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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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