June 18th, 2013 — Media
I have inserted links to the relevant articles to source quotes, but I would suggest that people do not click on them.
The more I think about the Mirror/Sunday People’s decision to publish photos of Charles Saatchi gripping his wife by the throat, the more irked I become.
The paper, in its decision to publish, has done a disservice to victims of domestic violence.
It should go without saying that what Charles Saatchi did was wrong. But domestic abuse is a sensitive issue and there is a right way and a wrong way of dealing with it.
Much of what is the right and the wrong thing to do in the field of domestic violence is counter-intuitive.
One of the principal weapons in the armoury of professionals working in this field is secrecy. DV professionals undertake painstaking efforts to establish secret and secure channels of communication with victims. They use them to allow victims get help safely and, if the time comes, to leave the relationship in the safest possible way (I say “if” simply because many victims choose not to do so). These efforts are made both to provide the victim with a space in which they feel free to speak to professionals and get help, and for the victim’s own personal safety.
Abusers are, by nature, controlling people, and are often prone to jealousy and paranoia. They use perceived slights as ammunition against their victims. Something as trivial and innocent as smiling at a stranger can be enough to provide the pretext for abuse, humiliation and violence. If they find out that the victim is speaking to a DV professional, that can be enough to put them at risk of serious violence and scupper all the efforts made to help them.
Indeed, the most dangerous time for a victim of DV is, perhaps counter-intuitively, the moment she leaves the relationship. This is in part because the issue is brought to a head and the abuser has lost control of the situation. DV professionals make significant efforts to lay the ground for the exit in advance and in secret, ensuring that the victim leaves on their own terms, with sufficient security in place to ensure that they are safe, in control of the situation and hidden from their partners. This is something that cannot afford to go off half-cocked.
Cases of domestic violence must be handled with sensitivity, discretion and confidentiality. The victim has to be made to feel safe and secure.
Now look at what the Mirror did.
First, look at how they obtained the story. The account given by the photographer contains some telling details.
But the photographer, who did not want to be named, said: “The pair did not know they were being photographed. I was completely hidden.
“It wasn’t a game, from what I saw, it was more… if that was a game it was a pretty rough game.
“I couldn’t hear what they were saying. The conversation and action became so worrying for the couple sitting next to them that the woman put her hands over her mouth in shock.”
As does a line in this article:
Last December, there were concerns raised when she and Saatchi had a another bust-up at Scott’s.
He put his hand over her mouth in an apparent bid to shut her up.
Putting those together, the shot was obtained by having a concealed paparazzo lie in wait with a telephoto lens (the fuzzy nature of the photographs is also a giveaway). The reference to this not being the first such occasion suggests that the photographer may have been stationed there specifically to capture such an incident.
Second, think about what has to happen to make the story libel-proof. To ensure that the paper can fall back on the Reynolds defence, they have to put the allegation to Charles Saatchi and get him to comment on it. In other words, they had to tip off the abuser in advance of publication. It is not particularly far-fetched to think that they might accuse the victim of setting him up, or just generally use it as another pretext for violence.
Third, no suggestion has been made that Nigella Lawson consented to these photographs being published.
A tasteless pun.
Put simply, the Mirror, likely acting on knowledge that Charles Saatchi had form, stationed a paparazzo in his usual haunt in the hope of catching him in the act (or took advantage of an enterprising paparazzo who decided to do this of his own accord). Once they got the photos they tipped off a potential abuser and then splashed the pictures all over the front page. Not one or two photos to confirm that it was what it looked like, but complemented by a full online gallery, complete with a tasteless reference to an olive branch (the foliage in the photos).
If they knew that she was, or might be, the victim of domestic violence, they took the decision that the best course of action was to get them papped.
They took pictures of a woman who, in the words of one onlooker “had been abused and humiliated in public”, and decided to magnify the publicity of the abuse and humiliation she received. They decided to tip off an abusive husband, with no evidence of any regard for the wife’s safety.
Now consider the likely consequences: an enraged abuser, a humiliated victim at an elevated risk. Rather than going to Nigella Lawson in confidence, offering her support, asking whether she wanted the photos published, or going directly to the police, they picked a fight with a Saatchi on his home turf: PR. So far, he has played the PR game pretty well considering his hand. If the relationship is indeed one of control, the ratchet may well have tightened. If she wants to leave the relationship, the publication may have actually made it more difficult to do so.
The decision to publish does not appear to have been taken out of concern for a victim of domestic violence, but out of a desire to sell newspapers masked in sanctimony.
Although the original story was published in the Sunday People, the Mirror’s sister Sunday paper, I have referred to both papers as “the Mirror”. They use the same website, are owned by the same company, and are treating this story as a joint effort. There seems to be little point distinguishing between the two titles.
November 29th, 2012 — Media
According to pundits, Leveson LJ’s report proposes the banning of off-the-record discussions. This would obviously be a major curtailment of the effectiveness of the press, and unworkable in theory as well as in practice (how do you enforce a ban on something that is done on the basis of there being no evidence of it?).
In particular, it has been suggested that this would amount to a ban of briefings on Lobby terms, and remove one of the institutions that oils the Westminster machine.
This is getting repeated with a certain amount of indignation to suggest that Leveson LJ fundamentally doesn’t understand how the press works, and so the report should be ignored as some sort of overbearing attempt at censorship. Various journalists are hopping up and down about this.
Except that neither Leveson LJ, nor his report, suggest any such thing. Here is the closest thing to approach the matter:
The first thing to note is that this does not relate to off-the-record briefing generally. The remarks are specifically confined to press-police briefings. The report simply doesn’t deal with such briefings more generally.
Second, in the same section (but not in the image here) the Report accepts the necessity and value of off-the-record briefing. As you will see from the image, there is no suggestion that the practice should stop. Indeed they are considered ‘legitimate police and media interactions’!
What is proposes is much more modest. It is that the term ‘off-the-record’ should be discontinued in favour of the terms mentioned in the shaded box above. This is because as it stands the existing term has multiple meanings and it’s not always clear which is meant. It’s a simple matter of a practical recommendation, and there’s no suggestion that this should be enforced by any regulator, statutory or otherwise. It’s just a simple recommendation that the press are free to take up or reject as they like.
There is no proposal to ban off the record briefings, and those members of the press jumping on this bandwagon are damaging their credibility in saying so. It’s hardly the most sensible approach to defend ‘freedom of the press’ when, as a member of that same press, you fail to check basic facts.
August 23rd, 2012 — Humour
In the furore over the Julian Assange case, much has been made of a purported offer made by Mr Assange to be interviewed by the Swedish Prosecution Authority in the Ecuadorean Embassy.
This post has been picked up on by @loveandgarbage, a Scottish Lawyer, who claims that the well-known case of Smith v DPP and Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police  UKSC 666 provides a sound legal basis for conducting such an interview. He summarises the case here.
As a result of this crucial case it is the right of any accused person who has breached bail conditions and is located in England to tell the prosecuting authorities where, when, and how he or she should be questioned. Given this decision it is unsurprising that supporters of Julian Assange are pointing out that he should be allowed to determine where and when he is questioned in relation to the accusations against him. After all it is an absolute right of the suspect or accused in any criminal case to control the process, fought for over many long years. I am only surprised that so many lawyers south of the border and in Sweden seem oblivious to this key legal principle.
This is, however, one of the worst examples of a Misleading Case I have ever seen.
Although it is true that factually this case is very similar to that one, the principle loveandgarbage extracts from it is closer to garbage than love.
What is overlooked here, and it really is a key part of the ratio, is that the maisonette was in West London. That was the narrow ground upon which the appeal was upheld.
As Lord Hope said:
“West London is generally understood to be a wonderful part of the world where people are of sufficient wealth that they can be trusted to answer the questions truthfully and honestly. I, like many of my brother judges, live in West London and some of my best friends are there. I am convinced that absolutely nobody who can afford to live there could be of such disreputable character that they would need to be treated like a common criminal in a police interview. It is on this narrow ground that we allow the appeal. If the Appellant had lived in, for example, Bermondsey, it would be a completely different matter and the Court would have to pay careful attention to such matters as the appellant’s income, schooling, background and demeanour before granting this right.”
In so ruling the Court made it clear that it was extending the principle established in Sturges v Bridgman (1879) LR 11 Ch D 852, which held that “what would be a nuisance in Belgrave Square would not necessarily be so in Bermondsey”, and firmly established that Londoners are to be afforded differential treatment based on their postcode.
It is not correct to describe the right as absolute. Indeed, given that the Ecuadorean Embassy is, allegedly, sovereign territory outside the United Kingdom, it is not clear whether the ratio would apply to such a case. The Court was emphatic that the interview, and the suspect had to be “in West London”. Assange, however, claims to be in the sovereign territory of Ecuador. Accordingly, there are strong grounds for arguing that he is not in West London at all, and should be interviewed like the ordinary inhabitants of Bethnal Green (DPP v Jones  UKHL 123).
It is this sort of sloppy misreporting and misrepresentation of the law, coupled with an uncritical retweeting of anything that appears to support one’s case, that has bedevilled sensible discussion of this case. One hopes that from here on in things would be made clearer.
August 17th, 2012 — Humour
There are many places where you can find serious, informed and rigorous writing and speaking about this stupendously important case—unfortunately, the “Garrulous Law” blog is not one of those places.
I think that chap just made my week.
August 16th, 2012 — Human Rights, International
You cannot help but have seen the decision of Ecuador to grant Julian Assange asylum from Sweden/USA/UK/etc. As expected, the internet has exploded with arguments and conspiracy theories.
You do not have to believe that Julian Assange is guilty to disbelieve the more ludicrous conspiracy theory being promoted by Wikileaks at the moment.
To understand this, let’s look at four possible ways of analysing what’s going on.
1. US Conspiracy
The central allegation is that the USA is using these proceedings to extradite him and subject him to a trial for treason, where he is at risk of being subjected to the death penalty.
Looking solely at what is the incontrovertible legal situation, this is what you have to be alleging if you want to make this story stick:
The United States, in order to prosecute an Australian national with a view to subjecting him to the death penalty, has persuaded two individuals to accuse him of a crime that is notoriously difficult to prove, in order to get him extradited from a country with a very US-friendly extradition treaty, to another country with much stronger protections against extraditions to the USA. This extraditing country is legally unable to extradite him to the USA if he faces the death penalty. This is done using a legal mechanism that then requires both countries to approve his extradition to the USA. This is to be done using a legal framework that has already taken the best part of two years with no end in sight, with multiple legal obstacles along the way in both the past and future.
Alternatively, they have done this to engage in extraordinary rendition of a man with a gargantuan media profile, and without regard to the major diplomatic outcry this would cause from the UK, Sweden, Australia, the EU and the rest of the world.
This is to be done in preference to:
- Extraditing him directly from the UK;
- Waiting for a man with a reputation for being itinerant to walk into a friendlier jurisdiction; or
- Waiting for him to settle in Sweden before commencing proceedings.
2. US Conspiracy Lite
The alternative, broadly, is this:
The USA persuaded two women to concoct false charges against Julian Assange to trash his credibility. Assange has decided to avoid a trial if at all possible as he doesn’t fancy his chances on a politically motivated charge.
3. Assange is Innocent
The women are mistaken or lying. The case is false, but the USA has nothing to do with it. Assange has decided to avoid a trial if possible for the simple reason that he wants to avoid litigation risk if at all possible.
4. Assange is Guilty
Julian Assange is a rapist and is trying to evade justice.
Of these theories, fair-minded people would say that both 3 and 4 remain on the table until he has been tried. Number 2 is conceivable, though most people would view it as unlikely. But number 1 is ludicrous. Why wikileaks and Assange’s lawyers are running with this argument is beyond me.
August 13th, 2012 — Crime, Human Rights, Politics
If you’ve been remotely following the legal news, you’ll have come across #Porntrial. I’m not going to go into the details, which are accurately summarised by Nick Cohen.
A recurring theme of the coverage has been to blame the CPS, and Keir Starmer personally as DPP, for pursuing these cases. In short, prosecutions weren’t in the public interest and charges should not have been pressed.
But is it fair to lump all the blame on the CPS this way?
The public interest test is not as straightforward as commentators imagine. How it works is set out in detail in the Code for Crown Prosecutors. Specifically:
4.12 A prosecution will usually take place unless the prosecutor is sure that there are public interest factors tending against prosecution which outweigh those tending in favour, or unless the prosecutor is satisfied that the public interest may be properly served, in the first instance, by offering the offender the opportunity to have the matter dealt with by an out-of-court disposal (see section 7). The more serious the offence or the offender’s record of criminal behaviour, the more likely it is that a prosecution will be required in the public interest.
The CPS is required to work from a presumption that prosecution is in the public interest, and only decide otherwise if there are specific factors pointing against that presumption (again, these can be found in the CCP). If someone has done something that meets the evidential test for criminal liability, then one has to assume prosecution is in the public interest absent any special factors. In this case, it’s hard to see what those factors could have been.
The CPS’s public interest test does not allow them to decide which laws they wish to enforce. It is there for exceptional circumstances that suggest prosecution should not occur. But it works upon the basis that behaviour attracting criminal liability should be prosecuted in the absence of those circumstances.
The real problem here isn’t with the DPP or the CPS. The problem is with the law. This is an area that is notoriously retrograde. Laws on ‘extreme pornography’ were criticised at the time for the potential to result in precisely such a prosecution as happened here. They remain deserving of that criticism. Section 63 CJIA ’08 is sloppy, poorly-defined, unjustified knee-jerk legislation.
Put simply, a prosecution such as that of Simon Walsh was simply waiting to happen. That the CPS were obliged to prosecute is not particularly their fault: faced with a straightforward contravention of the law and an absence of special factors, their discretion was seriously limited. They don’t get to choose which laws to enforce.
The real target of people’s attentions should not be the CPS, but the law they were required to enforce.
July 3rd, 2012 — General
June 17th, 2012 — Education
Howard Jacobson defends the art of learning poetry by rote.
The poetry we commit to memory when we are young stays with us as a solace and an inspiration – an emotional no less than an intellectual resource – long after we have forgotten the mere accidents of our lives.
It’s a common complaint of student on, for example, the GDL, that there is too much rote learning. There is a general reluctance to see rote learning as having educational value, favouring instead the teaching of analysis as all.
I remember this when taught History, where the ability to critically analyse the era was given primacy to the detriment of learning the hard facts and events of the era.
This is problematic. Rote learning is an absolutely vital skill. All the analytical skills in the world are pointless if you can’t remember to what principles and facts they apply.
It is of course true that analytical skills are important and essential, but they require that you know the basic facts and principles.
You can’t properly analyse, for example, a historical question unless you know the underlying facts, assumptions and context. Those have to simply be remembered. There is no getting around it.
Likewise in law, you have to remember legal principles, case names, and material facts. You also have to get to grips with the factual basis of a case and remember the salient details. It looks deeply unimpressive in court to have to constantly keep checking things compared to the advocate who can do so from memory. You need this contextual knowledge in your head so you can bring it to bear quickly.
More generally, rote learning speeds you up to do the more important bits of analysis. For example in maths, if you know your times tables by rote, you can free up time and effort to focus on the more difficult parts of a problem, instead of having to go through a laborious and repetitive process of working out the more basic elements.
Similarly in law if you can remember, for example, the American Cyanamid; Ready Mixed Concrete; or Ghosh test (Interim relief; employee status; criminal dishonesty), you can save time by getting onto the important part of your job as a lawyer: applying and assessing how the law works, rather than what the law is.
Good analysis and insight also require rote learning. First, it builds up your contextual knowledge. The more you know, the deeper, better and more insightful your analysis can be. Moreover, the process of committing matters to memory forces you to understand them. You are more likely to understand a legal principle that you have spent time committing to memory than one you have simply highlighted.
Rote learning and analysis are not in conflict; they complement. You need to remember certain things
On a presentational level too, if you can remember by rote key cases and principles, you not only save time, but come across as more reliable than someone fumbling through their books and papers for the salient principles and facts. If a judge asks you a question, an immediate and correct response if far more impressive.
People often complain that the GDL, for example, is an exercise in pure rote-learning. It isn’t; the bulk of the marks come from the ability to analyse and apply the law. There is considerably more rote learning than other courses, but that is in fact an extremely useful exercise that helps you in the long run.
It is true that the lawyer’s real skill is to apply the law. But knowing it is a prerequisite. And if you’re being paid to do the former rather than the latter, the less time you have to spend overall doing the latter makes you a better lawyer. That is best achieved by committing the key principles and ideas to memory.
There is, for once, no way round it.
February 22nd, 2012 — Constitution, Politics
Occupy London Stock Exchange have lost their appeal against the decision to turf them out of the churchyard of St. Paul’s.
I haven’t read the judgment in its entirety, but thought I’d pick up on one specific aspect.
At paragraphs 29-31:
- With the exception of Ms Samede, the defendants making the present applications are seeking to set aside all the orders made by Lindblom J, on the basis that they contend that the Judge ought not to have found for the City at all, but should have dismissed the claim and allowed the Camp to continue in place. It is convenient to deal first with one or two rather esoteric arguments raised by Mr Randle-Jolliffe.
- First, he challenged the judgment on the ground that it did not apply to him, as a ‘Magna Carta heir’. But that is a concept unknown to the law. He also says that his ‘Magna Carta rights’ would be breached by execution of the orders. But only chapters 1, 9 and 29 of Magna Carta (1297 version) survive. Chapter 29, with its requirement that the state proceeds according to the law, and its prohibition on the selling or delaying of justice, is seen by many as the historical foundation for the rule of law in England, but it has no bearing on the arguments in this case. Somewhat ironically, the other two chapters concern the rights of the Church and the City of London, and cannot help the defendants. Mr Randle-Jolliffe also invokes ‘constitutional and superior law issues’ which, he alleges, prevail over statutory, common law, and human rights law. Again that is simply wrong – at least in a court of law.
- Another ground he raised was the contention that the City had no locus standi to bring the proceedings ‘as the current Mayoral position has been previously usurped by the Guilds and Aldermen in Contravention of the City of London’s 1215 Royal Charter’. We do not understand that point, not least because both the Lord Mayor and the Aldermen and Guilds (through the Commonalty and Citizens) are included in the claimants.
This is yet another case in which Freeman ideas have been decisively rejected by a court. Another reasonably high-profile case is Doncaster MBC v Watson and Haigh  EWHC B15 (Fam). At the lower end of things, the courts are alive to their existence and prepared to take robust action to prevent it wasting their time.
The problem I have, and it may be because I’m feeling charitable, is that I genuinely don’t understand how, by their own logic, Freemanry is supposed to work.
Set aside the massive conceptual problems the idea has. Let’s concede arguendo that the Freemen are right and that the institutions we call courts aren’t really courts but commercial operations, and that they do not recognise the supremacy of Magna Carta, “common law” and other superior forms of law. Let’s also suggest for the moment that statutes really do require consent to be binding, and the “courts” are fundamentally wrong in suggesting otherwise. Let’s assume all of that for the moment.
The problem I have in understanding this is that, even if this were all to be correct, I cannot see how it advances their goals one bit. Freeman tactics and techniques are used, not in the support of principle, but as a straightforward practical tool. It’s used to evade: being bound by injunctions; eviction; parking tickets; criminal prosecutions and debts. These are primarily practical matters. The Freeman ideas are not used on the strength of their moral philosophy or legal analysis, but because they offer you a quick fix. In short, Freemanism is about providing something that works.
But it’s manifestly obvious that, even if the Freeman analysis of the law sketched above is correct, it is entirely ineffective in practice. Even if you refuse to recognise the moral or legal authority of the courts, it cannot be denied that they have real, practical power. Indeed, Freemen tend to refer to these institutions as “de facto courts”. These courts do not recognise the validity of Freeman principles and arguments. Any such argument advanced before them is going to fall entirely flat and be entirely unsuccessful.
Why, then, persist? If your goal is to take a stand on a matter of principle, fair enough. But this isn’t where Freeman arguments are deployed. They are used like any other legal argument: to achieve a practical outcome in your favour. Yet they stand zero chance of achieving that if we discount any nuisance effect it might have. Freemen go to court to win, but even on their own analysis, the fora in which they use their arguments will not accept them, making loss inevitable.
I can’t be the only one thinking this.
UPDATE: Paul Randle-Joliffe, one of the litigants in this case, has got in touch to ask me to point out that the ideas sketched out, after the quote from the judgment, as a summary of Freeman legal analysis do not represent the submissions he made before the Court of Appeal.
December 15th, 2011 — Crime, Media
Because if you tell me to, I will.
The Commentator is a relatively recent aggregate of centre-right blogs on the web. Today it has come up with this gem of an article:
How calling someone a “white bitch” is not racist and being a drunken Muslim saves you from jail.
The byline is equally subtle:
The defence of the drunk Somalian women was that they were Muslim and so weren’t used to drinking. The judge suspended the sentence.
The article is a particularly bad one, made worse by the dismissive response when it was challenged. It is riddled with inaccuracies, sloppy research and a poor understanding of how the law works.
The article focuses on three contentions that it suggests show that the law is not applied consistently in this country: the Edward Woolard case; the LSE-Guardian “Reading the Riots” report; and an attack on a care worker where the perpetrators received suspended sentences. Both this, and the article on which it is based, are build on extremely shaky legal foundations.
Edward Woolard is accused of receiving soft treatment from the authorities for his offence:
Instead of charging him with attempted murder, he was convicted of violent disorder and will likely serve a little over half of his thirty-two month sentence. It’s also unsurprising to note that Trade Union Congress supporters and the Socialist Worker Online are supporting Woollard, the latter referring to him as a “political prisoner” and insisting you send him a Christmas card.
This paragraph is utterly ignorant of the true legal position. It was never open to the CPS to charge him with attempted murder, nor was his sentence in any way unusual, as I blogged at the time. He got a textbook sentence for a textbook charge for a textbook offence. The CPS could not have charged him with attempted murder for three reasons. First, unlike full murder, attempted murder requires only an intention to kill. Intending GBH is insufficient. Second, even if the fire extinguisher had landed on someone and killed them, the more appropriate charge, as the authorities bear out, is unlawful act manslaughter. Third, you cannot present a case of “attempted unlawful act manslaughter”. It’s not open to you to do so. The CPS charged him with the appropriate offence, and he got the usual sentence. There was nothing remarkable about it.
So this isn’t an example of unequal treatment before the law.
The next plank of the article is Reading the Riots:
While harsher than usual sentences were doled out, following the initial shock and outrage thieves, looters and arsonists weren’t effectively condemned or shamed by society. Instead, we’ve been preposterously seeking out their rationale or intimating that “we are all to blame”– as one recent BBC Newsnight guest argued. The parents won’t take the blame and the Guardian and LSE insist that somehow it is anyone’s fault but the rioters.
There’s a sleight of hand here. The article is about equal treatment before the law. It notes that in fact rioters got ‘harsher than usual sentences’, which undermines its claim that we’ve somehow gone soft. Then it does a clever little bit of misdirection. Despite undermining their case, they argue that in truth it supports them because of the societal response.
But this is an article about the application of the law, isn’t it? What Guardian journalists and LSE researchers think about the underlying causes of the riots doesn’t have any relevance to whether the law is being applied equally, much though they might wish to think so.
So far, so bad.
This all builds up to the central theme of the article, that a group of attackers got off lightly because they claimed they were drunk Muslims. If that sounds like a caricature, please remember that I am only repeating the title of the article.
This is the offending (and offensive) part of the article:
Not content with calling care worker Rhea Page a “white bitch”, the Somalian women set upon her, leaving her “black and blue” and subsequently ushering her into unemployment due to the substantial mental trauma she suffered. Miss Page commented: “I honestly think they attacked me just because I was white. I can’t think of any other reason.”
But seventeen months later, Judge Robert Brown dismissed such claims and the women were not charged with racial aggravation. Judge Brown said, “I’m going to suspend the sentence” and that he accepted the attackers’ claims that they felt Miss Page’s partner used unreasonable force to defend her. In our estimation, from the video below, he was more restrained than we might have been.
Gary Short, who defended the attackers said: “They’re Somalian Muslims and alcohol or drugs isn’t something they’re used to.”
This is what qualifies as a legal defence in twenty-first century Britain. No need to worry about the law. No need to be concerned with the consequences of your actions. If you can find an excuse, especially if it is in a minority religion, then you’ll be free to go.
While it is an undoubtedly awful attack, the reporting here is truly dreadful.
Let’s start from the worst and work up: “This is what qualifies as a legal defence”. No, it doesn’t. The defendants all pleaded guilty to ABH. This is a plea in mitigation. It will not get you off, and you are not allowed to deny the facts of the offence. This is not hair-splitting, or jargon, as the Commentator suggested earlier on Twitter. It is completely misleading to call this a legal defence; it suggests (as was, I suspect, the author’s intent) that if you go to court and say “I’m a Muslim/Jew/Mormon etc.” you’ll be acquitted. That is not what happened. Drunkenness is a legal defence only in some very narrow and specific circumstances; the rest of the time, it is no excuse. What’s more, taking one sentence of a plea in mitigation out of context is extremely misleading: without the context you simply can’t know what the thrust of Mr Short’s submissions were. At an informed guess though, it is unlikely that he was saying “let them off because they belong to a minority group”.
Moreover, it’s not even clear that such mitigation really is about their religion. The central thrust of such an argument is not that they’re Muslims, but that they’re not used to drink. Presumably that’s to suggest that their behaviour was out of character, which is a normal piece of mitigation. Their being Muslim would only be evidence to support that proposition, in the same way that my being Jewish might be evidence that suggests I didn’t rob the local butcher for its finest pork chops. But the point here is that it is a matter of evidence, which is case-specific, rather than the law.
“You’ll be free to go” is no better. They weren’t free to go. They have all got suspended sentences. That is as harsh a penalty as the court can impose short of actually sending you to prison. You have to comply with strict conditions (including, here, 150 hours of community service each and curfews), and if you breach those conditions, or commit another offence, the sentence is activated and you will go straight to prison. This is not a soft option, and it isn’t unequal treatment.
“Judge Robert Brown dismissed such claims and the women were not charged with racial aggravation”. That sentence simply doesn’t work. Either the charges were dismissed by the judge, or they weren’t charged, but it can’t be both. The Telegraph suggests that they were never charged with it. That would be perfectly normal. Unlike in the USA, English prosecutors have to be economical with charging practices. You only charge for the minimum offence you need to prove to get the appropriate sentence. If the CPS felt that this was never going to get a sentence longer than five years, then there is no advantage in charging them with the harder-to-prove racially aggravated form of the offence. This approach would be taken in any other case, irrespective of racial issues. It certainly does not suggest the CPS went soft.
“Accepted the attackers’ claims that they felt Miss Page’s partner used unreasonable force to defend her.” No he didn’t. You have to look more closely at what the judge is actually reported to have said:
He said he accepted the women may have felt they were the victims of unreasonable force from Miss Page’s partner Lewis Moore, 23, who tried desperately to defend her from the attack.
That is like the non-apology you get from someone who’s said something offensive: “I’m sorry you feel that way”. The formulation is entirely subjective. The judge is saying that he accepts that the defendants themselves may have subjectively felt they were the victims; he does not say that they objectively were the victims. In fact, he rejected their claim that the victim’s boyfriend started the fight.
So all that leaves is the fact of the suspended sentence. Why did they get it? All we are told is that in the plea in mitigation their lawyer said they weren’t used to drink, and subsequently they got a suspended sentence. What we are not told is whether the one had any relation to the other, or, if it did, how significant that was. Again, without seeing the fuller plea in mitigation it’s not really possible to tell why they were given a suspended sentence.
Brown J said:
“This was ugly and reflects very badly on all four of you. Those who knock someone to the floor and kick them in the head can expect to go inside, but I’m going to suspend the sentence.”
That suggests that this case had some particular factors that just pushed it below an immediate custodial sentence (though, like any suspended sentence, it passed the custody threshold). There could be several good reasons why that would be. First, they appear to be first-time offenders. Prison is generally not seen as appropriate for a first offence if it can be avoided, as the risks of exposure to hard drugs and more serious criminals risks producing someone more dangerous in the long run. If a non-custodial option can work, then it is generally more appropriate. If the defence’s submissions are what I think they are, i.e. that this was out of character, then the court would look favourably on an attempt to try and give them one last chance (though backed with serious sanctions if they mess up). Moreover, the defendants all entered early guilty pleas, which provides an automatic sentence discount. That may well have pushed them just below the immediate sentence line. Had they chosen to go to trial, and put the victim through the ordeal of re-living the event and the attendant uncertainty of getting a conviction, they would likely have gone straight to prison for a longer sentence. Finally, and more interestingly, there seems to be a particular personal circumstance at play:
As well as the suspended sentence, Hibo Maxamed, who needs dialysis three times a week for a kidney complaint, received a four-month curfew between 9pm and 6am.
That could easily sway the court in favour of avoiding a prison sentence. The prison service would have significant difficulties giving him the appropriate treatment. If a sentence could be found that would avoid that, it could be looked on favourably. The other defendants may have had connected carer roles that made the court reluctant to send them to prison. None of those factors, however, would count in any way as special treatment. They are ordinary sentencing considerations and can be found in the guidelines. There is nothing to suggest that there was any unequal treatment here.
There are, of course, aspects of the law that are open to criticism. One can argue that the conditions of suspended sentences aren’t strong enough; that an inflexible sentence discount leads to practical injustice; and so on. I’m not a bleeding-heart liberal in terms of sentencing. But the debate has to be done on the basis of everyone sharing the same basic facts about things. Commentary on and criticism of the law is necessary in a healthy society. It must, however, be based on a sound understanding of how the law works, not a load of dismissive hand-waving.