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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Will the House of Lords block Brexit?

Process, and a desire to say "I told you so" will be the real battle lines. 

It’s the people versus the peers, at least as far as some overly-excited Brexiteers are concerned. The bill to trigger Article 50 starts its passage through the House of Lords today, and with it, a row about the unelected chamber and how it ought to behave as far as Brexit is concerned.

This week will, largely, be sound and fury. More peers have signed up to speak than since Tony Blair got rid of the bulk of hereditary peers, triggering a 200-peer long queue of parliamentarians there to rage against the dying of the light, before, inevitably, the Commons prevailed over the Lords.

And to be frank, the same is ultimately going to happen with Article 50. From former SDPers, now either Labour peers or Liberal Democrat peers, who risked their careers over Europe, to the last of the impeccably pro-European Conservatives, to committed Labour and Liberal politicians, there are a number of pro-Europeans who will want to make their voices heard before bowing to the inevitable. Others, too, will want to have their “I told you so” on record should it all go belly-up.

The real battle starts next week, when the bill enters committee stage, and it is then that peers will hope to extract concessions from the government, either through defeat in the Lords or the threat of defeat in the Lords. Opposition peers will aim to secure concessions on the process of the talks, rather than to frustrate the exit.

But there are some areas where the government may be forced to give way. The Lords will seek to codify the government’s promise of a vote on the deal and to enshrine greater parliamentary scrutiny of the process, which is hard to argue against, and the government may concede that quarterly statements to the House on the process of Brexit are a price worth paying, and will, in any case, be a concession they end up making further down the line anyway.

But the big prize is the rights of EU citizens already resident here.  The Lords has the advantage of having the overwhelming majority of the public – and the promises of every senior Leaver during the referendum campaign – behind them on that issue. When the unelected chamber faces down the elected, they like to have the weight of public opinion behind them so this is a well-chosen battleground.

But as Alex Barker explains in today’s FT, the rights of citizens aren’t as easy to guarantee as they look. Do pensions count? What about the children of EU citizens? What about access to social security and health? Rights that are easy to protect in the UK are more fraught in Spain, for instance. What about a British expat, working in, say, Italy, married to an Italian, who divorces, but wishes to remain in Italy afterwards? There is general agreement on all sides that the rights of Brits living in the rest of the EU and citizens of the EU27 living here need to be respected and guaranteed. But that even areas of broad agreement are the subject of fraught negotiation shows why those “I told you sos”  may come in handy sooner than we think.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.