Tag Archives: crime

Another Day, Another Moan

It is always the defendant’s fault. If it’s not the defendant’s fault then it will be the fault of the defendant’s dastardly lawyer. If we come down hard on them the system will run more efficiently and will be fairer as well. They are the enemies of justice. They are the cause of thousands of pounds of public funds going to waste.

Which is exactly what happened with a trial I defended recently. The shameful defence lawyer (me) asked for an adjournment because the CPS had served the medical evidence at 2pm on the first day of trial. The statement had only been written in May. It had only been sitting there on the file as the timetable for the service of the evidence lapsed in June.

However this is not what I am going to moan about today. It is such a common occurrence that it is barely newsworthy. All those lawyers getting paid very little as justice is delayed by glitches in the system is just not worthy of comment. Or worth doing anything about.

What I am going to moan about is the preliminary hearing that happens in every case. And yes I know I have moaned about this before. A lot. However something happened to me recently that highlighted how crazy the system has become. How terribly ill-thought. How dreadfully wasteful.

I prosecuted a prelim a while ago. When the PCMH came around I had not received any papers. I attended at court and discovered why. The prosecution had decided to discontinue the proceedings as there was no realistic prospect of a conviction.

This decision can only really be taken when all the evidence has been properly reviewed. The service of all the evidence only takes place after the prelim. The prosecution can bring an end to the proceedings by issuing a notice pursuant to section 23A of the Prosecution of Offenders Act 1985 which would bring an end to the proceedings there and then without further cost.

The problem is that the system now insists that an indictment is prepared for the prelim. This is so the defendant can plead guilty before the prosecution have a finalised idea whether there has been an offence or not. The consequence of this is that the prosecution are precluded from using the section 23A mechanism for discontinuing the proceedings because they can only do it before the indictment is preferred.

Brilliant. One device designed to force defendants to plead guilty before anyone knows whether they are guilty just to save costs defeats the device designed to save costs where everyone accepts the defendant is not guilty.

Ladies and gentleman, I give you the criminal justice system. Injustice, ineptitude and inefficiency.

The Case for the Defence

There is much current debate about the size of the Legal Aid bill footed by the taxpayer. In an episode of typical disingenuity the Lord Chancellor has recently expressly stated that the public have the choice between Legal Aid and the NHS, that the £220 million that he looks to save would be spent protecting the spend on healthcare.

Now the point could be made that the Legal Aid budget has already contributed much by way of cuts with £200 million already disappearing from last year’s spend in this year’s projected budget. Or that slashing 20% of the criminal Legal Aid spend would not even cover one day of the nation’s spend on the NHS. Or that if we were to cut money to the NHS you would cut the spend on non-essential workers (lets say money spent on actors, hairdressers and leadership training courses) before you cut the income of the doctors and nurses who provide the quality of service at the coal face.

However I would suggest that Legal Aid is as important to the provision of welfare in this country as the NHS is. It is about time that the Lord Chancellor recognised this. Until he does he cannot perform the key function of his office. The provision of welfare is all about the provision of a safety net in times of need. Criminal Legal Aid falls exactly in to this category. People are provided with Legal Aid in criminal cases when the State chooses to prosecute them. Anyone provided with criminal Legal Aid would prefer not to have to need it, in so much as they would rather not have been arrested in this first place. So in criminal cases it is not the accused who goes out seeking Legal Aid,it comes to him.

One of the problems that the legal profession face in firmly establishing the credibility of Legal Aid as part of the safety net provided to all taxpayers is the notion that it is only criminals, often repeat offenders, who benefit from its provision. I for one would hesitate to introduce blameworthiness into the provision of welfare. Should a smoker be provided with free cancer treatment? The obese with diabetic assistance? Of course they should. One of the difficulties is persuading the public that prosecution, like ill health, is something that could befall them as much as those who very obviously are the authors of their own misfortune.

Let me give you some examples of the way in which it is not just the guilty that find themselves in need of Legal Aid. These are actual cases that came before the courts in Manchester in recent times. The first was well publicised at the time (see here). I know the defence advocate in the case. A woman in Greater Manchester was subjected to the horrific ordeal of rape. This involved her being raped as she walked home by a man unknown to her. The police collected samples from her that could be tested for DNA in a hope to identify a suspect. A positive result came back. A man in the South West was identified. He was arrested, denied the offence and denied he had ever even been in the area. He was charged with rape and remanded in to custody. He was provided with the assistance of a solicitor and a barrister. There was no other evidence against him but it would be presented to the jury by the prosecution that the presence of his DNA in intimate samples taken from the victim could mean only one thing – his guilt.

The case was prepared for trial. Other evidence obtained showed that the defendant was in the South West the morning following the offence but such as still gave him a window of opportunity to commit the offence. A combination of enquiries made by the defence and the officer in the case being concerned by this aspect of the case led to a re-examination of the scientific evidence in the case. It transpired there had been a huge error. A tray used in the laboratory that tested the sample had been previously used in a DNA test that related to a relatively minor offence of violence in which the defendant was a suspect. This led to his DNA remaining in the tray and contaminating the sample from the victim. His innocence was only discovered days before his trial was due to start. He was an innocent man who needed Legal Aid.

A further example happened in the case load of the same defence advocate. A woman worked in an office. One of her colleagues got married and went on her honeymoon. Sadly whilst she was away the colleague’s house was burgled. A games console was stolen in the course of that burglary. The games console had been in its original box but the burglar had removed it and left the box behind. A scene of crime officer provided a statement that stated the box had been tested for fingerprints and a print matched the fingerprint of the defendant, the woman who worked in the office of the bride.

This came to light because the woman in the office had, when she was much younger, been involved in an argument in the street which had led to her arrest and caution for a public order offence. Her life therefore had not been completely blameless but that was the only transgression. That meant that the police therefore had her fingerprints on record and the match was made. She denied the offence, denied that she had ever been to her colleague’s house, had never handled the cardboard box and could not account for the presence of her fingerprint.

Once again this case came to the Crown Court. One can easily imagine that everyone involved, her lawyers and the CPS, thought that there might be a guilty plea. Fingerprints are unique. The presence of a fingerprint in a dwelling with no innocent explanation is clear evidence of the person’s involvement in the burglary. However she pleaded not guilty and the case was adjourned for trial. Legal Aid provided her with lawyers and with funding to have the exhibit examined to double check it was her fingerprint (such mistakes being unheard of but it required independently verifying). Those investigations discovered that when the test for fingerprints was undertaken a number of items were examined under the same reference number. So whilst that reference number did relate to the console box it also related to a good luck card that the victim had received from her colleagues at work….

Those two cases are examples where the independent scientific evidence pointed strongly at the guilt of someone entirely innocent of the charge. As an aside it must be a worry what may happen in such cases in the future if the advocate is under financial pressure from an employer to deliver the more lucrative guilty plea. However the vast majority of taxpayers would be comforted by the fact that their DNA would not be floating around labs or that youthful indiscretions had led to their fingerprints being on a police database.

So let me move on to the next illustration. A hard working man of entirely good character worked as a satellite television engineer. He installed a new box in the house of an elderly couple. He asked to use their toilet. When he had left the woman of the household discovered that a valuable necklace was missing from the top of her bedroom cabinet where she had left it that morning. The police were called. A thorough search did not turn up the necklace. Both husband and wife gave statements that the necklace was on the cabinet moments before the satellite engineer arrived. The door to the bathroom was next to the door of the bedroom. Moments after he left they discovered it was missing. The man was arrested. He denied the offence but was charged with theft. Again he was provided with Legal Aid for representation at the Crown Court. No doubt he was relieved to be provided with such assistance. And that was assistance provided to an entirely innocent man. Decorators found the necklace behind a radiator in the elderly couple’s bedroom a few weeks before the trial. A man who had never been in trouble had simple been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Circumstances conspired against him. Should he have faced those circumstances alone? Should he have paid for his own defence? Should he have had a lawyer assigned to him by the state of only “acceptable” quality?

My final example is a man I represented. He was a retired engineer. Later in life he and his wife had a daughter. It would be fair to say she was the apple of his eye. She went to university. Whilst away from home she met and fell in love with a man. Sadly he was entirely unsuitable. Not just in the way that many parents may find a child’s choice of partner not what they had hoped for. This man was just bad news. He introduced the daughter to drug use. He assaulted her. After many anxious months the daughter had the sense to leave the boyfriend and return home. The parents were overjoyed to have their daughter back and set about repairing the damage.

The boyfriend would not give up. He tried contacting the daughter. He began turning up at the family home. The father would bar his way and, after often heated discussions, would send him on his way. On one such occasion the father pushed the boyfriend. The boyfriend produced a knife. A tussle ensued. The father disarmed the boyfriend but the boyfriend kept on coming. In the doorway to his house and fearful of what may be about to happen the father jabbed the knife in to the thigh of the boyfriend. No doubt surprised by the level of resistance the boyfriend hobbled away. Straight to the police. He made a malicious statement that told of how the father had pulled a knife on him and stabbed him. The police visited the house and discovered a knife with the boyfriend’s blood on it. Remarkably the father was charged. He had a trial. He was acquitted. All due to the safety net provided by Legal Aid.

So whether it be by scientific negligence or paperwork error, whether it be by a genuine and honest belief mistakenly held or malicious falsehood innocent people can find themselves facing a criminal court. It matters not whether they have never been in trouble before. Of course such examples are at the extreme end of the spectrum. For every one like that I have witnessed I have represented dozens of repeat offenders who are guilty. And there are those in between. People who would never have thought they would be before the courts but end up there because of a combination of circumstances, sometimes because they are guilty, sometimes because they have done something wrong but not what they are charged with or sometimes because they are unfortunate to find themselves wrongly accused of crime.

The point is that democracy requires the efficient and proper prosecution of those guilty of crime and protection for those falsely accused. The method of determining which category an accused falls in to requires them to be represented. It is not possible before the process commences to determine those who are deserving of assistance because they are innocent and those that are not because they are guilty. That is why we all have an interest in maintaining an effective provision of criminal Legal Aid. Like all safety nets you hope you never fall in to it. Should the unexpected happen you would have every reason to be grateful that it catches you. The professions can work with the Lord Chancellor to provide further savings. But he has to place the preservation of this vital aspect of society at the forefront of his approach. Not the current attitude of seeking to turn public opinion against the system and those toiling within it. Legal Aid is something which the nation should be rightly proud of. I believe that they are.

If you agree that criminal Legal Aid is a vital component of a civilised democratic society please sign the e-petition here. Thank you.

The Inconvenient Truth

Those who know can talk, those with an agenda will not listen. Another conversation from the imagination….

Backbencher Thank you for agreeing to see me Lord Chancellor

Lord Chancellor Well we all have to humour the swivel-eyed loons.

BB Are you talking about me?

LC Of course not, I was simply saying I understand that you are here representing the view of your constituents and I am here to listen.

BB Right, well, I have had letters from some of my constituents about Legal Aid.

LC Brilliant. My officials told me that they existed but I thought they were kidding. At last I can shut some of those lawyers up and point to the letters you have showing the public’s concerns about the credibility of the Legal Aid scheme. I was beginning worry these letters might be my “weapons of mass destruction” so thank goodness you have some. This is turning out to be a jolly good meeting.

BB Sorry Lord Chancellor, these letters support Legal Aid and are rather critical of your reforms.

LC Oh. Did you mention that to Maureen when you made this appointment?

BB I certainly did.

LC I see. [reaches for pen and paper] That’s one more wage saving I can make straight away….

BB The letters I have received raise a lot of concerns about the cuts.

LC I have to make cuts. I have already agreed to make cuts. I promised Gideon.

BB I don’t wish to be pedantic but didn’t you take an oath that included the promise to discharge your duty to ensure the provision of resources for the efficient and effective support of the courts for which you are responsible?

LC I remember something along those lines.

BB And doesn’t that set you apart from most of your ministerial colleagues?

LC Well I suppose if you are someone who applies the technicalities of oath taking and don’t just see it as a quaint tradition there for the tourists then yes, technically speaking it does make me a bit different from the other ministers but I don’t like to make it too obvious.

BB If we do think it means something then shouldn’t it mean your job is not to agree to any cuts? Isn’t that your duty?

LC Look, you’re not Michael Turner are you?

BB No!

LC Right. Are you sure?

BB Of course I am sure.

LC Its just that I have never met him so I thought I should check. I imagine these are the kind of pesky questions he asks.

BB It is one of the things my constituents raised, as Lord Chancellor you should protect the front line services of representation and find savings from elsewhere only if necessary. But you should be fighting to protect the budget, not agreeing to reducing it.

LC The Legal Aid budget is over £1 billion. I need to reduce it.

BB No it isn’t. The spend was over £1 billion. The future projected spend is well under that figure. You have already reduced the payments we make to practitioners so you don’t have to make further savings.

LC Yes I do. I promised.

BB You also promised resources in your oath….

LC Here we go again…. Look I need to make savings and the Legal Aid spend is huge and so that has to give. Every penny I spend is critical to complying with that oath thingy you keep banging on about.

BB Really? £2 million on leadership training for the civil servants?

LC Its vital that someone shows some leadership.

BB £3.6 million on car hire?

LC People in the department have to get from A to B doing all these blinking’ roadshows.

BB What about the £720,000 your department spent on actors?

LC They play an essential role in selecting a suitably qualified and diverse judiciary.

BB More important than funding the lawyers appropriately who go on to be the Judges in the future?

LC Paying them less won’t diminish quality.

BB How about PCT? Won’t that diminish quality?

LC Nope.

BB Won’t removing client choice and market competition reduce quality?

LC Nope. There may be a different quality but it will still be there.

BB Is there a risk that the different quality will be lower than before?

LC I am committed to defendants having a fair trial. The CPS have been under resourced for years. I am just levelling the playing field.

BB Speaking of paying lawyers I note that the MOJ paid over £6million for “estate legal services”, £200 grand for legal support to MOJ procurement and I dread to think what you have paid the lawyers assisting with plans to privatise the courts.

LC Of course we did. These chaps don’t come cheap. You’re a Tory. Market forces and all that. You have to pay the going rate. If you want quality advice you have to be prepared to pay.

BB But that doesn’t apply to the provision of criminal representation?

LC I am a connoisseur of legal services you see. I know what I am looking at. The plebs, I mean, the public are generally speaking just run of the mill amateur palates when it comes to legal services. I like caviar, they like fish and chips. So it’s best if I choose who represents them and how good they are at it. And if they are acceptably adequate then that’ll do me. For them of course. For me and the Home Secretary it is wall to wall QCs all the way.

BB Isn’t it quite important that the individual gets to choose though?

LC I have a strong record on individual choice. The B&B owners of this land know how much I believe in individual choice. But I just prefer it when their choice matches my choice. And at the moment these people keep choosing specialist lawyers and I would prefer them to choose one of my contracted lawyers. But people cannot have free choice when the state picks up the tab.

BB What about the NHS. Haven’t we introduced personal choice there to improve standards.

LC Okay. People cannot have free choice when the public pays, unless they are ill.

BB What about mentally disordered offenders?

LC Right, people cannot have free choice when the public pays, unless they are ill, EXCEPT where them being ill coincides with them being a criminal.

BB What if them being ill means they should not be labelled a criminal? What if being ill means they are innocent? Should they not be able to choose a specialist solicitor with experience of them personally or mentally disordered offenders generally?

LC Look at that giant hummingbird over your shoulder. Look! Look now!

BB There is nothing there is there Lord chancellor? Okay. Let’s for a moment say we are not going to allow the market to dictate quality, how else do propose to maintain quality?

LC Well clearly there will have to be rigorously assessed standards and processes of quality assurance to make sure the lawyers are all acceptable to me.

BB And how long has that quality assessment scheme been up and running?

LC It isn’t.

BB Because one of my constituents directed me to Lord Carter’s review of legal services procurement from 2007 and in his report he considered it vital that if client choice was removed there had to be a rigorous quality assurance scheme in place that would take at least two and a half years to establish and develop before choice was removed from the market. So how long until you put your plans in place?

LC Four months. But this focus on quality is just a smokescreen by the fat cat lawyers and their monstrous earnings.

BB My constituents were quite, well I think I can safely say, were quite irate about this.

LC I am not surprised they are irate! I have proof as well. Statistics. Evidence of payments. It is fair to say that no professional should be paid more than the Prime Minister out of public funds.

BB They are not irate about what barristers earn, they are irate about what you say they earn. The last figures I have available to me showed that seven civil servants in your department had a salary bigger than the Prime Minister.

LC Well you have to reward some people commensurate to their skills and the responsibility of their work.

BB Isn’t that what is going on when a handful of lawyers get large single payments that will relate to the most serious and complicated cases?

LC But it is why the public lack confidence in the credibility of the Legal Aid regime because they see these figures.

BB Because you tell them these figures….

LC It is simply freedom of information and statistics don’t lie.

BB But ministers some times do in their use of them.

LC I have no idea what you mean.

BB Well it could be said that some minsters have form for it. A propensity to use statistics in a misleading way.

LC Propensity…..that sounds like a lawyer’s word. You’re not Ian West are you? He’s another one of the awkward squad. Are you?

BB No! If the information you release is undermining the credibility of the system why don’t we tell them the reality rather than base a reform on this misconception. Lawyers often say difficult cases make bad law.

LC The public will never think that lawyers are anything but fat cats [whispers] … thankfully …

BB We could tell them. You could tell the press how impressed you are by this account of the junior bar in the blog 50 Shades of Affray [hands minister the document]. Read that and you’ll see she only earns £20,000 per year before expenses after three years in the job.

LC £20 grand before expenses? I bet she gets her decorators paid for on top of that. And claims loads against her expenses for her daily travel, accommodation and meals. We all know how much you can top up your income with some imaginative claims, not that I am condoning that sort of thing you understand. But £20,000 before taking into account her expense claims would be most misleading.

BB You’re right. It would. But it is £20,000 before she takes her expenses OFF that figure. An economic adviser with postgraduate qualification in your department starts on £31,000 per annum. I would imagine their economic advice to that barrister would be “get another job”.

LC Well it is exactly that member of the junior bar that I have made it clear I want to help.

BB By cutting their fees and squeezing them out of the Crown Court by cutting solicitors thereby forcing them to do their own advocacy?

LC Yes. And if they don’t like that help I have made it quite clear I will introduce PCT in to the Crown Court. That’ll learn ’em.

BB So PCT is a weapon rather than a reform?

LC PCT is my grand plan. My flagship policy. The Grayling’s not for turning.

BB But what’s your Plan B?

LC I quite liked the Defamation of Strickland Banks but the rest of his stuff leaves me a bit cold……

BB No Lord Chancellor. Not a question about music What is your alternative to PCT?

LC I don’t need one.

BB But what if there are no bids?

LC There will be.

BB Indulge me for a moment. Let’s say that too few solicitors bid to cover the work. What will you do then?

LC They will bid. And if they don’t we’ll call the Army in. That’s what we always do. Firemen on strike? Call in the Green Goddesses. Security a bit lapse at the Olympics? Call in the Army.

BB That doesn’t really work does it. And what happens if you put 1200 firms out of business and then PCT turns out to be the disaster many predict. What then?

LC What do you suggest? Pilot schemes?

BB Well it would seem sensible. At least have some idea you are right before you get it very, very wrong.

LC I promised to make the savings now, or rather I need to make immediate savings.

BB But you already have. That’s what my concerned constituents are saying.

LC No. I need to save something from the £1.2billion budget.

BB As I said before, it is less than that now.

LC No. The budget is £1.3 billion.

BB You keep changing that figure.

LC No I don’t. The £1.4 billion budget is spiralling out of control as we speak.

BB You are just deliberately inflating the figures.

LC I have to rein in the projected £1.5 billion we are going to spend on criminal Legal Aid.

BB Stop this. It’s ridiculous.

LC Yes it is ridiculous that we spend £1.6 billion on mostly foreign criminals who don’t have a defence. I agree it needs stopping.

BB I am beginning to think you might say anything to justify these reforms.

LC Not at all. The public need to know that I intend to curb this system which swallows £1.7 billion of public funds….

BB Right, I’m leaving this is pointless.

LC Jolly nice to see you. Thanks and all that. Tell your constituents that at £1.8 billion we spend more on criminal legal aid than any other country….

BB I’m off. You are not listening.

LC Oh I am old boy. I listen. Send Maureen in on your way out. I have a saving to make. And give my best to the SELs…..

Make the Lord Chancellor listen to the facts and evidence being debated in Parliament. Signing the petition here is our only chance for that to happen.

Big Ideas For Crime

Deep in the bowels of the Ministry of Justice this conversation has not happened. Yet.

Civil Servant Minister, I have had an idea.

Lord Chancellor Excellent, that means I might have the same idea soon. Let’s hear it then.

CS We should nationalise crime.

LC I’m sorry?

CS I said we should nationalise crime.

LC But haven’t we just spent the last few months trying to privatise everything in crime. Haven’t we just made sure we handed over everything to our friends and future fellow board members at Capita, G4S and Serco. Aren’t they going to be angry if we take it all back?

CS No, I am not suggesting that. It was my idea to privatise the courts, I’m not mad you know.

LC It was my idea.

CS Of course Minister. It was your idea that you had inside my mind first.

LC That’s better. And my grand plan is that it is much neater if you have one body handling all aspects of the criminal justice system. Much better to let a private enterprise handle the obtaining of the forensic evidence, the counselling of the victim, the interpretation for the witness, the security at the court, the court itself, the transport of the prisoner, the acceptably adequate defence representation, the prison he gets sent to and his rehabilitation when he gets out. It is really messy when the state gets involved in this essentially private transaction between big business and the consumer of criminal justice.

CS Exactly right Minister. And I am not suggesting we go back on that. The final piece in the jigsaw was handing over judicial appointments to Simon Cowell. It is just that it has occurred to me…well…that we haven’t got anything to do any more.

LC What do you mean?

CS Well now we have given all these contracts out the “Justice” part of the Ministry is fairly much being run elsewhere. Eddie Stobart has more say in what happens in the courts than you do.

LC Which is only right. He knows a hell of a lot more about it than I do.

CS So I thought “how about nationalising crime?”

LC Now this is where I don’t understand this brilliant idea that I may be about to have. Firstly I don’t understand it at all (not that we should let that get in the way) and secondly aren’t the Etonians going to look at me a bit funny when I suggest nationalising something we have only just sold off?

CS I am not suggesting anything to do with the system. It is crime itself. The criminals. We should nationalise crime itself.

LC Okay…. No still don’t get it.

CS Think of it as a bit like the gas fields. There is all that crime out there and no one is taking ownership of it. It is a great untapped natural resource. If we take it over then we get a piece of the action. We get a slice of the profits.

LC I don’t want you to think for one moment that I don’t get it but can you explain it to me a bit more.

CS You’d be a bit like Tony Soprano.

LC TV. Now you are talking my language.

CS So you would control all the criminals in the country. We would get all the profits from things like the drug trade.

LC But I don’t know anything about drugs.

CS We keep telling you minister. A lack of knowledge shouldn’t hold you back. A lawyer as Lord Chancellor would never have had the vision to sell courts off to the highest bidder whilst selling representation off to the lowest bidder.

LC But what about violent offenders? Can’t see that being a popular vote winner.

CS We can say violent offending lacked public credibility. That ministers had received some letters about it. And, with a few psychos on your side I bet Michael Turner will think twice about being so mean to you.

LC I love it. What about sex offenders?

CS Easy. We are a coalition government. Create a Secretary of State for Sex and give them to the LibDems. It is what they are here for.

LC God I’m good.

CS Yes you are.

LC So all the crims work for me? And nationalising them will of course help them because they are too thick to pick who it is best to conspire with.

CS Exactly Minister.

LC And we keep the money.

CS Exactly. And we will be the only Ministry to turn a profit. We’ll save costs too. Where we have to currently pay for taxis where our private contractor for transport lets us down we can just get one of our boys to TWOC a car for us.

LC Gideon will be pleased.

CS This could be the making of you. You could go all the way to the top job.

LC You mean Chancellor of the Exchequer? I like jobs with that title. I have a great chat up line should I ever meet Anna Chancellor…..

CS Focus Minister, focus. I mean the real top job. The job you’ve always wanted. Real power.

LC Oh. You mean Director-General of the Beeb??

CS *sighs* If you like Minister.

LC Sorry. One thing. Isn’t this all a bit….what’s that phrase those pesky lawyers always say…..a bit of a conflict of interest?

CS That’s the beauty of it Minister. We have no control over any aspect of justice any more. We sold it. So there is no conflict at all.

LC Brilliant. I have thought of everything. So usual drill. We’ll announce a consultation and then we roll out my plan to nationalise crime in two months.

CS Yes Lord Chancellor.

LC One more thing. From now on no more Lord Chancellor. Call me Don Chancellor. Capiche?

Obviously this is ridiculous, but so is selling off the Criminal Justice System. Stand up for democracy and sign the petition