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.
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.
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:
Would a fair, accurate and contemporaneous report of the proceedings (or part thereof) published in good faith create a substantial risk of prejudice to the administration of justice in those or other proceedings?
Is an order postponing the publication of such reports necessary and are its terms proportionate? Would such an order eliminate the risk of prejudice to the administration of justice? Could less restrictive measures achieve the objective?
On the specific facts of this case, does the public interest in protecting the administration of justice outweigh the strong public interest in open justice?
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.
4. How can it be legal for somebody to be arrested for breach of the peace and then imprisoned for contempt?
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.
This is a little later than planned, but recently I’ve been responding to a number of queries about legal issues on Twitter through threads, and it struck me that it might be of some use (possibly) to put them up here, for anyone interested who doesn’t catch them live.
Here, from a fortnight ago, I look at why a Britain First supporter who drove his van at the owner of an Indian restaurant, having earlier expressed a desire to “kill a Muslim”, received 33 weeks’ imprisonment upon his conviction.
The facts provided by the Metropolitan Police are here. In summary, Zakrocki, having drunk 2 bottles of wine, assaulted his wife and left home. He told police he was going to “kill a Muslim”. He then drove around Harrow shouting “white power”. pic.twitter.com/wGF7HhYVm8
Upon arrest, he was in possession of a kitchen knife and a baton torch. He told police when interviewed that he had no recollection of what had happened. The BBC reports that racist literature was found at his house.
Proving attempted murder requires proving an intent to kill. One can see how if Z was driving at a low speed, the prosecution might struggle. Causing grievous (really serious) bodily harm is a little different. You don’t have to drive at a very high speed to cause serious injury.
So we’re in the dark as to whether this was a reasonable decision by the prosecution. I would note that, given the seriousness of the original charge, prosecuting counsel will have been one of the most experienced. And the judge is very highly regarded. But we just don’t know.
It has been reported that, notwithstanding the abundant evidence of religious and racial motivation leading up to the offence, Z was *not* sentenced for religious or racial aggravation (as a “hate crime”, as the police call it). The BBC say: https://t.co/3SbjIJWQ05
In such offences, the judge should impose an “uplift” to the sentence to reflect the religious/racial aggravating, and state that when passing sentence. It is unclear whether HHJ Leonard QC did, but the police seem to think he took this into account: pic.twitter.com/gjnPbTR5GK
It would be interesting to know the uplift for the aggravation, as on its face the use of a car as a weapon usually puts an offence towards the top of the sentencing range. I discuss uplifts in more detail re Raheem Sterling’s racist attacker here: https://t.co/CSd0dlq1cK
But, regardless of whether the law was correctly followed, I have sympathy with people who feel that 33 weeks’ custody (of which half is served) does not reflect the seriousness of this offence, on the reported facts.
What’s that? Is this kind of confusion over sentencing decisions something that is covered in my book due out in 22 March? Why yes, yes it is. Thank you for asking. It’s available for pre-order here: https://t.co/ysL7Ct8uTT
Storm clouds are gathering over the news that former taxi driver John Worboys, the convicted rapist who police believe may have drugged and attacked hundreds of female passengers, is to be released from prison after reportedly serving nine years of an indeterminate sentence of imprisonment.
Yesterday, 29 year-old Karl Anderson pleaded guilty to a racially-aggravated common assault on Manchester City and England footballer Raheem Sterling, and was jailed at Manchester City Magistrates’ Court for 16 weeks. He was also ordered to pay £100 compensation and a mandatory Victim Surcharge of £115.
The reported facts are that, shortly before Manchester City’s match with Tottenham Hotspur last Saturday, Anderson approached Mr Sterling outside City’s training ground, kicked him four times to the legs and called him a “black scouse cunt” and “nigger”. A nasty assault, albeit one which fortunately did not cause any serious injury. And some commentators have questioned whether 16 weeks’ custody is a sufficiently robust sentence for a racially-motivated assault by a man with a history of football-related violence.
So let’s break it down. We should start with some essentials.
What is “racially aggravated common assault”?
Common assault is the least serious form of assault on the criminal violence hierarchy, involving the infliction of minimal injury. (Technically, a “common assault” does not in fact require the use of any physical force at all; merely causing in another the apprehension of immediate unlawful force, say by squaring up to someone. “Assault by beating” involves the application of unlawful force – i.e. physical touching – but in practice the terms “common assault” and “assault by beating” are often (incorrectly) used interchangeably. It has little practical significance, as the two offences are created by the same statutory provision – section 39 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 – and carry the same maximum sentence. But it’s a neat example of how no-one, including those of us who practise it, really understands the complexity and caprice of the criminal law.)
Anyway, common assault (or assault by beating) is a summary offence, meaning it can by itself only be tried in a magistrates’ court, and carries a maximum sentence of 6 months’ imprisonment. The racially aggravated version of this offence (which was created by section 29 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998) is “triable-either-way”, meaning it can be tried either in a magistrates’ court or a Crown Court, and carries a maximum sentence of 2 years’ imprisonment. An offence is racially aggravated when one of two criteria is satisfied:
At the time of committing the offence, or immediately before or after doing so, the offender demonstrates towards the victim of the offence hostility based on the victim’s membership (or presumed membership) of a racial group; or
The offence is motivated (wholly or partly) by hostility towards members of a racial group based on their membership of that group.
So far, no problems in seeing how the offence was made out.
How should a court approach sentence for this offence?
The magistrates’ court was required to follow the relevant Sentencing Guidelines published by the Sentencing Council, in this case the Assault Definitive Guideline. Courts will also consider any relevant decisions by the Court of Appeal in similar cases.
The approach prescribed by the Guidelines (and by the Court of Appeal) is that courts should determine the appropriate sentence without the racial element, and then determine the appropriate “uplift” to reflect the racial aggravation. The level of the uplift will depend on the aggravating features which include the level of planning; the offence being part of a pattern of racist offending; membership of a group promoting racist activity; deliberately setting up the victim for humiliating him; the location of the offence; vulnerability of the victim; whether victim was providing a service to the public; whether timing or location of the offence maximised the distress caused; and whether the expressions of racial hostility were repeated or prolonged (R v Saunders  2 Cr App R (S) 71; R v Kelly and Donnelly  EWCA Crim 170)
So let’s work this through. As ever, we have limited facts available to us, because the magistrates, notwithstanding that they were dealing with a case involving a high profile international footballer which was bound to attract national attention, did not see fit to publish their sentencing remarks online through the official judiciary.gov website. One wonders exactly how many storms there have to be over misreported sentencing decisions before the judiciary gets the message, but that’s a soapbox for another day.
But doing what we can with what we have, the Guardian reports:
“Magistrates were told Anderson pulled his white van alongside Sterling’s car as the forward waited to enter the training ground. CCTV showed both men get out of their vehicles and Anderson walking towards Sterling.
Miles said Anderson, who had been in the vehicle with his partner, started shouting racial abuse at Sterling and called him “you black scouse cunt”. He said Anderson also told the footballer: “I hope your mother and child wake up dead in the morning, you nigger.”
Miles added: “He approaches Mr Sterling and can be seen to be bouncing on the balls of his feet. He sets out kicking Mr Sterling to the legs on four occasions.” The court was told Sterling’s left hamstring was sore after the attack but he did not sustain serious injury. Miles said: “He is a professional footballer. His legs are important for his job.””
The Guideline requires that the court identify a category of offence by reference to the presence of features of harm and culpability. The category then provides a starting point, and a range through which the court can move as it considers the aggravating and mitigating features. You can have a go yourself:
The assault, to my eye, falls clearly within Category 1, before we even consider the racial element. This involved repeated blows and the presence of bruising renders this a serious injury in the context of a common assault/assault by beating, so greater harm would appear to be established. Higher culpability is present by use of kicking (a shod foot is counted as a weapon equivalent in offences of violence). And the other aggravating features – this was an unprovoked attack on a man at his place of work, targeting the tools of his trade, his legs – would push this upwards in the range.
And then we come to Anderson’s previous convictions. The Guardian reports that Anderson had 25 previous convictions for 37 offences, including throwing a flare at a police officer during a football match. The MEN gives further colour:
Among his offences, Anderson was jailed for 18 months in July 2016 for violent disorder; convicted of common assault in April 2016; failed to comply with an international football banning order in January 2016 and November 2015; and a racially aggravated public order offence July 2014.
He was among a group of eleven Manchester United fans who were handed three and five year bans in January this year.
There is little reported by way of mitigation. There was, it seems from the Manchester Evening News’ live-feed of the hearing, no Pre-Sentence Report before the court. The expectation is that a court will seek a report, prepared by the Probation Service, if it is considering imposing custody, unless a report is considered not necessary. Its absence suggests that there were no matters of particular mitigation – such as mental or physical health – that would have been relevant to sentence. The defendant expressed remorse through his solicitor, and his early guilty plea is by far the strongest point in his favour.
Against this backdrop, I would have expected a standard assault by beating to be sentenced towards the top of the sentencing range, close to 6 months’ imprisonment (before reduction for guilty plea). Reducing by one third to reflect the guilty plea (all guilty pleas entered at the first hearing are rewarded with 1/3 off the sentence) would give us just over 17 weeks, which is close to the 16 weeks received.
But we haven’t yet moved to the uplift for racial aggravation, which can be substantial, and, as the Guidelines state, can move the sentence beyond the range for an ordinary common assault. Although the court is required to explicitly state publicly what uplift is being applied to reflect racial aggravation, there is no report of the magistrates having done so in this case. Quantifying the uplift is difficult; the Court of Appeal once suggested that up to 2 years would be a reasonable uplift for racially aggravated offences, but given that 2 years is the maximum sentence for this offence, some proportion is required. Cases are always fact-specific, so drawing assistance from earlier cases is always tricky. Nevertheless, to offer a little context:
In R v Fitzgerald  EWCA Crim 2875, the Court of Appeal imposed 10 months’ imprisonment for racially aggravated harassment, alarm or distress with intent (which carries the same statutory maximum as racially aggravated common assault). The Defendant had shouted racist abuse at people in the street, and had unleashed a torrent of racial abuse and threats towards a police officer as he was arrested and taken to custody.
In R v Rayon  EWCA Crim 78, the Court of Appeal imposed 10 months’ imprisonment (including a 5 month uplift) for racially aggravated common assault where the Defendant punched the victim to the face, threw him to the floor and kicked him. He used racist abuse, although the judge found that racism was not the primary motivation for the attack (it was against the background of an ongoing court case).
In R v Bell  Cr App R (S) 81, the Court of Appeal imposed 12 months’ imprisonment, including a 6 month uplift, for racially aggravated common assault where the defendant attacked a 65 year-old black man in the street, calling him a “black fucker”, knocking him to the floor and telling him he should be “in a concentration camp and shot”.
In R v Higgins  EWCA 788, the Court of Appeal approved 18 months’ detention, including a 12 month uplift,for racially aggravated common assault where the defendant was part of a group that pursued the victim through a park, making racist comments and threats, and punched him in the face and attempted to choke him.
An important point is that all of these were decided before the introduction of the Assault Sentencing Guidelines, and so are further limited in their utility. Nevertheless, allowing that sentencing is an art, not a science, and that no doubt other lawyers would reach a different conclusion, my view is that, in Anderson’s case, a starting point of 5 months with an uplift of 4 months would not have been unreasonable in the circumstances. That would result in a sentence of 9 months, reduced to 6 months (or 26 weeks) to reflect his guilty plea.
Where does that leave us?
It means that, in the context of racially aggravated offences, Anderson was in my view sentenced leniently, although the sentence is perhaps not as surprising as it first appears when one considers the example sentences above. What might certainly be said, however, is that the sentences for this type of pernicious, low-level racialised violence are probably lower than most lay people would expect. And, momentarily mounting my high horse, the man on the street would be entitled to demand exactly what a 16-week sentence (of which the defendant will serve a maximum of 8 weeks) is intended to achieve in the case of this repeat racist offender. Precisely zilch rehabilitation will be achieved during that period. It punishes to a degree, although Anderson has served significantly longer periods in custody, and may feel able to do 8 weeks with relative ease. It can hardly be said to be a deterrent sentence. And, adding those together, it’s difficult to see how the public are any safer for this sentence. None of the statutory purposes of sentencing appear to be satisfied.
It is, in many ways, what I would call a typical “magistrates’ sentence”: A short period of custody likely to achieve diddly squat, at enormous public expense. I don’t put the blame solely on the shoulders of the sentencing court; they operate in a culture where this type of sentence for this type of offence is considered appropriate. But, frankly, if we have racist hooligans repeatedly inflicting racially-aggravated violence on members of the public, my preference would be that we either aggressively rehabilitate them under a lengthy and intensive community order, or, if we have exhausted all options and punishment has to be king, lock them up for a period of time that appears commensurate with the seriousness of the offence.
It is of course possible that my criticism is misguided, and that there were beautifully set-out sentencing remarks, including a full explanation for the length of sentence and an exposition of the uplift, which render my take unfair. If so, I would welcome corrections and a copy of the sentencing remarks.
Partly, the fault is internal: the ridiculous costume; the alienating hybrid of legalese and obsequious formality that renders court hearings nonsensical to anyone in the public gallery; the impenetrability and inaccessibility of updated statute and case law; the historic failure of those of us in the system to lawsplain to those outside how justice works and why our founding principles are so important.
But part of the problem is broader: the refusal of successive governments to provide any meaningful legal education in schools; irresponsible and inaccurate news reporting; and legal illiteracy indulged and expounded by politicians using the law as a cheap crop to beat their hobby horse of choice.
The result has been inevitable. Centuries of compounded negligence have culminated in a disconnect between the criminal justice system and those it purports to serve. And most days it feels as if it’s getting worse. No longer are rabble-rousing mis-reports of legal stories confined to a day’s news cycle before being scrunched around tomorrow’s cod-and-chips; the rags are now frequently doused in the kerosene of social media and sizzle with white hot rage for days, weeks and even months on end.
While I don’t pretend that this is a problem confined to criminal law, it is often the tales of “soft sentences” and “putting criminals’ rights ahead of the victim” that burn the brightest. The formula is predictable: there will be a headline attack on an “out of touch” judge (pictured, for enhanced ludicrousness, in their ceremonial wig), with a decontextualised snippet of the judicial remarks and a gaping absence of informed fact or sober analysis.
And over the past twelve months, we’ve suffered 365 Groundhog Days of these. The case of Ched Evans kicked things off, with outlets eager to report the outright untruths of politicians suggesting that this case set a dangerous precedent allowing complainants in sex cases to be gratuitously humiliated in court over their sexual history. A campaign to not just reform section 41 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, but to issue a blanket ban on any questions about sexual behaviour, is still being propelled by several MPs. It matters not that to do so would result, inevitably, in vital defence questions being prohibited and innocent people being convicted. A straw man effigy of section 41 has been hoisted onto the bonfire along with the presumption of innocence, with Harriet Harman proudly holding aloft the matchbox.
A run of sentencing “outrages” has followed.
The man who beat his wife with a cricket bat and was spared jail, because the judge deemed that the victim was “not vulnerable” (except the judge didn’t say those words, and it wasn’t the reason for the custodial sentence being (initially) suspended). The paedophile released only five years into a 22-year prison sentence (except it wasn’t a 22-year prison sentence, and he served longer than five years). Lavinia Woodward, the Oxford undergrad whose gratuitous bikini shots accompanied the squeals of horror that this rich white girl had been spared prison for stabbing her boyfriend, just because the rich white judge thought she was “too intelligent” to be locked up. Was that the reason she was spared jail? Did the judge ever say those words? Are any more rhetorical questions needed?
Rarely, if ever, is the reader informed of the Sentencing Guidelines and case law that constrain judges as to their approach in these cases, and which explain certain terms deployed in the sentencing remarks. Rarely are those remarks published in full — a flaw in the channels of official judicial communications for sure, but also the responsibility of those trained in shorthand in the press gallery. And rarely is there any voice of expertise explaining the apparently inexplicable, or offering a counterpoint to the incitement to fulminate.
Sometimes, of course, decisions will be made in court which do horrify, and for which there is no sensible justification. But most often, a straightforward, prosaic explanation exists. It’s just not reported. Neither editor nor politician will deal in full facts, whether through ignorance or malice.
The greatest tragedy is that if, instead of scything the low-hanging, rotten fruit the reporters reached a little higher, they would find that there is so much in criminal justice for their readership and Twitter followers to get angry about.
There’s the obliteration of legal aid, cutting the middle-classes out of publicly-funded legal assistance if they are wrongly accused of a criminal offence. There’s the ‘innocence tax’, which means that if, having been refused legal aid, you pay privately for your defence, you are not allowed to reclaim your full fees even if acquitted. Everyone in the system can speak for hours about the stack-em-high, sell-em-cheap model of warehouse justice in the magistrates’ courts, which is being rolled out in the crown courts under the euphemism of glorious efficiency. Disclosure — the means by which most innocent people secure the key to their escape — is found by report after report to be an abomination due to a hybrid of poor training and insufficient resources at the cut-to-the-bone police and Crown Prosecution Service.
But these problems evade meaningful public scrutiny, perhaps through ignorance, or perhaps because it’s simply far easier to report, and get angry about, a pervert getting help in the community rather than rotting in our violent, suicide-ridden prisons.
Public legal education is needed now more than ever. The Solicitor General, to his credit, appears to recognise this. His new Public Legal Education Panel is a start. Something needs to change if the public are going to have a hope of recognising where the real problems in justice lie; and who, in reality, poses the greatest threat to their rights. The thing about criminal justice is that, for all too many people, the realisation of how far basic protections have been eroded only dawns when it’s too late.
This article first appeared on Legal Cheek, and is available here.
As I say, good news, and a good job by the Crown Prosecution Service. So why does it sound as if I’m taking a run-up to go off on a peevish tangent? Well, it’s because – and I accept that it sounds like a little thing, but bear with me – it’s because of this tweet from the official CPS account:
For now, let’s put to one side the question of whether this feeds into an increasing, Americanised tendency by the CPS to publicly cheer “tougher” sentences (this traditionally not being the role of the prosecutor in England and Wales, in stark contrast to the US system). I instead want to look briefly at that number – 32 years – because I think it’s an example of a deeply unhelpful trend in modern reporting.
The figure of 32 years is arrived at by aggregating the sentences of the four defendants. Azizi got 6 years, Pour got 12 years, Asad got 9 ½ years and Obaid received 4 years 9 months. And this aggregation, when you think about it, is an entirely pointless exercise. It tells us nothing about the seriousness of the offences committed. It tells us nothing about the sentence imposed in respect of each man. It tells us nothing about how long they will serve, and – importantly to many people – when they will be released.
Its only purpose appears to be to present an eye-catching headline figure to draw the reader in to the story. In a tabloid newspaper, this is one thing. But by the CPS?
The problem is not just that this headline does little to educate the casual reader who doesn’t study the press release down to the Notes to Editors. It’s that it contributes to a serious disconnect we have in criminal sentencing between the system and the general public. One of the most common complaints we hear from non-lawyers is that sentences frequently don’t mean what people think they mean. Part of this is because of the inherent complexity of sentencing legislation and early release provisions, which even judges struggle to interpret (Lord Philips in the Supreme Court famously said that “hell is a fair description” of this legislation). But part of the issue is because even in straightforward sentencing cases, the basics are not reported in their full context.
Anyone scanning the CPS Twitter account and seeing the words “32 years” would be forgiven for thinking that the men convicted in Newcastle were likely to be serving at least the best part of a decade in prison. In the case of Obaid, he will serve a maximum of 2 years and 4 ½ months, minus any time he has served on remand awaiting his sentence. None of the defendants will serve anything even close to half of 32 years. The most any one of them will serve is 6 years (Pour). Nowhere in the press release, or even in the notes to editors, is this spelt out. One can only hope that the vulnerable young victims of this predatory offending have had the real position fully explained to them.
I appreciate that the CPS tweeter was no doubt aiming for snappy, 140-character brevity, and that the main takeaway is that serious criminal behaviour has been successfully prosecuted and justly dealt with; but I do think this is a problem. This kind of headline inflation of sentences is how we end up with ridiculous red-top myths about serious sex offenders being released only a couple of years into a 22-year sentence, which in turn serves only to feed a toxic circular narrative of “soft sentences” and “joke justice”. We can’t possibly expect the public to have faith in criminal sentencing if the system adopts the same clickbait tropes.
I devote a lot of words on this blog to chiding journalists about accurate reporting of criminal cases. It’s regrettably evident that some need to be directed at those of us in the system as well.
I’ll be honest, out of all the ‘robust debates’ I’ve had online about criminal justice and sentencing of offenders, I would not have expected the most frustrating, fiery and ill-informed to be with someone advocating for less use of prison. It takes a special talent, I would suggest, to present an argument in such a way that you manage to alienate those who agree with your conclusion. Arise for your special badge, Lord Andrew Adonis, former Head of Policy at Number 10 Downing Street and erstwhile Transport Secretary.
The past few days have seen Lord Adonis stagger around Twitter swinging aimlessly at lawyers and judges like a punch-drunk case study on a late night police reality TV show. Every effort to gently usher him into the back of the van for some calm, reasonable, evidence-based discourse is met with another wild lunge towards camera – he has now blocked nearly every lawyer on Twitter – compounding the schadenfreude of rubbernecking passers-by. Unfortunately for Andrew, his identity is not pixellated to spare his embarrassment; rather emblazoned across each and every one of his (increasingly peculiar) assaults on the “cobwebbed judicial system”.
Extracts cannot really do justice to the tirade of tweets that Adonis launched towards the judiciary on this theme, and I’d recommend reading his Twitter timeline (with a glass of something stiff) to get the full flavour, but this is the nub:
Nothing world class about our judiciary, which jails more people for longer than any judges in Europe & wash their hands of prison crisis
Now some of us hacks did indeed offer a defence of judges (who, by constitutional convention, are not permitted to speak out publicly to defend themselves). And we did so not because, as Adonis suggests, we have a desire to become a judge (I think I have successfully set fire to that particular lifeboat for myself through this blog and my forthcoming book), or because we think all judges are wonderful (SPOILER: They’re not – most are excellent, but some are significantly less so), but because we see criminals being sentenced every single day, and have a certain experience in this field. And I struggle to think of many cases I’ve been in, either prosecuting or defending, where I have suspected that a sentence has been inflated because of an eye on reporters in the public gallery.
As for Adonis’ experience, I did ask how many judges he had seen passing excessive sentences out of fear of tabloid retribution, but received the following, less-than-full response:
The thing is, while to a layperson Adonis’ criticism would seem to make sense – judges are the ones passing these sentences, after all – a little knowledge of the law teaches that, to a large extent, judges’ hands are often tied, or at least lightly bound with handkerchiefs. That is because sentencing is not, as many might imagine from pop culture, an exercise in plucking a figure out of the air, whacking a (non-existent) gavel and intoning, “Take him down”. Crown Court judges are instead required to apply a horrendously complex morass of sentencing law and guidelines, which severely limit their room for manoeuvre. While they have discretion to pass a sentence that meets the justice of an individual case, it is a fallacy to presume that this discretion is at large.
Firstly, there are Sentencing Guidelines for most criminal offences, which judges are required by law to follow. We’ve looked at these guidelines in previous posts dealing with specific cases, but in short, they provide judges with a mixture of flow-charts and grids, setting out sentence “starting points” and “ranges” depending on which factors are present in a particular case. There is ultimately discretion built in as to where on the guidelines a judge pitches a case, but you can see for yourself that there is often not a great deal of wiggle room. Guidelines are set by the Sentencing Council, whose members are drawn from the judiciary, magistracy, legal practitioners, academics, police and the Director of Public Prosecutions. Guidelines are subject to public consultation, and the Council is accountable to the Ministry of Justice and has a statutory duty to consult with Parliament. The Sentencing Council is not, lest you be confused by Adonis’ complaints, a gaggle of judges operating under a cloak of secrecy.
Now I make clear – I do not agree with all of the guidelines. I think, for example, the way in which drugs are sentenced is largely ludicrous. A starting point of 4.5 years’ imprisonment for someone selling a few wraps of crack cocaine to fund their own habit is, with respect, the hallmark of a society that doesn’t have a clue what it is doing with drug policy, although the malaise for that lies with political culture at large, not the Sentencing Council. But even if you accepted Adonis’ view that the Council was a bunch of industry insiders fixing oppressively long sentences out of a desire to placate the red tops, it does not explain how, as Adonis postulates, it is fair to level cowardice charges at the several hundred other judges who are required day-to-day to follow the guidelines.
And, more importantly, judges must follow the law. Sentencing legislation is made by Parliament, which includes among its members Lord Adonis, as a member of the House of Lords. And judges have to follow the law set by Parliament. There is no discretion here. That is the essence of the rule of law and our basic constitutional settlement. I say this, because Adonis has suggested that judges should have “argued against” the government’s “policy” – by which he can only mean that they should have revolted and refused to follow the law that the government enjoined Parliament to make. So let’s get that sixth-form concept straight: judges have to follow the law set by Parliament.
9/ didn’t argue against this unjust policy & implemented it (including really shameful indeterminate sentences for ‘public protection’)
But for now, I want to look briefly at one area to which Lord Adonis refers in the above tweet – indeterminate sentences.
In 2003, when Adonis was ensconced in the bosom of Downing Street as Head of the Policy Unit, New Labour brought forth the Criminal Justice Act 2003, a huge, unwieldy piece of legislation which did many things, including introducing the notion of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPPs). You may have heard of these – they have been in the news recently, as people given short “minimum terms” of as little as 10 months ended up serving over a decade under such sentences. The way that IPPs worked in theory was as follows: The judge would set a “minimum term”, after which the defendant would be eligible for release on licence, as long as he could satisfy the parole board that he was no longer dangerous. If he could’t satisfy the parole board, he would be detained until he could, potentially forever. As it happened, the government decided that they couldn’t afford to provide the rehabilitation courses that prisoners were required to pass in order to satisfy the parole board, meaning IPP prisoners were trapped in a Kafka-esque nightmare. For this reason, the Court of Appeal found that then-Justice Secretary Jack Straw had acted unlawfully in failing to provide the rehabilitation programmes, and in 2012 IPPs were repealed (although those passed before that date remained).
Now when IPPs were first introduced, if a defendant convicted of certain violent or sexual offences was found to be “dangerous” – the legal test for which was that he posed a significant risk of serious harm to the public – an IPP had to be passed. The judge had no discretion – the law was clear. If the offender met the risk threshold, the judge was not allowed to deal with him in any other way. This, unsurprisingly, led to an explosion in prison numbers – around 3,700 prisoners were serving IPPs by 2007.
This was the law until 2008. Parliament, realising its error, then amended the legislation to give judges discretion as to whether to impose IPPs where certain criteria were met. The word “must” was changed to “may”, and the threshold for imposing IPPs was heightened, to remove the scenario of tiny minimum terms (one as low as 28 days) resulting in years being spent behind bars. And, given discretion, judges stopped imprisoning as many people under IPPs.
Why do I focus on IPPs? It’s because they are the prime factor responsible for the increased use of prison. As the Parliamentary statistics that Adonis himself cites shows (thanks to @ProfChalmers), the length of sentence for all offenders has remained relatively stable across the 11 year period (2005 – 2016) except for a notable increase in indeterminate sentences.
That is not to say that all IPPs imposed were rightly so. Judges after 2008 did have discretion, and no doubt there will have been instances where it can be argued that an IPP was imposed where it need not have been (and many such cases will have been argued successfully before the Court of Appeal).
But what this incontrovertibly shows is that far from judges imposing increasingly lengthy sentences “out of fear of tabloids”, it was in fact politicians – Lord Adonis and his colleagues – forcing judges to impose certain types and lengths of sentence that was the greatest contributing factor to the increased use of prison. As for why politicians felt compelled to act in this way, you would have to ask them. But it may be there that “tabloid fear” finds its rightful resting place.
As for other factors of note that we can identify, we can see from the chart above an increase in determinate sentences of over 4 years. We can also see over the past 16 years a surge in prisoners convicted of violent and sexual offences:
Partly, this will be because of the increase in violent crime. Partly this will be attributable to the fact that the CPS are prosecuting more sex offences than ever, particularly allegations of historic (or “non-recent”) sexual abuse. Neither of these factors have anything to do with the judges. And, faced with serious sexual or violent offending, the guidelines and the legislation make clear what judges are required to do.
Ultimately, this is a silly argument, given the broad area of agreement between Lord Adonis and most lawyers. But I waste my Sunday afternoon to unpick Adonis’ complaints, even though I think we are on the same side, because there is no point embarking upon a remedy if you have mis-diagnosed the illness. And what is increasingly clear from Adonis’ tweets is that he lacks some fairly rudimentary understanding of the legal system.
For example, he suggests that Lady Hale, as the new President of the Supreme Court should “call out the trend to ever longer sentences”, apparently oblivious to how the Supreme Court operates.
11/ on the issue of sentencing & the prison crisis. She shd call out the trend to ever longer sentences, refuse to implement it within the
Sentencing policy has nothing to do with the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court’s only role in criminal sentencing is to rule on the infinitesimal number of criminal sentence appeals that make it to the Supreme Court from the Court of Appeal. Why are so few criminal sentence cases heard at the Supreme Court? It’s because in order to appeal upwards from the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court, either the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court has to certify that “a point of law of general public importance is involved in the decision”. This is a high threshold, and excludes the vast majority of sentence appeals (which tend to turn on their individual facts, rather than wider points of public importance). If you think that this threshold is too high, and that more criminal sentence cases should be capable of being litigated before the Supreme Court, you know who you can blame? Either the Parliament which enacted s.33 of the Criminal Appeal Act 1968. Or the Parliament which created the Supreme Court and defined its jurisdiction under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. Head of Policy Unit at Number 10 Downing Street when the Supreme Court was created in 2005? Andrew Adonis.
Nor, regrettably, can the Lord Chief Justice, who is head of the judiciary and president of the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division), which hears sentence appeals from the Crown Court, decide of his own motion to “cut most sentences”. What on earth does this mean? That every sentence appeal he sits on must be allowed, irrespective of merits, in order to achieve an overall reduction? That the current legal test that the Court of Appeal applies, allowing appeals against sentence where sentences are “wrong in law or principle” or “manifestly excessive” be lowered to something less? If so, that is not within the gift of the Lord Chief Justice alone.
Not codification that’s needed – wh will prob bid sentences up still further – but for new LCJ & Pres of Supreme Court to CUT MOST SENTENCES https://t.co/gmakCyEyjY
I fear that Adonis has a rather childlike conception of the interaction between our various courts. If the Big Judge at the top says something, then all the other little judges will do it, seems to be the gist. It is alas not that simple. Sentences will not become shorter across the board simply because Lady Hale decrees, a propos of nothing, that it should be so. It is the same simplistic view of the world that claims, with a straight face, that the judges should, somehow, have stopped Adonis’ government from doing the reckless and damaging things it did:
9/ didn’t argue against this unjust policy & implemented it (including really shameful indeterminate sentences for ‘public protection’)
The solution, unfortunately for Lord Adonis, lies closer to home. Politicians, who are paid to make the arguments, need to change the tone of public debate on criminal sentencing. The corrosive tabloid culture that Adonis rightly decries is not going away. Parliamentarians need to be brave, and confront the toxic narrative of longer sentences and prison holiday camps that has informed Ministry of Justice policy for the past decade. Constituents should be told about the realities of prison and its proven limitations in reducing crime. The Dutch model that Adonis has held up as an example should be advocated by mainstream politicians on prime time interviews, not relegated to social media spats between ex-policy wonks and lawyers. The statutory manacles forcing judges to impose long sentences for certain offences should be re-examined and, where appropriate, released. The Justice Secretary could consider using s.128 of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which would allow him to change the test for releasing the 4,000-odd remaining IPP prisoners who have served beyond their minimum terms. The plan to double the powers of magistrates – non-legally trained volunteers – to imprison people, allowing them to lock defendants up for a year for a single offence, could be snuffed out. If short prison sentences don’t work, why not consider a presumption against their use, as proposed by the Lib Dems at the last election? The increasingly popular trend for the Attorney General to “refer” (appeal) sentences as “unduly lenient” to the Court of Appeal – and to feed the prison works narrative by boasting about its successes – could be challenged. There has been a 108 per cent increase in AG References since 2010, no doubt attributable in part to media campaigns whipping up anger at perceived “soft sentences”, opinions often formed in wholesale ignorance of the facts.
There is a lot that could be considered as part of a remodelling of criminal sentencing. And no doubt judicial inclinations will form part of it. I don’t deny that some judges use prison too readily; of course they do. They are subject to the same human frailties and cognitive biases as the rest of us. But it is Adonis’ eagerness to pin the bulk of the blame on the judiciary, and the unsubstantiated assertion that they habitually falter out of genuflection to the tabloids, that I consider to be unfair. Because as we can see, that is not where the real problem lies.
In case anyone saw, listed amongst his various grievances with the legal system, the following tweet by Lord Adonis, I should like to make two brief points.
The Law Commission a talking shop which makes lawyers think they are effecting change when nothing changes https://t.co/fTSne2f6le
The Law Commission is a statutory independent body that conducts detailed research and consultations and makes recommendations, usually accompanied by weighty published reports, for changes in the law “to ensure the law is as fair, modern, simple and as cost-effective as possible.” The decision on whether to implement a recommendation by the Law Commission is for Parliament alone. Parliament. Which includes Lord Adonis. If “nothing changes”, the fault is entirely with the politicians.
But it’s not right to say that “nothing changes”. Two thirds of the Law Commission’s recommendations have been implemented. For a look at exactly what recommendations have been accepted, implemented and are pending, there is a handy list here, with which Lord Adonis may wish to familiarise himself. A subsequent apology to the Law Commission for his ill-informed and intemperate tweet as a senior Parliamentarian would, he might feel, be the very least he can do.
Lavinia Woodward, the 24-year old Oxford student who pleaded guilty to stabbing her boyfriend with a bread knife, was sentenced yesterday at Oxford Crown Court for unlawful wounding. The case caused a splash back in May when, having entered her plea, the defendant was told by the judge that she was unlikely to receive an immediate custodial sentence, in part due to her promising medical career. Thus was born the tale of the rich, blonde, white Oxford student who was “too clever” to be sent to prison. “Too clever” appears in all headlines in quotation marks, notwithstanding that no-one in court, not least the judge, ever used these words; rather this is one of the those splendid auto-generated media myths, where one tabloid shorthand was adopted by all until everyone came to accept that these words must have been said.
What actually happened, as far as we can tell from the limited press reports, I dealt with at the time here. In short, the judge was impressed by various features of personal mitigation and deferred sentence, in essence giving the defendant an opportunity to show why she shouldn’t go immediately to prison. HHJ Pringle QC explained yesterday his reasons for deferring:
“[F]irstly, to allow you to continue with your counselling; secondly, for you to demonstrate over a lengthier period of time that you had truly rid yourself of your alcohol and class A drug addiction.”
Four months passed, and Ms Woodward returned to court yesterday to be sentenced to 10 months’ imprisonment suspended for 18 months. After a little delay, the full sentencing remarks were published this morning here. They are mandatory reading for anyone expressing a view about the case, but to assist, let’s look briefly at how the sentencing exercise was carried out.
The facts, as summarised by the judge, were as follows:
“Having met a few months before, in October 2016 you [the Defendant] began a relationship with a student from Cambridge University. Sadly, you were still suffering from the effects of a very damaging previous relationship with another who had introduced you to class a drugs. You clearly had both drug and alcohol addictions. On 30 December 2016, your partner paid you a visit in your accommodation in Christchurch College in Oxford. It rapidly became clear to him that you had been drinking. He tried to discourage you from continuing your drinking without success. As the evening progressed, you became increasingly volatile. At one stage your partner contacted your mother over Skype in order to seek her assistance over what to do about you. When you discovered this, you became extremely angry, starting to throw objects around. It is clear from the transcript of the 999 call that your partner summoned the help of the police before you picked up a bread knife which was in the room and struck a blow with it to his lower leg. In the course of the incident two of his fingers also received cuts. Your partner managed to partly restrain you, albeit you then started to turn the knife on yourself and he had to further disarm you to prevent further self-harm. When the emergency services arrived it was abundantly clear that you were intoxicated, deeply distraught and mentally disturbed. You were taken to a police station in a very distressed state.”
Fortunately, the wounds that your partner received were relatively minor. The two 1 cm cuts to the fingers were treated at the scene with steri-strips and the cut to the leg was closed with three stitches.
The offence was unlawful wounding, contrary to section 20 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which carries a maximum sentence of 5 years. When sentencing, courts are required to follow the Sentencing Guidelines for assault, produced by the Sentencing Council (unless it would be contrary to the interests of justice to do so). So let’s turn to the pages dealing with unlawful wounding and feed these facts into the matrix:
First, the court works out what Category the case falls into, by looking at what specified features of harm and culpability are present. The judge formed the view that this was a Category 2 offence. There was lower harm due to the relatively minor nature of the injuries in the context of this type of offence – note that no-one is saying that wounds caused by a knife are not serious; but it’s all relative. An offence of unlawful wounding covers a wide range of injuries, from small breaks of the skin right up to life-threatening, body-scarring lacerations. A 3cm cut to the leg, closed by three stitches, and minor cuts to fingers treated with steri-strips, while undoubtedly horrible for the victim, are minor in the context of wounding offences. Looking at culpability, there was higher culpability by virtue of use of a knife.
Category 2 provides a starting point of 18 months’ imprisonment, with a range of 12 months’ imprisonment up to 3 years. In order to work out where a defendant falls in this range, the court looks at and applies appropriate weight to other features of aggravation and mitigation, listed here:
What do we know about the mitigation and aggravation in this case?
As far as aggravating features are concerned, the judge said:
[T]here is one non-statutory aggravating feature, namely that at the time of the offence you were heavily under the influence of alcohol. Whilst that in part was as a result of a previous and highly damaging relationship, you were old enough and intelligent enough to realise that over-indulgence would severely affect your behaviour.
But it is regarding the mitigating features that the judge had the most to say:
When I turn to look, however, for mitigating features the picture is very different. There are many mitigating features in your case. Principally, at the age of 24 you have no previous convictions of any nature whatsoever. Secondly, I find that you were genuinely remorseful following this event and, indeed, although it was against your bail conditions you contacted your partner to fully confess your guilt and your deep sorrow for what happened. Thirdly, whilst you are clearly a highly intelligent individual, you had an immaturity about you which was not commensurate for someone of your age. Fourthly, as the reports from the experts make clear, you suffer from an emotionally unstable personality disorder, a severe eating disorder and alcohol drug dependence. Finally, and most significantly, you have demonstrated over the last nine months that you are determined to rid yourself of your alcohol/drug addiction and have undergone extensive treatment including counselling to address the many issues that you face. In particular, you have demonstrated to me since I adjourned this matter in May a strong and unwavering determination so to do despite the enormous pressure under which you were put and which has been referred to by your learned counsel.
A further matter advanced in mitigation by the defendant’s counsel (as reported by the BBC) was that she had suffered domestic violence in a previous relationship, which contributed to her substance misuse.
Taking these strands of mitigation together, it would appear that the judge considered that the starting point should be adjusted downwards from 18 months to 15 months. I say that because it seems that the defendant pleaded guilty at an early stage of proceedings, which would attract “credit” or a discount on her sentence of up to one third. Judges like starting point sentences that are easily divisible by three, so it stands to reason that, although he does not explicitly state as such in the published remarks, he took 15 months and reduced a third to arrive at his final sentence of 10 months’ imprisonment.
As for the decision to suspend the sentence, we dealt with this last time, but I’ll repeat here:
While there is no strict test for suspending a sentence of imprisonment, the Guideline offers the following pointers:
We do not know enough to say whether any of the left hand column is made out; but it could be argued that at least two of the factors on the right apply. The court must have regard to the statutory five purposes of sentencing – punishment, reduction of crime (including by deterrence), reform and rehabilitation of offenders; protection of the public; and making reparations – and will need to assess the appropriate emphasis in any given case. While stabbing with a bread knife is plainly serious, if the injury is not particularly grave, and if the court is of the view that more can constructively be achieved by avoiding sending a promising young defendant to prison and shattering their future life prospects, instead offering in the first instance a sentence focussing on rehabilitation to address deep-rooted problems laying behind the offending, then it is arguably in service of those five principles that a suspended sentence of imprisonment, with punitive and rehabilitative requirements attached, might be imposed.
The features of mitigation identified – the mental health difficulties, the efforts to address drug and alcohol abuse, the good character, the genuine remorse – would all further support the decision to afford a defendant a chance on a suspended sentence.
Indeed, this further colour, in particular the mental health dimension, shifts the perspective significantly. It’s not just a rich white girl getting a let-off; it’s also a victim of domestic violence with severe mental health and substance misuse problems being given a chance to rebuild her life. You may not care for that latter interpretation, but it’s no less valid than the former preferred by today’s front page “Toff Justice” tabloid headlines, implicitly recycling the nasty myth that money confers mental health immunity.
So that’s the post-script. In summary, there doesn’t appear to be anything unusual in this sentence. You may disagree with its merits; you may think that all violent knife offences should result in immediate prison regardless of circumstances or personal mitigation. You may think there should be more women with mental health problems clogging up our prisons rather than receiving treatment in the outside world and trying to forge careers for themselves. But from a legal point of view, there’s little out of the ordinary. Not based on what we see in the courts in practice, with defendants of all races and social backgrounds. And I’ll close by repeating the conclusion from the earlier post:
Lest anyone be seduced by the reflexive narrative that such merciful sentences are only afforded to white, middle class defendants, let me assure you: this course (as I said in the Bashir posts) is not unusual. Where a defendant who has never been in trouble is facing a custodial sentence of 2 years or under, and where they have the prospect of employment, education or caring responsibilities, judges will often strive to avoid passing a sentence of immediate imprisonment. That is not to deny that unconscious social or racial bias plays a part in judicial decisions; basic psychology teaches us that it does, to some degree at least. But the suggestion that this exceptional course is only ever reserved for the Prom Queens (or whatever our British equivalent is) is tired and lazy. The reason you don’t hear about the suspended sentences handed down for less photogenic defendants – for the 19 year-old lad starting his apprenticeship, or the 48 year-old mobile hairdresser – is mainly because the media tends not to report on them.
As a final observation, the Telegraph reports that Ms Woodward’s QC invited the court to consider imposing a conditional discharge – the lowest form of sanction that a court can impose. The judge refused, clearly of the view that a sentence of imprisonment was required. Had the judge acceded to that invitation, the complaints that the sentence was inexplicably lenient would carry more force. As it is, for the reasons above, there appears nothing unusual, and indeed much humane, about the approach taken in this case.
Note: This post has been updated following the publication of HHJ Pringle QC’s sentencing remarks this morning.
And to be honest, I’m not sure what I think. Or at least, I think a number of things, not all necessarily consistent and not all easily reducible to a pithy, logically argued conclusion. I recognise that this is far from ideal for a blog which pretends to self-righteous polemic and strident self-assurance as its hallmarks. But difficult criminal cases often fall between the cracks in our neatly-defined worldview, pinching our assumptions and stretching out our contemplations on our understanding of criminal justice.
And plainly this is a difficult case. A brief flick through the media coverage of this case, or, if you can bear, a hashtag search for “Alliston” on Twitter, offers but a snapshot of the ferociously contested issues arising out of his trial and sentence.
There has been much said about the perceived “gap in the law” that meant that Alliston, as a cyclist, could not be prosecuted under the legislation covering causing death by careless or dangerous driving – such statutes requiring the use of a “mechanically-propelled vehicle”, which a bicycle is plainly not – and instead faced a rarely-used charge of doing bodily harm by “wanton or furious driving or racing, or other wilful misconduct, or by wilful neglect”. This offence is set out in s.35 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, a Victorian statute presented by the media as hilariously rare and antiquated, notwithstanding that every offence of violence causing injury (short of death) is still prosecuted under it. Section 35, which admittedly is seldom used, requires only that a person be in charge of a “carriage or vehicle”, broad enough to include cyclists. In practical terms, this meant that Alliston faced a much lower maximum sentence – two years’ imprisonment – than that available for a motorist convicted of causing death by dangerous driving (14 years) or careless driving (5 years).
A further apparent anomaly is that the offence of dangerous cycling (without causing death or injury) covers only the manner of the cycling, whereas the offence of dangerous driving covers both the manner of the driving and the roadworthiness of the vehicle. In other words, if you drive a vehicle that is dangerously defective, that is caught by dangerous driving. In Alliston, much focus of the prosecution case was on the fact that his bicycle had a fixed rear hub but no front-wheel brake; it was a bike designed for the racing track rather than the road. The absence of a front-wheel brake was unlawful, but would not, under the current law, have of itself amounted to “dangerous cycling”.
It is worth remembering that Alliston did however face an alternative, more serious charge of which he was acquitted by the jury – manslaughter, which carries up to life imprisonment. Without digressing into legal complexity, it can be said that manslaughter is a difficult offence to prove in relation to road traffic collisions; hence the standard practice of charging causing death by dangerous or careless driving in most cases involving a fatality arising out of bad driving, with manslaughter reserved by the Crown Prosecution Service largely for cases where a vehicle is used as a weapon. We are in some difficulty in analysing the jury verdict given the lack of clear and accurate legal reporting on this trial, and in particular how the jury were directed to approach manslaughter (which can be charged in different ways), but some help might be gleaned from the assessment of Martin Porter QC, a campaigning cyclist who did not attend the trial but has offered his own summary of the applicable law here. Mr Porter’s conclusion is that the jury’s verdicts – not guilty of manslaughter but guilty of the lesser offence of furious or wanton etc – suggest that “[Alliston’s] conduct was not so self-evidently dangerous as to amount to manslaughter but that he had been a person having charge of a vehicle whose wilful misconduct had caused death”. The average non-lawyer may find this margin so fine as to be barely discernible, but it is by such fine borders that much criminal law is delineated. [As a point of disclosure, it should be noted that Mr Porter (about whom I have written before) has campaigned for more vigorous prosecutions of motorists, for the removal of juries from motoring cases to facilitate a higher conviction rate, and has offered a sympathetic treatment of Charlie Alliston often absent from his proclamations over motorists involved in fatalities, and so his commentary, while helpful, may perhaps not be entirely disinterested.]
Putting this all together, is a new law required? Possibly. It is right to say that Alliston’s is a rare case, hence the media excitement, and the truism that hard cases make bad law is no less true for its triteness. We should be careful not to reflexively legislate in response to high profile cases. But sometimes gaps are exposed – as I argued recently in relation to upskirting – and the law requires adjusting to move with the times. I do not know the ubiquity or otherwise of the Youtube phenomenon of “alley-catting” – driving fixed-wheel bicycles through city streets, contravening red lights and weaving in and out of traffic and pedestrians – which was found by the judge to have inspired Alliston. But no bespoke offence exists to prosecute the death or serious injury caused by bad cycling, and the introduction of corresponding offences that exist for vehicles – causing death or serious injury by dangerous driving – may be appropriate to ensure that such offences are fairly labelled and prosecuted.
As for the question of whether Alliston’s sentence – 18 months’ detention (detention being the equivalent to imprisonment for defendants aged between 18 and 20) – was too long or too short (a question I dislike for reasons I’ll come to) I suppose it depends on your viewpoint. The sentencing remarks, in which HHJ Wendy Joseph QC considers the few Court of Appeal authorities dealing with similar offending, appear comprehensive and well-reasoned. As a matter of law, based on the available information there appears little “wrong” with the sentence.
The remarks are also worth reading in full as a rebuttal to misinformation that abounds online about exactly what the evidence showed that Alliston did. There is something unedifying about the way in which Alliston has been adopted as a cause celebre by certain cycling campaigners, who have presented his case as an example of prosecutorial persecution betraying a disparity in treatment between this and cases where cyclists fall victim to drivers of motor vehicles.
For the avoidance of doubt, as Alliston was told by the judge: “It was not merely the absence of a front brake but your whole manner of riding that caused this accident”. He was not a conscientious cyclist afflicted by a momentary lapse of concentration or judgment. This was, in the judge’s words, a course of cycling amounting to “callous disregard for the safety of others”.
Alliston, a cycling enthusiast who had watched a number of “alley cat” videos on Youtube, had since 2014 deliberately chosen to ride a bicycle without a front-wheel brake, which increased the stopping distance by four times. Alliston knew the dangers, as he admitted in evidence that he would fit a front-wheel brake when weather conditions made him conscious of his own safety. He chose to ride without “for the thrill”. In January 2016, he upgraded to a bike that didn’t even have the facility to fit a front-wheel brake. He had no bell to warn other road users. He was, in the judge’s words, “an accident waiting to happen”.
When he came across Mrs Briggs on 12 February 2016, she having stepped out into the road as he travelled at 18 mph, he had no means of stopping. He shouted at her twice to “get out of the fucking way” and slowed to 14mph, but kept going, of the view that she should move. Other traffic meant that she could not. He struck her, she hit the ground and she suffered catastrophic, fatal brain injury. A husband lost his wife. Two children lost their mother. Had Alliston’s bike been legal, he would have been able to stop.
His response was to post messages on line falsely claiming that Mrs Briggs was using her mobile phone at the time. He continued to criticise her decision to cross the road in front of him.
Transposing similar circumstances onto an offence of causing death by dangerous driving – an imperfect exercise, granted – it is possible to arrive at the conclusion that Alliston was fortunate that no equivalent offence and sentencing regime exist for cycling.
And this no doubt lends support to the argument for reform. It is arbitrary that if you are dangerously driving or riding a vehicle which has the capacity to and does cause death, your sentence depends on the precise vehicle being driven. To reach for a clumsy analogy, if you beat someone over the head with a weapon causing injury, your maximum sentence isn’t affected depending on whether you use a metal bar or a cricket bat.
But, finally, what this case evokes, and what it is perhaps easy to forget, is how blunt a tool the criminal law is in dealing with so many cases of deaths on the road. Alliston is, in this narrow respect at least, an easy case. His culpability was high. He was a deliberately bad road user. He may not have meant to kill, but his overall conduct is blameworthy and deserving of criminal sanction.
But many road users involved in accidents are not. Even those involved in serious, life-changing, life-ending collisions. Feeding back into the complaint of cyclists, this is the most common reason for a lack of criminal charges. Causing death alone is not enough to found a prosecution. There has to be culpability – for motorists, they have to be either careless – driving below the standard of a competent and careful driver – or dangerous – driving far below the standard of a competent and careful driver.
Almost always, causing death by dangerous driving will lead to prison. But devastation caused by careless driving – which often arises during momentary lapses in concentration or judgment behind the wheel – presents the hardest cases. The harm caused can be the greatest in the criminal spectrum. But culpability can be among the very lowest; barely criminal. A sharp intake of there but for grace of God breath.
In such cases, what do we do? For many of us, the default, culturally-ingrained response is to call for prison. But if we pause and ask what we are trying to achieve by so doing, we may get back an echo rather than an answer. Often in these awful cases, the standard ‘purposes’ of criminal sentencing won’t apply. The guilty driver may not need rehabilitation; or at least certainly not that which is available behind the prison gates. Deterrence, even if prison sentences were shown to achieve this, is difficult to impose on momentary lapses in concentration. There is little meaningful restitution that can be realistically made to the victim or their family. Public safety rarely demands the individual’s immediate incarceration.
Which leaves us only with retribution. And how on earth do you quantify it in such cases, where culpability is so low, and harm is so high, and we are often dancing on the margins?
Presently the law tries to accommodate this by compromising. And the essence of a good compromise, to channel Larry David, is that both parties are left unhappy. Short prison sentences or community orders – the usual sentence for causing death by careless driving – must sometimes feel to the bereaved almost worse than no sentence at all. But there is no way of even beginning to reflect the harm caused where life is lost without disproportionately punishing the culpability.
Nevertheless, in cases where minor culpability leads to devastating harm, it can feel as if this is all the system is trying to do; bluntly punish, in the hope that in some, intangible way it will satisfy our collective need for something to mark the pain.
As I said at the outset, I can’t offer any solution. I doubt many can. Perhaps that is the unsatisfactory pseudo-conclusion for which I grasp as I close; that any claim to draw easy fixes in the wake of difficult cases should be regarded with a measure of suspicion. There are rarely easy answers in criminal justice; no more so than in tragedies where we are desperate to find someone to blame.