March 23rd, 2013
I am morbidly fascinated by the ongoing debate about the right of serving prisoners to vote in elections.
If the truth be told, it seems to me a classic case of the mouse that roared. On average, barely 35% of all electors entitled to vote exercise their democratic right to do so in local elections, and barely 70% do so in a General Election, so voting for a significant proportion of the population is well down on their list of things to do.
When I used to practise in Prison Law, which took me regularly to HM prisons throughout the land, my clients raised a number of burning issues with me, but I can say without fear of contradiction that not once was their denial of a vote ever mentioned.
Chris Grayling, the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, is leading from the back on this issue, and by all accounts, he is giving it the importance it deserves by swatting it away and hoping it won’t come back.
On reflection, that may not be entirely fair, as he has entered the European arena by declaring that the UK courts can ignore any rulings on this matter by the European Court of Human Rights, and he has enlisted the help of Lord Hoffmann no less, an esteemed law lord. Lord Lester, who has a contrary opinion to offer on almost every topic, counsels caution, so what does all this add up to?
In short, it takes us back to Square One. If prisoners are to be denied the right to vote, we must repeal the Human Rights Act and go our own way. A draconian step, and this government has yet to take anything other than mincing little steps in the great scheme of things.
I have a better idea - why not ask the prisoners themselves? It would be excellent practice for life outside, and a real test of democracy in action. The question could be simply posed: do you want the right to vote? There would be three boxes to tick: Yes, No, or I don’t give a rat’s crap!
Of course barely 30% of all serving prisoners would choose to take part, so if it were a positive vote, the government could ignore it as being unrepresentative, so it’s a win win situation whichever way you cut the fruit cake (with optional file inserted).
March 4th, 2013
Like many others, I do my bit for charity, or so I think. I pay my taxes, and as the government is fond of reminding me, international aid is ring fenced. I also bung a few pounds into the collection box when it is rattled in my face in the shopping arcade, and I make a contribution through the Church for good causes as and when they arise.
Of course it isn’t enough when set against the poverty of the third world, and the millions of children who die needlessly because they don’t have access to food, or clean water, or proper medical care. The very excellent charities are continually pressing me to do more in their many marketing campaigns.
Against all this, there is still the urge amongst the very poor to have as many children as possible, knowing full well that many will die. So ‘families’ for want of a better word, will number 8, or 10 or 12 children, with 2 surviving to adulthood if they’re lucky or unlucky, depending on your perspective.
If poverty stricken countries get their act together, with sufficient food and water and medical care, there is bound to be a population explosion, and the strain on finite resources will become unsustainable. The obvious solution, adopted with limited success by China, is to limit the number of children per household. Surely this must be the way forward.
I would far rather my charitable contributions went to family planning and birth control, otherwise it becomes a vicious circle.
Finally, I remind myself that India and Brazil are two of the emerging economies that are being courted by the British government for lucrative contracts. But once you stray off the boulevards and manicured avenues, the poverty is there for all to see, including the Indian and Brazilian governments. I do not understand why I should be asked to clean up their mess when they should be perfectly capable of cleaning it up themselves.
Something about glass houses and stones!
February 26th, 2013
I am not much of a movie buff. Lord knows how many hours I spend trawling through the Sky Movies channel trying to find something, anything, worth watching, but for the most part it’s a fruitless exercise and I end up watching re-runs of Midsomer Murders.
I am informed that the Oscars started in 1929, no doubt under the benevolent patronage of Louis B. Mayer, he of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” fame. It was reputedly his fragrant wife who, when she saw the statuette, said it reminded her of her Uncle Oscar, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Back in 1929, the winners had been announced several months earlier. There was a dinner/dance, and only one speech, presumably by Louis B. Mayer, never one to shrink from the limelight. How times have changed, and now everybody given half a chance has something to say.
I watched news clips of the Oscar awards, and by all accounts, I missed very little. The show was compered by a complete nobody called Seth MacFarlane, who opened with a tasteless song about women’s breasts. But the highlight for me was the misfortune that befell Jennifer Lawrence. Forgive my ignorance, I’ve never heard of her, but she won an Oscar as best actress in a film called Silver Linings Playbook, and forgive my ignorance, but I’ve never heard of that either.
What morbidly fascinated me, and probably the highlight of the entire show, was when the visibly overweight Jennifer stumbled up the steps to accept her Oscar, and fell flat on her face. By all accounts, she had squeezed herself into a Dior Couture dress worth in excess of $30,000 which she had picked up that very morning.
If I were Christian Dior, I would be mortified. Assuming that Jennifer was not legless as a result of too many glasses of sparkling Napa Valley wine, the message going out to the watching world would be: if you wish to retain your composure, don’t wear a Dior Couture dress. Dior has some fences to mend as quickly as possible if their reputation is not be be irretrievably damaged, not to mention their overpriced dress with Jennifer’s size nines punching a hole through the hem.
Bring back 1929, all is forgiven.
February 26th, 2013
New revelations of alleged sexual abuse or impropriety hit the headlines daily, and the media feeding frenzy continues unabated. The most recent include a Liberal Democrat Party worker and a Prince of the Catholic Church. Is there no end in sight?
There are so many more interesting and relevant things to report, such as the loss of the United Kingdom’s cherished triple ‘A’ status, determined by a group of unaccountable economists who, unlike the rest of us, apparently have a crystal ball to foretell our financial future. And frankly, does it matter a jot? No.
Then we have the Italian General Election, which, being Italy, breaks all the rules. Worse still, it leaves Italy ungovernable, which has serious implications for the rest of Europe. Third place in the popular vote goes to Beppe Grillo, I kid you not, who was a former comedian, so well suited to Italian political life.
I mention these important events simply because you may not have heard of them, such is the media preoccupation with sex and sleaze.
In most of these cases, the allegations go back decades. Nothing was said at the time, or if it was, it was not given credence. But because of media prurience, these historical allegations are given prominence, as if there are true, leaving the accused the only defence available, which is a flat denial.
If and when these allegations get to court, and some of them will, the judge will allow the prosecution to proceed in the face of defence objections that their client cannot possibly receive a fair trial. In the best traditions of Pontius Pilate, the judge will wash his hands of any responsibility and rule that it is a matter for the jury. Let’s hope, in the interests of justice, that well worn phrase, that these accused don’t get the same jury recently inflicted on Vicky Pryce!
I have argued before, and I repeat my argument, that there should be the criminal equivalent of a Statute of Limitations which is applied to the civil law. It can be tailored to accommodate young children who have been abused, usually within the family, with the cut off point when they reach majority. If 18 year olds are qualified to sit on a jury, get married without parental consent, drive a car and buy a property, surely they are old enough to report their abuser.
In these circumstances, the complainant and the alleged abuser can mount proper cases which can be tried and tested in a court of law. Witnesses for both parties may be alive and can be expected to remember dates and significant events.
I had a case many years ago when a school caretaker was accused of abusing children going back 30 and 40 years. When it came to trial, most of his witnesses were either dead or untraceable. In reply to a submission that he could not receive a fair trial, the judge ruled it was a matter for the jury. The jury convicted, and he received 18 years’ imprisonment.
If that is justice, I am Horace the Hedgehog.
February 25th, 2013
There are many barristers who, despite all the evidence to the contrary, are still intent on grinding out a practice in crime. It should come as no surprise to the vast majority of them, but crime doesn’t pay!
For some time, the Criminal Bar has been under siege. At the forefront of the attack has been successive Lord Chancellors, going back to Maggie Thatcher’s time, who have been mandated to reduce the legal aid bill, and the biggest consumer has been crime. We have all read with astonishment the enormous legal aid bills submitted to the taxpayer, most recently by Asil Nadir and his team, with a bill in the region of £1 million.
But for every Asil Nadir there are thousands accused of crime who genuinely cannot afford to pay for their representation, so legal aid is an essential service if justice is to be done and seen to be done. The hallmark of a civilised society is the way in which we treat our most disadvantaged, the more so where they risk a lenghty sentence of imprisonment.
But when you have a service driven primarily by budgetary considerations, something has to give, and regrettably, it is the quality of the representation available that is the first casuality. And so it was when defence solicitors acquired their higher rights of audience, with the maxim “you don’t buy a dog and bark yourself”, these solicitors are chancing their arm in the art of advocacy and doing their own cases where they had formerly instructed counsel.
This is not to suggest that all defence solicitors are hopeless, but advocacy plays no part in their training, so they are immediately on the back foot when going forward. Their clients are ill-prepared to judge their advocacy skills, and judges are constrained against throwing their wigs in the air and stomping off the Bench.
As part of this ongoing policy to drive down the legal aid bill, the Crown Prosecution Service was created, along with the usual budgetary constraints, and they too have climbed on board the advocacy bandwagon. In a recently disclosed email, CPS “advocates” are enjoined to use a ‘tick’ and ’star’ system on each and every brief. The tick indicates possible complications that not even the most ambitious advocate would want to tackle, so that brief will be farmed out to counsel, and he can pick up the pieces. The star indicates a brief to be kept ‘in-house’ for the aspiring CPS advocate to cut his teeth on. The criminal law should not be a lottery with those least qualified deciding if the case should be kept in-house or farmed out to the luckless barrister, and this applies equally to prosecutors and defenders alike.
However, I believe we reached the point of no return some years ago, and the Criminal Bar has only itself to blame for this farrago. What lobbying that was done was very half-hearted and wholly ineffectual. But ultimately the government as the sole provider of legal aid has the whip hand, and with so many mice chasing the same piece of cheese, it’s a case of ‘take it or leave it’. Put crudely, get stuffed!