I have written something for today’s Guardian. You can find it here.
Hope you’re all staying safe.
I have written something for today’s Guardian. You can find it here.
Hope you’re all staying safe.
UPDATE: At 8am on Monday 23 March 2020, the Lord Chief Justice announced a suspension of new jury trials. The details are vague, and hint at a resumption “where specific safety arrangements have been put in place”, but for now, at least, it seems as if a level of sense has prevailed. Regrettably the announcement came far too late to reach many jurors, who will have already embarked upon needlessly risky travel by public transport, but joined up thinking has never been part of the justice system’s core values.
Today, thousands of citizens of England and Wales will attend their local Crown Court in answer to a summons compelling them, under threat of imprisonment, to do their civic duty and serve on a jury.
They will queue with dozens of other strangers to be herded into a packed jury waiting room. Once selected for a jury panel, they will pile into a dirty, windowless courtroom and sit next to each other for five hours a day. At lunch they will mingle with the hundred or so other jurors in the building. At the conclusion of the trial, they will shuffle into a tiny unventilated retiring room, where they will make a decision which could ultimately determine whether somebody spends years of their life in prison.
This is because, even though the government has closed schools, restaurants, pubs, cafes and leisure centres, one area of public life in which, to quote a government minister, we are “operating normally”, is in the criminal courts.
So while Scotland and Northern Ireland have temporarily suspended jury trials, in England and Wales the Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland and the Lord Chief Justice have decreed that jury trials lasting up to three days – estimated to be 75 per cent of trials – must take place.
They will do so in filthy conditions where lack of hot water, soap and paper towels is widespread; where broken hand dryers and leaking toilets and burst pipes and crumbling roofs and walls are par for the course; conditions which in the good times we in the courts accept as a permanent feature of a chronically underfunded justice system, but which in the current climate present a far more alarming proposition.
Criminal courts are, basic sanitation aside, a petri dish. Scores of defendants are piled into waiting areas. Most travel by public transport; some travel in “sweatbox” security vans from our infested, overcrowded, virus-rivenprisons. Defendants and their families mix with their barristers, who mix with court staff, who mix with witnesses, judges and jurors, who mix with other witnesses, judges and jurors. Courtrooms vary in size and style; in some of our more antique Victorian courts, jurors are squeezed onto hard wooden benches without an inch between them, let alone the government-recommended two metres. In a fairly typical court I was in last week, the defendants, barristers, clerk, usher, witness box and jury box were all within a two-metre radius of each other.
And by insisting that the shortest trials go ahead, the government is ensuring the highest possible churn of cases; the highest possible turnover of strangers coming into contact with each other.
Over the past few days I have been flooded with messages from terrified jurors, witnesses and court staff aghast that, at a time when the government is frantically urging social distancing on the ground that “infections spread easily in closed spaces where people gather together”, they are being required by law to expose themselves to such conditions. In a closing speech last week, one of my colleagues thanked the jury for their dedication at a time when they were no doubt worried about themselves and their families. One of the jurors burst into tears.
This situation is appallingly unfair to all concerned. How on earth can jurors be expected to concentrate on their task? How can any defendant or victim of crime have faith that the twelve people trying their case are paying full attention to the nuances of the evidence, when those twelve are burdened with the knowledge that, as a direct result of their jury service, they, or someone they love, could die?
And contrary to MoJ dicta, we are not operating normally. Judges are self-isolating; defendants, jurors and witnesses are staying at home as they break out with symptoms; and trials are collapsing all over the country. The Witness Service, the organisation responsible for looking after witnesses at court, has withdrawn its volunteers. Many Crown Court judges are making no secret of their disdain for what the MoJ would wish to term a “strategy”, but which more closely resembles a tribute act to Monty Python’s Black Knight chirpily dismissing each collapsed trial as a mere flesh wound.
The official government line is that “justice is not optional”. A sweet homily, betrayed only by the evidence of the past decade, in which victims, defendants and witnesses have found their cases mishandled or delayed for years due to enormous cuts to the budgets of the police, CPS, courts and legal aid. Justice has been optional whenever financially or politically convenient.
The three-day trial rule has no public health basis behind it, other than a chipper optimism that a trial of such a length might have an outside chance of completing before too many of its core participants drop down. The three-day trials will in general concern the less serious and more straightforward criminal allegations which could realistically wait another few months without too much harm being done.
The primary reason for the intransigence appears to be Mr Buckland’s fear of being the Lord Chancellor Who Closed The Courts, a disfiguring blemish on the CV of any aspiring careerist in this Tough On Crime government. There is also a secondary, practical concern: because of cuts, we have a backlog of over 30,000 Crown Court trials and are currently trying cases for offences said to have occurred two or more years ago. The government knows that a standard two-year delay could quickly become three.
The government should adjourn all jury trials listed in the next twelve weeks. In the Autumn, when it may be safer to do so, we can resume with the adjourned cases, only with the financial firehouse turned on. Instead of running at half-capacity, every Crown Court should run at maximum; the Treasury’s largesse must be extended to the justice system so that we don’t endure the farce of perfectly usable courtrooms sitting locked and empty due to “lack of sitting days” while judges get paid to sit at home. The backlog, both Covid-caused and historic, can be blasted away.
In the meantime, of course, justice and the courts cannot halt completely. Technology may – subject to the disastrous history of IT procurement in the courts – be capable of keeping shorter hearings on the road over the coming weeks and months. Video-links and telephone hearings have a poor record in practice, but offer a theoretical throughroad. Penal policy will have to change; early release of low-risk prisoners, hugely reduced sentences for guilty pleas and a statutory presumption against imprisonment may not be popular, but have to be given serious consideration. By minimising the number of participants required to attend hearings, reducing prison overcrowding and ensuring the court estate is fit for human habitation, urgent court business can tick along until we are through the worst.
Justice need not – indeed cannot – stop. Urgent court business must carry on. But jury trials as we know them cannot continue. It is telling that, when it first published its “priorities” in “managing our response to coronavirus”, the Ministry of Justice included no reference at all to the welfare of those actually using the courts. On the day that the “three-day rule” was announced, Robert Buckland tweeted that he was cancelling his constituency surgery because of “the government’s social distancing advice”.
The Lord Chancellor, and Lord Chief Justice, need to afford jurors, witnesses and court professionals the same consideration, and recognise the human cost of their stance before any more lives are unnecessarily put at risk.
I am delighted to host this guest post by Beheshteh Engineer, a third-six pupil. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of her chambers.
During a short-term national crisis, the CJS must provide two key functions:
We suggest the following principles for the operation of courts:
Globally, many courts have begun to impose restrictions on cases (CJEU, New Zealand, Canada, some American states, have all closed courts except for the most urgent cases)
The current system presents 3 distinct problems:
We are all being told to practice social distancing and as of 20 March, the government ordered bars and other shops, to close. Doctors all over social and traditional media are imploring people to stay at home. The message is clear: people should not be going out unless they are essential.
In the past week, we have seen the following: people coming to court displaying the symptoms, prisons bringing sick defendants to court, jurors/advocates/witnesses going into self-isolation, and a total lack of cleanliness, or hand gel, or soap, or masks, or hand sanitizer, or protective screens available in courts. Juniors with health issues are still attending court; those who are second and third six pupils feel they have no choice.
The government has adopted a halfway house approach by only adjourning trials three days or longer. Those in charge of the CJS continue to advocate ‘business as normal’ while all other branches of government sound the alarm.
The Bar leadership has said that anyone in an at-risk category or anyone who feels that working conditions are unsafe, can return cases with no ethical problems. This is welcome leadership on this issue. More is needed; those not in the at-risk category can still carry the virus, potentially infecting their own families and anyone else they come into contact with at court. Court advocates, particularly those most junior, are frightened, both for their health and their incomes
Additionally, the government has not yet put in place the resources to protect the self-employed from finding themselves without work and thus, without income. Many have children and mortgages to pay for, others have rent and basic expenses. Many of us at the criminal Bar are struggling and right now, going to court may be the only option, even if that will put ourselves and those we live with, at risk of getting the virus
Papers in Crown Court cases are now all on DCS and the courts occasionally use video links where a defendant is in custody. Video links often fail to work, and there are insufficient video links to run the court system at even close to full capacity. Consequently, we have continued to conduct most hearings in person. There are good reasons for this; often material is not uploaded until the day of the hearing, a client has to enter a plea and instructions need to be taken. Nevertheless, the reality remains that there has not been proper investment in technology use in the CJS. As a result, it will require leadership and investment to switch to a system where many hearings are virtual.
Leadership to date on this issue has been poor. The CEO of HMCTS’s letter to the Chair of the BC on 19 March 2020 says that the senior judiciary has given guidance on encouraging the wider judiciary to use telephone and video hearings. There is also a link to this site, guidance which reads, “The decision as to how a hearing is conducted is a matter for the judge, magistrates or panel, who will determine how best to uphold the interests of justice.” This means that all courts can operate according to their own rules. We are already hearing of plenty of cases where a client’s attendance has not been excused despite a reasonable request, as well as hearings in the CC being refused to be conducted by video when there is no good reason for physical attendance.
At a time of national crisis, this is a woeful response from HMCTS and senior leaders. It is also a deeply inefficient way to run any kind of system, never mind one of such importance.
The civil Bar, family Bar as well as some Tribunals are already ahead of us on this; they either already regularly use digital technology or have implemented a new protocol. Cases have been conducted (and won!) from advocates’ living rooms. If other Bars and Courts can manage remote hearings, we can too.
We should be limiting the number of people going to court. We should be protecting those who have to attend court. There should be no room for courts to do things on a court-by-court basis.
We must not continue in a way that puts our health, the health of our families and the general public, at risk. Continuing as we are will only help spread the virus further.
This letter suggests that we create a national protocol – similar to a practice direction – to address how every single court should manage their work during this time of crisis. Decisions need to be centralised and as new problems emerge, decisions must be taken and publicised online. We need to use technology as much as we can.
We also have to communicate updates as clearly as possible. Recent example today: jurors being told they had to attend court tomorrow (Monday) while being in an at-risk group. The message came back that they are excused. The question has to be asked, why are we doing this on twitter? We need a clear method of communication that is accessible to all.
We know that all the various legal bodies are meeting with the Ministry of Justice to lobby them for a proper plan. We add our voices to that. These are complex problems that require a great deal of thought, creativity, and effort to resolve.
Suggestions for the protocol must both address issues of law and detail the ways in which we are going to take action. It is no good having vague suggestions and leaving each court to figure out how to implement it, because that way nothing will get done. We need to address the practical issues. This letter has attempted to do so, and in doing so you may find that some ideas are simply not workable at this time. Irrespective, we have a duty to not only think hard about these matters but to publish and debate these ideas so that we can keep people safe.
We propose the following immediate rules:
How might this work in practical terms?
Following feedback from practitioners, a few other points are worth noting:
It is the case that with many of these things, what will suffer is the principle of open justice. That is a dilemma that needs to be thoughtfully considered.
The ideas in this letter are just one way to address matters. There may be problems with the ideas suggested – they are not perfect. But they are a start and hopefully a platform to encourage discussion.
We must work together to limit the spread of this disease while maintaining the criminal justice system.
Author: Beheshteh Engineer, junior criminal barrister (3rd six)
Views are those of the author alone, and not representative of those of her chambers.
As somebody who spends more time than is healthy banging the drum for better public understanding of the justice system, today’s announcement from the Ministry of Justice that sentence hearings in the Crown Court will be televised should be right up my wheelhouse.
The proposal sidesteps any worries about a rush to an Americanised celebrification of court participants by providing that only the sentencing remarks made by the judge will be filmed and broadcast; victims, witnesses, Probation, caseworkers, court staff, lawyers and the attending public will not appear in shot. This follows the broadcasting in recent years of proceedings in the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court, and is on its face a show of ministerial faith in the principle of transparency and open justice. Which is very much A Good Thing.
So why am I concerned?
There is the obvious observation that striking broadcasting deals is an odd priority for a Ministry overseeing a justice system in a state of collapse. The courtrooms that haven’t been flogged off (half of all magistrates’ courts have been sold since 2010) are in the main decrepit, crumbling hovels with broken heating, perennially out-of-order lifts, peeling walls, sporadic running water, holes in the ceilings and clogged toilets, wholly unfit to service the people who work there, let alone the public compelled to attend for what is already one of the most stressful days of their lives. Legal aid has been slashed so deep that there are hardly any new entrants into criminal law, with the Innocence Tax – the indignity inflicted on those people wrongly accused of a crime, refused legal aid and, when acquitted, forced to foot the bill for their legal costs – now a permanent fixture. Crown Court sitting days have been cut, leading to delays of years between an offence occurring and criminal proceedings concluding, prolonging the agony of all involved and increasing the likelihood of miscarriages of justice as memories fade and witnesses lose faith. The police and the Crown Prosecution Service still don’t have anywhere near the resources required to discharge their basic functions. In short, there is plenty that you might imagine a government which was serious about criminal justice would want to achieve as its first order of business.
But even if this initiative is simply something shiny to cynically wave at journalists in the hope of distracting from the real problems, it doesn’t follow that it’s necessarily a bad idea. If it has the effect of increasing public awareness of the sentencing process, that is an evident good.
The problem is that I don’t think it will do that.
The difficulty is in the compromise that has had to be reached to avoid deterring victims and witnesses from attending court and engaging with the criminal process. Victims often attend sentence hearings, and have the right to read their Victim Personal Statements aloud in court. It is plainly right that they not be dissuaded from doing so by a fear of having their most intimate trauma broadcast or retweeted to the nation. So it is that the decision has been taken not to broadcast the prosecution advocate opening the facts at the sentence hearing (during which the Victim Personal Statement will be read), nor the defence advocate advancing mitigation, but solely the judge’s sentencing remarks.
However sentencing remarks, while essential for anybody wishing to report or pass comment on a criminal case, are not by themselves sufficient to give a comprehensive understanding of what has happened in a case. A sentence hearing is a dynamic process. The advocates will advance often-conflicting submissions as to how particular case law or Sentencing Guidelines apply – whether a certain aggravating or mitigating feature is present, for instance, whether an offence is a “Category 1” or “Category 2” offence, whether a victim is “particularly vulnerable” or just plain “vulnerable”, whether a defendant is “dangerous” and so liable for a particular kind of sentence. The judge will usually interrogate these submissions, challenging the advocates to justify their position.
There will be mitigation advanced, which will usually include reference to detailed Pre-Sentence, psychiatric or psychological reports, as well as character references, letters from the family and so forth. Again, the relevance and significance of this will vary from case to case, but it all forms part of the picture.
And the thing about sentencing remarks is that they don’t – can’t – rehearse everything that has been said in a sentence hearing. They only set out the headlines. They should, plainly, explain why a particular sentence has been passed, but they don’t include all the evidence that was heard at trial, all the arguments that were advanced by the prosecution and defence during sentence, or a full examination of the law.
And sentencing remarks are set to become even less detailed thanks to a decision of the Court of Appeal last year, which appears to have completely bypassed our justice ministers. In the case of R v Chin-Charles  EWCA Crim 1140, the Court of Appeal went out of its way to criticise judges who produce what in the eyes of the Court of Appeal are overly detailed sentencing remarks:
For my part, sentencing remarks which cite the law, contain detailed discussion of the guidelines, recitation of the arguments and a comprehensive explanation as to how legal and factual issues in the case have been resolved are absolutely what are required to help the public understand why a judge has passed a particular sentence. This decision appears to have been made with an eye on reducing the workload of the Court of Appeal by trimming the number of pages they have to read on sentence appeals, and is in my view wholly at odds with the notion of sentencing as a public function. Sentencing remarks should be written like a judgment, for that is what they are: a judgment determining a person’s liberty.
Of course the Court of Appeal hearing an appeal has a transcript of the prosecution’s opening and the record of mitigation, as well as the reports, but the public watching a Crown Court judge pass sentence does not. And if – as is proposed – they are not to be shown any of that – no prosecution opening, no mitigation, no reports – and the judge is told that there should usually be no supporting narrative, that supporting facts should be set out “not as a matter of course” and that case law should only be referred to in “exceptional circumstances” – how on earth is the public going to be fully informed? How will the complexity of criminal sentencing – the delicate balancing exercise of competing aims and interests – be fully explained to a non-legal audience?
And so we have a perfect storm. Judges are now mandated by the Court of Appeal to include as little detail as possible in their sentencing remarks, while the government proposes to broadcast those remarks – and nothing more – in an alleged effort to enlighten the public.
We already see with regularity fully-explained sentencing remarks divorced from their context, misquoted or distorted by lazy reporters and special interest groups, and judges unfairly monstered as a consequence. The ability of anyone so inclined – from bad-faith editor to Twitter troll – to clip decontextualised video footage and circulate it virally to make a dishonest point about ‘soft sentencing’ or ‘loony judges’ is a modern reality. To increase the risk of misunderstanding by showing the public only a fraction of the process is a move at odds with full transparency.
A cynic might point to this government’s overt anti-judiciary agenda and suggest that, far from enhancing public faith in justice, this is a ploy designed to expose judges to the wrath of the partially-informed mob. But even if the Prime Minister’s judge-bashing is just unhappy coincidence, it is clear that at the very least there are obvious flaws in this plan which, in the true spirit of the Ministry of Justice, have not been thought through.
A few years ago, a poster was stuck up in the robing room at Snaresbrook Crown Court. There was to be a charity raffle.
The prize? “Win lunch with the Snaresbrook Judges!”.
This prompted much mirth. An unimpressed barrister scrawled beneath it “Second Prize: TWO Lunches”. Another quipped that they would rather eat their own wig. Counsel threatened to enter their opponents into the raffle for a laugh, hoping to inflict an hour of judicial caesar salad on those who had wronged them.
This was all light-hearted. Everyone knows the Snaresbrook judges are really rather nice and, importantly, they have a dining room. And actual cutlery. The dark days of 2012 are long behind us and we try not to mention them in polite company.
I thought about that raffle a lot yesterday. I was wrestling with a Crown Court vending machine to extract my own lunch. A Kinder Bueno and a carton of Ribena. This was my seventh day of Vending Machine Bingo at a court with no catering facilities save for a roaring trade in the rare and disgusting delicacy of refrigerated packets of crisps.
The slot swallowed my money, the machine rumbled into action, the metal coil jammed and my chocolate bar was stuck. I eyed the machine for size and wondered if shaking it might be considered professional misconduct. I recalled that more people are killed by vending machines falling on top of them than from shark attacks. I decided not to risk it and poured more money in. Two Kinder Bueno. Jackpot.
I glanced at the time. A quarter of lunchtime had passed. I needed to see my client in the cells, see my opponent to discuss some evidence, finalise a document for the jury, consider some recent disclosure, return a frantic call from my clerk and, time permitting, use the bathroom. Clock ticking, time tocking, I shoved the chocolate into my mouth. “A speed lunch! The finest tradition of the bar”, a senior barrister bellowed at me as he commenced his own futile battle with the evil vending machine.
It was then I realised – we need to talk about lunchtime.
If a speed lunch, or no lunch at all, are traditions of the bar then they are bad ones. Like all traditions, we ought to occasionally ask ourselves why we are still doing them.
If the Wellbeing initiative is to conquer anything then her first victim must be the macho work culture that led us here. The at-all-costs attitude that shames people for basic activities like having a cup of tea or gathering their thoughts. The creeping obsession with sitting statistics and an unquestioning devotion to the “effective use of court time” has a price. Are we, as counsel, willing to pay it?
Because one thing we do find time to swallow is the frustration of being asked to perform a lunchtime miracle at a court that has closed the canteen, hired no recorders, broken the boiler, locked all the conference rooms and sealed off half the toilets. It is our shoulders that bear the loss of lunch, rest, and wellbeing to keep the show on the road, to keep the statistics high and to not keep anyone waiting.
As part of our Wellbeing revolution, we ought to now consider how we realistically structure the court day in the scorched landscape of cuts, closures and reduced facilities. It should be widely acknowledged that there will be trials and times when a longer lunch break, or multiple short breaks, are appropriate. Not always and not often. But for those trials where time is short, pressure is high and facilities are lacking we must call it out. We should be bold enough to insist that heavy tasks are undertaken within court hours and brave enough to recognise there is no shame in needing a rest. Justice is not a race and it will not be achieved by a drained, exhausted profession. We ought to now insist that the “effective use of court time” includes provision for us to remain effective too.
Joanna Hardy is a criminal barrister at Red Lion Chambers. She tweets @joanna__hardy
Something I’ve written about the scandalous delays in the criminal justice system has found its way into the Thunderer column in The Times today.
It can be read here (£).
On 7 June 2019, the High Court brought to a halt the attempted private prosecution of Boris Johnson for misconduct in public office. Today, the full judgment has been published. There has been a lot of commentary surrounding this case, not all of it based on a firm (or even rudimentary) grasp of the facts. So breaking it down, what exactly has gone on here? Eight (likely-to-be) FAQs spring to mind.
On 29 May 2019, District Judge Coleman sitting at Westminster Magistrates’ Court granted an application by Marcus Ball and Brexit Justice Limited for a summons against Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, the proposed defendant, in respect of a contemplated private prosecution seeking to charge the aforementioned Mr Johnson with three counts of misconduct in public office, contrary to common law. On 7 June 2019, the Administrative Division of the High Court granted permission in respect of a claim by Mr Johnson for judicial review of the District Judge’s decision and quashed the granting of the summons, having found that the District Judge erred in law in her findings.
In 2016, Marcus Ball set up a crowdfunding website inviting donations to fund a private prosecution of Boris Johnson for misconduct in public office, arising out of statements made by Mr Johnson during the 2016 referendum campaign, at a time when he was Mayor of London and a Member of Parliament. The offending statements relate to the well-known “We send the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund our NHS instead” claim. The first step in a criminal prosecution is to apply for a summons, which compels an individual to appear before a magistrates’ court. The District Judge (DJ) sitting at Westminster Magistrates, having heard legal argument from lawyers for Mr Ball and Mr Johnson, granted a summons. Mr Johnson “appealed” by seeking a judicial review of the decision to grant a summons, arguing that the decision was wrong in law. The High Court agreed, and quashed the decision to grant the summons.
Quite simply, in this context no summons means no prosecution. Summonses are routinely issued against defendants in criminal prosecutions, usually with absolutely no challenge. But this being a private prosecution, opposing the granting of the summons was a way of trying to derail the prosecution at the very earliest stage (and very successfully, as it turned out).
An application for a summons will be granted by a magistrate (or a District Judge) if the magistrate is satisfied that the allegation is an offence known to law, and if the essential ingredients of the offence are prima facie (on its face) present. The court is not deciding whether a person is in fact guilty of an offence; simply whether there is, on the face of the case, evidence of its core ingredients. The court must also consider whether there are compelling reasons not to issue a summons, including – importantly for our purposes – whether the application is vexatious (which may involve the presence of an improper ulterior purpose).
In most public prosecutions, these things are not even an issue: the case will have been investigated by the police, referred to the Crown Prosecution Service and reviewed by a lawyer to check that it meets the evidential and public interest tests for charging, and the threshold for issuing a summons will obviously be met. But the issue is less clear cut in cases where the law is being used for a novel purpose. And using the law of misconduct in public office to prosecute a politician for false or misleading statements made during a political campaign is certainly novel. Hence things got a little sticky.
Misconduct in public office is a centuries-old common law offence (so developed by the courts rather than set out in legislation), which has been used to prosecute such varied allegations as MEPs claiming irregular expenses, police officers selling stories to journalists, healthcare professionals engaging in relationships with prisoners, the false statement given by a police officer in the “Plebgate” affair, and the Bishop of Gloucester entering into relationships with trainee priests.
If you think this sounds somewhat wide-ranging, you’d be right. And this – the vague and ill-defined scope of the offence – is one of the reasons that misconduct in public office is currently the subject of a consultation by the Law Commission, which is considering recommendations for how it might be reformed. Nevertheless, there has been a steady rise in the number of prosecutions for the offence, from 2 in 2005 up to 135 in 2014.
The test, as set out in a 2005 judgment of the Court of Appeal, has four key elements. Misconduct in public office arises where:
i. A public officer acting as such
ii. wilfully neglects to perform his duty and/or wilfully misconducts himself
iii. to such a degree as to amount to an abuse of the public’s trust in the office holder
i.v without reasonable excuse or justification
The argument of Mr Ball was quite simple: at the time of knowingly making plainly misleading statements, Boris Johnson was a holder of public office. There was little argument that the statements were misleading. Lying to or misleading the public amounts to an abuse of public trust in that office, hence there is, on its face, evidence to meet the ingredients of the offence. The District Judge broadly agreed.
Firstly, a word about judicial review. An application to the High Court for judicial review is not simply a rerun of the case before a different court; it is a claim that there has been an error of law in the way the judge in the court below approached the case. If the High Court feels that it would have reached a different decision to the magistrates, but is not satisfied that the magistrates were wrong in law, it will not interfere.
In this case, Boris Johnson’s arguments were twofold: firstly, the District Judge made an error of law in finding that (i) and (ii) of the ingredients were prima facie made out. That error of law meant that the judge had no power to grant a summons. Secondly, the District Judge’s finding that Mr Ball’s application was not vexatious (which if found would afford a ground for not granting a summons) was “Wednesbury unreasonable”. “Wednesbury unreasonableness” is a legal concept wearily familiar to law undergrads, but for the lay person is perhaps best summarised as “batshit cray cray”. If the High Court finds that a decision of a court was “so unreasonable that no judge properly directing itself could reasonably have reached that decision”, it can quash it.
So, taking the contested elements in turn:
While Boris Johnson undoubtedly held public office (times two), the key three words are “acting as such”. It is not enough that someone be a public official; they must be acting as such in committing the alleged misconduct. As the High Court made clear:
“It was not sufficient to say that he made the statements when in office as a MP and/or Mayor of London, and that “the public office held by Mr Johnson provides status but with that status comes influence and authority”. That does no more than conclude that he occupied an office which carried influence. This ingredient requires a finding that as he discharged the duties of the office he made the claims impugned. If, as here, he simply held the office and whilst holding it expressed a view contentious and widely challenged, the ingredient of “acting as such” is not made out.”
As for whether he had “wilfully neglected to perform his public duty or wilfully misconducted himself”, the High Court was scathing of the way in which the District Judge had approached this question. The notion of false political statements falling within the ambit of “wilful misconduct” has no precedent. The High Court observed that certain types of false statement made during election campaigns are offences, having been specified as “illegal practices” by Parliament (for instance publishing a false statement about a candidate). Parliament had not chosen to specify generally false claims about, say, statistics, as illegal practices; for the courts to extend the ambit of “misconduct in public office” to encompass such things would be a significant and far-reaching decision. The law requires that people know clearly what conduct is and isn’t criminal; common law offences like this therefore should not be enlarged by the courts “with one large leap”. None of this, the High Court found, had been given proper consideration by the District Judge.
Therefore, while the threshold for granting a summons is low compared to, say, the threshold for convicting a Defendant (where the evidence has to make the magistrates or jury sure of guilt), a magistrate is still required to conduct a rigorous analysis of the legal framework and whether there is on the face of the evidence enough to satisfy the ingredients of the offence. The District Judge had not conducted such an analysis, and her conclusions were, in the High Court’s view, wrong in law.
Boris Johnson’s lawyers argued that Mr Ball’s application was politically motivated and vexatious, and that this provided another reason as to why it was wrong in law for the District Judge to issue a summons. The District Judge’s findings on this argument left something to be desired:
“I accept the defence submission that when the applicant commenced his consideration of whether to bring a private prosecution against the proposed defendant three years ago, there may have been a political purpose to these proceedings. However the information for the summons was laid on the 28th February 2019 and that argument, in my view, is no longer pertinent.”
The apparent suggestion that a political motive conceived in 2016 arising out of the EU Referendum has dissipated now in 2019 is, with respect to the judge, a curious reading of the current political temperature. When one considers the catalogue of public statements made by Marcus Ball about the proposed prosecution between 2016 and 2019, it is troubling that the District Judge’s certainty in dismissing the presence of political motivation isn’t supported by any meaningful reasoning. The High Court described the DJ’s finding as “flawed” because of the absence of reasoning, and said that it would have quashed the decision to issue a summons on this ground alone. (Because of this, the High Court said it was unnecessary for them to go on to consider whether, as well as being flawed for lack of reasoning, the finding was also “Wednesbury unreasonable”).
No, no, no, no and no. No. Just no. And no again. No. The judgment can absolutely not be interpreted as any sort of vindication of Boris Johnson’s character. Indeed, the High Court judgment reads very much as if the judges were proceeding on the assumption that he certainly had lied, or misled, and the challenges to the District Judge’s decision by Boris Johnson’s own lawyers were not concerned with a defence of his character or conduct. Rather his case succeeded on the basis that he may well be a liar or a rotter or a charlatan, but such conduct does not of itself meet the legal criteria for misconduct in public office. So a victory, certainly. But hardly the glowing character reference his supporters might suggest.
I am delighted to publish this guest blogpost by Greg Powell of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association (LCCSA). There is presently a lot of discussion in the media about legal aid, and in particular the rates paid to lawyers under legal aid. This analysis is vital to understanding how we have arrived where we are, and is essential reading for anybody reporting or commenting on the dispute between criminal justice professionals and the government concerning legal aid.
1.1 In the 1970s and 80s there was a large expansion of Legal Aid which was at that time essentially an adjunct to the other work of solicitors firms, there being some 7000 suppliers, Legal Aid work sitting alongside normal commercial work like conveyancing, probate and contract.
1.2 Administered by the Law Society the hourly rates were not as high as those prevailing in the private client and commercial world but nevertheless were related to the cost of time.
1.3 The cost of time was calculated by assigning a target for chargeable hours for each fee earner, usually 1200 hours per annum, a notional salary for solicitors and partners and dividing overheads by the numbers of fee earners to find out applicable hourly rates.
1.4 Provision was made for lower hourly rates for travel and waiting, a problem that has always been apparent in legal aid work which is often not office based but court based, and in the case of crime, prison and police station based, with the consequence that large parts of chargeable hours were consumed in lower paid hourly rates. Fixed fee schemes containing ‘rolled up’ time spent travelling and waiting ‘hide’ the true costs of cases within their simplicity.
1.5 However, in terms of cost benefit it is also to be noted that the organisation of courts and the interaction of advocates and the tribunal and particularly the flow of work provided by ushers in Magistrates Courts is highly efficient; face to face interactions provide courts with good quality information upon which to base decisions.
2.1 As Legal Aid expanded the Law Society administration was unable to cope. Delay in payment became a well-known public fact and eventually the decision was made to move the administration of Legal Aid away from the Law Society into the hands of an independent Legal Aid Board. This was at inception essentially a cashier organisation but it also had within it a desire to promote and implement policy.
2.2 What had also happened is that a number of more specialist Legal Aid suppliers had come into being whose main purpose was to provide Legal Aid services in the community, usually both civil and crime covering the full range of civil, family law, welfare benefits, housing, mental health and immigration. In essence a numerous and independent “legally aided” sector was a by-product of the expansion of funding and scope.
2.3 It had been, and remains, a major component of this system that the supplier base provides its own capital in order to set up organisations, provide premises and employ people. In this sense it is a free market where entrepreneurs have invested their own capital identifying gaps in the market and establishing businesses.
2.4 There were parallel changes in the private solicitor marketplace as conveyancing lost its fixed fee structures and in the more successful private client firms partners often became dissatisfied with low hourly rates of return in legal aid work and began shedding that work, a process accelerated from the 1990s as Legal Aid rates became frozen and eroded by inflation. Lord MacKay decided to abolish his Legal Aid Advisory Committee. The current panel constituted to assist in the review of criminal Legal Aid is a distant echo of that forerunner.
3.1 The Legal Aid Board brought forward the idea that suppliers would be contracted to supply Legal Aid services coupled to the idea of a quality mark. This had some basis in academic research (see the book, Standing Accused by McConville and Others which lamented poor standards in criminal work).
3.2 Other major structural developments were the establishing of the Crown Prosecution Service following major public scandals involving forced confessions by police officers and also the technological development of tape recording which allowed a new mode for conducting interviews. The 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act also introduced the idea of the delivery of rights by independent Custody Officers whilst extending police powers. One particularly significant development was the decision to allow the police 24 hours in which to detain a person before charge. This was fiercely debated with 12 hours as a viable alternative but this was rejected and 24 hours underpins the subsequent development of a lackadaisical approach to the investigation whilst the person is in custody. Providing access to legal advice in the Police Station was a major costs driver.
3.3 Initially contracting was to be voluntary and was expressly said not to be a policy which would become compulsory. Of course it did and very unfortunately contracting become a major dividing factor, there being separate crime and civil contracts. This rupture of services had profound consequences on the market causing firms to choose between spheres and although many continue to operate both there was also a large bureaucratic burden. That burden was another factor in private client firms continuing to abandon Legal Aid services.
4.1 What the entrepreneurial activity had created, in the context of the expansion of Legal Aid to meet need, was a rich fabric of firms and services. We have sometimes likened this to the ecology of a rainforest, diverse, valuable and especially establishing in local communities a variety of client choice and a feeling amongst clients, usually poorer and working class, that they had access to justice through “their” solicitor.
5.1 The foundation of reform was a myth, that Legal Aid expenditure was “out of control” accompanied by a sinister subtext that the forces driving expenditure were the supplier base improperly exploiting Legal Aid. Academic research showed that the driving factor was in fact the rise in need and volume of cases and a tsunami of legislation, especially in crime. Nevertheless this myth took hold.
5.2 The Paradox in the early 2000s was that the government was substantially investing in workers compensation schemes and rightly so, but whilst it spent billions on the one hand in those schemes it sought to cut Legal Aid expenditure by millions on the other.
5.3 Lord Carter proposed a crude simplistic trade off of volume for price a theme that has bedevilled so called “reform” ever since and dominated proposals for change.
5.4 The proposals that came forward were administratively complex and essentially foundered as they were unable to resolve contradictions between rewarding incumbent suppliers with market share and providing opportunities for new entrants, whilst also hopelessly confusing the nature of the market with other markets where there are multiple opportunities for suppliers to bid for work.
5.5 This is worth spelling out. The Ministry of Justice is a single purchaser of Legal Aid services. It sets prices. The suppliers when they bid for work (however defined) face an existential crisis. If their bid fails then they are out of business. There is no alternative place for them to bid.
5.6 In other words this Legal Aid market for services is not like, for example, the NHS, which procures across a vast organisation for multiple services offering bidders the opportunities to bid for difference sizes of contract in different geographical areas in circumstances where, therefore, the failure of a bid is not terminal to their business.
5.7 It was an historic strength of the system that it was open. In other words there were no limits on the number of contractors and sufficient prices allowed a degree of entrepreneurial activity to fill in gaps in the market place. As prices have declined so has that activity. However there are two other benefits from the way in which this market has operated.
5.8 A key element to successful entrepreneurial activity has been establishing reputation and this has been driven by the other key element of client choice. The introduction of the Duty Solicitor Schemes enabled firms to source a more “captive” work stream and gain clients through duty solicitor activity in courts and police stations. Nevertheless it still remained and remains an important element for all firms that the quality of what they do is sufficient to draw that client back to them or achieve word of mouth referrals. In this way client choice drives quality.
5.9 Unfortunately restrictions on the ability to transfer Representation Orders have led to a decline in consumer/client choice. There is a consumer paradox for people who are initially arrested, represented by a duty solicitor and bailed or released under investigation. At that stage, pre-charge, there is no Legal Aid available and they are actually free to make enquiries in the marketplace to find out if the solicitor they have accessed accidentally as the duty solicitor is the person best placed to represent them or whether they could find an alternative with better reputation. In this way consumers are free to move around within the market.
5.10 However, if for example, a person is arrestedfor murder, has a duty solicitor and is remanded in custodythey then find it very difficult to change due to the rules which to this degree undermine an aspect of client choice.
5.11 Contracting has also restricted the market by restricting the opportunities for new entrants to the start of each contract cycle as well as being a system which has severed civil and criminal services. The most startling reform that could be contemplated would be ending contracting completely. This would be a return to a pre-contracting era where all firms needed to do was to keep within the rules in respect of claims and payments. In other words that the work was properly done and claimed. Such a more open system would certainly allow new entrants and with other incentives and structural changes, allow firms to re-establish mixed practices of civil and crime and provide more local integrated services needed to meet the vast unmet need.
5.12 It is not difficult to be imaginative about what is possible in the Legal Aid market. The Legal Services Commission as the successor to the Legal Aid Board had a worthwhile initiative through which firms took on trainees who were subsidised directly by the LSC in return for a contractual commitment to stay in Legal Aid work for a period of time.
5.13 Legal Aid as a bespoke subject ought to be an option within law school courses and participation can be leveraged through grant, the relief of debt and payments to suppliers to provide subsequent training contracts.
6.1 Underpinning access to justice are the rights to a fair trial and equality of arms between the parties. Crucial is the adversarial system working properly to ensure that the court has before it all admissible evidence in order that the fundamental objective, which is the pursuit of truth, is achieved.
6.2 No one is facing up to the work, time and costs issues posed by the explosion of electronic material. It simply means that in cases where it is relevant (and there is often a contest about what is and what is not properly served as evidence or unused material) the evidence has got be examined and deployed by prosecution and defence. These are tasks which have made the process of litigation more time intensive and more costly. This is for the police as investigators, the prosecution as an independent prosecutorial body assessing the evidence and for the defendants. All require extra resources in the long term in a degree of magnitude to properly cope with the technological development. There is no shortcut and it simply requires more money and acceptance that this will be a demand led system that cannot be contained with fixed “envelopes” of cost.
7.1 The above argument in relation to the explosion of electronic material forms a context for the major other issue which has been the erosion of value. It is not possible for solicitors and counsel to continue negotiating around the same envelope of money being deployed for cases in new ways. Inventing other proxies for value or combining proxies with time or combining other structures of payment such as standard fees, non-standard fees, higher-standard fees still has to account for both the explosion in evidence and the fact that current values have been eroded to a degree where the work is unsustainable.
7.2 That unsustainability is evidenced by the recruitment and retention crisis within solicitors firms conducting criminal work. It is also evidenced by the almost complete separation of private client work and Legal Aid work within the solicitor’s profession and by the advancing age of the cohort of duty solicitors.
7.3 Research might also reveal a very similar pattern in relation to the ages of partners or directors of firms within the supplier base which is also similarly advancing. Career opportunities have been truncated by the short horizon of business, the uncertainty of profits and the lack of career paths.
7.4 One way of exiting is to the Crown Prosecution Service which now offers substantially better terms than are available generally within the defence community. Another way of exiting is to simply abandon the work and take up different careers. For students with vast debt Legal Aid is deeply unattractive.
8.1 It was a by-product of the expansion of Legal Aid and the availability of firms within communities providing a range of legally aided services that many millions of people could buy into the ideathat there was a degree of access to justice.
8.2 Much is written about alienation, voices not being heard, and the unrepresentative nature of politics, inequality and the socially excluded. Legal Aid cuts, in particular LASPO, have formed a backdrop which has accentuated exclusion.
8.3 Exclusion also has direct economic consequences. A family with less income because they are unable to challenge welfare benefit decisions live in greater poverty. Children in greater poverty are more likely to fail in the education system, often being excluded, more vulnerable to drift into gangs, crime and county lines drug dealing. Similarly challenging are living in conditions of disrepair, losing housing and the gross disruption of family life where there are cycles of imprisonment, alcohol and drug abuse and devastating adverse immigration decisions and deportation. Many live and are brought up in deeply hostile environments and too often the inability of fathers to access contact and maintain parenting has potentially disastrous consequences.
8.4 Add to these other factors such as loss of youth clubs, social workers, and the pressure of schools to exclude pupils. It is no wonder that the world of gang affiliation with its sense of identity and drug dealing giving access to otherwise unattainable riches is such a lure to young people and indeed older people involved in organised crime.
8.5 The extent of organised crime has been highlighted by the National Crime Agency in its bid for between £2-3billion to combat what it describes as a major threat to security and wellbeing. Will that funding and these initiatives drive more cases into the Criminal Justice System? The idea that more cases will arise which demand more resources stands in stark contrast to falling volume as a result of the debacle of the RUI stance adopted by many police forces in relation to the many thousands of people arrested.
8.6 What all of this means, including the review itself, is an extremely unstable environment for Legal Aid practitioners. Low margins make firms highly vulnerable to changes in case volume and case mix. A two year “review” is irrelevant to the immediate crisis. What is required is at least a short term injection of funds, the making good of the last 8.75% cut which was predicated on the manipulation of the supplier base producing fewer suppliers with higher volumes, which never took place, and which was in itself arbitrary and unfair. What is also needed however are not only higher levels of remuneration, but an imaginative reworking of incentives and structure to support an independent legal profession and a degree of stability which would allow businesses to flourish whilst meeting need.
9.1 At over 650 square miles with the largest concentration of population in the country London poses particular problems for Legal Aid lawyers.
9.1 It is an area of higher cost. Those costs relate to the costs of business premises, higher wages and higher costs for employees for accommodation and travel. In a recent Reed Business Support Salary Guide for 2019 an Office Manager in London is said to command a wage of £40,100. In the East Midlands the figure £23,700 and the North East £29,200 and the North West £23,900. In the South West and Wales the figure falls to £22,300.
9.3 Traditionally the particular costs base of London were recognised by additional London Weighting supplements on hourly rates. There is a powerful case for the reintroduction of London Weighting within any newly devised scheme.
9.4 Another myth is that there was an oversupply of firms in London. This is not true and the number of firms is proportionate to the population. This was established in passing by the KPMG report in the failed debacle of tendering Duty Solicitor Schemes.
9.5 London is the centre of political protest and government and inevitably public protest type crime tends to arise more often and so does financial crime attached to London being the centre of financial services.
9.6 A fundamental problems for practitioners has been the complete absence of planning. There is no court near a police station which is near a prison, they are spread haphazardly. The system has developed without the slightest regard for efficiencies that might arise from locating services together. Indeed plans to relocate remand prisoners only in Wandsworth, Belmarsh and Highdown, which is actually outside London in Sutton, would only exacerbate the problems.
9.7 Very large distances must now be traversed across London for defendants, ‘victims’ and witnesses and indeed all the participants in the court process.
9.8 The idea has been advanced frequently by the LCCSA for over a decade that there ought to be reform of the Duty Solicitor Scheme. At present solicitors join two courtschemes plus associated youth court schemes but are allocated to as many as eight or nine 24 hour police station schemes depending on the location of their office. This thins volume in any particular court. Bringing the schemes into line so that solicitors are allocated two or three police stations schemes most contiguous to their office and the court schemes ought to produce a greater volume of work for firms in their local courts.
9.9 Incidentally scheme inflation, by which many more people joined each individual scheme, was a product of a policy decision by the LSC to automatically allocate all qualifying solicitors, depending on the whereabouts of their office to every scheme that was available.
10.1 The immediate impulse for the review was the promise to the Bar to review the AGFS arrangements. That promise was then conflated with the existing idea of a review of the LGFS (no doubt more urgent from the perspective of the MOJ after the successful JR of their plan to cut £30M or so from the LGFS Scheme) and then in turn extended to encompass all fee schemes, police stations, magistrates’ courts and the VHCC scheme.
10.2 Three elements dominate legal aid fees for the last twenty five years. The erosion of fee structures by inflation. The endless cuts to EVERY fee scheme. The hugely bureaucratic, unmanageable and failed ‘reform’ proposals encompassing Best Value Tendering, Price Competitive Tendering and 2 tier contracting of duty solicitors schemes and other similar debacles including VHCC and family contracts. The 2 Tier debacle was accompanied by a completely arbitrary 17.5% cut in fees. What is extraordinary is the sheer scale of that cut; 17.5%, not 1.5 or 2% but this huge figure. Subsequently 8.75% was restored after the failure of the scheme, still leaving practitioners with a completely arbitrary 8.75% cut.
10.3 The common theme has been an approach to Legal Aid as a ‘market’ (fundamentally misunderstood, see para 5.) to be manipulated with the sole objective of driving down price (cuts) encouraged by overtures from a handful of ‘larger’ suppliers who sought greater volume and market share. In civil the hatchet of LASPO simply removed access to justice for millions of people and further disrupted and eroded the supplier base. .
10.4 What has been absent is any coherent view of Legal Aid based on principles of fair trial, equality of arms or access to justice through increasing the resource that enables people to believe they have the means (legally aided lawyers) to pursue their rights, that their stake in society and belief in its fairness, in the application of the rule of law to them, has meaning because they can rebalance the unfair advantage of ‘others’ who have the power (landlords, Councils, the DWP, insurance companies, the Home Office, Police) by instructing ‘their’ lawyer. This is the real context of rearranging fee structures; it is not an end in itself but only one component of policy that ought to have this enabling outcome. This Review perpetuates the division of crime and civil being confined to criminal Legal Aid fees when the reality is that legal aid services are accessed across lifetimes in multiple ways as need overlaps the civil and criminal boundaries.
10.5 That vision is entirely absent from this Review which is framed as the ‘right time to think more widely about the future of criminal legal aid schemes’, without any commitment to any funding increase, only to the ‘right level’ of legal aid provision. It is most likely to be a missed opportunity and actually another ‘cut’. The ravaging of value by inflation will not be addressed by a permanent compensatory mechanism, and any ‘ambitious’ attempt to manipulate the market will yet again misread its reality and lead to JR and debacle. Is this to be a moment (actually a year or two with continuing ministerial reshuffles) for reinvigorating access to justice (restoring the £1 billion about 1/800thof government expenditure) or another episode in the erosion of Legal Aid and its supplier base?
10.6 In the period 2004/2005 to 2019 Government Expenditure rose from around £400 billion to over £800 billion. In that period removing £1 billion from Legal Aid was a political choice. The courageous and correct political choice would be to restore access to justice by expanding the Legal Aid spend by £1 billion.
10.7 The complete absence of a commitment to restore funding levels and the absence of vision are depressing. There is little to indicate that the trajectory of the history of Legal Aid will change. Rather that the reality that will emerge will remain one of cuts, loss of services and more people who believe that justice is not to be found within the society in which they live.
Another weekend, another flurry of anti-legal aid stories finding their way into the tabloids. On the criminal legal aid front, The Mirror splashed outrage at the notion of Andrew Hill, the pilot acquitted of manslaughter following the Shoreham Airshow tragedy, “getting” legal aid to mount his successful defence at his criminal trial last year.
It’s one thing when The Mirror – a market leader in legal aid trash news – whips its readers into uninformed apoplexy over criminal legal aid being granted to those who are, after a fair trial only possible because of legal aid, convicted. But it breaks bold new ground even for this organ to resent legal aid being granted to a man whom a jury has found to be not guilty.
Then this morning, the Daily Mail, in a headline which may stand out as the apotheosis of journalistic legal ignorance, announced:
“Shamima Begum is on legal aid despite being stripped of UK citizenship”.
In much the same way that the people I prosecute and defend are granted legal aid despite being accused of criminal offences. Or diabetes patients are treated on the NHS despite having diabetes.
Shamima Begum is, of course, the tabloid ghoul du jour. A 15-year-old Bethnal Green schoolgirl fleeing her home country to join a terror cult abroad, and, four years later, intending to swan back in as if nothing had happened, is the stuff of a red top news editor’s wettest dreams. In February, Home Secretary Sajid Javid, in apparent defiance of his own Home Office advice and with a Fleabag smirk to the cameras, took the decision to revoke Ms Begum’s British citizenship. She is now appealing the Home Secretary’s decision to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission and is likely to be eligible for legal aid.
Today’s Mail “scoop” follows allegations in The Telegraph that Ms Begum, while an “ISIS bride” in Syria, served as an enforcer in the “morality police” and sewed suicide vests onto her fellow jihadis, playing a far more active role in the group’s activities than she had previously suggested. The veracity of these reports is unclear, but let’s take as face value that they are correct, and that she was not merely a stay-at-home ISIS bride, but an enthusiastic accessory to the most appalling crimes against humanity.
Would this make her despicable? Yes. Meritorious of opprobrium, disgust, contempt and fury? Yup. A criminal? Among the very worst. Deserving of legal aid? Without a shadow of a doubt.
We’ve trodden these boards a thousand times before, but as the basics are yet to be learned by those with the biggest megaphones, they need repeating.
Everybody – no matter what they have done or are alleged to have done – is entitled to equal treatment before the law. That is the building block not only of the rule of law, but of our entire democracy. You don’t earn equal treatment, or qualify for it through good behaviour. It applies universally. The day we start making exceptions for the people who offend us the most is the day our civilisation crumbles.
Everybody is also entitled to a fair hearing where a legal decision has been taken which affects them. The removal of a person’s citizenship – a government telling a British-born citizen You have no right to exist within our borders – is one of the most far-reaching decisions the state can make. We do not want to live in a country where politicians can act with unchecked power; the rule of law requires that those affected have a route to challenge a decision and have an independent court review the evidence and decide whether that decision was taken in accordance with the law.
In this case, while there will be a lot of material to which the public will never have access upon which the government will rely, there are obvious concerns on the face of what we do know. International law prohibits domestic governments from rendering citizens stateless. Ms Begum is a British national born and bred; the Home Secretary is relying on her supposed eligibility for Bangladeshi citizenship (through her parents) to comply with international law. Bangladesh is a country which Ms Begum has never visited and which, for what it is worth, has publicly rejected the notion that she would be granted Bangladeshi citizenship.
It is far from certain that the Home Secretary has acted lawfully. It is obviously vital to establish that he has. This can only properly be done at a fair independent hearing at which the legal and factual arguments for and against are fully and competently presented. The Home Office will not spare any expense in instructing counsel to fight its corner (Theresa May was a fan of instructing multiple QCs for single cases to try to give herself an advantage). Equality of arms, another basic principle of the rule of law, requires that the citizen, Shamima Begum, be competently represented. As she is currently unable to pay for her own lawyers, lying destitute in a Syrian refugee camp, she will need to rely upon legal aid. Without legal aid, the case will not be properly argued; indeed, as she is currently banned from entering the country, without representation it will not be argued at all.
The benefits of the case being argued and a judgment being given flow not only to Shamima Begum, but to all of us. This is not merely a private matter of concern to her; all of us live under the law, and all of us need to know that our government is acting lawfully. Moreover, there will be many more cases of this type over the coming years. This decision could ultimately set a precedent, making clear the circumstances in which the government can revoke British citizenship from British-born citizens. Such a precedent is of value to all of us. Because while today, it’s Sajid Javid making a decision affecting Shamima Begum, tomorrow it could be a different Home Secretary making a decision affecting you, or someone you love. And while you may not care what happens to Shamima Begum, you will sure as heck want the law to be fairly applied to you. And this is the point about the law: it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. A decision affecting one of us affects us all. We all have a shared interest in ensuring that the law works as it should. As Lord Reed said in a famous Supreme Court decision:
At the heart of the concept of the rule of law is the idea that society is governed by law. Parliament exists primarily in order to make laws for society in this country. Democratic procedures exist primarily in order to ensure that the Parliament which makes those laws includes Members of Parliament who are chosen by the people of this country and are accountable to them. Courts exist in order to ensure that the laws made by Parliament, and the common law created by the courts themselves, are applied and enforced. That role includes ensuring that the executive branch of government carries out its functions in accordance with the law. In order for the courts to perform that role, people must in principle have unimpeded access to them. Without such access, laws are liable to become a dead letter, the work done by Parliament may be rendered nugatory, and the democratic election of Members of Parliament may become a meaningless charade. That is why the courts do not merely provide a public service like any other.
Shamima Begum herself, of course, will not receive a penny of taxypayers’ money. Legal aid is claimed from the Legal Aid Agency directly by her lawyers. A grant of legal aid is also not a bottomless pit, despite what the tabloids falsely claim. It is paid at fixed rates set by government, far below market value – and usually far below what the state pays its own lawyers. And it is designed, like the NHS, to ensure that all of us have our basic rights and dignity respected, whatever we have done. We do not withhold publicly-funded medical treatment for criminals, terrorists or other social undesirables; we recognise that to do so would be barbaric, the mark of a country that has badly lost its way.
So when the Mail invites its readers to fulminate and howl and ask Why should the public pay for this awful woman’s legal aid?, the answer that should be given – by our Lord Chancellor, preferably, as the person with the statutory obligation to uphold the rule of law – is because that is the price of living under the rule of law. If you’d rather exist in a society where the rules are not applied equally, where your entitlement to a fair trial is dependent on the whims of government officials or the roar of the effigy-burning mob or the deepness of your pockets, there are plenty of countries out there willing to oblige.
UPDATE: A common response to this story today has been from people who, understandably, feel aggrieved that more attractive (or “deserving”) causes than Shamima Begum were denied legal aid. Inquests are a particular area where legal aid has been refused for bereaved families, but the non-availability of legal aid stretches across the justice system, from the family courts to employment law to housing to welfare to personal injury to crime to immigration and so on. Many, many people have been denied justice due to refusal of legal aid. But to attack the granting of legal aid to Shamima Begum is, with respect, to miss the point. The scandal is not that Shamima Begum is eligible for legal aid in complex legal proceedings carrying life-changing consequences, but that so many other people have had legal aid refused and removed as part of the appalling attacks on legal aid that successive governments have wrought. It is not party political – all three main parties in government have fed the lies about legal aid to the press and public that have purchased political cover for them to obliterate legal aid and prevent ordinary people from accessing justice. In the 1980s, 79 per cent of the population was eligible for legal aid. By 2015, this had plummeted to 25 per cent. Public anger should be directed at the politicians who have convinced us that cutting legal aid is a good thing, not the few people who are still able to access justice.
A familiar sound for readers of the Mail on Sunday is the deafening cymbal-clash of Peter Hitchens colliding with reality. This last Sunday offered a particular highlight, which, although there is undoubted wisdom in leaving him alone to figuratively wander the 21stcentury in his dressing gown shouting at clouds, cannot pass without comment.
Summarised by this tweet:
Time to stop pretending that killing of Jo Cox was a political assassination. The killer was plainly seriously mentally ill: https://t.co/6GMv4PThOj
— Peter Hitchens (@ClarkeMicah) April 7, 2019
he shared his considered view that Thomas Mair, who was convicted by a jury of the murder of Jo Cox MP and sentenced to imprisonment for life, has wrongly been tarred a terrorist.
Undeterred by the fact that there was a wealth of evidence before the court which he, as somebody who was not in court for the duration of the trial, has neither seen nor heard, Mr Hitchens, armed with a fistful of second-hand newspaper reports of snippets of the case, assured readers that he, the clear-sighted rationalist, can see the case for what it is: “a tragedy twisted into a bogus ‘terror plot’”.
The premise of his thesis, as he expanded in a further blogpost on Monday, appears to be twofold. Firstly, it is “absurd” for anyone to claim that Mair was a “rational, coherent political actor”, as his actions “predictably achieved more or less the exact opposite of what he supposedly intended – and he would have grasped this in a second had he been in a normal state of mind”.
Allied to this is the second proposition: in Mair’s trial, there was evidence of mental ill health, which was suspiciously omitted from the legal proceedings. “Mair’s lawyer said he would not bring his medical history into the case. But why not?” “Why does the authority ignore such vital facts?” he demands, fingers twitching towards the tin foil with millinery intent. “Does the government want to believe, and to spread the idea, that there is some organised Right-wing terror plot?”
We can deal with the first argument swiftly: irrationality and mental ill health are two discrete concepts. The former may be a symptom of a latter, but they are not necessarily linked. Most of the people who cross the threshold of the criminal courts are irrational. I’ve prosecuted more burglars than I can count who, despite their extensive experience, have still failed to process that climbing through a broken window is likely to result in your blood being left at the scene. The number of young men who, disqualified from driving and flagged down by the police, decide not to cut their losses and take their dues but instead to lead the police on a merry 90mph pursuit through residential areas and red lights before, inevitably, being caught, adding dangerous driving to the charge sheet – irrational? Tick. Incoherent? Tick. Achieving the exact opposite of what they supposedly intended? Tick. Colloquially they might be said to, in Hitchens’ words, be “roaming along the outer frontiers of sanity”, but mentally ill? That’s something different.
But amateur diagnostics aside, let’s consider Hitchens’ overarching theory: the suspicious omission of medical evidence of mental ill health from Mair’s trial. Referring to comments in news reports, he finds various examples of people claiming to know Mair – none apparently medically qualified – and offering anecdotes and opinions on Mair’s mental health. There is also a suggestion that Mair was in receipt of psychotropic medication. From this, Hitchens decries the “puzzling decision to ignore the plentiful evidence of Mair’s mental abnormality, reported at so many different times by so many independent people, but not discussed before the jury.”
Well this is only suspicious and puzzling if you don’t understand the first thing about how a defendant’s mental health is relevant in criminal proceedings. And it is regrettable that, given how frequently Mr Hitchens finds novel ways to be wrong about the criminal law, he did not think to ask anybody involved in criminal justice for their insight. Had he done so, he may have been told something along the following lines.
Evidence is carefully filtered in every criminal case. The court is only allowed to receive evidence that is relevant. Many defendants in criminal proceedings have lengthy histories of mental health problems. But it is only in a handful of trials that their condition is relevant to the issues that the jury have to determine.
How might mental ill health be relevant?
If a defence solicitor or barrister believes that a client may be suffering from mental ill health, they will as a matter of course obtain the client’s medical records and commission a psychiatric report. That report may be asked to comment on one or more of a variety of matters.
A psychiatrist may be asked to assess whether a defendant is “fit to plead” – legalese for being fit to participate in the trial process. This involves an assessment of whether a defendant can: understand the charges; decide whether to plead guilty or not guilty; exercise his right to challenge jurors (if, say, he knows one of them); instruct his legal representatives; follow the course of proceedings; and give evidence in his defence. If he can’t do one or more of those things, and if a judge hearing the evidence of two psychiatrists finds that the defendant can’t, he will be unfit to plead. This means that instead of a criminal trial there is a modified process (known as a “trial of the facts”), where a jury decides not on guilt but whether the defendant “did the act”. If so found, the court’s powers are limited to strictly rehabilitative options.
A psychiatrist may alternatively or as well be asked to opine on whether a defendant has a defence of insanity, defined as:
at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong
In murder trials, there is also a partial defence of diminished responsibility:
Furthermore, if a defendant were not capable of forming the specific intent to kill or cause grievous bodily harm (the mens rea for murder), whether because of a psychiatric condition or because of intoxication, that would also provide a defence to murder.
Finally, a psychiatric report may help with sentence. It may afford mitigation, if the offence was committed against the background of a mental health condition that reduced his culpability. It may make recommendations for particular disposals, such as hospital orders. And it may comment on issues that the court have to consider such as future risk.
Now the headline with all of these is that any such reported obtained by the defence attracts legal privilege. This means that the defence do not have to show anybody else – the court or the prosecution – the contents of the report if they do not wish to. So if a psychiatric report does not help the defence case, there will usually be no point in serving it. Many, many psychiatric reports are prepared for court cases every day and ultimately not relied upon. Often, the conclusion will be, “The Defendant suffers from psychiatric or psychological disorders, namely X, Y and Z, but not to the extent that any of the legal defences apply”. Sometimes, worse still, the report will be positively harmful to the defence. “The Defendant expressed no remorse and in my view presents a significant risk of serious harm to the public” is the last thing you want the court to read if you are trying to do the best for your client in mitigation. But, and I will repeat this, the fact that mental health issues were not “discussed before the jury” does not mean that all relevant mental health issues were not considered and dealt with appropriately.
Now we do not know why Mair’s lawyer did not rely on medical evidence. But we do know, because the defence barrister told the court at a pre-trial hearing, that Mair had been subject to an assessment.
So that leaves us with two possibilities:
Mistakes happen, of course. Negligence happens. Lawyers and judges are far from infallible. We see awful cases on appeal where the courts and/or defence representatives failed to appreciate the significance of a defendant’s mental health. But there is absolutely nothing to suggest that this is what happened in Mair’s case; to the contrary, his highly experienced lawyers indicated to the court that mental health had been considered and was not, for reasons that they do not have to state openly, going to be relevant to the issues the jury had to decide. Nor, from the sentencing remarks, was there any mental health issue relevant to mitigation. You’ll note that Hitchens does not suggest in respect of which legal issue – fitness to plead, a defence (and which one) or mitigation – the evidence of mental ill health ought to have been adduced. He just vaguely asserts that it should have been “discussed before the jury”, without deigning to tell us to what end.
Hitchens’ hang-up appears to stem from the false presumption that because an issue wasn’t raised before the jury, it wasn’t considered. That is wrong. No such deduction can safely be made. If Hitchens has spoken to those involved in the case, or has somehow seen Mair’s medical records or psychiatric reports, he may be onto something. Without any of those, it is nothing more than a conspiracy theory, and, given the imputation that Mair’s lawyers have been professionally negligent in service of a government agenda, a potentially libellous one at that.
Despite this all being pointed out to him, by numerous people, Hitchens remains characteristically recalcitrant. He insists that he is not seeking to excuse or defend Mair’s conduct, but he remains strangely keen to leverage minimal evidence of mental ill health to distance Mair from the “terrorist” label. The evidence of political motivation behind Mair’s actions was abundant, as the sentencing remarks made plain, but Hitchens goes to tortuous lengths to try to rebut this, climaxing with: “To me, his very insistence to police that “I am a political activist” shows that he was nothing of the sort.” Or as Brian’s followers would have it, “Only the true Messiah denies his divinity.”
Quite why Hitchens is so wedded to a thick black line that does not exist – attempting to separate mental ill health and terrorism into mutually exclusive camps – is also a mystery. Why he cannot accept the proposition that a person can be mentally unwell whilst still capable of committing deliberate and knowing acts of political carnage is as baffling as his determination to cast Mair as a victim of a state fit-up. The whole argument, as with so much of what Hitchens writes, is achingly bizarre. By the time you’ve finished deconstructing it, you almost forget why you started. Like the time he mistook the origins of the term “county lines” and got himself in a week-long tantrum, his thinking on this issue betrays a millefeuille of irrationality, incoherence and counterproductive reasoning. Hitchens has a term for that, but I expect he would not take kindly to it being applied to him.