Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Grenfell Tower: What lends legitimacy?

Legitimacy, most formally defined, means in accordance with the law but another and equally valid meaning is having the quality of acceptance.  The furore that has surrounded the appointment of Sir Martin Moore-Bick has exposed a tension between those two definitions.

On the one hand here is the recently retired Vice President of the Civil Division of the Court of Appeal.  Barrister since 1969, QC since 1986, Recorder since 1990, High Court judge since 1995, Lord Justice of Appeal since 2005.  Legal and judicial careers can be more glittering and exalted, but not much more.  Being a criminal practitioner I never appeared in front of him but from what I have read his decades of experience in commercial cases would make him ideally suited to the forensic disentangling of the contractual threads that led to the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

On the other hand here is a posh old white man, educated at The Skinner's School, Tunbridge Wells and Christ's College, Cambridge about whom the only thing non-lawyers have heard is that he upheld a decision permitting Westminster Council to offer a tenant that had been evicted housing 50 miles away without disclosing what local alternatives were available.  The Supreme Court reversed his ruling.  What can this man know of the pain, anguish and fears of the bereaved, homeless and dispossessed of  Grenfell Tower?  How committed can he be to exposing what caused this to happen and who is to blame?

No sooner has he been appointed there are calls from some quarters for his resignation, including from the newly elected Labour MP for Kensington in whose constituency Grenfell Tower stands: still bearing its victims unknown and perhaps unknowable.  The (new) Lord Chancellor has leapt to his defence and rightly so.  But of course he was appointed by the Prime Minister so the Lord Chancellor loses no political capital in defending the appointment.  Any allegation that Sir Martin will not faithfully and lawfully discharge his duties in chairing the inquiry should be evidenced not bandied about by those who should know better.  

When the criticism being levelled is that you hail from the establishment being defended by the establishment affords you no defence.  In a very real sense however this criticism is absurd.  Inquiries are what judges do.  They are what judges are trained for and experienced in.  To complain that the chair of the inquiry is a judge would be as ridiculous as complaining that the heroic firefighters who gallantly and selflessly fought the blaze had a background in putting out fires.

What the critics are really saying though is that the outcome of the inquiry may lack legitimacy if the chair is from 'them' not from 'us'.  But where would a chair from 'us' come from?  It is hard to imagine that a single member of the Court of Appeal grew up in a Grenfell Tower, or ever did.  What this terrible fire and its inquiry may be exposing is that the male, pale and stale complaint is not just a manifestation of special pleading but the articulation of a legitimate anxiety that if judges don't look and sound like the people they serve there is a danger their service will not be acknowledged or, more dangerously yet, accepted.

Inquiries have not had a good time of recent.  The history of Hillsborough is the springboard.  There is the £190 million cost of the Saville Inquiry.  There is the 7 years it took the Iraq Inquiry to reach publication.  There is the extraordinary turnover of leadership of the Child Sexual Abuse Inquiry.  It would be unconscionable for the Grenfell Tower Inquiry to go awry before it has even started.

There is a solution to anxieties about the creation of a representative judiciary and that is proper funding of legal aid.  If judges are to be drawn from all quarters of society then legal careers need to be open to all quarters.  That means enabling the impecunious able to come to law in the first place and ensuring that they can make a living from it.

Meanwhile those that criticise Sir Martin Moore-Bick's appointment would do well to have their evidence to hand and good explanation for their preferred candidate.  It is a cornerstone of our justice system that all evidence is considered before judgement is cast.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Debating with Pros and Cons

Over a door at reception to Her Majesty's Prison Pentonville there is a sign: Beware of the sliding doors.  I don't know how many of its inmates are fans of Gwyneth Paltrow's 1998 film of the same name exploring the fickleness of fate but it's not a bad motto for the prison that is 'celebrating' its 175th birthday this year.  Pentonville, or The Ville, has had a tough time recently with a homicide and a spate of stabbings last year and, adding to anxieties about the prison, a double escape.

Kudos to the prison authorities therefore for continuing to embrace a relationship with the inspired organistation Vocalise which I am proud to say is an endeavour founded by Gray's, my own Inn of Court.  Vocalise sends mentors into partner prisons to teach inmates the skill of parliamentary style debating.  The inmates debate each other and periodically host matches against visiting students (all their matches are home games, for obvious reasons!).

I answered a last minute call up to judge a debate between a team of four inmates against four students from the Cambridge Union, one of the foremost debating clubs in the country if not the world.  Even with the expert tutelage of Gray's Inn Bar students I didn't much fancy the chances of the plucky inside amateurs.  How wrong I was...

Criminal barristers get very used to visiting prisons but only ever to the quarters designated for legal visits.  It is unsurprisingly extremely difficult to gain access to the wings of a prison unless you are on official prison business.  It was therefore, despite my familiarity with prisons and cells and gaolers, still a remarkable experience to stand in The Ville's central hall with grandfather clock and big brass bell and look down the long flights of the radiating wings.  The Ville is 50 years older than my own antique seeming home, it was built when Dickens was 30 years old and it is astonishing that it is still in use in the 21st century.  Walking through G Wing, scene of the stabbings and location of the escape, it was possible to see inmates lying on their bunk beds in the strikingly small cells.

The venue for the debate was the library where among other tomes for loan was, improbably, 'Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies', there was also '10,000 Dreams Explained' and Victor Frankl's 'Man's Search for Meaning' on display suggesting plenty of appetite for introspection and understanding the effects of incarceration.

The format of the debate involved a student starting with a 5 minute speech followed by an inmate opposing with two further speeches on both sides, some questions from the floor, then two concluding summary speeches of 3 minutes.  Points of information were allowed if accepted and the first and last minute of each address was protected from interventions.

Not only did the inmates more than hold their own they deployed and answered points of information to powerful effect.  When it was suggested that cigarettes or 'burn' were an essential release for stress and tension engendered by being locked up for the vast majority of the day one of the students responded that some other relaxant could be found prompting a quick witted inmate to enquire who would be supplying the yoga mats and Werthers Originals.  The inmates explained that 'burn' was an essential currency and a student, without realising that prisoners have no access to cash, naively queried what was wrong with money. One of the inmates replied that perhaps they could be issued with Bitcoins.

In fairness to the Cambridge team, who were all new to the Vocalise programme, it was hard to imagine what they thought they were letting themselves in for.  Certainly turning up to a prison trying to persuade a room full of inmates that they could and should forego their tobacco was rather like expecting turkeys to vote for Christmas.  Nonetheless, without any hesitation my fellow judge and I were of the unanimous view that the inmates carried the day.

It was poignant that on a day where the Queen's Speech made no mention of intended and much needed prison reforms that I was seeing with my own eyes and hearing with my own ears the good that comes from teaching those incarcerated the virtue of reasoned rhetoric over fists and flare ups.  Vocalise is a good thing and expanstion of its reach and remit can't come too soon.  I am strongly of the opinion that nobody should be empowered to imprison another until they have slept a night in a cell.  While I, thankfully, did not have that experience it wasn't only the inmates that learnt something today.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Up with the lark; down with the nightingale - Justice Jaded

Where is justice done? When is justice done?  These are two questions that almost never get asked as being peripheral to the main and only question: Is justice done?  However they are essential questions when considered in light of Her Majesty's Courts & Tribunals Service's (HMCTS) proposed Flexible Operating Hours for courts.  A pilot scheme proposed for London and elsewhere will see some courts sitting as early as 0800 and some sitting as late as 2030.  

It is clear from this proposal that in the mind of HMCTS justice is done in a courtroom (where) and only as that court is sitting (when).  If true it must conversely be the case that at no time and in no place outside the courtroom is justice being done.  This is nonsense.

Barristers go to court but they don't prepare in courtrooms they prepare in offices (chambers) equally judges don't prepare in courtrooms they prepare in their offices (chambers).  When barristers and judges are in court they can't at the same time be in their chambers preparing.  The other place they can't be is at their homes with their family and children.  If I sound like an idiot pointing this out it is because it is an idiotic thing to have to point out.

At the moment the vast majority of Crown Courts and Magistrates' Courts sit between 1000 and 1615 with an hour break for lunch between 1300-1400.  If there is a trial going on the court will sit in the morning and rise in the afternoon.  This is not good enough for HMCTS.  HMCTS feels that more justice can be squeezed into one court in one day like putting more toothpaste in the tube.  The plan is that every courtroom will sit twice in a day.  Early morning to lunch.  Early afternoon to supper.  One day twice as much justice. 

The best bit is that it's flexible and of course that's what we all want in our lives: flexibility.  However flexibility is only flexible when it's on your terms.  When flexibility is imposed on you that is something else; it's called inflexibility.  We are creatures of habit.  The Bar is a catastrophic profession for cultivating good habits.  Every day is a nightmare of unpredictability every personal life a litany of missed weddings, funerals, nativity plays and faltering emotional connection with a loved one.

During the constant professional earthquake that is preparing for stressful and difficult trials one small point of certainty is that there will be some (not much) time at the start of theday and some (not much) time at the end for preparation and having a life.  Justice being worked on outside the courtroom so that injustice is avoided inside the courtroom.

If your instinct is that the Bar should shut up and suck it up on this becase everyone else is working 24/7 zero hours contracts reflect of this analogy.  You are about to go in for major life saving cancer surgery.  Now find out that your surgeon is having a childcare crisis at home because the hospital has scheduled your operation to begin an hour before her childminder arrives.  Now find out that your surgeon does not even know your name and hasn't read any of your notes because the surgery he was performing the previous day didn't finish until 2000 and he had a two hour journey to get home and he hasn't slept.

The Bar Council has published a Protocol for Court Sitting Hours. Read it  and support it: otherwise you'll be the one bending over backwards.


Friday, 26 May 2017

The Miserable Month of May

The first responsibility of government is protection of the people.  Judged by that standard the harsh truth is that Mrs May has already failed as Prime Minister.  That is a harsh judgement because what happened in Manchester is something we have been told over many years to steel ourselves for.  It is her bad luck that it has happened on her watch.  However my sympathy for her is significantly tempered by a number of factors.

First the timing of this attack is no coincidence or matter of chance.  We are days away from an election and this savage blow aimed at children having fun underlines the impotence of democracy to safeguard us against undiscriminating death and distress.  Only the most ardent Conservative could argue that this is a necessary election.  It's an election that Mrs May said she would not seek, it has lost us vital time in engaging with the Brexit negotiations, and the whole endeavour smacks of cynical opportunism.

How hollow rings the already hackneyed cliche that Mrs May means strong and stable government.  Not strong enough to save the lives of young girls not stable enough to avoid emptying the barracks.  The government will of course be privy to intelligence that indicates that deploying troops is an absolute necessity but Mrs May must be either blind or panic-stricken if she can't see how symbolically dismal this appears.

Soldiers at the Palace of Westminster would not have stopped the attack in Manchester and should, heaven forbid, another attack follow hot on its heels we can be certain it will not be where the rifles are.  Should that happen the futility of taking the military option will be writ large.

With all that in mind it is extraordinary that some have deplorably suggested that this attack is conveniently timed for Mrs May.  Quite the contrary: an effect of this grievous blow, no doubt intended, is that the much anticipated landslide for the Conservatives will likely now not happen.  Already the polls have shown a remarkable narrowing of the gap between them and Labour.  Why should people fear chaos with Corbyn when they are already experiencing misery with May?

The leaking of the Labour manifesto prompted a frenzy of sneering and derision from the Tory press and commentators all of whom had forgotten that there is no such thing as bad publicity.  At least it contained ideas and real policy proposals.  They may be financially implausible but they were offering something to vote for.  People want to vote for hope not against fear and Mrs May has shown she has nothing to offer for the former and nothing to protect against the latter.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

A preview of Channel 4's The Trial: A Murder in the Family

With good cause many actors hold dear to the maxim: 'Never read your own reviews'. Barristers do not have that luxury; instead every trial concludes with a review announced to your face in open court.  One word or two.  Win or loss.  Success or failure.  Every verdict should be met with a face like a mask but behind that mask roil the strongest emotions: exultation or desolation.  And even the coolest professional detachment can't fend off the self-doubt that assails the defeated.  What did I do wrong? What should I have done differently? Was it me?  And just as the gladiator in the Colosseum can't ask the crowd why they gave the thumbs up or thumbs down it is not merely unprofessional to ask a jury for their reasons it is a criminal offence.

Any barrister worth their salt would give their eyeteeth to know the secrets of the Jury Room.  If you are sensible enough to undertake the South Eastern Circuit Advanced International Advocacy Course at Keble College, Oxford you will reap the benefit of filmed jury deliberations analysing your performance.  Outside of that highly specialist (and expensive) course it is pure conjecture whether you win a trial because of, or in spite of, your advocacy.

All that being said Channel 4's unique series starting this Sunday evening The Trial: A Murder in the Family is going to be an absolute must watch for members of the Bar (and the judiciary for that matter).  Screening nightly over five consecutive nights this innovative programme blends a real judge, real barristers and a real jury trying a murder case as if for real with actors playing the defendant and civilian witnesses.

The judge is the retired Recorder of London, HH Brian Barker CBE QC, no less, prosecution counsel Max Hill QC, past chairman of the Criminal Bar Association and past Leader of the South Eastern Circuit and defence counsel is John Ryder QC a titan of the defence Bar.  A lesson though it no doubt will be to watch them in action for many barristers the real interest will be in seeing what points pique the jury's interest, what they find persuasive and what they find unconvincing.

For the vast majority of viewers that are not practising lawyers this will be as close to real as they can get without sitting in the public gallery of the Old Bailey.  If you like watching crime dramas, legal thrillers, police procedurals this will be unmissable viewing.

I will be personally very interested in watching because I became aware of this project at a very early stage right at the start of last year when I met with one of the producers and lent what small assistance I could to facilitating a connection to the recently retired judiciary.  Once the project was under way I became more closely involved by helping David Etherington QC, who had brilliantly masterminded the creation of the whole case, by assisting with drafting the enormous number of documents that comprise the evidence in even the most 'straightforward' murder trial.  I am very much used to advising on the evidence but this is the first and I suspect only time that I will have written some of it.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

A review of Nina Raine's 'Consent'

Police officers and doctors more than any other professionals suffer from the teeth grinding frustration of seeing their occupations ludicrously misrepresented on the screen. However any visit to the GP or interaction with a police officer rapidly acts as as a corrective to misapprehension about the difference between dramatic licence and often dismal reality.  Furthermore a glut of fly on the wall programmes allow the viewing public to differentiate between fact and fiction from the comfort of their own homes.

The Bar more rarely is the subject of dramatic treatment on the small screen with Silk, starring Maxine Peake, being perhaps the best recent example; although for many over the age of 40 the quintessential TV barrister will always be Rumpole of the Bailey.  Much less often are barristers the subject of documentaries. Even when they have been the cameras in England have always been forbidden from the courtroom.  So whatever appears on screen does not include the main professional endeavour of most barristers which is courtroom advocacy.

This means that unless an individual is caught up within the justice system as either a victim, a witness, a juror or a defendant they may live their whole lives without seeing a barrister on their feet in court.  Before television and radio newspapers, national and local, would carry very full accounts of trial proceedings. Since the advent of the internet and the rapid contraction of print media only a handful of cases are reported and even then almost never in full.  One effect of this is that media reporting at best usually provides a snapshot and sometimes a very misleading one of what happens in court.

Accordingly when a mutual friend put the acclaimed playwright Nina Raine in contact with me last year I was more than happy to discuss with her a work in progress about justice, rape and the involvement of barristers in the justice system.  It was immediately clear to me that here was somebody looking to produce a thoughtful and thought provoking piece about one of the most contentious aspects of the criminal justice system namely the prosecution and defence of serious sexual offences.  However her excellent play 'Consent' is about so much more than this.  It compellingly illustrates the interplay and tensions that exist between reason and feeling in sexual relationships and in friendships.  It also illuminates the hardening effect constant exposure to examinations of sexual violence can have on the private lives of professionals.

The play, on now at the National Theatre, has rightly won rave reviews in The Guardian, The Telegraph, and the Independent.  This is because the cast have expertly brought to life Nina Raine's characters and lent real authenticity to the quickfire exchanges that see loyalties and judgement tip one way then another.  I saw the production alone and eavesdropped shamelessly in the interval to get a sense of the audience's reaction.  It would be fair to say that there was little admiration expressed for the barristers on stage and their approach to work.  This is not a play in which any character engages the sympathy of the audience save for rape victim Gayle, uncompromisingly presented as further victimised by the court process.

It is no place of mine to complain, however, that none of the barristers were very nice! That there are in real life barristers compassionate and skilful operating within an imperfect and underfunded system to achieve just outcomes does not, I hope, need saying.  But with that essential caveat in mind this is an important play and a mighty fine entertainment to boot.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Trial by Camera: who benefits from recorded cross-examination?

Theatre v film.  Some appreciate both art forms equally some prefer one to the other.  What all can agree on is they represent very different experiences for the audience. 

It is worth bearing that consideration in mind when one approaches the Lord Chancellor’s policy that pre-recorded cross-examination for all complainants in rape cases will be introduced in all courts in England and Wales following a (very limited) pilot scheme.

As an aside it is regrettable that the Lord Chancellor refers automatically to victims rather than complainants.  If a person makes a complaint of rape he, generally she, is a complainant.  Very often, if not usually, the purpose of the trial process is to obtain a jury’s determination as to whether they are sure a rape occurred.  Until that verdict is returned it does victims no disservice to talk about complainants as part of the trial process.  This is not a matter of mere semantics.

Barristers get used to a seemingly endless process of consultation on myriad topics from a plethora of sources: chambers, Inn of Court, Criminal Bar Association, Bar Council, Bar Standards Board, Legal Services Board, Ministry of Justice.  Some cynics doubt whether any real regard is ever given to the responses. 

However as a specialist advocate in cases of rape and other serious sexual offences I do not recall being invited for my opinion as to the wisdom or benefit of this particular innovation.  It is akin to the Department of Health asking patients whether video consultations would be welcomed instead of face to face and not thinking to ask doctors whether this is a good idea.

When a rape trial starts it is already usual that the complainant’s account will be presented to the jury by way of playing an Achieving Best Evidence (ABE) interview conducted by a specialist police officer.  Generally cross-examination is then conducted over a live link to a separate room in the court building immediately afterwards.  The ABE interview will usually have been conducted very shortly after a complaint is made to the police often, and inexcusably, many months before the trial actually happens.

All of the evidence is watched by a jury on a TV screen.  The jury do not have a flesh and blood witness in the same room with them.  What studies and what evidence is there as to what effect that has on juries’ assessment of witnesses?  Can the answer really be none?  I am often anxious when prosecuting that this loss of immediacy is actually damaging to the prosecution case.  Watching a screen is just not the same as watching a person.  It scarcely needs pointing out that defendants do not and will not be afforded the same opportunity to give their evidence remotely or pre-recorded.

In principle, however, I do not criticise this development but its workability is going to be fraught with difficulties that, not surprisingly, have a lot to do with money.

In no particular order:
1. Delay – in any case there should be minimal delay between charge and trial.  In rape cases this is especially true and yet it is commonplace for months to pass between these two dates.  That is unfair to complainants but it is also unfair to defendants and jurors having to try matters that have become stale through the passage of time.
2. Disclosure – this word which will be relatively meaningless to the layman is central to the prevention of miscarriages of justice.  In a rape case the completeness of disclosure of undermining material by the prosecution is essential.  Much of that material will be in the hands of the police/prosecution but delay (see 1) slows down readiness for trial.
3. 3rd party material – this is material not in the hands of the police or prosecution but which is nonetheless material that should be provided to the defence.  Generally this encompasses medical records, social services records and school records.  The procedure for obtaining this material is bureaucratic and burdensome and bedevilled by delay (see 1).
4. Court listing – some trials are given fixed start dates in the diary and as a rule rape trials should fall into this category although, deplorably, not all do.  However the majority of trials are placed into warned lists which means a trial can start on any day of an allocated week.  Not surprisingly this plays havoc with barristers’ professional diaries.  Obviously in a case with pre-recorded cross-examination the defence barrister that conducts that cross-examination must be available for the subsequent listing for trial.
5. Movement – by which I mean circumstances in which a need arises to revisit pre-recorded cross examination.  Let’s say a complainant’s pre-recorded cross-examination happens in January with a trial in June.  Ongoing investigation by the police and the defence can produce evidence upon which the complainant will require further cross-examination.
6. The defendant – under the current system a complainant cross-examined on Monday could very likely be followed by the defendant being cross-examined on Tuesday.  He will have had a matter of hours to reflect on the content of that cross-examination.  Under the new scheme defendants may have many months to consider what evidence to give in response to the complainant’s evidence.  This scenario hardly assists the cause of complainants and the prosecution.
7. Everyone else – the rationale for this development is that giving evidence about allegations of rape is especially stressful and traumatic.  What about attempted murder?  What about aggravated burglary?  Is being cross-examined about those offences intrinsically less distressing than a sexual allegation.  Why is pre-recorded cross-examination not being rolled out for all cases?


Time will tell whether this system is actually going to work and I hope the statisticians will keep a very close eye on what effect this has on pleas and the outcome of trials.