Tuesday, December 20, 2011

twitter ye not

The Lord Chief Justice, Judge Judge, may have opened a Pandora’s Box with his guidance on the use of text based communications in court. Basically he says that a member of the public has to seek permission from the judge or magistrates whereas a representative of the media or a legal commentator can twitter away without needing any kind of approval.

It is unclear what is encompassed in the word media and who can rightly claim to be its representatives. What kind of legal commentary is being sanctioned. It is surprising that the senior judiciary is giving this power to such a legally ill-defined group of people. Could frequent tweeters or bloggers assume they fit into one of the privileged categories and so have the authority to publish directly and instantaneously from the courtroom.

The guidance naively states that “the most obvious purpose of permitting the use of live, text-based communications would be to enable the media to produce fair and accurate reports of the proceedings.” Ah bless ! The assumption that the objective of the whole of the media is to produce fair and accurate reports of anything at all is touching, but wrong. Perhaps the LCJ should ask his colleague Lord Leveson if his current enquiry has demonstrated to him such high honour amongst the press.

There is already a growing and worrying problem of jurors and witnesses accessing the internet to discover ‘information’ about defendants during a case. (There is nothing to stop judges and magistrates doing so, other than their integrity and professionalism.) The consent to texting of news and opinion from court sits uneasily with the existing prohibitions which are so necessary for the fairness of trials, and creates a dangerous dichotomy.

I am all in favour of embracing technology, and am doing so in writing this blog, but there is a time and place, and a court, particularly a criminal court, is not a place to be included unless the precise use of the technology throughout the hearing can be monitored by the judge.

The guidance concludes that “the use of an unobtrusive, hand held, silent piece of modern equipment for the purposes of simultaneous reporting of proceedings to the outside world as they unfold in court is generally unlikely to interfere with the proper administration of justice”. Generally maybe not, but the administration of justice is far from perfect now and there will be many occasions when justice will be compromised by inappropriate texts and tweets. There is no point in setting up those situations. This guidance does just that.


Sunday, December 04, 2011

unfair cop

It is a year since Mr Justice Bean made the judgement that a policeman, who dragged an innocent woman to a cell and then threw her down on to the floor causing her a cut eye and other facial injuries that needed hospital treatment, ..... didn't.

This despite the evidence of CCTV clearly showing him dragging her to a cell and throwing her down, but the appeal court decided that she just let go of a door frame and the force of the letting go sent her to the floor. Well of course it can't, can it. The laws of physics tell us that there must have been a force pushing on her equal to the one she hypothetically might have been applying to the door frame. And I don't mean gravity. The CCTV shows that the door frame is an innocent bystander and the force came from Sergeant Andrews. Why was the 57 year old woman, against whom no charge was sustained, being pushed at all ? For a fellow police officer to have reported the incident (he was her supervisor), it must have been a serious lapse in the proper treatment of a person in custody.

Anyway, Andrews was released from his 6 month sentence for ABH after a few days, long before the date of appeal. Well alright, we can live with that even though some might get the impression that an injustice was done and that the appeal court wouldn’t have been so accommodating to a civilian. No jury, having seen the CCTV, would have acquitted, even though Andrews said in court that he didn't think he had done anything wrong.

But the natural consequence is that Andrews is innocent (loosely speaking) and so the Independent (sic) Police Appeals Tribunal ordered that he gets his job back despite agreeing that the officer's conduct was "intolerant and discreditable". Much more creditable is the Wiltshire Police Authority which has deplored the sergeant's behaviour and confirmed that his intolerance cannot be tolerated. They will challenge the decision. That in itself tells a story. Meanwhile Andrews will get back all the pay that he didn't receive whilst he was being rested. It's all worked out rather well for him. So far.


Friday, December 02, 2011

proceed without caution

Now then, now then, what’s going on here ? The number of cautions given by police is running at about 645 per day, a fair reduction from the 715 per day handed out in the year to June 2010. That’s good news because from 2002 to 2007 police abused their power to caution, rather than take offenders to court, by steadily racking up the number to a peak of 1000 per day.

In a lot of cases a caution can make good sense, for example low value shoplifting by a first time offender. But for some offences it can never make sense and the only proper and just way to deal with those offences is by a court sentence. The Ministry of Justice seems to be pleased that cautions for burglary have halved since 2007 but they still run at 10 per day and that’s 10 too many. As I have written before, burglary (of a home) is a vile crime, more akin to violent assault, or even further along the scale towards rape, as it can cause the victims great harm and suffering for the rest of their lives. There is never an excuse for it and it is always intentional. It warrants more, much more, than a gentle finger wagging and a brief ‘buck your ideas up’ reproach.

At the moment you can park your car on a double yellow line outside a house, get out and burgle the house. You can get a fine for the illegal parking but just a ticking off for the burglary. About 1 in 7 burglars get away with no more than that.

Discouraging the police from cautioning burglars is not the right policy. As the administration of a caution is much less work than all that a court appearance entails, the use of them will continue. What is required is a change to the law which rules out the use of cautions for such serious offences. Sentencing should be left to the courts, who can apply consistency and punishments to fit the crime, and not dabbled in by police whose forte is elsewhere.