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”

No, Louise Mensch, Thomas Mair’s judge did not act immorally: No, Secret Barrister, she’s not motivated by malice

I never thought it would happen that Louise Mensch would have occasion to defend my honour, but so it has turned out.

I hadn’t paid her much attention until the last few days. On the whole I rather liked the little I knew, particularly the fact that she had stood up for Professor Tim Hunt after he was infamously accused of sexism in a talk he gave in Korea. Her main opponent in that spat was Connie St Louis, the controversial Director of the MA in Science Journalism at City University, and by relying on facts and evidence Ms Mensch won the argument and rescued Tim Hunt’s reputation from being unfairly traduced by Ms St Louis and her supporters.

Last week I wrote a short blog-post about the trial of Thomas Mair, the man who murdered Jo Cox. It was nothing very special. I noted a few aspects of the trial which struck me as odd: the fact that a statement from the MP Stephen Kinnock had been read to the jury pre-conviction, even though its contents appeared to have nothing to do with establishing Mair’s guilt; and the fact that psychiatric evidence had not featured as part of Mair’s defence. The piece was written before sentence was passed – in truth most of it was written before the jury returned its verdict, so much of a foregone conclusion did Mr Mair’s guilt seem to be. I also suggested that it was likely that the judge would ask for some psychiatric evidence before passing sentence. In fact, as we now know, he passed sentence – life imprisonment with a whole life term – almost immediately, and without making any reference to any mental health issues. Continue reading “No, Louise Mensch, Thomas Mair’s judge did not act immorally: No, Secret Barrister, she’s not motivated by malice”

Some footnotes to the conviction of Thomas Mair

Seldom can there have been less doubt about the outcome of a case than there was over today’s conviction of Thomas Mair for the murder of the MP Jo Cox.

The prosecution was able to rely upon numerous eye-witnesses, a compelling battery of scientific evidence, CCTV, weapons, and Mr Mair’s own words at the first hearing in the magistrates court when he shouted “death to traitors, freedom for Britain!” To cap it all, the house where he lived contained a bookshelf full of Nazi-related books, topped off by a metal Third Reich eagle.

There may be people wishing to speculate on the political ramifications of the case. I offer just 5 law-related observations. Continue reading “Some footnotes to the conviction of Thomas Mair”

Henriques Report: “Deputy Heads Must Roll.”

On Tuesday the retired High Court judge Sir Richard Henriques published his report into “the investigation of non recent sexual offence investigations alleged against persons of public prominence.” This was mainly – though not exclusively – related to his investigation of the Met’s handling of allegations made by a man going under the pseudonym of “Nick” and given the designation “Operation Midland.”

The terms of reference were set by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, and about 90% of the report has not been disclosed. It is hardly surprising – though very much to be expected in an organisation that prides itself on its public relations as much as on its ability to catch criminals – that it should have chosen to “bury” the report on the day of the US elections.

As well as the bowdlerised report and the heavily redacted recommendations, it’s also worth reading the oddly chummy-sounding (although the two men had never previously met) covering letter which Sir Richard wrote to Sir Bernard. Its conclusion puts the best possible slant on Sir Bernard’s responsibility:

I trust that commentators will not lay the blame for the grave mistakes in Operation Midland and Operation Vincente at your door. You have been let down by Officers of high rank ….”

The Times’s Sean O’Neill tweeted this morning: “Deputy heads must roll,” and I’m afraid this commentator, if that’s what I am, does not agree with the learned judge.

deputy-headsNevertheless, there is much good sense in the report and the recommendations.
Continue reading “Henriques Report: “Deputy Heads Must Roll.””

Never mind rape myths, the criminal justice system is built on even more fundamental myths

These days no prosecutor is considered properly trained until they have attended a course to warn them sternly of the dangers of believing “myths and stereotypes” about sexual offences. The CPS website lists 10 such myths (defined as “a commonly held belief, idea or explanation that is not true”), including, for example:

Rape occurs between strangers in dark alleys” (obviously it occasionally does, but the myth is that it only or mainly occurs in that way).

Or

You Can Tell if She’s ‘Really’ Been Raped by How She Acts” (when, as the CPS correctly points out, reactions to rape are “highly varied and individual.”)

It is all to the good that any myth should be expunged by the cauterising effect of truth, but there are even more fundamental assumptions underlying the whole criminal justice system. They are these:

  1. Jurors can safely rely on the memory of an honest witness;
  1. Jurors can safely assess when a witness’s memory is mistaken;
  1. Jurors can safely assess when a witness is lying.

Unfortunately each one of these assumptions is a myth: a “commonly held belief that is not true.” Continue reading “Never mind rape myths, the criminal justice system is built on even more fundamental myths”

Judge Lower was right not to lift the Sexual RIsk Order on John O’Neill

We must wait until 22nd September to discover exactly what District Judge Adrian Lower has in mind for John O’Neill, the York man who, despite having been acquitted of a charge of rape, is now not allowed to have sex unless he gives the police at least 24 hours notice of his intention.

Mr O’Neill has been subject to a peculiar and, as far as I know, unique interim “Sexual Risk Order” since January. At a hearing yesterday the judge announced that he would be making a final order, although in the same breath he also strongly implied that he would amend its terms, describing the notice provisions as “wholly disproportionate” and “frankly unpoliceable.” Continue reading “Judge Lower was right not to lift the Sexual RIsk Order on John O’Neill”

You don’t need to be a terrorist to commit a terrorist offence

I am grateful to a reader for pointing out that I have committed an offence under S.58A of the Terrorism Act 2000.

This morning the Daily Mail published a story about various senior police officers who have apparently been very well paid. Foremost in the Mail’s sights was Stephen Kavanagh, Chief Constable of Essex. Continue reading “You don’t need to be a terrorist to commit a terrorist offence”

Sally Smith’s Biography of Marshall Hall is a wonderful read.

Over the next few days I’m going to recommend some good books for summer reading for anyone interested in the law, especially the criminal law.

The first is Sally Smith’s biography of Marshall Hall: “A law unto himself.” (Wildy, Simmonds & Hill £25, although available for a bit less on Amazon). Smith is a barrister, a very good one too, who since taking silk has specialised in medical cases, although she obviously knows her way around the criminal law too.20160728_183901

Her subject, Edward Marshall Hall – known to many simply as Marshall – was what we would now call a “celebrity:” a barrister whose oratory saved numerous men and women from the gallows. He was not always successful of course, and these days it is mainly the clients he failed to save that are remembered: George Joseph Smith, the “Brides in the Bath” murderer; and Seddon, who was said to have poisoned his lodger with arsenic in order to get his hands on her annuities. Continue reading “Sally Smith’s Biography of Marshall Hall is a wonderful read.”