Tag Archives: Chris Grayling

He Knows What You’re Thinking….

Vladimir Putin delivers a speech in which he declares that he intends to take action, outside of the normal parameters of the law, to suppress the expression of certain views. Meanwhile China declares a raft of measures to prevent opponents gathering in public. In North Korea steps are announced to boost organisations that are compatible with the values held dear by Kim Jong Un.

Democratic nations across the world erupt in condemnation. Britain, with all its sense of decency and fair play, is strong in its criticism of these assaults on the sort of freedoms, let’s call them rights, which we hold dear.

Now read the speeches given today by Chris Grayling and Theresa May. The Lord Chancellor declared he knows how the British people really feel about human rights. And he will, sometime soon, share that with us.

The Home Secretary speaks of new measures that will be targeted at people and groups who “stay just within the law but spread poisonous hatred.”

Read that again. May is looking to criminalise behaviour that is not currently criminal for a certain sector of society. The powers will include banning taking part in public protests, from being present at all in certain public locations, from associating with named people, from using of conventional broadcast media and will grant a power to vet the content of posts on social media. Social media like this blog.

These proposals come not from a dictator or totalitarian regime. They just sound like they do.

These powers will be available to use against “those who challenge democracy” or those who pose a risk of the commission of the very lowest of Public Order Act offences. Now that would include someone who held anarchist or communist views. Or someone who was at risk of swearing at a policeman…..

If the rights and freedoms of the individual are worth going to war for, they are worth protecting in law. It is no coincidence that the Lord Chancellor, a politician who has already eroded the rights of the citizen to challenge the state in judicial review proceedings, has declared war on human rights on the same day that the Home Secretary proposes a curtailment of those very rights.

Actually that gives me a thought. The attack by the Lord Chancellor on access to justice and judicial review could be seen as a real threat to democracy. Perhaps we could use the Home Secretary’s new powers to ban them associating with each other and to starve them of the oxygen of publicity.

Now that is a suppression of free speech I could go for.

Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

There is a scene in Les Mis where Marius mourns the death of his comrades in rebellion by singing the song “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” whilst sitting in the cafe where they used to discuss their lofty ideals. I know this because I am friends with my colleague, Gary Woodhall.

Leaving aside Gary’s predilection for musical theatre, the song is a moving lament. The empty chairs and empty tables around Marius as he warbles away, bring a tear to the eye. You feel the loss of young life, you feel the loss of their aspirations.

In the Crown Courts of this land you may find a misty-eyed Woodhall murmuring the lyrics of a similar refrain. This would be called “Empty Receptions and Empty Cafés.” It would mourn the parlous state of our criminal justice system.

It is sometimes said that you can tell the health of a nation by the state of its roads. Potholes equal poverty. I would venture to suggest you can tell the health of a democracy by the state of its justice system. Ours is scarred with the effects of underfunding.

Most Crown Courts have vacant reception desks because they cannot afford the employee to staff them. Often a cardboard sign redirects the baffled and the late to other areas of the building for them to be assisted.

Now we have the deserted cafeterias. If you think about it, the cafeterias of the Crown Courts should be a gold mine. You have, in some instances literally, a captive audience. Time can be tight at lunchtime. The jury may not be able to go out. The Judiciary need brain food. Witnesses have thirsts to be quenched.

However it would seem that such businesses are so unprofitable that the MoJ cannot be bothered to even outsource the provision of catering. So we have news stories such as this from Plymouth.

Indeed news reached me today of the swearing in of a jury in Birmingham for a five month trial. We expect, we demand, that citizens give of their time to perform this vital civic duty. The twelve selected for this five month stint were informed by the Judge that the facilities available to them amounted to an usher with a kettle. Pot Noodle anyone?

A visit to the fantastic, not-run-by-Globo-Corp, cafe at Bury Mags would show you that these places can be run at a profit whilst serving good food. The MoJ might want to follow the mantra “Build it and they will come.” Provide good catering and the Bar would do their best to be, in terms of waistline at least, fatcats.

However the CJS is so far down the food chain that we no longer even get fed. No help at the front desk, no food at the cafe. All of which leaves me with no hope.

Pass the Cup-a-Soup.

The Bald Truth

Yesterday I wrote about the crisis in the CJS (here). It is a crisis that the boss, Chris Grayling, is turning a Nelsonian eye to. There is no crisis in our prisons, there is no problem in our criminal justice system.

The boss and I share one thing in common. We are baldies. We could be Britain’s foremost Mitchell brother look-a-likes. Whenever my baldness is remarked upon I respond by saying that I have “an even covering of hair”. It is just that every hair is about an inch away from one of its colleagues.

So it is time Chris and I faced the truth. We are balder than Right Said Fred and we both work in a system that is on its knees.

I have a client that I have been representing in the same case for some considerable time. He is now serving a very long sentence. The case is now wending its way through the confiscation process.

I recently had a conference with said client. He is not a left wing campaigning charity. He is a man at the receiving end of our penal system. The boss would probably call him a customer. Or a stakeholder. Or a unit.

So we were having a bit of general chitchat. He was not in the least bit concerned about the book ban. That is for left wing do-gooders. What he was bothered about was the fact that his family could no longer send him protein powder.

So what? Why should we allow some bodybuilding criminal protein powder? What next? Steroids?

Save for the fact he is not a bodybuilder. He is a middle aged, slightly soft around the middle, bloke. He used to have protein powder sent to him because the quality of the food was so poor. I felt a bit ashamed. I can understand the concerns that prisons should not be hotels but they should not be Victorian workhouses.

He told me lots of prisoners had protein powder sent to them. Then, he told me, that he could still buy protein powders from the mail order system. So I was able to dampen my left wing hysteria. Apparently, coincidental to the ban on him receiving such things from his family, the price from the internal shop rocketed. Prisons do make good business.

Then he went on to tell me about the rehabilitation work he was doing. That roughly equated to the hairs on my head. There were simply insufficient staff for the prisoners to do anything constructive. In fact, he told me, all it takes is a couple of prison officers to be absent and the whole wing shut down.

How often did that happen? Well, all it took was two people to ring in sick on their wing. Or a few wing staff across the whole prison to ring in sick so that the staff had to be reorganised across a few wings. Or for a relatively unplanned prisoner escort to be required to a hospital or some such.

And the result? He was locked in his cell. Discipline on the wing, he said, was non-existent. This was not a prison looking to rehabilitate. This was a warehouse of humanity. A storage facility of criminals. All just waiting to return to their former life.

So Chris Grayling is right when he says that there is no crisis in the prison system. If by no crisis he means that there are still beds available for new faces or that the rooftops of every prison are not awash with bare chested protesters.

However prisons are not producing the results society needs. Locking prisoners up for 23 hours with food so poor even they recognise its lack of nutritional content is going to reform precisely zero souls. That is not a crisis. That is a national scandal.

Towering Inferno

The current Lord Chancellor likes to see the criminal justice system as a business. Pieces to be sold off to the highest bidder, success being measured in cost saving rather than quality. The boss wants to achieve efficiency and cares nothing for justice.

If it was a business then the reality is that we would torch it and claim the insurance money. It is difficult to think of a single element of the CJS that is currently working at all, let alone working well.

It is a system that is hugely inefficient. It seems the Crown Prosecution Service are incapable of getting a single set of papers out on time. The result? Wasted hearings, poorly prepared hearings and wasted money.

Preliminary hearings in every Crown Court case clog the lists. “Provisional” trial dates are set with no idea as to witness availability. Actually that’s not true. The dates are set with no idea as to who the witnesses are, what they say or even if there are any witnesses. You may as well book me in for an appendectomy in six months time, just in case my appendix ruptures.

The result? Wasted hearings, poorly prepared hearings and wasted money. Oh, and huge delay. Every day a Circuit Judge deals with orders that the Magistrates could have dealt with in a dozen or so cases. Meanwhile that Judge cannot hear a trial. Elsewhere in the list another a Judge fixes a whole series of trial dates that probably are not needed. Meanwhile in August 2014 a two day, non-custody burglary trial is listed for April 2015. Utter lunacy.

If the boss is bothered by “results” and “efficiency” he needs to reach for the petrol can and the matches. If the boss cares about quality and justice, he needs to reach for the chequebook.

Proud to Be

Dear Chris,

you probably do not recall meeting me. I am just one of a number of angry lawyers that you have met with over the last year or so. When we met in the Town Hall in Altrincham, I was very angry and you were very wrong. Not much has changed.

At that time you were still peddling PCT and restrictions on client choice. You were pressing ahead with swingeing cuts to advocacy fees. You were proud of your residency test. So I suppose one or two things have changed. You have been comprehensively and repeatedly proved wrong. You have abandoned or delayed some of your more disastrous proposals. The courts have given you a bloody nose on others.

Have you changed? Not one bit.

At that meeting you innocently told the room of criminal barristers and solicitors, “I have been accused of saying that barristers are fat cats, I have never said barristers are fat cats.” And yet your department still trotted out dodgy statistics designed to steer other people to call us fat cats.

More recently you introduced the second reading of the lamentable ‘SARAH’ Bill which you said would tackle “a culture of ambulance-chasing that all too often is about generating opportunities to earn fees, rather than doing the right thing”. Now I am not exactly sure what SARAH is trying to achieve but you cannot help yourself by introducing it with a pop at lawyers.

So Chris, why is it that you hate lawyers so much? Why is it that you are more than happy for all sorts to earn vast amounts out of the justice system, as long as it is not the lawyers? Capita? G4S? Serco? They can have millions and millions of pounds of public money. Lawyers? They deserve crushing.

If any judge, academic, lawyer or lawyers’ representative joins you in the celebrations of the Magna Carta then the rest of the legal community should turn their back on them. No representative of the Bar Council should join you in what is no more than a culture of oligarch chasing that all too often is about generating fees.

The Magna Carta itself may not be all that it is cracked up to be. However it has come to represent all that we should be proud of in our legal system. The nebulous rule of law. The right of the individual and the state to be equal in the eyes of the law. The right to fairness and proper processes. The sort of things that lawyers help preserve every single day.

I am neither fat cat or ambulance chasing dog. I am a lawyer who is proud of what I do. A job that involves helping society to do the right thing.

Despite your best efforts, that will not change.

Regards,

JH

Position Vacant – No Experience Required

I will declare this personal interest – many moons ago, when we were both undergraduates, I was kind of friends with Robert Buckland MP. I believe him to be an able and decent man. He is also an all round nice fellow. Nice enough that, when I contacted him through the mist of years to discuss Legal Aid, he was prepared to listen and engage.

This is not just a bit of lame name dropping by me, it is so you know that background when I excuse him from the criticism that I level here. He has been appointed Solicitor-General and I do not see anything wrong with that appointment. He is an able deputy to the Attorney-General, being called in 1991, practising until 2010 and being appointed a Recorder in 2009. What is remarkable is that he is the deputy to Jeremy Wright. The new Attorney-General was called in 1996 and was elected to parliament in 2005. From that point on his entries in the members’ register of interests reveals he has not practised. So the deputy has nearly twenty years post-qualification experience, the head guy has no more than eight.

The criticism of this appointment is clearly voiced in Matthew Scott’s blog and I invite you to read his piece where he describes Jeremy Wright as “the least distinguished Attorney-General in two hundred years”. I am not going to repeat all the points that Matthew eloquently makes.

What I would observe is that this is not a position forced upon the Prime Minister. It is not due to a lack of adequate candidates that we now have a non-lawyer as Lord Chancellor and a non-silk, 8-year-PQE-lawyer as Attorney-General. One could point out, for example, that the Solicitor-General is more qualified for the job than the Attorney-General. It is also not a constitutional requirement that these offices should be filled by MPs. They are principally legal appointments which are now being filled by politicians. The PM had the choice of a field of able and experienced lawyers that could be appointed to the job. He could have limited himself to ones that share his political views and still had dozens and dozens of Silks who could undertake this job. Instead we have a politician in the most senior non-judicial law job in the land.

What does that matter? Everything. It sets the tone. He is notionally the Leader of the Bar (and the Bar Council should act immediately to end that tradition after this appointment). He advises the Government on the law (would they usually go to someone with 8 years experience to advise on whether we go to war?). He appoints the head of the Crown Prosecution Service (a job that an 8 year post call advocate would not even get an interview, if he applied). All of this is now being dealt with by an appointee who is first and foremost a politician.

I venture to suggest no Prime Minister has ever lost a General Election because of his choice of Lord Chancellor and Attorney-General. The Prime Minister could have appointed able, talented, experienced lawyers to these posts. But that would not be politically expedient. This part of the Cabinet deck of cards riffle shuffle makes it more likely that the Government can act in a way which they hope will win them votes but will mean that this nation will lose the Rule of Law. And that leaves me terrified.

A Brave New World

A Crown Court somewhere in England and Wales in the days after the Lord Chancellor has banned paper. The courts have gone digital. The case of Regina v Sinclair is called on. Her Honour Judge Anna Logg QC presides.

HHJ: Who prosecutes this case?

Counsel rises to his feet

Pros: I do, Your Honour.

HHJ: Why have you not signed in on Xhibit, Mr Sugar?

Pros: The computer was down in the robing room, Your Honour…..again. I should say that m’learned friend Mr Babbage defends.

HHJ: Very well. Mr Babbage, I understand that this is your pre-trial application to exclude evidence?

Def: Correct. I assume Your Honour received my skeleton argument?

HHJ: No, Mr Babbage, I have not received a skeleton.

Def: I emailed it to the Crown Court Office over a week ago, Your Honour.

HHJ: That will explain it. The Crown Court Office is the Bermuda Triangle of correspondence.

Pros: I emailed mine directly to Your Honour, I hope you received it.

HHJ: Yes I did, Mr Sugar, thank you…..

Mr Sugar swells with pride and nods a little condescendingly at Mr Babbage

HHJ: ….but I could not open the attachment. Apparently it was not a compatible format with the old Judicial laptop. So, Mr Babbage, perhaps you would like to direct me to the evidence objected to.

Def: Your Honour it is the evidence of the witness Alan Turing, served by NAE last month.

HHJ: Do you have a page number?

Def: Yes, Your Honour, it is page 73 of the deps.

HHJ: My papers only run to 69. Mr Sugar, can you supply me with a paper copy of the statement?

Pros: No.

HHJ: That is not very helpful Mr Sugar….

Pros: I don’t mean to be unhelpful, it’s just that there isn’t a paper copy. This file is entirely digital. So I don’t have one to just hand to you.

HHJ: (sounding exasperated) So how am I able to view this statement?

Pros: I can email it to Your Honour (counsel blushes) and this time it will be a PDF so there should be no comparability issues.

HHJ: Very well, Mr Sugar.

Counsel sits and begins to type at his laptop. Silence fills the courtroom. Time seems to stop.

HHJ: I thought email was meant to be a rapid form of communication, Mr Sugar…..

Pros: It is, it’s just that I can’t get on to the court wifi. Seems Your Honour’s courtroom is a blackspot…..

Babbage takes delight at being able to intervene

Def: My iPad is picking up the wifi from the coffee shop over the street so I have been able to email it to Your Honour.

Pros: (leaping to his feet and speaking urgently) STOP!

HHJ: (testily) Mr Sugar!! There is no problem with Mr Babbage assisting the court in this way…..

Pros: Its not that, Your Honour. The lights have gone out.

HHJ: Well Mr Sugar, I have had heard it suggested that the lights are on but no one’s at home but have never been accused of my lights having gone out.

Pros: Not Your Honour’s lights….the clock. The red clock at the front of court. If it goes off we are not being recorded.

The clerk stands and whispers to the Judge. The clerk then disappears under the desk and the sound of plugs being unplugged and reinserted are heard. The clock flickers back on

HHJ: At least nothing of any note has been missed in all that. And now I do have the statement, so thank you Mr Babbage and the wifi facility offered by “Bump and Grind” coffee shop. Now, what is your objection to the statement.

Def: The first ground is the late service of the statement. Your Honour will see that the statement is dated three months ago but was only served last month.

The Judge raises her hand

HHJ: That should be easy enough, I am sure there is a relatively straightforward explanation for the delay. Mr Sugar?

Pros: I am instructed the delay was caused by the statement being twiffed to the CPS by the officer……

HHJ: Twiffed?

Pros: Yes, twiffed. That is when the officer places a document in the case on the case tree…..

HHJ: Case tree?

Pros: Yes, when a document is electronically transferred from the police to the CPS it appears on the “case tree”. The case tree is where the documents are kept, electronically. Now the problem is that when the officer “twiffs” the document on to the tree the file name that the officer has given the document disappears. It gets relabelled “Document 1”. It being the first document twiffed on that occasion. So if documents are twiffed on more than one occasion EVERY document is called “Document 1” so the caseworker has no idea that a new document has arrived. It is a case of not being able to see the would-be statement for the electronic trees.

HHJ: I am sure that makes sense to somebody somewhere. Is the long and the short of it that the police system and the CPS system do not talk the same language?

Pros: That fairly sums it up, if I may say so.

HHJ: Remarkable.

The Judge pauses and seems to sniff

HHJ: Can I smell burning?

Pros: (looks down) Errrr yes, Your Honour. It would appear that my CPS-issue laptop has spontaneously combusted…..

HHJ: Gentleman I am going to rise until such time as the technology allows us to make progress with this case. May I suggest that a Mr Caxton invented something that seemed to fit the technological demands of the courtroom?