UKIP’s “Integration Agenda” is a masterclass in legal ignorance and shameless racism

Some political proposals are so self-evidently preposterous that to analyse them is to risk conferring dignity on the undignifiable. However, UKIP’s “Integration Agenda”, a rat’s nest of racialised assumptions masquerading as putative legal reform, trespasses egregiously onto the criminal law. Which, as any fule should know, is this blog’s turf. And on this turf, no idiocy is too stupid to be rebuffed.

The Integration Agenda is in many ways an admirable feat, in that it  diminishes by comparison the barminess of Gisela Allen, the UKIP local election candidate who this weekend called for a buffet of reform that included bringing back the guillotine and cat-o-nine-tails, euthanising people to stop them “getting too old” and banning women from public life. It reads as follows (H/T @jessicaelgot):

 

Dimensions of time and space prohibit an examination of the full manifesto, so let’s consider a choice selection, hold our noses and inspect the intellectual machinery at work:

“Pass a law against the wearing of face coverings in public places. Face coverings are a deliberate barrier to integration and, in many contexts, a security risk too. The time has come to outlaw them. People should show their face in a public place”

By “face covering”, UKIP plainly intends to target the “niqab” (or, as Kippers inaccurately often refer to it, the burkha), in an emulation of the ban enacted in France in 2010. The problem with such laws, as France has discovered, is that in order to maintain the façade that this is not an attack on a particular group of people, rather a general principle, you have to ban all face coverings. Which means prima facie outlawing balaclavas, motorcycle helmets, Halloween masks, gimp suits, zentais (those all-in-one spandex body suits beloved of stag parties abroad) and football mascots, and then working backwards to create exemptions to avoid the law being utterly unworkable. UKIP has today spent significant effort responding to questions as to whether large, face-obscuring hats as worn on Ladies Day will be criminalised, and whether the ban would include beekeepers. Whatever your position on the liberal principles at play, the practical flaws with such laws are obvious.

“Implement school-based medical checks on girls from groups at high risk of suffering FGM. These should take place annually and whenever they return from trips overseas.”

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a vexed topic with an unhappy history of state inertia at its heart. Needless to say, any pragmatic legislative changes that might save the ritual devastation of thousands of young girls each year should be given serious thought.

Serious thought, however, is the magical missing ingredient from UKIP’s proposal. It appears to take its inspiration from the controversial approach in France, where the law provides for widespread medical examinations of children, which it is said has assisted in the prosecution of cases of FGM (albeit under French law there is no specific such offence).  But there are key differences. Firstly, the French system is not mandatory, although receipt of social security is dependent on participation. Secondly, it covers all children up to the age of six. For older children, girls identified as being at particular risk of FGM are required to attend for annual check-ups, and to submit to examination when returning from abroad.

When the French model was considered by the Home Affairs Committee in 2014, they heard evidence that the model had had the effect of increasing the age at which girls were forced to undergo the procedure so as to avoid the “mandatory” tests. Furthermore, the Royal College of General Practitioners told the Committee that routine screening could alienate hard-to-reach individuals and communities, which may prove self-defeating.

But whether the French model is desirable or not, a key difference is that, unlike UKIP, it is not premised on targeting unspecified social “groups”. Up until six, all children are examined. Beyond that, the focus is on girls identified as being at risk. There is an element of non-arbitrariness and proportionality, which is important when you are talking about invasive medical examinations of children. Similarly over here, compulsory medical assessments of children generally require the authority of a court (as with Child Assessment Orders) which will consider whether, on the facts, such invasive action is necessary. I will be corrected by anyone with greater expertise in the area, but I struggle to see how blanket compulsory invasive examinations of children of an undefined particular “group” can possibly be proportionate and not amount to undue interference with the child’s right to privacy and personal autonomy (as guaranteed by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child).

By focussing on chosen “groups” and not individual assessments of risk, UKIP opens itself to charges of malign motivations, particularly in light of the rest of the Agenda (see below). And what of those unidentified “groups”? Does this include the child’s race? The child’s ethnicity? The child’s nationality? The child’s religion? Or does the heritage test run deeper? The parents’ race/ethnicity/nationality/religion? What if a child is adopted? Or mixed race? What if the child was born in Somalia to Muslim parents, but came to the UK and was raised by white Christian relatives? What happens to a 15 year-old convert to Islam? Does it matter if she is of African heritage? What if she is white? What  will be the statistical threshold of “high risk”? Unless UKIP has answers to these, it will take significant effort not to hear a screeching dog whistle behind this policy, and infer that by “groups” they mean, loosely, “Muslim”, “brown” and “black”.

A final salute must be given to the intellectual endeavour behind the broadness of the final criterion, “whenever they return from trips overseas”, ensuring that the unfortunate child taken to Disneyland Paris for a weekend will enjoy a return journey contemplating her Monday morning at school spent with a stranger inspecting her labia.

“Make failure to report an instance of FGM by someone who has knowledge that it has taken place a criminal offence itself.”

Positive: The germ of a good idea.

Negative: This is basically already law. Section 3A of the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, as amended by section 72 of the Serious Crime Act 2015, makes it a criminal offence, punishable by up to 7 years’ imprisonment, for a parent or other responsible carer of a girl under 16 to fail to protect her from an act of FGM. Section 5B of the 2003 Act places a positive obligation upon healthcare professionals, teachers and social workers to report discoveries of FGM to the police.

“The CPS to operate under a presumption of prosecution of any parent whose daughter has undergone FGM [Female Genital Mutilation]”.

Putting aside the casual reversal of the presumption of innocence lying at the heart of our justice system, a “presumption of prosecution” means one of two things: either it surpasses the current test for prosecuting, about which below, or it doesn’t, in which case it is meaningless.

If it is intended to have meaning, it must supplant the existing Code for Crown Prosecutors, the guidance governing decisions to prosecute, which is issued by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) under section 10 of the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985. Criminal prosecutions must only start or be continued where the Full Code Test is met. This comprises two parts: (i) the evidential test; and (ii) the public interest test.

The evidential test is simply expressed: On the evidence available, is there a realistic prospect of conviction? The public interest test comprises consideration of various factors, including the seriousness of the offence, culpability of the suspect, harm caused to the victim, age of the suspect, community impact, proportionality of prosecuting and national security.

It is unclear which of these two tests the “presumption of prosecution” is expected to override. If the former, it will mean that cases where it has been judged that there is no realistic prospect of conviction (such as where one parent is estranged from the child and does not appear to have the requisite “frequent contact” with her) will be prosecuted at significant public expense, with young, brutalised girls deliberately dragged through the mire of criminal litigation to no avail. If the presumption in favour of prosecution is to kick in at the public interest stage, then UKIP would be advised to read the existing Code, which, in the chapter dealing with the pubic interest test, states (at 4.8):

 “Once the evidential stage is met […] a prosecution will usually take place unless the prosecutor is satisfied that there are public interest factors tending against prosecution which outweigh those tending in favour.”

Or what one might call a presumption in favour of prosecution.

“In cases where the victims of grooming gangs are of a different racial or religious group than the offenders, the CPS should cite this as an aggravating feature of the offence when prosecuting, opening the way to a longer sentence.”

 The meat of the racist pie. What this is not-so-subtly aimed at is those stories that excite the tabloids where gangs of Asian (often Muslim) men groom white girls. For UKIP, if there is one thing that aggravates the rape of a child, it’s a mixing of the races.

Currently, courts are required by law (section 145 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003) to treat racial or religious aggravation in the commission of an offence as an aggravating factor in sentencing (save for in relation to specific offences which are by definition racially/religiously aggravated, such as racially aggravated common assault).

What amounts to “racial aggravation” under s.143? The definition, set out at section 28(1) of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, is where:

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

This, it can be seen, is a definition that focuses on the defendant’s specific conduct. It doesn’t matter what race the defendant or victim is – it is the particular intent that matters. The offender and victim might be of different races, or the same – it’s irrelevant. UKIP’s reform would turn this on its head, focussing not on what the defendant did or said, but entirely on the colour of his skin. All that would be required, in certain (unspecified) offences related to child grooming, is that the victim belong to a different racial or religious group than the offender. The actual existence of racial or religious aggravation would be irrelevant. The message, whether intended or not, is, “It is worse to rape a child of a different race to your own.” It is difficult to discern a motivation behind this policy other than naked racism.

 “CPS and police to be instructed to treat a so-called “honour” dimension of any act of violence as an aggravating feature, leading to it being accorded a higher –priority for investigation and prosecution and not a lower one.”

The premise of this pledge is that “honour” acts of violence are presently a “lower” priority for the police and CPS.  And I agree. What have the police and CPS ever done about “honour” violence for us? Apart from the ACPO (Association of Chief Police Officers) Honour-based Violence Strategy, of course. And the National Police Chiefs Council’s Honour-based abuse Policing Strategy. Also the CPS Protocol on handling “so called” Honour Based Violence/Abuse and Forced Marriage Offences. I suppose there’s also the long-running Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy, as detailed in the Cross Government VAWG Action Plan, overseen by the VAWG Inter-Ministerial Group. But apart from that, what have the police and CPS ever done about it? And when have they ever considered this to be a priority for investigation and prosecution? Aside from the action plan developed last year to address ways to improve prosecutions. Etc. Etc.

No-one wants to suggest that UKIP are a bunch of hog-brained, village ninnies who haven’t even consulted Google before firing off a range of mind-spasmingly senseless policies designed to prey on the very worst racial prejudices of their core voters. But an Integration Agenda that proposes intimately examining the genitals of children from minority groups, dragging such children through courts as witnesses where there is no prospect of conviction and locking up people for longer on the basis of their race, does not assist their cause.

Examining Iain Duncan Smith’s understanding of Brexit

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

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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.

Why did the government block the SNP’s Alan Turing Bill?

This post was written last Saturday when it was achingly vogue, then lay forlornly unposted over the weekend until staleness set in, by which time it appeared destined to linger forever in my draft folder. Serendipitously, it has been offered a second wind after one of the subjects tweeted me out of the blue, allowing me, I reckon, to segue to a discussion of why, last Friday, Justice Minister Sam Gyimah powered into the media’s bad graces by apparently blocking a Private Member’s Bill which sought to automatically pardon men convicted of now-abolished sexual offences.

When SNP MP John Nicolson presented the Sexual Offences (Pardons Etc) Bill for its second reading in the House of Commons last Friday, he and many other MPs spoke eloquently and passionately about the symbolic importance of enacting legislation which would extend the pardon granted to Alan Turing in 2013 to all men, living and deceased, convicted under historic legislation that criminalised homosexual activity between consenting males over the age of 16. Sam Gyimah, a new fixture in the post-Gove Ministry of Justice, then stood up and asked Mr Nicolson to withdraw the Bill. When Mr Nicolson refused, Mr Gyimah articulated his objections at sufficient length to ensure that there was no time for a vote on whether the Bill should progress to Committee stage, effectively, as it has been reported, “filibustering” the Bill.

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Cue outrage. Gyimah was variously “a disgrace”, “shameful” and, in the words of Labour MP Wes Streeting:

So what on earth has gone on?

To understand, we need to rewind to the origins of Nicolson’s Bill, and the pardoning of Alan Turing in 2013. Following a vigorous public campaign, and a Private Member’s Bill presented by Lib Dem peer Lord Sharkey in 2012, the government exercised the Royal Prerogative to posthumously pardon World War II code-breaker Alan Turing, who was convicted in 1952 of gross indecency for a consensual same-sex relationship with a 19 year-old man. Turing was one of an estimated 50,000 men who, until the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, were convicted under provisions of the Sexual Offences Act 1956 – mostly sections 12 (buggery) and 13 (gross indecency between men) – or (as in Turing’s case) its predecessor, the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, and whose lives were scarred, if not ruined, by being criminalised and often brutally punished for the sin of loving another.

In recognition of the injustice occasioned by this legislation, a further legacy of the Turing campaign emerged. Section 92 of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 provided for a procedure whereby anyone convicted under the relevant provisions of the 1956 legislation (or its predecessor) for consensual sexual activity with someone over the age of 16 could apply to have their conviction “disregarded”. The practical effect of this was that if the Home Secretary agreed that the sexual activity founding the conviction would not be an offence today, it would be wiped from the record.

Having a conviction “disregarded” under this procedure is not the same, it should be noted, as being pardoned. “Disregarding” results in the conviction being wiped from the record books. The effect is that no offence was ever committed. By contrast, a pardon “removes from the subject of the pardon all pains, penalties and punishments whatsoever that from the said conviction may ensue” (R v Foster [1985] QB 115, 130), but does not eliminate the conviction itself. Its function is therefore, as far as historical convictions are concerned, largely symbolic. Furthermore, the disregarding process is presently only available to those still alive to use it. For the thousands of other Turings and their families, the stain of a criminal conviction lingers. It was for this reason that, at the 2015 General Election, the Conservative Party manifesto included a commitment to introducing posthumous pardons for historical sexual convictions that no longer amount to an offence.

Which brings us to Friday, and John Nicolson’s Bill. The Bill, in short, sought to automatically pardon anyone convicted of a “specified offence”. This included anyone eligible for the disregarding process, as well as those convicted under section 32 of the 1956 Act (solicitation by men), which was omitted from the scope of disregarding. The Bill also extended the disregarding procedure to permit relatives of deceased men to apply on their behalf for a posthumous disregarding. Which, one may think, would be the sort of thing that the government would support, given its manifesto pledge.

So why didn’t it? Well, the day before the Bill’s second reading, Mr Gyimah announced in a blaze of publicity that the government was enacting an “Alan Turing Law”, by throwing its weight behind a proposed amendment to another Bill currently at the House of Lords Committee stage, the Policing and Crime Bill. Lord Sharkey, he of the Turing pardon Bill, had proposed an amendment which would do two things: firstly, automatically posthumously pardon anyone deceased who was convicted of a “relevant offence”; secondly, provide that anyone living who applied successfully for a conviction to be disregarded would also be pardoned.

Therefore, the MoJ announced, it would not support Nicolson’s Bill, instead preferring to plough its own furrow with the Sharkey amendment. What Friday brought was then a gritty stalemate in the House, as each side waved its flag and ordered the other to join its cause.

Those in favour of Nicolson’s Bill argued that the symbolism of an Act specifically and solely addressing the injustice to be remedied was vital. Appending such a socially significant statement as an afterthought to an unremarkably-titled Policing and Crime Bill did the magnitude of its symbolism a disservice. It warranted the status of being an Act in its own right.

More than this, though, a blanket pardon would cater for the many people who may not want to relive a deeply unpleasant period in their history by going through the formal disregard procedure, but would take comfort from a law formally absolving them of any moral fault. The disregarding procedure has not been widely used. In some historic cases, key documents may no longer be available, presenting an obstacle to demonstrating that, for example, the sexual activity was consensual. The fear of a refusal to have a conviction disregarded, and the further shame and indignity of official rejection, no doubt plays heavily on the minds of many elderly men. A blanket pardon would offer the official acknowledgment to these men that they have been wronged, with the disregarding procedure available for those who wished further to take advantage of the practical effect of having a conviction expunged from the record.

The MoJ’s truculence was twofold. First, it was argued that the amendment to a Bill currently before the Lords afforded a quicker vehicle to bring about the desired change. Second, and loudest, the MoJ objected that the Bill as first drafted was wide enough to appear to pardon people convicted for gross indecency in cases involving non-consensual sexual acts, particularly with children. Historic sexual allegations were, and still are, prosecuted under the 1956 Act, with many nonconsensual acts prosecuted as gross indecency or buggery (typically acts that would nowadays be prosecuted as oral or anal rape), and the MoJ understandably did not want such convicts swanning around with the glow of a pardon. Or worse, it was suggested, using a pardon to worm their way around safeguarding provisions and obtain employment working with children.

This was still Mr Gyimah’s position on Friday. But it appears entirely disingenuous. Before Friday’s debate, the Bill was amended to make clear that the pardon would only apply to cases involving consenting parties over the age of 16, section 2(4) broadly mirroring the disregarding provisions. Even if the technical drafting leaves something to be desired, this could be ironed out at Committee stage. So this argument, still being peddled by the MoJ, is patent nonsense. As for the suggestion that there may be a queue of elderly paedophiles at the job centre looking to brandish a (false) pardon in support of applications to work as school dinner monitors, Gyimah well knows that the pardon itself would be ornamental. Section 2(6) provides that a pardon under the Bill would not affect any conviction, nor give rise to any right, entitlement or liability. Even if a pardon was wrongly “appropriated” by someone who didn’t qualify, it would have no practical effect. The conviction would remain on the record until formally disregarded.

For my part, I see no principled or legal objection to the proposal by Crispin Blunt MP, whose observation appears unimpeachable:

“[The government’s] approach ties the pardon to the process of disregarding convictions from criminal records that already exists and would be extended by clause 3. There need not be such a link. The Government can be more generous. They can make a distinction between the powerful symbolic effect of the general pardon to men—some alive, many dead—and the mechanism by which individuals can benefit from the practical effects of a pardon through the disregard process. This, therefore, ensures that criminal offences that remain criminal offences today are not included in any practical consequences of the pardon. I know that the Minister will present a marginally different view and different concerns, but that discussion should be had at the Committee stage of this Bill. If the Government are not satisfied with the discussion in Committee then this Bill will not make progress towards becoming an Act.”

So why was Mr Gyimah so keen to ignore his Honourable Friend’s plea and obstruct the Bill’s passage? The only explanation one can infer is that of petty, partisan politics. A childish tussle over who gets their name in the history books. A decree from on high that it must be the Conservative party, not the SNP, to bask in the credit of bringing in The Alan Turing Law, regardless of whether the Sharkey amendment, well-intended though it undoubtedly is, fully addresses the injustices at stake. Given the choice, the government would rather appropriate a Lib Dem amendment and pass it off as their own than allow the SNP any credit for a Bill which may do the job better.

It is not right, as some have done, to level accusations of homophobia at Gyimah. But it is right to point out that the effect of his charge for vainglory may well be that a monumentally symbolic law is passed with the appearance of being a regrettable appendage to other, more worthy legislation. And that many thousands of men, who society accepts have done nothing wrong, are denied the pardon that might go some way to restoring their dignity.

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.

A truly remarkable democratic mandate

On last night’s BBC Question Time, Dominic Raab, Minister for Human Rights at the Ministry of Justice and noisy Vote Leave campaigner, mounted his high horse and trotted up to what has swiftly been informally assigned the next frontier in the Referendum fall-out war – “democratic legitimacy”.

Unprompted, Mr Raab described the 51.9% vote in favour of leave as:

“[A] remarkable direct democratic mandate to leave.”

He went on to venture:

“In my lifetime I’ve never seen anything or anyone get a democratic mandate like that.”

The remarkable direct democratic mandate is an intriguing, and it appears malleable, concept. For Mr Raab, along with almost every Conservative MP who supported leaving the EU, voted in favour of the Trade Union Bill (now the Trade Union Act 2016), seeking to impose minimum voting thresholds on Trade Unions balloting members over industrial action.

A stonking great hypocrite

A stonking great hypocrite

The 2016 Act, in short, requires, in order for industrial action to be lawful, a 50% turnout of “those who were entitled to vote” (section 2 of the 2016 Act, amending section 226 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992), and, where those voting are “engaged in the provision of important public services”, an additional requirement applies, namely that “40% of those who were entitled to vote answer “yes”” (section 3(2) of the 2016 Act).

The rationale, as set out in the Conservative Party manifesto for the 2015 General Election, is:

“Strikes should only ever be the result of a clear, positive decision based on a ballot in which at least half the workforce has voted. This turnout threshold will be an important and fair step to rebalance the interests of employers, employees, the public and the rights of trade unions. We will, in addition, tackle the disproportionate impact of strikes in essential public services by introducing a tougher threshold in health, education, fire and transport. Industrial action in these essential services would require the support of at least 40 per cent of all those entitled to take part in strike ballots – as well as a majority of those who actually turn out to vote.”

To paraphrase, actions which have significant consequences for the general public, particularly where such actions carry a threat of enormous disruption to people’s everyday lives, should only be performed where a “clear, positive decision” is indicated by, not just a majority of those who turn out to vote, but a significant proportion (40%) of all of those entitled to vote.

Whether this is a good argument does not matter for these purposes. What matters is that the Parliamentary Conservative Party – including Boris Johnson, Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, Michael Gove, Priti Patel and John Whittingdale – thought that it was. So good that they voted for it. So important to them was the principle that important decisions affecting the public at large should attract the support of 40% of the registered electorate, they attended the House of Commons on behalf of their constituents to cast their “aye” and ensure that the Bill became law.

So what of the vote to leave the EU? The most important decision our country will ever make, in the unchallenged words of the (now outgoing) Prime Minister.

Well, 51.9% of a 72% turnout equals 37.4% of the registered electorate voting to take the country out of the European Union.

37.4%.

The “most remarkable democratic mandate” in Dominic Raab’s lifetime is one which would not be sufficient, under his own law, for train drivers to withdraw their labour for an afternoon.

When I tweeted this yesterday, a number of Leave supporters were irritated by what they perceived as speculative ifs-and-buts by a bitter Remainer. The Trade Union Act doesn’t apply to referendums, they quite correctly said. There’s no threshold required for a General Election; we don’t seek to re-run GEs until there is a special majority (or even a simple majority) of voters in favour of one governing party, was another common refrain. But the latter argument is to misunderstand the distinction between a referendum and an election. A referendum – much like a strike ballot – is a binary choice between the status quo and change. Between the relative certainty of remaining as we are, and the unknown consequences of all walking out. And the point I am making, academic as it may be, is not that we should definitely have a second referendum. Nor that we retrospectively impose a voting threshold.

But simply that those who are leading us into this brave new world, reneging on a new preposterous election vow as regularly as Corbyn loses a fresh shadow minister, are not merely charlatans for the new clothes they’ve peddled to our plebeian emperors, but unspeakable hypocrites of the highest order when they doll up their victory as a remarkable democratic mandate, secretly knowing that, under their own terms of engagement as publicly committed to statute, they ought honestly to be proclaiming this as a victory for the status quo.