July 31st, 2015
Where there’s a will there’s relatives circling like predatory vultures and ready to feed on the rotting corpse.
I doubt if many people will have heard of the the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975, and I doubt if even the most competent solicitor will have brought this particular piece of legislation to the attention of his client intending to make a will. In short, it is a piece of legislation designed to defeat the wishes of the testator if it doesn’t tick all the boxes. Those boxes require the testator to make adequate provision for their family and dependents regardless of the warmth of affection, or total lack thereof, in which they were held during the testator’s lifetime.
The case of Heather Ilott has been widely reported, and as I read the facts, I have very little sympathy for her and a good deal of sympathy for her deceased mother. At the age of 17, Heather decided to elope with her boyfriend contrary to her mother’s express wishes. She regarded the boyfriend with grave suspicion, and took the view he was totally useless and a waste of space. The mother told Heather in no uncertain terms that she would be disinherited. Despite these express wishes, Heather went ahead and married Nick Ilott. The mother was not far off the mark in her assessment of Nick as husband, father to their five children, breadwinner and provider. His net income per week was £80.08. I didn’t think it was possible to earn only £80.08 per week, and on the information provided to me, I am in the dark. But I ask, in passing, and even allowing for the usual raft of state benefits shoveled their way, how is it possible for the two of them to even contemplate having five children in their circumstances? It is madness, and some might say, totally irresponsible. No wonder Heather’s mother decided to give her wealth to various charities.
Heather turned up at the Court of Appeal, cap in hand and pleading hardship, and came away with a lump sum of £164,000. But some of the comments heaped on the deceased mother’s head simply beggar belief. She was described as “unreasonable, capricious and harsh”, yet this was the same woman who gave her daughter a clear and unequivocal warning, which the daughter chose to ignore. In addition, Counsel for Heather had the temerity to submit that “it was not the daughter’s fault that her mother took against her.” Of course it was the daughter’s fault. When she was 17 she made her choice, and under normal circumstances, should have to live with the consequences. But not so, and I am dismayed that the Court of Appeal sought fit to intervene to defeat the mother’s wishes. It is a layabout’s charter, make nothing of your life, then come to court with a sob-story about never having had a holiday, having difficulty affording clothes for her family (who wouldn’t with five of them), and being limited in the amount she could buy, and expect a generous handout. How about Nick getting a proper job? How about the kids making some contribution to the family budget? That’s how most people get by.
So beware the unwary testator. Don’t imagine for one moment that your money is yours to do what you want with it. I hope the Charities appeal to the Supreme Court, if only to set the record straight.
July 29th, 2015
The Sun on Sunday has scooped the pot, yet again, with graphic revelations about John Buttifant Sewel, a former political nobody and now (for the time being at least), Lord Sewel of Sleazeville, snorting cocaine from the breasts of a ‘femme de la nuit’ and rubbishing the great and the good without fear or favour. Quite how they scooped the pot has not been satisfactorily explained. Perhaps it’s time to wheel on good old Brian Leveson to reprise his role as judge and jury in the hacking scandal, with yet another interminable and pointless inquiry.
Call me old fashioned if you will, but I am a firm believer that those elected or appointed to high office should set an example to us lesser mortals. With privilege and rank comes responsibility, and in my book, moral turpitude is unacceptable.
I know nothing about the man save what I have read in the Press. He appears to hail from Aberdeen, and was ennobled by Tony Blair. That said, there seems little else to say. He has unfortunate oleaginous features that make him look like a pervert, and if wearing women’s bras is anything to go by, then he’s guilty as charged. And as one wag quipped after seeing his photograph, if you’re going to wear a bra, make sure it’s the right size.
The House of Lords has been a political thorn in the side of successive elected governments for over one hundred years, and possibly longer. Most commentators seem to agree that an institution ready and willing to hold the Commons to account is a good idea. Nobody seems to agree how it should work. The 675 peers comprising the present House of Lords are for the most part political appointees and there to support the party that appointed them. In the recent past, there have been worrying signs of an independence of mind and spirit, and attempts to bring their lordships (and ladyships) to heel have met with only limited success.
I like the bicameral system as practised in the United States. They have two houses, with both elected for four year terms. As the House of Lords is not an elected chamber, once you’ve been appointed, you’re there for life, and even an enforced absence of leave as a guest of Her Majesty does not prevent you from returning, as witness some of the miscreants such as Lords Hanningfield, Taylor and Lady Uddin, and not forgetting Jeffrey Archer. Who can?
Rumour has it that David Cameron is planning to make further political appointments to the Lords, and numbers vary. We are rapidly reaching the stage where these appointees have little or nothing to add beyond their loyalty to the Party, there is no confidence that the right people are being appointed, and we finish up with Sewel clones. As the expression goes: “If everybody’s somebody, then nobody’s anybody.”
Let’s bite the bullet. Abolish the House of Lords, and let the great British electorate regulate the Government. It may not be perfect, but as Churchill is supposed to have said, “It may not be the best form of government, but it’s the least worst.”
July 24th, 2015
I am the first to admit it. I am no scientist. Although I have yet to reach Methuselah status, my year at school was the last to be denied any science teaching at all, be it chemistry, physics or biology, although we had the school rowing coach teaching us in our first year how to recognise an erection, and once recognised, what to do about it. Plenty of cold showers and vigorous upper arm exercises as advocated by Lord Baden-Powell, I seem to remember, or at least I think that’s what he said. Strange bloke, spent his entire adult life in a pair of ill-fitting khaki shorts, which must have chafed like mad, especially in winter. No wonder he was fond of vigorous upper arm exercises. That’s B-P I’m referring to, not the school rowing coach. On second thoughts………..
Many years later, and long after I had mastered the mysteries of the male organ in all its many shapes and sizes, I bought a copy of Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History Of Time and I have to tell you, there was nothing brief about it. Anyway, when it first came out, it was very much the MUST READ for the beautiful people, amongst whom I numbered myself. Before going on to Ronnie Scott’s or Crockford’s, we’d have a lite bite at the Three Fives in Battersea, where Princess Margaret could be seen at the drop of a fag end, and we’d discuss Hawking’s book one page at a time. This would take most of the evening, but if the truth be told, I learned very little as I drew from this deep pool of profound knowledge. I’m sure it made perfect sense to Hawking, but to the likes of me and Margaret, the mysteries of the universe and beyond remained just that, mysteries.
Against this background comes the exciting news that scientists may have discovered an earth-like planet capable of supporting life. It’s in a constellation of the Milky Way more than 8,400 trillion miles away. Yippee! According to somebody who says he knows, this planet, now known as Kepler 452b, is 1400 light years away, which for all intents and purposes is unreachable. So what’s the point?
But the plot thickens. Instead of turning the page in my newspaper and moving on, I noticed that a Russian calling himself Yuri Milner has donated $100 million and is recruiting scientists to boost the search for alien signals. Hang on a minute, didn’t he play centre half for Manchester City last season? I know footballers are grossly overpaid, but $100 million from his back pocket? Something smells fishy. And if Yuri Milner is indeed Russian as he claims he is, then I’m Horace the Hedgehog!
But back to the plot. Nobody in their right mind is ever going to travel to the planet, so the suggestion from Jon Jenkins, a data analyst from NASA, that if we travelled with an ark full of plants, “they would synthesize just fine,” seems beyond pointless. Give me terra firma any time.
July 24th, 2015
For far too long, our treatment of those convicted of crime has been too dependent on punishment and very little or nothing on rehabilitation. Although we claim to be a civilised country, we have the largest prison population in Europe, an unenviable statistic, where inmates are crammed together in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions with violence and tension bubbling just beneath the surface.
I remember five years’ ago, when David Cameron became Prime Minister, one of the many broken promises he trumpeted aloud during his first days in office was his intention to significantly reduce the prison population, which then stood at 82,000 inmates. According to the Howard League for Penal Reform, it is now in excess of 86,000. Some reduction, some promise!! Why do politicians make these grandiose statements if they don’t keep them?
According to statistics, over 40% of prison inmates are re-offenders, a depressing statistic. But help is at hand. Michael Gove, the newly appointed Lord Chancellor, has set about reforming almost everything within his remit with revolutionary zeal, and for the most part, he gets my vote. One of the reforms he proposes introducing into prison life is the right of inmates to possess as many books as they like (files excluded). Admittedly he had a strong nudge in the right direction by a ruling in the High Court that a ban on books was unlawful, but he has embraced the ethos of Vitruvian Man by treating prisoners as assets, not liabilities. “Every individual has something to offer,” he said, “every one of us can earn respect. People who are currently languishing in prison are potential assets to society. They could be productive and contribute. If we look at them only as problems to be contained we miss the opportunity to transform their lives and to save ourselves and our society both money and pain.” Wise words indeed.
The 10th May 1933 still sends a shudder down the spine of the heirs to Vitruvian Man, the night on which indoctrinated German students burned thousands of Books in Berlin, egged on by the Nazi Illiterati. One of the most famous German authors of the time was Helen Keller, and she wrote an open letter to the students: “History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas. Tyrants have tried to do that often before, and the ideas have risen up in their might and destroyed them. You can burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe, but the ideas in them have seeped through a million channels and will continue to quicken other minds.”
We all know that the pen is mightier than the sword, and a better educated prisoner is less likely to re offend. He is more likely to offer a real prospect in his life outside, and one that will benefit not just him but society as a whole.
I hope Gove will not stop there, as there is so much more he can do with prison reform. First and foremost, if he is to pay more than lip-service to Cameron’s broken promise, is to significantly reduce the prison population, and this can be achieved, almost overnight, by directing judges not to send so many convicted criminals to prison for even the slightest demeanour. Since we abolished hanging back in 1964, imprisonment became the sentence of last resort, supposedly the ultimate deterrent. But it is now used routinely and far too often, with sentences getting longer and longer, and tempting though it may be, we can’t blame the judges. They are the victims of political gerrymandering as successive governments play to Middle England and their wish to see more and more draconian sentences. As for Middle England, it’s an unrepresentative class of petty-minded and bigoted individuals with ‘holier than thou’ attitudes and a “throw away the key” mentality. I remember one Middle Englander telling me that if we hanged them, they wouldn’t do it again. Compelling logic if nothing else.
For my part, I deplore these rehearsed ‘bleeding heart’ speeches by relatives of the victims of crime on the steps of the court. They know little or nothing about the criminal justice system, they are preyed upon by police officers and social workers who have their own agenda, and it suits all of them to parade their bigotry and prejudices for all to hear. And nobody wants to hear them, nobody could care less.
Most judges administering the criminal justice system have been in practice at the Criminal Bar for at least twenty years, often longer, so they know the system, they know what is right and wrong, what is fair and unfair, so I say to Gove and Middle England, let the judges get on with what they are paid to do, and if they get it wrong, there’s always the Court of Appeal.
So I say to the government, tear up the sentencing guidelines, stop interfering in the judicial process, remember that the judiciary is supposed to be independent of the executive, and above all, stop sending so many offenders to prison. It doesn’t work, it’s expensive, and in the long run, it’s counter-productive.
July 13th, 2015
As I wrote in a previous blog (Let’s kill all the lawyers), I remain astonished at the sheer volume of lawyers wanting to come into the profession, and, to put it bluntly, with very little prospect of success. That ‘sheer volume’ is a staggering statistic. When I was first called to the Bar in 1974, there were less than 2000 barristers. Now there are over 18,000 and counting. Much the same can be said about solicitors. In 1974 there were 30,000, and today there are over 120,000. As somebody observed, there is now a lawyer for every 400 people in the country, making it easier to find one than a doctor.
It’s not easy to fathom the popularity of the legal profession as a career. I assume those qualifying are aware of the odds against them, but I suppose these hopefuls believe they will succeed where so many of their colleagues have failed. It’s a little like doing the lottery – somebody has to win, and ‘it could be you’!
In order to succeed, the lawyers best placed to hit the ground running and stay ahead of the competition will be those who set themselves a clear and realistic goal and who stick to it. So many start out with lofty and unrealistic ambitions but become disheartened if those ambitions are not fulfilled.
Perhaps more so than in any other profession, newcomers need all the help they can get, as the profession is changing year on year. Barristers can now accept instructions direct from clients instead of going down the traditional route of instructing a solicitor first. Solicitors now have access to the highest courts of justice where formerly their rights to appear on behalf of their clients were confined to the lower courts. The administration of law firms and chambers has changed to make them more ‘user friendly’, allowing the public and their end users greater choice at more competitive rates.
These changes can be viewed by lawyers either for the best or the worst, depending on the willingness of the profession to adapt, and if Michael Gove, the newly appointed Lord Chancellor, is to have his way, the profession is about to witness seismic changes as never seen before. Whether they like them or not, the professionals need to accept that many of these changes are coming, and they need to be prepared.
Despite efforts by successive governments to make the legal process more user friendly, most litigants know that a good lawyer is indispensable to the success of their claim, and in return, lawyers are acquiring new skills. This is where legal recruitment agencies are coming into their own, with one in particular offering the ultimate guide to areas of law careers. Law firms and chambers are relying more and more on the expertise of these agencies to sort the wheat from the chaff and make positive recommendations.