The unfortunate silencing of Alex Cavendish

What obligation does a convicted sex offender have to reveal his true identity? A storm over the issue has arisen in the world of prison blogging.

One of the best criminal justice blogs on the internet is Prison UK. Over the last 3 years it has described the life of prisoners in British prisons with a remarkable and unprecedented vividness. Anyone wanting to know about the realities of prison life should read it. I have even recommended it as preparation for clients expecting to receive a prison sentence: one of the most widely read posts (because it was eventually published in Metro) was about what to pack for somebody who is expecting to go to prison (flip-flops for the showers, earplugs and headphones being top of the list). If you want to know about food in prison, illness in prison, sex in prison, old men in prison, drugs in prison, suicide in prison and death in prison the blog has covered all those subjects superbly. Continue reading “The unfortunate silencing of Alex Cavendish”

The dress code for Long Lartin visitors makes dressing for Royal Ascot seem easy

Visitors to Long Lartin Prison, home to a number of tough cookies, has introduced a strict dress code for visitors. Relatives of Ben Geen, the nurse who was very possibly wrongly convicted on the basis of misunderstood statistical evidence, have reported visitors being turned away for wearing open-toed sandals.

In fact, the Category A establishment bans any footwear which is not “enclosed at the heel and toe.” It turns out that the prison, which houses some of Britain’s worst murderers, enforces a sartorial code for visitors, updated at the end of last month, which makes dressing for the Royal Enclosure at Ascot seem straightforward by comparison.

Indeed, Long Lartin and the Royal Enclosure share a number of similarities, although the Ascot rules have little to say about shoes, except that gentlemen’s shoes must be black. Unlike Long Lartin, Ascot imposes no specific ban on “slippers” possibly because racegoers, unlike prison visitors, simply aren’t tempted to wear them.

HMP Long Lartin

Continue reading “The dress code for Long Lartin visitors makes dressing for Royal Ascot seem easy”

It’s time for a Churchillian approach to our disgraceful prisons

In 1910 the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, told the House of Commons:

The first real principle which should guide anyone trying to establish a good system of prisons should be to prevent as many people as possible getting there at all. There is an injury to the individual, there is a loss to the State whenever a person is committed to prison for the first time, and every care, consistent with the maintenance of law and order, must be taken constantly to minimise the number of persons who are committed to gaol.”

Churchill was as good as his word. He did his best to reduce prison numbers and his immediate successors agreed with him. Prison numbers fell until 1915. They then remained roughly stable until the 1940s, since when, with the exception of a blip here and there, they have continued to rise. Continue reading “It’s time for a Churchillian approach to our disgraceful prisons”

The sad story of Simon Spence and Max Hill

Simon Spence QC

Many, many years ago I shared a flat in a high rise block somewhere East of Richmond and West of Sheen. My only flatmate was a then rising star of the bar, Simon Spence. I can’t even remember how we were thrown together. Probably I rang a telephone number on the Inner Temple noticeboard, Simon interviewed me, satisfied himself that I didn’t have untreatable halitosis and offered me his spare room. We didn’t see much of each other after that: he was a silver-tongued advocate, already greatly sought after by bling-flashing Essex armed robbers, whilst I was trying to eke out a living from the less glamorous but at least endlessly renewable resource of Swindon alcoholics.

Sadly, and through no fault of his, Simon’s flat was not for me. After 6 weeks or so of a rather lonely life I decided – I am sure it was by mutual agreement – that my experiment in high rise living was over and I moved out. Since then I don’t think I have come across my former flat-mate at all, although I have followed his steady rise to the ranks of Queen’s Counsel with interest and just a little of that envy that all ordinary barristers have when their student contemporaries take silk or become grand judges.

Continue reading “The sad story of Simon Spence and Max Hill”

Mark Webb’s sentence for perverting the course of justice was richly deserved and possibly too short

A man that beareth false witness against his neighbour is a maul, and a sword, and a sharp arrow. Proverbs 25:18

HHJ Hart’s sentence of 15 months imprisonment which he gave today to Mark Webb for perverting the course of justice deserves wide publicity, even though to my mind it is too short.

For reasons that are far from clear, Mr Webb took it upon himself to complain repeatedly and falsely about his neighbour, a blameless and rather vulnerable former Health Care Assistant called Frances Avis.

Avis’s flat in Brook Road, Bath, was managed (like most of the social housing in the city) by a company called Curo – the same company, incidentally, that is running a crazy campaign for a cable car service from the centre of Bath to one of its new estates). Mark Webb and his wife Susan lived in a flat next door.

Their paths crossed with unfortunate consequences.

Frances Avis

One day Ms Avis was doing some stretching exercises outside her front door. She was in training to run a half-marathon to raise funds for DHI, a charity that helps people recovering from alcohol and drug problems. She spoke to her neighbour for the first time and, because she is a dog lover and because Mr Webb’s newly acquired Jack Russell, Patch, didn’t seem to be getting much exercise, she offered to take him out when she went running. They got on, and soon she was walking Patch regularly.

But then things began to turn rather weird. Continue reading “Mark Webb’s sentence for perverting the course of justice was richly deserved and possibly too short”

Harriet Harman’s proposed ban on sexual history evidence would be grotesquely unfair

Over the last few years there have been a number of powerful nominations for the title of stupidest Parliamentarian. This blog has in the past made what I thought was a powerful case for the prize to be jointly shared between Messrs Peter Bone and Phillip Hollobone, and the Secret Barrister has repeatedly and persuasively argued the case for Phillip Davies, and indeed may do so again at greater length in his eagerly awaited book. Just to prove that Conservatives do not have a stranglehold on the competition along comes Harriet Harman with a legislative proposal which is guaranteed to produce injustice and, for good measure, is virtually certain to be ruled incompatible with the Article 6 right to a fair trial under the European Convention on Human Rights. Continue reading “Harriet Harman’s proposed ban on sexual history evidence would be grotesquely unfair”

Simon Bailey is not soft on sex crime: we should listen to what he has to say about those who view indecent child images

The Chief Constable of Norfolk, Simon Bailey, says that men who view indecent images of children should not face prosecution unless they pose a risk to actual children. The reason, he says, is that officers are simply overwhelmed with child abuse cases, with over 70,000 reported every year, and an estimate – though how one estimates such a thing I have no idea – of an extra 40,000 such cases likely to arise out of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse. The police, he said last year, were spending £1 billion a year on prosecuting sex cases, a figure which he predicted could rise to £3 billion by 2020.

Instead of prosecution, and in cases where there is no obvious threat to any children, Mr Bailey advocates arrest and treatment by way of “counselling and rehabilitation” instead of punishment. Such men could, he suggests, be placed on the Sex Offenders Register but they would not need to face a court. Continue reading “Simon Bailey is not soft on sex crime: we should listen to what he has to say about those who view indecent child images”

Beating posh boys for Jesus: John Smyth and his fanatical evangelicalism

Barristerblogger generally avoids religion. It is a subject of enormous importance but I have little enthusiasm for most of the arcane disputes over which religious people love to argue, and sometimes to kill each other.

Sometimes, though, it is unavoidable. The story about John Smyth QC flogging posh teenage boys in the name of Christianity is hard to ignore.

First, however, a warning. Channel 4 is a far more responsible outfit than some other news organisations that have peddled salacious stories about boys, sex and “top people.” Nevertheless, fairness to Mr Smyth demands that we keep an open mind, especially if he volunteers an account of his own. 

That said, there is no doubt that the Channel 4 story is grounded in a solid basis of fact. That Mr Smyth knew the named complainants seems incontrovertible. That he espoused (and probably still espouses) a conservative Christian evangelicalism also seems pretty much beyond doubt. When surprised by Cathy Newman’s microphone Mr Smyth chose not to answer any of herquestions – we should not blame him for that – and so we do not know his explanation.

We should also bear in mind that even if Channel 4 has behaved responsibly, any story involving sex, teenagers and the privileged classes is liable to get out of hand; throw in floggings, a top QC (and part-time judge) and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and you can bet that before you can say “Operation Midland” the internet will be awash with hogwash about Uncle John and Uncle Justin bringing out their canes at parties attended by Leon Brittan, Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris. Continue reading “Beating posh boys for Jesus: John Smyth and his fanatical evangelicalism”

The Court of Appeal was wrong to refuse to hear the appeal of a man it believed to be innocent.

Last Friday the Court of Appeal refused to allow a Mr Mehmet Ordu to appeal against his conviction. Nothing very unusual about that. Every year hundreds of would-be appellants are refused leave to appeal. The peculiar thing about this case, though, is that everyone involved – Mr Ordu himself of course, but also the prosecution and most remarkably the three judges who heard his case, all accept that he was in all probability innocent of an offence for which he has now served a 9 month sentence. The judges nevertheless decided that there would be “no injustice” in allowing his wrongful conviction to stand. Most people might think that a wrongful conviction demands a remedy, and the obvious remedy – even if nothing else can be done – is to quash the conviction. The Court of Appeal thought that there was no injustice in leaving a wrongful conviction in place. It was a very bad decision. Continue reading “The Court of Appeal was wrong to refuse to hear the appeal of a man it believed to be innocent.”

Prison reform cannot succeed unless we reduce the number of prisoners

Despite last week’s riots in Birmingham Prison, I know that prison works.

I suspect that’s not a popular view amongst readers of this blog. Over the years I’ve tended to write rather sceptically about the value of long sentences, and – all things being equal – I’ve tried to advocate a generally non-punitive approach to sentencing, and if you’re reading this now I’d guess that you’re more likely to be comfortable with a liberal rather than a hard-as-nails penal policy. I don’t like to generalise, but my idea of most of my readers is that you probably think that prison is at best a necessary evil.

But in some cases prison really does work.

I am not mainly thinking about the sort of dangerous people who have to be locked up because if they weren’t they would kill you.

I am thinking about people like my client from a year or two ago – I’ll call him Danny, although that’s not his real name. Continue reading “Prison reform cannot succeed unless we reduce the number of prisoners”