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

Date: 19/10/11

Who Will Judge The Judges?, or "Mind What You Type, Citizen" *** Now Updated ***

Believe me, I've tried to resist writing this piece. Tried to resist for a variety of reasons: not wishing to bore you, The Reader, with another turn on this old hobbyhorse of mine; not wishing to plunge myself into yet another froth of anger at the vicious, short-sighted stupidity of those set in power over us; not wishing either to drop myself back into the mire of my 'prisoner complex' (q.v.); and not being sure if - for all my efforts - I will be able to express myself concisely and cogently.

And yet, comment I must.

Perhaps I'm nave, or trusting. Maybe I still believe deep down in what I was brought up to believe; namely, that we live in a country which is run by people of altogether civilised intent, for whom the concepts of 'fair play' and 'moderation' are things by which to live at all times.

Whatever the ultimate source of my delusion, however, I really had hoped that the Court of Appeal, in hearing requests for reviews of some of the sentences passed by Crown Courts on people involved in various ways with the unrest of early August, would demonstrate a sense of proportion not at all apparent in the trial judges.

This was particularly true in the cases of Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, the two twenty-somethings from Cheshire who posted messages on Faecesbook intended - quoth the prosecution - to encourage people to create disorder in Northwich and Warrington. The incitements were totally dismissed by all who read them, and their pathetic nature was underlined by the fact that Blackshaw was actually dumb enough to turn up for his own 'riot', to be met only by a number of Cheshire Constabulary's finest who were able to make probably the easiest arrest of their entire careers.

For this, he and Sutcliffe-Keenan were handed four-year prison sentences by Judge Elgan Edwards at Chester for an offence under the 2007 Serious Crime Act of "encouraging [...] offences believing one or more would be committed". Edwards went in for an awful lot of the usual judicial whiffling about the good citizens of those towns being reduced to lying accouched of a night trembling, awaiting the inevitable fate of being murdered in their beds. This along with the now boiler-plate judgely insistence about how examples must be made, how deterrence must be applied and how messages must be sent.

So it was that two young men - with nothing more than two or three minor instances of 'previous' between them - ended up getting sentences on a scale usually meted out to people convicted of kidnapping, serious sexual assault or causing death by drunken driving. For a Facebook message!

Now, I'm not saying they shouldn't have been punished at all - that would be daft. Perhaps even a few months in the jug would have sufficed to show them that being a prick is not a sound career move. But these sentences were needlessly disproportionate - vindictive, even - especially bearing in mind that people who have issued a whole sequence of death threats on social networking sites have garnered no more than three months inside.

That there were mutterings of concern over the extremity of the punishment even in the comment pages of the Daily Mail and amongst the more alert members of the judiciary itself gave one a vague hope that, when the Appeal Court came to consider the matter in less inflamed times, some sense of proportion might be restored.

Such hopes were shown to be futile yesterday, however, when Lord Chief Justice Judge (yes: incredibly, there is a Judge Judge, Igor by given name too) and two of his colleagues flatly rejected Blackshaw and Sutcliffe-Keenan's appeals. In language which was even more redolent of the smell of old horsehair and fustian than that of Judge Edwards, and of the sort which in earlier times invited skewering by the likes of Beachcomber and A.P. Herbert, Judge Judge spoke of the "stout-hearted citizens" who had - 'stout-heartedness' notwithstanding - apparently been terrified out of their collective wits by a message on a social network site, and even used words like "ghastly" (though not "beastly", it seems; a chance for self-parody grievously missed, I fear). Interwoven with all this musty rhetoric was a rallying call for official vindictiveness, of punishment beyond reason for someone on the basis of something which didn't in fact happen, and in the context of events over which the appellants had no control and with which they had had only marginal involvement (I can't think of a place much more marginal than Northwich, for goodness sake). Thrown into the mix as well was a broadside at all this confounded modern technology which was aiding and abetting people to communicate easily with each other to the detriment of the sort of exemplary order which we used in enjoy in the good old days of hanging, queer-bashing...and the Krays.

(As an aside, such distrust of the proles being able to talk to each other without first seeking official approval is not by any means new. At the end of the 1970s, in a debate in the House Of Lords, one Lord Wells-Pestell bemoaned the coming of Citizens' Band (CB) radio (ask your grandad about that, boys and girls), complaining of the increased ability of people being able readily to communicate with one another, almost certainly for nefarious purposes. Simon Hoggart in a parliamentary sketch in Punch (ask grandad about that as well) opined that His Lordship was in for a shock when he tumbled to the existence of letters and telephones. And Igor himself has 'form' - only a few months ago he was whingeing on about how the existence of Twitter had made it impossible for philandering sports stars to use their wealth to get gagging orders from the courts).

The footling of Judge Igor was a melange of self-righteousness, technophobia and fear of the mob which has done nothing much more than compound the short-sighted stupidity of Judge Edwards' original sentence. But these cases raise something far more serious, far more sinister, and I'll return to that later.

For the moment, however, let us just think through the consequence of these sentences on those subject to them. For one thing, unlike our bent ex-MPs and serving members of the House Of Nominees, Blackshaw and Sutcliffe-Keenan will not be eligible for release on electronic tag after just a quarter of their terms. Such an option does not apply to sentences of four years or more. So, they will not be let out of prison until they have done at least two years, putting their release date at mid-August 2013.

And what will their position in the world be at that time? Well, there is a probability approaching unity that they will be homeless. If they ever had much chance of employment before all this, they sure as hell won't when they get out. An estimated sixty per cent of employers will not take on anyone who has done prison time, and the length of the sentence means that they will have to declare the conviction on all applications for employment, voluntary work, education, training, a driving licence or passport and even for insurance for the rest of their lives. So they are - to all intents and purposes - royally fucked forever. A life sentence in all but official designation.

Where will they live? How will they live? And who will have to pay for it? You may have worked the last bit out for yourselves; the same people who will have to fork out somewhere in the region of 160 000 to keep them inside just for two years.

I wonder how those - from the alleged Prime Minister down (or sideways) - feel now that their insensate desire for mindless revenge has been (for the moment at least) sated at the news that we, the great 'stout-hearted' taxpaying public will have to pay for these two tools for the rest of their lives? Be careful what you wish for...

There's another effect as well, in that other appeal cases have been on hold pending the decisions of Judge Twice and his chums. The judge who heard the appeals of Charlie Gilmour and Frank Fernie last month held off on his decisions pending yesterday's announcements. It is possible (although impossible to be sure, because cards have been played extremely close to the chest on the matter throughout) that Edward Woollard's appeal may be being handled similarly. It matters little; there was nothing in Igor's words yesterday that could give any of those three young men the slightest hope. Similarly, those who have yet to be sentenced in connection with August's events must now know that they, too, are going to be regally shafted. More young lives permanently blighted. Add to those simple facts the alienation, cynicism and anger (easy to comprehend if not condone) that will be generated within all of them, and the real likelihood of them learning inside skills which most emphatically do not feature in the national curriculum, and what a legacy we are allowing to be established for the future!

The more sinister aspects I adverted to earlier are not merely the use of extreme sentences to intimidate people from taking to the streets, however peaceably; the prosecution of those involved in UKUncut's totally non-violent actions must be brought in here as well. But Judge²'s rantings about technology reveal a clear unease on the part of those whose power and influence over the ability of us mere plebs to communicate without reference to the customary 'framing' of debate by them; and also reveal a clear desire to control - even to emasculate - any communications which the ruling class regards as dangerous to them. Hence Cameron's first reaction to the August riots - after sending a clear signal that he wanted everyone put in prison irrespective of the circumstances - was to try to strong-arm the companies which run social media sites into censorship or outright suppression.

Add to this the libel reform proposals currently being suggested which include an immediate take-down of any post, article or comment on any web site which someone takes exception to (the fact that this would be unworkable in most cases doesn't seem to matter to the technological illiterates who rule us), and we are seeing another run of attempts to neuter our ability to communicate with each other without the imprimatur of the powerful.

Some might like to make the old, old point about freedom of speech not being limitless, and that there is no protected right to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theatre (unless there is a fire, of course). So much may be true, but the use of draconian laws - some of them promoted by the secret state, others pushed for by the media corporations who want to 'tame' the Web and turn it into just another source of income for themselves - and of disproportionate punishment merely brings what is a valid enough point into disrepute.

So, if I were to say that I think someone should get hold of Judge Judge and fry his shrivelled scrotum in Mazola for seven minutes until crispy (I do apologise for that image) until he either gets a sense of humanity, or at least stops appearing in public wearing an outfit which makes him look like a badly-stuffed penguin soft toy...

(Note for the Police, the Clown Persecution Service and other such automata: this is what is known as a 'hypothetical'; that is to say, an example used for illustrative purposes. It is emphatically not to be taken as 'incitement' to someone to go and incinerate the old ball-bag - any part of him. Much).

...would I then be liable to four years imprisonment (or six to ten years if I refused to plead guilty), even though no-one took any notice or actually followed through on it? Judging by the precedents now being set, such a lack of consequence would be deemed not to reflect positively on me, and I could expect to cop the full wad, ball and shot.

In which case, shall we extend this to other spheres of dubious endeavour? For example, if someone is caught driving at 30mph in a 20mph residential area, shall we prosecute them for causing the death of a child by careless/reckless/dangerous driving? Yes, it didn't actually happen but it might have done. By the twisted logic of Judge Doubledip and others, this is surely what should happen?

I hold to a fundamental principle that if someone is to be punished, they should be punished for what they themselves have done and the actual consequences of what they themselves have done and nothing else. To do otherwise brings speculation, supposition - in short, guesswork - into the equation, which leads - as we have seen too clearly and too often this year - to arbitrarily harsh sentences on people for things over which they, ultimately, had no control and for which they, in point of fact, had no actual responsibility.

But I'm aware that I'm repeating points that I've made previously on these matters, so I'll not try your patience (finding it as guilty as a fox in a henhouse and sentencing it to four years in the slammer) any further. I cannot help, however, being thoroughly dismayed as to what those whose judgment is supposed to be calm, rational, proportionate and humane are setting us all up for in the future.

Update: As if to provide further collateral for the belief that the judicial system in this country is completely Dagenham Heathway (i.e., three stops beyond Barking), scarcely four days after Blackshaw and Sutcliffe-Keenan's appeals were so contemptuously dismissed, a 20-year-old female was convicted at Cambridge Crown Court. She had:

In the light of all that, what sentence did you think she got?

Well, I'll tell you.

Three years and four months.

That's all.

(The story is covered here if you want more details).

There are two things to note here, I think.

The first is something I've covered before, namely that culpably killing someone with a motor vehicle is considered considerably less severe a crime than killing them in any other way; and the second is that it now becomes even more clear that the sentences we have been seeing recently are nakedly political in their intent.

Consider this: Reynolds not only got a far shorter sentence for killing two people than she would have done for posting something on Facebook, she will serve no more than twenty months inside; indeed, because her sentence is under four years, she may well be home on a tagged curfew by the end of next August, when Blackshaw and Sutcliffe-Keenan will still be no more than halfway through their period of custody.

Who will rid us of these judicial lunatics? Or will I now be liable to nearly half a decade in the clink for even suggesting that someone should rid us of them?