Why legal aid reforms must be stopped, Exhibit C: the "paedophile"

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

This post is one of a series that seeks to dispel the myth that everyone who ends up in court is a scumbag criminal. It is another example of how easy it is for good guys to end up in court. It is another case that illustrates why everyone should be entitled to independent, quality, legal representation and the chance to go to trial and clear their name.

At the moment your rights are under threat from proposals in the MOJ consultation paper Transforming legal aid.  I hope that reading this post will help you understand what these proposals will mean for our justice system.  I hope that once you understand you will want to sign the Save UK Justice petition to have these proposals debated in parliament.

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.

Warning: this is about a little boy who was sexually abused. It may be triggering. Please don’t read any further if you might be affected.

In the beginning

I first heard about Exhibit C over dinner. My husband was complaining about being on another child abuse case. He would love to be able to refuse work like this, but due to the Cab Rank rule he can’t.

From the initial papers it looked obvious that Exhibit C was guilty. This is often the case, that is the purpose of prosecution papers. Over the next few weeks more papers trickled in (the CPS rarely serve everything at once when they can string it out) and the evidence became compelling.

Exhibit C’s 6 year old son had told two of his friends that his daddy had done horrible things to him. The friends told their mums. The mums went round to the little boy’s house to tell his mother.  They repeated what their children had said to the mother and her new husband. The husband spent an hour or so talking to the little boy. The husband relayed what the little boy said to the police. The little boy (my husband would say “the complainant”) had been interviewed by the police and repeated the allegations. There were no inconsistencies.

Stereotypes

As the trial date drew nearer my husband set up a meeting with Exhibit C. Often he has to go to prison to meet clients but as Exhibit C had never been in trouble in his life he was out on bail, even though he had been accused of horrible crimes against his own son.

Exhibit C was not who my husband was expecting. I know we are not supposed to stereotype, and paedophiles can be hiding in plain sight and look just like the rest of us. But when you have met as many sex offenders as my husband has, you know that they do tend to be of a certain “type”. Usually a combination of greasy, smelly, creepy, inadequate, waster.

Exhibit C came across as a stable, humorous, articulate grafter. He said he hadn’t done it and would plead not guilty. Clients often say they aren’t guilty. If they say they are not guilty that is the way that my husband will play it. He wasn’t there at the time of the alleged offence, so he doesn’t know if they are guilty or not.

Video nasties

A few of days before the trial was due to start the transcript of the little boy’s 2nd police interview arrived, along with the DVD recordings of the interviews. Another late night watching video nasties for my husband.

The CPS has guidelines for getting good quality evidence from interviews with children. Right at the start of the interview the supposedly specially trained police officer deviated from the established protocol. He denied the little boy the opportunity to give a “free narrative account” of what had happened. Instead he sought to confirm what his mother’s husband had said.

His day in court

The trial began. Three days into the case the little boy gave evidence via video link. As is customary, all the barristers and the judge removed their wigs and gowns. Next it was my husband’s turn to cross examine the little boy. This is a horrible job, one that preys on the lawyer’s mind for weeks before and after the event itself. It is very difficult to find a balance between protecting the interests of the client and being sympathetic to a small child in an alien situation.

During cross examination the little boy kept referring to his step father as “daddy”, then quickly correcting himself and using the step father’s first name. It became clear that there were two “daddies” in the little boy’s life. Both Exhibit C AND his stepfather were “daddy”. The little boy said that he really missed his daddy (that is, Exhibit C). They hadn’t been able to see each other for over a year. Despite all of the horrible things that his father had been accused of doing to him, this was the only time that the little boy cried.

The step father was next to give evidence. His behaviour was distinctly odd, overly dramatic and emotional. His own evidence in chief destroyed his credibility before cross examination started. Remember that he was not in court to hear the little boy’s evidence, so he had no idea that what he was saying appeared to be complete rubbish.

Court broke up for lunchtime. My husband marched out of the building saying to himself “he did it. That b$*&ard bloody well did it”.

After lunch my husband cross examined the step father. He was evasive. He contradicted what the little boy had said. He showed himself to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

The Perry Mason moment

You can probably guess what is coming now, it is this blog’s first screenplay:

Barrister: (standard court voice) You’re “daddy”, aren’t you?

Stepfather:  (defiant) No I’m not. I never have been.

Barrister:  He calls you daddy all the time.

Stepfather: (defiant) No. He doesn’t.

Barrister: You’ve coached him not to call you daddy for this court case.

Stepfather: (uncertain) No, I haven’t.

Barrister: When the mums came to the house and told you and your wife that the little boy said “daddy”, you had to come up with a story, didn’t you?

Stepfather: (quietly) No, I didn’t.

Barrister: You decided to save yourself by framing Exhibit C

Stepfather: No, I didn’t (begins to cry)

Barrister: (raised court voice) Yes you did, and you got the little boy to say it

Stepfather: (sobbing whispers) No, no, no

This was my husband’s one and only Perry Mason moment. The only time he has ever been able to point the finger at a witness in a case in court. Never before, never since. After my husband’s closing speech the police officer in charge admitted that it was pretty obvious now that everything had come out in the wash.

Exhibit C was found not guilty of all charges. As the court emptied the police and social services were already rallying their troops to arrest the stepfather and protect the little boy and his siblings from further harm.

Exhibit C had thought that he wouldn’t be able to see his children again, even after being acquitted. He was wrong, this story has a happy ending. The children are now living with him and recovering well. Even though my husband was reluctant to take this case in the beginning, by the time it was over he was very glad he had.

Why this story should matter to you

  1. Innocent until proven guilty – as we saw in Myth #2, not all defendants are scumbag criminals. Everyone deserves the right to a fair trial. The MOJ wants to deprive you of this right.
  2. Targets – if this case had happened under the MOJ proposals, Exhibit C’s inexperienced, target driven lawyer would have encouraged him to plead guilty.
  3. Child protection – if Exhibit C had gone straight to jail the little boy and his siblings would have been left in the clutches of an abuser, without the protection of their loving father.
  4. Finger pointing – even if you think you have no enemies you are still vulnerable. The MOJ proposals will be a finger pointer’s charter. It will be like going back to the Witch Trials. You’ll either be pressured into pleading guilty or, if you have got the money to pay for your defence, you will not get all your costs back even if you are innocent. You might clear your name only to face financial ruin.

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.

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. If you have already signed it please talk to your friends and family and ask them to do the same.

Our final scumbag criminal will be Exhibit D – the “fraudster”.

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.

The cover to Erle Stanley Gardner's autobiography.

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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser