Friday, 18 May 2007

"Fat chicks are more grateful"

I hope that this report of a defence barrister's conduct in a rape trial contained a lot of inaccuracies. It's often unattractive to run consent when the circumstances of an alleged rape are horrible (in this case, the two 16-year-old victims are said to have had their phones taken then been repeatedly raped by three younger teenagers in a park), but if you're defending you have to follow your client's instructions. There is, however, a way of doing these things in a sensitive and professional way, and suggesting that the complainant was so fat at the time that she was grateful for the defendant's attention seems unlikely to win many jurors over!

Of course, the press frequently get things wrong or out of context - why, a few years ago the beagle herself was described as "daft" by one local rag! However, at face value this seems to be a glowing example of a barrister going far too far and giving the rest of us a bad name.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Shock findings

Apparently, magistrates ignore expert reports when sentencing young offenders, preferring to rely on their own "common sense" and defendants' backgrounds and previous convictions when determining sentence. Even more staggeringly, young offenders admit lying to both the courts and other bodies, like Youth Offending Teams, in an attempt to avoid harsher sentences. Jo Phoenix of Bath University, who conducted this ground-breaking research, fears that magistrates are relying on "little more than stereotypes" when making decisions. Obviously, they should be placing more importance on these expert reports, notwithstanding the possibility that the defendant has lied to the author in the hope of receiving a lesser sentence.

I'm not saying that magistrates always get it right - far from it. However, whilst they shouldn't just ignore YOT reports, they ought to be allowed to draw on their own experience and use their own discretion too. Otherwise there's not much point having them at all. Now there's a thought...

Thankfully, at least there is only reference to this being a problem in the Youth Court, so I can continue in my blissful delusion that the Crown Court is untroubled by such horrors as dishonest defendants and judges purporting to use their own common sense.

Friday, 4 May 2007

Straight from the horse's mouth

Unusually, I didn't read the paper until yesterday evening so missed the story about the Michael Symes, a juror on the terrorism trial. I've often wondered how jurors cope with being on long trials both in terms of the inevitable disruption of their normal lives and the strange experience of being thrown together with eleven other random people for weeks or months. Ever since lawyers became eligible for jury service, I've always had a hankering to be summonsed. I'm yet to be convinced that having lawyers and judges on juries is an entirely good idea but I'd love a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what goes on in jury rooms.

The closest I'd previously come to this was when a friend's mum was called for jury service a couple of years ago. She told me that they'd found the defendant not guilty as they were only about 80% sure of his guilt, which was reassuring as it showed they'd actually listened to directions about the standard of proof. More alarming was that she and her fellow jurors had agreed that the defence barrister was pompous and had an annoying voice and that the prosecution barrister had tried too hard to suck up to the jury in her speech. Food for thought...

Despite the worrying reports of jurors pulling sickies and generally dragging proceedings out whenever possible, it seems that the terrorism trial jurors took their responsibilities seriously and, broadly speaking, the article reaffirmed my faith in the jury system. Interestingly, Mr Symes was glad not to have been told of the links between the defendants in his case and the July 7th bombers, saying that it was "probably best to be objective in evidence". When the law changed on adducing defendants' (and others') bad character many criminal lawyers were worried that this objectivity would be lost, so it was nice to see that in this case the right decision seemed to have been taken.

I wasn't sure what to make of his desire to be a full-time juror though - what's the betting he applies to be a magistrate in the not too distant future?

Thursday, 3 May 2007

Sex, lies and videotape

Or DVDs, actually. Today I finished a very harrowing trial involving a series of sexual offences against two children; what is commonly referred to as a "filth case". These are always depressing whichever side you're on and whether the defendant is found guilty or not as there is usually some deeply disturbing family backdrop to the whole sorry situation. This case was no different - the children had clearly been severely damaged long before my client came on the scene and thoughtfully undertook to give then numerous practical lessons in anatomy. My client had a very sad childhood history himself involving neglect, abuse, a string of foster placements and several youthful brushes with law. The evidence was fairly overwhelming but he strenuously denied all the allegations. The jury were out for just over an hour before he was convicted of all six counts. He told me afterwards he had always expected to be found guilty, though maintained that everybody was lying.

The allegations weren't the most sordid I'd ever come across but for some reason, I found the case particularly heavy-going. After the DVD of the first kid had been played (young and vulnerable witnesses are generally filmed being interviewed by police officers rather than making statements, then the video/DVD is played in court, then they are cross-examined over a live videolink) one of the jurors asked for a break, which didn't seem a great sign! Anyway, I did my best throughout the trial and I was pleasantly surprised that my punter didn't come across all that badly when he gave evidence, but none of it was enough to save his skin.

Now why, exactly, am I bothered about this? I worked as hard as I could have done and, though I'm sure there are many who are more able than I am, I think I did a reasonable job, so it's not a case of regretting something in particular that I did or didn't do in the trial. And although I love winning trials (we all do, however gracious we manage to be about it), losing one doesn't normally depress me like this. Being a hardened professional (hmmm...), I don't really feel too bad about cross-examining the kids and calling them liars, though I didn't take any great pleasure in it either. Maybe it was just the sadness of the whole situation. Or maybe I'm going soft. People always ask barristers how we can bear to defend sex offenders and I always give the same answers that I expect everyone else does - innocent until proven otherwise, right to representation, equality of arms, etc etc. Today, however, I'm glad that I'm still junior enough for nasty sex cases to come along relatively infrequently.

On the plus side, my dabbling in the world of civil law is going quite well ("Turbulent times...") so perhaps my days of this sort of stress may one day be over (quite possibly only to be replaced by different sorts of stress, but variety is the spice of life!). Even better, we are one day away from a bank holiday weekend and Mr Beagle and I are going away for a couple of days. Hopefully I'll return full of energy and enthusiasm and my next post will be a departure from all this moaning and whining!