Harsh sentencing could lead to floods of appeals
A leading Birmingham criminal defence lawyer has accused the Crown Prosecution Service of bowing to public pressure in the wake of the recent riots and prosecuting people based on the “flimsiest of evidence”.
Steven Jonas, a partner at Birmingham-based Jonas Roy Bloom also claimed similar pressure had also led to sentencing guidelines being thrown out of the window, prompting a possible flood of appeals in the wake of the harsh sentences.
“From what I have been told the decisions to prosecute people, particularly in the early days, was made in frequent cases on the flimsiest of evidence which would not have passed the test to prosecute a week previously,” said Mr Jonas. “It will be interesting to see if the CPS, which makes these decisions, will calm down once the hype has evaporated.
“I have enormous respect for the West Midlands CPS. It has been robust in its decision-making processes for pre-charge advice. I think it has bowed to pressure as far as the troubles are concerned and I have no doubt it will revert to its robustness once this has died down.
“Does it worry me it has bowed to police and public pressure? Yes, enormously, but I think it is human nature. But it is particularly worrying if you couple that with the practical decisions to remand everybody in custody.
“People are being denied their liberty on the flimsiest of evidence.”
But the head of the West Midlands CPS Harry Ireland defended its role following the riots and denied prosecutions were based on flimsy evidence.
“I don’t think there has been any sign of that,” he said. “I had a meeting with the chief constable of the West Midlands and we both acknowledged there needed to be sufficient evidence on which to base a prosecution. We are not going to lessen the standard required by law because of the disturbances. That would be wrong.
“We jealously guard our independence and would not be happy about the idea of political interference.
“That hasn’t happened. We will apply the normal Crown prosecution test in deciding whether to prosecute or not. You can’t simply change the law because you have some uncomfortable cases. The law is the law and if it requires changing that is a matter for Parliament.”
As regards sentencing, amid reports the Government has told the judiciary to throw away the rulebook, Mr Ireland said harsh punishments were to be expected.
He said: “People have to realise when you have the kind of scenes we have witnessed, when you have organised violence on the scale we have seen and the looting we have seen – inevitably the consequences will be harsh for those involved and I don’t think people can be surprised if terms of imprisonment are the norm for people doing this.”
But warning of the consequences of a harsh sentencing policy, Mr Jonas added: “I am sure there will be many appeals, not just in Birmingham, and it will be interesting to see to see what the results of those appeals are.
“I think magistrates and district judges have been reflecting public opinion. It is an interesting argument as to whether they should or not.”
Mr Jonas was also critical of a decision to open courts at night in Solihull and Birmingham in a bid to deal with the large number of people arrested.
“It was unnecessary and, in my view, had the serious consequence that it ratcheted up the atmosphere unnecessarily.”
He added that it was only as a result of the closure of several police stations due to cutbacks that it was necessary for the courts to sit.
“The challenge was to respond to the demand for night courts sitting 24/7,” he said. “We essentially got about two hours notice so had to quickly get prosecutors lined up, both giving pre-charge advice to the police and covering court.”
The CPS said the additional costs incurred were minimal as it already has a mechanism for out of office cover, mainly in relation to offering pre-charge advice to police.
Sukhdev Bhomra, chairman of Birmingham Law Society’s criminal law committee, backed the administration of justice in the city after the riots, though he added there had been problems getting the necessary paperwork ready.
“Proper processes are being followed,” he said. “In my experience the Birmingham judiciary and the district judges who have been dealing with these matters are experienced people who know exactly how to deal with people and they have been fair and independent.
“I don’t think we are looking to send people to jail willy nilly. You may get stiffer sentences but that is fair given the circumstances in which the crimes have been committed.
“If you have got people breaking into legitimate businesses because they see unrest in the area then they should be sentenced more harshly than normal.
“But I gather from colleagues many of the papers weren’t available at court when these people appeared before judges and judges were complaining.”