Confederation Report (October 2011)

Trial by Television, Trials on Television - it seems all the rage - Rupert Murdoch being “flanned” by a comedian whilst he gave evidence to a Parliamentary Commission, desperately trying to demonstrate his senility and ignorance of any phone hacking by his (admittedly huge worldwide) staff.

Rioters being put into night courts and getting immediate and lengthy prison sentences with the utmost publicity (the Coalition being “strong on crime” ...Isn’t that what the last lot said as well?)

And now there are to be televised “trials”. Except they won’t actually be trials, rather we shall see the judge deliver his sentence. No exciting cross-examination or final speeches. No following the events unfold “a la” OJ Simpson.

Just the poor old judge putting himself or herself into the jaws of the media lion (Daily Mail “Soft judge gives evil Paedo short sentence of ten years – should have been fifty years and a public flogging!” Guardian “Vicious judge slams vulnerable victim of social deprivation for minor infringement!”)

That strikes me as a no win situation for the Judiciary.

Many of you will no doubt think that your humble scribe, having had his thirty seconds of class Z celebrity, would be quite in favour of more openness of court proceedings.

Au Contraire, dear reader. I cannot imagine anything worse than having one of my cases put on the box, to demonstrate my shortcomings. “Better” as Dennis Thatcher put it, “to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt.”

I mean, just last week, during an impassioned plea for leniency, my comparatively new pair of spectacles fell apart, dropping from my face into the bench with a fearful clatter, causing much hilarity amongst the gathered throng (well the three beaks, the prosecutor and the two work experience kids that were there).

A “Should have gone to Specsavers “moment? Well I did actually! Is it just me, or has anyone else realised that items essential for work seem to be prone to disintegration or to disappear after a few months going down to the cells, overcoats (4 pinched during my career, all because I took them into Court with me), pens by the thousand, notepads (never one there when you need one), and glasses, they all seem to wither on the vine.

I long since gave up having costly things. All my stuff comes from Tesco now. Or Specsavers. Still, as my late and much lamented Ma said, “you get what you pay for, Dear!”

I felt a right numpty completing my speech whilst precariously balancing the one armed bifocals on my fortunately bulbous snout, I can tell you! There was no trace of sang frold about my performance thereafter – as David Niven said “I had a face that was a cross between two pounds of halibut and an explosion in an old clothes cupboard!”

And I remember only to well my horrifying experience whilst doing series 3 of X-Ray, having to go to the decommissioned court at the back of Newport Civic Centre, there to be filmed “morphing” from gown and tabs into all black gear of the not so super-hero-lawyer and wheezing down the stairs to leap/lurch into the Land Rover Discovery parked outside, to be driven at speed to answer some legal question in Abercwmtwch.

Not terribly dignified. (But then being tied up and gagged on a chair in a factory, being locked in the boot of an elderly BMW 3 series car that had been used to ferry fish and being caged in the back of a white Transit dog handlers van in the previous series didn’t exactly imbue my savoir faire either.)

And I must say that the mystique of court proceedings and the degree of fear it engenders in the soul of the dodgy defendant or vengeful complainant, does provoke a bit of respect for the system.

I well remember after the O J trial, the number of my friends who felt qualified to pontificate on the legal process and even on nuances of the law that I had no idea about. All from gawping at bits of an American case on the box!

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” “Familiarity breeds contempt”. Et cetera.

As well as that, trials can be awfully boring. Lots of folk think its all like Kavanangh QC, where gritty Yorkshire accented John Thaw won cases with one clever question, reducing the villain/false witness/expert to a gibbering jelloid mass, before triumphantly adjourning to the convenient wine bar, to sup Crystal champagne and smoke a fat Romeo a-Julietta Cigar.

Well perhaps the last bit was true, when criminal lawyers actually got paid enough to afford a bottle of wine. Half a shandy and a “rolly” in the Dog and Duck car park is the most we can stretch to these days.

But trials can be exceedingly long, complicated and tedious. We shall see how popular the snatches that are broadcast become.

As to the terrible riots in cities the length and breadth of England, (thankfully not Wales) the questions that seem to predominate are all about whether the reaction by the authorities was proportionate.

Certainly the rapidity of the court proceedings and the statistically higher sentences for crimes that might, in normal times attract non-custodial sentences, make such questions valid.

However, despite the fact that not a decade has passed since the early 1700’s without a major riot on mainland Britain, such events cause great fear in the vast majority of the population. And the damage to homes and businesses cannot be underestimated.

And let’s face it, the vast majority of those taking part were either people who actively ENJOY violence, agitators and anarchists (and you only have to look at G8 conferences and the recent student demos to realise that the main trouble came from folk who had never seen the inside of any university/college campus and whose grasp of world economics matches my understanding of quantum physics) or greedy opportunistic thieves!

Oh yes! I am quite sure there WERE genuinely angry and disaffected men and women, whose hatred of the police and the establishment was founded on past poor treatment, and whose lives have been blighted by the lack of opportunity and equality.

But you only had to watch, listen and read the reports to realise a great many more were simply looters. And from comparatively comfortable “middle class” backgrounds and even gainfully employed positions at that.

75% had previous convictions, 16,000 charges and 1000 (so far) defendants. Many of them were not young either. That tells a slightly different story from the “hoodie yobbos on the rampage” that was first put about.

That all amounts to the aggravating factors which meant that the courts HAD to make examples of them to send the right message.

Or course, the cynical lawyer in me leads me to suppose that they will appeal the necessarily draconian sentences and that those sentences will be reduced in may cases when all the brou-ha-ha has died down. How many times do we see reports of acquittals or successful appeals? Not that often.

Unlike, I am afraid, the speculative media feeding frenzy immediately after a sensational murder, rape or sexual assault, even prior to arrest and charge. Just look at the Salford hospital nurse who has spent weeks in custody, and whose vilification by the tabloids will have tainted her for years to come. As the Sun put it “Saline Deaths Nurse Clear to Work Again!”

That certainly reflects the poor woman’s innocence in the eyes of the “Current Bun” (and thus millions of its readers) does it not?

The main point from a professional point of view is that whilst the courts DID deal speedily with the alleged culprits, it was a bit “Kangaroo.”

The lawyers involved were, as ever, expected to represent their clients at the police station, then whip off for an all night sitting at the Magistrates Courts. As they had probably worked the day before (and more than likely had to work the day after) it must have been exhausting. Did you get double time? Seems unlikely.

And it is really fair on any defendant to have his case steam-rollered through the system at a rate of knots. How many character references were gatherable at 3.30am?

Any Duty Sol who has had to face more than ten cases at a sitting will know just how difficult it is.

Maybe the means of justified the ends, so far as public opinion and deterrence is concerned, but I can’t help but having misgivings about justice being done, and seen to be done.

I write having learned yesterday of sad death of Brian Dunleavy, aged only fifty-nine. Brian and I worked together at Layton Lougher & Co in St Mary Street in the late seventies. He was a skilled conveyancer, and wonderfully funny man, with a dry and acerbic view to life. He was a fine sportsman, and was club captain of the Cardiff Accies.

He was not a lucky man and his many friends were sad at the way in which his legal career came to an end. Notwithstanding the health problems that dogged him, he was always a person you enjoyed meeting. He will be missed.

Its autumn (as if you hadn’t noticed with Hurricane Katia blowing off your roof). “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, Close bosomed friend to the departing sun”??? was it ever here? I must have been indoors for those ten minutes.)

Anyway, for the Confederation, that means CPD season and, as the chair of the Criminal Law Update Day on October 5th, my annual dose of education and erudition.

Sadly, for the first time in years, His Honour Judge John Curran cannot be with us. His whistlestop tour of new cases has long been a highlight – especially for dry asides!

Who can possibly replace the irreplaceable?

Step forward His Honour Judge David Wynn Morgan! HH and I have been, I hope, close personal friends for many a long year. It has been a relationship based on ribaldry and insults. Sadly since he now sits loftily above me on the woolsack, he holds the whip hand. Whilst he berates my lack of sartorial elegance - albeit kindly and with a smile – I have to satisfy myself with the odd bit of genuflecting sarcasm and darkly muttered mewling asides.

In all seriousness, I am very much looking forward to seeing him reduced to humankind and mixing with us, the great unwashed! The last time we met, was when I caught him shopping in Queen Street, dressed like some modern day Ned Kelly Australian Bushwhacker, including a “Dryabone” slouch hat! He is, of course a fantastic jurist and I can only urge you to come along and see for yourselves.

And those of you not suffering from the affliction of practising criminal law – the Civil Law Update Day on 12th October is also packed with luminaries and both courses are extraordinary good value! I urge you all to support the Confederation by attending.

I try to leave you with something witty and/or humorous. This offering comes from the writer John Richards: “In general North Walians and South Walians get on like a house on fire, the house in question having been bought by the South Walian and set on fire by the North Walian.” n

Have a good Autumn


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