Sunday, 29 April 2012

When perverting the course of justice is perverse

Imagine, if you can, the life of 'Sarah' A mother of 4 children and who was abused and raped by her husband.

This abuse included 'Sarah' being forced her to work in a massage parlour, providing sexual services for other men. It was reported that  "He drove her to the premises, to this brothel, waited for her and took her home again, took the proceeds and then proceeded to attack her emotionally for doing what she had done at his insistence and for his gain,"

Imagine, if you can, the courage & strength 'Sarah' had to muster in trying to stop the abuse by reporting it to the police. Imagine, if you can, how difficult this must have been for 'Sarah' taking into account the power and control her husband had over her. It should be of no surprise then that as her husband was allowed to 'get to her' in between the allegations being made and the case being heard she withdrew her allegations. 

It is however morally abhorrent that the Crown Prosecution Service should decide that this act of 'false retraction'; the act of a desperate woman under the control of an abusive husband fits the definition of 'perverting the course of justice' Her husband who the authorities were satisfied had raped 'Sarah' broke bail and perverted the course of justice yet remains free with no conviction against him.

Despite all the evidence pointing to Sarah being the victim of domestic violence and rape over a prolonged period of time; despite there being evidence of Sarah suffering from post traumatic stress disorder a prosecution against her was pursued, supposedly 'in the public interest' and Sarah was imprisoned.

Kier Starmer QC Director of Public Prosecutions

The positive rhetoric and apology from Kier Starmer QC the Director of Public Prosecutions about lessons learnt is of little help to Sarah. As a mother of 4 children she now has a criminal record, and is living with all the obstacles that this criminal record presents her with. She is also living with the fact that our justice system has let her down. She lives with the impact of the abuse upon her and her children and the impact on her and her children of her imprisonment and subsequent community service.

All of this happened in 2010, but it was only last month March 2012 that Sarah lost her attempt to get her criminal conviction quashed.

This appears to be a catalogue of failure of a range of agencies as highlighted by Vera Baird in her excellent 'comment is free' piece for the Guardian

The police, for failing to protect Sarah and make sure that her husband was not able to 'get to her'
The Judges and our Courts services for allowing her husband to be released on bail and allow him to 'get to her' despite the severity of the allegations against him;

The Crown Prosecution Service for deciding to prosecute Sarah rather than her husband when they are supposed to only prosecute when it is in the public interest
The Government and local authorities including health and education providers. These appear to consistently fail to ensure adequate support including investment into projects and community organisations to help women and children who experience domestic and other forms of violence.

 The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) Map the Gaps2 was a follow up report into services for women who experienced violence. It identified huge gaps in services for women issue across the country. It also identified that the majority of growth in the provision of specialist services was within the statutory sector whereas the majority of women choose not to report cases to the police. This reluctance to report is only going to be exacerbated by Sarah's story. The unique and nuanced support of the voluntary and community sector is vital.

 It is a worry that the implementation of the recommendations from this critical report are unlikely to be closely monitored as the EHRC is subject to massive cuts at the hands of the current government.

In my experience of 'partnership' working amongst criminal justice agencies and other public sector bodies relationships are far too safe. I have seen first hand how unwelcome 'challenge' is and how little emphasis is placed on the needs of the victims, rather a focus on structures and process. I have seen too how lessons learned from failures very rarely get embedded in policy moving forward. Voluntary and community groups representing violence against women issues are often not invited to Criminal Justice Boards and Community Safety partnerships. When they are there, if adequately resourced to do so, they are often marginalised or ignored.

The new Police and Crime Commissioner role, elections in November, presents an opportunity for change if the right candidate is appointed. An opportunity to generate dynamic, intelligent and challenging partnerships in a democratically elected candidate. A Commissioner that is committed to ensuring local accountability in order to address the unmet needs of victims and in doing so make our society a safer one. There is an urgent need to protect the human rights of women who experience violence against them and to engage in effective and specialist crime prevention strategies.

The right Commissioner could inspire trust and confidence in those most likely to need the confidence to come forward and report. This is critical in addressing the behaviours of violent abusers like Sarah's husband, in accordance with our criminal laws to ensure they do not go on to find other victims. Delivering the right sort of justice, not a perverse one.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012


I attended a Public Law Lecture on Monday, hosted by Norfolk Community Law Service. A great charity that works to provide access justice I took some powerful messages from the lecture.

Imran Khan was the guest speaker. Not the cricketer he said! Rather the lawyer who worked with Neville and Doreen Lawrence to secure justice. The justice that should have been provided to them by the police service, when their son Stephen was brutally murdered in a racist attack in 1993.

Khan spoke pragmatically about a range of issues. Of his work with the family & the important legacy of the case. His personal experiences as a relatively newly qualified lawyer when he took the case on and his recent experience of stop and search. He finished strangely upbeat whilst being clear about his fear for the future and the destruction of the current legal aid system being wreaked by this government.

Doreen Lawrence, mother of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence with lawyer Imran Khan (on the left)

He spoke frankly about how he was challenged by other lawyers representing the police officers who had failed the Lawrence family in court. How he was questioned by them about being an anti racist lawyer, as though to be so was a 'badge of dishonour' to the legal profession. He was described as a trouble maker; an activist and anti police.

As the previous Chief Executive of the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality these are all words that have been used to describe me & the community led work we have delivered How can it be the same in Suffolk in 2012 as it was back in 1993. Why do institutions not open their hearts and minds to the possibility that the community know best and look to the compelling evidence that demonstrates how race and other forms of inequalities continue to blight our society.

During questions Khan was asked about how much progress had really been made, and he talked about progress in inches rather than in feet - but progressing none the less. He was clear that we still faced the most awful racism in our society and also that racism was subtly changing. He articulated with clarity how institutional racism remained. He gave a recent account of being stopped in his car by Met police officers who told him it was random. He hung around and observed other 'random' vehicle stops after his and noted that it was only people of colour whose cars were stopped.

Stephen Lawrence who was murdered in 1993
 When describing the important legacy of the fight for justice by Neville and Doreen Lawrence he commented that up until the report was published the black community were seen as the problem. The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report 1999 (it took 6 years for the family to get some answers) and subsequent definition of institutional racism clearly put the institutions as the problem - an empowering change

Khan described the huge challenges that remain but told us that at least as a lawyer now he has the legal means and tools to challenge racism. Extensive race (now wider equality) and Human Rights legislation came about as a result of those who campaigned for justice and it did not exist back in 1993. It is clear that the legislation has provided an important shift.

It moved the black community, and indeed others who experience discrimination at the hands of public bodies, from a position of 'victim' to one of 'protagonist'  I see this as a liberating explanation, despite understanding the very real disempowering impact of discrimination and how hard it can be to take on institutions.

We were reminded that the Conservative government at the time refused an independent inquiry requested by the Lawrence family. That it was only once Labour were in power that Jack Straw delivered this and subsequent legislation. It is no wonder then that this current government seems so intent on eroding such critical legislation. So intent is it on this erosion that it placed the Equality Act on its 'Red Tape' challenge website An insult to the memory of Stephen Lawrence.

Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu
 Khan left us with two powerful thoughts. The first a quote based on an interpretation originally from Dante's 'Inferno' that Dr John Sentamu, an advisor to the Stephen Lawrence inquiry said: 'The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality'

The second was that if the Stephen Lawrence case landed on his desk today, with the current legal aid landscape he would not be able to take it on. How chilling is this as a message and where does it leave those in their search for justice?

We must continue to lobby our MP's on the cuts to Legal Aid and to the Equality and Human Rights Commission legal grants programme We must support local equality groups and community law centres. We must vote in the local elections and hold our local politicians to account. We must wear our anti racist badges of honour with pride.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

'Staff deporting foreigners out of UK 'loutish and aggressive' was the headline this morning (

Some staff working at the Agency (Reliance) appointed by the Home Office to deport people who are foreign nationals, are accused of failing to treat people with dignity and respect.

What then of the Equality Act, and of all the legislation that preceded it, borne of human endeavours; great people standing up for fairness and justice?

How, when deciding who their preferred provider would be, did the Government ensure that the important principles of justice and equality were embedded in the contracting process? What checks and measures were put in place to ensure that Reliance staff were given the space and challenges to check their prejudices and not allow these prejudices to impact on how they do their job? How did the Home Office assure itself that there was evident leadership within Reliance on equality issues, bearing in mind the history of the issues Reliance inherited when they took over the contract from G4S?

This is pehaps an example of the impact of the privatisation model for the discharge of government functions. With loosening control it would appear that compliance with equality legislation is of no consequence.

Jimmy Mubenga who died in 2010

The bland statement from the UKBorder Agency ( in response to the media headline today seems to indicate that there will be no proactive government intervention to ensure Reliance sorts out this appalling state of affairs.

Does this mean that the deaths of innocent people like Jimmy Mubenga, a 46 year old Angolan deportee who died while being forcibly restrained on  flight from Heathrow in October 2010 do not matter? Those who restrained him remain on bail. His death happened before Reliance took on the contract, which they are keen to point out. However it appears that the organisational culture that has led to the headline today seems to have continued unchallenged. Does it take another death in order to achieve this change?

Some people who are deported are 'criminals' but not all. I have met many who have fled torture, terrorism and war. During the process of seeking asylum and becoming refugees people tell me they are made to feel like criminals by our services and that they are often unable to speak up about their inhumane treatment. Those who have found the courage to complain are often ignored or disbelieved, and very rarely is an independent investigation/enquiry ordered. They are after all simply 'foreigh nationals', and somehow this label allows them to be dehumanised.

The point about whether people are or are not criminals does not matter, and of course we need a system where deportation is able to take place. We must ensure however that such systems are built on solid principles of humanity, respect, dignity and fairness.

We need this Government to stop its dismantling and undermining of equality and human rights issues and those courageous activists and grass roots organisations who will stand up and challenge injustice. We need a government that is proud of and abides by our equality legislation and shows real and committed leadership on it.

Mahatma Ghandi said that "A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members."

I urge you to write to the Home Office or your MP and ask them what steps they are taking to ensure Reliance fulfils its legal and moral obligations to people. People whose circumstances may be very different to you or I. They are though still people - like you or I.