Were the judges “incompetent f****-ups” to refuse Marine A bail?

There is a risk, I am acutely aware, of this blog appearing to transmogrify into The Secret Judicial Cheerleader. Which it is not. By way of pre-emptive self-defence, I should point out that much of my professional life is spent politely pointing out to judges why, in my respectful submission, the course they are thinking of taking, which just happens to be adverse to my client, is wrong.

And sometimes, I dare say I’m even right about that. Because judges are fallible. From magistrates – especially magistrates – through to Supreme Court Justices, errors in reasoning and application of the law occur. And people far brighter than me forge glittering careers appearing in the higher courts, and publishing brain-stretchingly clever academic criticism, telling judges just how wrong their brethren – or they – are.

But what those types of argument have in common is that those making the case against judicial decisions do so in full possession of the relevant facts and law. Which is a precursor, you might think, to entering any debate, whether in court, print media or online. Know what you’re talking about. If you’re not sure why something happened, pause and find out, before leaping to the settled conclusion that, because that something instinctively offends you, it must be wrong. Or unjustifiable. Or evidence of systemic corruption. Or proof of some other cosy conspiracy theory.

It’s rather sad that I feel I have to open with such obvious points, but increasingly it becomes clear that they escape many who wish to inflict their opinions on their large, and often inexplicable, followings.

And so to Marine A, or Sgt Alexander Blackman. I touched on his case a few days ago, when his application for bail pending his appeal against his conviction for murder was adjourned. Yesterday the Court Martial Appeal Court (CMAC) heard the bail application, and refused it. The appeal will be expedited and listed as soon as possible next year, but the appellant will not be coming home for Christmas.

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On cue, a band of merry speaking heads sprang up, Whack-A-Mole style, to denounce this decision. That so many did without being in court and before the Court published its judgment perhaps tells you something about the factual soundness of their premise. A choice few include:

So what happened? As a brief recap of the case, Sgt Blackman was convicted of murder in 2013 by a Court Martial, having shot an Afghan detainee at point blank range in 2011 while on tour in Afghanistan.  The case pricked emotions all round. For many, this was an act of cold-blooded murder which degrades the reputation of our military and endangers fellow servicemen, and Blackman was rightly prosecuted and convicted. For others, this was a mistake by a respected hero risking his life for our safety, and the morality and legality of such things done in the fog of war cannot be second-guessed by civilian commentators or media.

The details of the appeal are subject to reporting restrictions, but what we know is that the Criminal Cases Review Commisison has presented fresh psychiatric evidence which it is said relates to the appellant’s state of mind at the time of the shooting, and which renders the conviction for murder unsafe. It will be submitted that the correct verdict should have been manslaughter, on the grounds of diminished responsibility. There are also further grounds relating to, amongst others, alleged incompetence of the trial representatives. (The full issues for appeal, some referred by the CCRC, some raised for the first time by the appellant, are listed at para 9 of the judgment.)

Yesterday was the first effective hearing at the CMAC. Bail was sought and refused. Why? Was it, as Bannatyne says, because judges are incompetent? Was it because they are, in the poetic words of Jon Gaunt, “fucked up”? (A side note on Mr Gaunt – he is the radio presenter who, after being sacked by Talksport for calling a guest a “Nazi”, took his case against Ofcom as far as the High Court, where it was held that “the offensive and abusive nature of the broadcast was gratuitous, having no factual content or justification”. Which will no doubt be his epitaph.) Was Blackman failed by judges maliciously applying lesser standards to a war hero than they would a migrant rapist, out of loathing for their country?

Actually, the reasons are set out in the judgment, which, if one takes the time to read it, makes for a far less scandalous tale. As para 18 patiently explains, bail pending appeal is rarely granted. This accords with most practitioners’ experience of appellate proceedings. Bail will only be granted in “exceptional” circumstances. Before conviction, there is in most cases a presumption in favour of bail, and the court will need to be satisfied that there are substantial grounds for withholding bail (e.g. the defendant is a flight risk, or there is a risk of further offending). But where someone is convicted and is seeking to appeal, entirely different considerations apply. Exceptional circumstances must be made out in order for bail to be granted. What amounts to “exceptional”? The test is set out in case law. Normally, “exceptional” requires that the merits of the appeal are overwhelming, or that the appellant will have served his sentence by the time of the appeal, rendering it practically nugatory.

Here, neither of those was satisfied. The Crown, although neutral on the issue of bail, do not accept the premise of the appeal. They do not agree that the new psychiatric evidence establishes a potential defence of diminished responsibility, and will argue that the conviction for murder is safe (para 13). With this in mind, and the Court having seen the fresh evidence, it considered that the case cannot be seen as “overwhelming”. (And anyone who feels able to positively  disagree with this assessment without seeing the evidence is frankly beyond reason.)

Turning to the second limb, even if a conviction for manslaughter were successfully substituted for murder, it does not follow that by the time of the appeal, he will have served all of his sentence. Exceptional circumstances, the Court held, are not made out on the test that the Court has to apply. The test is not, as some would wish, whether one has sympathy with Sgt Blackman, or whether the judges know the true meaning of Christmas. It’s the same test that is applied to all murder convicts. Reaching for the trite point, if you were the family of the deceased, you would want the Court to follow the law when entertaining a bail application from your beloved’s killer, rather than to base their decision on the whims of the public mood. This is the rule of law, folks. It’s there to protect us all.

The timing of the appeal is also important. In recognition of the urgency of the appeal, the Court has agreed to sever the various issues raised in the grounds of appeal and to expedite the seemingly most pressing – that of the psychiatric evidence. The appeal on this ground is likely to be heard at the end of January 2017 or start of February. To those abusing the judges for their lack of compassion, for the Court of Appeal to list a substantive murder appeal hearing involving fresh psychiatric evidence within a month of the CCRC reference being received, is rare. This case, whether rightly or wrongly, is getting afforded attention and speed of treatment that many equally, if not more, meritorious appellants can only dream of.

Again, I’ll close with repetition: this is not, as some like to suggest, blanket support of the decisions that judges take. It’s not even saying that this particular decision is unimpeachable. It’s certainly not saying that people shouldn’t feel strongly about cases like this. But there’s a difference between criticism factually-grounded and forcefully expressed, and ignorant, gratuitous abuse such as that spat out by Bannatyne and his ilk.

The reactions of these louts should be contrasted with the quiet dignity of Sgt Blackman’s wife, who said:

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Which perhaps, at this stage, is all that properly can be said.

If MPs are going to attack judges, they should at least understand the law

I don’t want defending the indefensible to become my default position. At least not outside the courtroom. And I’m well aware that what I’m about to say amounts to a defence of a section of society whom very few – particularly among lawyers – would leap to support. And that, following the reaction to my previous blog, there’s a risk of perceived contrarianism creeping into these posts.

But a word must be said sticking up for our judges. At least in this following, narrow, context.

Today, UKIP MP Douglas Carswell took to Twitter to retweet a nonsense article by Daily Telegraph leader writer Philip Johnston berating Mr Justice Hickinbottom. He, for the uninitiated, is the High Court Judge who this week ruled that the Labour Party National Executive Committee (NEC) breached its contractual obligations towards its members through the imposition of the 6-month “cut-off” designed to prevent a large number of party members who joined post-January 2016 from voting in the upcoming leadership election.

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The thrust of the article, endorsed by Mr Carswell, was that this being a party political matter, the courts had no place determining it. Johnston stormed:

“In his judgment, Mr Justice Hickinbottom said he accepted and fully endorsed the proposition that “the courts must be careful not to interfere in political matters”. He should have stopped there and declined to hear the case.”

This too is the view of Mr Carswell, who in less temperate words declared:

And:

 

I’ve asked Mr Carswell to define his understanding of judicial activism, but he has declined, preferring instead to simply insist that there are cases which he is unable to name which disprove the point I’m about to make. Which is this. Judicial activism is a term commonly used to criticise judicial decisions where a judge is perceived to be straying out of the legal arena and into politics. Going beyond his or her Judicial Oath to apply the law and instead shaping it in his or her own image. And understandably this is something of which many people are wary. Carswell’s position appears to be that, in agreeing to hear the claim, the Judge is guilty of straying into politics. And not just a bit guilty, but “foolish” and “appalling” for having done so.

But here’s the problem: This is not judicial activism, you ninnies. Carswell and Johnston are both naughty boys who have failed to do the most fundamental research into how the legal system works. It’s a shame, because if they’d bothered to read the judgment of the case that they both deem themselves qualified to comment upon, they’d have seen that early on, at paragraph 8, the Judge takes the trouble to explain the entirely non-contentious legal principle that the Labour Party, as an unincorporated association, is subject to the law of contract, and therefore an alleged breach of contract (in this case, the terms of membership) is a matter firmly within the jurisdiction of the courts. The Judge even helpfully provides the long-established line of case law confirming this. When I say it’s not contentious, I’m not underplaying it – there was never a suggestion, not even by the experienced Queen’s Counsel appearing for the NEC, that the court shouldn’t hear the case. And that’s because all involved, all those who know the law, know that it’s beyond moot. The court has jurisdiction, so the judge has to hear the case. It’s not a matter of discretion. This isn’t “judicial activism” where Mr Justice Hickinbottom has rolled up his sleeves, winked at the gallery and giggled, “I know I shouldn’t but…”. It’s a judge applying the law. As he swears an Oath to do. He can’t refuse to apply the law of the land because it might upset some twit of a Telegraph hack and an MP who, even when proved wrong, clings to his crumbling life raft of ignorance rather than issuing the simple apology that would lift him back on to dry land. To do so would, in fact, be an act of the very judicial activism that these twin nincompoops deplore.

This may seem a small thing to get upset about, but it’s important. I don’t mind Carswell saying that party politics should sit outwith the jurisdiction of the court. I don’t agree, but he’s free to say it and to call for change. But that’s not what he’s done. He’s attacked a judge as “foolish” and “appalling” for following the law as it stands. And as an elected representative, Mr Carswell, if he’s going to throw around words like “appalling” and “awful”, should at least have the common decency to ensure that his factual premise is correct. Here, as he has embarrassingly demonstrated, his ignorance of the law is dwarfed only by his arrogance in refusing to accept that his legal understanding might not match that of the many many lawyers who have lined up today to correct him. Like a low-budget UK Donald Trump, Mr Carswell has fired off a barrage of abuse at an entirely blameless target, and rather than say sorry would prefer to obfuscate, block and repeat. There’s something appalling and awful about this little tale, alright, but it’s certainly not the judiciary.

And my offer to Mr Carswell remains open. If I’m wrong, and the court could have refused to hear the claim, I will happily apologise. It will be my misunderstanding. The cases that he claims to know which show that the courts can disapply the law when it suits can be posted in the comments below.