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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Boris Johnson peddled absurd EU myths – and our disgraceful press followed his lead

Press coverage of the referendum was designed to inflame xenophobia and our worst “Little England” instincts.

The pound plummeted, the Prime Minister resigned, stock markets plunged and the UK began to unravel, as did the post-1945 world order. Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Marine Le Pen and Isis were celebrating the Brexit vote but that didn’t stop our disgraceful national press from crowing. “Take a bow, Britain!” the Daily Mail declared. “So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, ADIEU”, the Sun quipped in a headline. The Daily Telegraph proclaimed the “birth of a new Britain”.

They and others – the Express, the Morning Star, several of the Sunday papers – were claiming victory: a victory achieved after a relentless campaign of lies and Soviet-style propaganda about the European Union that long pre-dated the referendum. Indeed, it was a campaign that began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Boris Johnson, who had been fired by the Times for making up a quotation, was the Telegraph’s correspondent in Brussels.

Johnson did not invent Euroscepticism but he took it to new levels. A brilliant caricaturist, he made his name by mocking, lampooning and ridiculing the EU. He wrote stories headlined “Brussels recruits sniffers to ensure that Euro-manure smells the same”, “Threat to British pink sausages” and “Snails are fish, says EU”. He wrote about plans to standardise condom sizes and ban prawn cocktail flavour crisps. He set up Jacques Delors, who was then the European Commission president, as a bogeyman and claimed credit for persuading Denmark to reject the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 with a Sunday Telegraph splash – “Delors plan to rule Europe” – that was seized on by the Nej campaign.

To Johnson, it was all a bit of a jape. “[I] was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England as everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive ­effect on the Tory party – and it really gave me this, I suppose, rather weird sense of power,” he told the BBC years later.

That many of Johnson’s stories bore scant relation to the truth did not matter. They were colourful and fun. The Telegraph and right-wing Tories loved them. So did other Fleet Street editors, who found the standard Brussels fare tedious and began to press their own correspondents to follow suit. I know this because I became the Brussels correspondent of the Times in 1999 and suffered the consequences.

Soon, a Europe of scheming bureaucrats plotting to rob Britain of its ancient liberties, or British prime ministers fighting gallant rearguard actions against an increasingly powerful superstate, or absurd directives on banana shapes, became the only narratives that many papers were interested in. They were narratives that exploited our innate nationalism, distrust of foreigners and sense of superiority. They were narratives so strong that our political leaders mostly chose to play along with them.

The EU is arrogant, bureaucratic, wasteful and meddlesome. It desperately needs reforming. But post-Boris, its great achievements – cementing peace, uniting the continent, creating the world’s largest single market, enabling its citizens to travel and live anywhere they choose, busting mono­polies, improving the environment – have gone largely unreported. Similarly ignored is that Britain has many natural allies in Europe and has enjoyed some significant successes: competition policy, free trade, eastward enlargement. The French now regard the EU as a plot to impose Anglo-Saxon economics on the continent. True, we lost the argument on the euro and the Schengen Agreement, but we won opt-outs.

With a few honourable exceptions – such as the Financial Times, the Times and the Guardian – the referendum coverage was merely a supercharged version of what had gone before. It was led by the biggest broadsheet (the Telegraph), the biggest mid-­market paper (the Mail) and the biggest tabloid (the Sun). And it was based on myths: that we pay £350m a week to Brussels, that we can continue to enjoy access to the single market without freedom of movement, that millions of Turks are heading our way because their country is about to join the EU, that immigrants are destroying the NHS rather than keeping it going.

The coverage was designed to inflame xenophobia and our worst “Little England” instincts. Loughborough University found that 82 per cent of all referendum stories, adjusted for newspaper circulations, were negative. The conventional wisdom is that newspapers don’t matter any more but they do when just 635,000 votes for Remain ­instead of Leave would have averted this national catastrophe. They do when the press is a primary source of information for millions of Brits. They do when most of our papers have relentlessly portrayed the EU as the monster of Johnson’s fertile imagination, not just for a few months, but for more than two decades.

The referendum was a chance for our national press, particularly the tabloid press, to restore its standing after the phone-hacking scandal and to prove its continuing worth to the British people. Sadly, most newspapers chose wilfully to deceive, mislead and inflame. They decided to follow Johnson’s lead by peddling lies and phoney patriotism. They helped him to hoodwink the millions of poorer, less-educated Britons – those who will be the first to suffer from Brexit’s consequences – into voting against their own interests.

Johnson campaigned against a myth of his own creation, with the result that a mendacious pundit, one who achieved prominence by writing entertaining but dangerous nonsense, is the odds-on favourite to be our next prime minister.

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies