Yet, another bad week for ‘the best criminal justice system in the World’

The non-disclosure scandal rumbled on this week with charges dropped in two further alleged rape cases.

Connor Fitzgerald had spent three months in custody because police failed to disclosure text messages in which the complainant (who has anonymity for life) fundamentally undermined her allegation against him. One of particular note read: “I’m not just going to mess up his life, I’m going to ruin it lol.”

In the other alleged rape case, a seventeen-year-old male who cannot be named for legal reasons was also cleared of rape after his defence team uncovered key evidence that proved his innocence. It was claimed to have been “missed” by the police and prosecution. Attempting to distance itself from culpability, the CPS publicly blamed the police for not discovering thousands of social media messages that proved the accused was not guilty.

But, the problem of non-disclosure is not restricted to alleged rape cases.

In an alleged bribery case that was reported this week, hundreds of emails that proved that Clive Steer was innocent failed to be disclosed by Surrey police and the CPS even though they were contained on his laptop, which he handed over to the police when the raided his house to prove his innocence. Most unusually, when issuing the acquittal the Judge ordered the CPS to write to the court and Mr Steer providing a full explanation of its failings in the case.

It was also reported this week that Petruta-Cristina Bosoanca, accused of people trafficking and prostitution, who was held in custody for more than 13 months before her trial collapsed, gave birth whilst in prison on remand.  The case was thrown out by the Judge on the grounds of a “wholesale failure” of disclosure of evidence that undermined the allegations against Bosaonca.

Finally, non-disclosure was also involved in a major drugs trial this week when a judge threatened to drop the charges against the two defendants when the police refused to disclose evidence to his defence, arguing that they could not afford a £14 memory stick to put it on.

It is uncertain how many other cases this might have a bearing on, but judging from the comments of legal practitioners on twitter it is unlikely that this case is a one off incident.

This signals the importance of collecting any and all information that may have a bearing on alleged criminal offences.

Indeed, if police officers fail to collect all potential evidence on memory sticks then potentially exculpatory evidence may not officially exist to be disclosed to the defence team at all.

It works the other way, too, when evidence of the guilt of an accused does not officially exist, either, when it is not collected and retained, and the primary source of the information is lost or destroyed.

These cases add to my blog last week about the current disarray of the (non)disclosure regime. It called for the immediate replacement of the DPP, Alison Saunders, on the grounds that she is not fit for purpose, and the setting up of a royal commission to get to the root of the problem and find solutions so that trust and confidence in the criminal justice system can start to be restored.

It has long been known that non-disclosure cases are a routine feature of an adversarial criminal justice process that is biased against the accused from the outset.

It is, equally, clear that the police and CPS cannot be trusted with the control of what is and what is not disclosed.

This calls for the urgent setting up of a new independent disclosure system that does not have an interest in the conviction or acquittal of an accused, which provides full open file disclosure of everything collected in criminal investigations to both sides in the interests of fairness and justice.

The need for due diligence on Twitter to avoid getting involved with people who you might not want to if you knew who they really were

Earlier this month (August 2017), a row erupted on my Twitter timeline of the like I have not previously witnessed amongst what might loosely be called the ‘prison reform community’, comprised of former prisoners, family members of currently serving and former prisoners, prison lawyers, students and academics. It wasn’t the usual handbags at dawn kind of spat that frequently occur on Twitter. This was of a different order, culminating in Alex Cavendish, who went by the handle @PrisonUK, deleting his account altogether and retreating into obscurity.

Over the last two or three years, Alex Cavendish had become a prominent source of information on prison matters, you might say the go-to “twit” on all things prisons. He had upwards of 10K followers, which is huge in this area, with influencing marketing platform Klear deeming him the ‘Top 7% Twitter Influencer in the Prisons community.’

Alex, supplemented his Twitter activity with a very informative prison blog, which has not been deleted, and had also written a series of interesting and insightful articles for The Metro on prison issues, covering such things as votes for prisoners, prison letters, prison riots and rape and sexual assault in prison.

Things came abruptly to a head for Alex, however, when he was outed as a convicted child sex offender whose real name is Mark Standish. The revelation had a polarising effect, with competing perspectives available here and here.

Critics of Standish, the most vocal of which are themselves former prisoners, were adamant that it was not the fact that he was a convicted offender or even sex offender that was the problem. Rather, using a pseudonym was felt to be a deceit, amongst other things, that when discovered raised questions about the veracity of the information that he disseminated.

His refusal to engage or answer questions from his followers when his real identity was exposed and to delete his account entirely, making verification now impossible, only seemed to compound matters for critics by increasing suspicions and feelings of betrayal of trust.

This highlights the need for due diligence on Twitter (and other social media for that matter) to avoid getting involved with (or hurt by) people who you might not want to if you knew who they really were.

Due diligence was not possible with Alex Cavendish because it was not his real name. If you did search his name, which I did, you went round in circles from his Twitter account to his blog to his Metro articles and back again – everything seemed to validate each other but there was no external validation at all.

So, real names are vital so that you can do due diligence and make an informed choice about who you are getting involved with, promoting their agenda, liking their tweets, possibly making friendships and sharing personal information via direct messages, and so forth.

I am uncertain of the law in this area so will not provide the name of the person in this next example, which is the principal motivation for this blog post.

I was recently contacted by a (then) Twitter follower with an invite to contribute to a project that he was involved with.

In terms of due diligence, I looked up the website of the project and saw someone who I recognised and whose work I respect was involved with it so I agreed to meet him at a café across from my office to learn more about it and the part, if any, that I might play.

On my way to meet him, however, I realised that I didn’t know his name – he has a Twitter account in the name of the project – and I didn’t know what he looked like – his picture on the Twitter account is rather abstract and you cannot make out what he looks like.

As I approached the café, a man was already standing outside. I noticed straightaway that the obscure picture on Twitter is not of him but of someone who looks altogether different. I asked him if he was waiting for me and he said he was as he recognised me from my photo on my webpage on the University of Bristol website.

I asked him his name but he declined saying that he didn’t feel comfortable giving me his name, but assuring me that he had good reason not to. I told him that I wasn’t prepared to have a meeting with him unless he told me his name and after some back and forth rather prised his name out of him.

I immediately put his name into Google on my phone to very quickly find that he was convicted of a highly publicised and most pernicious and disturbing gendered crime against a young woman, the like of which would certainly make most (particularly women) want to steer clear of him altogether.

He protested all the time that I was searching and reading what I found, saying such things as he was a miscarriage of justice, that I shouldn’t believe the media on him and his case as it was all biased, that his solicitor was rubbish, etc. Things that I have heard or read hundreds of times as part of my work on alleged wrongful conviction cases.

I have learned, though, that the truly innocent (and I accept that there are always exceptions to every rule but, generally speaking) tend to be very public about their alleged wrongful convictions and happy for any opportunity to tell their version of events to anyone who will listen so that the truth can come out and their names can be cleared.

Think about high profile victims of wrongful convictions such as Gerry Conlon, Paddy Joe Hill, Mike O’Brien and Paul Blackburn, for instance. All convicted for most serious criminal offences – terrorism, murder and child sexual abuse, respectively. They were truly vilified in the media but were never silent or deterred from putting their side of things whenever an opportunity arose.

By comparison, the man that I met with was convicted of a relatively minor offence in a magistrates’ court and did not go to prison. I mentioned the foregoing victims of wrongful convictions to him and suggested that if he truly was an innocent victim of a wrongful conviction that he might want to go public and give his side of the story and let people make their own minds up what they think and who they want to believe. I asked him if was fighting his conviction. He said he was not.

I can report that I will not be contributing to his project, that he did not act upon my suggestions and that he is still entirely anonymous on Twitter. I am somewhat concerned, however, that those already signed up to his project and others engaging with him on Twitter (mainly young women from what I can tell) have no idea who he is or what he was convicted of and might not (I think would not!) want to be involved with him in any way if they did know who he was.

Go careful in the murky world of Twitter and social media, folks – things and people are not always what they might seem.

Academia – where working to contract is apparently a problem

The standard employment relationship is very straightforward: an employee is expected to fulfil their contractual duties, no more no less. However, to do so in the academic sphere is, apparently, a problem. This became very evident in the recent union action in support of the demand for fairer pay.

It was calculated in the summer of 2016 that academic pay should be increased by 14.9% to get back to the level that it should be had it kept up with inflation since 2009. The employer offered 1%. In response, all manner of initiatives flowed from union members within the confines of a general “work to contract”, including marking boycotts, non-attendance at open and visit days and external examiners refusing to validate courses.

As intended, this caused much disruption and anxiety to university managers who simply could not deliver on expected targets, which require working over contract and a plethora of extra-curricula activities as norms to ensure the smooth running of university departments these days.

It was telling, however, when the pay award of 1.1 % for 2016 was imposed by the employer that the union instructed members that restrictions had been lifted and that normal working could be resumed, meaning that employees had the union’s blessing/instruction to resume working many hours over and above their contracts in the overall interests of, and benefit to, the employer.

Am I missing something? Should a union really be advocating that members work over and above that which is contracted, and work that is unpaid at that? If universities need employees to work over their contracts as a norm might it not indicate that more employees might be needed? Might this even be linked to wider issues such as precarious casualised contracts and the employment uncertainty that this carries, prevailing gender disparities and unprecedented levels of workplace stress and depression within the university sector?

There is clearly much lurking under this particular stone to be further explored.

Will Wullie Beck ever overturn his wrongful conviction?

The case of Wullie Beck has stuck in my craw since his appeal was rejected in 2013, for an armed robbery that occurred in 1981. It will continue to do so until his case is overturned and justice is done, both for Mr Beck and his family and for the victims of the attack in the armed robbery and their families too.

Please note that I do not use the customary “alleged” to premise wrongful conviction here as I feel confident that if readers take the time to read the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission’s Statement of Reasons for referring his conviction back to the High Court of Justiciary (Scotland’s court of appeal) that they, too, will be left in no doubt that an innocent man was wrongly convicted and imprisoned for a crime that he did not commit.

The refusal of the appeal by the High Court raises a pertinent and important question about justice in Scotland: What is the value of the Scottish CCRC if the cases that it refers, after extensive and impartial investigations, can simply be dismissed by the High Court and those that the Scottish CCRC believe may be innocent victims of miscarriages of justice have no alternative avenue to seek justice and clear their names?

What now for Wullie Beck? Will he (and others like him) ever overturn his wrongful conviction?