Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Double bubble

Excuse the back-to-back posts, this caught my eye.

It is reported that as the prisons creak their way along, a couple of governors were pulling the old switcheroo to try and hoodwink the inspector into thinking that actually, the prisons were doing fine. The thinking seems to have been, "shuffle the problem lags off to a different prison, and bring 'em back when the nosy parkers have gone".

Full story here.

Cuisine of the Crown Court

The most hilarious misapprehension about those of us who have the good fortune to spend our time in the Crown Court is the amount of money we make. An oft-repeated anecdote:

Whilst dining at the house of a friend, I was told that a well-known television actor would be joining us for a drink or six. He swept onto the drive in a gorgeous Jaguar, obligatory blonde bit of fluff tagging along. We engaged in the usual polite chit-chat until I could ask him whether he'd really shagged that Blue Peter presenter, and he asked what I did for a living. I said I was a barrister, and his eyes grew wide.

"Cor, you must be minted then"
"Er, no, not really, no"
"Well, I bet you have a driver to take you to court at least"
"Sorry, what?"
"A driver, you know, a chauffeur"

Ha. Matey was making goodness only knows how much, and had enough left after his cocaine and women had been paid for to drive big fast cars. The car parks of the Inns of Court are stuffed with Astons and Porsches, true. But they belong to the commercial boys and girls, the real big-shots at the top of the profession, who can command £5,000 for an hour in conference.

Us hacks, we're on the peasant-wagons with the rest of you plebs.

It is common to operate at a loss in your early years of practice -- everyone dreads the clerk saying "Mention in Milton Keynes tomorrow, sir". That's £46.50 for a short hearing to adjourn a case, and it's a £30 train ride. If you buy a paper and sandwich, there ain't much left to pay the bills.

This misapprehension goes hand-in-hand with "lawyers' lunches". We usually eat sandwiches, maybe an M&S salad for a treat. Lunch is usually a frantic hour, editing transcripts of interviews and re-photocopying jury bundles, chatting with other counsel, badgering each other to get our clients to plead guilty because it's Friday and the wife wants to get away for the weekend.

So, the Cuisine of the Crown Court. When a big cheque's just come in (£150), a "proper" lunch is called for. What of the grub in the courts then? I should start a Michelin-style guide.

Kingston does a particularly nice English breakfast, Winchester has great bacon sandwiches, Exeter has a lovely restaurant right next door, Liverpool isn't up to much, but is smack in the middle of the centre of town, so it's not a problem. Maidstone is grotty as hell. Woolwich is in the middle of nowhere next to Belmarsh prison, the food is terrible. Any other suggestions?

Lawyers, please add the most hilarious misconception you've come across from members of the public. Bonus points for crackpot conspiracy theories from racists.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Twelve men good and true

The jury system is amazing. It is the safest and surest protection against the tyranny of the state. No man can be deprived of his liberty without his peers condemning him. It is a guard against arbitrary detention. Of course, with a huge array of laws chipping away at our fundamental liberties, my pontificating is pretty out of date. Still, juries are crucial.

In other countries, jurors decide upon the sentence as well as guilt. The risk is obvious. In England, professional judges are required to assess dispassionately the gravity of the offending, with reference to guidelines. The Court of Appeal is perfectly happy to stick its oar in when things aren't as they should be -- "manifestly excessive" or "unduly lenient", as the case may be.

In the good ol' US of A, those who bear the awesome responsibility of deciding whether to end another human's life are the jurors. I am, as I have said before, vehemently opposed to the death penalty. I am also vehemently opposed to the courts being used as a moral tribunal.

So, when I put my feet up in the smoking room after a particularly heavy luncheon of roast haunch of wild boar, to peruse the papers over a snifter of brandy, I nearly had to throw something at the staff. This sort of thing is simply not on.

Citing out-of-context, cherry-picked verses from ancient religious texts is not the way to decide whether one man's crime is of such a gravity that it should be punished by death. I am glad that I live in a country where those who sentence take an oath to do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of this realm, without fear or favour, affection or ill will.

A theocracy is the most hateful form of government, for it affords no liberty of conscience, which is among the most intimate and sacred of man's rights.

By the way, lunch was a sandwich made by my own fair hands, an apple, and a Twirl. And I wolfed it down in about 3 minutes flat. Your tax pennies hard at work. That lunch is a genuine one, however, eaten within the last couple of years, and is fondly remembered and dearly missed.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


Alcohol forms a substantial part of the lives of many of the people that traipse in and out of the local court. The scene is the same up and down the country, I'm sure. I'm also sure you can all picture a stereotypical Friday night -- a few in the pub, on to a noisy bar, maybe a club, a good groping of some semi-conscious partner on the dancefloor, stumble out for some unspeakable meat product snack masquerading as a kebab, then queue for a taxi. That's where someone "looks at yer bird" and you feel obliged to start swinging.

The government comes up with strategies to reduce alcohol-linked offending on a regular basis. These are typically poorly thought out, and merely displace the problem drinking or problem drinkers. However, this isn't a blog about Labour's pathetic attempts to generate quick fixes and the resultant confetti of legislation they have poured forth.

So why do people behave like that when they're drunk? Because alcohol is a disinhibitor? Because alcohol makes people horny and violent?

No, and a thousand times no. People behave as if they are affected in that way, as they expect to be effected in that way. The effects of alcohol are due, in large part, to the cultural expectations of the effects of ethanol.

When I first heard this, I thought it was cobblers, to be fair. But the evidence is there. Double-blind, placebo controlled trials. I make no apologies for quoting at length from the excellent "Watching the English", by Kate Fox:

"Football hooligans, road rage, lager louts, neighbours-from-hell, drunken brawling, delinquency, disorder and downright impudence. These infelicities are invariably attributed either to a vague, idiopathic 'decline in moral standards' or to the effects of alcohol, or both. Neither of these explanations will do. Even the most cursory scan of English social history confirms that our current bouts of obnoxious drunken disorder are nothing new and, even leaving aside the placebo experiments, it is clear that many other nations manage to consume much larger quantities of alcohol than us without becoming rude, violent and generally disgusting.

[...]Everyone is always highly surprised [...] and politely determined to let nothing shake their faith in the evil powers of the demon drink. [...] according to the concerned believers at conferences on 'Alcohol and Public Disorder', alcohol makes
other people do this. They themselves are somehow immune: they can get quite squiffy at the office Christmas party [...] or whatever, without ever throwing a single punch, or even using bad language. Alcohol, it seems, has the specific power to make working-class people violent and abusive. Which if you think about it, is truly miraculous [...]"

That last part, at least, I can vouch for. Beyond drink-drive, the rich don't really go in for alcohol-fuelled crime. The benefits class are firm believers, however.

I find this overwhelming. The entirety of the government's policies are based on the idea that alcohol makes people commit crime. That isn't the case.

Instead of the quick fixes, the government should be working on changing attitudes to alcohol, which is changing society itself. And that is expensive and slow. And won't grab headlines.

So guess what's going to happen?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

All in a day's work

These are three people chosen at random from a busy day in court one. I hope this gives you some idea of what goes on in a courtroom on any given day.

The first one comes in with the Serco officers (can't call them "gaolers" these days). She's black, middle-aged, heavy-set, with braided hair. She peers through the thick glass, looking for her solicitor, who gives her a reassuring smile, before turning to face the bench. They both look presentable. She came from Ghana 12 years ago, on a boat. She is an illegal immigrant. She claimed to have borrowed a Belgian passport with a valid visa to get here.

She is totally illiterate. When she first arrived, she got hold of a fake NI card. It isn't that tough. She used it to get work cleaning. She's worked minimum wage cleaning jobs ever since, living in precarious housing -- friends' sofas, that type of thing. She has no bank account, and no income now she's been taken into custody.

She's been charged with fraud. She pleads guilty, and gets a £200 fine, or one day in custody, which she's served, of course. Immigration will deport her shortly, and her twelve year adventure in England is at an end. As she leaves with the gaolers (sorry), I wonder what will become of her when she gets home. I say "home", but I have no idea what awaits her -- she left Ghana because she had no family or friends whatsoever, and wanted a better life.

Number two is also with the gaolers (my own little rebellion). He is white, thin, and plainly an addict. A glance at his record confirms that -- knocking on for a hundred offences, and most conceivable drug treatment orders have been attempted. He had cocaine and opiates in his system when he was arrested. There was an administrative error in processing his benefits -- so he hadn't had any for four and a half weeks.

He's charged with attempted burglary. It's all on CCTV and he'd admitted trying to get in when he was interviewed. He'd seen some crisps in the shop window, and was hungry, which was why he'd tried to smash the door in. He was supposed to get a letter for a hospital appointment as part of his previous sentence. It never arrived. He got 28 days inside.

The third isn't in custody. He has a large tattoo on his face, further detail about which would identify him. He was seen brandishing a hatchet, stripped to the waist and covered in blood. He's charged with a public order offence. He said in interview that people attacked him, but he didn't see them, because they're "sneaky fuckers".

He then told probation he'd had eight cans, and that the alcohol "interfered with his epilepsy". The psychiatric team have given him the all clear. He attempted suicide two weeks ago. He has previously been an in-patient. He's stopped drinking, and wants to train as a tattoo artist.

The guidelines say three months, he gets 12 weeks suspended for a year.

All in a day's work.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

On a wing and a prayer

An American couple decided that prayer would save their daughter, and declined to seek medical attention. Turns out that prayer didn't save her. They called the emergency services only when she stopped breathing.

They will now be spending one month a year each in jail, for the next six years, one parent in March, one parent in September. There are some inventive sentences available over the pond, it seems.

She had undiagnosed diabetes. Modern science has dealt with the vast majority of what has been killing us for centuries; malaria, polio, mumps, measles, rubella, diarrhoea and dysentery. Many people, especially those of us with access to modern science (which includes all my readers, obviously), live to a ripe old age and die of general wearing out and falling apart. This young child has been robbed of the rest of her life by her parents' wilful ignorance of the marvels of medical science.

Words fail me. May she rest in peace, and may the remaining children always be properly cared for.

Guardian article


Berlusconi, the lovable rogue of Italy*, whose policy of appointing cabinet ministers based on their figures, and other various shenanigans appear to delight red-blooded Italian men, thought he had the perfect scam. He'd get rid of all these pesky prosecutions by getting himself elected, then pass a law declaring himself immune from prosecution. It worked.

He got the votes, and got his law through parliament just as the husband of our very own Tessa Jowell, the Olympics Minister (no, seriously, it is a genuine ministry), David Mills, was convicted of taking a bribe for testifying in Berlusconi's favour in the 90's. Mills got 4 and a half years, and is appealing.

Berlusconi got nothing at all, of course, and went on to sleep with numerous women less than half his age, some of whom were barely 18, none of whom were his wife, some of whom were paid escorts, some of whom cavorted on a bed apparently used by Putin on a state visit, and one of whom was wearing a wire. He also ran the country, occasionally. He denies paying for sex, but seems to revel in the affirmation of his masculinity.

I still haven't worked out why the papers reported the Putin-bed as such an important detail, though.

However, the constitutional court has gone and thrown a spanner in the works, insisting that all citizens are equal before the law, and Berlusconi is no exception, despite the protestations of his legal team. Let's see what his next move is. My money's on him modifying the constitution itself.

*N.B. Tongue may be firmly in cheek.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

BAE Systems Take Two

The last Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith, dropped the bribery prosecution against BAE Systems, the world's second largest weapons manufacturer. The reasoning was that it would be damaging to national security to proceed -- which, when translated, means that we'd upset the Saudis, the deal would be off, and we'd stop getting the cooperation / intelligence we so desperately needed from the Saudis. The (alleged) slush funds for Saudi princes were never to see the light of day.

The Serious Fraud Office has just asked the Attorney-General's office to prosecute BAE for various bribery offences related to arms deals in Tanzania and other parts of Africa. Leaving aside the moral aspect of the arms trade (or amoral, depending on your view), why on earth do BAE think they can get away with bribery? Or are they just idiots of the first water for not covering their tracks sufficiently?

For the patronising "that's just how they do business over there" apologists, the question is "why on earth do BAE keep getting caught? If everyone's doing it, and they're not getting caught, are BAE just incompetent?"