What public interest was there in prosecuting Supt Robyn Williams for possessing a video she never wanted?

There are times when one utterly despairs of the priorities of our police and prosecution authorities. Earlier this week the crew of an Essex police unit took time off from pursuing dangerous drivers on the M25 in order to flag down a driver for displaying offensive slogan “bollocks to Brexit” on his Mini. According to the police this constituted an offence under S.5 of the Public Order Act 1986 (needless to say they were wrong). After 40 minutes of argument the Remainers agreed to rub out the first three letters, so that the slogan read “locks to Brexit.” Result! Especially, of course, for the dangerous drivers who they didn’t catch while arguing about a public order law they misunderstood.

But this act of petty stupidity pales into insignificance beside the utterly disproportionate investigation and prosecution of Robyn Williams, a Metropolitan Police Superintendent with 36 years of exemplary service, commended for her work on the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, and one of Britain’s most senior black police women. Williams now has a criminal record and was today sentenced to 200 hours unpaid work, ordered to register as a sex offender – which she quite clearly is not – for 5 years and may now lose her job.

Her crime was to “possess” an indecent image of a child. The image in question was a video sent to her by her sister, who was outraged that it was circulating on social media and wanted its maker prosecuted. Continue reading “What public interest was there in prosecuting Supt Robyn Williams for possessing a video she never wanted?”

Dentures at Snaresbrook

An unpleasant and vaguely sinister artefact has been unsettling advocates in the Snaresbrook Crown Court robing room. It was first spotted on Wednesday last week by the former Chair of the Young Bar, Max Hardy, who is no longer young enough to lead the Young Bar but has recently become a young father. Mr Hardy tweeted about it:

“I think I can confidently  speak on behalf of all barristers and advocates when I ask that whoever left their dentures on the window sill in the ground floor robing room at Snaresbrook Crown Court should remove them. You’re probably missing them anyway.”

A priest was visiting Snaresbrook  that day, Father Justin Gau from St Paul’s Church in Hackney. He took a picture of the offending teeth on his mobile phone.

Photo: Rev Justin Gau

Father Justin, I should point out, apart from being a clerk in holy orders is also a formidable barrister. I once co-defended with him (he is one of the most distinguished members of my chambers) and – a little surprisingly given the weight of the evidence – my client was acquitted, as was his. He had given the final speech for the defence, a last chance to persuade a sceptical jury that there was a smidgen of doubt. He delivered a characteristically virtuoso display of contempt for the prosecution case, seasoned with his savage and inexhaustible wit. Continue reading “Dentures at Snaresbrook”

Guest Post on Catalonia: Was the Spanish Supreme Court crushing legitimate dissent or properly upholding the law?

The decision to gaol the Catalan leaders has caused widespread outrage.

Is the outrage justified? When regional nationalist leaders openly defy the law, what is the proper response of central Government?

These are questions with which the Spanish Supreme Court has had to grapple. They may yet come to be asked in the United Kingdom.

In this thought-provoking guest post, Jaime Campaner, practising lawyer and Associate Professor in procedural and criminal law at the University of the Balearic Islands, does not provide all the answers, but he vigorously defends the Spanish Supreme Court from what he believes to be misplaced criticism.

Campaner: Argues that criticisms of Spain’s Supreme Court are misplaced

Last Monday, after months of open-court trial which everyone could follow on internet and TV, the Spanish Supreme Court delivered their judgment on the so-called “Catalonia case”, convicting the main defendants of sedition, misuse of public funds and/or contempt of court.

The first issue to highlight is that the ruling has been written to make it understandable for every citizen who might be interested in it, bringing the judiciary closer to the people.

The second point which should be explained, mostly in the light of the massive protests against the ruling, is that the defendants were not convicted for their ideas nor for exercising the alleged right to secede from Spain. They were convicted for avoiding compliance with legality in Catalonia and impeding the enforcement of court orders. To cite just one case (the ruling runs to almost 500 pages), there were mobilizations that exceeded the constitutional limits of the exercise of the rights of assembly and demonstration and which created a coercive and intimidating environment which prevented the judicial police from transferring the detainees, in accordance with their rights, to the building where the search and seizure was to be carried out as per a court ruling. Moreover, this search and seizure was hindered for over twelve hours. Continue reading “Guest Post on Catalonia: Was the Spanish Supreme Court crushing legitimate dissent or properly upholding the law?”

The Government should be careful what it wishes for from the Supreme Court

Barristerblogger is normally risk averse when it comes to commenting on great questions of constitutional law. I have always thought it is something best left to the experts: academics like Professors Paul Craig  or Mark Elliott, for example, or former Government lawyers like Carl Gardner or David Allen Green who know how these things work from the inside.  However, since everyone else has been putting their two pennyworth into the Prorogation cases, including “Britain’s rudest manDavid Starkey, perhaps I can throw in the contribution of a polite criminal hack.

1. The Supreme Court will be criticised whatever it does

If the Court upholds the Scottish Court of Session decision that the Prorogation of Parliament was unlawful it will be criticised for making a political decision.

If it upholds the English Divisional Court it will give a gift to Scottish Nationalists who will denounce a court made up largely of English judges for over-ruling the unanimous judgment of the highest Scottish court.

Incidentally, the decision to increase the number of judges hearing the case from 9 to 11 has increased the English majority from 5 – 4 to 7 – 4. (The “non-English” judges are Lords Reed and Hodge from Scotland, Lord Kerr who is from Northern Ireland and Lord Lloyd-Jones who is Welsh). Continue reading “The Government should be careful what it wishes for from the Supreme Court”

Did Carl Beech have a fair trial?

Mark Watts, former editor-in-chief of Exaro News, has written a long and detailed argument explaining why he considers that the conviction of Carl Beech was a miscarriage of justice. He points out that he is “a lone voice” amongst journalists:

While many journalists join in the official narrative, some who know otherwise in the national media either go along with them in a desperate attempt to protect their cowardly backsides or elect, understandably, to keep their heads down.”

As well as cowardly journalists who “join in the official narrative,” Mr Watts has particular contempt for what he calls “the falsely accused brigade.”

The falsely-accused brigade and its cheerleaders in the media have exposed their hypocrisy in their celebration of this trial. If they were genuinely interested in fair justice, they would not be ignoring the dubious way in which Beech was found guilty.

In truth, members of the falsely-accused brigade are not remotely interested in justice, but in proclaiming with a pseudo-religious fervour that they or their loved ones or their friends or associates are innocent of accusations of sexual abuse levelled against them.”

Mr Watts is rather vague about exactly who is in the “falsely accused brigade,” although presumably it includes Harvey Proctor, Lord Bramall and Greville Janner’s son Daniel. All three have fervently “proclaimed that they or their loved ones are innocent of accusations sexual abuse levelled against them.Confusingly, though, Mr Watts concedes that Beech’s allegations against anyone have no credibility,” in view of which it seems mildly ungracious to sneer at his victims for “proclaiming” their innocence. Continue reading “Did Carl Beech have a fair trial?”

Do we need a Victims Commissioner?

On hearing the words “Dame Vera” most people will think fondly of the 102 year old golden-voiced Forces’ sweetheart. Those in the legal world, however, are more likely to conjure up a picture of the 69 year old flame-haired Fabian firebrand Dame Vera Baird QC, formerly a barrister in the chambers of radical lawyer Michael Mansfield QC, then a Labour MP and Solicitor General, then the Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria and now The Victims Commissioner for England and Wales.

Baird: poacher turned gamekeeper

In her early career Dame Vera usually defended those accused of serious crimes, but in more recent times she has used her various offices to campaign vigorously for changes in the law that make it easier to convict and imprison them. The former poacher has metamorphosed into a ferocious gamekeeper; it is not hard to imagine her prowling round the estate, setting man-traps, loading the spring-guns and inspecting the rotting cadavers of corvids gibbeted on the boundary fence.

For those who are not familiar with the office of Victims Commissioner, it is a statutory appointment of a person charged with the duty of “promoting the interests of victims and witnesses” and taking “such steps as she considers appropriate with a view to encouraging good practice in the treatment of victims and witnesses.” Continue reading “Do we need a Victims Commissioner?”

The many lies of Carl Beech and the folly of his supporters

It all started with Sir Jimmy Savile.

The platinum-blond disc jockey with a taste for shell-suits needs no introduction to British readers. To others it is enough to record that when he died in 2011 he was at first treated to obituaries that would have made St Theresa of Calcutta blush. He had been a television institution for decades, and when he had not been on television he had been visiting the sick in hospitals or raising huge sums of money, including according to some estimate up to 90% of his own earnings, to charity.

Then, within a few months of his death allegations started to emerge that he had abused children and women on a vast scale. Because he was dead, none of the allegations were ever tried in court but the press, so adoring of him while he was alive, now turned on him with the vehemence of a betrayed lover. The Guardian spoke, unusually, for the majority when it ran an extraordinary editorial comparing him not altogether favourably with Pol Pot, and calling for a public ceremony of commination, as “a ritual expression of public condemnation and disgust.”

The institutions with which he had been associated – mainly hospitals and the BBC – fell over themselves to apologise for his behaviour. Accounts of Savile’s wickedness were collated in various official reports and they were all accepted, without question, by a press that was now as indignant about his criminality as it had been fulsome in his adoration. Anyone – and there were a few – who dared to question so much as a single individual account was considered beyond the pale, even though some of the allegations against him bordered on the incredible. Continue reading “The many lies of Carl Beech and the folly of his supporters”

Expert witnesses: a crisis in the criminal courts

Last month the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee published a report on the critical state of forensic science in the United Kingdom. Several private forensic science providers are close to financial collapse. At the same time the police are increasingly taking forensic science in-house – raising obvious questions of independence and impartialityor outsourcing it to unregulated providers that do not met minimum quality standards.

The evidence we received points to failings in the use of forensic science in the criminal justice system and these can be attributed to an absence of high-level leadership, a lack of funding and an insufficient level of research and development. Throughout this inquiry we heard about the decline in forensic science in England and Wales, especially since the abolition of the Forensic Science Service.”

Professor Claude Roux, President of the International Association of Forensic Sciences, told the Committee:

When I was a student, England and Wales held, essentially, the international benchmark. It was the “Mecca” for forensic science. Some 30 years later, my observation from the outside … is that it has been an ongoing national crisis and, at this stage, is more of an example not to follow.”

This report was alarming enough, but the problem with expert evidence in criminal cases goes much deeper even than the alarming House of Lords report suggests. Continue reading “Expert witnesses: a crisis in the criminal courts”

Pozner & Dodd: Cross-Examination Science and Techniques. A review

Cross-Examination: Science and Techniques

Larry S. Pozner and Roger J. Dodd

This is quite simply the greatest book on cross-examination that I have ever come across and worth every penny of the hundreds of pounds that it will cost you to buy. It is not easily available. The latest (third) edition is currently unavailable on Amazon, although rather strangely several second editions are, priced at about £600.00 new, or between £330.00 and £745.00 second hand. I was distraught when, just a few days after my copy finally arrived (stamped ex libris Filosa & Filosa attorneys at law 501 Main Street, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico) I left it in a taxi. Fortunately, thanks to the honesty and good sense of a London black cab driver, instead of flogging it on the dark web, or sending it back to Truth or Consequences, like a forensic pathologist he traced me through dental records, in this case a dentist’s receipt, in the same bag. Thank goodness for rotten British teeth.

It is written for an American audience, so some of the terminology is a little obscure. They have “direct” examination, we have “evidence in chief,” they “impeach” a witness, we “contradict” them, and so on. There are references to procedures that we no longer have in England and Wales, such as cross-examination at committal hearings. Voire dires, motions in limine and other pre-trial manoeuvres that we either don’t have, or that mean something different, crop up regularly. Our courts don’t have “podiums” to and from which counsel can walk while asking questions, more’s the pity perhaps. Continue reading “Pozner & Dodd: Cross-Examination Science and Techniques. A review”

Sometimes it’s right for the police to examine complainants’ phones. It’s called investigation.

Jeremy Corbyn, Shami Chakrabarti and Harriet Harman all have difficulties with the idea of complainants in rape cases being asked to hand over their mobile phones as part of the police investigation. Mr Corbyn has described it as a “disturbing move.”

It is nothing of the sort.

No change in the law has taken place. Instead, rightly stung by a series of recent cases in which evidence from mobile phones suggesting innocence was withheld from the defence until the last minute, the National Police Chiefs Council and the Crown Prosecution Service have agreed a standard form to give to complainants for use when investigating sexual offences.

It deals with those cases – not every case – in which the police believe that a complainant’s mobile phone should be examined as part of an investigation into a sexual offence.

Rape allegations almost always relate to incidents which took place in private. Without any independent witnesses juries can be left trying to decide who is telling the truth based upon little more than whether the complainant or the defendant looked the more plausible or shifty. Since most human beings are hopeless at spotting liars, this is a task fraught with the danger of producing the wrong verdict. Continue reading “Sometimes it’s right for the police to examine complainants’ phones. It’s called investigation.”