Picture of a judge's wigThe Judge RANTS!Picture of a judge's wig

Date: 12/01/11

Dropped On From A Great Height

OK, let's get one thing straight from the off, shall we?

Edward Woollard behaved like a tit. Dropping a fire extinguisher from the top of a seven-storey building when there is a crowd of people (and police) milling about below is not the most intelligent idea anyone ever had for making a political point.

It was also inevitable - especially given the screaming from the pols and the hacks - that he faced imprisonment when he appeared yesterday before Judge Geoffrey Rivlin to be sentenced for 'violent disorder'.

But thirty-two months? The nature of the sentence, and the order that Woollard must serve at least half of that time in prison (when most people sentenced to imprisonment for comparatively minor offences tend to be released in some way or another after about one third of the full distance), causes me considerable unease that there is something other than the calm, deliberate, impersonal dispensing of justice going on here.

Let's also clear something else up while we're at it: no-one was hurt as a result of what Woollard did. One fire extinguisher and a couple of paving stones were the only injured parties here. This has not, of course, stopped the commentariat and the "they say" mob from going around saying things like, "It could have landed on someone and killed them!", "It could have left a policeman dead and his lickle kiddies orphaned!!"

But it didn't, did it? The worst it did was cause some of those on the pavement to have an urgent need for a change of underwear. No-one was actually injured.

Each one of us lives our daily life in the realms of 'could haves'. Each one of us comes closer to death or dishonour on a regular basis than it would comfortable for us to realise.

I would have liked to have thought that we still lived in a society where people were judged and punished on the basis of things which actually happened, rather than on the basis of hypotheticals. However, as we have emerged from a decade or more when penal policy has seemed to be instructed far more from frequent watching of Minority Report - creating a system where people are punished even unto house arrest or actual imprisonment based on some official's guess of what they might, just possibly do at some indeterminate point in some notional future (like the detestable 'control orders' which our freedom-loving Coalition government still can't quite bring themselves meaningfully to abolish) - perhaps I was expecting too much.

This sentence was clearly designed to send out 'a message', and is an early indicator of what might face such as Charlie Gilmour when he comes up before the beak for swinging from a flagpole; the individuals who 'desecrated' the monument to that old reactionary and ethnic-cleanser Churchill by pissing on it (although they could plead that the police had illegally detained them without toilet facilities for so long that they were left with little choice); and - most heinous of all - those who apparently poked Mrs Parker-Knoll with a stick.

(In a thoroughly gratuitous aside here, I'd like it known that that would be the only thing I would ever be tempted to poke the ould hoor with)

Clearly the police, the Crown Prosecution Service (who have shown remarkably alacrity in bringing this case in comparison with cases they could have brought in a timely fashion against - say, for the sake of argument - police officers who have caused serious injury or death to demonstrators or those nearby), the Ministry and the whole political class see it as important to send 'a message' that not only will anything other than the meekest of manifestations of opposition to the current régime not be tolerated, but those involved will be given exemplarily extreme punishments. Indeed, the clear intent may well be to deter anyone from protesting at all for fear of far-reaching consequences.

And, speaking of consequences, let me return to the specifics of the sentence upon Edward Woollard.

It has not been remarked upon at all in the corporate media reports of yesterday's proceedings as far as I can see exactly what the ramifications of the sentence upon this youth will actually be. I have already made the point that ordering that he should serve at least half the sentence in prison is not consistent with what tends to happen in such cases in other circumstances. What needs further to be pointed out is that - despite the wibbling from some quarters about how it'll be a mere minor inconvenience to him and that he'll have every chance to rebuild his life afterwards - the sentence is of sufficient length, his age being eighteen at the time of the conviction (though not at the time of his offence), that the conviction can never, as the law stands at present (and any changes to the laws on rehabilitation of offenders are not likely to be in a liberal direction), be regarded as 'spent'. That is to say that Woollard will have to state - on every application to enter higher education, on every job application he makes, on every application for a passport or similar document, on every application for a Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check - that he has a conviction for 'violent disorder' for the rest of his life; say, the next fifty years or so. Given that we live nowadays in a society which is renowned for its charitable attitude on such matters, this means that - whatever else he may seek to achieve - young Woollard is likely to be totally unemployable in substantial sectors of the economy, and practically unemployable in most others. It has also been suggested that - should he return to the family home at the end of his sentence - his family will be unable to obtain insurance because there will be a 'violent offender' living at that address; did you think that it was only in one-party dictatorships that whole families or households were punished for the actions of one member of it?

Will those who are today hugging themselves with delight at the thought of a lower-middle-class boy being handed such a hefty term of imprisonment (and some of the comments on The Guardian's website have been quite chilling, along the lines of the danger of his dropping the soap, for example), be the ones pointing the finger at him in ten to fifteen years time and screeching, "Why is 'e livin' on welfare? Why 'asn' 'e got 'imself a job?" It's difficult to find employment when you have the stigma of a criminal conviction you are never permitted to turn your back on, not even if you live to be a hundred.

And all this for an impulsive act which - stupid beyond belief as it was - ultimately harmed nobody.

Some have tried to point out that the maximum sentence for 'violent disorder' is five years, and that Rivlin had made the required deductions to take into account Woollard's guilty plea, his age, the fact that this was his first offence and the fact that he had turned himself in (on the insistence of his mother, of which more anon). That still leaves unanswered exactly why Rivlin felt that the maximum sentence would have been required in the first place. He made a lot of the standard whiffling noises so beloved of our isolated, insulated judiciary about how the public have to be defended from violence (which will be interesting if any police officer is ever arraigned before him for, say, cracking open a young man's head so that he needed life-saving surgery shortly afterwards), and about how precious the right of protest is (when his fellow judges have shown a powerful tendency to send people to prison for substantial periods of time for non-violent direct action against - for example - arms dealers or animal abusers), and even committed one of those judicial witticisms which calls for the resurrection of Peter Cook to rip the piss out of it just like he did to Judge Cantley in the Jeremy Thorpe case (see here).

(A brief word about Woollard's mother. Naïve. Perhaps - far, far too late - the scales may now have fallen from her eyes. Knowing what I know, and seeing what I see about their conduct, I find it increasingly difficult to imagine a set of circumstances in which I would willingly turn a member of my family - or a close friend - in to 'the authorities'. Maybe now she will feel the same about dobbing in her own son. We know too well from the history of the last hundred years what sort of society it is where people are encouraged to denounce members of their intimate circle to the State).

This was quite clearly a case where the maximum sentence should not have been considered - Woollard would be unlikely to be any serious risk in the future (although spending at least a year and a third in a youth prison may well 'educate' him in ways which will not redound to the benefit of society as a whole), and so a sentence of such length could not be justified on the grounds of 'protecting the public'. The only conclusion which can reasonably be drawn is that the nature of the sentence had a strong element of political motivation to it.

One can only hope, therefore, that there is an appeal, and that the judges at the Court of Appeal will replace Rivlin's decision with a sentence which is more in line with the realities of the case. And, just maybe, to 'send a message' to the judiciary that, if they want to 'send messages' they should resign from the bench and go and work for a phone company.