Entries from December 2011 ↓

Put Up or Shut Up

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.