Why legal aid reforms must be stopped, Exhibit A: the "child pornographer"

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

This blog seeks to expose some of the myths about our present criminal justice system, myths that have risen to prominence again following publication of the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) consultation paper Transforming legal aid. Myths that have been fed to the media, and the public, by the MOJ.

First, I covered the myth of  the “fat cat” lawyer. Then I went onto the myth of the “scumbag criminals” and I promised to tell you about a few of my husband’s clients. Not the proper scumbag criminals that you read about in the press, but the ones whose stories don’t often get told. The ones who are victims of police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) blunders and this finger pointing, blame gaming society that we now live in. These are the people who, under the proposed changes to our criminal justice system, would probably be advised to plead guilty and end up with a criminal record and possibly serving time.

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.

In the beginning

Exhibit A was a retired man, in his early 70s. Married for over 40 years. Never been in trouble with the police in his life. He’d kept up with technological developments was something of a “silver surfer”. He had a laptop and enjoyed using the internet for pursuing his hobbies and keeping in touch with his family and friends.

One day his laptop wasn’t functioning as it should do. He took it to his local computer repair shop. The geeks there went to work. In the course of their work they found a number of images of naked children. As all law abiding, paedophile paranoid citizens would do, they called the police. Let’s face it, who isn’t paranoid these days, when we read so much about paedophiles on every street corner? The police came and had a look at the images. They took the laptop away and made written descriptions of the content of each of the images.  Exhibit A, a bewildered old man, was arrested and taken away for questioning.

Interviewed & charged

The interview transcript shows that the police kept saying to him “you’ve got child porn on your laptop” and he kept saying “no, I haven’t!”.  “You’ve got pictures of naked children, posing provocatively with each other” “no, I haven’t, I don’t know what you are talking about”.  The written descriptions of the images were passed to the CPS. On the basis of these written descriptions, Exhibit A was charged with possession of level 1 child pornography. Level 1 is the lowest level, it does not involve sexual activity but must involve provocative and sexual poses. Because he had never been in trouble in his life and wasn’t thought to be dangerous he was bailed on condition that he wasn’t alone with any children. He went home.

Exhibit A knew he was innocent. But he also knew that, despite what they say, most people believe people are “guilty until proven innocent”, particularly in this age of paedophile paranoia and hysteria. He didn’t want his friends and neighbours to find out and ostracise him, or worse. Because he couldn’t see his beloved grandchildren alone he made up a lot of cock and bull stories over the next few months, to avoid having to tell people what has going on.

A provocative bucket

One evening, a few months later, I was at home with my husband. He was quietly working at the kitchen table, surrounded by piles of paper. I was pottering. The radio was on in the background. I didn’t know what he was working on, often he doesn’t tell me until or unless it starts kicking off.

Suddenly, he shouted “a bucket! What is “provocative” about a f*&$ing bucket?”. I didn’t know either and asked him to explain. It turned out that he was working on yet another child pornography case, that of Exhibit A. He was reading from the police description of one the pictures, the descriptions that had been passed to the CPS, the descriptions on which the CPS had made the decision to charge. The pictures themselves weren’t in the file. The descriptions were certainly sinister, but the bucket was incongruous. Something wasn’t quite right. My husband said “I need to see these pictures”. He emailed the solicitor and asked him to request access to them. Over the next few weeks the request was repeated. My husband became angrier as time passed.

His day in court

The day of the trial came round. As is customary, my husband linked up with his opposite number, the in house CPS barrister. The prosecutor asked if Exhibit A was going to change his plea to “guilty”. “Not till I’ve seen the pictures!” said my husband.  Eventually the police produced the pictures and the two barristers went off to have a look at them. Until this point the CPS barrister hadn’t seen them either. The two barristers looked at each other. They didn’t need to say a word.

My husband went to find his client. He gave a reasonable, measured, description of the photos, omitting the sinister overtones that the police had given them. The pictures were of young children in a garden on a hot summer’s day, playing with water pistols, hoses, buckets, paddling pools, balls etc. It looked like they are having a whale of a time, running about, splashing, laughing, smiling and shrieking. The children are all naked. He asked Exhibit A if he knew anything about them. “Oh yes” he replied “they are my grandchildren!”. The police written description was so far away from reality that Exhibit A had not been able to recognise his own photos. It transpired that the grandchildren had all come over to visit him and his wife one day. It had turned out very hot and the children had all ended up playing with water outside. As we all know, you can’t predict the British weather so they’d not brought their swimmers. That was why they were naked.

In court the Crown offered no evidence. The case was closed. Exhibit A went home a free man.

Why this story should matter to you

  1. Finger pointing – Exhibit A’s nightmare began because someone pointed the finger. This happens ALL THE TIME these days. We could all fall victim to it. For anything. From child pornography to giving someone a bop on the nose.
  2. Police & CPS inadequacies – these don’t have to be deliberate. We can all be a bit overzealous, or have a bad day, forget to double check something, suffer a lapse in judgement etc. and often it won’t have serious consequences. In Exhibit A’s case these factors combined to mean that all that stood between him and a prison cell was his lawyer.
  3. Cost to the public purse – much has been made of the MOJ plans to save £200m from the legal aid budget, never mind that these calculations are based on out of date figures and fundamentally flawed. How much do you think that Exhibit A’s case cost the taxpayer? Not just in legal aid, but in police time, CPS time, court time. Multiply that by the number of spurious and nonsensical prosecutions that happen every year.
  4. Other costs – what about the costs that can’t be measured? The costs to Exhibit A’s emotional and physical health. The costs to his family relationships.
  5. What if this happened to you? Or to your grandson, son, brother, father, uncle, grandfather? Would you want them to be able to choose the lawyer who is going to give the best quality service and act in his best interests? Or, as per the MOJ plans, be allocated the services of a lawyer who just happened to be the cheapest?

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 minister responsible has refused to meet with Michael Turner QC, Chairman of the Criminal Bar Association to discuss the proposals. The media appear to be keeping the story very quiet, or conflating it with other MOJ proposals.

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, and ask your friends and family to do the same.

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.

Photograph: Getty Images

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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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?