The meaning of justice

This will be (for now) my last word on the Tommy Robinson appeal. My legal analysis based on the facts as we now know them deals exhaustively and exhaustingly with the law; my reflections at the conclusion of that piece on whether I was too hasty to assume the correctness of the procedure, I stand by. Being quick to form views in the absence of the full facts is a bear trap I haughtily deplore when others fall in; it is only right to acknowledge if and when I teeter on the brink myself.

But I want to say something, for what little it is worth, about our understanding of justice. And my leaping-off point for this is something that a number of people have drawn my attention to today – this leader in The Sun.

The tweets to me accompanying this photo have been almost uniform: Who’d Have Thunk it, The Sun sticking it to Robinson and Co, Good On ‘Em.

And parts of this leader are indeed brilliant. Whacking to pieces the myth of this oppressed citizen journalist is vital, and needs doing as often as the piñata is reassembled by far-right agitators. Pointing out that the reporting restrictions that Robinson breached have nothing to do with political correctness and everything to do with ensuring a fair trial – the genius is in the simplicity of its expression. Spelling out in equally simple and clear terms the danger that such actions pose to victims of crime receiving justice – [INSERT MERYL STREEP APPLAUSE GIF].

But there’s a line buried within which troubles me, and echoes a sentiment that has been tweeted at me a lot in the erroneous assumption that I share it:

“His many convictions stretch from violence to fraud. We have no sympathy.”

This ugly and unnecessary throwaway reveals one of the biggest problems we have with our understanding of justice; the same problems that many of us are quick to highlight in our opponents. And that is that Robinson’s character, conduct and previous convictions, as reprehensible as they may be, are utterly irrelevant to the issue determined at the appeal, namely whether he received a fair hearing. If he did not – and he did not – he is as entitled as any of us to redress, or at the very least to an acknowledgment of being wronged. The attitude of “Who cares? He’s a criminal” mirrors the exact sentiment that has left the criminal justice system – from legal aid through to prisons – in its present desperate state.

It is immaterial whether Robinson has committed horrible crimes. Many people who appear before the courts have, especially in my line of work. And rights, if they mean anything, have to apply to everyone. It’s an obvious point, but this fundament of the rule of law is too often forgotten when we are confronted by society’s most unlovely.

If we neglect our first principles of justice, we fall into the trap carefully lain by the far-right. Their entire, dishonest thesis – from Trump through to Robinson – is that they are deprived of natural justice by its unequal, unprincipled application at the hands of liberal enemies of the people. By denigrating and distorting the rule of law they aim to undermine and ultimately destroy it. Implying that Robinson’s previous criminal record renders him less deserving of justice than the rest of us hands the far-right the prize they crave.

Don’t be fooled by the strained triumphalism of the far-right over yesterday’s outcome. This result is a disaster for them. It categorically disproves to a global audience every conspiratorial tenet of their religion. The liberal judges are not locking up political dissidents. There is no state cover-up. Mistakes, when made in the legal system, can and often will publicly be righted.

They may be proclaiming that they fought the law and won, but for the truth just ask The Clash. The winner, if we must talk in such terms, is justice.

Which moves me back to The Sun, and the risk of an equivalent false triumphalism on the other side. For just as the far-right mendaciously spin this righting of a procedural wrong as a “victory for free speech” – by which they mean the right to hound Asians accused of criminal offences – so we risk self-denigration by dismissing, or worse revelling in, the punitive effect of the court’s error. The joy that some are taking in the notion of Robinson’s imprisonment borders on the macabre.

I’m afraid if you’re supportively tweeting me amidst the blizzard of the racist bots to share a gloat that Robinson has maybe spent more time in prison than he should have, or to gleefully cross fingers that he gets longer next time, I’m not your ally in this cause.

It may be, when the contempt matter is dealt with anew by the Old Bailey, that a sentence is passed which matches or even exceeds what Robinson has already served. But at present, he served a sentence that followed an unlawful procedure. That shouldn’t happen. To anybody.

And if he does receive a lesser sentence – if the court, after a full and leisurely hearing at which all mitigation is made available finds that the appropriate sentence is much lower than he received first time round – and if it means he has therefore served longer than he should have, all the arguments I’ve made in my book about miscarriages of justice apply. It’s wrong. He should be entitled to an apology, and recompense, and all the other make-goods I demand on behalf of others. His perceived or actual shittiness is not material. If he has been imprisoned when he should not have been due to state error, it’s as much a problem as if it happened to “one of the good guys”.

So those are my closing musings. I have no issue at all – and nor should any of us – with Robinson seeking to and succeeding to challenge the lawfulness of his treatment at the hands of the courts. We are all entitled to due process, and should all expect, however abominable others may consider us to be, that the law will be applied fairly and correctly. My concern, contrary to what the Breitbarters would like to pretend, has always been the mob lining up behind Robinson to spread lies and quite literal fake news as to what took place, what the factual and legal issues are and how the law operates. Those peddlers of hate and deceit – the UKIPs, the Breitbarts, the Rebel Media, the Infowars, the unmentionable Twitter favourites – I will continue to resist as long as I keep up this vainglorious mission to bring law to the people who own it.

But as for what happens to Robinson now, all that should matter is that he gets justice. If, in his righteous pursuit, he encourages his supporters to continue their threats to the rule of law, their riots, their organised campaigns of racialised misinformation, I will be there waving my tiny paper sword on the front line.

But taking any sort of pleasure in anybody being failed by the justice system? We’re better than that. Let’s show it.

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The Tommy Robinson judgment – what does it all mean?

Today the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) handed down judgment in the appeal of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson), partially allowing the appeal and directing a rehearing at the Crown Court.

What does this mean? Has Tommy been proven innocent? Is this a victory for freedom of speech?

Let’s break it down.

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  1. How did this all start?

Yaxley-Lennon was committed to prison for 13 months on 25 May 2018, after attending a trial at Leeds Crown Court and streaming a live-feed on Facebook in which he broadcasted details of the trial and of the defendants. That particular trial was subject to reporting restrictions imposed by the judge, prohibiting reporting of the details until the conclusion of the trial, and of other linked proceedings. By broadcasting in the way that he did, Yaxley-Lennon was in breach of the reporting restriction, an act which amounts to contempt of court. A year earlier, he had committed a separate contempt of court at Canterbury Crown Court by broadcasting prejudicial material about the case. On that occasion he had been made subject to a suspended sentence of 3 months. On 25 May 2018, when he was found to have committed contempt of court again, he was given 10 months for the new contempt, and the 3 months from Canterbury was “activated” and ordered to run consecutively, making a total period of imprisonment of 13 months.

 

  1. What 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.

The reason is straightforward. The priority in every criminal case is ensuring a fair trial. This of course matters not just to the defendant, whose liberty is on the line, but to the witnesses, complainants, victims and public. Prejudicial material – such as televised speculation over whether a defendant “did it”, or orchestrated campaigns by special interest groups seeking to secure one type of verdict for political reasons – could potentially influence a jury. We don’t sequester juries in England and Wales (barricade them in hotels cut off from the world for the duration of trials). They are instead allowed to continue their normal lives, but are given firm directions by judges not to conduct their own research into the case they are trying,

The reason, juries are told, is twofold. Firstly, a jury’s own independent research runs the risk of being unreliable, even more so in the era of fake news. Deciding the case on flawed information risks catastrophic miscarriages of justice. Secondly, it is not fair to the parties. The advocates in court address the jury and make arguments on the evidence. If juries have taken into account their own private research about which the advocates are unaware, the parties are unable to assess or test its reliability, or to address the jury on what their client (either defendant or prosecution) says about it.

Thirdly, strict rules of evidence operate in criminal trials to filter the evidence that juries hear in a case, to ensure it is (a) relevant, (b) reliable and (c) not overly prejudicial to the defendant. It rather defeats the point if as soon as a juror turns on the TV they are confronted by a perma-tanned bozo offering half-baked opinions on the very matters that a judge has ruled a jury shouldn’t be told about.

 

  1. So nobody can report on criminal trials, is that what you’re saying?

No, far from it. Anything can be reported which is not prejudicial (and which is not subject to reporting restrictions – see below). And if something prejudicial is reported in the course of fair and accurate reporting of an ongoing case, there is a specific statutory 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”. Similarly, publications contributing in good faith to discussions of public affairs or matters of public interest if the risk of prejudice created is merely incidental to the discussion. So, to give a topical example, the media is allowed to discuss and debate the way in which we should deal with the rising incidence of acid attacks, even though there are many such trials ongoing across the country and there is arguably a risk of prejudice in ingraining hostile attitudes among potential jurors. No media outlet has been accused of contempt, and nor is anyone likely to be, for taking part in this general discussion.

So we can see that the law gives considerable latitude to the press and ensures that the media do not shy away from accurate, factual reporting of criminal proceedings, or of discussing matters of public interest. The idea is to balance the importance of open justice with the centrality of ensuring a fair trial.

 

  1. So is that the only way that contempt of court can be committed? Do you have to be prejudicing proceedings?

Not always. 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).

Then there are contempts which strike at the authority of the court, where there is no requirement that the fairness of proceedings be prejudiced. There are what are referred to as “civil contempts”, where, for example, an order made by a court ordering one party to do something is breached, and the other party complains to the court.

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. Such as, for instance, a reporting restriction.

Contempt – however committed – carries a maximum penalty of committal to prison for up to two years. Note that slightly tortured phrasing – “committal to prison”, rather than “sentenced to imprisonment”. It’s a distinction which becomes relevant at the appeal.

 

  1. What is a reporting restriction? I thought you said people are allowed to report fairly and accurately on live criminal cases?

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?

 

  1. Back to Tommy Robinson – how was he in contempt of court?

He was dealt with for two contempts of court.  It helps to take them in turn.

Canterbury

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,), 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.

It was held that this behaviour was capable of prejudicing the ongoing trial. The finding of the judge, from the judgment, was that in acting in this way, Yaxley-Lennon had committed a “criminal contempt” – what is otherwise known as a contempt “in the face of the court”. He was also in contempt by virtue of filming in breach of section 41. He was committed to prison for 3 months, but this was suspended for a period of 18 months. What this meant, as he was told, was as follows:

“[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?”

 

Leeds

Fast-forward to this year. On 25 May 2018, Yaxley-Lennon attended Leeds Crown Court to “report” on an ongoing trial. [The subject of this trial is still subject to reporting restrictions and so is not mentioned here. I will update when the restriction is lifted.] He live-streamed a Facebook video in which he made various comments about the defendants, including reading out their names and referring to their religion, ethnicity and questioning the need for reporting restrictions. He encouraged people to share the video, which many did. This was at a time when, as Robinson knew, a “postponement order” under s.4(2) of the Contempt of Court Act 1981was in place, which prohibited any reporting on the details of the trial until the conclusion of a “linked trial” – as explained above.

If you breach a reporting restriction, you are in contempt of court. This is irrespective of your intent or motive.

And this is where Yaxley-Lennon found himself. Arrested by police (initially for a breach of the peace, but then dealt with in court for contempt – this is entirely unremarkable, despite the attention given to it by Yaxley-Lennon’s supporters) and brought before the judge facing an allegation of contempt. Contempt having been admitted, Yaxley-Lennon’s barrister advanced mitigation, and HHJ Marson committed YL to prison for a total of 13 months. 10 months was for the new offence, with the three-month suspended sentence activated and ordered to run consecutively. The process was quick – 5 hours from arrest to imprisonment.

 

  1. What were the grounds of appeal?

The appeal focussed on three principal arguments:

  1. The findings of contempt at both Canterbury and Leeds did not comply with the Criminal Procedure Rules;
  2. Neither the matter at Canterbury nor Leeds should have proceeded summarily; they should have been adjourned and referred to the Attorney General rather than dealt with swiftly by the trial judge;
  3. The judge in Leeds punished the appellant for matters falling outside the scope of contempt and failed to properly identify the conduct he was treating as contempt of court.

A contemnor (as is the official term) has an automatic right to appeal to the Court of Appeal (unlike ordinary convictions or sentences where the Court of Appeal must give permission to a would-be appellant). However this has to be exercised within 28 days of the finding appealed against. While the appeal against the length of the committal (the “sentence”, if you like) was lodged in time, it was not until some time later that Robinson decided that he wanted to appeal against the findings of contempt. He therefore required the court to grant an extension of time for him to appeal.

Given the misinformation that has been spread, it is worth emphasising two things at this stage. Firstly, it was widely reported (including by me) before the appeal hearing that Robinson was not appealing against the findings of contempt. We did so because this is what Robinson’s official spokesperson, and the media organisation supporting him, publicly announced. He deliberately chose not to publicise the fact that he was appealing against the findings of contempt, and the first that this was known was on the day of the appeal. Secondly, the arguments against the findings of contempt was entirely procedural. In other words, his barrister explicitly accepted that what Robinson had done amounted to contempt of court. The argument was simply that the court hadn’t dealt with it as the law requires.

 

  1. Let’s take each part of the appeal in turn. What was that about the Criminal Procedure Rues?

The Criminal Procedure Rules were introduced in 2005 to impose some sort of order on the routine chaos of criminal proceedings. They are lengthy and comprehensive, and prescribe the procedures that the criminal courts must follow.

Contempt proceedings can be started either by the court (i.e. the judge), or following a reference to the Attorney General, who as the “guardian of the integrity of the administration of justice” often takes charge.

When the court is dealing with an alleged contempt of court, the relevant procedure is set out at Criminal Procedure Rule 48. The law permits the court to deal with contempts summarily – i.e. straight away – or to adjourn to another date, as long as the procedure is fair. What is appropriate will depend on the circumstances. Where someone is interrupting a trial, for instance, it will usually be right for the court to deal with the contempt immediately to avoid further disruption. However the Court of Appeal, referring to case law, emphasised that this procedure should be used sparingly. Where there can safely be an adjournment, there should be.

Another important feature is that the court should “particularise” the contempt – spell it out so that the alleged contemnor knows what they are supposed to have done. An extract of the procedure is here:

If, having completed the initial procedure (which includes offering the contemnor a chance to apologise), the judge decides that further action is to be taken, the court must embark upon an “enquiry” (the name for the hearing of a criminal contempt). A court can postpone an enquiry for further investigation.

 

  1. So where did Canterbury Crown Court go wrong?

It didn’t. Robinson argued that the judge had failed to provide the written statement of particulars of the contempt required by Rule 48.7. However, the Court of Appeal, following the appeal hearing last month, came into receipt of “late disclosure”, which showed that “a deliberate tactical decision was made by [Robinson’s] legal advisers at Canterbury to be complicit in the court’s failure to comply with Rule 48.” The appellant waived legal privilege (a common request made by the Court of Appeal in appeals where criticism is made of how Crown Court proceedings were conducted) which allowed the Court of Appeal to read the legal advice he received. And it emerged that a conscious decision was taken by his legal team not to invite the judge to follow the correct procedure, as they thought they would secure a tactical advantage by making the judge “uneasy” about the proceedings.

The Court of Appeal was not impressed, telling Robinson:

“It lies ill in the mouth of an appellant to complain of the failure of the court below to follow the appropriate procedural steps when that failure was fully appreciated at the time and remained deliberately uncorrected for tactical reasons and collateral advantage.”

The Court added that the new barristers instructed for the appeal were unaware of this until after the appeal hearing, and disclosed it promptly when it came to their attention.

In any case, the Court of Appeal said that nothing procedurally was flawed in Canterbury. The judge had adjourned the contempt hearing for 12 days to allow time for him to take legal advice. Any failure to follow the CrimPR was immaterial.

The appeal against the Canterbury contempt was therefore dismissed.

 

10. What about Leeds Crown Court?

This was very different. The time between arrest and imprisonment was five hours. The Court of Appeal was highly critical:

“Such haste gave rise to a real risk that procedural safeguards would be overlooked, the nature of the contempt alleged would remain inadequately scrutinised and that points of significant mitigation would be missed. Those risks materialised.”

The Court of Appeal said that the judge was right to order that Robinson immediately take down the video, but that he should then have “taken stock”. He should have either adjourned for a later hearing, or referred the matter to the Attorney General to consider. The Court of Appeal displayed some sympathy towards the judge’s position, but made clear it disapproved of his chosen course:

“We recognise that the judge was placed in an invidious position because he was concerned about the integrity of the trial which was almost at its end. The three trials, of which this was the second, were exceptionally difficult and sensitive. Having decided to suspend the deliberations of the jury, it is understandable that he may have felt under some pressure to resolve the issue of the appellant’s contempt expeditiously. However, once it had become apparent that the appellant was co-operating in removing the material from the internet, there was no reason why the jury could not have been permitted to resume their deliberations. If there was any doubt about the intentions of the appellant, the judge could have sought an undertaking from or ordered, the appellant not to comment further on the trial or approach the court until the trial (or trials) had concluded.”

There was also confusion, due to the lack of particulars of the contempt, as to what conduct the judge was dealing with Robinson for. He was in breach of the reporting restriction, but the judge also appeared to suggest that other comments in the video – relating to the defendants’ ethnicity and religion – would amount to a separate criminal contempt. But it was all rather fuzzy, and deeply unsatisfactory:

“In our judgment the failure to follow the requirements of Part 48 of the Rules was much more than a technical failure. In contempt proceedings, touching as they do on the liberty of the subject, there is a need for the contempt in question to be identified with precision and the conduct of the alleged contemnor identified with sufficient particularity to enable him, with the assistance of legal advice, to respond to what is a criminal charge, in all but name. In this case there was no clarity at all about what the appellant was admitting and for what parts of his broadcast he was considered by the judge to be guilty of contempt of court for breach of the section 4(2) order.”

As far as the length of sentence was concerned, the Court of Appeal criticised the decision not to adjourn for a Pre-Sentence Report (or “Pre-Commital Report”), and accepted that the speed of the hearing meant that the level of detail of mitigation put before the court was “very limited indeed”.

 

  1. So the Court of Appeal quashed the Leeds contempt?

It did, and all consequential orders (i.e. the sentence) fell away. However that is not the end of it. The Court remitted (sent back) the contempt for a fresh hearing at the Crown Court before a different judge. When the contempt is established (as it surely will be given that Robinson has admitted through his barrister at the Court of Appeal that he breached the reporting restrictions), he will be sentenced afresh.

 

  1. What’s the point? As Tommy’s barrister said, he’s served the equivalent of a four-month sentence. If the Court of Appeal accepted that there was important mitigation not heard, surely he’s going to receive a much shorter sentence?

Not necessarily. There was a sting in the tail of the judgment. The Court of Appeal observed that “the alleged contempt was serious and the sentence might be longer than that already served.” It also set out, for the benefit of any future sentencing court, the criteria that should be considered when passing sentence:

(a)  the effect or potential consequences of the breach upon the trial or trials and upon those participating in them;

(b)  the scale of the breach, with particular reference to the numbers of people to whom the report was made, over what period and the medium or media through which it was made;

(c)  the gravity of the offences being tried in the trial or trials to which the reporting restrictions applied;

(d)  the contemnor’s level of culpability and his or her reasons for acting in breach of the reporting restrictions;

(e)  whether or not the contempt was aggravated by subsequent defiance or lack of remorse;

(f)  the scale of sentences in similar cases, albeit each case must turn on its own facts;

(g)  the antecedents, personal circumstances and characteristics of the contemnor;

(h)  whether or not a special deterrent was needed in the particular circumstances of the case.

Additionally, cases involving a breach of a section 4(2) postponement order will often give rise the following potential consequences:

(a)  Trials may have to be abandoned irretrievably;

(b)  Juries may have to be discharged and retrials ordered with all the consequent delays and expense;

(c)  Witnesses, some of them perhaps vulnerable, may have to face the ordeal of giving evidence for a second time;

(d)  The trial judge’s decision upon how to manage the trial in response to the contempt may form the subject matter of an appeal which, whether or not successful, will generate additional anxiety, delay and expense.

 

  1. So Tommy is free. This is a victory for free speech, right?

No. It is a victory for the procedural rules, and a sharp reminder to the courts of the need to follow them. But certain key takeaways remain:

  1. Robinson admitted that he was in contempt of court at Canterbury, through racially charged and aggressive hounding of defendants which risked derailing a serious sex trial and denying justice to victims of sexual offending;
  2. Robinson admitted through his barrister that he was in breach of the reporting restrictions at Leeds Crown Court. It was never suggested, by his barrister or anyone else, that the reporting restrictions were inappropriate. It was agreed by all that they were necessary to ensure the fairness of serious trials.
  3. “Free speech” has nothing to do with this decision. This was not a case of Robinson “exposing” something the state was trying to cover up. At both Canterbury and Leeds, he was interfering in a live criminal trial in defiance of laws designed to ensure the trial was fair. The cases would have been reported in full by journalists once the postponement order was over. The only thing added to the sum of human experience by Robinson’s “citizen journalism” was the very real risk of serious criminal cases collapsing.

 

14. This shows that you know NOTHING, fake barrister. You were wrong, weren’t you?

Yes. My initial impression, based on the limited information available, was that the summary procedure was appropriate in the Leeds case. As the Court of Appeal explained, it was not. There were alternatives open to the judge which should have been explored. There were also obvious failings to abide by the procedural rules, although I would plead in mitigation that none of that information was available at the time that the story was first reported. As a result, the hearing was not fair. Whether the sentence was appropriate was not decided by the Court of Appeal and may perhaps be best assessed by what the freshly-constituted Crown Court decides to do, (although my position on that was neutral – I observed simply that the sentence was not out of the ordinary for serious contempts of court.)

So I hold my hands up – imperfect information makes for imperfect predictions. But is there a wider issue here, among me and other legal commentators? Were we too quick to dismiss the case with a “nothing to see here” wave of the hand, blinded by the unappealing nature of Robinson’s supporters and the organised maelstrom of fake news stirred up here and abroad? Maybe we were. Maybe we could have – should have – cleared our ears and browsers of the white (pride) noise and paid greater heed to the arguments of due process. Maybe a little more humility is required in these difficult cases. I am normally conscious in all legal blogging to couch in terms of conditionals – if this report is accurate, then the explanation might be X. Was I too quick to assume, wrongly, that the judge had acted correctly?

I think I may have been. But looking back over the litany of plainly false statements circulated between May and now – that Robinson’s “reporting” was nothing more than the BBC had done; that he was targeted by the deep state; that Robinson’s original barrister was an “unqualified duty solicitor”; that TR was never in contempt of court as the trial was over; that the courts were “covering up” serious crimes by certain racial groups; the dishonest framing of the debate as one of “free speech” rather than interfering with justice; and the other hundreds of fantastical theories clogging my Twitter notifications today – I’d suggest, self-servingly, that an inaccurate but well-meaning prediction – such as we all make in the courts every day – is lesser a social evil than the deliberate, racially-tinged misinformation campaign that we do our best to counter.

Tommy Robinson’s appeal: what happened?

Today the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) heard the appeal of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson).

Judgment was reserved, meaning the Court’s decision will not be known for another couple of weeks. However it is worth, given the events of today, having a quick look at what happened. In doing so, I am grateful to the excellent Lizzie Dearden of the Independent who provided a comprehensive live-blog of the hearing from the Royal Courts of Justice, as well as the indispensable Matthew Scott who live-tweeted the hearing, and whose blogpost on the subject tells you everything you could ever need to know.

Background

Some of the background was set out in my first blog after Yaxley-Lennon was committed to prison for contempt at Leeds Crown Court on 25 May 2018. The full facts were, and to an extent are still, unknown. The judgment will, when it is handed down, hopefully fill the gaps, but in a nutshell it was reported that Yaxley-Lennon had committed contempt of court twice over.

The first contempt of court occurred at Canterbury Crown Court last year, when, in the course of a trial, Yaxley-Lennon engaged in the following behaviour.

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,), 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.

It was held that this behaviour was capable of prejudicing the ongoing trial. The finding of the judge, from the judgment, was that in acting in this way, Yaxley-Lennon had committed a “criminal contempt” – what is otherwise known as a contempt “in the face of the court”. He was also in contempt by virtue of filming in breach of section 41.

Contempt – however committed – carries a maximum penalty of committal to prison for up to two years. Note that slightly tortured phrasing – “committal to prison”, rather than “sentenced to imprisonment”. It’s a distinction which becomes relevant at the appeal.

So that is the first contempt. Yaxley-Lennon was committed to prison for 3 months, but this was suspended for a period of 18 months. What this meant, as he was told, was as follows:

“[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?”

Fast-forward to this year. On 25 May 2018, Yaxley-Lennon attended Leeds Crown Court to “report” on an ongoing trial. [The subject of this trial is still subject to reporting restrictions and so is not mentioned here. I will update when the restriction is lifted.] He live-streamed a Facebook video in which he made various comments about the defendants, including reading out their names. This was at a time when reporting restrictions were in place – a type of restriction called a “postponement order” under s.4(2) of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 – which prohibited any reporting on the details of the trial until a later date. That later date would have been the conclusion of a “linked trial” – it is normal in Engand and Wales that, where there are multiple defendants to be tried in a big criminal case, and there are too many defendants for all to be tried at the same trial, there is instead a series of individual, linked trials. In order to ensure that anything said or done in the first trial does not risk prejudicing a potential jury for a later trial, the court will often impose a “postponement order”. The full details of everything can then be reported freely at the conclusion of all of the proceedings.

If you breach a reporting restriction, you are in contempt of court. This is irrespective of your intent or motive.

And this is where Yaxley-Lennon found himself. Arrested by police (initially for a breach of the peace, but then dealt with in court for contempt – this is entirely unremarkable, despite the attention given to it by Yaxley-Lennon’s supporters) and brought before the judge facing an allegation of contempt. Contempt having been admitted, Yaxley-Lennon’s barrister advanced mitigation, and HHJ Marson committed YL to prison for a total of 13 months. 10 months was for the new offence, with the three-month suspended sentence activated and ordered to run consecutively.

He appealed, and here we are.

 

The grounds of appeal

A number of issues were raised by Yaxley-Lennon’s barrister, Jeremy Dein QC.

The first – and most surprising to those of us who had relied on Yaxley-Lennon’s spokesperson’s claim that he was only appealing the length of the terms of imprisonment – was the announcement at the outset of the hearing that the appellant was seeking to appeal against the finding of contempt, not only at Leeds Crown Court, but also the finding of contempt at Canterbury Crown Court last year.

Appeals have to be lodged within 28 days of the finding of contempt, so the first hurdle to clear is an application for an extension of time. Jeremy Dein QC submitted that there had been a delay in Yaxley-Lennon receiving legal advice due to difficulties experienced by his legal representatives in visiting him in prison. In relation to the Canterbury case, Mr Dein submitted that Y-L had not been aware of any legal flaw in procedure until he had received this most recent legal advice. The appeal against the contempt itself, as opposed to just the “sentence”, was therefore lodged late in the day. (There was an earlier report that the initial date for the appeal had been vacated. It may well be that the late lodging of these grounds, and the significant change in the way in which the appeal was framed, was the reason).

The arguments against both contempts centred around alleged “procedural deficiencies”. That is to say, there was not any argument that Y-L had not acted in a way that would amount to contempt; rather it was said that the way in which the courts had dealt with it meant that the contempts should not stand as a matter of law.

 

Leeds Crown Court

It was argued that HHJ Marson was wrong to proceed to deal with the contempt “summarily” – i.e. by hearing it himself on the day that the contempt was committed. It was said that Y-L was prejudiced by the speed with which the case was dealt with.

The Criminal Procedure Rules allow for a judge to deal with contempt summarily. There is an initial procedure that the court should follow (CrimPR 48.5(2)), which requires the court to do the following:

If, having completed the initial procedure (which includes offering the contemnor a chance to apologise), the judge decides that further action is to be taken, the court must embark upon an “enquiry” (the name for the hearing of a criminal contempt). A court can postpone an enquiry for further investigation. It is commonplace for contempt to be dealt with swiftly and summarily, but it was argued that in this case it resulted in prejudice to the appellant.

The reason for this, it was said, is that although Y-L’s barrister at the hearing accepted the contempt on Y-L’s behalf and apologised for it, Y-L was not directly asked whether he admitted the conduct, and was not given the opportunity to apologise (required by CrimPR 48.5(2)(b)). This, it was said, amounted to a serious procedural defect. The court should have made clearer how it defined the contempt, and should have ascertained exactly what Y-L did and did not accept. It was accepted that the procedural error made no difference to whether Y-L was in contempt, but was said that it was so serious that the contempt should be quashed.

 

Canterbury Crown Court

It was submitted that it was unclear under which law – i.e. which species of contempt – Y-L was found to be in contempt and sentenced at Canterbury. As set out in my previous blog, Y-L appeared to be in contempt in two ways – a breach of the statutory prohibition on filming inside court buildings under s.41 of the Contempt of Court Act 1925, and a contempt “in the face of the court”.

There was also a suggestion that the fact that HHJ Norton in Canterbury had expressed Y-L’s sentence as “3 months’ imprisonment”, rather than “a committal of 3 months”, was an error of law. [This is correct; however it is far from unusual. Often judges will conflate terms such as “imprisonment” and “detention” (the latter applies to offenders under 21), but it makes no practical difference, and is corrected by the Court of Appeal as a technicality.]

 

Length of committal

As for the length of the committal, the following submissions were advanced:

  • Y-L was not acting with “impertinent defiance”, and had in fact asked a police officer outside Leeds Crown Court if his actions were in contempt of court;
  • Because certain matters had been reported earlier in the press (before the imposition of reporting restrictions), Y-L believed that they were already in the public domain;
  • He did not intend to breach the reporting restriction, albeit he was aware of it;
  • Due to the limited time that Y-L spent with his barrister on 25 May, important matters of mitigation were not before the court, such as the fact that Y-L said he had undertaken media training;
  • The court was also not made aware of the impact of prison upon Y-L when he was sentenced in 2013, which had left him unable to sleep, nauseas and anxious;
  • That in passing sentence the judge attached improper weight to things said by Y-L said on the Facebook livestream which were not of themselves contemptuous.

It was submitted that, everything considered, 10 months was too high a starting point for the Leeds contempt, and furthermore that it was “unfair” that the 3-month suspended sentence was activated.

 

The amicus

The Attorney General appointed counsel, Louis Mably QC, to act as “amicus” (“friend to the court”). Contempts are generally not a matter for the prosecution (being “offences” committed against and enforced by the court), but where there are questions of law with which the Court of Appeal may wish for assistance. Given the technical argument over the effect of the alleged breach of the Criminal Procedure Rules, the appointment of an amicus appears sensible.

Mr Mably argued that a breach of the Criminal Procedure Rules does not of itself invalidate a finding of contempt, particularly where it is accepted that it had no bearing on the outcome of the case. He said that, regarding the Leeds matter, an adjournment would not have made a practical difference to the outcome – while doing so might have allowed the court to more properly articulate the nature of the contempt, Y-L would still (as he accepted through Mr Dein) have been in contempt of court. However, importantly, Mr Mably did accept that not adjourning could have affected the sentence imposed.

 

Conclusion

Jeremy Dein QC played a canny game by emphasising the Criminal Procedure Rules, compliance with which, as he reminded the Court, is considered of utmost importance by Sir Brian Leveson, the President of the Queen’s Bench Division. The Court must decide to what extent a failure to follow the Rules (if indeed such a failure is made out) impacts the validity of a finding of contempt. In general, the Court of Appeal nowadays does not have much time for technical arguments, and as both prosecution and defence appeared to accept that there would not have been a difference to the findings, this ground of appeal may not hold much sway.

Hostage-to-fortune time, what would my best prediction be? Emphasising that we still do not know the full facts – transcripts of what happened at Leeds Crown Court, for example, were before the Court of Appeal and will be vital in establishing the key issues (e.g. whether the contempt was put to Y-L; what procedure was followed; what was said in mitigation), and the parties referred to written submissions that have not yet been made public – my guess is that the Court will not agree that the contempts are invalid, but may well find that relevant matters of mitigation were not taken into account, and so reduce the sentence by a few months.

Guest post by Fern Champion: The government thinks it is doing enough to fund Rape Crisis centres. My story shows they are wrong.

I am honoured to host this guest post by Fern Champion. Fern is next week giving evidence to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Sexual Violence, speaking from her own experience about the widespread problems in accessing Rape Crisis centres. This is Fern’s story.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve tried to do this. To tell my story and have it listened to. To engage with police, insurance companies, support services, employers, and friends across the globe.

I need to talk to the police” I said to the girl working on the reception of the hostel I was staying at in Kuala Lumpur, as I walked in clutching my bra in my hands.

“I’ve been raped” I said on the phone to the British Embassy Consulate the next day, after spending the last 24 hours either with the police or in hospital.

“I’ve missed my flight because when I should have been boarding, I was being examined by a surgeon” I said to my airline and travel insurance company.

I think I had my drink spiked and had to have a pregnancy test” I said to my friend who I sent various incomprehensible messages to the night before.

So here it is, one more time. My story, which really isn’t just my story.

On the 18th/early hours of the 19th July 2016, I was raped by a man whilst I was heavily intoxicated.  He first assaulted me whilst I was unconscious on his couch, and then he carried me to his bed where he forced his penis into my mouth, vagina and anus throughout the night, all while I was passing in and out of consciousness. Everytime I protested, he told me that he could “really fucking hurt me”. It wasn’t difficult to pin me down.

My assault occurred in Kuala Lumpur. I was 3 months in to my cliche ‘gap year’ and I had a series of flights booked the day after to get me to New Zealand, where I would be living for a year.

In August 2016, I arrived in Wellington, New Zealand, and met with the Wellington Rape Crisis. I was put in contact with them through the British Consulate Office in Kuala Lumpur, and they immediately put me on their waiting list for support and treatment.

I spent the next year trying to rebuild my life on the other side of the world, having arrived in New Zealand with 26p left of my overdraft. I spent a lot of that time working, though I got to travel too. I fought against my insurance company for six solid months, though eventually I won. I can’t make out that whole year was terrible, because it wasn’t. I got to live and work in one of the most beautiful countries on earth. I furthered my career, built lasting friendships and even got to work with the WRC on publishing a ‘Survival Guide’ for travellers who are assaulted overseas, but I had to do all that whilst processing what happened to me with no support. I spent the entirety of my year in New Zealand on Wellington Rape Crisis’ waiting list.

In August 2017, I arrived back in the UK and contacted both East and South London Rape Crisis centres but was told that I could not get onto the waiting list at either. In September I moved to Tooting and was told by SLRC to try again in January 2018. That month, I also contacted my local MP, Dr Rosena Allin-Khan to discuss the lack of access to support I have been facing since my attack over a year earlier and the impact that must be having on survivors all over the country. She wrote to the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, and asked what steps his Department is taking to provide support to survivors of sexual assault when services are over-subscribed. He replied that “allocations for Sexual Assault Referral Centres have increased this year”. She also asked the Secretary of State for Justice, David Gauke, what he is doing to reduce general access times to rape crisis centres. He responded with “In 2017/18 the MoJ directly allocated around £7.2m as a contribution to 97 Rape Support Centres across England and Wales”

 And yet in March 2018, I was told once again that South London Rape Crisis waiting list remains closed.

This really isn’t just my story. In March 2017, the Crime Survey for England and Wales estimated that 646,000 of adults aged 16 to 59 experienced sexual assault in the previous 12 months. 2017/18 data published by Rape Crisis England and Wales shows that 78,461 individuals accessed Rape Crisis specialist services. The CSEW have not yet published their data for the same period but I think it can be safely assumed that the numbers will remain proportionately similar, meaning that nearly 88% of those sexually assaulted will not have accessed Rape Crisis specialist services. It’s going to take a lot to convince me that that 88% have been able to access support elsewhere, seeing as more and more services are having to shut down their waiting lists.

As such, 17 July 2018 is going to be a big day for me. Not only will it nearly be the two year anniversary since my attack, but I will also be addressing the All Party Parliamentary Group for Sexual Violence, who will be discussing the funding landscape for specialist sexual violence services.  Because I, and everybody else in that 88%, deserve answers.

Why should we be forced to wait months, if not years, on end for sustained support to help us process a trauma which was not our fault in the first place? Why should we endure ongoing nightmares or total emotional oblivion as we continue to sleepwalk through a world that continuously tells us it was our fault, with the knowledge that only 7% of our attackers will be convicted relentlessly pounding our skulls? I reported my attack as soon as I was safe. The police were provided with my medical report, clothes, access to CCTV footage of two different bars, witness statements which corroborated mine, GPS data of where my phone tracked me during the hours of my attack, and still my attacker was not caught. Why?

Why did they ask me what was I wearing? How much I’d had to drink? How many men I’ve previously slept with? Why I didn’t fight? Why I couldn’t remember the details of what happened when I was unconscious?

Why will they never get to ask my attacker why did you rape her?

This government, namely Jeremy Hunt and David Gauke, seem to think they have done enough to help women like me. I am here to tell them they are wrong because somehow, despite all of this, I am one of the lucky ones. In March this year, I was finally able to access support through my employer when I very rapidly crashed through rock bottom and found myself unable to go to work, or even leave the house. How many others in that 88% who have been unable to access Rape Crisis do you think can say the same? As a university educated, white female with a shiney corporate job in the city, I have been protected by a certain amount of privilege which has allowed me to get me to where I am today. What about everybody else? This government, like so many before them, is failing them all.

It has long been known that 1 in 5 women will be raped, or nearly raped in her lifetime. It is now abundantly clear that the vast majority of those women will not be able to access support services crucial to their recovery. Enough is enough. We all have a duty to fight this so I am asking you now, write/tweet/send an owl to your local MP and ask them if they will be attending the APPG on Sexual Violence on the 17 July. Ask them if they will hear my story and help me to create something positive from what has been an almighty shitshow of the last two years. Your MP will represent so many women with stories like mine, maybe even you yourself have a story like mine, so let those stories be heard.

Please don’t let me continue talking to an empty room.

Lunch with the FT

I had the pleasure of a spot of lunch with Barney Thompson, legal correspondent at the Financial Times, for the “Lunch with the FT” feature in this weekend’s edition. Given the profile of interviewee normally invited (recent guests include Woody Harrelson, Anthony Scaramucci and Jacinda Ardern), this is an honour I most certainly don’t deserve, but the prospect of a free lunch trumped any sense of guilt or propriety.

The feature can be found here.

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Why was a homeless man jailed for pretending to run the London Marathon?

A homeless man who picked up a lost race number and “completed” the London Marathon has been jailed for 16 weeks.

Yesterday at Uxbridge magistrates’ court, Stanislaw Skupian (38) was sentenced by magistrates having pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing on 18 May to fraud, after he picked up a race card number dropped by runner Jake Halliday at the 23-mile mark and illicitly joined the race himself. He crossed the finish line and celebrated with the medal intended for Mr Halliday, who found himself removed from the race 300 metres from the Finish line when marshals spotted that he was not wearing a race number.

The Chair of the bench passing sentence told Skupian, a homeless father-of-one who had recently suffered a temporary breakdown in his mental health, “The offences are so serious [that] only a prison sentence will suffice”. 13 weeks’ imprisonment was passed, with three weeks’ imprisonment imposed consecutively for unrelated matters of theft.

The Chief Executive of the London Marathon, Nick Bitel, reportedly said that “justice has been done”. His apparent pleasure with the sentence was not matched by many people on social media, who expressed consternation at a mentally-unwell homeless man being squeezed into our bursting prisons for a non-violent offence.

So what the Dickens has gone on?

The offences

Stanislaw Skupian was charged with fraud by false representation, contrary to sections 1 and 2 of the Fraud Act 2006. The “false representation” being, presumably, the implied representation that he was the rightful owner of Mr Halliday’s race number and was entitled to complete the race and claim the finishers’ medal. This offence carries a maximum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment in the Crown Court, or six months’ imprisonment in the magistrates’ court. He was sentenced to 13 weeks’ imprisonment.

He was also charged with three unrelated offences of theft. He was arrested at the multi-faith prayer room at Heathrow Airport, where he was found with items including a primary school worker’s identity card and a pink diary holding overtime hours worked by airline staff. It was said that Skupian viewed the airport as a temporary home and had picked up items discarded. This would amount to theft (referred to in court as “theft by finding”) under s.1 of the Theft Act 1968. He received three weeks’ imprisonment for these offences, to run consecutively to the 13 weeks imposed on the fraud (it is unclear whether this was one week consecutive for each of the three theft charges, or three weeks on each directed to run concurrently to each other, or some other mad configuration dreamed up by the magistrates).

He was further made subject to a Criminal Behaviour Order, which is the new replacement for the old-fashioned ASBO. These can be imposed where the court is satisfied that a defendant has engaged in behaviour that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to any person, and where a Criminal Behaviour Order will help in preventing the defendant from acting in that way. In this case, the court deemed that banning the defendant from Heathrow Airport for three years, unless he has a pre-booked flight, was an appropriate use of that power.

 

The Sentencing Guidelines

To look at what sentence we might expect, we have to look at the Sentencing Guidelines, which are published by the Sentencing Council and which courts are required by law to follow. So let’s look at the Definitive Guideline for Fraud, Bribery and Money Laundering Offences. The seriousness of an offence is judged by considering the “culpability” of the offender and the “harm” caused by the offence.

On the Guideline for straightforward fraud, the first step is to assess culpability by reference to the below factors:

There are plainly no elements of “High culpability” in this case. It would appear, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, that this was an opportunistic, one-off offence with very little planning, which points towards Lesser culpability.

Now we turn to the assessment of harm:

For fraud, you take as your starting point the financial loss to the victim. Here, it is very low indeed. The cost of entering the London Marathon ballot, at £39, is probably the closest financial value you can attach to this unusual offence (the value of the medal not being easily assessed due to it not being something purchasable on the open market). This puts us in the lowest category, Category 5.

But then we have to look at the impact upon the victim, to see whether it warrants the sentence being moved upwards. This is a slightly unusual case, because although (I expect) the charge would have been drafted with London Marathon as the nominal victim, the person most directly affected is arguably Jake Halliday. He was stopped 300 metres from the finishing line and told that he was not allowed to cross due to his number having fallen off. He had raised £49,000 for a charity, Bloodwise, and was prevented from completing the race, having run the best part of 26 miles, in the cruellest of circumstances. What was (one might expect) a lifetime ambition was snatched away. That no doubt had a considerable detrimental effect on him.

However. Can it really be suggested that Skupian was responsible for depriving Mr Halliday of his moment of glory? It was said in court (and seemingly not disputed) that he spied the discarded race identifier on the floor and saw an opportunity. He did not steal or otherwise remove the number from Mr Halliday. It does not appear that he watched it fall and swooped in. If, as the court apparently accepted, he had simply seen it on the ground, was the damage not already done? Perhaps he could have handed the card to an official, but it is unclear how it could have been reunited with Mr Halliday in order for him to have been able to complete the race. The London Marathon Final Instructions to runners emphasises the importance of taking care of the running number – “Duplicate numbers cannot be issued under any circumstances”. It is also stated that anybody taking part without a number will be removed from the race by marshals “before you cross the Finish line”. Once that number had fallen, it would appear (and I’ll be happily corrected if I’m mistaken) that the game was over for Jake Halliday.

Against this backdrop, it might realistically be argued that while Skupian exploited Mr Halliday’s misfortune, his criminal behaviour did not cause it. The anger and humiliation felt by Mr Halliday when he learned that somebody had claimed his number and completed the race in his stead may well be significant, but is it so great as to move the harm out of “Lesser impact”? I suppose it might. Just.

My assessment is that for these reasons, this case probably falls somewhere between, categories 4C and 5C:

We can see that the latter provides a starting point of a ‘Band B fine’, which equates to around 100% of somebody’s weekly income. The category range is a discharge – a slap on the wrist – up to a medium level community order. If the harm caused is deemed serious enough to lift it up to the next category, the starting point is a medium level community order. Still the category range does not extend to custody. In order to arrive at a category where a custodial term is available, the court would have to have assessed culpability as “B”. I find it tricky to see how this was done.

We then look at aggravating and mitigating factors:

 The defendant had a previous conviction for attempted theft. That was the only matter mentioned in court. So while it is a similar type of offence, this is hardly the kind of record which would seriously aggravate a defendant’s position to make the difference between custody and not-custody. No other aggravating features listed are relevant.

In mitigation, the court heard that the defendant has lived in the UK for 11 years. He suffered a neck injury in a serious car crash last year, forcing him to take sick leave from his catering job. His marriage broke down and he lost his home. Shortly before the race, he had suffered a “short, temporary breakdown in his mental state”. It was also submitted that he had committed the offence out of excitement, without fully appreciating that what he was doing was wrong.

Putting all this together, I’d say there’s more to mitigate his position than to aggravate it. This would mean moving below the starting point on the Guidelines.

We then have the issue of credit for guilty plea. He admitted the offence at the very first hearing, and so is entitled to one third off his sentence. This means that the magistrates must have taken a starting point of 20 weeks in order to arrive at a final sentence of 13 weeks for this offence.

[The thefts we shall put to one side as we do not know their value. What we can infer, however, is that they were considered significantly less serious than the fraud.]

 

Conclusion

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.