I have today written a piece for the i newspaper on the jury system, after the excellent series published this week on life as a juror, The Trial: Secrets of Jury Service. My thoughts can be found here.
I am delighted to host this guest post by Joanna Hardy of Red Lion Chambers, articulating better than I can the appalling legacy of the Ministry of Justice’s continued selling-off of our courts.
The idea of living in the converted entrance hall of Acton Magistrates’ Court would surprise most lawyers. It used to be a sad place. Chewing gum used to cling to the floor, tackily collecting a thousand stories. The waiting-area seats groaned whenever a defendant rose to tell the local Magistrates why he had stolen the bicycle, punched the man or skipped his railway fare. The graffiti in the toilet documented the rights and wrongs of many stories and sub-plots. Defendants, victims and their respective families filed in to see justice being dispensed, case by case, crime by crime.
It was the turnstile of local justice.
Living in a converted Magistrates’ Court is not cheap. In 2017, the going rate was around £1.4 million. “Be the judge of this three-bedroom home” quipped a property article, “sleep in what used to be the grand entrance hall of Acton Magistrates’ Court”. The chewing gum has, presumably, gone and been replaced by a “rooftop terrace and steam room”. It looks happier now.
Acton might be at the start of the alphabet, but she is not alone in her dramatic makeover. Brentford Magistrates’ Court is now a luxury building that retained the cell area for trendy bicycle storage. Old Street Magistrates’ Court is a fancy hotel where you can “have a tipple” in the spot the Kray brothers once stood.
Time and again the sites of local, gritty justice have been transformed into luxe properties with corresponding price tags.
Recent figures reveal half of all Magistrates’ Courts have closed since 2010. Those pursuing local justice are increasingly finding that it is not very local at all. Courts are being consolidated and warehoused into larger centres spread out across the country. Community justice now needs to hitch a ride to the next town.
The benefits of justice being dispensed within a local community are keenly felt by those involved. For better or for worse, defendants can sometimes lead difficult, chaotic lives. Someone who is addicted to alcohol or drugs is unlikely to make a cross-county trip by 09:30am. Someone dependent on state benefits might not prioritise a peak train ticket to their court hearing if they are budgeting to feed their children. Their delays will cost society money. It might cost complainants and witnesses their time and a considerable amount of anxiety. If a defendant does not turn up at all then stretched police resources may be diverted to locate them. The community suffers.
Victims and witnesses might also struggle to make an expensive, time-consuming trip to a far-flung court. Those with childcare or employment responsibilities might not be able to spare an entire day to give evidence for twenty minutes. In some areas, the additional distance may cause witnesses a real discomfort and unease. There have been suggestions that some courts are so poorly served by public transport that witnesses and defendants could end up inappropriately travelling together on the same bus.
The benefits of local justice are clear in the day-to-day running of our courts. In some local cases, police officers still attend bail hearings. Put simply, they know their beat. They know the shortcut alleyway behind the pub, the road that is notorious for teenage car racing, the park where trouble brews. Their local knowledge helps to improve the practical decisions of the courts and to keep society safe.
The neighbourhood officer joins a long list of local benefits. Youth defendants attending a courthouse in their community can go back to school or college after their hearing. That preserves a shred of stability during a chaotic time. Probation officers sometimes know repeat offenders from earlier court orders or programmes. That helps with continuity of services including mental health, drug and alcohol treatment – often being coordinated by a GP down the road. Magistrates themselves are regularly drawn from the immediate geographic area. A community problem emerging at a particular football stadium, pub, school or street then attracts a consistent approach and a local focus.
Our justice system will be immeasurably poorer by the aggressive, short-sighted contraction of our court estate. Local knowledge, neighbourhood agencies and community justice have been gambled for large court centres making rulings from afar. The inevitable delays will waste public money. Complainants and witnesses will be inconvenienced. Police officers will be stretched. Decisions will be made in far-removed buildings distanced (in more ways than one) from the real crime on our streets.
The next time an advertisement surfaces for a luxury converted “Courthouse” building we ought to remember the real value of community justice and how much losing local courts might cost us all.
Joanna Hardy is a criminal barrister at Red Lion Chambers.
The Guardian is currently running a brilliant series on the effect of the legal aid cuts turbo-charged by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. Owen Bowcott and Amelia Hill have put together an in-depth investigation drawing on case studies and interviews to demonstrate the dire impact upon access to justice.
One such interview, should you be interested, was with me, and can be found here.
Just a few thoughts about this story on the proposed “£23m increase” in legal aid criminal defence fees, which has been making some headlines. The Ministry of Justice has loudly publicised the agreement struck with the Criminal Bar Association over legal aid rates paid to criminal defence advocates – the story was even towards the top of the Radio 4 news bulletins – so some context may help anyone not fluent in the vacillating politics of the criminal Bar (i.e. normal people).
As an opening disclaimer, nothing that follows is intended as a dig at or slight towards those who have worked exceptionally hard on behalf of the criminal Bar to negotiate with an historically untrustworthy and dishonest Ministry of Justice. They have done their best, and have secured gains. However.
The MoJ’s press release headline is “The government will spend an additional £23 million on fees for criminal defence advocates”. This sounds like a big figure, and the MoJ want the public to think it’s a big figure, legal aid fat cats and all that. So let’s put it in context.
The Advocates Graduated Fee Scheme, which pays defence advocates in legal aid cases, has been cut relentlessly over recent years. As has the overall criminal legal aid budget. As has the overall legal aid budget. As has the overall MoJ budget. Approx 40% across the board.
Criminal legal aid has been cut in real terms by £340m since 2011/12. That has been achieved partially by cutting fees paid to advocates (AGFS), part by cutting fees paid to litigators (solicitors) (LGFS), part by restricting availability of legal aid to those accused of crimes.
To cut a long story of cuts very short, the latest wheeze by the MoJ was to introduce a new scheme of AGFS earlier this year. Its effect was to cut the fees in some complex cases by up to 80% (see this open letter). The Bar took action in April and refused to accept new defence cases under this scheme. This is because already poorly-paid work, particularly for the most junior practitioners, was simply unviable. We’re talking £3-an-hour unviable in some cases. The MoJ insisted the new scheme was “cost neutral”, just moving money around. This was untrue. It was a cut of £9m.
The MoJ persuaded the criminal Bar by a Brexit-like margin (51.5% to 48.5%) to vote to go back to work on the promise of £15m extra being injected into the scheme by October 2018. The MoJ did not keep its promise. Firstly, the agreement had been that this £15m would be added to the AGFS spend for 2016/17. When it published its proposals, the MoJ disingenuously added the £15m to the figures for 2017/18, which were significantly lower (due to falling caseloads), and this had the effect of only increasing the 2016/17 spend by £8.6m. Secondly, it was not done in time for October as promised. So in November we’re still working on the new (terrible) rates.
There have since been further negotiations between the Bar and the MoJ, in an effort to undo at least some of the damage. The upshot is this “additional £23m”, which in fact simply represents the £15m which we were originally promised. (£23m is the figure you get if you use the 2017/18 figures.) And it’s worth noting that all these figures include VAT at 20%, which we are required to charge and pay to the taxman. So a good sixth of that figure is going straight back to the Treasury.
But in any case, what do these abstract figures mean? Not much. For a start, it’s based on modelling. So the increase only amounts to this figure if the workload in the courts remains broadly the same. It won’t, because fewer cases are being charged and brought to court, to save money. Without seeing the figures in the boxes (the details have not yet been published), it is impossible to properly assess how far this extra money will go, but to give context, the total spend on AGFS in 2016/17 was around £227m. So an added £15m is very small beer. It will probably help smooth some of the roughest edges in the scheme, but doesn’t touch the sides of the cuts over the past decade. Legal aid rates remain artificially low.
Junior criminal barristers will still be covering all-day hearings for senior colleagues and taking home less than £40 for the privilege. We will still have trials that we’ve spent days preparing randomly refixed by the court for dates we can’t do, and will be paid £0. We will still be paid not a penny to read through thousands of pages of disclosure – the vital material that could hold the key to saving an innocent person from years in prison. Our median take-home pay will still be a modest £27k. The most junior will still take home under £8k.
HOWEVER, here’s the point. It’s not actually about us. We choose this career and go into it with our eyes open. There’s a far bigger picture, which we must not lose sight of.
Much as what we get paid matters to us (and to society – you ain’t gonna have much of a lawyer prosecuting your burglar or defending you against a false allegation if they’re billing £5 an hour), it’s a tiny piece of that picture. The whole justice system needs investment.
The justice budget has been cut by 31% – by £2.9 BILLION – since 2010, with a further 9% cut (£800million) to take effect by 2020. The effects are those I, any many others, highlight every day. They are why I wrote the book. The justice system is broken.
The police have no resources to catch criminals. The CPS don’t have resources to prosecute, or to comply with disclosure to protect the innocent. The courts that haven’t been closed are crumbling, leaking wrecks. Victims, witnesses and defendants face chronic delays and errors.
Some defendants are excluded entirely from legal aid, forced to self-represent or pay privately. If acquitted, the government will not pay back their legal fees in full, leaving them destitute.
Prisons are too horrific to put into words, although I try here:
Prisons are too horrific to put into words. pic.twitter.com/G61JzHWkXv
— The Secret Barrister (@BarristerSecret) November 24, 2018
So while the MoJ may congratulate itself, make no mistake – this is not a solution. Not even close. £15m for legal aid when you’ve sacrificed £4bn, demolished the court & prison estate and excluded the most vulnerable from accessing justice, is not the end. It’s barely the start.
Below is an open letter published by five junior criminal practitioners in relation to the new Advocates Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS), which for non-lawyers is the scheme for payment of defence advocates in legally aided criminal cases.
We write in relation to a case which has just collapsed at the Crown Court sitting at Inner London. We write to express our dismay at the remuneration under the new AGFS scheme and the consequences which will now follow.
This was a five handed Conspiracy to Kidnap and Blackmail case and was listed with a four week estimate, due to commence today (19thNovember 2018). All counsel/advocates were instructed at the outset of this case.
The evidence was voluminous to say the least, with near enough 10,000 pages of used and served evidence and all counsel taking approximately 2 weeks out of court on various days to prepare the case for trial. Much of the evidence consisted of telephone transcripts and translated Spanish telephone evidence along with cell site mapping.
Only last week, the Crown disclosed information relating to the complainants character and that he was now refusing to come to court to give evidence. Indeed, he lost contact with the police officers in the case and switched his mobile phone off. This resulted in the crown applying to adduce his evidence under the hearsay provisions.
All defence counsel prepared skeleton arguments outlining their objections to the Crown’s application. These took several hours to research and prepare. There is no (and it should be highlighted, never has been), provision for payment for written work under the graduated fee regulations; a fact which in itself is utterly unacceptable.
But even more disgraceful are the rates of pay for such a serious case with thousands of pages of evidence and the fact that this trial has now ‘cracked’. With no provision for payment of Pages of Prosecution Evidence served (PPE), the brief fee is now only £1,105 (being a category 13.1 offence). Had the trial been contested, the brief fee would not have been much better (amounting to only £1,300). Both of these derisory figures amount to a reduction in advocates fees of approximately 80% as compared to the AGFS scheme which existed pre April 2018. Moreover, the above cracked trial fee is the total payment for all preparation in this case, is of course gross and so chambers rent, clerks fees and tax will need to be paid from this amount. To add insult to injury, the four week gap in our diaries now looms large.
It is, quite frankly, an absolute scandal that these new AGFS fees were ever agreed and that criminal barristers are now being expected to work for such derisory rates. Each and every one of us defending in this case is making it clear to you that we will no longer undertake cases which are PPE heavy.
Enough is enough!
Mustapha Hakme (9 Bedford Row)
Zarif Khan (Drystone Chambers)
Archangelo Power (2 Bedford Row)
I am delighted and honoured to publish this guest post by Mukul Chawla QC. Many readers will know that, after 35 years at the independent Bar blazing trails that leave us mortal practitioners feeling very humbled indeed, Mukul is stepping down as Head of Chambers at Foundry Chambers (formerly 9-12 Bell Yard) for a new beginning in employed practice. Here, he offers some reflections on his time at the independent Bar and on the fate of the criminal justice system.
What follows is a self-indulgent and personal reflection of my years at the independent Bar and my thoughts (which echo those more eloquently set out by others not least the owner of this blog page) of the present and future state of the Criminal Justice system. If that introduction is not enough to put you off, may I thank you in advance for taking the time to read this.
Three weeks ago, I concluded my final speech in a murder at the Central Criminal Court and was allowed to tell the jury at the end of it that, because of a longstanding previous engagement, I would not be able to return to the case.
The longstanding previous engagement was my leaving the independent Bar to join a firm of International lawyers in the City of London as a partner in its White Collar Crime team. I have now been working in that role for three weeks and it has given me an opportunity to reflect on what I have left behind. At a time when my good friend Max Hill QC is about to take up the reins as Director of Public Prosecutions, I thought it was an appropriate moment to put down some of my thoughts on what the past thirty five years have meant to me and my fears for the future of the Criminal Justice system.
I was called to the Bar by Grays Inn in July 1983, a moderately fresh faced 22 year old who had played too much rugby and done too little academic work to achieve anything approaching decent grades. Like many of my contemporaries my academic achievements would not even get me an interview at any moderate set of Chambers today. In those days my university and Bar School tuition fees were paid for in full by the local authority. I did not have to pay for the privilege of undertaking pupillage but neither was there any pupillage award. Its equivalent, so far as my pupil master was concerned, was his complete insistence that while I worked with him, I did not pay for lunch or the near daily outings to wine bars around Fleet Street. My pupillage consisted of following my pupil master around various Crown Courts in London with occasional trips to the High Court and working on a variety of criminal and civil papers for him when we were not in court.
As it turned out I was incredibly lucky. When I got to my feet, I was invariably in court every day and often conducting several hearings each day. Most of my first five months on my feet were spent in the Magistrates Court but there were also plenty of appearances in County Courts and in Employment Tribunals.
Three weeks before my tenancy application was due to be considered, my clerks managed to miss a fixture for a senior tenant at Inner London Crown Court – a multi-handed heroin supply case. When I returned to chambers at 11am from a quick hearing at Bow Street Magistrates Court, my senior clerk handed me the papers tied with pink tape, gave me my taxi fare (you can tell how guilty he felt!) and sent me on my way to Inner London. The Judge was, I understand, incandescent before I arrived but took pity on me when I stammered my apologies for my late arrival. However, he was not sufficiently sympathetic to agree to adjourn the case to the following day so that the counsel who had been instructed could undertake the trial. He did, however, grudgingly allow me twenty minutes so that I could speak to my client. My client’s first words to me in the corridor outside court and in the hearing of my prosecutor and a number of my co-defending counsel were “I don’t want no fucking Paki defending me.” I gulped and explained that I was all he was going to get.
My first Crown Court trial had not started in the auspicious way that I had dreamt of. Our relationship never really improved. The next two weeks were spent in a haze of panic, sleeplessness and endless writing and crossing out questions to ask and points to make. I had one point in my favour. The police officer who interviewed my client had neglected to write down that he had cautioned him in accordance with the Judges Rules (this was pre PACE). The more he insisted that he had cautioned my client the sillier he looked. Wise words from one of my co-defending counsel prevailed upon me in that, while I had wanted to make this cross examination last hours so that I would be seen as the new Rumpole of the Bailey (or, at least of Inner London), I only needed to ask half a dozen questions before resuming my seat. In the event, after two weeks my client was acquitted (I still suspect that the Jury felt sorry for him because of his representation) and because the Judge had heard of my difficulties with my client, he insisted on telling my client how fortunate he was in being represented by me. Two senior members of my chambers were in court waiting to be called on and heard the Judge’s comments. My client didn’t wait to say thank you.
A week later, the Chambers Tenancy meeting took place and thanks in large part to what was reported by those who had been in court, I was offered a tenancy. I was taken for a drink by a senior member who was to become a good friend, Ian Goldsworthy. His advice (only half in jest): “If I were you, my boy, I would give it up now while you still have a 100% success rate.” Two days later and following a trial for shoplifting, my success rate had plummeted to 50%.
The next few years were incredibly busy. I would often spend weeks in the same court with a jury being sent out in one case and immediately starting the next one. One or two judges, I suspect, became heartily fed up with me. My speediest full trial was at Croydon defending a man charged with handling stolen goods. The jury were sworn at 10.35am and returned their verdict at 11.10am (thankfully one of Not Guilty). I was always accompanied by a solicitor’s representative. In many ways, the solicitor’s rep was the glue that held trials together, who could smooth difficulties between counsel and the defendant, who would make notes, be a sounding board and support the advice being given. Those who undertook this task were often people with very substantial experience in attending court with counsel. The vast majority of counsel today have never had that assistance and the system has suffered immeasurably in consequence.
My luck continued. For a long time, from the late 1980’s, I acted for the Police Federation representing Police Officers in discipline hearings and in criminal cases. All of those cases were challenging and some immensely so. But in the process, I represented police officers charged with criminal misconduct, perverting the course of justice, corruption and manslaughter. Some of those represented the highest profile cases of their kind and included the defence of the Guildford 4 and Birmingham 6 police officers and the officers charged with the unlawful killing of Joy Gardner. I represented a retired senior officer in the Macpherson Enquiry following the brutal racist killing of Stephen Lawrence and the grossly inept police investigation that followed. I represented police officers from Regional Crime Squads and the Flying Squad charged with the most serious allegations of corruption.
I was on the Customs List which meant that I split my time prosecuting and defending. I would defend policemen and prosecute suspected drug smugglers and VAT evaders. It was exciting and exhilarating work. It was always rewarding both professionally and financially. Unlike criminal practitioners today, I do not remember worrying about fees or about paying my mortgage or payments to my pension or healthcare or critical illness cover. I was able to save and invest some money. Please do not misunderstand me. I was not wealthy but neither was I struggling to make a decent living.
In 1996, I was asked to become Standing Counsel to the Customs and Excise and having decided to accept that appointment, I resigned from the then nascent monitoring scheme for Treasury Counsel at the Central Criminal Court.
From 1996 to 2001, I was a busy and, I think, successful senior junior undertaking specialised criminal work both defending and prosecuting substantial cases. Those cases were not without moments of substantial humour and embarrassment. On one occasion, I was being led in a trial at Leeds in front of Mr Justice Ognall. My leader was making a submission about which he had not spoken to me and which took me completely by surprise. My usual poker face was clearly absent as Ognall J, (like me, clearly struggling to understand the submission) said at one stage: “Oh Mr X, if only you could see the expression on your junior’s face!”
By now a substantial part of my work was in fraud cases and I would be instructed in cases by and against the Serious Fraud Office.
I took Silk in 2001, two months shy of my 4oth birthday. Again I was lucky. I still defended and prosecuted in the same sort of cases as I had as a Junior but now I was right at the sharp end. And I loved it.
I was one of a number of counsel who were part of a new record for trial length. Between 2003 and 2005 I defended in the longest ever trial in front of a Jury (June 2003 to March 2005) – the Jubilee Line fraud and corruption case. The prosecution had estimated that the trial could take 6 months. Those of us defending thought it could take 12 months. The Judge warned the Jury it could take 18 months. We lost one juror who became pregnant, another who was charged with some allegation of fraud and the trial eventually collapsed when, after 21 months, a further juror simply (and understandably) said he had had enough when the end was nowhere in sight.
I have enjoyed prosecuting and defending in fraud and corruption cases, prosecuting export control cases and defending insider dealing and health and safety cases. More recently I have prosecuted a handful of murder cases. I have had a rich and plentiful diet of appearing in court and advising companies and individuals facing a variety of criminal and regulatory issues.
But my time at the Bar is not defined by the cases that I have undertaken. It is defined by the sense of camaraderie that exists in every case with your co-defending and opposing counsel, the jokes that you make and that are made at your expense and the fact that, however hard you fight in court, you will always enjoy the company of those with whom you have been in fierce dispute when sharing a drink in the pub.
More than anything, my time at the Bar is defined by the friendships I have made. There are simply too many to list here and so I will confine myself to mentioning three people who have been special and inspirational to me and whom I count myself as truly fortunate to be able to describe as close and lasting friends.
Edmund Lawson QC was my mentor and dearest friend at the Bar from my days of pupillage until he died, much too early, at the age of 60 in 2009. He was prodigiously clever and hard working. He had fantastic judgment – almost his first advice to me was: “If you are thinking of doing something but it would make you blush then or if you had to tell someone you respected about it, don’t do it.” But he was much more than those things. Among other things he was modest, fun, generous always great company and someone who made everyone with whom he came into contact feel special. The most difficult speech I have ever had to make was when I delivered the eulogy at his funeral.
I first met Julian Bevan QC when he prosecuted my clients in the Guildford 4 police officers case. He was one of those people who always took his cases seriously but regarded his own very considerable abilities with much disdain. He was the consummate jury advocate exuding calm and utter restraint. You would never guess that he had, moments before going into court, been a nervous wreck. One of my tasks as his junior was to be able to roll a cigarette for him when his hands were too shaky to put the tobacco in the paper. In one case, I remember vividly how he was able to completely turn a hostile jury by the sheer power of his advocacy, putting difficult propositions into simple words while generating complete trust in what he was saying. He was unbelievably generous to me, constantly recommending me to solicitors for difficult cases. He was and remains a constant source of delight. Now that he is enjoying retirement, I treasure the lunches and dinners when we meet and are able to gossip like adolescent schoolboys.
Ra Healy QC was one of my first pupils in 1992. In many ways, we have grown up at the Bar together albeit that she is rather younger than me. She became my pupil just at the time when my practice was blossoming. I knew I was going to like her when she told me early in her pupillage and with justified confidence that my analysis of some legal issue was completely wrong! In reality she is a proper lawyer and a great advocate. By rights, she should be arguing esoteric points of law in the Chancery Division or the Commercial Court. But she loves being a Jury advocate and she is terrifically good at it. Her sense of irreverence has not deserted her. A few years ago I was leading her in an insider dealing case. When cross-examining an expert on derivates trading, I mis-calculated a percentage difference. When the Judge looked quizzically at me and suggested that my maths was faulty, Ra piped up to say to Judge and Jury “Pah! Just as well he doesn’t style himself as a fancy fraud specialist!” Over the years she has become a real friend and a confidant. She was the only one at the Bar whom I told when I was thinking of leaving the Bar. With Ra, I know that my leaving Chambers will not change our relationship.
So, the question that I have constantly been asked is: Why leave the independent Bar? The short answer is that I was given the extraordinary opportunity to work in an area in which I am comfortable but with completely new challenges and opportunities. It was, in reality, an opportunity that I could not sensibly refuse.
But it is more than that. Life at the Criminal Bar has become a grind and for many, an intolerable one. The cases that we do are becoming more and more complex. They are uniquely challenging and important for defendants, victims and the public at large. The vast majority of barristers and solicitors doing this work see no future in terms of personal development and financial security to make this a profession that can be enjoyed and sufficiently remunerative to be sustainable.
In the last few years I have seen talented junior members leave the profession to work for the CPS, SFO and FCA as well as joining firms of solicitors. In the main, that is not something that they have wanted to do but something that has been forced upon them. Those who are doing well (and there are fewer of those than many would think) have seen such extraordinary structural changes in what we do that is done under the most difficult circumstances. Thus and by way of example only, even in high profile murder cases, it is extremely rare to see a solicitor’s representative in court supporting the advocate. It is not just that the fat has been cut from the bone, but huge chunks of flesh have been eviscerated in the drive to achieve economies.
It is positively debilitating as a Head of Chambers when you hear of stories of juniors who cannot afford a train fare to get to court because the CPS or the LAA has failed to make payments long overdue. These are not apocryphal or anecdotal stories. These are things I have seen first-hand.
You may argue that the profession has become too big and that it should be leaner. But I am not here speaking of the dearth of work but the simple fact that the work required to be done, the payments that are made for that work and the way that those payments are made, and often not made, cannot sustain this profession either in its present numbers or in reduced numbers.
However, this is only one part of the problem. The entirety of the Criminal Justice System is in crisis. Successive governments have cut funding to all parts of it, whether in terms of the Legal Aid budget, funds available to prosecutors, police, probation services and prisons. From detection, investigation, trial and all the way through to prison, community penalties and eventual rehabilitation efforts, no government in recent memory has shown any inclination of caring about any of it. And so, at every stage, despite the best efforts of all those involved in every stage of the process, mistakes will occur; short cuts will become common place if that has not already happened.
I have come to the view that unless there is a really substantial injection of funding in all areas of the system, the Criminal Justice system will simply collapse. It will be unrecognisable and will, in reality, be anything but Justice. And by that I do not mean for the direct participants in it but for Society at large. Members of the Bar, Solicitors and their professional organisations have tried to warn governments of the consequences of under-funding for almost as long as I can remember. Our words have consistently fallen on deaf ears. Even the occasional promises to improve aspects of it have proved illusory. I have no confidence that the position will change.
And so, I am sorry to be leaving the profession but only to an extent. While I am excited by the challenges that I will face in the years to come, I am leaving this profession which has given so much to me with real foreboding. I hope (perhaps in vain) that, in this respect at least, I will be proved wrong.
A piece for iNews today following Lord Hain’s decision to invoke Parliamentary privilege to name Philip Green in defiance of a court injunction.
You can read my musings here.
This is one of those posts carrying a title which I genuinely had no intention nor desire to write. It is also, I make plain at the outset, rampant clickbait, as I, like 7 billion other people who were not present for the duration of the court proceedings, am in no position at all to say what (if anything) “went wrong” in the Ben Stokes trial. However, given the ongoing social and tabloid media commentary and speculation, it seems that some general pointers on the law in this area would assist. I’ve done my best to piece together the facts from various outlets, but the standard caveat applies throughout: this analysis is based on the inevitably limited picture available.
What is the case about?
England cricketer Ben Stokes was on Tuesday 14 August 2018 acquitted by a jury of affray following a week-long trial at Bristol Crown Court. A co-accused, Ryan Ali, was also acquitted of affray. A third defendant, Ryan Hale, was acquitted of affray last week at the end of the prosecution case when the judge ruled that there was “no case to answer” against him.
The facts, put simply, are that in the early hours of 25 September 2017, violence broke out outside a nightclub in Bristol. Video footage captures part of what took place, and shows a male said to be Ben Stokes throwing punches at two other males. In the course of the incident, Ryan Ali was knocked unconscious and suffered a fractured eye socket, fractured tooth, cut eyebrow and bruising. Ryan Hale was also rendered unconscious and suffered concussion.
The prosecution case was that Ben Stokes was the aggressor and was “enraged” after a doorman refused to allow Mr Stokes and his teammate Alex Hales into a club. Ben Stokes was said to have homophobically mocked two men, Kai Barry and William O’Connor, immediately before the violence broke out.
Ben Stokes’ case was that he was in fact standing up for Mr Barry and Mr O’Connor after they were verbally abused by others. He said that Ryan Ali had then threatened him with a bottle, and that his actions thereafter amounted to lawful self-defence.
The prosecution conceded that Ben Stokes may have been acting defensively initially when threatened by Ryan Ali, but asserted that he “quickly became aggressor”.
Ben Stokes’ teammate, Alex Hales, was also present, and it was said by Stokes’ barrister that Hales could be seen on the CCTV kicking and stamping on Ryan Ali during the melee. Alex Hales was not charged with any offence.
The prosecution relied upon the evidence of a doorman and an off-duty police community support officer (PCSO), as well as video footage.
Mr Barry and Mr O’Connor were not called to give evidence by either side at trial.
What is affray?
Affray is a public order offence, contrary to section 3 of the Public Order Act 1986:
(1) A person is guilty of affray if he uses or threatens unlawful violence towards another and his conduct is such as would cause a person of reasonable firmness present at the scene to fear for his personal safety.
(2) Where 2 or more persons use or threaten the unlawful violence, it is the conduct of them taken together that must be considered for the purposes of subsection (1).
(3) For the purposes of this section a threat cannot be made by the use of words alone.
(4) No person of reasonable firmness need actually be, or be likely to be, present at the scene.
(5) Affray may be committed in private as well as in public places.
Affray is an “either-way” offence, meaning it can be tried either in the magistrates’ court or the Crown Court before a jury. In the Crown Court, the maximum sentence upon conviction is 3 years’ imprisonment.
As we can see, an offence of affray involves the use or threat of unlawful violence, but is concerned not so much with the impact of the violence upon the individual concerned, but with the impact upon the passing public. The gravamen is the fear that this type of violence causes to bystanders. It is therefore quite different to an assault.
The Crown Prosecution Service guidance on affray provides a handy summary of the relevant law. There are quite a few interesting features. For example, the requirement that a notional “person of reasonable firmness” be put in fear for their personal safety means that not all violence will qualify as an affray. It’s possible for someone to assault another person in such a way as would not cause a bystander to fear for his own personal safety. Affray tends to apply in cases, such as this, where there is a brawl or outbreak of (often drunken) violence that members of the public might reasonably fear could spiral.
What is self-defence?
Self-defence is a complete defence to affray. I’ve written about self-defence in some detail before, here. For now, I’m going to copy and paste the relevant bit:
In 2008, the common law defence of self-defence was put on a statutory footing in section 76 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. What it means in practice is as follows:
- A person acting in genuine self-defence is entitled to use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances as he believes them to be. This provides a defence to any charge of violence, up to and including the use of lethal force;
- The first question that a jury must ask is Did the defendant believe or may he have believed that it was necessary to use force to defend himself from an attack or imminent attack on himself or others or to protect property or prevent crime?
- The second question is Was the amount of force D used reasonable in the circumstances, including the dangers as D believed them to be?
- The burden is on the prosecution to disprove self-defence. It is not for a defendant to prove that he was acting in self-defence. The prosecution have to prove beyond reasonable doubt (so that a jury is sure) that the defendant was not acting in reasonable self-defence.
Let’s break down what this means.
“A genuine belief that force is necessary”
The question here is subjective – i.e. did the defendant genuinely believe he needed to use force in self-defence? It does not matter if the defendant was in fact mistaken, as long as he believed that at the time. So if a 6-foot man wearing a terrifying bear costume runs towards you brandishing what looks like a machete, and you genuinely believe he is about to attack you, the fact that you later realise the “machete” is a hunnypot and that you’ve KO’d Winnie The Pooh in front of a distraught crowd of Disneyland toddlers does not matter. The fact that your belief in the need for force was, by objective standards, unreasonable – who would mistake a hunnypot for a machete, for Lord’s sake? – does not matter at this stage. It might make the jury less likely to accept your insistence that your belief was genuine; however the bottom line is that a mistaken, unreasonable but genuinely-held belief in the need for force is enough. (The only exception is if your mistaken belief is due to your voluntary intoxication. Because, frankly, getting tanked on Stella and raining fury on Winnie The Pooh in a fountain is not something the courts can condone).
Whether force is reasonable has to be judged by the circumstances as the defendant believed them to be, even if, as above, he was in fact mistaken. So if you genuinely believe that a machete attack is imminent, what is reasonable has to be assessed by reference to that belief. What is reasonable will obviously depend on the individual case, but section 76 reflects the famous words of Lord Morris in the case of Palmer v R 1971 AC 814, which are distilled in some form to juries when they are given their directions of law by the trial judge:
“If there has been an attack so that self defence is reasonably necessary, it will be recognised that a person defending himself cannot weigh to a nicety the exact measure of his defensive action. If the jury thought that that in a moment of unexpected anguish a person attacked had only done what he honestly and instinctively thought necessary, that would be the most potent evidence that only reasonable defensive action had been taken …”
Further pointers in section 76 include the provision that if force is “disproportionate”, it cannot by its nature be “reasonable”. Which sounds self-evident, one might think, but we’ll come to this more in a second. It is also made explicit that, while the possibility of a defendant having been able to retreat is a factor to consider when assessing reasonableness, there is no “duty to retreat”. It is also long-established that a person may strike pre-emptively – you do not need to wait to be hit.
So in a nutshell, the law of self-defence means that the prosecution must make a jury sure that either a defendant didn’t really believe he needed to use force, or that he did but used unreasonable force – for example killing someone with a gun in response to a slap to the face – bearing in mind the broad scope of appreciation allowed in these cases.
How was Ben Stokes acquitted? The CCTV shows he was clearly being violent
That may well be so. But the question for the jury wasn’t “Does the CCTV show that he was throwing punches?” The question was whether the offence in law was proved.
To this end, the court has published the “route to verdict” provided to the jury. These are now produced by judges in most Crown Court trials, and are exceptionally useful. Frankly, I have no idea how juries of bygone years were supposed to decide complex cases without them. They usually take the form of flow charts or numbered questions, and are tailored to the issues in the particular case. Judges usually show them to the advocates before the document is given to the jury, so that the parties can offer observations.
Here is the route to verdict:
As can be seen, there were many theoretical routes by which a jury might have acquitted. We have no way of knowing why the jury in this case did.
Why wasn’t Ben Stokes charged with assault?
Many, including this honkingly poor Daily Mail piece, have been asking this question. It emerged that, on the first day of trial, prosecuting counsel Nicholas Corsellis applied to amend the indictment against Ben Stokes to add two counts of assault occasioning actual bodily harm (contrary to section 47 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861), in relation to the injuries suffered by Ryan Ali and Ryan Hale. The judge refused, commenting on the “very late” nature of the application and the fact that Treasury Counsel (the most senior barristers instructed by the Attorney General) had been specifically asked to advise on the appropriate charge at the beginning of proceedings and had alighted upon a single count of affray against Ben Stokes as sufficient. The judge did say that, had the prosecution applied to add the counts to the indictment at an earlier stage, there would have been little problem; however, leaving it to the day of trial was not right. The judge also said that in his view such an amendment was “not necessary”.
Should Ben Stokes have been charged with assault occasioning actual bodily harm? Certainly Mr Corsellis thought so, even if Treasury Counsel (named by the Mail as Alison Morgan) initially instructed to advise on charges at the outset of the case thought otherwise.
The Crown Prosecution Service charging standards would appear to support Mr Corsellis. These specifically address the issue of when a public order offence and an offence against the person should be charged:
Charges Relating to Violence Against the Person
Charges of Assault that are appropriate to link to those of Public Order are set out below.
If there is sufficient evidence to justify a charge under sections 2 or 3 of the Public Order Act and an assault contrary to:
- section 18 OAPA; or
- section 20 OAPA; or
- section 47 OAPA
It will usually be appropriate to charge both. It will not normally be appropriate to charge common assault (section 39 of the CJA 1988) together with an offence contrary to sections 2 or 3 of the Act.
Sometimes, prosecutors will charge tactically. It may be easier to prove affray, or the view may be taken that a conviction for assault is unlikely to add materially to the sentence for an affray, and the Crown may reasonably consider that adding a charge of assault would unnecessarily complicate the trial.
Without knowing the advice offered to the CPS, we cannot say why the decision not to charge s.47 assault was taken. But the expectation in such cases is that it usually should be charged. The CPS has released a brief statement saying:
“The CPS keeps cases under continual review. We selected the charge of affray at the outset in accordance with the code for crown prosecutors. Upon further review we considered that additional assault charges would also be appropriate. The judge decided not to permit us to add these further charges. The original charge of affray adequately reflected the criminality of the case and we proceeded on that.”
It may be – we don’t know – that the evidential position shifted in some way that meant that a charge of assault occasioning actual bodily harm was suddenly viable in a way it was previously not. By way of example, if the CPS suddenly come into possession of medical evidence proving injury, they might properly say that they are only at a late stage in a position to support a charge of ABH. But the reports of the judge’s ruling suggest that it was simply that the new prosecution barrister formed a different view to his predecessor. This is in itself not an an uncommon occurrence – because of the unpredictability of criminal court listings, trials overrunning etc, cases are often “returned” to a new barrister the night before trial, who may then advise the CPS in completely different terms.
Would a charge of assault have resulted in a conviction?
We don’t know. The newspapers have largely assumed this as a given, but if the tenor of the defence to the affray was self-defence, then my educated guess would be that a similar defence would have been run in relation to any assault charge. And while we don’t know how and why the jury acquitted, there’s a reasonable inference that if they couldn’t be sure that the prosecution had disproved self-defence on the affray, there would be no difference to the verdict on an assault charge.
It’s also worth noting that despite excitable commentary from the Telegraph that charging two counts of s.47 assault would have left Mr Stokes facing thirteen years in prison, this would require the judge upon conviction passing the maximum sentence for each charge (5 years for each ABH and 3 years for the affray) and directing them to run consecutively to each other, something which has never happened in the history of English and Welsh criminal law. Convictions for assaults on top of affray would have added a little by way of sentence, but not lots. The maximum sentence for ABH may be 5 years, but the range set by the Sentencing Guidelines (which judges are required by law to follow) is up to 3 years, and judges do not simply pile sentences on top of each other. They apply what is referred to as “totality”, and ask themselves “what is the overall sentence that justly reflects the total offending in this case?” In this case, the all-round sentence would, in my experience, be unlikely to be much more for the presence of two assault charges.
What about the missing witnesses? Why didn’t the prosecution call them?
Barry Kai and William O’Connor were speaking to the media in support of Ben Stokes immediately after the acquittal, raising the reasonable question of why they weren’t witnesses in the trial. The CPS has said:
“The evidence of Mr O’Connor and Mr Barry was disclosed to the defence but it was not deemed necessary to call them as witnesses in the case.”
Reading between the lines, it appears that whatever these two witnesses told the police, it did not help the prosecution case. This is why their “evidence” (by which the prosecution presumably means their witness statements or other informal accounts given to the police at the scene) was disclosed to the defence, rather than relied upon as prosecution evidence. This is far from unusual in affray cases, especially where most witnesses and participants have been drinking. Prosecuting an affray trial can be fiendish, as you have to pick out the bones from a pack of incoherent and inconsistent witness statements and decide how the prosecution puts its case. Usually you will rely upon the account of the most sober and independent witnesses, and disclose the remainder to the defence as “unused”. We know that the prosecution had two such ostensibly reliable and sober witnesses – the doorman and the PCSO – and if their evidence contradicted Messers O’Connor and Barry, the latter two may well have been considered unreliable.
It is notable that, despite their warm words for Mr Stokes, the defence did not choose to call them as defence witnesses. Plainly whatever they had to say was not considered sufficiently reliable or helpful to Ben Stokes’ case for them to say it on oath before the jury.
Why wasn’t Alex Hales prosecuted?
Based on what has been reported, this is a reasonable question. The defence told the court – and the police officer in charge of the case agreed in evidence – that the video footage showed Alex Hales kicking and stamping on Ryan Hale and Ryan Ali. Mr Hales was interviewed under caution by police but ultimately not charged. He apparently told attending police officers that he had only arrived at the scene after the police had, which does not sit easily with the footage. There is no explanation for the decision not to charge him beyond a bare statement from the police that “Early investigative advice was sought from the Crown Prosecution Service in relation to Alex Hales’ involvement in the incident and a decision was subsequently made at a senior level to take no further action against him.”
Was the Ben Stokes verdict right?
I don’t know. I didn’t hear all the evidence. And, unless you are a juror, reporter or member of the public who attended every day of trial and absorbed all the evidence, you don’t know either. You have an incomplete picture and should not be commenting.
So the verdict means that Ben Stokes is innocent, right?
He is presumed innocent, yes. Proven innocent, no. A “not guilty” verdict means only that the jury was not sure of guilt. This is what juries are told up and down the land ever day – if you are not sure of guilt, you must acquit. Look back at that route to verdict for the many ways in which a jury could have reached a not-guilty verdict. They may well have all agreed that Mr Stokes’ actions were most definitely reasonable self-defence. Or they may have found themselves almost sure – but not quite – that he was the aggressor and/or had gone way over the top. That is the spectrum of an acquittal – sure of innocence right through to very nearly sure of guilt. That is why we say that an acquittal should never, by itself, be heralded as “proof” of innocence. The presumption of innocence remains intact – no criminal legal consequences now flow – but anyone relying on an acquittal as proof of innocence is reaching for a meaning that the verdict does not carry.
This case is a shambles, right? Heads should roll
Some of the criticism has been completely unfounded and misdirected. It was not, for example, a “blunder” for the Crown not to call Mr Barry and Mr O’Connor; unless it can be shown that their evidence was reliable and would have supported the prosecution case, it would be entirely right and proper for the Crown not to rely upon them.
However, there are understandable questions over Alex Hales’ role, and why he was not charged. Some detail from the CPS beyond the usual rote “The evidence did not support a charge” would help in cases such as this.
It is also arguable that charges of assault should have been preferred at an early stage as well as a charge of affray; although there is no evidence that this would have made a difference to the verdict.
Furthermore, and significantly, a not guilty verdict, we must remember, is not a conclusion that a case should never have been brought.
The test for prosecuting is: Is there a realistic prospect of conviction? If there had been no case to answer against Ben Stokes, the judge would have made the same ruling at the close of the prosecution case as he did in respect of Ryan Hale: he would have directed the jury to immediately acquit.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- Would a fair, accurate and contemporaneous report of the proceedings (or part thereof) published in good faith create a substantial risk of prejudice to the administration of justice in those or other proceedings?
- Is an order postponing the publication of such reports necessary and are its terms proportionate? Would such an order eliminate the risk of prejudice to the administration of justice? Could less restrictive measures achieve the objective?
- On the specific facts of this case, does the public interest in protecting the administration of justice outweigh the strong public interest in open justice?
- 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.
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?”
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.
- What were the grounds of appeal?
The appeal focussed on three principal arguments:
- The findings of contempt at both Canterbury and Leeds did not comply with the Criminal Procedure Rules;
- 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;
- 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.
- 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.
- 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”.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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;
- 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.
- “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.