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.”

The Psychoactive Substances Act is a bad law and the Government doesn’t even know what it means

The Psychoactive Substances Act, which came into force last week, has been much criticised.

There have been two broad criticisms: first, that it will fail to control the harm done by new psychoactive substances; secondly that it will prove largely unenforceable.

It will certainly have the effect of driving the sale of formerly legal highs underground. Possession of such substances remains legal (except in prisons), but their supply, possession with intent to supply, import and export have become criminal offences. Thus, the only means of obtaining substances that are in themselves legal to possess, will be through criminals. Businesses that once traded openly, and paid taxes, have now closed. Continue reading “The Psychoactive Substances Act is a bad law and the Government doesn’t even know what it means”

Why is it legal to call someone a bull’s pizzle, but a crime to call him a codhead?

Blackpool Magistrates recently came down hard on a Thornton rat-catcher.

Mark Seddon’s love life had had its ups and downs. During one of its downs his girl-friend left him. She took up with a man who Mr Seddon didn’t like.

Some pest control consultants might have resorted to violence, but Mr Seddon was more restrained. He turned to social media. He sent his ex a “Whats App” message setting out succinctly his opinion of the new man in her life:

He is, said Mr Seddon, a “fat-bellied codhead.

As one would expect these days, the police were informed and Mr Seddon was prosecuted under Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 for sending:

by means of a public electronic communications network a message … that [was] grossly offensive.

It is a surprisingly serious charge, carrying a possible sentence of 6 months imprisonment. Continue reading “Why is it legal to call someone a bull’s pizzle, but a crime to call him a codhead?”