Sam Hallam: what are the wider lessons?

Sam Hallam has featured heavily in the news over the last couple of days.  Sam was convicted of the murder of trainee chef Essayas Kassahun in central London and sentenced to life imprisonment.  However, seven years on a catalogue of failures by the police, prosecution and courts have resulted in the Crown withdrawing any opposition to Sam Hallam’s appeal and his conviction being quashed.

A lot has already been written on this case.  I draw attention to it not to pour over the mistakes of the police, the CPS and the judiciary.  Rather, I draw attention to the case because it demonstrates a number of quite fundamental things in a clear way.

Today there are many people in the UK who support the reintroduction of capital punishment for those convicted of Murder.  There are a growing number of murder convictions which have been spectacularly overturned many years after conviction and after the Court of Appeal had rejected appeals.  Sam Hallam’s is another one of those.  It is an important one though.  Sam Hallam would almost certainly have been executed by now had the UK retained the death penalty.  An innocent man would have lost his life for a crime that he had not committed.  This was not simply a case of the police getting it wrong.  The ineptitude of the Metropolitan Police in this case has been blown open for all to see.  They were, in essence, lazy and grossly negligent. They did not conduct the investigations they should have and had they Sam Hallam would never have seen the inside of a Court let alone a prison.   In this case the police are not solely to blame: the CPS, the prosecution Barristers, the trial judge and the original Court of Appeal judges all permitted the miscarriage of justice to happen and to continue.  This is not a case of a technicality overturning a conviction.  This is about the whole system having got it very wrong from the very outset.  Sam Hallam’s case is not alone in this though and others have been released following it being discovered that there is absolutely no way that they could have committed the crime in question.  Sam Hallam is not innocent because there is some reasonable doubt over the conviction.  He is innocent because there is no doubt of it.  He was nowhere near the murder when it took place.  These are the cases that demonstrate clearly why capital punishment should remain consigned to the history books.  While releasing someone from prison after they have served time for a crime they did not commit and paying them a large amount of money in compensation (quite rightly) is not enough to make up for the years lost to prison it at least allows the individual to live the rest of their life.  Capital Punishment is final.  Once the sentence is carried out there is no going back and when it’s discovered that a huge mistake was made and an innocent man was executed there is absolutely nothing that can be done about it.  Sure the conviction can still be quashed and an apology issued to the family of the victim, but that does not bring the wrongly executed individual back.

The case also highlights another vitally important point and that is the funding of the criminal justice system.  Without the correct levels of funding going to the police, to the prosecution, to the courts and to the defence teams the number of cases where innocent individuals are convicted will only rise.  As the police have to find savings in their budgets will their investigations routinely be scaled down?  Will vital lines of inquiry routinely not be followed up as they hope they’ve “got their man”?  Will the CPS spend less time weighing up and evaluating the evidence before decided whether to charge or not?  Will the prosecution team have to spend less time on preparing the case and thus not disclose vital material to the defence or notice a huge gaping hole in their case?  Will the defence have to cut back on the amount of work they put in the case and risk missing the bug gaping hole that the prosecution has already missed?  This could be the reality of the future.  Already defence counsel and defence solicitors are providing vast amounts of their time doing work for their cases which is essential but for which they have little hope of receiving remuneration for.  Legal Aid rates are being cut and are moving towards fixed fees.  Lawyers do have a professional obligation towards the court and to their client.  However, when they need to feed their own families and keep a roof over their heads will the amount of time spent on cases for no pay reduce as their time is taken up with a greater number of cases to continue earning enough money?  It’s a serious possibility and is already occurring.

Many in the public think lawyers get paid too much as it is.  Some lawyers do make obscene amounts of money.  However, you can be almost certain that their vast earnings do not come from legally aided work.  No, their vast earnings come from private client cases where the client can afford to fork out thousands upon thousands of pounds to be represented.  There is a great skill to the law.  Few people could walk into a court and successfully represent themselves, let alone another individual.  It takes year of study and many more years of practice to refine the skills and the knowledge needed to be a good lawyer.  The work undertaken by lawyers is vital to the continuing harmony of our society.  Without lawyers and the legal profession the rule of law would likely breakdown.  If lawyers are unable to dedicate the time to cases because they can’t afford to then public confidence in the system will be reduced as more and more miscarriages of justice are revealed.

What about the police?  They are under huge pressures at the moment, particularly in England and Wales.  The Home Office is passing on cuts of 20% to English and Welsh police forces.  That’s a lot of money.  What that means in real terms is fewer officers on the streets to respond to incidents, fewer officers available to properly and thoroughly investigate crime.  That means guilty people getting off and innocent people getting convicted.

Yes, we are undergoing extraordinary public spending pressure and every area of public spending needs to bear some of the cuts.  However, an improperly funded justice system means that any hope of justice gets squeezed out of the system.

Do we want more Sam Hallam’s?  If not then we must ensure that the justice system is efficient and properly funded.  That’s the entire system:  the police, the prosecution service, the courts and the lawyers.