Two Trials hit by Blunders in Quick Succession

Two trials in quick succession have been affected by particularly spectacular blunders – albeit not on the part of legal professionals. One trial in Leeds saw the jury dismissed after they were approached with a remarkable lack of subtlety and offered cash bribes, while another case in Cardiff was disrupted when it turned out that a person in the court was live-streaming the trial.

One of these cases was a trial at Leeds Crown Court over an alleged “cash for crash” scheme which had resulted in the death of a pensioner. 88-year-old Betty Laird was travelling as a passenger in a car when another vehicle, driven by the three defendants and another individual who has already pleaded guilty, drove into the side of it. Ms Laird sustained fatal injuries to her spine in the accident, and it is alleged that the men in the other vehicle caused the accident deliberately with the intention of making fraudulent insurance claims for personal injury.

At one point during proceedings, the court was evacuated because the fire alarm sounded. In this time, some people took the opportunity to approach members of the jury and offer them bribes, with relatively little attempt at subtlety, with some of the attempts being caught on camera. Interestingly, different jurors were offered cash in return for different verdicts. Three jurors were approached together and offered £500 each in return for guilty verdicts. Another was approached by a different individual and offered a cash bribe in exchange for a verdict of not guilty. A fifth juror reported being persistently followed by a man who was believed to be holding a sum of money, quite possibly with the intent of making another bribe offer, but in the end the two did not actually speak.

The case is also notable for the fact that the judge, Mr Justice Goss, not only dismissed the jury as a result of the attempted tampering but decided to continue the trial without a jury. This was done with rarely-used powers contained in the Criminal Justice Act 2003.

Another case in Cardiff was also affected by an attempt at unusual and not exactly intelligent attempt at unlawful conduct. David Davies, 39, ignored the fact that cameras are absolutely forbidden in court and the many prominent notices forbidding the use of mobile phones insude the building. He not only decided that he would use his mobile phone to film proceedings, which he was court doing as one witness provided evidence, but that he would stream that evidence live on Facebook in real time.

A member of the public saw the stream and alerted South Wales Police. Davies has now been jailed for 28 days PC Richard Sellek said that the sentence should “serve as a warning to others who think that the law does not apply to them.”

Government Blunders its way into Possible Judicial Review

neck-braceThe government could be facing a judicial review over a recent set of blunders with reform proposals. The government has been criticised for a number of missteps in recent personal injury reform proposals, some of which have led to the possibility of review.

The government recently unveiled a whole raft of proposals for consultation, which could see significant change to the personal injury sector. Primarily, these would target whiplash claims following traffic accidents, but some of the key measures proposed would also apply to other areas of personal injury law such as workplace accident claims. The proposals are quite varied in their nature, but are largely aimed at curbing what the government perceives to be an excessive claim numbers.

The most prominent blunder that has been revealed is the use of outdated figures in the creation of the consultation document and the setting of proposed levels of financial compensation for minor injuries. The data used for this aspect of the document makes use of old judicial guidelines and therefore fails to to account for an increase made in the Autumn of last year.

The September 2015 revision which the paper overlooks saw a 3.4% increase in financial figures to account for inflation. Perhaps more significant, however, is the fact that there was a much more significant increase in those figures relating to the lowest band of claims for injuries to soft tissue. This group of injuries saw an increase of 20%.

Kerry Underwood, a solicitor, blogger and contributor to a number of major legal publications, suggests that the increase to the lowest soft tissue injury band represents a problem that goes beyond the significant size of the change itself. The kind of injuries that fall into this band, she points out, “are precisely those now under attack by the MoJ as disproportionately high. So the figures that the MoJ think are too high, were thought too low by the top judicial and other experts.”

These blunders, she says, make the consultation paper “misleading and now open to judicial review.”

Separately, the government as a whole has also attracted criticism for its left hand apparently not knowing what its right is doing. Much was made of the proposed reforms to curb whiplash claims being designed to result in a reduction in insurance premiums, said to equate to £40 a year for the average motorist. Law-abiding motorists bearing the cost of excessive, frivolous, or fake injury claims was stated as a justification for the need to introduce such reforms, and it was said that insurers had already promised to pass on their savings. However, within days of the Ministry of Justice beginning consultations, the Autumn statement saw the Treasury an increase to insurance premium tax, which many took to be a measure running counter to personal injury reforms and likely to soften or eliminate the promised reduction in premiums.

Top Fraud Barristers Rent Premises From Money-Launderer

One of the top groups of fraud barristers in London has recently been revealed to be renting its premises from a landlord who has laundered millions in bribe money. It should be emphasised, however, that the barristers in question had no way of knowing about this ironic arrangement until a recent document leak, thanks to much-hated landlord privacy laws.

9-12 Bell Yard Chambers is based in premises formerly owned by Scottish Widows, but purchased by another company, PDB Properties Ltd, in 2015. A set of privacy laws, which have been not infrequently criticised meant that the owner of this shell company, which is incorporated in the British Virgin Islands, was under no obligation to reveal his identity. 9-12 Bell Yard Chambers’ landlord chose to exercise this right to anonymity, letting out the property only under the name of his company.

The reason he chose to remain anonymous is not hard to understand now that leaked documentation has revealed him to be a major money launderer. The barristers’ landlord, it turns out, is Expedito Machado, the son of Brazilian former senator Sergio Machado. The senior Machado was part of a major corruption scandal, accepting hefty bribes from contractors who were submitting bids for work. Machado junior was also implicated in the scandal, as he laundered this bribe money, totalling millions of dollars, in order to help his father carry out his profitable corruption in secret. When the scandal broke, the two cooperated with the authorities after managing to strike plea bargains.

It would certainly not be fair to call this a blunder by 9-12 Bell Yard Chambers. They had no idea, and no way of finding out, that they were renting their property from a figure like Sergio Machado and, perhaps ironically, this is because his privacy was protected by law. Even so, the fact that major fraud barristers were paying thousands in rent to a criminal of the kind they would normally deal with in a very different capacity. At best, this is ironic and at worst it is a blunder of the wider legal system in continuing, despite criticism, to allow landlords with criminal pasts to keep their identities secret when operating through shell companies.

The barristers will not be occupying Machado’s property much longer. This is not because they are leaving on principle but rather because they were already being forced out. Last year, plans were approved to convert the premises into luxury apartments. This must be all the more inconvenient for the barristers in question, considering their operation is named after the address which they will now no longer occupy.

MOJ Wastes £411,000 on Legal Aid U-Turn

The amount of money wasted on the government’s controversial and ultimately abandoned attempts to introduce legal aid contract reforms has been revealed. In total, the government wasted more than £411,000 on the endeavour.

The proposed measures, which would have introduced two-tier contracts and competitive tendering to the criminal legal aid system, where originally announced by Gove’s predecessor as Justice Secretary Chris Grayling. Grayling, who has been described as one of the most controversial and unpopular Justice Secretaries of recent times, introduced a number of poorly-received measures which have later been scrapped by his successor. The abandonment of the legal aid contract reforms represented the fifth time that Gove had gone back on one of Grayling’s plans.

Under the scheme, 527 duty contracts were to be made available for firms who wished to provide criminal legal aid services, and firms across the country would have been required to bid competitively for the right to hold one of these contracts. Those that lost out could have faced a significant drop in incoming workload and income.

Whilst a number of recent reforms, particularly in relation to legal aid, have proved unpopular, the response to the proposed contracting system from the legal sector was particularly strong. Some top lawyers said that criminal law was set to become a “futureless profession” under the new regime, there were multiple claims of bad practice, and a number of formal legal challenges were launched against the government in an attempt to stop the reforms. In January, 14 months into the procurement process for the new contracts, Gove announced that the new system would not be put into operation after all. At the time of this announcement, the government was fighting a judicial challenge over the changes from the Fair Crime Contracts Alliance, as well as roughly 100 separate claims from law firms across the country.

Some of the costs associated with the attempt to bring about these reforms have been revealed under the Freedom of Information Act, and total more than £411,000. This includes £271,574 spend on agency staff in association with the reforms, £125,933 on legal support regarding the procurement process, and £13,565 in external legal assistance with the drafting of the contracts. This makes for a total cost of £411,072.

This figure does not include the amount spent on defending the proposals from the wave of legal challenges that were made. This information was included in the Freedom of Information Request made by the press to the government, but the Ministry of Justice said that, while it does have the information, “we believe that releasing the information would be likely to prejudice both the administration of justice as well as the department’s commercial interests.”

Blunders Land Police with £20,000 Compensation Payout

20,000 seems to be something of a magic number for that section of the police force which couldn’t quite be described as its “best and brightest.” A few months ago, 20,000 crime records were lost to a blunder in the IT department. Now, £20,000 have been lost in a compensation payout to a rape victim after their handling of her case was filled with blunders.

The victim in question suffered a great deal as a result of the police’s mishandling of her report. She was reportedly driven to self-harm and even attempted suicide as a result of this mistreatment by police on top of the trauma of the attack itself.

The police force in question was Hampshire Constabulary, and the victim has exercised her right to remain anonymous. She had been on a night out with a group of friends when the attack occurred, and a portion of the party had headed back to one of their homes. The victim was part of this group, and so was the attacker.

It was at this house that the attack took place, and the woman later appeared at the police station to report that she had been raped. If there was one bright side, it was that she was pretty sure the attacker had left forensic evidence on her T-shirt which should make it much easier to link him to the assault and bring him to justice. She promptly told this to police.

This was when the blunders began. The police didn’t bother to test for the forensic evidence on her T-shirt, despite the fact she had specifically told them about it. Neither did they rush to try and apprehend the culprit. Instead, they at first ignored the report and then later decided to arrest the victim. They told her she was lying, and threatened to charge her.

According to the mother of the victim, she “couldn’t cope.” Over the course of this ordeal, she twice attempted to end her own life. It was only months after the original report that the police finally tested her T-shirt thoroughly for the evidence that she had told them about, after the Crown Prosecution Service asked them to do so. The evidence was indeed present and the attacker was finally arrested and last year was jailed for five years.

Now, the police have issued an apologetic statement and agreed to pay the victim compensation of £20,000 for the ordeal they put her through in an out-of-court settlement. Hampshire Constabulary also investigated officers who were involved in the blunder-filled handling of her case. Three such officers have been allowed to resign or retire while the investigation was still ongoing – a move the victim’s mother harshly criticised.

While she said she was glad the officers in question had admitted their wrongdoing, she felt that “if you’re in the middle of an investigation and you’ve been named, they shouldn’t let you resign or retire, because you are answerable to that.”

Officers Lying Under Oath Bring Down Fake Wedding Trial

The trial of Rev Nathan Ntege, a vicar accused of conducting nearly 500 weddings of fake couples at his south-east London church has collapsed. For the reasons behind bringing the trial to an end, the judge cited “bad faith and serious misconduct on the part of the prosecution.” Six defendants who were being tried alongside Mr Ntege in relation to the fake wedding scandal have also seen the cases against them fall apart.

Judge Nic Madge, presiding over the case, said that the problems stretched back to the arrest of two of the defendants in June 2011. Starting at this point, Madge said, that misconduct on the part of the prosecution had “continued throughout the course of this trial.”

Rev Ntege, who lives in Thornton Heath, was accused of operating a “matrimonial conveyer belt,” marrying fake couples in order to falsely aid their immigration into the UK. According to the prosecution, suspicions began when it was noticed that the church was hosting an “inordinate number” of weddings; six a day when previously there had only been six a year. The charges against Rev Ntege included one count of fraud and 14 counts of facilitating breaches of immigration legislation.

However, serious allegations of misconduct have arisen against the prosecution, causing the trial to fall apart. Judge Nic Madge said: “I am satisfied that officers at the heart of this prosecution have deliberately concealed important evidence and lied on oath.” It has been claimed that important evidence has been hidden from the court, tampered with, and destroyed altogether.

This includes efforts to ensure the court did not see important video evidence filmed at the church in question, along with photographs taken at the associated vicarage where Rev Ntege resided. Tampering with evidence included alterations to the investigation log chronicling the case during the period from July-December 2012, with the existence of some entries being hidden from the court.

Furthermore, when questioned about this evidence, officers in the courtroom lied under oath.

“If the trial were to be permitted to continue,” Madge said, “there is a real risk that public faith in the criminal justice system would be undermined.”

He concluded: “It is a case in which the prosecution should not be allowed to benefit from the serious misbehaviour of the officer in the case or the disclosure officer.”

The judge’s decision has been accepted by the Crown Prosecution Service. The Home Office called the events “an extremely disappointing end to a long investigation.”

The case has resulted in the suspension of three officers, and has been passed on to the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

Wrongly-Accused Man Finally Released After 17 Years

A man who was wrongly convicted on a charge of sexual assault has finally been able to walk free. However, this comes only after losing 17 years of his life to prison. DNA evidence has pointed the law towards the fact he was not the real culprit, leading the court of appeal to finally set the man free.

Former postman Victor Nealon never stopped insisting he was innocent after being convicted of rape in 1997. He has now been proved right after the best part of two decades, and his conviction has been quashed. The Court of Appeal is yet to reveal the full details of the judgement, but they will do so at a later date according to Lord Justice Fulford.

The DNA evidence that has now overturned his conviction would have been “explosive” if it had been put before the original trial, according to Peter Willcock QC who was representing Nealon.

Nealon, who is now 53, had been jailed for life. This sentence was a discretionary one, but he was refused consideration for parole due to the fact he continually maintained his innocence. As it has turned out, he was telling the truth and denying him parole on these grounds merely lengthened a mistaken imprisonment.

Nealon appeared through a video link at the appeal. He did not speak, except to give enthusiastic thanks when it was said that his conviction would be overturned.

There were two previous attempts by Nealon to appeal against his sentence. However, the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) refused to conduct DNA tests on the evidence from the trial. Ultimately, independent experts were commissioned to carry out the tests by solicitor Mark Newby, who works for Jordan’s Solicitors in Doncaster. When they were finally performed in 2010 the tests found that the DNA could not have come from Nealon. Instead, it belongs to another man whose identity currently remains unknown.

At first the Crown still resisted the validity of the DNA evidence. They claimed it could have been contaminated and the DNA could have come from other sources, for example the shops from which the clothes were purchased. However, the defence pointed out that the DNA was on multiple, separate items of clothing and in locations that were consistent with the way the attack had been described as taking place.

According to Leo O’Toole, Nealon’s friend and an avid campaigner for his release, welcomed the decision but said that “the damage to Victor – and to the victim – is irreversible. She will also now know that the real perpetrator got away free.” Ultimately, it took too long for the blunder to be corrected.

Stacey Hyde did Kill, But Life is the Wrong Sentence

Stacey Hyde definitely killed a man. The man’s name was Vincent Francis, and nobody tries to claim she did not kill him. Not even Ms Hyde herself.  The problem is, she was sentenced to life. In the circumstances, this is clearly wrong for a number of reasons and not even consistent with the way such trials are usually carried out.

Firstly, Ms Hyde admits to the killing and shows remorse – something which usually lightens sentences. Secondly, she was acting under stressful circumstances, acting out of fear and in the defence of herself and a friend. For this reason she pleaded not guilty, and the circumstances should at least have served as a mitigating factor. Instead, the fact was essentially ignored. Many have claimed that Ms Hyde’s trial demonstrates some of the problems that women can face under the predominantly male English legal system.

The killing took place in 2009, in the early days of September. Hyde was 17 at the time, and she went out to enjoy some drinks with Holly Banwell, the girlfriend of the deceased. At the end of their evening out together, they went back to the flat where Francis and Banwell were living together. Ms Hyde passed out on the bed from her night of drinking.

In the early hours, Hyde claims to have woken up to the sound of Ms Banwell screaming for help. She ran to her friend’s aid and was attacked by Francis. The struggle, which was witnessed by a neighbour and described by Banwell to a 999 operator as it happened, ended with Hyde grabbing a knife and frenziedly stabbing out at Francis. This was a disproportionate reaction – as her defence counsel openly admitted – but was driven by fear and done in defence not only of herself but of Ms Banwell.

Psychiatrists who examined Ms Hyde after the incident identified certain mental health issues, which should have served as further mitigating factors. These, too, were seemingly ignored.

Campaign Group Justice for Women has voiced its support for Ms Hyde. They have pointed out that apart from the witnesses to the circumstances surrounding Francis’ killing, there was also plenty of reason to believe she could realistically have been acting in self-defence. There were 27 recorded incidents of domestic violence committed by Francis against Ms Banwell – all of which were acknowledged by the prosecution. He also had a record of violence against a previous partner.

The handing of a life sentence to Hyde is surely a mistake, and one that will hopefully be corrected thanks to the efforts of campaign groups like Justice for Women.

Judge Separates Mother and Son

Not a case of legal blunder, but definitely a controversial one – anything to do with splitting families up often is. In this case, a judge ordered for a vulnerable young man to be made to live in a council run care home so that he is kept apart from his mother. The order is against the man’s will and the local authorities were given permission by Judge Martin Cardinal to deprive the man of his liberty by stopping him from leaving the council run home if they decided that he is at risk of running away. The man has only been referred to as WMA.

The man aged 25 suffers from development disorders and is autistic. The court has heard evidence that his mother rarely allowed him to leave the house. The man is incapable of looking after himself as he is deprived of all social skills. Despite the evidence of the mother dominating his life and constantly abusing him the man requested the he be allowed to stay at home. The judge wrote that he is in need of a relationship with his mother however, at times such contact might not be in his best interest.

The mother who during the proceedings was referred to as MA is unable to look after neither herself nor her 25 year old son. The local council took action to rehouse the mother and son due to their current property being kept in such inhabitable conditions. The judge commented by stating the evidence he examined by way of photographs of the house was revolting.

WMA’s doctors stated that the man lived a very isolated personal life with his mother which was often very much the same. The mother was detained for neglecting the man in 2011 however no further charges were brought. The prosecution put forward evidence which showed the mother regularly refused to help her son and held him back. The concerns of care workers were raised who believe the man was regularly starved due to the lack of food in the house.

WMA spent a short amount of time in care during which he enjoyed social contact and was encourage to take part in learning activities such as making toast. In his judgement the judge stated that all the statements from the mother about her being a good parent are taken on board and the judge is sure of the mother’s intentions. However, in practice and according to the evidence this appears to be far from the truth and the evidence shows the mother has made little effort in order to support her son or involve social care to provide for him.