The Batley Grammar School teacher should not be sacked for blasphemy

It is more than 6 years since the Charlie Hebdo murders. 12 people were shot dead in the magazine office, murdered by Islamists to avenge its publication of cartoons of Mohammed. Their “crime” was that they had committed blasphemy. Over the next three days a policewoman and 4 customers at a Jewish shop were also murdered.

In the immediate aftermath of the atrocity it became fashionable so say “Je Suis Charlie” in solidarity with the magazine. At least a million people, including the French President marched through Paris to demonstrate their support for freedom of speech. The British Prime Minister joined them, as did many other world leaders.

Even the Saudi Arabian ambassador attended the demonstration, which might have seemed a little surprising given the Kingdom’s well-known disapproval of blasphemy. However, Saudi Arabia does not endorse the extra-judicial killing of blasphemers. Instead – as with Raif Badawi – it punishes them with lashes and imprisonment, only very rarely with beheading, and then only after a trial.

In October last year Samuel Paty, a teacher was beheaded, again in France, after apparently showing his students some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Mohammed. He had reportedly asked anyone who did not wish to see the pictures to close their eyes first. The precaution did not save him from a planned and premeditated attack by a religiously motivated mob. Continue reading “The Batley Grammar School teacher should not be sacked for blasphemy”

The prerogative of procrastination: what has happened to the Royal Commission on criminal justice?

A P Herbert once said “a Government department appointing a royal commission is like a dog burying a bone – except that a dog does eventually return to the bone”.

He was partly right of course, and many Royal Commissions have been used as a convenient means of burying subjects too difficult for governments to handle. Conveniently, they always take years to report, so they can be a useful way of transferring difficult problems to a future government. Often their recommendations have been ignored and in some cases Commissions have even been wound up before they have had a chance to produce any report at all.

However, Royal Commissions on criminal justice matters have tended to be rather more productive, and several have been instrumental in producing real and lasting change.

The Capital Punishment Amendment Act 1868, which abolished public executions, was introduced following recommendations in the 1864 – 66 Royal Commission on capital punishment.

In more recent times, the 1978 – 81 Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure led both to the establishment of the Crown Prosecution Service and to the passing of the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act, two reforms of huge significance.

The 1991 Royal Commission on Criminal Justice made a number of recommendations that were not followed, but its important proposal for the establishment of a Criminal Cases Review Commission was accepted. That too was an important legacy, despite the CCRC’s recent troubles.
Continue reading “The prerogative of procrastination: what has happened to the Royal Commission on criminal justice?”

How could Priti Patel reintroduce the death penalty?

There was a flutter of interest on Christmas Day when, in festive mood, the Society of Black and Asian Lawyers tweeted the following:

A little bird at the @ukhomeoffice tells us @pritipatel has asked Civil Service to scope a policy paper on the restoration of the death penalty in the #NewYear2021 and the #Tories have the majority to do just that.”

In the past Ms Patel has expressed support for capital punishment. In 2006 she told the Mail on Sunday:

If you had the ultimate punishment for the murder of policemen and other heinous crimes, I am sure it would act as a deterrent. We must send a clear signal to people that crime doesn’t pay. The punishment must fit the crime and yes, I do support capital punishment.”

In a BBC Question Time programme in 2011 she said:

I have said this before and I will say it again, I do actually think when we have a criminal justice system that continuously fails in this country and where we have seen murderers, rapists and people who have committed the most abhorrent crimes in society, go into prison and then are released from prison to go out into the community to then re-offend and do the types of crime they have committed again and again.

I think that’s appalling. And actually on that basis alone I would actually support the reintroduction of capital punishment to serve as a deterrent, because I do think we do not have enough deterrents in this country for criminals.”

In fact, I’m not sure she has ever “said it again.” In an interview with the Mail on Sunday in 2019, asked about the death penalty she said:

I have never said I’m an active supporter of it and [what I said] is constantly taken out of context.”

If her apparently contradictory public statements can be reconciled, and perhaps they cannot, her position seems to be that the death penalty should be reintroduced even though she has never actually campaigned for its reintroduction.

However, let us make the unsafe assumption that the Society of Black and Asian Lawyers are correct, and that she has commissioned a “scoping exercise” in the Home Office to advise her on the feasibility of bringing back the gallows. Brexit may have removed one potential obstacle: any moves to reintroduce hanging would have met with objections from Brussels; indeed it would have been unlawful under the EU Fundamental Charter of Human Rights, Article 2 (2) of which of provides:

No one shall be condemned to the death penalty, or executed.”

Happily the team need not waste any time on the knotty problem of the exact status of the Fundamental Charter in UK law, because post-Brexit it has none.

So, aside from the many philosophical objections to the death penalty, what practical problems will Ms Patel’s scoping exercise into the establishment of a post-Brexit bloody code need to address?

The problems, even for a determined government with a sizeable majority, are considerable. Continue reading “How could Priti Patel reintroduce the death penalty?”

Should we be free to stir up racial hatred in the privacy of our own homes?

This politically correct nonsense has to stop,” says Tim Loughton, Conservative MP for East Worthing & Shoreham. Mr Loughton has been a vocal opponent of “political correctness” for years, whether manifested in local authority adoption policies, bans on employees wearing religious symbols, gender questionnaires for primary schoolchildren or gender neutral school uniform.

The particular “nonsense” to which he is referring is the provisional recommendation in a consultation document from the Law Commission that the offences of “stirring up” racial or religious hatred, or hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation, should not be exempt from the criminal law when they take place inside a dwelling.

Even if he has a point it is a little early to panic. The Law Commission is a statutory body charged with making recommendations for law reform, but it is not especially known for political correctness or indeed for pushing any particular political view. Its Chair and four Commissioners – three Professors a QC with an interest in tax and EU law and a Court of Appeal judge are hardly household names, unless your household is full of academic lawyers, and nor are they in any sense political apparatchiks or wannabe commissars. They cannot make law – that responsibility these days usually falls on Matt Hancock or, very occasionally Parliament – they simply make recommendations. Often the Government says “thank you very much” and files their reports in an oubliette where they are duly forgotten.

So what has upset Mr Loughton is a tentative, provisional recommendation in a consultation, which might, or very well might not, lead in a year or two to a firm recommendation, in a report which the government of the day will quite likely ignore, and which in any event would require an Act of Parliament to implement. For the foreseeable future we will remain free to foment racial hatred in the privacy of our own homes, although confusingly, not if we do so by playing “a recording of visual images or sounds” which have the same effect: they are covered by a different section of the Public Order Act 1986 which does not have the “private dwelling” defence. Legal anomalies are heartily disliked by the tidy-minded Law Commissioners.

The extent to which the criminal law should be involved in regulating freedom of speech is a very live issue.

But it is not true that that Law Commission is especially in favour of restricting free speech. Indeed, it has at present another important consultation open on “Harmful Online Communications” which – albeit in cautious terms – recommends reform of S.127 (1) of the Communications Act 2003. That somewhat notorious subsection – which has its origins in legislation introduced in the 1930s to protect telephonists from obscene telephone calls – prohibits the posting of “grossly offensive” or “menacing” material online. Its vague terms have been used to prosecute, for example a joke tweet about blowing up Doncaster airport (albeit in the end unsuccessfully) and a man who posted footage of his dog performing a Hitler salute in answer to the command “Gas the Jews” (successfully). The Law Commission’s suggestion is that the scope of the offence should be reduced by restricting it to communications “likely to cause harm.”

However, the specific proposal that has exercised Mr Loughton is in the separate Hate Crime consultation document.

According to Mr Loughton:

What has the world come to when the principles of freedom of speech are now being trampled upon in conversations within your own home. There is a place to clamp down on hate crime, but within a family home it’s up to individuals to regulate how they converse.”

It’s a legitimate point of view, but I think Mr Loughton’s worry may be based on a misunderstanding of what the Law Commission is suggesting.

The crimes in question, the “stirring-up” crimes as they are termed, are not committed by expressing politically incorrect truths in family conversations. They are serious offences requiring either an intent to stir up racial (etc) hatred, or at least the likelihood that such hatred will be stirred up. They cannot be committed without (in the case of the racial hatred offence) the use of “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour.” The “religious hate” limb of the offence requires threatening words or behaviour and it expressly excludes “discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of its adherents ….”  The “sexual orientation” limb contains equivalent exclusions. Prosecutions require the consent of the Attorney General and they are rare.

In Saki’s brilliant and deeply unsettling story The Unrest Cure, the local Bishop has visited a country house. The story is that he has done so in order to plan a Jewish pogrom.

Concerned that the Bishop is spending too long in the library another guest asks:

Isn’t the Bishop going to have tea?”

The Bishop is out for blood not tea” is the sombre reply.

It is revealed that he is planning to kill all the Jews in the neighbourhood (Saki, it should be noted, died while Hitler was still an unknown Lance Corporal).

“To massacre the Jews!” … Do you mean to tell me there’s a general rising against them?”

“No, it’s the Bishop’s own idea. He’s in there arranging all the details now.”

No-one would suggest that the Bishop’s activity – were it ever to be carried out – should be lawful merely because it is carried on in a private house.

Of course there is an important difference between actively planning a pogrom and “merely” stirring up racial hatred.

So let us change the story just a little: if the Bishop – or let us change it a little further and make him a fanatical and anti-semitic Islamist imam – holds a meeting in the library in which he calls in threatening terms for vengeance to be wreaked on the neighbourhood’s Jews because a prominent Jewish magazine has published an offensive cartoon, is it right that he should have a defence to a charge of stirring up racial hatred simply because the stirring-up of hatred took place in a private dwelling rather than in a car-park or a mosque?

If you have any views on the issue, the Law Commission’s consultation is open until Christmas Eve.

We need to think again about the effect of Victim Personal Statements on sentencing

How much should sentencing judges rely on a victim’s assessment of the harm they have suffered in a crime?

The issue was highlighted earlier this week when 27 year old Pavel Grushin arrived at Croydon Magistrates Court expecting to be sentenced for offences of sexual assault and common assault he committed at a party in the Royal Festival Hall last December. He was not legally represented, possibly thinking to himself “why bother with a solicitor” when the sentencing guideline suggested a community order, or at worst a short, and very probably suspended, prison sentence.

But District Judge Julie Cooper did not sentence him. Instead she sent the case to the Crown Court where he faces a theoretical maximum sentence of 7 years and a probable sentence of around two and a half years imprisonment. “I suggest you instruct a solicitor” she told Mr Grushin, “you will need it.”

In itself there is nothing especially unusual about that. Thousands of cases are sent from the Magistrates Court to the Crown Court for sentence every year. Your attitude might well be, so what? He’s just another drunken letch who thoroughly deserves to be locked up for as long as possible. Why should we care?

The answer is that if you want sentencing to be carried out fairly and dispassionately over-reliance on Victim Personal Statements (sometimes called “Victim Impact Statements”) has the potential to cause serious injustice.

These statements, setting out the effect that a crime has had on its victim, have become ever more ubiquitous at sentencing hearings over the last twenty or so years. They are sometimes drafted by the victim, perhaps more often by a police officer in consultation with the victim. Sometimes they can be very moving documents. Sometimes they can seem formulaic and predictable, although of course no-one would ever dream of saying so. Often they are out of date or so sparse as to be inconsequential. Occasionally they can be startling and unexpected as when the bereaved relative of someone killed by a driver pleads for a lenient sentence. Continue reading “We need to think again about the effect of Victim Personal Statements on sentencing”

Piers Corbyn may be a crank but his treatment should worry us all

A “whiteout” is meteorological condition in which snow falling from the sky and snow whipped up from the ground is whirled by a gale into a disorientating blanket of whiteness in which there are no visual bearings and it is all but impossible to navigate. It is an apt metaphor for the blizzard of coronavirus regulations which have cascaded out of Whitehall (and of course Cardiff and Holyrood too) since March. A search of the www.legislation.gov.uk website reveals a mind-boggling 133 (albeit each Welsh regulation is counted twice in English and Welsh versions) separate pieces of UK legislation, nearly all of them statutory instruments. Thus we have such delights as the Health Protection (Coronavirus, International Travel) (Amendment No. 7) Regulations, The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Leicester) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2020, The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Blackburn with Darwen and Bradford) Regulations 2020 and so on. And on and on. It is enormously difficult to find ones bearings amidst all these constantly changing rules and regulations. As David Allen Green put it on August 14th:

There is not a lawyer or police officer in the land who any longer knows what is legal and not legal under coronavirus regulations. An absolute mess of a legal regime.”

Since August 14th matters have only got worse.

Piers Corbyn

It is not often that I have much sympathy with Jeremy Corbyn’s weather-forecaster brother Piers (or to give him his own rather baffling description LongRange WorldLeading weather+climate forecaster BIEuUsa. SolarLunar Method NotCO2! AmericanThinker Climate Predictor2010. Bro #JC4PM), or with any of the anti-vaxx, Qanon, and 5G conspiracists who participated in a rally against masks and coronavirus restrictions in Trafalgar Square on Saturday 29th August. As well as Mr Corbyn, they included the antisemitic conspiracy theorist David Icke and a small group who deployed a flag remarkably similar if not identical to that of the British Union of Fascists. These are not easy people to like, although no doubt there were some more reasonable folk amongst them as well.

Corbyn: £10,000 Fixed Penalty

Nevertheless the £10,000 Fixed Penalty Notice issued to Piers Corbyn as someone “involved in” the demonstration is disturbing. Mr Corbyn’s “FPN” requires him – strictly speaking one could argue it “invites him” but it is an invitation backed by a threat – to pay £10,000 for breaching Regulation 5B of The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (England) Regulations 2020, as amended. Continue reading “Piers Corbyn may be a crank but his treatment should worry us all”

There is no prospect of bringing a private prosecution against Dominic Cummings.

When private prosecutions are brought for political purposes they very rarely end well. In fact, I cannot think of a single example which has done so.

Readers will remember the fate of Marcus Ball who amidst great fanfare launched a private prosecution against Boris Johnson over the Vote Leave campaign bus slogan. Boris Johnson was accused of misfeasance in public office. The case ended in the Administrative Court on 3rd July 2019 when Lady Justice Rafferty and Mr Justice Supperstone ruled that he had failed to reveal any criminal conduct by Mr Johnson. Mr Ball’s prosecution, they strongly implied, was “vexatious.” Continue reading “There is no prospect of bringing a private prosecution against Dominic Cummings.”

The Colston statue destroyers have no defence in law but they will never be convicted

What will happen to the demonstrators who threw the Colston statue into Bristol Harbour?

The Home Secretary has described the demonstrators’ behaviour as “absolutely disgraceful.” Clearly she hopes that they will be prosecuted and punished.

The law is on her side.

Criminal Damage

S.1 of the Criminal Damage Act 1971 provides:

A person who without lawful excuse destroys or damages any property belonging to another intending to destroy or damage any such property or being reckless as to whether any such property would be destroyed or damaged shall be guilty of an offence.”

It is impossible to know the exact value of the statue, or the cost of repairing it (it has been sensibly suggested that it might be recovered from the harbour and re-erected in a museum), but it is very unlikely to have been less than £5,000. Anyone charged with damaging it would therefore have the right to elect trial by jury in the Crown Court.

Damaging a listed building

It was a Grade II listed building. According to Heritage England it is, or was:

A handsome statue, erected in the late C19 to commemorate a late C17 figure; the resulting contrast of styles is handled with confidence. The statue is of particular historical interest, the subject being Edward Colston, Bristol’s most famous philanthropist, now also noted for his involvement in the slave trade. Group value with other Bristol memorials: a statue of Edmund Burke, the Cenotaph, and a drinking fountain commemorating the Industrial and Fine Art Exhibition of 1893.”

The use of euphemism in the listing is remarkable: Continue reading “The Colston statue destroyers have no defence in law but they will never be convicted”

The standard of proof in criminal trials: Peter Hitchens is right, and Lord Goddard was wrong.

There was a rather strange report by Martin Beckford in this week’s The Mail on Sunday that judges have been told to stop using the phrase “beyond reasonable doubt” in directing juries on the standard of proof required for a conviction:

“… the latest edition of the Crown Court Compendium – written by the Judicial College, which oversees judges’ training – tells members of the bench they can drop the old term completely.

It states that when summing up a trial they must give a ‘clear instruction to the jury that they have to be satisfied so that they are sure before they can convict’.”

The Crown Court Compendium, for those who have not come across it, is an invaluable guide to trial judges. It includes a number of specimen directions, which are often followed by judges, but do not have to be. It is regularly updated, not itself to change the law, but to reflect changes that have been made by statute or by the higher courts.  This is the latest guidance on the correct direction to be given on the standard of proof.

Continue reading “The standard of proof in criminal trials: Peter Hitchens is right, and Lord Goddard was wrong.”

Lessons for open justice from the Marie Dinou case

Marie Dinou, the woman from York convicted of a non-existent coronavirus offence after being found “loitering between platforms” at Newcastle railway station was lucky to be charged with something newsworthy. Had hers been a mundane motoring charge it is highly unlikely that anyone would have spotted that her treatment by the police and the justice system was stupid, incompetent and unlawful.

Thanks largely to the press (The Times’s Fariha Karim and The Independent’s Lizzie Dearden deserve special mention) and Doughty Street’s Kirsty Brimelow QC, who was amongst the first to denounce the prosecution as misconceived, her conviction is to be reversed by application of S.142 of the Magistrates Courts Act 1980. This useful piece of legislation allows a Magistrates Court to reverse a conviction “if it appears to be in the interests of justice to do so.”

British Transport Police now concede they made a mistake in arresting and charging Ms Dinou, but their attitude immediately after her conviction was very different. Keen to let the world know that they had achieved the first railway arrest under the new Coronavirus legislation, they had issued one of those self-congratulatory press releases that prosecutors are apt to release, albeit they are normally reserved for the convictions of murderers, serial rapists and elderly ladies who have too many cats. Appropriately enough it was dated April 1st. Continue reading “Lessons for open justice from the Marie Dinou case”