The “Rape Shield” Bill is well-intentioned, meaningless and dangerous

Like the tide or the relentless ignorance of Iain Duncan Smith, the rhythm of certain recurring natural phenomena offers a comfort of certainty in an otherwise torrid and unpredictable world. One such inevitability was the reignition of the “Ched Evans row“, as media fiat demands it be termed. After several heady weeks in which almost all concerned abandoned calm and reason to soak in a pool of righteous, misinformed anger over cross examination of complainants on their sexual history and the meaning of the Court of Appeal ruling in Evans, there was a period after we all got out and dried off when tempers cooled and a serendipitous peace descended.

Ched Evans was a star player at Sheffield United.

It could never last. It was never intended to. That much was known when the government announced a review into the operation of section 41 of YJCEA – the legal provision setting out the limited circumstances in which evidence may be adduced or questions may be asked relating to previous sexual behaviour of a complainant in a sex case. We do not yet have the review, but yesterday nevertheless brought a pre-emptive legislative response, in the form of a Private Members’ Bill introduced by Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville-Roberts.

The Bill, dubbed as a “Rape Shield”, has gathered attention since the weekend, as Ms Saville-Roberts trailed it across various media platforms. Explaining her premise, Ms Saville-Roberts wrote in The Times yesterday:

“So what’s the problem? It seems that rather than being invoked occasionally as originally intended section 41 is being over-ridden in courts to the degree that its effectiveness as a rape shield is weakening. This was thrown into sharp definition by the Ched Evans retrial. What was previously presumed to be a legal resort for extraordinary circumstances was presented as a successful defence strategy across the popular press and social media, which begs the question: from now on will every man charged with rape seize on this case as a get-out-of-jail-free card, and instruct his lawyers accordingly?”

Counting slowly to ten and fighting the urge to scream “THE ONLY PEOPLE PRESENTING THE CHED EVANS RULING “AS A SUCCESSFUL DEFENCE STRATEGY ACROSS THE POPULAR PRESS AND SOCIAL MEDIA” AND SUGGESTING THAT DEFENDANTS WILL UNIVERSALLY ADOPT IT AS A FORM OF PRECEDENT WERE NOT DEFENDANTS OR DEFENCE LAWYERS BUT YOU, THE HYSTERICAL MOB RESISTANT TO THE STRONG LEGAL CONSENSUS THAT EVANS SET NO MEANINGFUL PRECEDENT”, I shall accept, for the sake of argument, the premise that section 41 is being too loosely interpreted by Crown Courts, and that judges are permitting lines of questioning that they shouldn’t. I will respectfully observe that Ms Saville-Roberts’ reliance upon an anecdotal “dossier of victims’ harrowing experiences” collected by charity Voice4Victims, as evidence for her proposition that section 41 is insufficiently restrictive, is a little unscientific – a complainant, who is not legally trained, was not present during the judge’s ruling on the section 41 application and has a personal stake in the case, is not best placed to impartially assess the objective lawfulness, relevance or propriety of the questions on sexual history – but let’s not refight old battles about what precedent Evans sets or whether section 41 is or is not being correctly applied. Let’s assume that Ms Saville-Roberts is right, and consider the Bill presented yesterday.

As a Private Members’ Bill at a first reading, we must allow for this being very much a first draft. But even so, it is of a standard, it has to be said, which my pupil supervisor would have merrily set alight with his cigarette lighter had I presented it to him as an example of my drafting. The first clause of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill deals with the proposed “Rape Shield”, and reads as follows:

1. Restriction on evidence or questions about complainant’s sexual history

(NONE)In section 41 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 after
subsection (1) there shall be inserted the following subsection―

(2) A Court in making a determination in respect of subsection (1) may
require that the cross examination of a complainant shall not involve
any matter appertaining to their appearance, behaviour or their sexual
history with any unrelated third parties regardless of the nature of the
complainant‘s alleged behaviour either before or subsequent to the
current proceedings nor should such matters be admissible as evidence
if the purpose is to undermine the credibility of the complainant unless
it would be manifestly unjust to treat them as inadmissible.”

That’s quite a mouthful. Let’s break it down. Subsection (1) of section 41 YJCEA 1999, as a brief reminder, provides the general rule that:

(1)If at a trial a person is charged with a sexual offence, then, except with the leave of the court—

(a)no evidence may be adduced, and

(b)no question may be asked in cross-examination,

by or on behalf of any accused at the trial, about any sexual behaviour of the complainant. 

The remainder of section 41 sets out the limited exceptions under which leave may be granted, namely the circumstances set out in subsections (3) and (5).

So the new subsection (2) presumably seeks to add a further compulsory qualification to the general circumstances in which the judge can give leave under (1). I say presumably, because it is in fact entirely unclear what the subsection is supposed to achieve. Having read it repeatedly, the only way to begin to analyse its intended effect is to look at it line by line. In so doing,  I shall refer to the proposed new subsection (2) as subsection (1A) (as it ought properly be), to avoid confusion with the existing subsection (2).

(1A) A Court in making a determination in respect of subsection (1) may require that the cross examination of a complainant shall not involve…”

Right from the off, we see that this isn’t a mandatory restriction at all. It simply affords the judge a discretion as to whether to apply the qualifications that follow. Which, if your complaint is that judges are presently not exercising their discretion in this area correctly, appears an odd solution.

As to exactly what type of questions the judge may prohibit, we’ll turn to the substance momentarily, but it assists to skip to the end to get an overview of the purpose. Doing so gives us:

(1A) A Court in making a determination in respect of subsection (1) may require that the cross examination of a complainant shall not involve [various matters] if the purpose is to undermine the credibility of the complainant.”

This gets to the nub of the (entirely proper) objection that Ms Saville-Roberts has to evidence of sexual behaviour being used to discredit complainants, this being one of the “twin myths” – (i) “promiscuous” women are less likely of belief, and (ii) are more likely to have consented to sexual intercourse – that section 41 was designed to combat. Firstly, given that this Bill is presented as the panacea to the “Ched Evans problem”, it bears constant repetition that the reason for the admission of the sexual history evidence in Evans had nothing whatsoever to do with attacking the complainant’s credibility. Secondly, the authors seem unaware that section 41 already has that exact prohibition in place:

(4)For the purposes of subsection (3) no evidence or question shall be regarded as relating to a relevant issue in the case if it appears to the court to be reasonable to assume that the purpose (or main purpose) for which it would be adduced or asked is to establish or elicit material for impugning the credibility of the complainant as a witness.

Which rather makes (1A) otiose.

But what are the restrictions that the judge may apply? Well, s/he:

may require that the cross examination of a complainant shall not involve
any matter appertaining to their appearance, behaviour or their sexual
history with any unrelated third parties regardless of the nature of the
complainant‘s alleged behaviour either before or subsequent to the
current proceedings”

This is so broad as to defy definition. It covers quite literally “any matter appertaining to behaviour” – not just sexual behaviour. Quite what is meant by  “sexual history with any unrelated third parties” remains to be seen, no definition being offered, and a literal reading suggesting that evidence of incest would be admissible. The last line really tops it off – regardless of the nature of the complainant’s alleged behaviour either before or subsequent to the current proceedings – reading as an attempt to ban any question in any context. The incoherence is staggering.

Then we reach the final qualification:

“unless it would be manifestly unjust to treat [those matters] as inadmissible.”

The discretionary nature of this provision renders an “unless” clause utterly pointless, but in any event, it again adds nothing. Because there is already built into the existing subsection (2) of s.41, a requirement that leave should not be given under section 41 unless the court is satisfied “that a refusal of leave might have the result of rendering unsafe a conclusion of the jury or (as the case may be) the court on any relevant issue in the case.” Much as the Court of Appeal enjoys a spot of sophistry, identifying a meaningful distinction between a decision that is “manifestly unjust” and one that merely “renders unsafe” the verdict would be a head-scratcher even for them.

The only conclusion one can draw, for this to have any meaning, is that the word “may” is an error, and that the author intended this provision as an imperative. In which case what you get is a mandatory restriction on asking the complainant any question on any aspect of behaviour – including lies, evasiveness or inconsistency – which may be designed to undermine their credibility. Faced with a false allegation, you would be prevented from challenging the credibility of your accuser in any way.

Put simply, the drafting of this Bill shows that no understanding of the law, or the principles behind section 41, has been attempted by its creators. It is knee-jerk to the point of hyperextension. Other comments by Ms Saville-Roberts, in which she mangles the reasoning of the Evans ruling, and even goes as far to suggest that section 41 as presently drafted is intended to exclude evidence of a complainant’s mental health, suggest that she, like many before her, has not taken the time to properly study the basics of her subject before rushing to legislate.

And I go into this tortuous detail because it exposes a deeper ignorance of our basic principles of justice, as demonstrated even more starkly in the next clause of the Bill, which seeks to impose a general ban on the police and CPS telling a defendant the name of their accuser, or other witnesses, in cases involving sex or violence, without the leave of a Crown Court judge (a proposal demolished by Nick Diable here). This is not a considered rebalancing of a finely-tuned and delicate ecosystem – it is an aggressive demolition of our common basic rights in the name of Doing Something to correct a problem which the architects don’t even understand.

I have no doubt that Ms Saville-Roberts and her sponsors are motivated by a genuine and noble desire to correct what they perceive to be cruel humiliation visited upon vulnerable complainants. But in so acting, they subscribe to a philosophy in which the court process is reimagined as a way of simply navigating our way smoothly to a conviction, safe in the certainty that if the defendant stands accused, it follows that he is guilty. In this model, it is of course rational that the minimisation of the complainant’s distress is the guiding principle, with the presumed guilty defendant’s interests an afterthought; worse, an inconvenience. A precondition of any reform of section 41 is sober analysis of the competing interests – defendant, complainant and state – and root principles of justice, before so much as a word of a new Bill is committed to paper. Otherwise we end up with Bills like this – well-intentioned, meaningless and potentially very dangerous indeed.

Do we really need a law telling people not to assault NHS staff?

Today’s PMQs offered a public airing to a campaign which struck a chord with me, but which may have been overlooked by others amidst the farce of Jeremy Corbyn mistakenly offering “condolences” to the family of a dead police officer who was in fact very much alive and trying to excruciatingly lie his way out of his error. The campaign in question was mentioned by Oliver Dowden MP, and seeks to offer protection to NHS workers at risk of violence from patients.

 

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Although not explicitly stated, it appears that Mr Dowden is linking arms with a petition, currently running at over 110,000 signatures, which calls for Parliament to create a specific criminal offence of assaulting any member of NHS medical staff. The creator of the petition is Nick Ferrari, the LBC radio host, who demonstrated his grasp of sensitive and complex legal matters when he last month waded straight into the brouhaha over Marine A being refused bail without bothering to acquaint himself with the basics, echoing the lament of the ignorant – “Our courts grant bail to paedos but not to war heroes” – over his airwaves. [For an explainer of this affair, see here.] But the petition still deserves a fair hearing, as indeed it will get in Parliament now that it has hit the 100,000 mark. Its premise and purpose are to the point:

“There are 193 attacks on NHS staff a day in England. LBC’s Nick Ferrari thinks this is unacceptable. Support his ‘Guard Our Emergency Medical Services’ campaign to better protect our doctors and nurses by making it a specific legal offence to attack them.

Figures show that attacks on NHS staff are rising. With stretched resources, higher demand and rising waiting times the NHS can ill afford this violence.

For twenty years it has been a specific offence to attack a Police officer conducting their duties. (Section 89(1) of the Police Act 1996).

We the undersigned believe it is time to extend this higher legal provision and protection to NHS medical staff and make it a specific offence to assault them.”

 

 

 

The methodology behind his numbers is not clear, but if we accept for now the premise that attacks on NHS workers are rising, is a new law criminalising this particularly despicable type of violence – giving doctors and nurses the same protection that we offer to police officers – not a self-evidently good thing? Should the cries from the British Medical Association and Royal College of Nursing not be acted upon? Particularly when, as Mr Dowden pointed out to the House today, specific laws also exist to criminalise assaults on prison officers and immigration officers?

I’m afraid not.

For a start, extending section 89(1) of the Police Act 1996 as the petition demands (and as is achieved in the case of prison officers by s.8 of the Prison Act 1952), would have next to no practical effect. Because the offence of assaulting a police officer presently has next to no practical effect. The maximum sentence for assaulting a police constable under s.89 (or a prison or immigration officer) is six months’ imprisonment, which is the same maximum sentence that a court can impose for common assault or battery under s.39 Criminal Justice Act 1988, the Act under which less serious assaults against NHS workers – indeed, against anyone – are currently charged. More serious assaults causing injury, whomever they are against, will be charged as assault occasioning actual bodily harm or inflicting grievous bodily harm, which carry significantly higher maximum sentences.

Furthermore, under the Sentencing Guidelines which courts are required to follow, if an offence of assault was committed “against those working in the public sector or providing a service to the public”, the court must already treat that as an aggravating factor when arriving at the sentence.

It is difficult to see therefore how what the petition seeks would in any way offer the “higher legal protection” sought, assuming that by “higher legal protection” Ferrari means “tougher sentences”. It would create a new shiny offence with an exciting new name, that would tie up Parliamentary time and add yet further pages to our diarrhoeaic criminal law, but would not result in a jot of practical difference when it came to sentencing these crimes. Unless Ferrari envisages a higher maximum sentence for this new offence, in which case we can look forward to the immediate uproar from police officers wanting to know why someone punching them in the groin can only get 6 months while someone performing the same manoeuvre on a dentist can get up to a year.

Which leads us to the broader problem with laws of this type – What About Me? If NHS medical staff are to be regarded as comprising a vulnerable, public-facing group against whom an offence is ipso facto more serious, no doubt other interests would wish to be considered. Teachers, for instance. Or firefighters. MPs have a pretty good claim. The Armed Services have been pushing for such a law for some time. Bus drivers are common targets of unhinged violence. Court staff put themselves face-to-face with the very worst people in society on a daily basis. So in fact do we lawyers. And our staff. All of us are performing a public service. All of us deserve protection. Can we have a law named after us too?

The greatest objection though is that this approach just does not work. The petition plays to the legislator’s fallacy, beloved of those like Ferrari who think that the panacea to the social maladie du jour is just one law away. If we say X is an offence, and the punishment sounds tough enough, X will stop. Reality does not bear this out. The fact is that the people we see in court every day who roll into A&E smashed and abusive, spitting at nurses and headbutting doctors, are not going to be deterred by the knowledge that Ferrari’s Law means they might now be charged with Assaulting a NHS Worker instead of common assault. The problems isn’t that there’s not a law to prohibit what they’re doing. It’s that law alone is not enough. Simply adding further legislation to existing legislation in the hope that enough reams of the stuff will somehow resolve deeply embedded social, cultural and behavioural problems is the theory of the madhouse.

I appreciate from first hand experience that medical staff risk their personal safety daily in what are usually intolerable and at times highly dangerous conditions, and my scepticism for this initiative should not be read as a lack of sympathy. If there were a practical law that could achieve the desired result of fewer assaults on medical staff, I would mount my hobby horse and back it to the highlands. But this petition’s promise of “higher protection” bestowed by a special, targeted offence is a chimera. Well-intentioned, no doubt. But wrong.

If I were a shock jock riffing on an ill-thought out prescription for an immediately better society, I’d speculate that the solution lies somewhere between spending more money on staff, decreasing the time that these violent thugs can spend winding themselves up in the waiting area, spending more money on mental health services so that those offenders are properly diverted, and spending more money on security at hospitals. But I’ll settle for saying, more authoritatively, that whatever the answer may be, Ferrari’s Law isn’t it.

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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.

Katie Hopkins and the judiciary: another pointless lie

On the day that Katie Hopkins’ wilful disregard for the truth landed her, and the Daily Mail, in £150,000 worth of piping hot water, it is reassuring to see that she has not been deterred from jumping straight back on her unicorn.

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After Hopkins viciously libelled a family of Muslims as Al-Qaeda supporters in her MailOnline column, a grovelling apology was pushed out on her behalf by the Mail, and was meekly (and, we can safely assume, by obligation of the terms of the settlement) tweeted by Hopkins herself at 2am this morning, in the following sincere terms:

 Happily, for anyone who might have missed this display of fulsome contrition, Twitter was on hand to ensure that it reaches an audience commensurate with that which consumed the false story in the first place. Hopkins though has moved on to bigger and better things, including retweeting her latest column. Which is on the law.

And so, with a heavy sigh, I rise to make the following brief observations, accuracy being I am sure uppermost in Hopkins’ mind at the present time.

Hopkins is exercised about the case of Sgt Alexander Blackman, whom you may otherwise know as “Marine A”. Sgt Blackman was convicted in November 2013 by a Court Martial of the murder of an injured Afghan prisoner after shooting him at point blank range, while on tour in Afghanistan in 2011. He was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 10 years, reduced to 8 years on appeal. His original appeal against conviction was dismissed, but he now has a further bite of the cherry after the Criminal Cases Review Commission considered that further information relating to Blackman’s mental state at the time of shooting gives rise to new grounds of appeal.

Which is where Hopkins enters. Because her latest column sees her accompany the supporters of Sgt Blackman to the Royal Courts of Justice last Friday, 16 December 2016, where the case was listed before the Court Martial Appeal Court for an application for bail pending the full appeal hearing. And from her vantage point she is able to offer some brief, sage observations on the criminal justice system.

She begins with the following opener:

“Big Al is not even here. He’s keeping clear of the courts in case he jinxes the outcome, preferring to stay and wait quietly, hoping, holding his breath.”

I don’t pretend to be intimately acquainted with the case, but I would observe that section 27 of the Court-Martial (Appeals) Act 1968 provides that an appellant has no right to be present at any proceedings preliminary to an appeal (unless the Court grants him leave), so it’s a curious narrative spin. But who knows – maybe he did apply for leave to be present, have it granted and then turn it down out of superstition. Maybe Hopkins knows something I don’t.

But where I take stronger issue is with the concluding paragraphs, as Hopkins describes how the proceedings are adjourned:

“Then bad news came. This will not be sorted yet. An adjournment. Another week of waiting whilst the prosecution make more submissions.

This wasn’t how I imagined it to be. This was not the happy Christmas the street lights were promising. This was not what we came for. This was awful.

‘The judge is a wanker’ shouted an angry man in the crowd, cross, disappointed.

I am not certain this is true.

But I am sure the law is an ass. A law which goes after our own soldiers, when migrant rapists have human rights to a family life here. A law which tells our Chelsea pensioners they are being investigated for their efforts in Northern Ireland forty years ago when ex IRA sympathisers, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness can assume power, blame free.

I walk away despondent. And wonder, if those judges had to spend another seven days behind bars at Christmas, or their wives endure more time horribly alone, whether they would adjourn a hearing quite so casually ever again.”

The penultimate paragraph is a Hopkins special – a proper old-fashioned brew of non-sequitur and urban legend – but it’s the final line that needs challenge, seeing as this is the dum-dum-dum Eastenders dramatic finish, the rhetorical swirl of her sign-off.

Judge-bashing is of course terribly modish, but in between the schoolgirl giggles at “wanker” judges and condemnation of their “casually” adjourning the hearing, there is space for some cold, hard fact. Fact which Hopkins could have easily discerned by listening to what the Court in fact said. And by reading what it published when explaining why the hearing had been adjourned. Which was as follows:

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So, as we can all see, this wasn’t the Court lazily knocking off for an early Friday finish. Or casually adjourning the case for a week because it doesn’t care about the liberty of the subject. But because the CCRC had not served its full reference – the document setting out the details of its investigation and the evidence behind its conclusions – on the prosecution. And the prosecution was therefore unable to indicate its stance on the appeal, or the issue of bail.

I go to these lengths to pick up on these tiny points, because each time an idiot with an audience or their paymasters tell 2 million people that our judges are corrupt, or are wankers, or don’t care about decent normal folk, or are enemies of the people, this all bit by bit chips away at public faith in the rule of law. There is a lot to get upset about when it comes to the administration of law in this country. And often much to legitimately criticise in various judicial decisions. But when sensible, level criticism gives way to name-calling and baseless accusations of bias or negligence, it cheapens debate and demeans public life.

If we had a functioning Lord Chancellor, she might say something like that to warn off the Hopkins of this world. As we don’t, I shall have to rely on a complaint to IPSO. Unless of course, Hopkins wishes, in the spirit of her recent discovery of penitence, to withdraw her unpleasant and untrue attack on the judges and publish a full apology and clarification.

She might even consider tweeting it during working hours.

Examining Iain Duncan Smith’s understanding of Brexit

Today, in response to an op-ed in the Daily Mail in which Iain “Bit of a thicky” Duncan Smith pushed Hanlon’s Razor to its limit with his “interpretation” of the Supreme Court proceedings, I published a series of tweets. They have proved, contrary to expectation, common sense and decency, to be quite popular, and I have had several requests to collate them in a blogpost. So for those who so wish, here I do. For those who aren’t fussed or have already seen, sorry for the diversion and have a nice day.

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Louise Mensch’s claims that Thomas Mair had an unfair trial are unsupported and wildly dangerous

There’s something particularly undignified about a spiralling Twitter spat. The cumulative ‘quote tweeting’ and punctuated “replies” designed to alert innocent passers by to your often solipsistic, and usually entirely pointless, tit for tat exchanges with someone you’ve never met and have no desire to know.  I am guilty of indulging in such indignity this afternoon, after taking umbrage at something said by erstwhile MP and author Louise Mensch, and ending up in the digital equivalent of one of those awful blazing rows you see pissed up couples having outside kebab shops to the evident embarrassment of passers by.

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On this, I also owe an apology to the doyen of criminal legal bloggers, Matthew Scott, whose name has been unwittingly dragged into the debate. If I conducted myself online with his restraint and temperament, I, and the timelines of my followers, would no doubt be much better served. But I do wish to say one final thing, just by way of consolidation, as Ms Mensch has unwittingly performed a public service by highlighting a particular strand of obnoxious and dangerous ignorance prevalent in commentary on criminal law, particularly pertaining to the conclusions that can safely be drawn from what is reported about criminal proceedings.

Mensch today published an article about the trial of convicted murderer Thomas Mair, in which she drew heavily on sage observations made by Matthew Scott on his blog relating to features of the proceedings. Matthew noted, for example, the unusual step of the court receiving into evidence an agreed witness statement from Stephen Kinnock MP, which appeared (if reported accurately) to amount to no more than “good character” evidence of the victim Jo Cox. If this was the purpose for its admission in evidence, it would be highly unusual. Matthew also observed, in his comments made pre-sentence, that based on what had been reported in the media, we might expect the issue of Mair’s mental health, although not led in evidence as relevant to his guilt (for example by way of a defence of insanity or diminished responsibility), to feature in the judge’s contemplation when considering sentence.

Louise Mensch seized on these observations and concluded definitively that Mair had had a “prejudiced” and “unfair” trial. The Judge had “played to the gallery” in allowing Kinnock’s evidence to be read. When challenged about this on Twitter, she doubled down and insisted that the Judge “acted wrongfully and immorally“.  Despite Matthew politely writing in the comments under her blog to caution against leaping from his observations to the conclusion that trial was unfair, Mensch has continued to repeat this from the rooftops over the last few hours.

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And this needs shutting down. Because it’s rot.

Mensch is not a lawyer. She was not involved in Mair’s trial. She was not present in court, nor it seems has she spoken directly to those who were. So her “conclusion” is in fact mere speculation. None of us who were not present know the legal grounds under which Kinnock’s statement was read. It might have been in some way helpful to the defence. It might be that it was favourable to the prosecution and on its face inadmissible. It might be that the Judge was wrong in letting it go before the jury. If so, Mair’s extremely experienced defence Q.C. will no doubt have objected and, if the Judge erroneously ruled against them, this could possibly form the subject of an appeal. But this, like Mensch’s musings, is completely speculative. We don’t know. And if we don’t know the full facts behind and reason for a decision, we cannot, and should not, claim to be able to draw a safe conclusion as to whether it was correct. Or, more pertinently, the motives of the decision maker, in this case the Judge.

The same applies to the issue of mental health. Mensch may have read a lot in the papers that gives her cause for concern (the same papers, it should be noted, that she rails against for printing other inaccuracies about Mair), but she is not a doctor. She is not a lawyer. She was not in the trial. She has no idea what material was before the courts, what material was available, and what the judge took into account when sentencing. She appears to speculate baselessly that Mair might have had an available defence on mental health grounds, implying that his defence, or the judge, were in error in not eliciting this. She goes on to claim that similar errors were made in the sentencing exercise. Certainly the sentencing remarks make no mention of mental health, but to assert, as does Mensch, that the Judge was wrong not to take Mair’s mental health into account relies on a number of astonishing assumptions. First, that Mair has relevant mental health issues. Second,  that his experienced Counsel, experienced solicitors and the experienced High Court Judge hearing the trial failed to identify the potential relevance of mental health issues and cracked on without giving it due regard. Or third, in the alternative, that there was relevant material which the Judge ignored when sentencing. Again, I am not saying for sure that none of those are right – they might be. But we don’t know. Mensch does not know. And if she does not know, she cannot guess.

She makes salient points about adverse publicity pre-trial, of which there was much following Mair’s arrest, particularly on social media. But again, not being in court and not having done her basic research, she has no idea of the repeated, careful warnings that are given to juries in such cases. Or if she does, she doesn’t acknowledge this. She leaps straight to the conclusion that this too renders the trial unsafe, her expertise far outweighing, it seems, that of Mair’s legal team who did not see fit to argue (as they could have done) that his case was so prejudiced by unfavourable media coverage that it ought to be stayed as an abuse of process. Mensch doesn’t pause to consider this. She doesn’t bother to learn the law. She guesses.

And she shouldn’t guess. Because in this toxic, febrile climate, claims that Neo-Nazis are not given fair trials can have serious consequences. These claims feed into the narrative that democratic institutions are broken, and foster the paranoia of those susceptible to taking the, to them, only rational action that one can take when democracy breaks down – violence. It is the same danger that lay behind Trump’s claims that the election was rigged, and UKIP’s baseless allegations that the High Court judges in the ‘Brexit’ case were biased. This is not to say that democratic institutions shouldn’t be scrutinised or criticised, or that concerns should not be raised; plainly they should be. But on solid and intellectually honest bases, by people in command of the facts and the arguments, reaching available conclusions sensibly and responsibly.

Not by professional antagonists seeking their latest hour in the sun, ignorant of the facts and oblivious or, worse, maliciously indifferent, to the succour they give to extremist tropes which, taken to their logical conclusions, could result in violence on the streets.

The “Walter Mitty” law is misconceived and dangerous in equal measure

Every now and then, as Bonnie Tyler so nearly put it, I fall apart sobbing in giddy astonishment at the folly of our elected representatives. And I need you now, dear reader, and I need you more than ever as the willing sounding board in my echo chamber of lawsplaining.

Today’s culprit is Conservative MP Gareth Johnson, who has captured the imagination of news outlets desperate for something to distract from the relentless nihilism of our politics. His Private Members’ Bill, the Awards for Valour (Protection) Bill has won the support of the House of Commons Defence Committee, and thereby takes a military step towards its Second Reading on Friday.

A deeply uncunning plan

A deeply uncunning plan

The Bill aims to prohibit the wearing or public display, by a person not entitled to do so, of medals or insignia awarded for valour, with the intent to deceive. To borrow the media-speak, it targets the “Walter Mittys” who adorn themselves with unearned medallions and insist that everyone call them “Colonel”, causing enormous offence to genuine service personnel and their loved ones.

And it is wholly misconceived.

The text of the Bill is short and can be reproduced here:

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The drafting is at least to the point. Pretend to have been awarded a medal for valour and face up to 3 months in prison (although the Committee in fact agreed with Mr Johnson’s suggestion that the maximum should be 6 months, so we can expect an amendment). If there is merit in its brevity, however, the plaudits end there. It is in every other way an appalling Bill.

There are two kinds of people who dishonestly wear military medals that they haven’t earned. Those who do so in order to obtain some sort of advantage, usually financial. And those who do so simply because they like the undeserved attention that the artifice confers.

The first category is plainly conduct requiring a criminal sanction. If you deceive in order to gain for yourself or to cause a loss to another, the law should intervene to protect the victim. And it does. We have the Fraud Act 2006 for just such an eventuality. So if you are duplicitously pinning on unearned medals to persuade people to donate to your fictional charitable cause, that is an offence under section 1 and 2 of the Fraud Act 2006, carrying a maximum sentence of 10 years.

The second category comprises, in the words of the Committee, “contemptible fantasists” – those tragic, often lonely men, whose deceit and/or delusion may well be deserving of public contempt, opprobrium and mockery, but who cause “harm” only to the extent that one equates “harm” with “moral offence”. Which I do not. First year undergraduates will be able to knock out essay after essay on the “mala in se” and “mala probihita” debate far more fluently than I, but I start from the philosophical position that criminalising conduct not because it causes harm but because it offends broader public sensibilities is a regressive misuse of the state’s coercive powers.

The Defence Committee in its report, regrettably, disagrees. It identifies that harm in such behaviour arises due to the “insulting” nature of the conduct, and the damage to the integrity of the system that it assumes flows therefrom. From this, the Committee gallops swiftly to its conclusion that a law is needed to protect the sensibilities of those offended.

The Defence Committee’s report is crammed full of other evidential gaps and leaps of logic. It confidently asserts, for example, that “We have received evidence that points to a continuing problem with military imposters”, before conceding that it is unable to identify with any accuracy the scale of this problem due to lack of recorded statistics. It acknowledges the Royal British Legion’s evidence that such conduct is “rare” and “not widespread”, but decides to favour the anecdotal evidence of the Bill’s sponsor and other witnesses. Quite how the Committee could hear conflicting anecdotal evidence and conclude that it was sure  that the integrity of the system was imperilled is a mystery.

The Committee draws analogies with the offence of impersonating a police officer, which does not require proof of gain, without recognising the very different, specific and real harm that is caused by the public being misled into believing that an individual is invested with the coercive powers of the police.

It does not even take heed from history. For we had a law like this until a decade ago. A corresponding offence appeared in section 197 of the Army Act 1955, until it was abolished in the Armed Forces Act 2006. Justifying this decision at the time, the MoD said:

“the important element of the offences was to prevent people from making financial or other gain dishonestly by wearing uniform” and that the general offences under the Fraud Act 2006, which potentially attract much more serious penalties, would cover those eventualities. There was also a concern that “an offence based on an intent to deceive which did not involve fraud (for example, where there was no attempt to make a financial or property gain, or cause someone loss) was likely in practice to cause difficult questions of proof”.

The Report acknowledges this, before swiftly moving on without addressing the argument. Because it cannot be addressed. This new offence will be at once difficult to prove and entirely unmeritorious.

The report sensibly proposes that the MoD publish an online database of those awarded medals, to allow for swift public verification of claims to honours. This is a fine idea. It is a shame that this was not the sole remedy alighted upon, and that the Committee considered that instead stretched police, CPS and court resources should be expended on more prosecutions.

I do not for a moment doubt the offence caused to military personnel and their families. And I agree that there is a particular degree of unpleasantness and aggravation of offence, given the particular sacrifices that are by those who earn such honours. But it is worth remembering that the Walter Mittys of this world do not restrict themselves to the misappropriation of military honours. They pretend to be doctors, inventors, Nobel prize winners, retired detectives, lawyers, decorated firefighters and much more besides. And once we start saying that the law should criminalise deceitful conduct based not on harm but on offence, we will find other groups seeking similar protection. Why, it may reasonably be asked, should the same criminal sanction not be imposed on those who falsely claim to have saved lives in war zones as a member of Médecins Sans Frontières?

The Report also pays scant regard to the personal circumstances of those who will likely fall foul of this law. Many will be elderly. Many will have mental health problems. All, by virtue of the fact that they have not been charged with fraud, will be entirely harmless.

To suggest, on the day that the Lord Chief Justice correctly points out that our prisons are bursting at the seams with prisoners who we do not need to lock up, that what we urgently require is more tragic, deluded, harmless old men locked up for up to 6 months, represents exactly the kind of muddled thinking and crass appeal to populism that our MPs should know better than to indulge.