The great con trick of the politics of criminal law and policy

 6th April 2021

Anyone who knows and cares about the criminal justice system in England and Wales knows that the system is collapsing – and that the word ‘system’ is itself hardly still applicable.

On the face of it, however, this presents a paradox.

For we have a government – with loud and shouty political and media supporters – committed to ‘Law and Order!’.

You would think that a government with such a stated priority would ensure that the substance of policy would have some correspondence to the rhetoric of its politics.

You would be wrong.

For, as this blog has averred elsewhere, there is a distinction – a dislocation – between the politics and the actuality of the criminal justice system.

It is easy for a politician to get claps and cheers with demands for ‘tougher penalties’ and ‘crackdowns on crime’!

Time-poor political reporters will type easily about ‘new laws’ and ‘longer sentences’ and so on.

And voters will nod-along, as they are fooled into thinking some useful thing is being done.

But there is no point having tougher and tougher penalties, and longer and longer sentences, and more and more laws, if the criminal justice system itself is not working.

As the former attorney general Dominic Grieve sets out in this article, the reality is that the system is halting and crashing.

Part of the problem is lack of cash – and for the the reasons Grieve submits.

But another part of the problem is a lack of policy seriousness – an assumption that it ultimately does matter that the criminal justice system comprises a motley of inadequate court buildings, demoralised staff, badly let contracts, ancient IT systems, health and safety horrors, a general lack of safety for everyone involved, and a general drift of the system towards discharging greater re-offending, and not less.

If you invited a demon to devise the worst possible state of affairs in the criminal justice system the current situation is pretty much what you would get.

But: ‘new laws’ and ‘longer sentences’ and ‘tougher penalties’ and ‘crackdowns on crime’!

Slogans that are like loose gear sticks and brakes, not attached to any other part of the vehicle.

Perhaps the only consolation is that such an absolute system failure tells against England and Wales becoming, in practice, an authoritarian state.

But it is not only authoritarian states that need a functioning criminal justice system – modern liberal democracies need working criminal justice systems too.

And so we have a system that should satisfy nobody – other than of course, dishonest purveyors of easy criminal justice solutions: fraudsters of modern politics.

***

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The life and death of Smiley Culture – who died ten years ago this month during a police raid – and what happened next

 31st March 2021

Ten years ago this month the singer David Emmanuel – known as Smiley Culture – died under arrest during a police raid.

The cause of death was a knife wound – which the police said was self-inflcited.

Ten years ago I blogged about this extraordinary death – and so this post is a follow-on so as to see what happened (and did not happen) next.

*

Smiley Culture was part of the soundtrack of those of us brought up in the 1980s.

Have a click and listen and watch.

The sneering, aggressive vocal characterisation of the officer – ‘Shut your bloody mouth. We ask. You answer’ – felt spot on for those in communities which dealt with the police.

Police Officer especially caught a certain mood about the police’s attitude.

*

Here is the singer posing outside a south London police station on the cover of the single:

*

The news of the circumstances of the death of Smiley Culture seemed – literally – incredible.

That someone could stab themselves fatally in the chest in the presence of police officers seemed surreal – like something akin to those lines in the Blackadder episode Dish and Dishonesty.

But this – horrifically – was real, not a fiction.

*

The name of Smiley Culture is now recalled as one of a long list of name of black people who have died in police custody or in similar situations.

So what happened with his case?

Putting events together now, the main consequence of the death was a coroner’s inquest in June-July 2013.

After a two-week hearing, the jury returned a majority verdict that the cause of death was indeed suicide.

(A majority verdict, of course, means that the jury could not come to an unanimous verdict, which in turn means that at least one juror had doubt that it was a suicide.)

According to a BBC report, the inquest heard medical evidence that the fatal wound could have been self-inflicted, if the right spot was chosen:

‘Dr Nathaniel Cary, who carried out a second post-mortem examination on Mr Emmanuel’s body, said told the inquest it was possible the fatal stab wound was, as described, a self-inflicted injury.

‘But he said that on pathological grounds alone there was nothing to determine that this was the case, although it was fair to say the site chosen may be used in self-infliction.’

The majority of the jurors accepted this as the explanation.

The jury’s verdict is here – on a page written about the case by the barrister for the family, Leslie Thomas QC.

As counter-intuitive as this verdict may seem, it must be remembered that those jurors sat through two weeks of evidence – which was cross-examined on behalf of the deceased’s family.

But another person who sat through that hearing – the daughter of Smiley Culture – was not satisfied.

She was quoted as saying:

 ‘After listening to over two weeks of evidence and having had the opportunity to test the accounts of the officers, I feel no closer to the truth than I did before.

‘I have approached this inquest with an open mind hoping to hear for myself what happened on the day of my dad’s death.

‘Despite the jury’s verdict, the inconsistencies in the evidence have only served to raise serious concerns on my part about what really happened on the morning of March 15 2011.’

*

That a person in a room drinking tea with a police officer should suddenly get up, produce a large kitchen knife and plunge it in his own chest so as to kill themselves is, even accepting the jury’s verdict, an extreme fact situation.

Even if it were suicide, there are questions to be asked about how it happened, and answers to be given in the public interest.

As Thomas set out:

‘Despite the suicide verdict, the jury did find that the way in which Mr Emmanuel was supervised following his arrest materially contributed to his death. In particular, the fact that a single officer was left to supervise Mr Emmanuel while also completing paperwork was felt to be inappropriate.

‘The inquest has also highlighted serious failings in the Independent Police Complaints Commission’s investigation, including a failure to attend the scene until some four hours after the event, a failure to secure all relevant evidence, and a failure to critically analyse opinions expressed by the expert witnesses.

‘Following the verdict, the Coroner, Mr Richard Travers, said that he would write to the Metropolitan Police Service, highlighting failures that contributed towards the death, making recommendations for changes aimed at preventing similar tragedies in future.’

*

The (then) Independent Police Complaints Commission issued the following press release after the inquest verdict (emphasis added):

‘Following today’s conclusion of the inquest into the death of David Emmanuel, also known as Smiley Culture, IPCC Commissioner Mike Franklin said:

‘David Emmanuel’s death caused huge shock, anger and disbelief in the community and I am aware that many people, most importantly Mr Emmanuel’s family, have waited over two years for the evidence to be heard at an inquest.

The ongoing dynamic assessments made by officers on the 15 March 2011 were left wanting. Four experienced officers felt it appropriate to detain a suspect in the kitchen, potentially the most dangerous room in the house and afforded him a level of freedom not normally associated with an operation of this kind.

‘The IPCC has made a series of recommendations to the Metropolitan Police following this investigation presenting them with areas that should be reviewed and changed in light of the findings. These include recommendations on dynamic risk assessments, the sharing of information and use of officer personal safety equipment.

‘The IPCC made two national recommendations following this investigation. The first is that officers should always detain people in the safest part of the house. Therefore kitchens must generally be avoided at all times. The second national recommendation focused on officer safety equipment and that all officers and staff attending search operations should carry with them the appropriate personal safety equipment.

While the IPCC highlighted these areas of learning for the MPS, the officers’ actions did not meet the threshold for misconduct under the Police (conduct) Regulations 2008 and no disciplinary action has been recommended.

‘I hope that this inquest has provided Mr Emmanuel’s family with some of the answers they and the community have so patiently waited for. This has been a long process for all the parties involved and I would like to thank them for their patience.

‘Notes to editors

‘Mr Emmanuel died on 15 March 2011 of a single stab wound through the heart at his home on Hillbury Road in Warlingham, Surrey. Four officers from the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) were at the house at the time, carrying out a search of the property.

‘After careful consideration and in consultation with lawyers from both the IPCC and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), Commissioner Mike Franklin, took the decision not to formally refer the case to the CPS as the investigation found no evidence that a criminal offence may have been committed.

‘Consideration was also given as to whether the actions of individual officers met the threshold for misconduct under the Police (conduct) Regulations 2008. The investigation found there were no individual failings which, for the purposes of the Regulations, amounted to misconduct.’

*

So the conduct of the police was ‘found wanting’, somebody died under arrest, but this was an opportunity for ‘learning’ rather than any formal proceedings.

The coroner, in turn, also made recommendations.

Thanks to a tweeter, we have what appears to have a formal record of the recommendations:

Here it is, line 208 in a table in the chief coroner’s report:

This accords with the Surrey address and the date, and so presumably is indeed the recommendations made by the coroner.

*

Smiley Culture was just one of hundreds of people who have died in police custody or during contact with the police.

No doubt in each of those situations there are special facts – but it is marked that the police rarely face any proceedings, let alone criminal charges for any of these deaths.

And it may well be that the close scrutiny of each case could dispel any suspicion that something wrong happened every time.

But the accumulation of deaths as set against the absence of successful prosecutions seems to be a mismatch.

Here is the FullFact analysis of the lack of prosecutions.

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Given the facts of the death of Smiley Culture, as determined by a majority of a jury, it may contested that his death is not as glaring example of this apparent trend of injustices as many others.

But like one or two of the others that have died while in the custody (or ‘care’) of the police, he happened to be more famous than the rest, and so his is one of the names that will be cited.

And even the IPCC found the conduct of the police at the time of his death to be ‘wanting’ – with both the IPCC and the coroner separately making recommendations about how such searches are conducted in future.

So even if one accepts the coroner’s inquest – and again the jury heard the relevant evidence cross-examined and a majority of those jurors were convinced it was suicide – the death followed carelessness by the police.

I am still seeking to find out if those recommendations were formally accepted by the police and the home office – though I have been told by police sources that the training for such searches now includes the need for risk assessments that would cover what happened in the death of Smiley Culture.

I will post here again on this subject when I have further information about what happened with the recommendations of the coroner and the IPCC.

It is important to follow these things through, even ten years later – especially as black people continue to die in police custody, and there are never any formal proceedings.

**

***

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‘We are not public servants’ and ‘policing by consent is not a duty’ – the disturbing and telling views of a police officer

27th March 2021

Here is a tweet.

The tweet purports to be from the chair of the Gloucestershire branch of the Police Federation.

This description must be true, because a tweet from that account was RTd just hours before by the account of the Gloucestershire Police Federation – and it can be assumed that they would not RT an imposter.

And that, in turn, is the account of the Gloucestershire Police Federation as it is directly linked to at their website (top right).

So, yes, it is a real tweet.

A real tweet by a real chair of a real police federation.

*

Having established the tweet’s authenticity, let us now look at its content.

The tweet states that the police are not public servants.

More exactly that ‘technically’ the police are not public servants.

As there is no ‘technical’ definition of the term ‘public servant’ this is a nonsense.

That a police constable is a servant of the crown – as are many civil servants – does not mean that they are also not public servants.

Crown servants – and others employed by the state in whatever legal form – are public servants.

Now look at the context of the tweet – it is intended as a correction in reply to a fair comment that the police should serve the public, not the government.

The reply denies that this is the case.

*

But not only does this tweet deny that the police are public servants – it also frames the concept of ‘policing by consent’ as a ‘general principle’ but not a ‘duty’.

Here the tweeter errs again.

If one actually reads the once-famous Peelite principles of policing, you will see this as the second principle:

‘To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.’

Indeed, each of the principles is set out as an express ‘instruction’ to constables: ‘to recognise’, ‘to maintain’, ‘to use’ and so on.

As such each of the principles is also a duty – and this is because – ahem, technically – a duty can also be a principle, and vice versa.

Especially when they are expressly framed as such, as they are in that formal definition of ‘policing by consent’.

But for our tweeter, these express instructions can be defined out of from having any actual application because they are only ‘principles’.

This, like the tweeter’s other distinction, is itself worrying and telling.

Policing by consent is not an optional nice-to-have in modern society – it is foundational.

That it can be expressly stated to not be a duty – notwithstanding the actual words of the instructions – is a disturbing insight.

*

Perhaps the tweet was a just a slip, not to be taken seriously.

(Though, remember the police themselves are often not so forgiving of the slips of others.)

Perhaps there will be a clarification, or something.

Or perhaps the tweets provided an indication – an insight – into a mindset of certain police officers.

That not being public servants and that not policing by consent are both a quick distinction away from having practical application in the discharge of their important role in our society.

***

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Clause 59 and ‘TwitterJokeTrial’ – a warning from history

Spring Equinox, 2021

 

Some of those defending clause 59 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing, Courts and Anything Else the Government Can Get Away With Bill point out that one purpose of the provision is to set out in statute the old common law offence of public nuisance.

The view is that the enactment is merely an exercise in modernisation and simplification – that there is nothing for us to worry our heads about.

And as this blog has already explained, part of the origin of the proposal is a Law Commission report from 2015.

But.

There is a law more powerful than any statute or common law right, more powerful even than any great charter.

And that is the law of unintended consequences.

*

Here is a story.

There was once an obscure provision in the Post Office (Amendment Act) 1935 that, in turn, amended the Post Office Act 1908:

And for seventy years the offence was hardly noticed, though it was reenacted from time to time as telecommunications legislation was, ahem, modernised and simplified.

Then in 2003 it was reenacted yet again, but in terms that (without any proper consideration) ended up covering the entire internet:

But it was still not really noticed.

Until one day some bright spark at the crown prosecution service realised the provision’s broad terms were a prosecutorial gift in the age of social media.

This resulted in the once-famous TwitterJokeTrial case and its various appeals, which ended with a hearing before the lord chief justice.

In allowing the appeal against conviction, the lord chief justice said:

In other words: the intention of the 2003 reenactment had not been to widen the scope of the offence in respect of fundamental freedoms.

(Declaration of interest: I was the appeal solicitor before the high court in that case.)

*

Coming back to clause 59, it may well be that the intended effect of clause 59 is to merely restate the existing law.

Some are convinced by this view: 

But.

What we will have, once enacted, will be an offence – that is, an arrestable and chargeable offence – which, on the face of it is in extraordinary broad terms, using such everyday language as ‘annoyance’.

It may be that the higher courts will, as any appeals come in, apply the technical meaning in property law of ‘annoyance’.

The law in practice is not that (only) of the judgments of the high court and above: it is what police officers and crown prosecution service case workers believe the law to be and see the law as it is set out.

It is also can be what zealous complainants to the police say it to be.

And none of these people will – understandable and perhaps rightly – be well versed in the case law of ‘annoyance’ in respect of the old law of public nuisance.

They will just see an arresting and charging power – and a power to set conditions.

So it should not be left to the courts ‘to apply the old caselaw’.

*

Criminal offences – and their limits – need to be clear and precise to everyone involved: citizen, complainant, arresting officer, crown prosecution service case worker, busy junior legal aid solicitor giving advice on plea – as well as to erudite barristers and even more erudite judges.

And so: even taking the point about this being a mere modernisation and simplification at its highest, clause 59 currently contains worryingly wide drafting.

Most people reading clause 59 by itself will believe there is a criminal offence – with a sentence of up to ten years – for causing mere annoyance.

Even if that it not the government’s intention, that is how the current provision can be read.

And because of this, people may suffer the life-changing events of being arrested and being charged – and may even plead guilty.

Unless, of course, that is the government’s real intention.

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What now stands between a populist authoritarian government with a huge majority and a full scale assault on civil liberties and human rights?

 18th March 2021

Earlier this week the house of commons passed the government’s illiberal Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill with a ninety-six majority.

So given this high majority the obvious question is what would actually stop or hinder a populist and authoritarian government from seeking to pass primary legislation that would remove or undermine basic legal protections and rights? 

This is not a trivial or academic question.

The usual ‘gatekeepers’ that would prevent a government from not even proposing such things are no longer in place.

For example, the offices of lord chancellor and attorney-general are occupied by politicians who happen to be lawyers but have no credentials in protecting either the rule of law or fundamental freedoms.

And we have a government heady with ‘will of the people’ rhetoric that has developed a taste for attacking or disregarding what checks and balances the constitution of the United Kingdom has to offer.

*

In constitutional theory, the next check – once legislation is proposed – is the house of commons.

But with such a large majority – and the tendency for even supposedly ‘libertarian’ government backbenchers to vote in accordance with the whip and accept limp front-bench assurances – there is no realistic way that the house of commons is any check or balance on this government.

And if the opposition do oppose – which cannot be assumed, given the official opposition’s habit of not opposing things for tactical and strategic reasons – then such opposition can and will be weaponised by hyper-partisan ministers and their media supporters.

*

Next there is the house of lords, where (fortunately) the government does not have an in-built majority.

And the house of lords can vote things down and pass amendments.

But.

When constitutional push comes to political shove, the house of lords will usually backdown once the house of commons has reaffirmed its support for a measure.

This is in part that the the house of lords has a, well, constitutional disability in respect of confronting the democratic house.

There will only be a few occasions where the house of lords will use its power to delay legislation under the parliament acts.

And that power is that: to delay.

A determined government, with the support of the house of commons, will get its legislative way in the end.

A government in these circumstances would not even need to resort to an ‘enabling act’ – as it would get through any desired illiberal legislation anyway.

There are a very few exceptions to this: such as a bill containing any provision to extend the maximum duration of a parliament beyond five years.

But otherwise: there is nothing that can ultimately stop an illiberal bill eventually becoming an act of parliament.

*

And then we come to the courts.

Here we have another problem.

Because of the doctrine of parliamentary supremacy there is nothing that the courts would be able to do – as long as the government has ensured that the statutory drafting is precise and tight.

The human rights act, for example, provides no legal basis for an act of parliament to be disapplied.

The judgments of the European court of human rights are not binding.

The European communities act, which did enable a court to disapply an act of parliament on certain grounds, is no longer part of domestic law.

‘Common law rights’ capable of frustrating an act of parliament exist only in undergraduate law student essays.

Even with the powers the courts do have, the government is seeking to limit access to judicial review by all possible means: in substantive law, by procedural restrictions, and by denying legal aid.

(And the courts have taken an illiberal turn anyway: and we now have a president of the supreme court, in an unanimous judgment, telling the court of appeal off for not according ‘respect’ to a home secretary’s assessments.)

*

Before the general election of December 2019 we had the unpleasant predicament of a government that was populist and authoritarian – but at least it did not have a parliamentary majority.

Now, by reason of that general election and its result, we have a government with the same illiberal instincts but with all the sheer legal force of parliamentary supremacy at their disposal.

That the opposition parties facilitated an early general election in December 2019 was a moment of political madness.

And now – until at least December 2024 – we have a government that is able with ease to get the house of commons to pass the most illiberal legislation – and there is ultimately nothing that either the house of lords or the courts can do – as long as the legislation is precise and tight.

Brace, brace.

***

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The proposed new clause 59 offence of ‘intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance’

15th March 2021

There is currently a bill before parliament that will, among other things, create a new statutory offence of ‘public nuisance’.

This new offence – as currently set out in the bill – is itself causing annoyance and distress.

Why is it being proposed?

And what should parliament do about it?

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Like a lamp in Aladdin – it is a new offence for an old one.

If the new offence is enacted then the current ‘common law’ (that is, non-statutory) offence of public nuisance will be abolished.

The current offence is ill-defined and rarely used – and it has been the subject of 2015 reform proposals from the Law Commission – see here.

(Of course, the fact that the Law Commission proposed reform in 2015 is not the reason why the home office have chosen to propose changes in 2021.)

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On the face of it, reform and simplification are good things.

Who could possibly oppose something as laudable as reform and simplification?

And the Law Commission does have a point – the current law is somewhat vague and archaic.

The current law is usually stated as:

‘A person is guilty of a public nuisance (also known as common nuisance), who (a) does an act not warranted by law, or (b) omits to discharge a legal duty, if the effect of the act or omission is to endanger the life, health, property or comfort of the public, or to obstruct the public in the exercise or enjoyment of rights common to all Her Majesty’s subjects.’

The bill before parliament proposes that old offence to be replaced by this:

As you will see there are elements of the current offence copied over to the new offence – and that although this is an exercise in ‘simplification’ it also happens to be rather longer.

Words like ‘annoyance’ are added.

But the new offence has not plucked the word ‘annoyance’ out of the air: annoyance can be a component of the current offence, and it has featured in case law.

The word ‘annoy’ (and its variants) is mentioned thirty-seven times in the Law Commission report.

The Law Commission summarises their view as (at paragraph 3.12):

‘One question is the nature of the right or interest which public nuisance seeks to protect.  In our view, its proper use is to protect the rights of members of the public to enjoy public spaces and use public rights (such as rights of way) without danger, interference or annoyance.’

Whatever ills can be blamed on the home secretary and the home office, the content of this proposed provision is not entirely of their creation.

*

But.

Each and every piece of legislation needs to be scrutinised on its own terms – and neither parliamentarians nor the public should just nod-along because the magic words ‘reform’ and ‘simplification’ are invoked.

Never trust the home office.

And if one looks through clause 59 carefully and trace through how it works, it is potentially a chilling and illiberal provision.

For example (with emphasis added):

A person commits an offence if— (a) the person— (i) does an act […]  [which](b) the person’s act or omission […] (ii) obstructs the public or a section of the public in the exercise or enjoyment of a right that may be exercised or enjoyed by the public at large, and (c) the person  […]  is reckless as to whether it will have such a consequence. […]  (2) For the purposes of subsection (1) an act or omission causes serious harm to a person if, as a result, the person […] (c) suffers serious distress, serious annoyance, serious inconvenience or serious loss of amenity, or (d) is put at risk of suffering anything mentioned […].

The offence is thereby made out not if a person is caused ‘serious annoyance’ but only if there is a ‘risk’ of them suffering it.

And there does not need need to be any directed intention – mere recklessness will suffice.

The maximum sentence for simply putting someone ‘at risk of suffering’ serious annoyance is imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years.

Of course, maximum sentences are maximum sentences, and in practice the penalties will be lower.

Yet, the creation of such an offence in these terms will have a knock-on effects on the powers of police to arrest and to set conditions.

And it is in the day-to-day exercises of such powers by the police that the real chill of any offence is most keenly felt – and not the ultimate sentencing power of a court.

*

This provision and other provisions in the bill before parliament have the potential to greatly restrict the rights of individuals to protest – or even go about their everyday activities.

As such, such provisions should receive the anxious scrutiny of parliamentarians. 

Despite the Law Commission origins of the proposed reform – there may be plenty here that the home office have added – and for various illiberal reasons.

Members of parliament are not there to nod-along – and this particular proposal should not just be nodded-through.

***

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The ugly scenes from the Clapham Common protest tell us about wider policing problems – and how policing the coronavirus regulations is being treated as a public order matter instead of a public health problem

14th March 2021

The scenes of the policing of the protest at Clapham Common last night were ugly.

The scenes were also shocking.

By ‘shocking’ I do not mean that they were surprising and unpredictable. 

Anyone with any awareness of policing in Northern Ireland, or of the miners strike, or of inner cities and BAME communities, will not be surprised.

This is what police do – when they can get away with it.

Something can be unsurprising and predictable and still be shocking – as anyone who has licked a light socket would tell you, if they are still able to do so.

And police brutality – and their other abuses of coercive power – should always be shocking.

Once it ceases to shock then the authoritarians and illiberals will have prevailed.

*

During this pandemic this tendency for the police to misuse and abuse their powers has had a further feature.

The coronavirus regulations – which restrict freedom of movement and assembly as well as other fundamental rights and freedoms – are public health measures.

But they have been enforced by the police as if they were in respect of public order.

Public health is not the same as public order.

The scenes from last night did not evidence any sincere concern for public health from the police.

Indeed – a responsible and socially distanced protest was entirely possible (and warranted) – but the police turned it into something else instead.

*

These ugly scenes were then followed by ugly evasions.

Reading that ugly statement is as sickening as the scenes from the protest were ugly and shocking.

‘Look at what you made us do,’ is – in the circumstances of this protest that was prompted by the death of Sarah Everard – an especially unfortunate stance for the police to take.

Even former home office ministers – not the most liberal of politicians – were not able to stomach this.

*

And in command of the metropolitan police is, of course, Cressida Dick.

How the career of Cressida Dick even survived the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes is one of wonders of recent policing history.

How her career then continued to prosper is one of its deepest disgraces.

But the police are very good indeed at deflection.

Any criticism is usually first met by being told that one does not understand the pressures of policing, and so on.

And when the wrongs are established beyond doubt, the police effortlessly switch to their bland lessons-will-be-learned assurances.

But at no point will there even be any genuine accountability and redress.

Which is kind of ironic given that the police are, well, charged with the policing the rest of us and holding us to account.

*

This is not the sort of blog to comment on ongoing individual criminal cases – and this is not just because of the (outdated and inadequate) laws on contempt of court but instead because a blog is not a court room and serves a different purpose.

One purpose of this blog is to identify and explain the wider law and policy contexts of topical events.

The ugly scenes from last night can be seen as an example of police abuses of power generally and in respect of their illiberal and misconceived approach to the coronavirus regulations in particular.

The ugly doubling-down of the police this morning can, in turn, be seen as an example of their inability ever to accept that they have made operational mistakes.

And there are few – if any – official communications as misleading if not dishonest as the police PR after something has gone very wrong.

Shocking – but never surprising.

***

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Under the hood: how the United Kingdom state authorises people to commit criminal offences and then protects them from prosecution

12th March 2021

A recent court of appeal case has provided an insight into how the United Kingdom state both authorises people to commit criminal offences and then protects them from prosecution.

To show how this is done is not necessarily to condemn – or endorse – such governmental practices.

You may well believe that it is right that in certain covert operations those acting on behalf of the state should be able – as part of their cover – be able to break both the criminal and civil law for the greater good.

Or you may believe it should not be legally possible and that such things have the effect of placing state agents above the law.

In either case there is value in understanding just how it is done.

*

The starting point is to know – in general terms – about the two-stage ‘code’ test for bringing criminal prosecutions.

The first stage is to determine whether there is sufficient evidence against a defendant – this is called the evidential test.

The second test – treated as a routine formality in most every-day cases – is whether, distinct from the evidential test, there is a public interest in a prosecution – this is called the public interest test.

The notion is that there is a presumption that a prosecution is in the public interest unless there is a reason why such a prosecution was not in the public interest.

And it is at this second stage that state-authorised criminals are protected from prosecution.

*

But it is important to note that this protection is not a legal immunity.

Oh no, not at all, definitely not, how could you think such a thing?

The contention is that because in theory a prosecution can still occur then state agents are not technically above the law.

And placing state agents above the law would be a bad thing, and such a bad thing would never happen.

An authorisation for a state agent to break the law does not confer immunity from prosecution – it instead provides a factor which a prosecutor takes into account when making the decision whether a prosecution is in the public interest or not.

In this elaborate – and for some, artificial – form the state has both its cake and a file inside it.

State agents are protected from prosecutions for their criminal acts – but are not given immunity.

It is just that the prosecutions will not happen.

*

The court of appeal case is the latest (and perhaps last) stage in an important public interest case which, among other public benefits, has led to the disclosure of hitherto secret guidance on authorising state agents to commit criminal effects.

The judgment at paragraph 14 even published a redacted version of the guidance.

One paragraph of that guidance describes the legal effect and consequences of an authorisation (which I break up into smaller paragraphs for flow):

‘9. An authorisation of the use of a participating agent has no legal effect and does not confer on either the agent or those involved in the authorisation process any immunity from prosecution.

‘Rather, the authorisation will be the Service’s explanation and justification of its decisions should the criminal activity of the agent come under scrutiny by an external body, e.g. the police or prosecuting authorities.

‘In particular, the authorisation process and associated records may form the basis of representations by the Service to the prosecuting authorities that prosecution is not in the public interest.

‘Accordingly, any such authorisation should, on its face, clearly establish that the criteria for authorisation are met, in terms which will be readily understood by a prosecutor.

*

To a certain extent the court of appeal case is of historic interest, because the government has now legislated to place part of this system on a statutory basis.

In the grand tradition of giving important legislation complicated and forgettable names, this is the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act 2021.

This inserts the glamorous-sounding ‘section 29B – Covert human intelligence sources – criminal conduct authorisations’ into the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, including this definition:

‘A “criminal conduct authorisation” is an authorisation for criminal conduct in the course of, or otherwise in connection with, the conduct of a covert human intelligence source.’

You will note – perhaps worryingly – that there is no limit on what criminal actions may be authorised.

And here on should bear in mind the circumstances of the murder of Pat Finucane.

(And those circumstances explain why the Pat Finucane Centre were one of the groups bringing the legal challenge.)

 

*

On the face of it: murder and other serious criminal offences can be authorised by the state: there is no express limit.

But, of course, such things would never happen.

Ahem.

*

Paragraph 113 of the judgment also reveals something interesting:

‘The undisputed evidence generally was that the Security Service works closely with the police in counter-terrorism operations. The evidence also reveals that there is, for example, a Memorandum of Understanding between the Security Service, the police and the Counter Terrorism Division of the Crown Prosecution Service.’

This memorandum of understanding, of course, does not seem to be in the public domain.

As a ‘memorandum of understanding’ this would be a formal, legal-looking document – complete with pompous earnest language and paragraph numbers – but it is as much an imposter as any covert agent.

The purpose of a memorandum of understanding between government entities is to have the effect of a binding agreement – but without any of the inconveniences of it actually being a legal instrument, such as transparency.

There are memorandums of understanding all over the state (and between the United Kingdom and other states) – many of which are secret – but all of which are crucial in the conduct of government and public affairs.

The court of appeal’s helpful mention of the existence of this memorandum of understanding tells us how – as a matter of process – the authorisations are in practice converted into decisions not to prosecute.

*

Again: you may take the view that all this is not something to worry about and that government is doing what it has to do so as to keep us all safe.

Nothing in this post should be taken to gainsay such an entirely valid view.

The purpose of this post is to use information in the public domain so as to show how the state goes about doing what it does.

And there is even a reason to welcome the 2021 act even if one is a liberal or progressive.

The more of what the state does that is placed on a public statutory basis the better in any democratic society that values the rule of law.

So although the various public interest groups failed in their appeal, their dogged-determined litigation has led to certain things becoming public knowledge and perhaps being placed on a statutory footing that were not public knowledge before.

Just because some things should be covert it does not mean all things have to be covert.

And there is not a good reason why the ways and means by which the state authorises criminal conduct and then protects its agents from prosecution should not be in public domain – and in a democratic society that values the rule of law there is a good reason why it should be.

**

EDIT

The first version of this post had a mention of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme – but the point I made now appears to be incorrect – so I have deleted that section so I can consider it again.

Apologies.

***

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The legal power of the Home Secretary to deprive a person of United Kingdom citizenship – looking closely at the Begum case part 1

28th February 2021

There is something wrong – very wrong – about the legal situation of Shamima Begum.

That is, at least on the basis of information in the public domain – which is, of course, the only information on which the public can have confidence in the relevant law and policy.

The legal case is, however, complex – at least on the face of it, with sets of legal proceedings and appeals that have resulted so far in a number of lengthy judgments by variously constituted courts.

So to get to the wrongness of this situation, this blog will be doing a sequence of posts, each on a different element of the case.

Is the fault with the substantive law and general government policy?  Or with the particular decisions made by home secretaries?  Or with the lower courts and tribunals?  Or with the higher appeal courts?

Of course, one easy answer is say ‘all of them’ – but even then: what is the allocation and distribution of wrongness in the system?

Previous posts on this blog on the case have put forward some initial impressions on the supreme court judgment of last week and, yesterday, compared the case in general terms with the 1941 decision of Liversidge v Anderson.

Today’s post is on the general subject of the power of the home secretary to deprive a person of British citizenship, subject to the (supposed) prohibition on rendering a person ‘stateless’.

*

The power of a home secretary to deprive a person of British citizenship is set out in section 40 of the British Nationality Act 1981.

Note, however, that this is not about powers that actually date back to 1981 – as this provision and the act generally have been heavily amended by successive governments.

This legal power, like many other powers that can be used illiberally, is a legal work-in-progress – constantly being tuned (if not finely) by home office lawyers by legislative amendment so as to make it ever-more difficult for a home secretary’s decisions to be checked and balanced.

*

The key power in the Begum case is at section 40(2):

‘The Secretary of State may by order deprive a person of a citizenship status if the Secretary of State is satisfied that deprivation is conducive to the public good.’

This is it – this is the deprivation power.

On the face of section 40(2) alone, any person can be deprived of citizenship not by a decision of an independent court or tribunal but at the simple discretion of a cabinet minister.

*

But.

There is then section 40(4), which provides:

‘The Secretary of State may not make an order under subsection (2) if he is satisfied that the order would make a person stateless.’

(The ‘he’ here also means ‘she’ under section 6 of the Interpretation Act 1978.)

On the face of it, section 40(4) would thereby prevent the deprivation power being used so as to render a person stateless.

Yet note, the deft use of the words ‘he is satisfied’.

Read the provision again without those three words to see the difference those words make: ‘The Secretary of State may not make an order under subsection (2) if  […] that the order would make a person stateless.’

The direct legal test is thereby not whether a person is made stateless, but (again) the ‘satisfaction’ of the home secretary.

As we come to look more closely at the Begum case in particular, you will see what rides on words and phrases like this.

*

Turning now to the Begum case, we can now see the legal basis of the decision by the then home secretary Sajid Javid of 19th February 2019 (emphases added):

‘As the Secretary of State, I hereby give notice in accordance with section 40(5) of the British Nationality Act 1981 that I intend to have an order made to deprive you, Shamima Begum of your British citizenship under section 40(2) of the Act. This is because it would be conducive to the public good to do so.

‘The reason for the decision is that you are a British/Bangladeshi dual national who it is assessed has previously travelled to Syria and aligned with ISIL. It is assessed that your return to the UK would present a risk to the national security of the United Kingdom. In accord with section 40(4) of the British Nationality Act 1981, I am satisfied that such an order will not make you stateless.’

As you can see, the notice of 19th February 2019 ticks the boxes for both (1) the basic deprivation power and (2) avoiding the statelessness exception.

This determination being made by the home secretary – and given the evidence on which the home secretary purports to rely – the only immediate avenue of appeal of Begum was to the special immigration appeals commission.

*

The next post in this series of posts on the Begum case will set out the relevant law on ‘statelessness’.

Further posts will then show how the home office and the courts dealt (and did not deal) with important issues in this case.

The purpose of this Begum series of posts is to promote the public understanding of law.

The posts in this Begum series on this blog will be every few days, alongside commentary on other law and policy matters.

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“In this country, amid the clash of arms, the laws are not silent…judges are no respecters” – the story of when a law lord in 1941 stood up for the rights of an individual against a home secretary, and what then happened to that law lord

27th February 2021

The illiberal and unanimous decision yesterday of the supreme court of the United Kingdom in the Shamima Begum case is reminiscent of another illiberal decision of the highest court, previously known as the appellate committee of the house of lords.

That case – which most lawyers will know and most non-lawyers will not – is Liversidge v Anderson.

This case dealt with the rights of the individual in respect of regulation 18B of the Defence (General) Regulations 1939.

That regulation provided:

‘If the Secretary of State has reasonable cause to believe any person to be of hostile origin or associations or to have been recently concerned in acts prejudicial to the public safety or the defence of the realm or in the preparation or instigation of such acts and that by reason thereof it is necessary to exercise control over him, he may make an order against that person directing that he be detained.’

In other words: detention without trial at the discretion of the home secretary.

Of course, many would think such a dreadful thing would never happen in England, with our robust common law rights and so on.

For as even Winston Churchill said:

‘to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law is in the highest degree odious and forms the basis of all totalitarian regimes’.

(It is worth noting that ‘odious’ was quite the word for Churchill – see also his ‘fight them on the beaches’ speech: ‘Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail’.)

*

But although detention without trial was (supposedly) ‘in the highest degree odious’, the United Kingdom did it anyway.

And one of those detained was Robert Liversidge.

The detention order from the home secretary was as follows:

‘DETENTION ORDER.

 ‘Whereas I have reasonable cause to believe Jack Perlzweig alias Robert Liversidge to be a person of hostile associations and that by reason thereof it is necessary to exercise control over him: Now, therefore, I, in pursuance of the power conferred on me by reg. 18B of the Defence (General) Regulations, 1939, hereby make the following order: I direct that the above-mentioned Jack Perlzweig alias Robert Liversidge be detained.
 
 ‘(Signed) John Anderson,
 
‘One of His Majesty’s Principal Secretaries of State’

 

No charge; no prosecution; no trial; no conviction; no sentence.

Just the opinion of the home secretary.

And so Liversidge brought a legal case against the then home secretary Sir John Anderson, and this was the case that reached the house of lords in 1941.

Liversidge, who averred he was falsely imprisoned, wanted to know the case against him.

But Viscount Maugham and the majority of the law lords were having none of Liversidge’s nonsense.

In a sequence of speeches that are rather quite remarkable the law lords – to use Lord Reed’s unfortunate phrase – accorded respect to the determination of the home secretary:

‘there is no appeal from the decision of the Secretary of State in these matters provided only that he acts in good faith’.

The appeal was dismissed, and Liversidge – sitting in Brixton prison – was ordered at the end of Maugham’s speech to pay the home secretary’s legal costs (though it is not clear whether this order was actually made).

*

But not all the law lords nodded-along.

Lord Atkin sat through the very same submissions in September 1941, and he came to a very different conclusion.

He gave a dissenting speech which contained this passage (which I here break into smaller paragraphs for flow):

‘I view with apprehension the attitude of judges who on a mere question of construction when face to face with claims involving the liberty of the subject show themselves more executive minded than the executive.
 
‘Their function is to give words their natural meaning, not, perhaps, in war time leaning towards liberty, but following the dictum of Pollock C.B. in Bowditch v. Balchin (1850) 5 Ex 378 , cited with approval by my noble and learned friend Lord Wright in Barnard v. Gorman [1941] AC 378, 393 : “In a case in which the liberty of the subject is concerned, we cannot go beyond the natural construction of the statute.”
 
In this country, amid the clash of arms, the laws are not silent. They may be changed, but they speak the same language in war as in peace.
 
‘It has always been one of the pillars of freedom, one of the principles of liberty for which on recent authority we are now fighting, that the judges are no respecters of persons and stand between the subject and any attempted encroachments on his liberty by the executive, alert to see that any coercive action is justified in law.
 
‘In this case I have listened to arguments which might have been addressed acceptably to the Court of King’s Bench in the time of Charles I.
 
‘I protest, even if I do it alone, against a strained construction put on words with the effect of giving an uncontrolled power of imprisonment to the minister.
 
‘To recapitulate: The words have only one meaning. They are used with that meaning in statements of the common law and in statutes. They have never been used in the sense now imputed to them.
 
‘They are used in the Defence Regulations in the natural meaning, and, when it is intended to express the meaning now imputed to them, different and apt words are used in the regulations generally and in this regulation in particular.
 
Even if it were relevant, which it is not, there is no absurdity or no such degree of public mischief as would lead to a non-natural construction.
 
‘I know of only one authority which might justify the suggested method of construction: “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’” (“Through the Looking Glass,” c. vi.)
 
‘After all this long discussion the question is whether the words “If a man has” can mean “If a man thinks he has.” I am of opinion that they cannot, and that the case should be decided accordingly.
 
‘If it be true, as, for the foregoing reasons, I am profoundly convinced it is, that the Home Secretary has not been given an unconditional authority to detain, the true decision in the [case] before us ought not to be difficult to make.’
 
 
*
Lord Atkin, 1941: ‘judges are no respecters of persons’
 
Lord Reed, 2021: ‘[the court of appeal] did not give the Home Secretary’s assessment the respect which it should have received’
 
*
 
 
Lord Atkin’s speech in 1941 did not go down well with his fellow judges.
 
Lord Atkin was cancelled.
 
As David Pannick details in his book Judges, the other law lords shunned Atkin.
 
Viscount Maugham, in an extraordinary step, even wrote a letter to the Times about the language used by his fellow law lord (the short house of lords debate on that letter is here.)
 
But Atkin was right.
 
As a later law lord, Lord Diplock said in a 1979 house of lords case:
 
‘For my part I think the time has come to acknowledge openly that the majority of this House in Liversidge v. Anderson were expediently and, at that time, perhaps, excusably, wrong and the dissenting speech of Lord Atkin was right.’
 
But that was no consolation to Liversidge detained in Brixton prison back in 1941.
 
Nor was it consolation to Atkin – for according to Pannick it was widely believed that Atkin never recovered from the hostility of his fellow judges before his death in 1944.
 
*
 
Perhaps in a few years a supreme court justice may suggest – perhaps cautiously in an extra-judicial lecture, or perhaps more confidently in an actual decision – that the court of appeal got the Begum case right, and the supreme court did not.
 
That will be no consolation to anyone either.
 
But as the 1941 case of Liversidge v Anderson shows, it is not the first time that the judges of the highest court – in the words of one of its greatest former members – ‘show themselves more executive minded than the executive’.
 
And it certainly will not be the last time they do this in respect of the rights of the individual in the face of the powers of a home secretary.
 
***
 
Sources – Judges by David Pannick and In the highest degree odious: detention without trial in wartime Britain by A W Brian Simpson – and both books are highly recommended
 

*****

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