The Orwell Prize

I am hugely proud, and grinning a ridiculously large grin, to be able to put the badge above on here.

I have been longlisted for the Orwell Prize, along with 17 other bloggers, all of whom are amazing – in particular, my two good friends, David Allen Green, a fellow legal blogger, and Lisa Ansell, who blogs purely on politics.

The full longlist is here, with links to the journalism long list, and book longlist too.

May the best man, or gobby bird, win!

The posts I entered are:

Justice RIP

In screwing Ken Clarke, Victoria Derbyshire fucked rape victims

RIP Helen and Mark

Rape is Rape, Right?

Adoption Stories from the Tories Part 1

F**k You, Bad Reporting

Shoesmith and Baby P: Who does have blood on their hands?

The Sun, that picture, and that headline

Slutwalk: Just more noise in an already noisy space

Calm Down Dear

Love you like you want me to

It would appear, that rather like the economy, the discourse around domestic violence has this week returned to the 1970s.

The week kicked off with The Mirror reporting an interview Dennis Waterman gave to Piers Morgan, in which Waterman not only puts forward his view that clever women ask for a slap because, being bright, they ‘win’ arguments by being verbally quick; he also attempts to suggest there are bands of domestic violence; the occasional slap being somehow different to being a ‘beaten wife’.

Demonstrating his complete lack of acceptance of responsibility in his own words:

‘It’s not difficult for a woman to make a man hit her. She certainly wasn’t a beaten wife, she was hit and that’s different.’

‘The problem with strong, intelligent women is that they can argue, well. And if there is a time where you can’t get a word in… and I… I lashed out. I couldn’t end the argument.

The Daily Mail, as the Daily Mail is wont to do, rolled out the estrogen factor in finding a possessor of a womb willing to act as a clumsy apologist in an attempt to explain away Waterman’s stance that violence is sometimes contained to one woman only, as if in some way, that makes it ok.

To demonstrate the point, the writer uses the example of her ‘fiercely clever friend’, Jean, who had three relationships involving violence. Apparently the men had never hit a woman before or after Jean, and Jean would never put up with ‘a proper beating’. Jean’s view was:

‘with a bit of a slap, at least you know who wears the trousers, don’t you?’

Did she, perhaps, encourage her friend to get some help examining her relationship model? Doesn’t appear so.

Quoting an unnamed psychiatrist, she develops her point, by telling us that apparently research shows that the common denominator in cases of domestic violence is women having an IQ at least 10 points higher than their partner. Additionally, she goes on to say that the psychiatrist told her that the problem is:

They don’t want to ‘wear the trousers’… It doesn’t make them feel womanly enough. However much goading it takes, they’d rather be slapped than be victorious. When push — quite literally — comes to shove, these women prefer to have a dominant man to whom they might defer as an authority figure.

Of course, she eventually pulls it back (she really has little choice otherwise) saying well below the line that we have to have zero tolerance in domestic violence and making the important point that:

Not every two-little-slaps turns into routine, full-blown domestic violence. But almost all routine, full-blown domestic violence began with two-little-slaps.

In fairness to her, she made the point rather more firmly on the Jeremy Vine show (today hosted by Aasmah Mir, available on iPlayer here from around 70 onwards), although she did also have a wee giggle about her friend ‘Jean’. So if she pulled it back, what is the problem?

Well, look at the front page. How many perpetrators do you reckon will have seen that and nodded in agreement? How many survivors do you think will have seen it and mentally added it to the ‘I deserve it’ monologue that runs through their minds, put there by the perpetrators?

Judging by the comments BTL on the Mail piece, and listening to some callers on Jeremy Vine, quite a few see this as endorsement of their views – that sometimes, a woman* deserves it, and the man* is justified if he is pushed into using his fists to make a point. We are unlikely to know how many survivors add it to their internal monologue because, of course, they are the last people who are going to speak out.

I know I have laboured this point in respect of rape, but can we please start to watch what we say, how we say it, and consider the impact the language used has on both perpetrators and survivors.

To challenge and to change the behaviour we have to change the mindsets. While not all of us can go out and do direct work with perpetrators and survivors, we can make a difference in our own way by taking more care of not only how we talk about it, but in refusing to accept the way the media do, too.

*I have used gender terms in the way I have due to largely talking in this instance, about male perpetrators. I of course acknowledge that domestic violence involves female perpetrators and male survivors too.

Sarah’s Case

Yesterday, Sarah’s case was heard by the Court of Appeal.

Sarah, a rape victim who was convicted of perverting the course of justice for making a false retraction (i.e. she retracted her claim of rape, then admitted her claim of rape was true), brought about an important change in law – one which doesn’t help her, but means in future, prosecutions of this nature can only be brought with the permission of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

The Court of Appeal yesterday rejected her appeal against her conviction. They had, back in 2010 already heard her appeal against her sentence, when they reduced it from 8 months in prison to a community sentence.

I wrote about the case for Legal Feminists, which can be found here, and for the Guardian, which can be found here.

The 58% campaign

What’s the conviction rate for rape? 6%? Some other figure? Don’t know but know it is incredibly low?

                            The conviction rate for rape is 58%.

Surprised? Would you be even more surprised if I tell you that the conviction rate for all crimes is 57%, therefore the rape conviction rate is on a par with other crimes tried?

I know you will have heard the 6% figure. Everyone has heard the 6% figure. But that figure is not a conviction rate; it is an attrition rate, and it is high time we stopped using it. Why? Because of this:

68% of women in that survey, which in that instance is 852 women, would hesitate to report a rape because of conviction rates. Because they have heard the 6% figure too.

And this:

So where does the 6% figure come from? The Stern Review puts it better than I can:

The first two images tell us why we need to stop using it – there is a perception that the conviction rate for rape is 6% therefore it is highly unlikely that a conviction will follow, therefore people do not want to report the crime. And who can blame them?

I want to see a campaign that yells loudly about the 58% figure. One that says ‘if there is evidence to take this to trial, you are more likely than not to see your offender convicted’ – but also one that is honest about the difficulties in getting a case to trial – not to put people off making a complaint, but to enable them to make a proper, informed and educated assessment of whether they want to make a complaint.

It is unfortunate that Mumsnet, in their We Believe You campaign, have used old research and data to perpetuate myths within the myths they want to see busted – if you look at the bottom of that page for instance, where they summarise their research, you see no mention of The Stern Review, or the very recent HMIC report, and in particular, they repeat the attrition rate without explanation.

So lets have a campaign, one that does shout ‘We believe you’. And not only that we do, but juries are likely to, too.

*Stats from The Stern Review here, and the MoJ



Shared Care: Ideal for whom?

The child A shall reside with the Applicant father as follows:

During term time:

Week one: From Tuesday (collect from school) to Friday (return to school).

Week two: From Friday (collect from school) to Tuesday (return to school).

During school holidays the above arrangement shall be suspended, and the following arrangements shall prevail:

The child A shall reside with the Applicant father as follows:

For the first half of the Easter holidays, father to facilitate delivery of the child to mother;

For the half term in February and October, collection and return of Child A to and from school;

For 3 weeks of the summer school holidays, with no more than 2 weeks to be taken as a block;

Christmas: Year 1 (and for the avoidance of doubt, 2012 shall be year 1):

From school on the last day of term until 1pm Christmas day. Father to facilitate return to mother;

Year 2:

From 1pm on Christmas day until term restarts. Mother to facilitate delivery of Child A to father. Father to return Child A to school.

At all other times the child A shall reside with the Respondent mother.

The above is an order for shared care, in this instance, one for 50:50 care, which is the ideal of many fathers’ groups – it being ‘fair’ apparently. I am not sure about for whom it is fair.

Imagine being child A. Really imagine it. Where is home? Do you have a home, or are you ferried between houses, with your favourite things constantly being packed up in the bag you seemingly always have to carry with you.

Separation isn’t easy on anyone. But in fighting for what might be perceived as fair for a grown-up, we might overlook what is often most important to a child post-separation, which is stability. I honestly fail to see how stability can come if you shuttle from one place to another every 3 or 4 days.

I have, I admit, no answers. However, I don’t think this is the answer we are looking for, however ‘fair’ it may be.


Violating Vocabulary – The Rhetoric of Rape

The whole issue of rape is emotive. The way that rape is reported in the press often plays to those emotions. I cannot recall one piece that I have ever read in the mainstream media which is factual, unemotional and legally accurate. Instead, there are screaming headlines, myths perpetuated and information that is at best legally misleading, certainly on an omission basis.

Trying to have sensible discourse about rape is, to be as neutral as possible, difficult. Everyone has a preferred statistic, an anecdote about the way a victim was treated by the Criminal Justice System (CJS) and perpetuation of myths is rampant.

Language and rhetoric shape views and opinions. Shaping views and opinions around rape is vital if we are to move forward, in terms of victims reporting the crime to the police, and in terms of successful prosecutions.

It appears widely accepted that rape is an under-reported crime for many reasons, one being the beliefs of how a rape victim is treated by the CJS. There is still debate surrounding the success or otherwise of prosecutions – on an overview of the conviction rates on prosecution, they would appear to be largely in line with conviction rates for other crimes.

However, this post is not to debate whether there is actually a problem with victims reporting rape to the police, or about conviction rates. This post is about how the mainstream media reports rape cases, and how those reports could affect victims and juries, and feed the myths surrounding this crime.

Earlier this month, The Guardian posted this article. I read it at the time, and watched it fly around Twitter. However, contrary to the popular view of the piece, I consider it to be one of the most negligent pieces of writing I have come across in some time.

Emotively entitled ‘How my rapist walked free’, it recounts the story of a victim who clearly feels she was let down by the Crown Prosecution Service, who refused to prosecute her case. She states:

…for me the villains of the story are the CPS… They said “there was not a realistic prospect of conviction” as the jury wouldn’t believe me. Why wasn’t I given the opportunity to explain my actions, and convince them that I was raped?

Why indeed? The reason why the CPS took the decision is best summed up by her:

They kept asking me if I had had sexual relations with anyone else there. Over the eight-month period and innumerable questions, I withheld one fragment of information from the police. A piece of information that had no bearing on the rape, or my rapist. I had been told I had gone into my bedroom earlier that evening with a different man, whom I had been kissing. I was so scared I would be judged because of this as promiscuous and unreliable. Of course, in this day and age promiscuity should have absolutely no impact on the perception of rape, but we all know it does. I didn’t remember the incident, it wasn’t my testimony, so I convinced myself I didn’t need to tell them. Why should it matter? How was something I had done of my own volition relevant to my being raped? But the stifling level of scrutiny I was under made me feel sure it would matter, so I said nothing.

A month later, I got the call. They knew I had lied, which made me an “unreliable witness”. The CPS had decided not to prosecute. They said “there was not a realistic prospect of conviction” as the jury wouldn’t believe me.

The CPS know juries. They know defendant lawyers. And they know rape. Sadly, the victim put her credibility in question. And in cases which come down to who a jury believes, it would be beyond cruel to put a complainant through a case where her credibility is in question.

What she says about why she lied is the crux of this piece. She says:

I made a rash decision under pressure because of the stereotypes forced upon women ingrained in our legal system. A decision framed from a society obsessed with blaming women for making themselves “vulnerable” to rape, rather than targeting the rapists. One wrong decision led to a rapist walking free. I cannot forgive the CPS for this.

The CPS didn’t and doesn’t give those stereotypes to society. The media does. The Guardian could have taken this woman’s story, and asked why she should feel this way, why she should feel compelled to lie, and started challenging the very stereotypes the mainstream media created. Instead, The Guardian elected to feed the myths – the ‘you won’t be believed’ myth; the ‘system is against rape victims’ myth; the ‘virgin’ myth.

The damage the media does in its chosen rhetoric and creating stereotypes isn’t contained to victims themselves. The image below is from The Stern Review. Any one of the respondents to any one of those surveys could end up on a jury, making a decision about whether a person has been raped. That is why the CPS didn’t prosecute in this case. Perhaps it is time to start minding our language?



Wombs and Weight: The female bar

This is a guest post from @seeyouatthebar, a female barrister practicing in the North of England. I am dismayed, but not surprised by the sentiments she expresses below. Eleven years ago, in my first weeks of bar school, I discovered I was pregnant. I was urged by senior female barristers in my group of friends to keep that a secret, and certainly not tell the chambers who had offered me pupillage. I only told chambers once I had started and was told more than once by my female clerk that I ‘should be at home with my baby’. I had hoped we had moved on…

Now those that follow me on Twitter will know that I am not exactly a traditional feminist. Sometimes I just think women need to stop moaning. I get frustrated with women declaring all men are bastards whilst at the same time chanting for equality.

Let’s face it; I am one of those women who uses my femininity at work. If I need a favour from a court usher or a prosecutor I will not think twice about using girly charm. I also know that women are often chosen to prosecute or defend cases partly on the basis of their gender and I am happy to take advantage of that (every case and client needs a different ‘type’ of barrister). I still like my make up and high heels and I never have the same hair colour for longer than 3 months.

Dare I say it, but I am not sure a woman who leaves the office at 5pm each day to see her child should be complaining when her male colleague who works all hours gets that promotion first. Furthermore, I have no desire to start looking or behaving like a man or to be given a job where I will never see my daughter. However, a couple of recent events at work have led me to wonder whether the Bar is still completely stuck in the dark ages.

Late last year, I was defending a case involving serious sexual offences and the prosecutor was a very experienced lady barrister well over 10 years call. I have known her for some years and been in cases involving her previously. She is pleasant and good at her job but not particularly chatty so I actually did not know much about her personally. The case had not been straight forward to say the least and we were both having a stressful time. I walked in one day to find her looking pale and she told me that she had just listened to a voicemail to say a close member of her family had been rushed into hospital. She was the only relative in England and the next of kin. She was struggling to get through to the hospital and I asked her if she wanted me to delay the court but she declined. We continued with the case and on the next break she called the hospital. Without going into detail, it was clear that she was needed at the hospital but she refused to go and see the Judge despite my insistence. However, sat in court waiting, I could see she was welling up and I signalled to the Clerk that we needed to see the Judge. The Prosecutor looked relieved. As we walked up to the Judge’s Chambers she turned to me and said she was emotional due to the fact she was pregnant and burst into tears. My natural reaction was to immediately hug her and reassure her and we carried on up to see the Judge.

We walked into chambers and she sat down and immediately morphed into a completely different person! She explained the problem but made it clear that she had no intention of going to the hospital until tea time and effectively blamed me for the trip to see the Judge! Later that day, the Prosecutor said to me, “that was the first time in 14 years that I have let my personal life interfere with work and I am mortified”.  By the next day she was back to her professional, slightly stroppy self and it was as if we had never shared that hug on the stairs or the happy news of her pregnancy…

Now I have to admit that during that case I judged her. I commented to my boyfriend that she was hard faced and cruel leaving a relative alone in hospital. I doubt I would have said the same about a man. I also felt that she came across as ashamed of her pregnancy and I have since noticed that she is extremely reluctant to talk about it. Yet only the other day I heard a male member of the Bar talking very proudly (and loudly!) about the arrival of his baby boy.

However, after the case had concluded, I reflected on my own situation and professional life. I returned to work less than 3 weeks after my mum died and I felt that was leaving it too long. Perhaps I was judged at that time by my colleagues? I also worked up until the day before I gave birth to my daughter. I hid my bump for as long as I could and was reluctant to talk about the fact I was having a baby. Was I just being professional or was I a little bit worried about what people might think? It certainly didn’t help that one instructing solicitor remarked that my pregnancy could be the “end of my career”.

The first female barrister was called to the Bar in 1922 and in many ways it seems that there has been very little modernisation since then. For example, most Chambers have a wholly inadequate maternity policy. It took a great deal of work to get a decent policy in place in my Chambers. I would like to see all Chambers have a fair policy that is clearly set out on their websites, if only to ensure that women are not put off by joining (or remaining!) at the Bar.

The other matter which is really starting to frustrate me is how women at the Bar are still judged on their looks.

Recently, I was sat in a local robing room talking to a friend. An older male barrister was listening in to our discussion about exercise and declared loudly (so that the whole room heard), “You used to be so slim and gorgeous… you’re still lovely but not so slim now are you?”. Well…the Burnley girl in me wanted to tell him to bugger off but the professional side of me won and I stayed silent. I was embarrassed to say the least. It is not easy to admit this, but that night I cried as I was driving home (how girly of me?). Normally I am the first to be joking around in the robing room and batting off the teasing that goes on in there so why did I feel so differently this time?  Well, I was sat at court waiting on a verdict in a complicated rape trial when this comment was made. It had been the most difficult case of my career so far and I actually ended up getting an amazing result against all odds, yet that male barrister did not congratulate me on a strongly fought trial, instead he chose to comment on my looks and weight. I felt belittled in a room full of others and I felt sad that my hard work had gone unnoticed by my colleagues.

I desperately want to believe that women have reached equality at the Bar. Am I being sensitive or is there still some way to go …?

Calm down, dear!

This week seems to have been the week of the moral panic. Moral panics, according to Wikipedia, are:

‘in essence controversies that involve arguments and social tension and in which disagreement is difficult because the matter at its center is taboo’

A moral panic is characterised by:

  • Concern – There must be awareness that the behaviour of the group or category in question is likely to have a negative impact on society.
  • Hostility – Hostility towards the group in question increases, and they become “folk devils”. A clear division forms between “them” and “us”.
  • Consensus – Though concern does not have to be nationwide, there must be widespread acceptance that the group in question poses a very real threat to society. It is important at this stage that the “moral entrepreneurs” are vocal and the “folk devils” appear weak and disorganised.
  • Disproportionality – The action taken is disproportionate to the actual threat posed by the accused group.
  • Volatility – Moral panics are highly volatile and tend to disappear as quickly as they appeared due to a wane in public interest or news reports changing to another topic.

In the good old days it was the main stream media who ‘operated as agents of moral indignation, even when they [were] not self-consciously engaged in crusading or muckraking’.

Now though, we have social media to take that role. This week has seen the lady at the centre of ‘My Tram Experience’ and Jeremy Clarkson both demonised by what can only be described as mob rule.

Not everything surrounding the woman at the centre of My Tram Experience can be written about due to various laws relating to legal proceedings (and to that end, because I don’t fancy a fine for contempt, comments will be moderated), however, folk simply took what on the face of it appeared to be a racist rant, screamed and hollered about it – including putting out her name and address over social media, and invoked British Transport Police into taking action. She is currently remanded in custody for her own safety until a further hearing next week. Cue crowing from the mob that action not only had been taken, but action they approved of. Bad person in prison: job done. It’s that simple, right?

Moving swiftly on, Jeremy Clarkson then filled their whining void by making stupid comments about strikers. A man famed for making controversial comments makes controversial comments: shock.

The mob stepped up to the plate, shrieked their horror, Unison stepped in, and the BBC apologised. As did he, sort of (here).

Unison scored a spectacular own goal by putting out a press release (here) calling for his summary dismissal, and stating they were seeking legal advice as to what action they could take. David Allen Green wrote about that here.

It used to be that comments such as the ones we have seen on Twitter this week were confined to the pub. People would express their outrage, have a pint, and frankly, got over it – especially as each pub would have the wise old grey chap in the corner who would quietly express a contrary view, and urge them to think about the subject matter in hand.

But now, these comments are put out over Twitter. Herd mentality kicks in, the mob expresses their outrage, the outrage increases. The contrary view is not heard, indeed it is trampled upon, with scorn and vitriol poured over those who dare express it.

But what is hugely concerning is that authoritative bodies are taking notice of the mob, and taking knee-jerk action. Because social media is instant, they seem to believe their response needs to be immediate to quell the furore. Gone are the days where action was a considered, measured response, starting with the question of ‘Do we actually need to do anything at all’ and only if that was established in the positive, ‘What action do we need to take, and when’.

That is leading to poor decision making. I would suggest that in response to anything that kicks off on social media the first action should be to wait at least 24 hours, to see if sense prevails and becomes heard, as it so often does. Otherwise we run the risk of constantly kowtowing to mobs, who will come to expect an instantaneous response from an authoritative body. In short, we are running close to the risk of mob rule. Do we really want that?

F*** you, bad reporting!

The case of Denzel Harvey has been much reported this week, as being the case where the High Court apparently decreed that if a person swears at the police it is okay, because police officers should be able to take it.

Harvey was charged, convicted, and then had the conviction quashed, with an offence contrary to section 5 Public Order Act 1986:

(1) A person is guilty of an offence if he—

(a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or

(b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,

within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.

(the facts of the case being that he used the F word towards a police officer on several occasions during a stop and search).

Not only has there been the usual knee-jerkery in the red-tops and the tabloids, but it has spread out into the broadsheets and into the police social media footprint, particularly Twitter and blogs.

According to the Telegraph, Simon Reed, vice chairman of the Police Federation, said:

“It’s astounding that you can use every swear word to abuse a police officer and they have got to accept it just because it is common. This gives the green light for everyone to swear and use disorderly behaviour with police.”

Apparently, the new Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Bernard Hogan-Howe said:

“It is not acceptable to be sworn at for anybody, so why would it be any more acceptable for a police officer? Even if you accepted that argument, then it doesn’t look too good, does it, in terms of respect? A police officer challenges a suspect about something and they stand there being abusive. I just don’t understand how that works. So I am deeply disappointed by the decision, but I respect the fact that apparently it is a statement of the law.”

And indeed it is reported that the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, also waded in with:

“Public servants are not there to be abused – they are there to serve society and society must respect them. How can a copper cope with the job if the public are allowed to insult them with impunity?”

All fair comments really. Based on what they had been told, anyway.

You see, sadly the media – and especially those reporters who put this case to those quoted above – got their facts wrong.

The report of the decision went up today on the Judiciary website, and it tells a very different tale to the one that has been in the media. You can find the full judgment here, but I have snagged the relevant part:

Highlighted area one, is why his appeal succeeded.

To prove an offence under section 5, you have to prove harassment, alarm or distress. Unfortunately, the prosecutor seems to have forgotten the ABC of prosecution; that is, proving the elements of the offence – which is rather crucial. According to the appeal judgment (page 4) ‘neither officer gave evidence of being harassed, alarmed or distressed’, because, as above, they were not asked. Whoops.

Highlighted area two makes very clear – with emphasis added by the judge, that in granting the appeal, he is laying the blame on the fact the questions had not been asked, and he is absolutely not saying that officers have to take abuse.

So there we have it. Bad questioning yes, bad law no, f***ing awful reporting.


A few numbers

In 2009, 113,949 divorce petitions were filed at court.

Of those, 87,047 were funded under the legal help scheme. The same scheme that will effectively be abolished should the government proposals (which have just been subject to debate in the Lords) come to pass. Those people will have no option left but to represent themselves.

Oh, and 70% of those filing for divorce are women. Women currently entitled to help because they are not the earner in their family.

(Huge hat tip to Divorce Online, who made a FOIA application for this information).