Bad law reporting and a public dangerously disconnected from criminal justice

The criminal law has long had an image problem.

Partly, the fault is internal: the ridiculous costume; the alienating hybrid of legalese and obsequious formality that renders court hearings nonsensical to anyone in the public gallery; the impenetrability and inaccessibility of updated statute and case law; the historic failure of those of us in the system to lawsplain to those outside how justice works and why our founding principles are so important.

But part of the problem is broader: the refusal of successive governments to provide any meaningful legal education in schools; irresponsible and inaccurate news reporting; and legal illiteracy indulged and expounded by politicians using the law as a cheap crop to beat their hobby horse of choice.

The result has been inevitable. Centuries of compounded negligence have culminated in a disconnect between the criminal justice system and those it purports to serve. And most days it feels as if it’s getting worse. No longer are rabble-rousing mis-reports of legal stories confined to a day’s news cycle before being scrunched around tomorrow’s cod-and-chips; the rags are now frequently doused in the kerosene of social media and sizzle with white hot rage for days, weeks and even months on end.

While I don’t pretend that this is a problem confined to criminal law, it is often the tales of “soft sentences” and “putting criminals’ rights ahead of the victim” that burn the brightest. The formula is predictable: there will be a headline attack on an “out of touch” judge (pictured, for enhanced ludicrousness, in their ceremonial wig), with a decontextualised snippet of the judicial remarks and a gaping absence of informed fact or sober analysis.

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And over the past twelve months, we’ve suffered 365 Groundhog Days of these. The case of Ched Evans kicked things off, with outlets eager to report the outright untruths of politicians suggesting that this case set a dangerous precedent allowing complainants in sex cases to be gratuitously humiliated in court over their sexual history. A campaign to not just reform section 41 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, but to issue a blanket ban on any questions about sexual behaviour, is still being propelled by several MPs. It matters not that to do so would result, inevitably, in vital defence questions being prohibited and innocent people being convicted. A straw man effigy of section 41 has been hoisted onto the bonfire along with the presumption of innocence, with Harriet Harman proudly holding aloft the matchbox.

A run of sentencing “outrages” has followed.

The man who beat his wife with a cricket bat and was spared jail, because the judge deemed that the victim was “not vulnerable” (except the judge didn’t say those words, and it wasn’t the reason for the custodial sentence being (initially) suspended). The paedophile released only five years into a 22-year prison sentence (except it wasn’t a 22-year prison sentence, and he served longer than five years). Lavinia Woodward, the Oxford undergrad whose gratuitous bikini shots accompanied the squeals of horror that this rich white girl had been spared prison for stabbing her boyfriend, just because the rich white judge thought she was “too intelligent” to be locked up. Was that the reason she was spared jail? Did the judge ever say those words? Are any more rhetorical questions needed?

Rarely, if ever, is the reader informed of the Sentencing Guidelines and case law that constrain judges as to their approach in these cases, and which explain certain terms deployed in the sentencing remarks. Rarely are those remarks published in full — a flaw in the channels of official judicial communications for sure, but also the responsibility of those trained in shorthand in the press gallery. And rarely is there any voice of expertise explaining the apparently inexplicable, or offering a counterpoint to the incitement to fulminate.

Sometimes, of course, decisions will be made in court which do horrify, and for which there is no sensible justification. But most often, a straightforward, prosaic explanation exists. It’s just not reported. Neither editor nor politician will deal in full facts, whether through ignorance or malice.

The greatest tragedy is that if, instead of scything the low-hanging, rotten fruit the reporters reached a little higher, they would find that there is so much in criminal justice for their readership and Twitter followers to get angry about.

There’s the obliteration of legal aid, cutting the middle-classes out of publicly-funded legal assistance if they are wrongly accused of a criminal offence. There’s the ‘innocence tax’, which means that if, having been refused legal aid, you pay privately for your defence, you are not allowed to reclaim your full fees even if acquitted. Everyone in the system can speak for hours about the stack-em-high, sell-em-cheap model of warehouse justice in the magistrates’ courts, which is being rolled out in the crown courts under the euphemism of glorious efficiency. Disclosure — the means by which most innocent people secure the key to their escape — is found by report after report to be an abomination due to a hybrid of poor training and insufficient resources at the cut-to-the-bone police and Crown Prosecution Service.

But these problems evade meaningful public scrutiny, perhaps through ignorance, or perhaps because it’s simply far easier to report, and get angry about, a pervert getting help in the community rather than rotting in our violent, suicide-ridden prisons.

Public legal education is needed now more than ever. The Solicitor General, to his credit, appears to recognise this. His new Public Legal Education Panel is a start. Something needs to change if the public are going to have a hope of recognising where the real problems in justice lie; and who, in reality, poses the greatest threat to their rights. The thing about criminal justice is that, for all too many people, the realisation of how far basic protections have been eroded only dawns when it’s too late.

This article first appeared on Legal Cheek, and is available here.

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9 reasons why this vile murderer should be given taxpayers’ cash to sue the government

Just a quick one. A number of people online were yesterday disturbed by this tweet from court reporting Twitter account @CourtNewsUK, relating to Michael Adebolajo, one of the two murderers of Drummer Lee Rigby:

The story has been picked up by The Mirror, which gasped with similar horror that a “top judge” has “insisted [Adebolajo] should be given taxpayer cash to pay for his court fight against the Ministry of Justice.”

The anger has burned through the night and looks set to smoulder for the rest of the day, Radio 4’s Today programme finding space for a mention among its bulletins. And I understand why. On its face, this appears an instinctively unjust state of affairs. A High Court Judge loftily calling for yet more taxpayers’ hard-earned money to be poured into the pockets of a man guilty of unspeakable savagery.

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But scratch beneath the surface, and you quickly see that there’s more to this story than the tweet suggests. For a start, no decision has been made to grant Adebolajo legal aid for his personal injury claim against the Ministry of Justice, which arises out of injuries he sustained while being restrained by prison officers. Indeed, personal injury practitioners will correct me if I’m wrong, but I understand that legal aid for claims of this type is vanishingly rare. And proceedings are still at an early stage; today’s hearing at which the judge’s comments were made was a preliminary hearing. Details are scant. It is not clear whether the claim has any merit at all; whether it will run to trial, or whether it will be struck out as entirely frivolous.

But let’s suppose that the claim is heading for a trial. And let’s suppose the judge’s comments above were fairly and accurately reported in their full context [SPOILER – they were not, and we’ll come to that]. Here, resuscitating a thread I posted yesterday, are my thoughts on why legal representation should be made available to Michael Adebolajo, at taxpayer cost if need be:

  1. Any trial will take far longer if he is not legally represented. The conclusive experience of the courts is that legal proceedings involving unrepresented parties take far, far longer than when lawyers are instructed. The reason is simple – law and court procedure is hideously complicated. It cannot be – despite what some DIY law websites will tell you – be mastered through Google. Unrepresented litigants, even those who are impressive experts in their own professional fields, will make errors and cause delays. Lawyers are trained to hone in on the issues of law and fact that best support their case. Litigants-in-person may not appreciate their best points, or how to concisely argue them, or how to apply the law. Judges loyal to their judicial oaths are required to assist litigants as best they can to ensure fairness, but this all takes time. The experience of the family courts, in which 34% of cases now involve unrepresented litigants on both sides since legal aid cuts in 2012, bears witness to this.
  2. Any trial will be far more expensive if he’s not represented. This follows logically from 1. The more court time that is taken up dealing with a case, the greater the cost to the court, and ultimately, if the money can’t be recouped from the losing party, the taxpayer. Providing legal aid will usually save money in the long run, as lawyers will (a) advise the client robustly if the claim is devoid of merit, potentially avoiding the need for any further hearings; and (b) ensure that any trial is conducted much quicker, and therefore much cheaper, than if the individual was self-representing.
  3. The experience for the witnesses will be much more unpleasant if he’s not represented. Have you ever watched a sadistic criminal cross-examine a witness in court? Put another way, would you like to be cross-examined by a wild-eyed terrorist blundering his way through a series of irrelevant and potentially abusive questioning over several hours, punctuated by interruptions from the judge shepherding the questioner back on track? Or would you rather be cross-examined for 20 minutes, politely (and slightly ineffectually) by me, with my natty court dress and solemn demeanour? The prison officers who are the subject of the allegations by Adebolajo will have to give evidence and be cross-examined by someone. For their own comfort and dignity, I’d be prepared to chip in for this to be done professionally. Which brings us to the next point.
  4. The allegations are serious. Adebolajo claims that the prison officers held him by the head and arms in such a manner that he lost two teeth. If he is right, the truth is far more likely to emerge if his case is presented, and the questions are asked, by a trained professional.
  5. Convicted murderers have rights. Our darker selves might secretly welcome the news that a convicted murderer has had a good roughing up. No more than he deserves, right? But the mark of our civilisation is that we hold ourselves up as better than the people who harm us. We do not descend to vengeance, much less vigilantism. For what he has done, Adebolajo will be imprisoned for the rest of his life. That is his punishment. It does not follow that public servants have carte blanche to use unlawful violence against him. As despicable as we may find him, we cannot let his actions degrade our basic standards of justice. If we do, he has won. Therefore if his rights are breached, he is entitled to a remedy. It may not taste nice. But the rule of law does not require that justice be dispensed only to people we like.
  6. There is a wider issue of public safety if he is being truthful. Aside from Adebolajo’s rights, there are also the rights of other prisoners to consider. If he is truthful, and prison officers have used unlawful force against him, this needs addressing. Because prison officers are not just in charge of the Adebolajos of this world, but many other prisoners who, by nature or circumstance, are inherently vulnerable to abuses of power. And some of these prisoners will be remand prisoners awaiting criminal trial. They have not yet been convicted of an offence, and some will never be. There are innocent people in the charge of the state in our prisons. They deserve an environment where they are not subject to gratuitous state-sanctioned violence.
  7. Adebolajo will not be “given taxpayer cash” whatever happens. The beloved tabloid trope envisages giant, Wheel of Fortune-style novelty cheques being proudly handed over, or oodles of cash being ladled into wheelbarrows and delivered to Adebolajo in prison, for him to fritter as he sees fit. This is a nonsense. Any legal aid granted would be paid – at modest rates – directly to regulated solicitors and barristers. There is no financial benefit to Adebolajo at all. If we start from the premise that he has no money, and so will not be able to pay for legal representation come what way, the options are stark: either he doesn’t pay and is unrepresented, with the consequences above; or he doesn’t pay and is represented in some form, whether under a conditional fee agreement (“no win, no fee”), by lawyers acting for free (pro bono) or through legal aid. We don’t know the details, but the judge who does appears to think that only the latter is a viable option at this time.
  8. The law is for the benefit of us all. As the Supreme Court was at pains to point out to the oblivious Ministry of Justice when recently ruling employment tribunal fees to be unlawful, court cases do not only matter to the parties involved. I’ll leave the articulation of this point to Lord Reed:ED5B7877-8DF4-4B9E-AF62-6788697419CBEF549A28-9FDD-401E-B9AE-B90811A0C157C045B493-201C-4163-8BDC-266582F788FAD8CEEB25-B763-4E8A-889C-407412406379
  9. The outrage isn’t that Adebolajo might be granted legal aid, but that so many others are denied the legal aid and help they need. This is borrowed in its pithy entirety from a tweet by barrister Douglas Lloyd (@DouglasLloydUK). There is certaintly an argument of disparity and unfairness here; but not the one upon which most are alighting. The devastation of legal aid and soaring increase in court and tribunal fees over the past decade have served to exclude vast swathes of mostly poor and desperate people from the justice system. This case raises questions – but distracted by our own uncritical rage, we are asking the wrong ones.

Putting the above together, I think there’s a compelling case for saying that justice – to all involved – is best served by having this man legally represented. Legal aid may or may not be granted; I do not know enough about this field to opine. But if it is, it will not be a taxpayer-funded privilege lavished on an ungrateful terrorist; it will be a sensible and restrained direction of public funds towards ensuring that justice is served to all involved – government, claimant, prison staff, prisoners and taxpayers.  Which, when one looks at the judge’s comments in context, is exactly what he was saying:

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Guest Post by CrimeGirl: The fallacy of the fat cat legal aid lawyer

In the coming months, the tabloid “fat cat legal aid lawyer” staples are likely to re-emerge and recur with a vengeance, following the Ministry of Justice’s plans to slash legal aid fees paid to criminal law solicitors. In the din of misinformation that will be honked out by the MoJ to distract from the legal profession’s concerns, the truth may become estranged. This could have devastating consequences. If you are wrongly accused of a crime, your guiding light will most likely be a legal aid solicitor. Their importance to the functioning of our justice system is shamefully overlooked and underreported.

The Secret Barrister is delighted to publish this exclusive guest post by barrister, former duty solicitor and fellow anonymous legal commentator, CrimeGirl, who explains the reality of life for solicitors on legal aid.

 

@DefenceGirl

@CrimeGirl

One of the basic tenets of the Criminal Justice System in England and Wales is that every person being interviewed under caution by the police, no matter how rich or poor, is entitled to free and impartial legal advice.  As I used to tell my clients, even Richard Branson is entitled to free representation in the police station.

For each case the Legal Aid Agency pays the lawyer a fixed fee.  Those fees vary for some nonsensical reason depending on the location of the police station (or nearest police station).   When cases are not prosecuted, the case ends there, with that fixed fee.   On average it is circa £170.  That is all the firm receives for the totality of the work they put in.  For every police station lawyer working today, there will be numerous cases every week that are resolved by way of an ‘out of Court disposal’ such as a caution, or are dropped altogether.  Preventing charge in an appropriate way is an extremely positive result for the client and something that I took great delight in achieving.

Year on year, the number of arrests has dropped.  You will see this spun in the news as “crime falling”.  Be assured that crime is certainly not falling.  The number of individual criminal acts is not accurately reflected by the way those acts are recorded.  Custody stations across the country have seen greater than 30% reductions in footfall following a concerted effort by forces to achieve fixed targets.  The knock-on effect of this alone has been devastating for Solicitors and Barristers alike.

On top of that, a sizeable chunk of cases end at the police station.  Each case that resolves without charge culminates after its own hefty workload.  Children falsely accused of serious offences, removed from school, where Solicitors have intervened with the investigation on numerous occasions.  Countless vulnerable adults arrested for offences never capable of being made out on the available evidence, necessitating solicitors to attend the police station on multiple occasions, and who call their solicitors no less than thirty times over the months their cases go on.  Lengthy letters to custody sergeants and inspectors protesting length of bail and onerous bail conditions, threatening more formal legal action if they are not amended or relaxed.

Some of those files will comprise detailed reviews of statute and Court of Appeal or Supreme Court cases, lengthy letters to senior officers raising complaints, representations on points of law, or letters to other Solicitors requesting assistance in ancillary legal challenges.  Others will contain identity procedure attendance notes, multiple pages of written disclosure, defence witness statements and documents provided by the client to assist in preparing their defence.  They will include correspondence from employers, divorce paperwork and screenshots or emails from former partners, all of which need to be considered in detail so that the client can be advised whether or not the contents needed to be disclosed to the police in order to bring about a faster resolution to the investigation.

How much are Solicitors paid for all of this work?

Having worked for or on behalf of many differently sized firms with legal aid contracts, I can confidently say that all clients are defended robustly with a view to fending off a potential prosecution.  Every file attracts that paltry £170 I referred to above.  That £170* covers at best two hours of work, three letters and four or five phone calls.  It is the norm however for it to become a huge financial hole, representing a considerable overall loss in terms of spent fee earner’s working hours, calls and correspondence.

It bears repeating.  Every police station attendance is now considered a ‘loss leader’.  It is hoped  that remuneration may  occur in the future, either the client will be charged or if the best possible result happens and charge is avoided, one hopes, a word of mouth recommendation through excellent client care will materialise.

How can criminal defence solicitors survive in these circumstances?

The only way that firms or criminal departments have stayed solvent without taking on privately paid work is due to larger Crown Court litigator fees.  Each case that results in charge attracts funding under a representation order payable on a fixed fee basis, and when those cases are larger and more complex, (such as cases with lots of defendants at the Crown Court) that fixed fee rises.  When there is a huge amount of evidence for lawyers to read (more than 10,000 pages) the fee rises significantly.  That does not mean that those cases are ‘well paid’.  Let us not become distracted by the fallacy that any publicly funded criminal work is properly remunerated.  It is not an argument that is worth repeating here.  Larger litigator fee cases come closer to properly remunerating those who conduct them, than the smaller cases do, while remaining in stark and depressing contrast to remuneration available in any other area of law involving the same volume of work.

Those large cases are rare.  They come around infrequently and when they do arrive, Crown Court Judges have become accustomed to splitting large groups of defendants into smaller cases and putting pressure on defendants to plead guilty early, before evidence is served, with promises of sentence discounts. That cutting, pressure and re-organising reduces the financial value of the cases significantly.

The government is now proposing to reduce the amount of money it is willing to pay Solicitors and Barristers for those higher page count, more complicated cases.  No proper justification has been offered for doing this.  Lawyers still need to read every page of evidence in every case.  Failing to do so is negligent.  Relying on automatic computer processes to read evidence ignores the fact that documents are frequently hand-written and scanned, and omits the chance for human error in typing the evidence prior to service.  I say it again, failing to read every page is negligent.

The losses sustained by Solicitors at the police station and in the Magistrates’ Courts, and by Barristers  who fall into a loss by properly preparing poorly paid Crown Court cases are not properly balanced by the larger cases.  All cases should be remunerated fairly.  However, those larger cases go a way towards keeping firms and Barristers afloat financially.  The criminal justice system has already been slashed to the bone.  Police station fees have been reduced.  Magistrates’ Court fees have been cut.  Crown Court fees have been lowered.  Less people are being arrested.  All this after no rise in almost two decades, despite vastly increased living and business costs.  So many individual cases are routinely being driven into losses that criminal lawyers’ (particularly at the more junior end) are now very poorly remunerated.

Trainee Solicitors in crime can expect to earn between minimum wage and £18,000 a year.  When they qualify they can expect little over £24,000 nationwide.  Solicitors with up to seven years post qualification experience can expect to earn up to £32,000 a year, and all this comes bearing huge student debt and bank loans to fund their qualifications.  Paralegals are routinely paid between £13,000 and £20,000.  Even the most passionate believers in justice are deterred.

Great people are leaving the profession and almost no one is choosing to join it, which is a problem for the future.  It is our children and the most vulnerable people in our communities who will suffer.  With any further cuts whatsoever, we can be satisfied that the criminal justice system will collapse entirely.

As a law abiding tax payer you might think legal aid is an unnecessary expenditure, you never know when you might need it. No one plans to be falsely accused of a crime – just as no one plans to be a victim.

*Save for those that attract the “escape fee”.  Escape fees require many hours of attendance at the police station by the Solicitor in interview and equate to circa 4 x the standard fee.  These are rare, occurring only in complex and serious indictable only offences and almost always result in a positive charging decision. (I think it requires more than twelve hours and remember that you still aren’t remunerated for every hour you spend there).

You can (and should) follow CrimeGirl on Twitter at @CrimeGirl. 

Why we need legal aid for the worst people in society

Recently, I’ve noticed an increase in the number of people getting cross about legal aid. I don’t know whether this can be causally linked to the backing tracks expertly laid down by our new Lord Chancellor, adopting the smooth jazzy beats of her pre-predecessor Chris Grayling to create a steady percussive “legal-aid-bad, legal-aid-bad” filtering through her more recent public pronouncements. Or whether it is linked to the influx of legal aid scare stories pumped out of the Ministry of Justice’s favourite tabloid antagonists. Or whether, like the tide, anger over legal aid is perennial, dipping out of eyeline only temporarily before its inevitable resurgence in deference to the gravitational pull of the moon. Or, for those of the Douglas Carswell Academy of Astronomy, the sun.

But whatever the cause, it’s always dispiriting to see the Legal Aid Monster rear its mythical head, not simply because the call for its restriction threatens my narrow self-interest (DECLARATION: I have fed and clothed myself thanks to legal aid), but because it again reinforces how poor a job we in the system are doing in explaining to people why legal aid matters.

The Legal Aid Monster. Or Honey Monster. I forget which.

The Legal Aid Monster. Or Honey Monster. I forget which.

This morning I have enjoyed a spirited exchange of views with a Twitter user who I understand to be involved with or linked to the police, whose views on criminal justice I always enjoy hearing (particularly the anonymised Tweeters with the liberty to speak freely about the chaos in which they are forced to operate, such as @InspGadgetBlogs and @ConstableChaos). Quite often, we echo each other’s despair at the non-workings of the system; sometimes, police officers offer an insight into problems that barristers don’t see first-hand, but which inform the issues that we deal with in court. Today, by contrast, my partner and I came at the issue of criminal legal aid from the polar extremes. I think there’s not enough of it, and that people are often left without adequate (or any) representation; he thinks that there is far too much, and that it should be removed entirely from repeat offenders.

His view, I speculate, is one that might prove popular with people fortunate enough to have avoided the criminal courts. He is certainly not the first person to have expressed it to me. But it’s a view which, with respect, is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose and function of criminal legal aid.

 

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Let’s start with the proposition that legal aid should be “for the needy”. A lot turns on that definition, but it is employed above in contradistinction to “career criminals with multiple convictions”. So I infer that by “needy”, the writer means “not guilty”. Or at least, “not guilty very often”. Which is problematic. For me, legal aid should be available to anyone whom the state accuses of a criminal offence. Like healthcare or education, it should be a universal civil right. You don’t choose to get ill or be born, so healthcare and education are provided by the state. You don’t choose to be accused of a criminal offence, so you should have the right to properly funded legal advice and representation when the state engages you in criminal litigation. Of course, some people invite criminal proceedings by committing the offence, but we only know that once proceedings have started and guilt has been admitted or established. I have no problem in principle with recovering the cost of legal aid and/or criminal proceedings from convicted defendants who have the means, but the flaw in the “legal aid for the innocent” argument is that you need the former before you can determine the latter.

Why do I say that? Surely, channelling the mantra of the magistrates’ court, a defendant knows whether he’s done it? Well, he may know that he’s done something. But knowing whether he’s committed the specific criminal act alleged by the state is something else entirely. He may know, for example, that he pushed past the shop assistant, nipped behind the counter, tried to grab money from the till but in fact grabbed a tenner that (unbeknownst to him) a customer had just put on the counter to pay for some cigs, and then grabbed the cigs and threw them to his mate (unwittingly striking him in the  eye and blinding him) before running off and accidentally knocking over a wonky display of uber-breakable glasses on his way out. But, as law undergraduates would be asked in this funhouse of an exam question, who is guilty of what? Is the first defendant guilty of theft? Burglary? Robbery? An attempt at one of those? If so, who is the victim? What level of assault is he guilty of, if any? Is he guilty of criminal damage if he didn’t mean to knock over the display? What of his mate? Is he guilty as a joint principal or an accessory? Or is he guilty simply of handling stolen goods? Or receiving criminal property? And what difference would the various permutations of charges make to his sentence?

My adversary suggested that a career criminal would know just as well as a lawyer which offence he has committed. My response was that his having attending a dentist once a year for 50 years does not qualify him to conduct root canal surgery. If I’d had more than 140 characters, I’d have posted the paragraph above. Criminal law is complex. It’s not something that can be absorbed by proximity. And it matters that it’s done right.

It matters because, whether you’re a nice or a nasty person, you should not be convicted of an offence that you have not committed. Not only because it offends fundamental notions of fairness and justice, but because once we accept wrongful convictions as an acceptable bargain in a cost/benefit trade-off, we endanger not just the individual but wider society.

If, as the commentator suggests, we remove legal aid from repeat offenders, we put them at the mercy of the prosecution agencies. It will not simply be a case of a defendant mistakenly pleading guilty to robbery (maximum sentence life imprisonment) when he is in law only guilty of theft (maximum sentence 7 years), but of defendants, unqualified and unable to present their own defence, being convicted of offences of which they are wholly innocent. Because the police do arrest entirely innocent people. And the CPS charge them with the wrong offences. And the only obstacle to a lengthy, undeserved prison sentence is a defence solicitor or barrister, challenging the prosecution case, testing the factual and legal correctness of the allegations and fighting their client’s corner. Without a lawyer, a defendant is often a sitting duck.

And if there were a system where the police, under pressure (as they are) to improve clean-up rates and buff their statistics, knew that charging repeat offender Big Dave with a burglary would see him being denied legal aid, whereas charging first-time offender Small Steve for the same offence would result in a defence lawyer fighting his case, there is a mighty incentive in place to pin the crime on the man with two arms tied behind his back, irrespective of the evidence. While most police would not, some would bend to the  temptation. Some already do.

We would thus roll into a system that encouraged prosecutorial malpractice. The wrong people being convicted, and the even wronger people – the real burglars, thugs, rapists – getting away with it.

Legal aid for career criminals isn’t a treat or privilege to personally enrich them. It is a safeguard that ensures, as best we can, that when the cell door slams shut, society has satisfied itself that the person inside is the person who is guilty of the offence. Removing legal aid in such cases may satisfy some primal urge to vengeance, or natural hostility towards those who repeatedly breach our social and criminal codes, but it makes us no safer, saves us no money, and, in the long run, would make our streets a far more dangerous place.

It’s official: the Criminal Justice System is broken, and no-one seems to care

Friday 27 May 2016. The day on which the following events were deemed worthy of historical record on the front pages of the English press:

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It is also the day, you may be interested to know, that the criminal justice system was officially declared “close to breaking point”. Not by me or my kindred professional complainers, but by Parliament. The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee today published a report, “Efficiency in the Criminal Justice System”, in which the very first line is:

“The criminal justice system is close to breaking point.”

Easy pickings, one might think, for magpie subs struggling to summon a splash on a topic of public interest beyond facile comments by a fame-chasing wannabe TV bimbo, or something that happened on Britain’s Got Talent. [If that sentence had been pasted closer to the first two front pages above, that joke might have worked. As it is, we’ll move on and pretend nothing happened. But just so you know, that could have been something really special.]

But no-one took the bait. Notwithstanding that the facts of the report would have been available, and known, prior to last night’s print deadlines, the tumbling of justice was apparently considered not of general interest. Let alone worthy of usurping Johnny Depp’s divorce.

In truth, much of what’s in the PAC report is drawn from other non-reported reports, and there is nothing new to surprise those stuck festering in the system. The procession of complaints can be recited rote by anyone involved with criminal justice, like a contestant trapped in a Groundhog Day version of the Generation Game conveyor belt:

  • Unacceptable delays – months, years – in cases getting to trial;
  • A consequent enormous backlog of serious criminal cases;
  • Gross inefficiencies in preparing and reviewing prosecutions;
  • An overall system that is both underfunded and overstretched;
  • A lack of accountability;
  • “Cost savings” which simply shunt costs from one part of the system to another;
  • Callous treatment of witnesses and victims;
  • Insufficient judges, CPS staff and court sitting days to manage the caseload;
  • No credible plan by the Ministry of Justice to use its court buildings efficiently – e.g. £100,000 was recently spent on installing new windows at Torquay magistrates’ court even though the MoJ intended to close the building down;
  • No thought given to how defendants, jurors and witnesses might physically get to court once the MoJ has closed down all the smaller rural courts, and they have to travel 100 miles without access to regular public transport.

Those familiar friends all feature for express criticism in the report, to which I might add, for completeness, the mischief caused by interpreters not turning up, prisoners not being brought to court, legal aid being removed from middle-class defendants, the disastrous privatisation of the Probation Service and the omnipresent shadow of CPS disclosure failings. And of course many, many other prizes, none of which present as novelty to lawyers, defendants, victims or witnesses.

But to those fortunate enough to currently find themselves outside the criminal process, who may one day, through the vagaries of fate or circumstance find themselves dragged screaming into the system, either as the victim of a crime or accused of one, this surely has to be big news? It cannot be a story that peaks at item 3 on the Today programme 7am bulletin, before being folded and put away in a drawer until the next revolution of this relentless cycle of despair.

It deserves more. It deserves anger. Passion. Rage. Frustration. Umbrage. Indignation. Shock, awe, outrage, hysteria – everything that social media is accused of being, and often is, our entire society should be right now. Because a functioning justice system is vital to a functioning society. It is as crucial as health. Education. Economic policy. Because without proper justice, the social contract by which we all live crumbles. I cringe as I write this because of its sixth-form general studies simplicity, but plainly somewhere in our society there is a blockage. And people have stopped caring, beguiled by an implicit cocksure certainty that the courts – and crime in particular – is something that only affects Other People.

Early on in my career, due to CPS failings, a defendant got bail. He went on to kill. I have seen – we have all seen – provably guilty people walk free, and not-guilty people locked up. There’s no use in squealing for extra bobbies on the beat if nearly 40% of the wrong-uns they catch don’t have their cases reviewed by the CPS, and as a consequence don’t get justice. There’s no point in reporting an assault where you’re going to be cross-examined on the minutiae of that day two years after the event, with the inevitable gaps and inconsistencies in your truthful account providing the key to your tormentor’s acquittal. And if you are accused of something you didn’t do, for which you could lose your job, your home and your liberty, it’s too late at that point bemoaning the delay in your case being heard, the failure of the CPS to disclose crucial material that would secure your acquittal, or the injustice of a third, fourth or fifth adjournment of your trial because the MoJ refuses to keep open enough courtrooms.

Criminal justice matters. If the House of Commons had published a report that opened with the conclusion, “The NHS is close to breaking point”, that would be headline news. Editorials would be screaming for ministerial accountability. If the report concluded that the Department for Health had “overstretched” hospitals and “exhausted the scope to make further cuts” – and yet the DoH insisted that a further 15% would be cut from the budget by 2019/20, no-one would believe it. The injustice – the human casualties of this macabre, sadistic approach to administering a fundamental pillar of developed nationhood – would be the headlines. Their stories, their misery, their pain.

Not Alesha f**king Dixon.

Defendants in person, aliens and the MoJ Jekyll and Hyde

“Right.” The legal advisor looked at me, then back at the defendant. “And are any of them going to be witnesses for you today?”

“Any of who?” replied the defendant.

The legal advisor looked at me again and cleared his throat. “Any of the aliens?”

The defendant shook his head angrily. “No! My case isn’t that aliens did make me do it – it’s that at the time I believed they were making me do it. I was insane, yeah? Insane!” He brandished his antique copy of Archbold triumphantly, as I, a newbie to this prosecuting lark, took my seat and settled in for what proved to be a particularly long trial.

Alien

 

 

Notwithstanding the years that have passed since that remorseless day, defendants in person, and the attendant idiosyncrasies they bring to criminal proceedings, are far from a bygone relic.

Transform Justice, a charity campaigning for a fairer justice system, last month published a report, self-explanatorily titled, “Justice denied? The experience of unrepresented defendants in the criminal courts”. Drawing on statistical and anecdotal evidence from professionals and court users, the report concludes that magistrates’ courts are encountering DiPs in ever greater quantities.

As a prosecutor, it must be said that certain defendants in person do not inspire sympathy. Aliens Man, a frequent flier in this particular court, certainly gave a damn fine impression of someone determined to get himself convicted, with his refusal to swear an oath or affirmation and tactical decision to meet every question – regardless of context – with an increasingly angry, “I was insane, yeah?” It was impressive how creatively (and doggedly) those four words were deployed to expand the trial into the late evening.

But sympathetic or not, everyone – even a man furiously declining to give evidence in his own defence “until that prosecutor goes into the witness box first” – is entitled to justice. And what we see all too often, as reflected in the report, is that injustice – perceived and real – waddles hand-in-hand with a lack of access to legal representation. Occasionally it will be a conscious choice to eschew professional assistance, as with every criminal advocate’s favourite Magna Carta-quoting oddballs, Freemen on the Land, who with a defiant ignorance of constitutional law and a fistful of printed internet “legal” advice, try valiantly to persuade the court that is has no jurisdiction to try them without their consent, coz Magna Carta. But the recent proliferation of DiPs is largely attributable directly to conscious executive fiat.

A low means-testing threshold (a disposable household income of £22,325 in the magistrates’ court,) and punitive legal aid contributions for those who do qualify force many middle-income defendants into self-representing.  Thrashing through the administrative process if you’re self-employed is a nightmare, the impenetrable ambiguity of the Legal Aid forms seemingly designed to ensure rejection at the first attempt. The Legal Aid Agency is the institutional embodiment of jobsworthiness, kicking out valid applications for the most trivial – and occasionally non-existent – of perceived slights.

Putting aside the truism, attested by any Judge, solicitor or barrister, that any costs saved in depriving litigants in person of public funding are spunked ten times over by the added court time and resources needed to deal with their cases, the danger, particularly in the magistrates’ court, is of significant miscarriages of justice.

I’ve had years of dubious pleasure watching magistrates deal with defendants in person. Many benches do their best to assist the bewildered through the process. But many don’t. I recall vividly watching agog as the bench – abetted by their legal advisor – invited a defendant in person to plead guilty to having an offensive weapon – a hammer – on the basis that he said in interview that he had it with him but intended only to frighten with it. A hammer not being offensive per se, the offence could only be committed if he’d intended to use it to cause injury.  Fortunately another solicitor, exchanging raised eyebrows with me, interjected to inject some law into proceedings.

And the fear has to be, as courts are smoothly re-engineered as whirring production lines of justice through Better Case Management, putting the emphasis on speed ahead of quality, that defendants in person will get dragged between the grinding mechanism beneath, their cries unheard and their cases undiscovered.

There’s little more to cheer in the Crown Court. While the figure for defendants in person is currently steady, this won’t last. The indefensible removal in 2014 of legal aid from defendants with disposable household incomes of £37,500 will collide, I grimly predict, with the exponential increase in prosecutions of historical sexual allegations – in which many defendants will find themselves bitten by the threshold – with what can only be forecasted as appalling consequences for justice.

The brave new digital world pioneered by the Ministry of Justice is currently predicated on the assumption that all will be represented, the MoJ Jekyll seemingly blissfully ignorant of the MoJ Hyde’s bloody night-time trampling over legal aid. Quite how a defendant-in-person is expected to muster the wherewithal to extricate disclosable Social Services records from an exhausted Crown Prosecution Service, or manage the inevitable 500-page-strong Notice of Additional Evidence casually tossed onto the defence on the first day of trial, Lord alone knows.

Many of these problems could be ameliorated by the simple automatic grant of legal aid to anyone accused by the state of a criminal offence, with provision to recoup that money, where available, in the case of convictions. Utterly unobjectionable in principle. Sadly the modus of successive Justice Secretaries has been subservience to the false economy of plundering legal aid, plunging other departmental budgets into the red in satisfaction of a laughably dishonest public commitment to “fiscal responsibility” and “tough spending decisions”.

Now that really is insane.

Ok BBC, so what SHOULD we spend defending criminals?

I shall be brief and to the point. I had not planned on blogging today. But then came along the BBC. With this:

Now, this kind of “story” I’ve come to expect from certain news-peddlers. The Mail, the Telegraph, the Mirror, The Sun – they kneel, supine and obedient, mouths agape and greedily trembling with the anticipation of swallowing whatever foul excretion the Ministry of Justice cocks pump in, which they will then dutifully spit out on demand like mendacious pez dispensers.

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But the BBC? Come on, chaps. Where the flip are your news values? Just what is the story here? If it’s the sheer horror of bad people “getting” taxpayer’s money to spend on defence lawyers, then you’re missing an awful lot of stories. 600,000 per year or so, in fact. But assuming the BBC hasn’t gone all Chris Grayling on us and developed a reflexive aversion to the concept of legal aid – of people prosecuted by the state being entitled to competent legal representation – then their “angle” must be the tried n tested bait of, “Isn’t it terrible how much money these bad people are entitled to”. Like £400,000 was wired to their bank accounts for them to wantonly fritter away on Marlboros and Special Brew and Sky TV and quadbikes and all those other things that this government assumes welfare benefits really goes on.

Well if that is your angle, Daily BBC, then you’re going to need to provide some context for this story to have any meaning. In particular, I’d suggest you need to be prepared to answer these:

1) How many hours did the defence solicitors spend preparing the case? I’m talking hours at the police station, hours of conferences with the client taking instructions, hours taking witness statements, instructing experts, drafting defence statements and proofs of evidence, attending on the barrister at court, photocopying, reading the (no doubt for a murder of this size) considerable volume of papers.

2) How much money did the defence solicitors spend preparing the case? That nice juicy figure is gross. Out of that, the firm will have to pay staff wages, holiday pay, pensions, sick pay, building rent, professional indemnity insurance, admin such as photocopying and printing (as the CPS no longer serve physical paper cases), experts’ fees, travel to court, travel to prison. If you’re not including those, it’s akin to saying that a builder who charges you £500 for materials and £100 labour is creaming in £600 an hour.

3) How long did the barrister spend preparing the case? How many barristers were there? How many hundreds of hours went into preparing this murder? How many pages of evidence were there? Hundreds? Thousands? How many boxes of unpaginated disclosure did the barrister(s) have to trawl through?

4) How long was the trial, and how many hours each day was the barrister (a) in court; and (b) preparing in the evening for the following day? How many complex legal applications required lengthy skeleton argument and extensive legal research?

5) Are you aware that the figure of £400k includes VAT? How does that affect your scoop?

6) That all worked out, what was the actual net hourly rate of these professionals, who, let us not forget, will be among the very finest in their field?

7) Is that net figure too high? How does it compare to other professions? To other areas of law? To medicine? To accountants? Architects? Fluffers? Zookeepers?

8) Returning to your headline, if £400,000 is too much for society to spend on defending the most serious offence in English law, let’s have a comparison – how much was spent by the police on investigating, and by the CPS on their caseworkers, in-house lawyers and instructed Q.C.? Was it more or less than £400,000?

9) What figure would you say is reasonable, BBC, for a civilised society to spend on safeguarding the rights of two people accused of a crime carrying mandatory life imprisonment? If not £400,000, then what? Give us a figure. Show us how and why it should be less.

I do not have the answers to the above. I wasn’t in the case and haven’t done the research. But I don’t have to, because I’m not the one presenting this out-of-context figure as somehow imparting a greater meaning. If the BBC considers itself a serious bastion of fair and impartial journalism, it needs to do better than recycling MoJ press releases aimed at no higher cause than fomenting a public association between “legal aid”, “fat cat lawyers” and “undeserving child murderers”.

Shame on you, BBC.