Criminal Justice, Politics

‘Prisoners’ are people too

There is rarely a day that goes by without there being some story in the press about prisoners or prisons.  When we do, we often hear them described as ‘thugs’, ‘beasts’ and ‘monsters’ (among other things).  There is a large (and sadly influential) section of the population who view prisoners as second-class citizens, as things which are not worthy of being considered as or respected as human beings.  We see it clearly, first they are de-humanised and then it becomes possible to justify all sorts of abuses and ill-treatment upon them.  Indeed, we can see certain sections of the population advocating treating prisoners in ways that we wouldn’t be allowed to treat animals.  However, prisoners are people.  Yes they are people who have done bad things, but they are people nonetheless.

As a group they are identified by what they have done wrong, and the fact that they are in prison.  They’re considered as a homogenous group of people; something which they are not.  Within the prison population you have some of the most vulnerable and broken people in society.  You have people with multiple mental health problems, people who have suffered the most horrendous abuse as children (and often as adults too), you have people who were neglected by the adults who were supposed to have looked after them while they were children and I could go on.  Of course, none of these reasons is an excuse for what they have done; though, it can offer an explanation as to why they offended in the way that they did.  As well as those who are vulnerable and broken, there are people who have simply made bad choices in their lives or been caught up in situations that got out of hand (it’s not just “bad people” who end up in prison; anyone can, in the right circumstances, find themselves on the wrong side of the law).  We’re not dealing with a homogenous group of people; we’re dealing with a wide variety of people who all have one thing in common: they’re in prison.

It is a legitimate aim of society to want to be safe, and to be free from crime.  It is also a legitimate aim of society to punish those who offend against the community.  The mess that can be left behind after a crime has been committed can be huge; and it will often be the community that’s been impacted who are left to pick up the pieces.  However, punishment alone is not enough.  We need to look at radical ways of dealing with crime if we are going to see the changes in society that we want to see.  Simply warehousing people in prisons for set periods of time isn’t going to bring about the changes that we want to see.

When it comes to prison we seem to be confused, as a society, about what it is for.  We are all agreed one of the justifications for prison is as a form of punishment.  However, is prison itself the punishment or is prison a place that we send people to be punished.  There is a subtle difference in wording, but in practice this makes a massive difference to how prisons are operated.  We frequently hear the line that prisons are like holiday camps being trotted out (which, when you actually think of it is an absolutely ridiculous saying; prison is about as far from Butlins or Centre Parcs as you can get).  We see regular calls for prisons to be unpleasant places (they already are) where harsh regimes are the order of the day.  In England and Wales that view seems to be winning out as the prison regime is being continually made more harsh and more unpleasant by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling MP.  Those who favour such policies say that if we make prison a harsh and unpleasant place then people won’t want to go back and thus when they’re released they won’t commit another crime.  It’s utter nonsense and has little or no scientific backing to it whatsoever.  In any event, in my experience, people who leave prison in the UK today genuinely don’t want to go back when they walk out the gates.  The problem is though they often walk out of the prison gates into homelessness, unemployment and back into the chaotic lifestyles that they lived before they went to prison.

Let me tell you the story of Jimmy (not his real name).  Jimmy was released from prison; while he was in prison he lost the home that he had been living in before he went into prison.  However, a place for him to stay had been arranged.  Due to failures in the prison system, he was released later than expected.  It was a Friday afternoon.  By the time he made it to the housing association the person who had the key for his flat had gone home and wouldn’t be back in until Monday morning.  He was simply told to come back on Monday morning.  He went to the Council to present as homeless and to try and get emergency accommodation.  He was told that there we no places to give to him.  Faced with spending the weekend sleeping rough, Jimmy committed a minor crime knowing that he would be held in the police station until court on Monday.  So, he put a brick through the window of a shop and waited until the police turned up.  He was duly arrested and held in police custody over the weekend.

This is the type of thing that happens time and time again.  People undergoing methadone treatment for heroin addictions are released with a doctor’s appointment three days away; of course in that time there is nothing treating the cravings and they end up feeding their habit with heroin, which puts them back into the revolving prison gates.  People are released from prison unemployed and often have to wait weeks to get any form of benefits payment, by which time they’re back in prison having either stolen to try and feed themselves or simply committed a crime to get back into prison where they know they’ll be fed.  These situations are not uncommon either, they happen all the time.  It’s particularly bad for people released from prison on a Friday because all of the services that they can turn to close for the weekend.  Foodbanks, for example, often require you to have been referred to them from organisations like Social Work, the Job Centre, Citizens Advice etc.  All services that either close down for the weekend, or are so overstretched that they can’t assist everyone that needs it.

As a society we need to begin to change our attitudes because as it currently stands we set up people coming out of prison to fail.  We’re not willing them to give them a chance; we’re happy to discriminate against them in terms of employment opportunities and wonder why they commit further crime or label them layabouts because they remain on benefits long-term.  We’ll let our prejudice and discrimination get in the way of policies known to work and to cut re-offending because they don’t give us the retribution that we consider to be just.  The system is broken and its brokenness is creating fresh victims and costing us as a society dearly emotionally, physically and financially.  The first thing that we need to do is recognise that people who have offended, regardless of how heinous their crime, are human beings.  Only then will we be able to have sensible discussions about justice and penology; only then can we ensure that we have a justice system that ensures the public are protected long-term by transforming the lives of those who have caused harm to their communities.

Corroboration, Criminal Justice, Criminal Law, Scots Law

Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill: Stage One Debate

CJSB14Yesterday the Scottish Parliament had its Stage One debate on the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill, and the quality of the contributions from certain members was depressingly poor; some contributions are worthy of note because they were of a standard which should be seen from all members: John Finnie (IND) and Patrick Harvie (Greens) to name two.

Like many, I am of the view that corroboration does represent an important safeguard against wrongful conviction; however, I am not so wedded to the idea that I cannot see life without it. I do have a number of concerns though.

Firstly, there has been a lot of talk about cases not getting to court because of corroboration and how that limits access to justice for Complainers. There are two important factors to consider here: (1) it also limits access to justice for suspects. Even an arrest/detention (especially for something like rape) can be enough to permit a ‘bad smell’ to hang around the accused. (2) There will always be cases that do not proceed to trial because of a lack of sufficiency in the evidence. Removing the requirement for corroboration will not suddenly mean that every single case will proceed. Trials, especially High Court trials, are expensive and while justice ought not to be about money, it would be naïve to think that money doesn’t play a part – on a financial basis alone it would be impossible to have every case prosecuted.

What about this brave new world post-corroboration in Scotland? A lot has been mentioned in the debate about complainers in sexual offences and domestic violence cases; corroboration does provide assistance to these Complainers (although this point is almost never mentioned). It ensures it is never the case of the Complainer’s word against that of the accused. Where things get tricky in terms of rape complaints is around consent. There has to, as the law stands today, be corroboration of a lack of consent. Where does that come from? Lots of places: changes in behaviour by the complainer or third party evidence of the Complainer’s distress for example.  In such cases where evidence of distress is not available it would place even more stress upon the Complainer as it will be down to no more than who the jury believes more: the complainer or the accused.

Now, so far I’ve yet to deal with why I am actually against section 57. My main opposition to it passing in this Bill is the outstanding Bonomy Review.  The purpose of this is to work out the additional changes that will need to be made to the law of Scotland following the removal of the requirement for Corroboration. Let’s be clear this isn’t a minor technical change to the law of Scotland; it is absolutely fundamental. As such it is only right and proper that the Scottish Parliament knows what it is changing the law of Scotland to before they vote on such a fundamental proposal. Also, the very existence of the Bonomy review shows that the Parliament are voting on a partially thought-out proposal.  The setting up of a review to fix problems with legislative provisions, before they’ve even been voted on for the first time by the Scottish Parliament, should cause alarm bells to ring in the minds of every single Member of the Scottish Parliament.

Image credit: Scottish Parliament website licensed under the Open Scottish Parliament Licence v1.0
Image credit: Scottish Parliament website licensed under the Open Scottish Parliament Licence v1.0

During the debate yesterday Sandra White MSP made the preposterous suggestion that not abolishing the requirement for corroboration in this Bill was kicking the matter into the long grass. She was concerned that there would be insufficient time to deal with the matter before the next election, due in May 2016. The Bonomy review is due to report early next year, giving the Government and Parliament up to 15 months to draft a Bill and pass it; hardly a shortage of time!  Furthermore, the Cabinet Secretary has said he won’t be enacting section 57 until such times as additional safeguards are introduced. The reality is; it’s probably going to be at last a further 18 months before this section is actually enacted. Whether it is passed now, or in 2015 will make little difference, it’s unlikely to be fully enacted before late 2015 or early 2016 anyway. Therefore, there is no good reason as to why Parliament cannot consider the full package (i.e. abolition and the full package of safeguards together). Indeed, passing legislative provisions which Parliament knows are incomplete and not fully thought through is not what MSPs are paid for. This is not how a serious Parliament in a mature democracy ought to function.

What has struck me most about this debate is the way in which highly emotive cases have been used as the justification, and this has polarised the debate. This has lead to deplorable suggestions by some, such as Christina McKelvie MSP, that those opposing the move to abolish the requirement for corroboration were against victims of rape and domestic violence. Her exact wording was:

There is a significant number of victims of sexual violence and domestic abuse whose cases do not go to court. In the past two years, that has affected 2,800 cases of domestic abuse and 170 rape cases. The Tories, the Liberals and—astonishingly—the Labour Party might be happy with that, but I will not have that on my conscience.

Such suggestions are utterly unacceptable in Parliament by MSPs; in making that statement Ms McKelvie demeaned herself and demeaned Parliament. Quite simply it was shameful and completely indefensible behaviour.  She is not alone, some vocal people connected with various womens’ charities have been similar suggestions.

MacAskillKenny
Image credit: Scottish Parliament website licensed under the Open Scottish Parliament Licence v1.0

Finally, I turn to Mr MacAskill’s equally shameful closing statement in which he painted the opposition to section 57 as a ‘Better Together’ pact against the SNP. This ignores that Christine Grahame abstained on both votes, and that Patrick Harvey and John Finnie (both ardent supporters of ‘Yes Scotland’ and the later a former SNP member) both voted for the amendment proposed by Margaret Mitchell after also speaking against the Cabinet Secretary’s position  in the debate. The Cabinet Secretary’s suggestion that everyone not with him is against Victims of crime was another outrageous slur; indeed I heard not one speech in the debate that could have been characterised as being against victims. Everyone speaking in favour of Margaret Mitchells amendment was essentially saying this: we need to ensure that we retain an acceptable balance in the justice system that ensures safe convictions. That brings us to the nub of the issue: we must ensure that when people are convicted of crimes, especially ones that will inevitably result in lengthy custodial sentences, that those convictions are safe. It is not good for a victim to see someone convicted of an offence against them just for the Appeal Court to come along and quash that conviction.

We have to ensure that balance remains in the system, and the Cabinet Secretary’s position does not allow for that. It is not acceptable for Parliament to vote on such fundamental matters when they are incomplete with only a promise that sufficient safeguards will be introduced (by way of Secondary legislation which bypasses the full and rigorous scrutiny of Parliament) in due course. The Cabinet Secretary’s position is untenable on this issue, and he must remove section 57 from the Bill re-introducing it in Primary legislation alongside whatever other reforms Lord Bonomy proposes.

Cadder, Carloway Review, Corroboration, Criminal Justice, Criminal Law, Evidence, Legal System, Scots Law

Another blog on Corroboration

Corroboration has been part of the law of Scotland for many, many centuries.  The corroborative requirement used to apply in civil cases, and not just criminal cases.  The requirement for corroboration in civil cases was abolished on 3 April 1989 when section 1 of the Civil Evidence (Scotland) Act 1988 entered into force.  The Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill currently before the Scottish Parliament will see the end to corroboration in criminal cases as well.

The abolition of Corroboration in Scottish Civil cases came following a lengthy process; it began with Memorandum 46 on the Law of Evidence published by the Scottish Law Commission in 1980, which resulted in two reports.  The first was report number 78 (published in 1983), entitled “Report on Evidence in cases of Rape and Other Sexual Offences”.  That report resulted in Sections 141A, 141B, 346A and 346B being inserted into the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1975 (later replaced by the present statute governing criminal procedure in Scotland: the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995) by virtue of the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Act 1985.  The second report was number 100, which was published in 1986, entitled “Evidence: Report on Corroboration, Hearsay and Related Matters in Civil Proceedings”.   There was also a research paper by Sheriff I D MacPhail (chapters 1-5; 6-15; 16-19 and 20-25) which considered in detail the Law of Evidence in Scotland at that time.

In essence, the major reform to the Law of Evidence in Civil cases through the Civil Evidence (Scotland) Act 1988 followed an intense and lengthy period of scrutiny by the body established by law to look at reforms to the Law of Scotland.  The abolition of corroboration in Scottish criminal cases is a major reform.  It was inserted into a Government Bill following a brief review by a judge and a number of short consultations on Criminal Evidence and Practice (the Carloway Review).  A process frequently described as an “emergency” by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill MSP, following the Supreme Court’s decision in Cadder v HM Advocate.

As I have already mentioned, the abolition of corroboration in Scotland is a significant piece of reform.  Many areas of Criminal Evidence depend, entirely or significantly, upon there being a requirement for Corroboration.  For example, in Holland v HM Advocate, the existence of the requirement for corroboration was an important factor in the Court’s determination that dock identification did not breach Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.  With Corroboration playing such a significant role in the Law of Evidence in Scotland, it is important that the effects of its abolition are properly considered.  It is also essential that all the necessary changes to the Law of Evidence that require to be made, are made at the same time and not in various bits of emergency legislation like the disaster that was the Criminal Procedure (Legal Assistance, Detention and Appeals) (Scotland) Act 2010, or thorough piecemeal reforms which are required following the identification of yet another problem with criminal procedure arising out of the abolition of corroboration.

While I believe Corroboration is an important aspect of our system that ought to be retained, I could foresee it being removed without any real problem to the procurement of a fair trial.  However, I can only see that if it is done in the context of a properly considered report that doesn’t just look at changes that could be made to the system, but one which has also adequately considered what other changes might have to accompany those changes to ensure that the system remains fair and balanced.  Removing corroboration from Scottish criminal procedure has the capability of reducing the conviction or acquittal of a person down to nothing other than the credibility of the complainer against the credibility of the accused.  That is an unsatisfactory position when a conviction can result in the loss of a person’s liberty for a very long time.

We cannot allow another ‘Cadder’ situation to, which undoubtedly had a significant impact on the ability of complainers to obtain justice because of the procedural errors in the Scottish justice system.  If we are to make such a fundamental change to our justice system, we must ensure that it is done in a way that ensures any consequential changes are also made to protect the rights of both complainers and accused persons.

Corroboration, Criminal Justice, Criminal Law, Legal System, Scots Law

Abolition of Corroboration: where is the case?

Last night Cabinet Secretary for Justice Kenney MacAskill MSP was on Scotland Tonight defending his plan to abolish Corroboration.  His arguments, as ever, simply do not stack up to scruity.

Right at the outset of his interview he said:

 “We’re not going to have people convicted on one single evidence from one single witness.  That’s been made quite clear by the Lord Advocate; there will always require to be additional evidence.  That’s been made clear it’s not just a quantitative, but a qualitative test so the evidence of one person on its own will not be sufficient; there will require to be additional evidence to be led”.

This all sounds very good, the lawyers are screaming about innocent people being convicted on the evidence of one individual but the Cabinet Secretary has said they’re wrong.  Well, it’s the Cabinet Secretary that is wrong.  Under the Law of Scotland as it stands today, the essential facts of the case (those are that a crime was committed and that it was committed by the accused) need to be proved by corroborated evidence.  That is each piece of evidence that goes towards establishing those two key things must be supported by another source of evidence independent to it.  For example, that could be the evidence of an eye witness together with DNA evidence.  What the Cabinet Secretary said last night is that the Lord Advocate, the person responsible for the prosecution of all crime in Scotland, will continue to require evidence from an additional source.  However, that will be nothing more than guidance to prosecutors with no legal standing at all; it could not be founded upon in the Appeal Court as part of an appeal against conviction to show that there was insufficient evidence to allow a conviction; there would be no legal requirement for corroboration following its abolition.  If the Crown were to decide to progress a case without corroborating evidence, they would be entitled to do so.  Furthermore, the guidance of the Lord Advocate would be subject to change at the whim of the Lord Advocate without any consideration or scrutiny by anyone.  The Cabinet Secretary’s assurances are meaningless and the Lord Advocate’s requirements are meaningless in law as well.

The Cabinet Secretary went on to discuss the safeguards that his Bill contains to address the loss of Corroboration as a safeguard.  The only safeguard mentioned was the increase of the jury majority required for a conviction from 8 to 10.  Is this really an adequate safeguard?  The requirement for corroboration applies in all cases: summary and solemn cases.  Juries are only present in Solemn cases and those cases represent a significant minority of cases which are progressed by the Procurator Fiscal in Scotland.  How does increasing the jury majority safeguard those who are prosecuted before a Justice of the Peace, a stipendiary magistrate or a Sheriff on his own?  It doesn’t.  Therefore, it’s not an adequate alternative to the requirement for Corroboration.

Furthermore, on the question of jury majorities, the Scotland Tonight presenter compared the size of the Scottish majority to that required in England where ordinarily a unanimous verdict is required, but can be reduced upon the discretion of the judge to a 10-2 majority (i.e 83.33% of the jury require to be convinced beyond reasonable doubt of a person’s guilt before conviction).  Under the Scottish Government’s proposals, only 66.66% of the jury would require to be convinced of the accused’s guilt before a conviction.

The Cabinet Secretary made much of the requirement of corroboration being archaic and pointed to advanced in evidence such as DNA as forms of evidence that make corroboration redundant.  I will look specifically at DNA evidence; I feel that too much emphasis is placed on DNA evidence in our modern justice system.  A lot of DNA evidence is not conclusive.  A cigarette but at the scene of a murder with the DNA of the accused on it is not conclusive that the accused was even at the scene of the murder, let alone was there when the murder took place.  The cigarette but could have arrived there by other, innocuous means (that is not necessarily placed there deliberately as part of a “fit up”).  If the scene of the crime was at the bottom of a hill the cigarette but could have been discarded at the top of the hill some hours before the murder and  arrived at the scene of murder through the effect of gravity.  An item of clothing left at the scene of a Housebreaking accidently by the offender containing the DNA of the accused might not be conclusive either.  Consider the situation where two people have similar, or identical, pieces of clothing.  The innocent accused picks up the offenders by accident when they were earlier in the same public place while the offender picks up the innocent accused’s and subsequently leaves the item of clothing at the scene of the crime.  Again, not part of a “fit-up” and an entirely plausible situation that could occur.  In almost all cases; DNA evidence will require corroboration to give it the effect that it needs to have to secure conviction.

If we do away with the requirement for corroboration, it will be up to the jury to make an almost impossible determination as to how the DNA evidence arrived at the scene of the crime.  Programmes such as CSI have skewed society’s view of DNA evidence and resulted in it being considered the “golden bullet” it so often is not (“he must have done it; his DNA was there”).  It is entirely possible that innocent people will be convicted as a consequence of uncorroborated DNA evidence.

The Rational of the requirement for Corroboration that stands today was set out by Barron David Hume, one of Scotland’s “institutional writes” in the following way:

No matter how trivial the offence, and how high so ever the credit and character of the witness, still our law is averse to rely on his single word, in any inquiry which may affect the person, liberty, or fame of his neighbour; and rather than run the risk of such an error, a risk which does not hold when there is a concurrence of testimonies, it is willing that the guilty should escape.

The words of Barron Hume are as true today as they were when he wrote them in the early 19th Century.  It cannot be the genuine desire of the Scottish public to see innocent people convicted for crimes that they did not commit simply because one convincing witness said in court that the accused was guilty of the crime.

The fact is that Corroboration does not hinder prosecutions; it helps prosecutions (and this is a view shared by many within the prosecution service).  If the statement of a witness is supported independently by other evidence it strengthens the testimony of the witness; a witness who might otherwise come across as unbelievable is instantly strengthened by the existence of corroborative evidence.

The Scottish Government has not, in my view, made out the case for such a substantial change to the Criminal law of Scotland.  If we are going to make such a fundamental change it would be useful to do so following a thorough consideration of the issues, perhaps by the Scottish Law Commission.  Lord Carloway’s review was brief and followed what the Scottish Government describe as an “Emergency situation”.  There is something quite ironic about the Government proposing to change the law of Evidence with little or no relevant evidence.

Criminal Justice, Criminal Law, Legal System

Is it the case that the complainer clearly lied?

In Scotland, there can be three conclusions to a criminal trial: (1) the accused is found guilty, (2) the accused is found not proven and (3) the accused is found not guilty.  This seems fairly straight forward, (1) means they did it (2) means nobody is sure whether they did it and (3) means they didn’t do it.  Only that’s not really how it works; it is a great deal more complicated than this.

Let’s start with numbers (2) and (3), although they look different they are identical in law: the Crown has failed to prove its case against the accused beyond reasonable doubt, and as such the accused is acquitted.  Historically, this meant that the accused could never be tried again for the same crime.  However, following fairly recent changes to the ancient double jeopardy rule (the rule that said no person may be tried twice for the same crime), it is now possible for the Crown to have a second go at prosecuting an individual for a crime for which they have already been acquitted in a set of strict and limited circumstances.  On the whole though, an acquittal means that the person leaves court innocent in the eyes of the law (exactly how they arrived at court) and free from the threat of a further prosecution in connection with the same matter.

Our system is extremely simple in respect of a person’s standing in law when accused of a crime:  all persons are presumed innocent until found guilty in a Court of law.  That finding of guilt may be as a result of the accused’s own guilty plea, or it may be following a trial.  An acquittal following a trial does not necessarily mean that the complainer has told lies or has not been the victim of a crime.  What it means is that the Crown failed to put before the Court (a Justice of the Peace, Sheriff or Jury depending on the forum in which the trial is held) to convince the Court that the accused is guilty of the charges alleged by the Crown.  It is for the Crown to prove the charge, and to prove the charge that it alleges.  Certain aspects of charges can be deleted if the Crown has failed to prove them, but has overall proved the offence.  For example, an ‘aggravation’ can be deleted from the charge where the evidence does not support the aggravation, but where it supports the basic offence.  Other things can be deleted from a charge as well.  For example, if the Crown alleges assault to severe injury and permanent disfigurement, but the evidence only proved assault to severe injury, the permanent disfigurement aspect to the charge could be deleted.  Another example could be where the charge alleges that the accused assaulted the complainer by punching and kicking the complainer, but the evidence only proved that the accused punched, rather than punched and kicked, the word ‘kicked’ could be deleted from the charge.

These deletions can be made by the Crown itself, or they can be made by the finders of fact (e.g. a jury could remove an aggravation from the charge where it finds the basic offence proved, but not the aggravation alleged).  The onus is on the Crown to prove the essential elements of the case though.  Where it fails to satisfy the finder of fact (in the case of a jury trial that would be the jury to a majority of 8 to 7) that the accused committed the crime alleged, the accused is entitled to be acquitted; he or she is free to go with the law viewing them to be innocent.

Of course, not every single case that results in an acquittal has arisen out of the lies of the complainer.  We have a system that requires the Crown to bring sufficient evidence before the Court to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that the accused committed the crime alleged.  The standard of proof is extremely high and the burden largely falls on the Crown, and for very good reason.  A finding of guilt could allow the State to deprive an individual of their liberty for a very long time.  Furthermore the state has far more resources at its disposal when bringing a prosecution against an individual.

In recognising that some guilty people do walk away from court, it is not an invitation to treat those who are acquitted with suspicion.  The law is clear: they were innocent before the trial and they remain so after the trial.  There is no presumption of guilt and nor should there be.  It is an effect of our system of justice that some guilty people will walk free after a trial, just as some innocent people will be convicted. Both are unfortunate, but doing as much as possible to avoid the latter results in the former.

There certainly should not be a jump to the conclusion that the complainer(s) in a case where the accused is acquitted have perjured themselves.  Where there is evidence that this is the case it should, of course, be investigated and a prosecution brought where it is in the public interest to do so.  However,due process has to be followed just as much in that case as in the case that went before it.

In essence, while an acquittal does equal innocence in the eyes of the law; it is realistic to accept that it does not always equal what might be termed as ‘true innocence’.  However, whether the person is innocent or not is quite frankly irrelevant beyond the trial.  In legal terms they are innocent and as a consequence society has an obligation to judge them as innocent, and to treat them as such.  The court that heard the case and acquitted the accused heard all of the available evidence and decided that it was insufficient to allow for a conviction.  The accused is entitled to put the episode behind them and to move on with their life.  Equally, complainers are entitled to support to move on from the crime of which they have been a victim.  In a lot of cases the fact that they have been the victim of a crime is not in doubt, the police and the Crown have just been unable to show that it was the accused that perpetrated the crime (and it may very well be the case that it was someone other than the accused that committed the crime, hence the right of the accused to have society treat them as innocent).

I hope that this makes sense.  If not, here is what I have been trying to say distilled down into five small points:

  1. When a person is acquitted it does not automatically follow that the complainer wasn’t telling the truth
  2. Equally, it does not follow that simply because the complainer may not have been lying that the accused got away with their crimes.
  3. The acquitted accused is entitled to move on from the episode and obtain support as required.
  4. The complainer is also entitled to move on from the episode and obtain support as required
  5. Where there is evidence to support that the complainer wasn’t telling the truth, it should be investigated and prosecuted where such a prosecution would be in the public interest.
Civil Law, Civil Liberties, Constitutional Law, Criminal Justice, Criminal Law, English Law, Human Rights, Legal System, Scots Law

A quick defence of legal aid

The debates around legal aid in Scotland earlier this year and in England over the last year have been characterised by a number of clear misconceptions by the public at large.  There is a view that legal aid exists only to make ‘lawyers rich’ and that the vast majority of those receiving legal aid are in some way ‘undeserving’.  These views are of considerable concern as the simply enable Governments in Edinburgh and London to press ahead with legal aid ‘reforms’ that will substantially damage the country.

Legal aid seems to get lumped in with job-seekers allowance, housing benefit, council tax benefit and such like (I have even, on more than one occasion, seen comparisons drawn between legal aid and the NHS); these comparisons are illogical and ignore fundamental aspects of legal aid which set it apart from any other government spending.

Equality before the law is fundamental to ensuring access to justice.  The ability of all (and not just the rich) to access the legal system is of fundamental constitutional importance.  The ability of individuals to defend themselves against the power of the state (whether in civil or criminal proceedings) and to challenge the state through Judicial Review are essential to our constitution.  Without this ability we are not a liberal democracy.  The issue of access to the law isn’t only confined to making it possible to bring or defend a claim, but it has to create a realistic ability to access the law.  That means providing good quality representation (and importantly permitting those bringing or defending a claim to select their own law agent).  Without client choice you are left in a situation where the State is selecting the representatives of those who it is brining a claim against or whom it is defending a claim against.  If you were suing your mobile phone provider and had to use the solicitor that they selected for you, you would instantly see a conflict of interest.  However, that same conflict does not seem to be as apparent when the State is involved (although it is there and just as important).  There has to be equality between the parties in the legal system and for those who cannot afford to pay their own legal fees it is left to the State to ensure fair access to legal representation.

In criminal cases, it is about defending yourself against serious accusations made by the State.  The consequences of conviction are, quite rightly, serious.  Conviction can lead to a loss of employment and a loss of liberty.  Not everyone who gets legal aid in criminal cases is guilty, a great many people are innocent and it is important that they are able to robustly challenge the State who has to prove their allegation.  It’s about ensuring fairness in the system; an individual against the might of the State (with the police and a professional prosecution service for back-up) is not a fair fight.  Legal representation is essential to ensure fairness (whether they are guilty or not).  It might be unpopular to see guilty people get vast sums of public money to defend themselves, but isn’t that a price worth paying to ensure that we have a fair and balanced system ensuring that, as far as is possible, only the guilty are convicted?

Judicial Review is very much disliked by the Government, as should be expected.  Judicial Review is the citizen challenging a decision made by the Government; it’s about ensuring that the Government only takes decisions which are legal.  It is an area under attack by the Government and it is vitally important.  Without effective access to judicial review, the State can go unchecked and be able to take decisions which are illegal.

The need for access to legal aid does not just extend to cases which involve the State.  Individuals seeking to enforce their contractual rights against a company or gain compensation when a company is at fault and they have lost out as a result or to enforce their consumer rights need to have the ability to seek recourse in the courts when pre-litigation action fails to achieve a result.  Without the ability to go to Court and seek a legally enforceable court order to enforce their rights, the rights that they have are effectively meaningless.  The threat of litigation can prevent litigation.  The knowing that an individual can seek recourse to the Court in order to give effect to their rights can be enough to make people comply with their obligations.  Without that effective recourse, people will be free to ignore their obligations with impunity.

Legal aid and access to justice go to the very heart of our constitution and democracy.  It’s not a benefit; it’s a constitutional right  Legal aid is much more important and serious that housing benefit or job seekers allowance (as important as those are); it’s fundamental to our society.

Contempt of Court, Criminal Justice, Criminal Law, English Law, Human Rights, Politics

Anonymity upon arrest

The naming of suspects by police at the point of arrest and charge has become a hot topic.  The Home Secretary has written to Chief Executive Officer of the College of Policing, Alex Marshall, expressing her concern about the different policies operated by different forces in England and Wales.  She wants it made clear to forces that unless there are very good public interest reasons for naming suspects who have been arrested, it shouldn’t happen.  The press have repeated concerns that this amounts to some kind of ‘secret justice’.

I really have little concern about suspects under arrest who have not been charged remaining anonymous.  Far too often we see examples of the press effectively having a trial which convicts the person while that person is still in police station being questioned in connection with an alleged offence.  By the time this person is then released from the police station their reputation has been destroyed, even if they are entirely innocent of any involvement in any crime.

Persons who have been arrested and not named do not fall into some big black hole; indeed millions of people are arrested in England and Wales every single year and very few are named at the point of arrest (in fact very few are named publically at any point, even after conviction).  There are important rights, protected by law, which mean that it is impossible for someone to be secretly arrested.  Those arrested have the right to have someone informed of their arrest and are entitled to legal representation; although both of these can be delayed, they are still rights which have to be exercised eventually if the arrested person wishes to exercise those rights.

It has been argued that naming a suspect at the time of arrest allows further victims to come forward, but so would naming them at the time of charge.  There is nothing stopping the police from arresting the person again in connection with different allegations that come to light after they have been charged.

In effect what a policy of anonymity for suspects under arrest would prevent is the press from publishing endless stories ‘monstering’ a person over something they may or may not have done.  We should perhaps be more than a little suspicious of the motivation of the press on this story; evidently ‘monsetring’ stories are the type of stores that make newspapers (particularly tabloid newspapers) sell.  Such a motivation cannot be ruled out of the press opposition to a move towards anonymity of arrested persons.

The clearest example of this was that of Christopher Jeffries, the man who was wrongly arrested on suspicion of murdering Joanna Yeates.  What followed, while he was still in police custody being questioned, was a press frenzy which painted him as a deviant, gave the impression that he was a nasty individual and by implication that he was clearly Joanna Yeates’ killer.  However, he was later released from police bail (having never been charged) and won substantial damages from eight newspapers for libel.  The Attorney General also prosecuted two newspapers for contempt of court, both of whom were found to be in contempt.  Another mab, Vincent Taback, eventually convicted of her murder and is currently serving life imprisonment.

Charging a person with a crime is a formal process; it is when criminal proceedings begin against a person.  From the point that a person is charged it is clear that the Contempt of Court Act rules kick in.  These rules provide sufficient protection in respect of the person’s right to a fair trial and news stories which are sufficiently prejudicial could even cause the collapse of a trial (although that is rare and it would have to be something of great significance).  The only cases where publishing the names of people who have been charged with an offence which causes me to pause and really think are those accused of sexual offences.  With sexual offences, more than any other offence, there appears to be a guilty until proven innocent mindset amongst general pubic; there is no smoke without fire, so to speak.  However, there are strong arguments in favour of anonymity and disclosure in those cases and it is a finely balanced argument.  Although I have argued in favour of anonymity before, I now believe that the arguments in favour of disclosure are slightly weightier.  However, in sexual offences cases I do feel that the authorities responsible for bringing cases in respect of alleged contempts of court have to be more pro-active.  Perhaps also providing for a possible (short) custodial sentence for editors who are guilty for allowing a seriously prejudicial story to be published (i.e. that type of story that causes or is seriously likely to cause the collapse of a whole trial) might make editors slightly more responsible around high profile cases.

It would be entirely right for the police to move to a system of neither confirming nor denying to the press whether they have a specific person in custody under arrest.  This gives the police the space to conduct that initial investigative phase and it will minimise the reputational damage done to those who are innocent and unfortunately arrested.  Without confirmation from the police of the name of the person in custody it is unlikely that the press will publish any name that they do have.  However, if such a move did not stop the press frenzy that we currently see around arrested persons, I would certainly not be adverse to Parliament passing legislation which specifically prohibits the confirming of names of arrested persons outside of a set of clearly defined circumstances where it really is in the public interest (and that’s not what the public are interested in) to release the name at such an early stage.

We do have a system of public justice and it is important for both the public and those accused of crimes that trials happen in the public eye.  This is not so that the public can gawp and stare and slander individuals accused of crimes, but so that the public can see that justice is being done and to protect those accused of crimes from oppressive state practices.