Why legal aid reforms must be stopped, Exhibit B: the "murderer"

Innocent people could be in jail if proposed changes to the legal system are implemented. Here is one of them.

In the previous post I told how a doting granddad ended up on a child pornography charge due to a combination of finger pointing and police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) inadequacies. Similar themes run through this story of Exhibit B, but the crime is more serious. This is another case that goes to show that not everyone who ends up in court is a scumbag criminal. It illustrates why everyone should be entitled to independent, quality, legal representation.

NB this is a true story. Certain details that don’t relate to the factual and legal process have been changed to protect those who were involved.

Used and unused evidence

I’ve mentioned the idea of used and unused evidence before. Lawyers get a fee for ”used evidence” based on page count. Unused evidence doesn’t attract any fee. The Crown decides what is “used” and “unused”. There were about 5000 pages of “used evidence” and over 20000 (yes, twenty thousand) pages of “unused evidence” in Exhibit B’s murder case. The kitchen table couldn’t accommodate all this. So the “unused evidence” was spread all over the living room floor, in ever shifting piles. For two weeks.

Quite often evidence arrives with the lawyer as if the CPS has thrown it all in the air, then gathered it up and put an elastic band around it. Before my husband could start to read these 20000 pages he had to put them in some semblance of order. Once he’d got it in order he started to read it. But you can’t read it in order, like you read a novel. There is no beginning middle and end, well, not at this point there isn’t. The lawyer has to find them out. So he kept going backwards and forwards, from one pile to another and back again.

This investigation had been rumbling on for a few years. When the murder was still fresh, years before the papers landed in my living room, an appeal had gone out on Crimewatch. It featured in local and national news etc. There was a reconstruction and an artist’s impression of the suspect based on a description given by an eye witness. There was a lot of interest.  As well as the “unused evidence” my husband also got hold of a copy of the Crimewatch episode, and a heap of press cuttings.

My husband took two weeks out of court to go through all of this material. Remember that they don’t get paid for “unused evidence”. Two weeks earning nothing. But it had to be done, so he would know all there was to know about this case, and could act in the best interest of his client.

Golden nugget

Ten days after the living room was first flooded with paper, my husband had a eureka moment. He came across a golden nugget, one piece of A4 paper that made sense. It was the notes of the artist who had created the impression of the suspect. The image that had been broadcast around the country. The image had a prominent facial feature and the artist had used shading to indicate this. The notes clarified what the shading was supposed to indicate, and what it was not supposed to indicate.  The police report, and all the subsequent media reports had got this detail the wrong way round.

A fork in the road

So pretty much as soon as the investigation started, unbeknownst to the police, it reached a fork in the road. One probably quite junior officer got the detail about the impression the wrong way round, reported it up the chain and the investigation went off down the wrong fork.

Reading the “unused” material my husband could see there was clear evidence, forensic evidence, that could have got the police back on the right track and even pointed towards the real murderer. The twenty thousand pages started to make sense. But because the police had been fixated on this one detail, the detail that they’d got round the wrong way, they kept pushing all the other evidence aside. This early mistake was perpetuated all the way to trial.

His day in court

After over 12 months in prison on remand, Exhibit B’s case came to court. The prosecution opened their case, repeating the mistake that the police had made right at the beginning, all those years before. This mistake was only corrected when the eye witness took the stand and gave his evidence to the jury. Needless to say there were gasps and red faces all around the courtroom.

There were many other things that went wrong or got missed in the investigation of this crime. But the detail about the artists’ impression had created a domino effect concerning the other evidence.

After four weeks the judge stopped the trial. He directed the jury to find Exhibit B not guilty, and gave them six different reasons why it was absolutely impossible for him to have been the murderer. After nearly two years of hell Exhibit B walked free.

Why this story should matter to you

  1. Police & CPS procedure – it is clear that the officer in charge of the case had not done what my husband had done, and sat down and read everything. Evidence is collated and summarised in reports, which are passed up and up through the police rank structure. By the time it gets to the top it is a case of “Chinese whispers”. What the top guy reads is not always an accurate reflection of the evidence.
  2. Performance targets – it is unrealistic to expect the police and prosecution to read all of the evidence in every case under the current system. It certainly won’t be possible, even for the defence, under the proposed system. The allocated defence lawyer will be working to targets, working for profit. He won’t have the time to take two weeks out to find the golden nugget. He’ll take a quick look at the evidence, see that it looks pretty damning, and advise the client to plead guilty.
  3. The real scumbag criminal got away with it – as far as we know the real murderer is still at large. The proposed system will lead to more of this. Because if lawyers are to be paid the same whether clients go to trial or not, there will be fewer trials. Fewer trials means less opportunity for upcoming solicitors and barristers to cut their teeth. Less practice on the more simple cases will lead to less proficiency on the complex ones. This will hold for both the defence AND the prosecution. The end result more innocent people going to prison, more guilty people getting away, quite literally, with murder.
  4. It could happen to you – Exhibit B got picked up for this because he had happened to be in the right place at the wrong time. The Crown’s own evidence showed he could not have been at the murder scene at the right time. He served over a year in prison on remand waiting for trial for something he didn’t do. I’ll spare you the details of what happened to him while he was there. And even though he was found not guilty, mud sticks. He was a young man, just starting out. His life was ruined.
  5. Innocence is not interesting – there was a journalist in court for Exhibit B’s trial. Every day there were articles in the local and national papers saying what a nasty piece of work he was. Once the case was thrown out my husband collared the journalist and demanded that he write the story up, listing the points as the judge had directed the jury. Guess what? He didn’t do it. No wonder the public always believe people are guilty until proven innocent.

Help save our justice system

As things stand the proposed changes to the criminal justice system are going to be brought in under secondary legislation, without any debate. If it comes to pass, in future young men like Exhibit B will be fed to the wolves.

The Save UK Justice e-petition needs 100 000 people to sign it in order for there to be a debate in parliament. If you have not already signed the petition please do so.

Our next scumbag criminal will be Exhibit C – the “paedophile”.

This piece is part of a series of posts exhibiting people at risk due to legal aid changes. It is cross-posted with permission from the A Barrister's Wife blog.

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Barrister's Wife is a barrister's wife. She writes a pseudonymous blog which offers a behind closed doors view of the justice system.

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Time to start fixing the broken safety net that no longer catches struggling families

We are failing to ensure we look after the children of families both in and out of work.

Families on low incomes are once again bearing the brunt of a tough economic environment. Over the past decade, rising costs of items such as food, energy and childcare, combined with stagnating wages and cuts in benefits, have repeatedly put a squeeze on family budgets.

Between 2014 and 2016, some of these pressures eased, as inflation sank to zero and pay started to grow again. But now that inflation has returned, for the first time in postwar history the increasing cost of a child is being combined with a freeze in all financial support for children. The failure to uprate either benefits, tax credits or the wage levels at which tax credits are withdrawn means that inflation is bound to erode modest family incomes both in and out of work.

The gradual fall in living standards that this produces will be worsened by other benefit cuts that come in over the next few years, for different families at different times. For a start, the phasing out of the “family element” of Child Tax Credit (and its equivalent in Universal Credit) will eventually result in all low-income families getting more than £500 a year less from the state than at present.

Since this only applies to families whose oldest child was born in April 2017 or later, it hits families with the youngest children first, with the effect spreading gradually through the population. The restriction of tax credit entitlements to a maximum of two children is also being phased in, affecting only third children born from this year on, but will clobber families much more severely, with a loss of nearly £2,800 a year per child.

Some existing larger families who escape this cut have nevertheless had their income severely reduced this year (by anything up to £6,000) by the reduction in the benefit cap.

My latest report on the cost of a child, for Child Poverty Action Group, takes stock of these trends and the effects they will have on parents’ ability to provide for their families effectively. For some families in work, improved support for childcare and a higher minimum wage partially offsets the losses incurred as a result of the above cuts. But for those relying on benefits as a “safety net” when they are not working, the level of this net is being progressively lowered over time. On present policies, the support that it provides will sink below half of what families need as a minimum sometime early in the 2020s – having in contrast provided about two thirds of their requirements at the start of the present decade.

There comes a point when a “safety net” stops being worthy of its name because it is no longer enough to provide even the bare essentials of modern life. The evidence shows that when income sinks this low, most families can only escape severe material hardship either by going into debt or by getting help from extended family members.

We are about to enter a new parliamentary season, led by a government that survived by the skin of its teeth after a disgruntled electorate failed to give it the clear majority that it sought. Raising family living standards has been at the heart of the political promise to improve people’s lives. The benefits freeze alone seems to contradict this promise by creating a downward escalator for the half of families relying on some kind of means-tested benefit or tax credit, in combination with child benefit.

For those  who are “just about managing”, and particularly for others who are not managing at all, the clearest signal that Philip Hammond could give in his Autumn Budget that he is starting  to reverse the direction of that escalator would be to restore a system of benefit upratings. This would at least allow incomes to keep up with living costs, stopping things from getting systematically worse, and giving a stable foundation on which measures to improve living standards could build.

Professor Donald Hirsch is director of the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University