A court soft on burglars, or an MP missing the facts?

It would be nice to usher in 2017 with an exciting fresh take on a vibrant, buzzing legal issue of the day. As it is, the first post of the New Year is to be spent – and I fear this will be a recurring theme – reminding an elected Member of Parliament how the law works. That this has to be done in any case is depressing enough, but today’s is particularly disquieting given that the MP in question, Will Quince (Con, Colchester), is a qualified solicitor.

His LinkedIn profile states that he spent just under two years post-qualification working  in the Business Services department of a firm of solicitors in Colchester before being elected to Parliament in May 2015. It is unclear whether he has ever practised in crime. Nevertheless, he has this weekend made it his business to write, on Parliamentary letterhead, to the Lord Chancellor Liz Truss about “far too lenient” sentences that were passed last week on two local burglars, inviting her to join him in his condemnation.

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A burglar

Mr Quince was not actually at Ipswich Crown Court for the sentence of Raymond Tauchert (55) and Carlton Ho-Ten-Pow (36) following their guilty pleas to a single count of burglary. But he read a report in his local newspaper about how the two men broke the window of the Colchester branch of Ernest Jones jewellers with a hammer in the early hours of October 20th last year and grabbed £8,200 worth of jewels, and how a two-year suspended sentence was imposed in each defendant’s case, and he is jolly cross about it. And Mr Quince wants the Lord Chancellor, the press and his Facebook fans and Twitter followers (to whom he has retweeted the press coverage of his campaign) to know.

It is a shame, I would respectfully observe, that he didn’t acquaint himself with the facts before doing so.

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Because had he done so, he would have learned several things. Firstly, he would know that there is no such offence as “armed burglary”. Secondly, that there is in any event an important distinction between being armed for the purpose of threatening violence, and having a tool with you to break a window. Thirdly, and more pertinently, he would have been alerted to the existence of Sentencing Guidelines. These are the guidelines, produced by the Sentencing Council, which courts are legally required (section 125 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009) to follow when passing sentence on a defendant. Specific guidelines exist for burglary. And at page 12 we see how a court is required to approach offences of non-dwelling burglary, step by step.

As the tenor of Mr Quince’s complaint – soft judges passing soft sentences – is a familiar refrain among politicians, it might assist to play through the sentencing exercise that courts are required, by legislation passed by those same politicians, to follow.

Step 1 is reproduced below. The court must first identify which category the burglary falls into, to arrive at a sentencing range. This is done by looking at a list of factors indicating “greater harm” and a separate list indicating “greater culpability”, and seeing which apply to the facts of the case.

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Immediately, you may spot a problem – how do we know the exact facts of the case? Well, we don’t. We know about as much as Mr Quince. Which is what a journalist has chosen to selectively report from what the prosecuting and defending advocates have said over the course of a twenty to thirty minute hearing. We haven’t seen a transcript of the prosecution opening of facts, nor of the mitigation advanced, nor the judge’s sentencing remarks. We haven’t read the detailed Pre-Sentence Reports prepared by the Probation Service. And we haven’t seen the prosecution papers containing all the evidence. So we are going to have to follow Mr Quince’s lead in arriving at conclusions based on partially-glimpsed fragments of the full picture.

But let’s have a go.

Goods to a value in excess of £8,000 were stolen, and even to a large jewellery company, that would still amount to a “significant loss”, and for that reason this is a case of “greater harm”. None of the other factors indicating greater harm appear to be present. There was no suggestion that anyone was at work – this was after all the middle of the night – nor that there was any ransacking or vandalism beyond the damage caused to the window. Nor are there any factors indicating lower harm. Higher culpability is also present – this was a group (it is suggested that three men were involved, the third remaining at large) and they had a hammer to effect the break-in. So this is comfortably a Category 1 offence.

What does that mean? We turn the page:

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It means a starting point of 2 years’ imprisonment. With a range of 1 to 5 years’ custody. We then see a range of factors that increase and decrease seriousness, which the judge applies to move the sentence up and down that range. It’s worth interposing here the (perhaps rather obvious) point that each defendant is treated separately. You don’t, as Mr Quince’s letter seems to imply, add up the combined convictions of both defendants and punish each for the other’s previous misdeeds.

What we are told about Tauchert is:

  • He has 18 convictions for 52 offences;
  • He was on licence at the time of the burglary having been jailed for nine years in 2010 for conspiracy to supply class A drugs and handling stolen goods having been part of a gang raiding warehouses;
  • He was released in March 2013 and had not committed an offence in over three years;
  • His mother died in the summer from cancer and he returned to taking heroin. He took 100 morphine tablets and was committed to hospital.

His convictions are plainly an aggravating feature, as is the fact that he committed this offence while on licence. We also know the offence was committed at night, although not, it seems, when anyone was likely to be present at the store. In his favour, a 3-year period of non-offending is notable for someone of his criminal history, and he appears to have taken steps to address a longstanding addiction. Importantly, there was, the court appeared to accept, a genuine trigger for his recent tumble back into old ways. It does not excuse his criminality, but it mitigates it. And will give a court cause to pause to consider whether a return to prison is likely to do more harm than good to his long-term rehabilitation.

Of Ho-Ten-Pow, we know only that:

  • He has six convictions for 22 offences, including an offence for drug trafficking;
  • He was the subject of a community order at the time of the burglary;
  • He has expressed remorse;
  • He was in a bad relationship, had lost 4 1/2 stone and had fallen back into drug use.

Similar considerations apply, albeit his sob story may not pack the same punch. It’s worth noting that we know nothing about his existing community order. The court will have had all that information as its fingertips. The Probation Service will have reported on his progress on this order and whether, in its professional view, this is a defendant worth persevering with.

We also know that both defendants pleaded guilty and were entitled to one third credit for an early guilty plea. This is standard across all courts. Guilty pleas save everyone – court and witnesses – time, expense and worry, and so defendants are given a discount on their sentence if they admit their guilt early on.

Additionally, and importantly, both defendants had been remanded in custody since their arrests in October. So they had already served around 3 months in prison (the equivalent of a 6 month sentence), which would by law count towards any sentence of imprisonment.

Putting that all together, the Gazette reports that the judge adjusted the sentence up from 2 years to 3 1/2 years to reflect the aggravating features. Given what we know, this appears entirely sound. This is not the most serious Category 1 offence – as far as “diamond heists” go, this was hardly Hatton Garden territory, and, crucially, there was no confrontation with any individual, which is the usual trigger for a sharp tilt towards the top of the range. 3 1/2 years is around what I would advise a client to expect after a trial for this offence.

There then appears to have been a downward adjustment to 3 years – perhaps for the personal mitigation – before the judge (or Recorder, as he was) applied the one third credit to arrive at 2 years’ imprisonment.

Any sentence of 2 years or under can be suspended. We do not know for sure why the judge suspended it in this case, but the history of drug use, rehabilitation and relapse may well have led the judge to conclude that it was worth taking a chance on these defendants and giving them a suspended sentence with drug treatment and rehabilitation requirements. If they foul up, they’ll go straight to prison. If not – if they get clean and stop committing crimes – everybody, in particular the good and law abiding folk of Colchester, wins. Pre-Sentence Reports are often persuasive in these cases.

So considering what little we know about the offences, there does not, to my professional eye, appear to be anything outrageous about these sentences. The men were fortunate, perhaps. Some judges may not have taken the chance, and may have sent them straight down for two years. Possibly a little more. But nothing about this case suggests that the judge has done anything that he was not fully entitled to do on the guidelines.

And this would have all been plain to Mr Quince had he taken the time to to research the law and the facts, or to ask a criminal lawyer for help, or to seek a source of information beyond a 640-word news article, before firing off his letter to Liz Truss.

Most disappointingly of all, the letter is entirely misdirected. The Lord Chancellor is not in the business of joining excitable MPs in breaching the separation of powers and criticising judges for “soft sentencing” on the basis of inchoate media reports. The Lord Chancellor’s statutory duty is to uphold the independence of the judiciary. Liz Truss does not do this very well, but even she in her resplendent incompetence is not going to endorse Mr Quince tutting how “gobsmacked” he is at the judge’s conduct, nor whatever point this sentence is supposed to express:

“It flies in the face of members of the public who went to collect evidence, to the police officers who investigated and who made the arrests and to costs of the court.”

A more appropriate addressee for Mr Quince’s letter would have been the Attorney General, who superintends the Crown Prosecution Service and has the power to refer unduly lenient sentences to the Court of Appeal; but even then, it would have been to nil effect, burglary not being one of the offences that can be referred. If, having soberly reflected, Mr Quince genuinely believed that there had been a serious judicial error requiring disciplinary intervention, his recourse would lie with the Judicial Conduct and Investigations Office, assuming they stopped laughing long enough to formally process and reject his complaint.

The conclusion that one is regrettably driven to is that Mr Quince does not really know what he is saying or what he is doing. Which is a pity, because as a Parliamentarian and a lawyer, he is one of the people his constituents might reasonably expect to accurately and sensibly guide them on this type of issue, rather than firing up the torches and leading the villagers blindly towards the courthouse. When Liz Truss responds to Mr Quince, I hope that she reminds him of this in terms. And that he publicly circulates her reply with the same vigour as he has his original letter.


UPDATE: The advantage of blogging is that if, upon reflection, you realise that an argument you had made, or the way in which you have expressed a point, is wrong, you have the power to correct it. In the original text of this post, I think that I made such a mistake. Mr Quince politely responded on Twitter and engaged in a very civil exchange in which he indicated that, in light of the observations I had made, he would send a follow up letter to the Lord Chancellor. He also opined that he found my blogpost to be “unnecessarily rude”, referring in particular to the original title of the blog, in which I (rather weakly, in search of a rhetorical device) suggested he was “soft in the head”. Regular readers will know that deference to public figures who deliberately or recklessly mislead the public on the law is not the style of this blog. And certain people (I think in particular of Philip Davies MP, Katie Hopkins and other repeat offenders), who have been given countless opportunities to reform their ways and plough on in their pig-headed ignorance, deserve a dose of unapologetic and colourful impoliteness. I make no apology to them and their kind. But with Mr Quince I think I may have prematurely, and unfairly, crossed the faint line between stridency and rudeness in the way I sought to make my point. A number of people whom I respect took issue with the tone and style, which distracted from the thrust of what I maintain is a solid argument. And that  – having a good point lost because of the manner of its expression – is bad advocacy. As well as poor form in general.

With that in mind, I have moderated the text of the original post, I hope to no less effect, and possibly to greater. There is a balance to be struck between being punchy and strident, and being snarky and rude. I certainly did not intend the latter over the former, but if that was the effect of my words and style, I apologise to Mr Quince. For his part, I still urge him to consider the broader danger posed by MPs attacking court decisions without knowing the law. He may well, as a representative of the people, have strong views of his own and of his constituents concerning matters of local criminal justice. And it is of course proper for him to address such concerns through the appropriate channels. But in doing so, little is achieved (and much damage is done) if careful and sober reflection give way to knee-jerk reaction and a clamour to politically capitalise in the media without learning the full facts. Mr Quince has indicated that, notwithstanding the analysis above (which he accepts), he still considers the sentences to be unduly lenient, and I have offered him a right of reply on this blog for him to set out his position. I shall post any response below.

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

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

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

A deeply uncunning plan

A deeply uncunning plan

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

And it is wholly misconceived.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And:

 

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

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

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

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