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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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.