justice. More details are here, but in short we say that the criminal justice system is desperately underfunded and requires immediate and significant investment (there’s some book or other that goes into more detail). Part of this – but only a part – relates specifically to legal aid rates, on account of how we think it’s a bit unfair that junior criminal barristers are often working 80-hour weeks for rates sometimes working out as low as 50p per hour, and are concerned that bright young barristers are being forced out of the profession. The Ministry of Justice is firmly in This-Is-Fine-Dog-meme-mode, and is pressing ahead with its plans to (a) further “reform” criminal legal aid (by shuffling the deckchairs in such a way as to amount, in some complex cases, to a 40% cut); and (b) do absolutely nothing about the chronic underfunding of the courts, Crown Prosecution Service, police, Probation, prisons and many other decaying limbs of the criminal justice system.
Presently, criminal barristers are not accepting any legal aid cases under the new fees scheme (which has applied since 1 April 2018). Today, in the face of governmental refusal to take the issue seriously, matters have escalated. The Criminal Bar Association has recommended to its members that, as of Friday 25 May 2018, they implement a “No Returns” policy. If you are a non-lawyer who follows legal types on Twitter, you may well have seen criminal barristers enthusiastically discussing this topic, but without necessarily understanding what it entails.
In a nutshell, a barrister’s work falls into two camps: First, there are cases on which a barrister is instructed in their own name (a solicitor calls the barrister’s clerks and asks specifically for a particular barrister). Secondly, there are “returns”. The reality of the courts, in particular the criminal courts, is that things rarely go to plan. In crime, numerous unstable elements – disorganised defendants and witnesses, the understaffed CPS and police, unreliable private contractors failing to bring prisoners to court, broken video link technology, absent interpreters, sick jurors and so forth – compound with resultant ubiquitous chaos. Trials overrun, or cases are suddenly listed without warning by a judge wanting to raise an urgent issue with the parties, or the court decides for its own convenience to move a hearing to a different date, and frequently the instructed barrister is not able to attend. What presently happens is that a colleague who has a gap in their diary, usually from the same chambers, agrees to accept the case as a “return”, and steps into the breach to cover. This usually happens between 4.30 and 6pm the night before the hearing, when it becomes clear that the instructed barrister is stuck, and their clerks desperately shuffle everybody’s diaries to arrange cover and accommodate the work, often with a spiralling domino effect.
In practice, accepting returns is often an unrewarding task. You are basically required to master an entire case – which can take several hours – at very short notice, and (unless it is a trial) for very little to no pay. Covering a “mention” for a colleague – that’s an umbrella term for a hearing covering a multitude of sins, which can last anything from 5 minutes to 6 hours, depending on the particular issue that needs thrashing out and how long the court keeps you waiting – pays £46.50 plus VAT if you’re prosecuting. And if you’re defending, you get £87 (which is paid to you by the instructed barrister). Gross figures which, after deductions, amount to between £20 – £40. If you’re travelling to a far-flung court, as the most junior practitioners are often required to (it’s not pretty at the bottom of the barristerial food chain), your train fare will often exceed your fee for the day.
So why do we do it? The first reason is self-interest; particularly when you are very junior, and are trying to build a reputation so that solicitors and the CPS will send you work in your own name, returns make up the bulk of your practice. For more established practitioners, returns fill gaps in your diary that arise when a trial you had listed is suddenly taken out of the court list the night before and kicked 6 months down the line because the court discovers it does not have any judges to hear the trial (a depressingly regular occurrence, and an abominable way to treat witnesses, victims and defendants).
But the second reason we accept returns is tradition; as a professional courtesy. We recognise that, if we didn’t volunteer to help out when our colleagues found themselves required to be in two places at one time, the courts would come to a halt almost overnight. No progress would be made on any case at any mention hearing, unless and until the instructed barrister became available to attend. Trials would be called on with no advocate to prosecute or defend. Defendants due to be sentenced would have no prosecutor to open the case, or no defence advocate to advance mitigation. Chaos would be piled upon chaos.
So, in what judges refer to (rather fawningly, usually when trying to get you as an advocate to agree to do something for free) as “the best traditions of the Bar”, barristers just accept that part and parcel of the job involves picking up other people’s mess, at very short notice, in order to help an under-resourced and madcap system maintain some semblance of order. We do so out of goodwill; we are not required to. (So low have legal aid rates fallen that barristers, usually professionally bound by the “cab rank rule” to accept instructions on any case, are not required to accept legal aid cases on account of the Bar Code of Conduct deeming the rates since the mid-2000s to be not a “proper professional fee”). We accept returns out of a sense of duty.
It follows that deciding not to accept any returns is a serious step. The impact will be instant, and it will be significant. Trials will not be able to go ahead. Mention hearings, plea hearings and sentence hearings will be listed and no barrister will be available to attend. We take absolutely no pleasure in this. But, like junior doctors forced to the streets by the mendacity and vandalism of Jeremy Hunt, we feel that we have no choice. It will place a particular financial burden on the most junior in our ranks, deprived of their regular £46.50 gruel, and as a profession we will do what we can to support them. It will inevitably have an impact on those who rely upon the courts; for this we are sincerely sorry.
But the Ministry of Justice is not listening. It is burning your criminal justice system to the ground and cutting adrift those, usually the most vulnerable, who depend upon our courts. And it is incumbent upon us, in the best traditions of the Bar, to speak up for unpopular causes to our own financial detriment. Even a cause as unpopular, and politically unloved, as the fate of our justice system.
On Tuesday evening, the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) hosted an event, “Why Criminal Justice Matters“, at which a panel of industry experts (plus me) discussed the plight of the criminal justice system, and what can be done to remedy its failings.
The discussion was chaired by Joshua Rozenberg QC, and the panel featured:
It was a thoroughly enjoyable event, and I am extremely grateful to all concerned for their participation and support. Tickets sold out quickly, I’m told, but for anybody who wasn’t present and didn’t catch the live-stream, the event can be watched for free here: