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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Some thoughts on Charlie Alliston and death on the roads

I have been asked by several people what my views are on the tragic case of Charlie Alliston, the 20-year old cyclist who was this week sentenced to 18 months’ detention in a Young Offender Institution for causing the death of a pedestrian, Kim Briggs.

And to be honest, I’m not sure what I think. Or at least, I think a number of things, not all necessarily consistent and not all easily reducible to a pithy, logically argued conclusion. I recognise that this is far from ideal for a blog which pretends to self-righteous polemic and strident self-assurance as its hallmarks. But difficult criminal cases often fall between the cracks in our neatly-defined worldview, pinching our assumptions and stretching out our contemplations on our understanding of criminal justice.

And plainly this is a difficult case. A brief flick through the media coverage of this case, or, if you can bear, a hashtag search for “Alliston” on Twitter, offers but a snapshot of the ferociously contested issues arising out of his trial and sentence.

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There has been much said about the perceived “gap in the law” that meant that Alliston, as a cyclist, could not be prosecuted under the legislation covering causing death by careless or dangerous driving – such statutes requiring the use of a “mechanically-propelled vehicle”, which a bicycle is plainly not – and instead faced a rarely-used charge of doing bodily harm by “wanton or furious driving or racing, or other wilful misconduct, or by wilful neglect”. This offence is set out in s.35 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, a Victorian statute presented by the media as hilariously rare and antiquated, notwithstanding that every offence of violence causing injury (short of death) is still prosecuted under it. Section 35, which admittedly is seldom used, requires only that a person be in charge of a “carriage or vehicle”, broad enough to include cyclists. In practical terms, this meant that Alliston faced a much lower maximum sentence – two years’ imprisonment – than that available for a motorist convicted of causing death by dangerous driving (14 years) or careless driving (5 years).

A further apparent anomaly is that the offence of dangerous cycling (without causing death or injury) covers only the manner of the cycling, whereas the offence of dangerous driving covers both the manner of the driving and the roadworthiness of the vehicle. In other words, if you drive a vehicle that is dangerously defective, that is caught by dangerous driving. In Alliston, much focus of the prosecution case was on the fact that his bicycle had a fixed rear hub but no front-wheel brake; it was a bike designed for the racing track rather than the road. The absence of a front-wheel brake was unlawful, but would not, under the current law, have of itself amounted to “dangerous cycling”.

It is worth remembering that Alliston did however face an alternative, more serious charge of which he was acquitted by the jury – manslaughter, which carries up to life imprisonment. Without digressing into legal complexity, it can be said that manslaughter is a difficult offence to prove in relation to road traffic collisions; hence the standard practice of charging causing death by dangerous or careless driving in most cases involving a fatality arising out of bad driving, with manslaughter reserved by the Crown Prosecution Service largely for cases where a vehicle is used as a weapon. We are in some difficulty in analysing the jury verdict given the lack of clear and accurate legal reporting on this trial, and in particular how the jury were directed to approach manslaughter (which can be charged in different ways), but some help might be gleaned from the assessment of Martin Porter QC, a campaigning cyclist who did not attend the trial but has offered his own summary of the applicable law here. Mr Porter’s conclusion is that the jury’s verdicts – not guilty of manslaughter but guilty of the lesser offence of furious or wanton etc – suggest that “[Alliston’s] conduct was not so self-evidently dangerous as to amount to manslaughter but that he had been a person having charge of a vehicle whose wilful misconduct had caused death”. The average non-lawyer may find this margin so fine as to be barely discernible, but it is by such fine borders that much criminal law is delineated. [As a point of disclosure, it should be noted that Mr Porter (about whom I have written before) has campaigned for more vigorous prosecutions of motorists, for the removal of juries from motoring cases to facilitate a higher conviction rate, and has offered a sympathetic treatment of Charlie Alliston often absent from his proclamations over motorists involved in fatalities, and so his commentary, while helpful, may perhaps not be entirely disinterested.]

Putting this all together, is a new law required? Possibly. It is right to say that Alliston’s is a rare case, hence the media excitement, and the truism that hard cases make bad law is no less true for its triteness. We should be careful not to reflexively legislate in response to high profile cases. But sometimes gaps are exposed – as I argued recently in relation to upskirting – and the law requires adjusting to move with the times. I do not know the ubiquity or otherwise of the Youtube phenomenon of “alley-catting” – driving fixed-wheel bicycles through city streets, contravening red lights and weaving in and out of traffic and pedestrians – which was found by the judge to have inspired Alliston. But no bespoke offence exists to prosecute the death or serious injury caused by bad cycling, and the introduction of corresponding offences that exist for vehicles – causing death or serious injury by dangerous driving – may be appropriate to ensure that such offences are fairly labelled and prosecuted.

As for the question of whether Alliston’s sentence – 18 months’ detention (detention being the equivalent to imprisonment for defendants aged between 18 and 20) – was too long or too short (a question I dislike for reasons I’ll come to) I suppose it depends on your viewpoint. The sentencing remarks, in which HHJ Wendy Joseph QC considers the few Court of Appeal authorities dealing with similar offending, appear comprehensive and well-reasoned. As a matter of law, based on the available information there appears little “wrong” with the sentence.

The remarks are also worth reading in full as a rebuttal to misinformation that abounds online about exactly what the evidence showed that Alliston did. There is something unedifying about the way in which Alliston has been adopted as a cause celebre by certain cycling campaigners, who have presented his case as an example of prosecutorial persecution betraying a disparity in treatment between this and cases where cyclists fall victim to drivers of motor vehicles.

For the avoidance of doubt, as Alliston was told by the judge: “It was not merely the absence of a front brake but your whole manner of riding that caused this accident”. He was not a conscientious cyclist afflicted by a momentary lapse of concentration or judgment. This was, in the judge’s words, a course of cycling amounting to “callous disregard for the safety of others”.

Alliston, a cycling enthusiast who had watched a number of “alley cat” videos on Youtube, had since 2014 deliberately chosen to ride a bicycle without a front-wheel brake, which increased the stopping distance by four times. Alliston knew the dangers, as he admitted in evidence that he would fit a front-wheel brake when weather conditions made him conscious of his own safety. He chose to ride without “for the thrill”. In January 2016, he upgraded to a bike that didn’t even have the facility to fit a front-wheel brake. He had no bell to warn other road users. He was, in the judge’s words, “an accident waiting to happen”.

When he came across Mrs Briggs on 12 February 2016, she having stepped out into the road as he travelled at 18 mph, he had no means of stopping. He shouted at her twice to “get out of the fucking way” and slowed to 14mph, but kept going, of the view that she should move. Other traffic meant that she could not. He struck her, she hit the ground and she suffered catastrophic, fatal brain injury.  A husband lost his wife. Two children lost their mother. Had Alliston’s bike been legal, he would have been able to stop.

His response was to post messages on line falsely claiming that Mrs Briggs was using her mobile phone at the time. He continued to criticise her decision to cross the road in front of him.

Transposing similar circumstances onto an offence of causing death by dangerous driving – an imperfect exercise, granted – it is possible to arrive at the conclusion that Alliston was fortunate that no equivalent offence and sentencing regime exist for cycling.

The (then) Sentencing Guidelines Council (now Sentencing Council) published Guidelines in 2008 for offences of causing death by driving. The very lowest category, into which this conduct arguably falls, provides a starting point sentence of 3 years’ imprisonment.

And this no doubt lends support to the argument for reform. It is arbitrary that if you are dangerously driving or riding a vehicle which has the capacity to and does cause death, your sentence depends on the precise vehicle being driven. To reach for a clumsy analogy, if you beat someone over the head with a weapon causing injury, your maximum sentence isn’t affected depending on whether you use a metal bar or a cricket bat.

But, finally, what this case evokes, and what it is perhaps easy to forget, is how blunt a tool the criminal law is in dealing with so many cases of deaths on the road. Alliston is, in this narrow respect at least, an easy case. His culpability was high. He was a deliberately bad road user. He may not have meant to kill, but his overall conduct is blameworthy and deserving of criminal sanction.

But many road users involved in accidents are not. Even those involved in serious, life-changing, life-ending collisions. Feeding back into the complaint of cyclists, this is the most common reason for a lack of criminal charges. Causing death alone is not enough to found a prosecution. There has to be culpability – for motorists, they have to be either careless – driving below the standard of a competent and careful driver – or dangerous – driving far below the standard of a competent and careful driver.

Almost always, causing death by dangerous driving will lead to prison. But devastation caused by careless driving – which often arises during momentary lapses in concentration or judgment behind the wheel – presents the hardest cases. The harm caused can be the greatest in the criminal spectrum. But culpability can be among the very lowest; barely criminal. A sharp intake of there but for grace of God breath.

In such cases, what do we do? For many of us, the default, culturally-ingrained response is to call for prison. But if we pause and ask what we are trying to achieve by so doing, we may get back an echo rather than an answer. Often in these awful cases, the standard ‘purposes’ of criminal sentencing won’t apply. The guilty driver may not need rehabilitation; or at least certainly not that which is available behind the prison gates. Deterrence, even if prison sentences were shown to achieve this, is difficult to impose on momentary lapses in concentration. There is little meaningful restitution that can be realistically made to the victim or their family. Public safety rarely demands the individual’s immediate incarceration.

Which leaves us only with retribution. And how on earth do you quantify it in such cases, where culpability is so low, and harm is so high, and we are often dancing on the margins?

Presently the law tries to accommodate this by compromising. And the essence of a good compromise, to channel Larry David, is that both parties are left unhappy. Short prison sentences or community orders – the usual sentence for causing death by careless driving – must sometimes feel to the bereaved almost worse than no sentence at all. But there is no way of even beginning to reflect the harm caused where life is lost without disproportionately punishing the culpability.

Nevertheless, in cases where minor culpability leads to devastating harm, it can feel as if this is all the system is trying to do; bluntly punish, in the hope that in some, intangible way it will satisfy our collective need for something to mark the pain.

As I said at the outset, I can’t offer any solution. I doubt many can. Perhaps that is the unsatisfactory pseudo-conclusion for which I grasp as I close; that any claim to draw easy fixes in the wake of difficult cases should be regarded with a measure of suspicion. There are rarely easy answers in criminal justice; no more so than in tragedies where we are desperate to find someone to blame.

Why was this “child sex gang leader” released from prison 17 years early?

A quick one to start the week. I was asked about this last night, and rather hoped that it was obvious on its face that this tale has more to it than the headlines in the local press would have the reader believe. However some of the nationals are now this morning plugging the story of the “child sex gang leader released from prison 17 years early”, so a brief explainer might help.

The story started smouldering last Wednesday at Prime Minister’s Questions, when MP for Telford, Lucy Allan, raised the case in the House of Commons. And in fairness to Ms Allan, her primary concern, entirely properly, was that the victims of serious sexual offending did not appear to have been informed of the perpetrator’s release on licence and his impending return to the local area.

But the story has quickly become, certainly in the national media, another tale of Barmy Soft Sentences, helpfully allied in The Independent to the recently-announced statistics on Attorney General’s References of Unduly Lenient Sentences (see my tweets here for more on this topic). The Shropshire Star yesterday reported, under the headline “Telford sex gang ringleader Mubarek Ali set to be freed early”,  that “Telford sex gang ringleader Mubarak Ali was today…preparing to be released just five years into a 22-year jail sentence.” A petition, naturally, has now been launched to “make Ali serve his full sentence”.

Ali, aged 29, was one a number of men convicted in 2012 of offences of child trafficking in the UK and controlling child prostitution in the Telford area. The facts, briefly, relate to the sexual exploitation of four girls aged as young as 13. When sentenced alongside his brother, Ali, then aged 29, was told by the judge that he was “cold hearted and cynical”, presented “significant danger to the public”, and had shown “no remorse or regret”. The total term reportedly handed down was 22 years.

Yet, only 5 years on, Ali is reportedly set to be released.

So what has gone on?

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Mubarek Ali

Was 22 years’ imprisonment imposed?

This is the first question to ask – what sentence was actually passed on Ali? The Mirror and The Independent both reported, with no further explanation, that Ali was “sentenced to 22 years in prison”. Which on its face, would appear to make a shocking story. However,  had the nationals bothered to read The Shropshire Star’s article before hoovering it up and spitting it out as their own scoop, they would have discovered the all-important context:

Mubarek Ali, 34, known as Max, was given 22 years, 14 years’ immediate custody and eight years on licence, for seven offences – four of controlling child prostitution and two offences of trafficking in the UK for the purpose of prostitution…Both [Ali and a co-defendant] were made the subject of lifelong Sexual Offences Prevention Orders.”

This is confirmed in the Court of Appeal judgment dismissing Ali’s appeal against conviction in 2014 (H/T James Turner Q.C.) Ali was convicted at Stafford Crown Court on 8 August 2012 of four charges of controlling child prostitution, two charges of trafficking in the UK for sexual exploitation and a charge of causing child prostitution. He was sentenced on 5 October 2012. And the key in the above paragraph is that the total sentence passed was not 22 years’ imprisonment, but what is known as an extended sentence of imprisonment. Where an offender is convicted of a serious violent or sexual offence and is assessed by the court as “dangerous” – the legal test for which is that they present a significant risk of serious harm to the public – one of the sentences available is an extended sentence. This is a sentence made of two parts – it carries the usual custodial term that would be passed, plus an extended period of licence, of up to 8 years (or 5 years in cases of non-sexual violence). The rationale is that this extended licence period gives the Probation Service a lengthier hold over the offender, to ensure he stays on the straight and narrow upon release. If he breaches the terms of his licence, he can be recalled to serve the rest of his sentence, including the licence period. So Ali’s sentence was an extended sentence which totalled 22 years, but, critically, the custodial term is 14 years, not 22 years. If Ali behaves himself, he will never serve the 8-year licence period in custody. This vital context has been entirely omitted from the national reports.

Ok, so it’s 14 years. Why is he out after only 5?

Under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, all offenders sentenced to a standard determinate sentence (e.g. 5 years’ imprisonment) are automatically released at the halfway stage of their sentence. The reason is, again, that it gives the authorities power over defendants and assists reintegration into normal life. It also, on a practical level, acts as a pressure valve to release people from our hideously overcrowded prisons. You may disagree with this approach- a lot of people do – but it is the law that applies to everyone; there’s no special treatment going on.

With extended sentences, it is more complicated. The scheme of “extended sentences” is changed every few years, tweaked by governments and Parliaments vying to show how tough they are on criminals, resulting in a morass of confusing and overlapping laws, with different release provisions applying to different offenders serving effectively the same sentences. As with sentencing in general, it’s a complete legislative mess. But the bottom line is that, at the time that Ali was sentenced in October 2012, his type of extended sentence meant that he was also eligible for automatic release at the halfway stage of his custodial term – so after 7 years. By comparison, had he been sentenced to an actual determinate 22 years’ imprisonment, he would be automatically released at the 11-year mark.

Ok, so it’s 7 years. Why is he out after 5?

As ever, the facts are regrettably not fully reported, but reading between the lines, this was a complicated investigation that took a long time to prosecute and bring to trial. The offences occurred between March 2008 and December 2009. We’ve already seen that Ali was not sentenced until October 2012. It is not clear when he was charged, but there was an initial, aborted trial in September 2011. Cases of this type take at least 6 months, and usually longer, to come to trial.

Why does this matter? Because, buried in the Shropshire Star’s report (and at the end of the Court of Appeal judgment), is a hint that Ali was remanded in custody prior to his trial. And time spent by a defendant in custody awaiting trial counts towards the overall sentence. (This is now automatic; in 2012, the judge would have had to have made an order that the time on remand counted towards sentence, but there appears no reason in this case why the judge would not have done so.) And so, putting our figures together, if there was over a year between the aborted trial in 2011 and the sentence in 2012, and a period of between 6 months and a year between being charged and the first trial in 2011, and Ali was remanded for that entire period, that would give us the roughly 2-years to count towards the 7 year custodial term and bring us down, in effect, to 5 years post-sentence.

So what next?

For those upset that dangerous sex offenders can be released automatically halfway into their sentence, it’s worth noting that the law has since 2012 changed significantly. If Ali were being sentenced to an extended sentence today, he would not be automatically released at any stage. Instead, once he had served two thirds of the custodial term – i.e. just short of 10 years – his case would be referred to the Parole Board, who would have to be satisfied that it was no longer necessary for the protection of the public that he be confined before they directed his release.

For the media, a salutary, but no doubt entirely disregarded, lesson to verify the context of legal stories, either with the lawyers employed in your offices to check these things, or even by approaching some of us grubby legal hacks lurking in the social media gutter. If a story on sentencing appears too ludicrous to be true, it almost certainly is.

As a postscript, the Ministry of Justice has thus far refused to comment. I hope this changes. When misleading reports about criminal justice are bandied about as fact, and when 17,500 members of the public believe that petitions can and should influence independent judicial processes, it should not be left to bloggers to provide a correction.

Post-script: Mustafa Bashir, a non-existent cricket career and victim vulnerability

As predicted in my last post, Mustafa Bashir, the wife-beating amateur cricketer who received a suspended sentence of 18 months’ imprisonment after hitting his wife with a cricket bat and forcing her to drink bleach, was today recalled to court and re-sentenced under the “slip rule” (section 155 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000). HHJ Mansell Q.C. exercised this power after it emerged that, contrary to claims made on Bashir’s behalf in his barrister’s plea in mitigation, he was not in fact on the verge of signing a professional cricketing contract with Leicestershire County Cricket Club. Re-sentencing on the true factual basis as has now emerged, the judge passed a sentence of 18 months’ imprisonment straight.

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The sentencing remarks are reproduced in full below, and I urge all of the people – in particular politicians like Diane Abbott who ran to the radio stations to bleat in clear and wilful ignorance of the subject matter – to read them, and to circulate them with the same vigour as they did their original criticism. Key points, briefly, are as follows:

  • Despite wildly misleading headlines from the BBC (and no doubt others to follow), the sentence has not been reviewed because of “public outcry”. It is solely because important information put before the court on the last occasion has transpired to be untrue. If you take away nothing else from this post, please at least remember that.
  • Bashir was afforded the opportunity to gather evidence to support the claims made at his sentence hearing. He managed a few emails suggesting he had attended a couple of “net sessions”, but nothing to suggest he was anywhere close to the professional contract that was claimed was awaiting him. The Judge said that there “was not a shred of evidence that you had received an offer of a full-time contract from Leicestershire CCC”.
  • Bashir, instructing a new barrister, admitted that there was no professional contract, but claimed that there had been a misunderstanding, in which both his previous barrister and the probation officer had been confused by what he was trying to tell them, and had mistakenly overstated the true position. He said that he didn’t correct his barrister when the untrue assertions were made on his behalf in open court as he was too emotional to pay attention to what was being said. The judge rejected this entirely, pointing out that Bashir had submitted a letter, purportedly from an agent, in which false claims to have played cricket for Pakistan Under-19s were repeated.
  • The Judge concluded that this was a “false claim” and “deliberately made”.
  • On the last occasion, the Judge explained that the decision not to send him to prison immediately was finely balanced, and that the offer of employment was a material factor in tipping the scales in Bashir’s favour. Today, the Judge said that now that the true situation was known, the grounds for suspending the sentence no longer existed. You may of course feel that the offer of a job should not of itself have amounted to a reason to suspend the sentence in the first place; this is an entirely legitimate view, although as I explain in my last post, it is not uncommon for judges to attach significant weight to the impact of a sentence upon a defendant’s employment.
  • HHJ Mansell Q.C. explained that in passing a sentence of immediate imprisonment, he was not punishing Bashir for lying to the court. This is important on two fronts: Firstly, it refutes the social media meme that “domestic violence doesn’t get you jail, but lying to a judge does”. The defendant has not been punished for lying to the judge. He has been sentenced as if the lie had never been told. Which brings us to the second point: as Bashir has not been punished for the lie by the judge, I’d venture that it makes it more likely that the Crown Prosecution Service will consider a prosecution for attempting to pervert the course of justice to be in the public interest. Given the publicity that has followed, the CPS might wish to fire a warning shot across the bows of any defendant tempted to advance false mitigation by making an example of Bashir.
  • The Judge went on to expand upon the assessment of “particular vulnerability” that he conducted on the last occasion. At the risk of sounding immodest, it is pretty much as I tried to explain in my last post; namely, the Judge was simply assessing the criteria required of him by the Sentencing Guidelines. Anger at the judge for his approach in this regard ought properly to be directed at the Guidelines that he was required by law to follow. And to the media outlets who selectively reported his comments (including omitting the key word “particularly”).
  • That all said, none of this detracts from my original assessment in the last post, vis the length of the sentence. On the reported facts, 18 months’ imprisonment still appears a generous result for the defendant.

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Sentencing Remarks of HHJ Mansell Q.C., Manchester Crown Court

Mustafa Bashir, on 21st March, I sentenced you to concurrent terms of imprisonment of 18 months on two counts of Assault ABH.

I suspended those sentences of imprisonment for a period of 2 years on condition that you undergo a supervision requirement and a programme requirement.

I have listed your case today for a review of that sentence pursuant to s155 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000, following reports in the media suggesting that you may have misled the court as to your future career prospects.

I directed that you should produce evidence to support the claims you made that you had previously been offered a contract to play cricket for Leicestershire and that such offer remained open to you if you kept your liberty.

You have failed to produce any evidence to support those claims.

All that you have produced today is a handful of emails showing that you may have attended an indoor net session at Grace Road in December 2014, and an outdoor net session in April 2015.

There is a further email from you in December 2015 in which you enquire about the outcome of a trial you had attended at the club.

There is no evidence as to what team you were trying out for or what the outcome of such trial was.

The coach at Leicestershire with whom you were in email communication has made a statement to the effect that he does not recall you, which you would think he would, in light of the fact that you were considerably older than the majority of cricketers he was seeking to recruit for the club at that time.

Your name does not feature in the list of attendees at the trials held in 2015.

Therefore, in summary, there is not a shred of evidence that you were ever chosen to play for Leicestershire CCC, let alone that you had received an offer of a full-time professional contract.

It has been suggested by your counsel Mr Sastry, who has appeared today and acts on your instructions, that this is all an unfortunate series of misunderstandings, and that your past career achievements and future career prospects were accidentally over-stated.

I reject this submission.

You were interviewed by a probation officer, Michael Whalley, in advance of the hearing and told him you had played cricket for Pakistan Under 19’s.

You now submit that he misunderstood this and you only played for Islamabad in a national competition.

You also say he misunderstood you when he reported you had played “semi-professional cricket for Leicestershire

Finally, you explain that when he reported that you were “due to sign a contract with a team shortly before your arrest” this was not with Leicestershire but with Methley CC in a Yorkshire-based league.

In his plea in mitigation, Mr McKee, acting no doubt on your instructions, submitted that if you were permitted to keep your liberty, you would be “employed by Leicestershire as a professional”. 

He referred to the pre-sentence report and added that you had been “about to sign a contract when you were arrested”.

He is an experienced counsel and would not have made such a bold submission had you not instructed him that this was the case.

You claim that he has misunderstood the position but if that was the case, it begs the question why you did not speak up at the time and correct his mistake.

Your response is that you were emotional and not listening carefully to what was said in court and so did not hear what he said.

The evidence that gives the lie to your explanation advanced by you today is a letter that was submitted to the court on your behalf by your solicitors from a man named Abid Riaz, said to be a sports agent with the Pro Elite Sports Agency in Bolton.

He wrote that he had been your agent for several years and that you had played cricket for Pakistan at Under 19’s. Unlike the Probation Officer, it is hard to see how an experienced Pakistani cricket agent could have made such an error.

He also claimed he had arranged your trial at Leicestershire, of which there is no evidence.

He concluded his letter by saying that you had a “very bright future ahead of you as you had been selected to play for Leicestershire County Cricket Club”. 

There was no misunderstanding here on the part of the probation officer, or Mr Riaz, or your counsel.

You were clearly making a claim to the court that you had a career in professional cricket ahead of you which was false.

You made that claim quite deliberately in the hope that you would avoid a prison sentence.

As I made clear when sentencing you, the appropriate sentence for these offences was 18 months’ imprisonment.

I then said the following –

“The only issue for me to grapple with today is whether your good character; the delay since these offences; and your current situation – namely in a settled relationship with a partner who complains of no violence and who is supportive of you; your employment, which you have been in since April last year; as well as your prospective employment, which is offered in cricket for Leicestershire County Cricket Club; whether all those factors taken together can save you from serving that sentence today. I have to tell you that it is a very finely balanced decision, because the court simply will not tolerate violence in a relationship of this nature.”

It was only because of the combination of all those mitigating factors I referred to – but particularly your new relationship and your future career prospects – that I took the exceptional course I did.

Therefore, now that it has come to light that a fundamental aspect of your plea in mitigation was false, I have no hesitation in varying the sentence and imposing immediate sentences of imprisonment, which I would have passed had I known the true position.

I stress that I am not altering my sentence to punish you for lying to the court. You may well face investigation into whether you have committed quite separate offences of perverting the course of justice.

I am altering my sentence because I was fundamentally misled by you as to your personal circumstances.

The sentence on each count on the indictment is therefore an immediate term of imprisonment of 18 months concurrent on each count.

You will serve half the 18 months in prison, then will be released on licence.

You are liable to be recalled at any time if you breach the terms of your licence or reoffend.

All other aspects of the sentence stand, including the restraining order which will apply indefinitely, as well as the order for costs.

VULNERABILITY 

I now intend to revisit the comments I made on the last occasion concerning the vulnerability of the victim in this case, Fakhara Karim.

I do so because there has been widespread misreporting of my remarks and widespread misunderstanding of why I made them.

Having set out in some detail the facts of the case, all of which I accepted as truthful and accurate from the victim’s witness statements, I turned to sentence and said the following –

“These were two very serious offences of violence against your former partner. I am not convinced on the guidelines that she was particularly vulnerable due to her personal circumstances”

The words “particularly vulnerable due to her personal circumstances” are taken from the Sentencing Guidelines Council definitive guideline for offences of Assault, which I was bound to and did follow.

This is one of three factors that the court is required to consider in determining the harm caused by the offence.

Particularly vulnerable means especially vulnerable, exceptionally vulnerable or unusually vulnerable

There is a second guideline for sentencing in cases of domestic violence to assist judges with what this means in practice.

Victims who are very young or old, who are physically or mentally disabled, and female victims who are pregnant, are all to be treated as particularly vulnerable.

The guideline also contains the following paragraph:

For cultural, religious, language, financial or other reasons, some victims of domestic violence may be more vulnerable than others, not least because these issues may make it almost impossible for the victim to leave a violent relationship”

It was to this passage that I was referring when I gave the example of a woman who comes to the UK from a foreign country to live with her husband or partner, leaves her friends and family behind, makes few if any friends here and struggles with the language, with the result that she becomes effectively trapped in a violent relationship.

In referring to the fact that Miss Karim was an intelligent woman, who had worked as a receptionist and studied at university, and who had a network of friends, I was simply highlighting the fact that she had a degree of independence and support that some victims, whose circumstances are different, do not.

I was doing no more and no less than making a finding, in accordance with the sentencing guidelines, that she was not particularly vulnerable as compared with other victims whose personal circumstances are different.

She was, however, plainly vulnerable, as my sentencing remarks made perfectly clear.

She was vulnerable before the assaults started, because of the controlling behaviour of the defendant, which had distanced her from her family and friends, and which had undermined her confidence.

She was vulnerable after the assaults due to the ongoing psychological effects on her of the defendant’s violence.

I stated clearly that this was an aggravating factor and increased the starting point for sentence.

I referred in detail to her Victim Personal Statement, in which she described how she had been confident, active, humorous and positive about the future before the assaults.

I observed how, following the assaults, her confidence went down, she started to hide away from friends and family and her studies were affected.

I also noted that the most significant effect on her was that she now had issues with trusting people, and particularly men, and that she believed she would find it very difficult to trust another man in future.

I am concerned that the misreporting and misunderstanding of my remarks may have given Miss Karim the impression that I did not believe her account as to the effect these offences have had on her, or that I did not consider her to be vulnerable.

I trust that she will be given a copy of the transcript of my sentencing remarks on the last occasion and a copy of the remarks I have made today, copies of which are also available for the Press.

*****************

The prosecution of Gazza raises some troubling questions

I am going to break my cardinal rule and offer comment on a legal case without having read the judgment or sentencing remarks. My excuse is that the case in question was a guilty plea at Dudley Magistrates’ Court, and my exhaustive research suggests that the District Judge has not followed the modern fashion of making his sentencing remarks publicly available. Therefore it is armed only with what I accept at the outset are (inevitably) incomplete media reports that I step up to bat for Paul Gascoigne.

paul-gascogine

Gazza yesterday, on the day of trial, pleaded guilty to what was widely reported as “racially aggravated threatening or abusive words or behaviour”, which I assume to be a reference to an offence contrary to section 31(1)(c) of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. This law provides for a racially aggravated version of the offence of using threatening or abusive words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to thereby be caused harassment, alarm or distress (section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986).

The facts, as reported, are that Gascoigne, while presenting “An Evening With Gazza” at a venue in Wolverhampton, said to a black security guard working at the show and standing in a dimly lit part of the auditorium, words to the effect of, “Can you smile please, because I can’t see you.” The audience were understandably unimpressed at this unwitting spontaneous tribute to Bernard Manning, and several walked out. The guard, for his part, felt sufficiently upset by what he perceived to be an attempt to humiliate him in front of a large audience to contact the police. A remorseful Gazza told the rozzers that he didn’t mean to upset the target of his quip, but it was too late – cue a decision to charge Wolverhampton’s newest failed comic under the legislation above, and, ultimately, his guilty plea, criminal conviction and sentence.

It is undeniable that what Gascoigne said was offensive. It is wholly understandable that his manifestly unfunny joke based on the race of the blameless security guard would have caused the man significant embarrassment (although, for context, the £1,000 compensation he was awarded by the court for his hurt feelings is the maximum that a victim of a moderate sexual assault could hope to receive from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority). One cannot ignore the cultural and historical context of such remarks, redolent of an era when marking the otherness of minority racial groups was not merely a source of ribaldry but a necessary precursor to normalised discrimination and violence.  As the District Judge said in terms when passing sentence, Gascoigne’s comments – and the suggestion advanced on his behalf in mitigation that such bantz are standard fare in football dressing rooms – betray an attitude ill-fitting with the progressive 21st century.

But – but but but but – it is not a criminal offence to hold or display attitudes ill-fitting with the progressive 21st century. It is not a criminal offence to give offence. It is not a criminal offence to tell bad jokes. Even racist jokes. And the application of the law in this case causes me some concern. Not least as the Judge, if his comments have been reported accurately, appears to himself have misunderstood the scope of the legislation. “As a society, it is important that we challenge racially aggravated behaviour in all its forms,” he observed. Which as a meme, is fine. But as an authoritative statement of law is simply wrong. “All forms” of “racially aggravated behaviour” are not prohibited by law. By social codes and contemporary standards of decency, yes, but the particular sanction of the criminal law is reserved for contraventions of accepted norms that Parliament deems sufficiently serious for the state to mark through impinging upon individual liberty.

The legislation sets out the conduct that carries the unique stigma of a criminal conviction. An offence under section 5 of the POA 1986 is itself a dubiously-deployed law, often the tool of first resort of police officers faced with low level disorder, but even its broad scope is limited as follows. To commit an offence, a person has to do two things:

  1. Use threatening or abusive words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour
  2. Within the sight or hearing of someone likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress.

After much effort by free speech campaigners, this law was modified in 2014 so as to remove the reference to “insulting” words or behaviour. Insulting someone is no longer a crime. To trigger section 5, your words or behaviour must be abusive or threatening, or your conduct disorderly. On the available information, we can discount that Gascoigne’s words amounted to threats or “disorderly behaviour”. Which leaves us with abuse. It is ultimately a matter of fact for a court whether words are abusive, but given that there is an explicit distinction between abusive and insulting, the former must amount to more than the latter. You can insult someone without being abusive. You can offend someone without being abusive. You can be unpleasant, without being abusive. You can, as the legislation provides, threaten someone without being abusive. And you can display racist views, without being abusive. You can, for example, posit in a lecture theatre that a certain race is genetically inferior, and politely or jovially back this up with cod science and debunked theories off the internet, causing all manner of offence, without being abusive. I labour the point, but it is important, because as offensive, insulting, demeaning, humiliating and upsetting as Gascoigne’s off-the-cuff remark may have been, categorising it as “abusive” does not, in my mind, work. There are words for what this was, but “abuse” isn’t one of them. “Abuse” contemplates a measure of ill-will; or as Merriam-Webster has it:

“language that condemns or vilifies usually unjustly, intemperately, and angrily”.

It is difficult to see how this applies to the reported conduct. And this leads into a second issue arising from the legal definition of “racially aggravated”, as provided by section 29(1) CDA 1998. Prohibited conduct is “racially aggravated” if:

(a)at the time of committing the offence, or immediately before or after doing so, the offender demonstrates towards the victim of the offence hostility based on the victim’s membership (or presumed membership) of a racial […] group; or

(b)the offence is motivated (wholly or partly) by hostility towards members of a racial […] group based on their membership of that group.

In other words, there must be either objectively demonstrated hostility, or a subjective hostile motivation behind the offence. And again, I accept that something may have been lost in reporting or translation, but an offensive joke from a performer towards a person in an auditorium, based on race or otherwise, would not ordinarily be an automatic indicator of hostility. It can be, and much depends on delivery. But hostility is difficult to infer from what we have been told. Again, I emphasise, there is a distinction between expressing racist views and doing so with hostility. Both are socially unacceptable. Both are ripe for mockery, condemnation, shunning and re-educating. But only the latter brings the might of the state to bear upon an individual.

Gascoigne, by pleading guilty on the day of his trial, is deemed to have admitted that his conduct was both hostile and abusive, and he will no doubt have been fully and competently advised by his lawyers that he should not plead guilty unless he accepts those elements of the Crown’s case. But people do plead guilty for various reasons, not least the desire to avoid the stress or public exposure of a trial, notwithstanding whether the evidence truly supports the prosecution charge (and it is noted that his solicitor, when mitigating, still maintained that there was “no malice” behind the comments). Given that this is a man with a well-documented history of personal, medical and psychological difficulties, it is difficult not to wonder whether his vulnerabilities played a part in his decision not to mount a defence. At the very least, those vulnerabilities, and the apparent borderline criminality of his conduct, raise questions over whether the public interest was truly satisfied by dragging this damaged man through the criminal courts.

The Metro should be ashamed of this blatant dishonesty

Another Thursday, another news outlet seemingly heck bent on grabbing my dander and yanking it to attention. Today is the turn of the Metro to use its front page to demonstrate how to merrily defecate on the quaint outmoded journalistic principles of “fairness” and “accuracy”. Although, extending to the Metro the fairness that it has denied its duped readers, some sort of prize – the Trump Award for Incorrigible Spaffwaddery, perhaps – is due for the audacity in slamming (to adopt the journalese) a judge as “soft” for imposing the maximum sentence the law allows. We are through the looking glass now, my friends.

Some very shoddy journalism

Some very shoddy journalism

The author of this mess has either not read or not understood the sentencing remarks of HHJ Kinch Q.C. yesterday when dealing with the £14m Hatton Garden burglary, in which he carefully explained how he had arrived at the sentences imposed. Top tip for you – if you’re going to report on a legal story, just have a gander at, y’know, what the Judge actually said. It’s even easier, I’d suggest, when the Judge takes the time to type, publish and make his remarks publicly available to the press. Frankly, I don’t blame the Learned Judge for waking up this morning, seeing the newspapers and wondering why the jiminy he even bothers.

So, a quick primer for the Metro. The defendants John Collins, Daniel Jones and Terence Perkins were charged with conspiracy to burgle. The maximum sentence for any burglary, other than a dwelling, is 10 years’ imprisonment. That’s not a judicial folly of a crim-hugging judge. That’s section 9(3) of the Theft Act 1968, the law, as enacted by Parliament.

At the hearing, the prosecution submitted that an offence of this type called for the maximum sentence available – i.e. 10 years. The defence argued that this should be reserved for even worse cases. You don’t have to have been at the hearing to know this – the Judge sets this out in plain English at para 17.

The Judge agreed with the prosecution. In fact, he said, at para 20:

“I am satisfied that nothing other than the maximum sentence permitted by law would be appropriate as a starting point for anyone convicted of conspiring to take part in this exceptional case.”

For each of the principal offenders – Collins, Jones and Perkins – the Judge, applying credit for their guilty pleas, as he is required to do by the Sentencing Guidelines and the Court of Appeal authority of R v Caley [2012] EWCA Crim 2821 – again, legal mandates, these, not some soft old bugger dishing out freebies like Werther’s Originals – arrived at the maximum sentence the law allowed – 7 years’ imprisonment.

So, how did the Metro reporter interpret the proceedings?

IMG_1357

 

“[The Judge] showed leniency after prosecutors suggested ten years should be the ‘starting point’ for sentencing”.

Leniency? LENIENCY? HE GAVE THEM THE MAXIMUM SENTENCE THE LAW ALLOWED. WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT, YOU PUSTULATING TWIT?

By all means, criticise – as I often do – the law that tied the Judge’s hands. Throw your weight behind the Law Commission’s valiant efforts to inject some sense and consistency into the sentencing morass that has resulted from decades of on-the-hoof populist legislating by idiot politicians.

But don’t blame the Judge.

I don’t particularly enjoy taking personalised pot shots at journalists, because I recognise that it’s a damn difficult job, and often the story you want to write doesn’t fit with what those above impel you to write. And inevitably there’s a compromise. I know the industry.

But stories like this – lacking even a resemblance to the truth – cannot be left unchallenged. This was not a case of soft sentencing. It was the polar freaking opposite. And either you, Mr Reporter, know that, and are lying to your readers. Or you and/or your subs haven’t bothered to do the most basic research before filing copy. Either way, you should be deeply embarrassed.