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.
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.
There used to be a time, once Chris Grayling had hung up his butcher’s apron at the Ministry of Justice and Theresa May ushered in a quieter, more respectful justice strategy of wanton neglect, that I wrote about something other than Boris Johnson. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister keeps booting the justice football around the pitch with the swagger and fervour he usually reserves for tackling small children, so I feel that the decision is being taken largely out of my hands.
Today, in advance of tonight’s first leadership debate, a raft of Tuff On Crime initiatives have been peppered across the bulletins. We woke up to whole life sentences for child killers, and are ushering in twilight with a guarantee of immediate arrest, charge and court appearance for those carrying knives. Short, snappy policy snackettes that have the advantage of electoral delectability and tabloid acclaim, and only the minor drawback of being entirely pointless and/or unworkable.
As with so many recent announcements on criminal justice, there is a risk that fact-checking the substance only serves to amplify unreliable headlines, but it is worth looking closer at exactly what this “life really will mean life” for “child killers” policy means.
What is the headline policy?
The appeal is obvious. Monsters who murder children should be put away for a very long time indeed. As Justice Secretary Robert Buckland says today, writing in The Sun:
“Any adult who commits the crime of killing a child should spend the rest of his or her life behind bars. It is as simple as that.”
But is it?
Before considering what the Conservatives are actually proposing, let’s look firstly at how the law currently works.
What is murder?
The first point to note is that despite the false claim by the Conservative spin machine that the proposed policy targets “child killers”, it doesn’t. It targets child murderers. There are, unpleasant as it undoubtedly is to dwell on, many ways in which people can be unlawfully killed. Unlawful act manslaughter, gross negligence manslaughter, corporate manslaughter, causing death by dangerous or careless driving, infanticide, causing or allowing a child or vulnerable adult to die, and murder. These are all discrete legal concepts.
Murder is the most serious. Murder, in law, is where a person unlawfully (i.e. not in self-defence or for any other lawful purpose) kills another person, intending either to kill them or to cause grievous bodily harm (really serious harm, is how it’s explained to juries). That may surprise you. You can be convicted of murder even if you didn’t intend to kill someone.
It follows, in case the point needs making, that, while all murders are serious, some are more serious than others. A distraught mother struggling with severe depression who shakes her child intending to cause really serious harm and unintentionally causes death is in a different category to a predatory paedophile who abducts, tortures and intentionally kills a toddler. Likewise a man who acts in genuine self-defence when attacked but goes overboard and, using unreasonable force, unintentionally kills a burglar is to be distinguished from a gangster who guns down a rival drug dealer. Forgive me labouring the point, but when politicians demand blanket “whole life” sentences for all people convicted of certain broad categories of murder, it is necessary to highlight the obvious injustice that would follow.
And this truism is reflected in how murder is currently sentenced.
What is the sentence for murder?
While all offences of murder carry a mandatory life sentence, what a life sentence means can vary. This is because a court has to firstly identify a “minimum term”, which is the minimum period that the defendant will spend in prison before becoming eligible for parole. If a person is deemed safe for release by the Parole Board (the test being whether the Board is satisfied that imprisonment is no longer necessary for the protection of the public), they will be released on “life licence”, with conditions. If at any time it is considered that they are a risk to the public, they can be recalled to prison.
How is the minimum term calculated? Judges must have regard to principles set out in Schedule 21 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. This provides starting points, and the judge can then move up or down from the starting point to reflect further aggravating or mitigating features.
It’s worth a brief look at the different categories.
Whole life orders
We can see that if the court considers that the seriousness of the offence is exceptionally high,and the offender was aged 21 or over, the appropriate starting point is a whole life order – in other words, no prospect of release. There is then a non-exhaustive list of examples of cases that would normally fall within this category, including, multiple sadistic or sexually motivated murders, terrorism, murder of a serving police or prison officer, and, significantly for our purposes, the murder of a child if involving abduction or sexual or sadistic motivation.
30 year starting point
If a defendant is aged 18 or over and the seriousness is not exceptionally high, it may fall into the next bracket down, which provides for a 30 year starting point:
25 year starting point
This category covers cases where the offender took a knife or other weapon (not a firearm – this goes into the 30-year bracket) to the scene of the murder and used it.
15 year starting point
For all murders that do not fall within the other categories, the starting point is 15 years. Unless the defendant is under 18, in which case the starting point is 12 years.
The court then considers the aggravating or mitigating factors which may result in the starting point moving up or down. Critically, the legislation allows for a “minimum term of any length (whatever the starting point), or in the making of a whole life order” – in other words, even if a murder is not specifically included as an example of a whole life order, the judge still has a discretion if she thinks the seriousness is exceptionally high.
So that, put crudely, is the existing framework. What does the Conservative Party want to do?
What does the Conservative Party want to do?
Notwithstanding Robert Buckland’s boast to The Sun above, or his widely reported assertion that:
“any murderer who denies a young, innocent child the right to life surrenders their own right to liberty. They do so permanently, and they do so without exception.”
the truth is that there are a number of exceptions to this new policy, as admitted in the press release. For one, as we have already seen, it applies only to crimes of murder, not to all “child killers”. Many homicide offences which capture public attention do not in fact involve murder, and will not be affected. Secondly, whole life orders will still only be available for offenders aged 21 and over. Thirdly, although Schedule 21 defines a child as a person under 18, this new policy would be more restrictive, applying only to children under 16. Fourthly, only murders which are “premeditated” are caught by the policy. Fifthly, the press release concludes by stating that “the sentencing decision will continue to rest with the judge”. At its height, this policy appears to introduce a presumption that qualifying cases will be met by a whole life order, but this is by no means the automatic, life-means-life that has been sold to the tabloids.
On this final point, it appears that the government has majestically failed to understand how the current system works, as the press release claims, falsely, that:
“The current rules require the murder to be of multiple children, or to be sexually or sadistically motivated, to attract a Whole Life Order, which is too restrictive.”
As we have seen, this is not what Schedule 21 says at all. It in fact expressly states the opposite – just because a type of murder is not listed in the examples of appropriate “whole life” cases does not stop a judge imposing a whole life order if she thinks the seriousness is exceptionally high. So the worst cases of the murder of children, say where an adult defendant commits a premeditated murder of a very young child, are already eligible for whole life orders.
In summary therefore, the Conservative Party either doesn’t understand (or is lying about) the law, and is pushing a policy to give judges a discretion to impose a sentence they can already impose.
How many cases will actually be affected?
Perhaps the most important question that has still not been answered by the government is how many cases this policy will actually affect.
The Office of National Statistics has been quoted in news reports as calculating a figure of 67 relevant cases involving the killing of children in 2018, but closer inspection suggests the true figure is much, much smaller. This figure of 67 includes offences of manslaughter and infanticide, not just murder. It includes the terrorist attack in Manchester. It also appears to includes child-on-child killings, which are regrettably common in inner-city inter-gang warfare. There is no apparent way of ascertaining how many of these 67 were murders, how many involved defendants over 21, and how many were premeditated. Nor can the government tell us how many of the cases which did involve the premeditated murder of children by adults in fact resulted in a whole life order anyway, and how many resulted in a minimum term which was unacceptably low.
The actual answer may well be in single figures, if not zero.
Yesterday morning, newly-appointed Justice Secretary Robert Buckland told Radio 4’s Today programme of his pleasure that the Prime Minister is taking an interest in the criminal justice system. And certainly, after three years of wilful abandonment under Theresa May, I would in principle gladly welcome some Downing Street-level political attention on the ruinous state of our criminal courts.
When this attention is coupled with more money for the criminal justice system, this sounds very much like the sort of thing those of us working within have been crying out for. So surely we should all join hands with Mr Buckland and celebrate that in Boris Johnson we finally have a leader taking criminal justice seriously?
Don’t believe a word of it. The entire project is a con.
Starting with the “new money”. Mr Johnson has announced that 20,000 new police officers will be recruited over the next three years. This is vital, certainly, but falls far short of what is required, given that that figure barely replaces the number of officers cut since 2010. Meanwhile, not only is crime increasing, but investigations are becoming ever-more complex, with digital evidence sucking resources and quadrupling the effort that would have been required a decade ago.
There’s £85m for the Crown Prosecution Service, which sounds like a healthy sum, until you realise that it’s a fixed payment over two years, and that the CPS budget for 2018/19 was a quarter of a billion pounds less in real terms than in 2009/10. The CPS has lost a quarter of its staff and a third of its lawyers since 2010. Two tranches of £42.5m will not begin to fix the problems that plague prosecutions up and down the country.
There’s a promise of 10,000 new prison places, when the previous promise of 10,000 places in 2015 fell short by 6,000, and another 9,000 places alone are required simply to address the present, longstanding overcrowding. There is £100m for technology to aid prison security, but no mention at all of the extra prison staff needed to safely manage the new offenders, given that even after a recruitment drive in 2017, numbers are 15 per cent down since 2010. There has been a huge drain of experience since 2010, as the most experienced officers were among the first to go when the government decided to slash prison staff by over a quarter, at a time when the prison population has climbed.
But the problem extends far beyond inadequate promises to redress chronic underfunding. The propaganda accompanying these announcements betrays not only the Prime Minister’s trademark opportunism and dearth of intellectual rigour but the sticky, putrid tar clogging the heart of the Johnson Crime Agenda.
Announcing his plans in a series of weekend puffs in tame newspapers, Boris Johnson declared, “Left wingers will howl. But it’s time to make criminals afraid – not the public.” Declaring his mission to ensure that criminals “get the sentence they deserve,” Johnson continued a theme begun in his Telegraph columns on the campaign trail, when he railed against “early release” from prison and inadequate prison sentences being passed. The solution to our criminal woes, the subtext screams, is to lock up more people for longer.
And let’s make no mistake, punishment is a legitimate and important part of criminal sentencing. It is one of the five purposes of sentencing listed in statute, alongside the reduction of crime (including by deterrence), reform and rehabilitation, protection of the public and making reparations to victims. Few if anybody involved in criminal justice would disagree with the notion that people who commit crime should be punished in a way that reflects their culpability and the harm they have caused, and that for some people, notably the most serious violent offenders, lengthy prison sentences are inevitable.
However, the notion that longer prison sentences by themselves make any of us any safer is a fantasy. The notion in particular that knife crime will be solved if we simply lock up young men for years on end is a hoax. The public may well be protected from that particular individual for the duration of their incarceration, but the idea underpinning this rotten philosophy – that longer sentences have a deterrent effect on crime – has been shown to be bogus. What does act as a deterrent is not severity of sentence, but certainty. The likelihood of being caught and dealt with swiftly, in other words.
But crime reduction and prevention is not achieved solely by deterrence. Rehabilitation is a vital part of protecting the public. This is why, when dealing with complex, multi-causal offending intractably rooted in social and cultural problems, the courts may take the view that more can be done to protect the public by keeping a young man on the cusp of custody out of the prison warehouse estate, and offering focussed intervention in the community. Sending someone to prison usually means ripping them away from all and any stabilising factors they may have. They lose their job, their social housing and their relationship, and exit prison with no support network other than the new friends they’ve made inside. This is why the evidence suggests that reoffending rates are lower when offenders are kept in the community.
But the evidence is of no concern to the Prime Minister. This is why he is forced into infantile ad hominems as a pre-emptive rebuttal against the people who have read and studied the evidence, and might be minded to offer some as a counter to his claims that our system is soft.
We already have the highest incarceration rate in Western Europe. Prison sentences have on average got longer year-on-year. We have more prisoners detained on indefinite and life sentences than all the other countries in the Council of Europe.
The notion that our courts routinely hand out “soft sentences” is simply not true. When we do see “soft justice” stories in the headlines, they will either be an aberration, usually corrected on appeal, or they will be the product of inaccurate or dishonest reporting, removing context or omitting facts.
Which brings us to Johnson’s public statements. Because at the centre of his musings on criminal justice is a rich stuffing of bullshit. He has lied and lied and lied. He lied when he claimed that “a convicted rapist out on early release” had raped again (the man in question was neither a convicted rapist nor out on early release). He lied when he suggested that the notion of allowing some prisoners to be released on temporary licence was “criminally stupid” (the government’s own evidence shows that reintegrating prisoners into the community in this way cuts reoffending). When he told the Mail this weekend that there are “thousands of “super prolifics” – criminals with more than 50 convictions to their name – who are being spared jail altogether”, he did not tell you that one of the reasons they were spared jail might be that they were being sentenced for non-imprisonable offences. He is lying to you when he tells you that the solution to crime is More Police, More Prisons.
He is lying so that he can turn the volume up to 11 on his remix of “Prison Works” to ensure the oldies at the back of the conference hall can hear in the run-up to the inevitable autumn general election.
And while Mr Johnson is lying to you, the rest of the criminal justice system rots.
Courts are being closed down and sold off all over the country. Half of all magistrates’ courts have been closed, meaning that defendants, victims and witnesses are forced to travel for hours on ineffective public transport to their “local” court.
Of those courts remaining standing, many are unfit for purpose. Decaying, crumbling buildings with no working lifts, holes in the roofs, sewage leaking into public areas, no air conditioning in summer and no heating in winter. In some, the public cannot even get a glass of water.
Of the courts that remain unsold, all are now run at artificially low capacity due to Ministry of Justice restrictions on “court sitting days”. We have, in many large city Crown Courts, the farce of full-time, salaried judges being forced to sit at home taking “reading days” – their perfectly serviceable courtrooms sitting locked and empty – while trials are fixed for Summer 2020 due to an alleged “lack of court time”.
We still have the abominable system of “floating trials” and “warned lists” – where defendants, witnesses and lawyers are expected to give up days or weeks of their lives just sitting around at court on the off-chance that a courtroom suddenly becomes free to take their trial. When, inevitably, no courtroom becomes free (because the MoJ won’t pay for the sitting day, ibid), their case is adjourned for months, and the cycle begins again.
The one thing that does act as a deterrent to criminals – certainty – is being eroded by ensuring that justice is doled out literally years after the event, because the government will not pay for the courts to process cases clogging the pipeline.
Meanwhile legal aid is being stripped away from citizens, forcing them to self-represent in cases in which their liberty is on the line.
This is why I am angry. Not because I’m a “lefty” inherently resistant to Boris Johnson’s white hot public service reforms. I’m angry because as a prosecutor I am still having to sit down with crying witnesses week after week and explain that their torment is being prolonged for another six months because the government refuses to pay to keep courtrooms open. I’m angry because the Innocence Tax – the policy that forces the wrongly accused to pay privately for their legal representation and then denies them their costs, bankrupting them, when they are acquitted – is not even in the political peripheral vision. I’m angry because our Prime Minister is a man who looks at the record rates of death, violence, suicide, overcrowding and self-harm in our prisons and whose first question is, “How do we get more people in there?”. I’m angry because the notion that you “crack down on crime” by chucking a few more police officers onto the streets and shoving more and more people into our death-riven prisons is a con. It is a con to victims of crime, and it is a con to you, the public. I’m angry because we have the indignity of a dishonest, cowardly and exploitative Prime Minister fiddling with his Party’s g-spot while the criminal justice system burns.
Don’t fall for his con trick.
I wrote a piece for Esquire on the Netflix true-crime drama The Staircase, looking at how the trial might have been different had the case taken place in our fair nation. You can read it here.