The assault on Jack Grealish – is 14 weeks’ imprisonment the right sentence?

I fired off a quick thread last night offering my rough take on yesterday’s conviction and sentence of Paul Mitchell, the Birmingham City supporter who ran onto the pitch during Sunday’s match between Birmingham and Aston Villa and assaulted Villa footballer Jack Grealish. Below are my provisional thoughts.

What were the charges?

Paul Mitchell was charged with battery, contrary to s39 Criminal Justice Act 1988. He was also charged with an offence of encroaching onto a football pitch (presumably s4 Football Offences Act 1991). He pleaded guilty to both offences at his first appearance today before Birmingham Magistrates’ Court, the offences having been committed yesterday. A good live account of today’s court proceedings can be found here.

Why was the case dealt with so quickly?

Many people have remarked on how quickly this case was processed – barely 24 hours between offence and sentence. But this is not unusual where a defendant is arrested, charged with a summary offence (one that can only be tried at the magistrates’ court) and refused police bail. The police have the power to charge this type of battery without needing the Crown Prosecution Service to authorise the charge (see the Director’s Guidance on Charging), so the process is quicker. A defendant charged and kept in police custody will be produced at the magistrates’ court the next day. If a defendant pleads guilty, the court will usually require a Pre-Sentence Report to be prepared by the Probation Service, to make recommendations as to how best deal with the offender. It’s now common for this to be done the same day. Given that the offence was captured from multiple angles by high-definition television cameras, there was little choice but to plead guilty.

What about the sentence? How did the court arrive at 14 weeks? 

Mr Mitchell received 14 weeks’ imprisonment, as well as a 10-year football banning order. He was ordered to pay £100 in compensation to Mr Grealish, £135 in prosecution costs and a mandatory £150 Victim Surcharge.

When assessing sentence, the magistrates are required to follow the Sentencing Guideline for Assault. Here it is:

The maximum sentence for battery is 6 months’ imprisonment. (If injury had been caused, it would likely be charged as causing actual bodily harm, which carries a maximum sentence of 5 years). The maximum sentence for going onto the playing area is a fine.

A defendant who pleads guilty at the earliest opportunity – i.e. at his first appearance – is entitled to one third off his sentence. That applies to all defendants, even where, as in this case, the evidence is overwhelming.

This means that the maximum sentence the magistrates could have passed was 17 weeks.

14 weeks is therefore almost as high as they could go.

Looking at the Guidelines, in order to reach this sentence, the magistrates must have put this case in Category 1. This requires a finding of “Greater Harm” and “Higher Culpability”. On its face, it’s not easy to see how they did this (and without full sentencing remarks, we are somewhat in the dark).

There was no injury, and it was a single blow (rather than a sustained or repeated attack), so the only possible feature of Greater Harm was the particular vulnerability of the victim. It might be argued that as a man going about his job surrounded by tens of thousands of excitable spectators and relatively limited security, Mr Grealish qualifies as particularly vulnerable, although it’s a bit of a stretch.

Similarly, the features of “Higher Culpability” don’t immediately recommend themselves. Arguably there was an intention to cause greater harm than was in fact caused, but a single blow without a weapon makes this a tricky argument. Significant premeditation? Doesn’t look like it, unless Mitchell had told others in advance of his plans. Again, we may be left trying to characterise Mr Grealish as vulnerable to get this box ticked.

As for the other aggravating and mitigating features, there hasn’t been a lot of detail provided. The location and timing of the offence are aggravating features (the victim’s place of work in front of a national audience). We don’t know what the Pre-Sentence Report said about Mr Mitchell’s personal circumstances. We know that he had previous convictions for non-violent offences, but it’s not clear what they were and how relevant they were (whether, for example, they related to football). We know that his solicitor expressed remorse on his behalf, and that Mr Mitchell was a father of one with a second child on the way. How these were all balanced is unclear without knowing the magistrates’ full reasons.

I’m loath to draw any firm conclusions without knowing the magistrates’ reasoning, but on its face, it looks as if there would have had to be a fair bit of creative interpretation to get Mr Mitchell into Category 1 and towards the top end.

There is an alternative explanation. The magistrates made clear the need for deterrent sentencing for this kind of offence, and it may be that they held that, even though the offence would ordinarily fall within Category 2 or 3, the circumstances were such that it was in the interests of justice to move outside the category range on the Guideline and into Category 1. This, I’d guess, would be how they would justify the sentence.

The potential for widespread public disorder, as others have pointed out, may well have been a factor which the court treated as seriously aggravating. Context is everything. Those saying “he wouldn’t have got this for a punch in the street” miss the point. This wasn’t the street. It was a deliberate assault involving trespass onto a playing area, calculated to hurt and humiliate a man lawfully going about his job in front of a stadium of thousands and a television audience of millions. I have little doubt that Mr Mitchell has been treated particularly severely because this was a high profile assault; but he deliberately chose to make it high profile. He selected the location and the occasion. Those are aggravating features.

As ever, this whole exercise involves a fair bit of guesswork, because our justice system still struggles to do basic things such as providing a copy of the sentencing remarks in cases of enormous public interest. But that’s my rough take. A stiff sentence, but probably justifiable.

 

How does this compare to other cases of football spectator violence?

It is difficult and somewhat artificial to compare sentences, but one I’ll mention (because I’ve commented on it before) is the racially aggravated assault on Raheem Sterling. While  taking place outside the training ground rather than on the football pitch, this offence involved a much more serious assault, with repeated kicking (characterised by the Guidelines as using a weapon) which caused bruising, and the use of racist language. The offender was sentenced to 16 weeks’ imprisonment (the maximum sentence for racially aggravated battery is 2 years). I wrote at the time that I thought this sentence, based on the reported facts, was lenient, and this case arguably casts it into even starker relief.

Home Alone 2: Lost In The Live Tweet

Many if not most of you will have already seen this, but I decided to mark Festivus Eve (22nd December) by live-tweeting a festive favourite, Home Alone 2: Lost In New York, and doing my muddled best to analyse it through the lens of English and Welsh criminal law (a lens somewhat fuzzed by a few mulled wines). The first tweet is below; click to be taken to the full thread.

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From there things got a bit mad, as reporters desperate for copy and merry on leftover Asti from the Christmas party stumbled across the thread and mistook it for something newsworthy. By Christmas Day, the “story” had caught the attention of MailOnline:

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And some of their greatest below-the-line comments:

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Then the the Evening Standard got wind.

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The Metro wasn’t far behind.

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Yahoo Celebrity News got in on the act.

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The Sun managed to misunderstand the point entirely:

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The story hit Ireland:

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We trended in New Zealand:

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Somehow Bangladesh found it worth reporting:

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and even Putin’s propaganda sheet Sputnik News were running the “story”.

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Perhaps most barking of all, when Home Alone 2 was screened on Channel 4 on Christmas Day, the continuity announcer referenced the live tweet.

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Overall, the thread has now apparently had over a million impressions on Twitter. I don’t know what this says, either about me or society. But nevertheless, Merry Christmas to you all, and thank you for your support. This has been a memorable one.

A few thoughts on the “£23m extra” for legal aid

Just a few thoughts about this story on the proposed “£23m increase” in legal aid criminal defence fees, which has been making some headlines. The Ministry of Justice has loudly publicised the agreement struck with the Criminal Bar Association over legal aid rates paid to criminal defence advocates – the story was even towards the top of the Radio 4 news bulletins – so some context may help anyone not fluent in the vacillating politics of the criminal Bar (i.e. normal people).

As an opening disclaimer, nothing that follows is intended as a dig at or slight towards those who have worked exceptionally hard on behalf of the criminal Bar to negotiate with an historically untrustworthy and dishonest Ministry of Justice. They have done their best, and have secured gains. However.

The MoJ’s press release headline is “The government will spend an additional £23 million on fees for criminal defence advocates”. This sounds like a big figure, and the MoJ want the public to think it’s a big figure, legal aid fat cats and all that. So let’s put it in context.

The Advocates Graduated Fee Scheme, which pays defence advocates in legal aid cases, has been cut relentlessly over recent years. As has the overall criminal legal aid budget. As has the overall legal aid budget. As has the overall MoJ budget. Approx 40% across the board.

Criminal legal aid has been cut in real terms by £340m since 2011/12. That has been achieved partially by cutting fees paid to advocates (AGFS), part by cutting fees paid to litigators (solicitors) (LGFS), part by restricting availability of legal aid to those accused of crimes.

To cut a long story of cuts very short, the latest wheeze by the MoJ was to introduce a new scheme of AGFS earlier this year. Its effect was to cut the fees in some complex cases by up to 80% (see this open letter). The Bar took action in April and refused to accept new defence cases under this scheme. This is because already poorly-paid work, particularly for the most junior practitioners, was simply unviable. We’re talking £3-an-hour unviable in some cases. The MoJ insisted the new scheme was “cost neutral”, just moving money around. This was untrue. It was a cut of £9m.

The MoJ persuaded the criminal Bar by a Brexit-like margin (51.5% to 48.5%) to vote to go back to work on the promise of £15m extra  being injected into the scheme by October 2018. The MoJ did not keep its promise. Firstly, the agreement had been that this £15m would be added to the AGFS spend for 2016/17. When it published its proposals, the MoJ disingenuously added the £15m to the figures for 2017/18, which were significantly lower (due to falling caseloads), and this had the effect of only increasing the 2016/17 spend by £8.6m. Secondly, it was not done in time for October as promised. So in November we’re still working on the new (terrible) rates.

There have since been further negotiations between the Bar and the MoJ, in an effort to undo at least some of the damage. The upshot is this “additional £23m”, which in fact simply represents the £15m which we were originally promised. (£23m is the figure you get if you use the 2017/18 figures.) And it’s worth noting that all these figures include VAT at 20%, which we are required to charge and pay to the taxman. So a good sixth of that figure is going straight back to the Treasury.

But in any case, what do these abstract figures mean? Not much. For a start, it’s based on modelling. So the increase only amounts to this figure if the workload in the courts remains broadly the same. It won’t, because fewer cases are being charged and brought to court, to save money. Without seeing the figures in the boxes (the details have not yet been published), it is impossible to properly assess how far this extra money will go, but to give context, the total spend on AGFS in 2016/17 was around £227m. So an added £15m is very small beer. It will probably help smooth some of the roughest edges in the scheme, but doesn’t touch the sides of the cuts over the past decade. Legal aid rates remain artificially low.

Junior criminal barristers will still be covering all-day hearings for senior colleagues and taking home less than £40 for the privilege. We will still have trials that we’ve spent days preparing randomly refixed by the court for dates we can’t do, and will be paid £0. We will still be paid not a penny to read through thousands of pages of disclosure – the vital material that could hold the key to saving an innocent person from years in prison. Our median take-home pay will still be a modest £27k. The most junior will still take home under £8k.

HOWEVER, here’s the point. It’s not actually about us. We choose this career and go into it with our eyes open. There’s a far bigger picture, which we must not lose sight of.

Much as what we get paid matters to us (and to society – you ain’t gonna have much of a lawyer prosecuting your burglar or defending you against a false allegation if they’re billing £5 an hour), it’s a tiny piece of that picture. The whole justice system needs investment.

The justice budget has been cut by 31% – by £2.9 BILLION – since 2010, with a further 9% cut (£800million) to take effect by 2020. The effects are those I, any many others, highlight every day. They are why I wrote the book. The justice system is broken.

The police have no resources to catch criminals. The CPS don’t have resources to prosecute, or to comply with disclosure to protect the innocent. The courts that haven’t been closed are crumbling, leaking wrecks. Victims, witnesses and defendants face chronic delays and errors.

Some defendants are excluded entirely from legal aid, forced to self-represent or pay privately. If acquitted, the government will not pay back their legal fees in full, leaving them destitute.

Prisons are too horrific to put into words, although I try here:

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So while the MoJ may congratulate itself, make no mistake – this is not a solution. Not even close. £15m for legal aid when you’ve sacrificed £4bn, demolished the court & prison estate and excluded the most vulnerable from accessing justice, is not the end. It’s barely the start.

Legally Blonde: The Live Tweet

In the final (for now) instalment in my relentless flogging of pop culture, Friday night was spent Live-Tweeting the legal cinematic classic, Legally Blonde. If you want to find out how it went, click on the Tweets below.

 

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Love In The First Degree: Analysing the legal misconceptions of Bananarama

This weekend’s Twitter thread, which has received a surprisingly warm reception (even from Bananarama themselves), is as below. It is important, it struck me as I sat stationary on a snow-stranded train, that we always hold (girl) power to account and challenge legal myths wherever they arise, however difficult that may be.

🎵And the judge and the jury, they all put the blame on me

They wouldn’t go for my story, they wouldn’t hear my plea…

Only you can set me free, coz I’m guilty, guilty as a girl can be

Come on baby, can’t you see, I stand accuuuused of love in the first degree🎵

[THREAD]

There are many legal inaccuracies and errors that Bananarama fall into here. I think it’s important that we address them.

 

Firstly, Bananarama erroneously assume that the judge AND the jury are judging the merits of the defence. This is simply not true. Judges in Crown Courts, even Courts of Love, are judges of law alone. The verdict is for the jury.

 

The ONLY way this would stand up to scrutiny is if the judge had ruled, as a matter of law, that a particular defence was not available, and directed the jury in such terms. Absent further detail, we cannot assume that this happened.

 

Secondly, the existence of a jury indicates that there is a contested trial to determine guilt. HOWEVER…

 

…Bananarama confess – openly – that they are not only guilty, but guilty as a girl can be (by which they are presumably accepting a degree of culpability placing them at the top of the range of the highest category on the relevant Sentencing Guideline).

 

In such circumstances, it is nonsensical for them to express surprise or complaint at the jury rejecting their “plea” (by which they presumably mean defence). They are to blame for admitting guilt in front of the jury and for wasting scarce court resources on a needless trial.

 

If Bananarama simply wanted to contest the *factual basis* of their admitted guilt, then they should be having a trial of issue (“Newton hearing”) in front of a judge alone. Their advocate should have advised them as such. This is plainly negligent.

 

In any event, there are live criminal proceedings and Bananarama are imploring the key witness (“only you can set me free”) to intervene to prevent the consequences of their admitted criminality. Bananarama are shamelessly attempting to pervert the course of justice.

 

In these circumstances, it is frankly unsurprising that, at the start of the song, Bananarama are “locked in a prison cell”. The judge was clearly right to withhold bail given the substantial grounds for believing that Bananarama would interfere with witnesses if granted bail.

 

In practical terms, Bananarama would be properly advised to spend less time imploring the complainant to help them, and seek advice on the merits of an appeal against conviction. That they haven’t is almost certainly down to savage legal aid cuts depriving them of representation.

 

My view, for what it’s worth, is that such an appeal would have merit. Because, and I have reread ALL my law books to make sure I’m right on this, there is NO criminal offence in England and Wales of “love in the first degree.” This is simply a common tabloid misconception.

 

That the CPS charged this case at all is a damning indictment on its chronic lack of resources and obsession with targets above all else. Far better, I would advise, to concede the appeal and bring new charges for the perverting the course of justice (above).

 

In conclusion, nothing about this Bananarama trial sits right with me. While we must be calm and not jump to conclusions without knowing the full facts, I am deeply troubled that something has gone badly wrong. Or that Bananarama’s legal research is not what it should be.

[ENDS]

 

Next Friday (assuming the trains are still not moving): “Was Meatloaf being incited to commit a criminal offence, and therefore well within his rights to refuse to do *that*?”

Why did a Britain First supporter who wanted to “kill a Muslim” and drove his van at a pedestrian only receive 33 weeks’ imprisonment?

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.

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Marek Zakrocki