Why expanding the electorate to 16 year olds gets my vote

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The Labour Party’s announcement that it plans to lower the voting age to 16  gave newspaper columnists who are opposed to such a move the perfect excuse to trot out the usual tired old clichés about teenagers being spotty, monosyllabic morons.

Writing in the Daily Mail, Tom Utley says the average 16 year-old is ‘largely a nocturnal being,’ known for its ‘chaotically untidyUnknown lair’, and for messily wolfing down ‘industrial quantities of Crunchy Nut Bites’. Utley suggests that ‘Homo Sedecim’ (Latin for 16, apparently) is too unworldly to be given the vote, because he ‘never questions how his food and clothes are provided or how the bills come to be paid. He simply takes it for granted that he will always be fed when he’s hungry.’

How fortunate that all 16 year olds live in comfortable, middle class homes!

Whereas politicians like Ed Miliband only meet teens at stage-managed political events, as the father of four sons, Utley says he knows what ‘real’ 16 year olds are like. It would be ‘a cynical act of folly’ to extend the franchise to 1.5 million ‘stroppy teenagers,’ he concludes. In an earlier column, Utley quipped that, after votes for children, ‘It’ll be votes for sheep next.’

Well, if I were 16 and had a patronising old fart like Utley as my dad, I think I might be pretty stroppy, too.

But it is not just commentators on the right who are opposed. The Guardian’s political editor, Michael White, says 16 year olds shouldn’t be ‘burdened’ with voting, because they already have enough to worry about, including (I kid you not), their clothes and their zits. They should ‘concentrate on their music and having fun’, rather that worrying their zitty little heads about politics, he suggests.

Labour is by no means the only political party to support lowering the voting age. Last year, it was announced that 16 and 17 year olds will be able to vote in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum; and the Liberal Democrats have long supported such a move. Labour’s commitment to the change has not, however, met with universal approval, even among the ranks of its own MPs.

Tom Harris, Labour MP for Glasgow South, condemns the policy as an irrelevant distraction from more important issues. It will ‘impress and affect nobody’, he says. Even 16 year olds themselves are ‘apathetic or opposed’ to the idea. ‘But it’s exactly the kind of middle-class dinner party issue that tofu eaters throughout the country get really excited about,’ he says.

Now, I probably eat more tofu than most (being a veggie), but can honestly say that the subject has never, ever, been raised at any dinner party I have attended, middle class or otherwise.

What I have witnessed, however, is plenty of teenagers being caused great upset and confusion by finding themselves at the sharp end of endless government policy changes and increasingly trenchant rhetoric in areas like education.

GCSEs – the exams taken by all 16 year olds and the results of which will have a huge impact on their futures – are now a political battleground. Children who started their GCSE studies under one set of rules and with one set of expectations, have images-1found the goalposts being moved mid-way through courses. In 2012, grade boundaries for English were changed, so that those taking their exams in June were held to a higher standard than those who took them in January. Some children missed out on sixth-form places, as a result. The Qualifications & Curriculum Authority then announced that current students’ speaking and listening marks will no longer count towards their final English GCSE grade; to compensate, the proportion of marks allocated for written exams will go up from 40% to 60%. The changes were criticised by teaching bodies, including the Association of School and College Leaders, which said: ‘As a matter of principle, changes to assessments should never be introduced after students have started a course.’

Undeterred, Education Secretary Michael Gove has now decided to stop schools from entering pupils for exams a year early, and to ban re-sits. More reforms are planned.

As a parent, I may be hopping mad at seeing education turned into a political football; I may be outraged on my child’s behalf, at the stress, uncertainty and unfairness caused. But it is not me who is going to be personally affected; it is not my future university or employment prospects which may be blighted because of some politician’s whim. The educating of 16 year olds is unlikely to become less political any time soon, so it seems only reasonable that those whose lives will be directly affected should get a say in who gets to make those policies.

Under 18s also bear the brunt in the equally politically-charged area of criminal justice policy, but have no voice in its formulation or implementation. Teenagers are far more likely than adults to be stopped and searched by police. They are imagesdisproportionately likely to be victims of crime, particularly street crime, yet offences against them are massively under reported and politicians rarely talk about this issue. When ministers (and the media) talk about ‘youth crime’, they only ever mean young people as offenders, never as victims. The British Crime Survey didn’t even bother to record offences against 16 year olds until 2009.

Even while arguing against lowering the voting age, Michael White admits there is a direct relationship between an age group’s propensity to vote and how careful politicians are to protect that group’s interests. Quoting from an IPPR report which showed 44% of 18 to 24 year olds vote, compared with 76% of over 65s, he says:  ‘Guess which group’s benefits (the tabloids never admit pensions are benefits) have been protected by the coalition? Right first time.’

Small wonder then that, shortly after the 2010 election, the coalition scrapped the Education Maintenance Allowance, which had been paid directly to 16 year olds from low-income households. The percentage of 16 years olds who vote is, of course, currently zero.

The school leaving age was raised last month to 17; in 2015, it will go up to 18. There is what Nelson Jones, writing in New Statesman, describes as ‘a much greater sense that under 18s need society’s protection, not just from sexual exploitation but from themselves.’ They have fewer rights and responsibilities than before, he says, citing the fact that the age at which it is legal to buy cigarettes, knives and fireworks, or hold a firearms licence, has been raised in recent years from 16 to 18.

I don’t say these changes are a bad thing.  Indeed, I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more age-related restrictions: for example, I ‘d like us to give serious consideration to raising the minimum age for taking a driving test to 18 (the statistic that the leading cause of death of teen girls is in cars being driven by teenage boys always make me shudder).

But whereas Jones concludes that it would be ‘paradoxical’ to trust 16 year olds with the vote, when they are no longer trusted to buy a penknife, I take the opposite view. In the main, I agree that this age group deserves extra protections. But it is precisely because politicians, apparently with popular support, are increasingly restricting what they can do that these young people should now be given a voice in the political process. Never mind, ‘no taxation without representation’; it should be, ‘no restrictions without representation’.

Thank heaven for Lord Moses: 17-year-olds in custody are children first, suspects second

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Judges are often accused of being detached from the world that the rest of us inhabit. It’s not hard to see why. They are still mostly white and male. Most of them went to private school and Oxbridge. They really have been known to ask questions such as, who are the Beatles?; what is a thong?; and (my personal favourite), whether a defendant who said he’d been to a McDonald’s restaurant had booked a table.

imagesJust once in a while, however, you get a court judgement that radiates so much good sense and humanity, you realise that, on one important issue at least, this judge is no different from we ordinary folk.

The recent High Court judgment about treatment of 17-year-olds in police custody is one such rarity.

Last week’s ruling by Lord Justice Moses overturns an anomaly which allows police to treat 17-year-olds as adults, and thus deprive them of protections afforded younger children, including the right to have a parent with them. According to the National Appropriate Adult Network (NAAN), some 75,000 17-year-olds are held in police custody in the UK every year, and so likely to be better protected in future.

The judgment followed a legal challenge by 17-year-old Hughes Cousins-Chang, who had been arrested in south-east London on suspicion of robbery of a mobile phone. When the college student asked if his mum could be told where he was, the police said no. When she found out about his arrest some four and a half hours later, the police wouldn’t let her speak to her son. After being strip searched and held for 11 hours, the boy was released; no charges were ever brought.

If that had been my 17-year-old being held and me being refused all contact, I dare say I would have been a basket case when he was finally released. I’m delighted, therefore, that Lord Moses ruled the provision which allowed police to treat Cousins-Chang as an adult was a breach not just of his human rights but also those of his mother. The judgment rather wonderfully sums up what being the parent of a teenager is about and is worth quoting at length.

‘The wish of a 17-year-old in trouble to seek the support of a parent and of a parent to be available to give that help must surely lie at the heart of family life…This case demonstrates how vulnerable a 17-year-old may be. Treated as an adult, he receives no explanation as to how important it is to obtain the assistance of a lawyer. Many 17-year-olds do not believe they need any guidance at all. They demonstrate all the youthful arrogance of which many parents are aware. All the more need, then, for help and assistance from someone with whom they are familiar.’

Earlier in the case, Lord Justice Moses had commented that, if it had been his children being detained, ‘my 17-year-olds would not have had a clue’, about what was happening to them.

Lord Justice Moses: 'my own 17-year-olds wouldn't have a clue about what was going on if arrested'

Lord Justice Moses: his own 17-year-olds ‘wouldn’t have a clue’ about what was going on if arrested

Now, I am unlikely to ever meet Lord Justice Moses’ children and know nothing about them. However, I would guess that the offspring of an appeal judge are likely to be better educated and more articulate than most – and possibly have a smattering of legal nous. If even they would flounder when thrust into the alien and hostile environment of a police station, what hope an average 17-year-old?

What hope an average 17-year-old like Edward Thornber, who killed himself after being arrested for smoking dope? Or, 17-year-old Joe Lawton, who took his own life after being arrested for drink driving. In both cases, the police dealt with the boys as adults; their parents weren’t told of the arrests and had no chance to step in to support their sons.

At one point during Lawton’s six-and-a-half hour detention, officers asked if he wanted to ring anyone. His reply gives some indication of the despair and shame he must have been feeling: ‘Not really. What can anybody do?’

Two days’ later, with his parents still unaware of the arrest, Lawton killed himself. He was found with the police charge sheet at his feet. Lawton’s parents believe their son feared his arrest for drink driving had ‘closed the door on his future’. ‘As a 17-year-old, he didn’t have the experience and resilience to cope with it and see past it.’ He had, they added,  ‘been frightened to death’ by the experience.

Both the Lawtons and Thornbers supported the recent court action.

Today’s teens have it drummed into them by schools, politicians and parents (and I am as guilty of this as anyone), that they are playing for high stakes: if they don’t have the best possible CV, their prospects will be blighted in the race for jobs and university places. Is it any wonder that when things go wrong, in the absence of older and wiser counsel, they actually believe a single mistake means an irretrievably ruined future? It’s perhaps no coincidence that both Thornber, who was a former head boy and talented lacrosse player, and Lawton seem to have been particularly ambitious and high-achieving.

The legal quirk that kept their families from even knowing they were in trouble is as heartless as it is illogical. The police station is the only part of the criminal justice system where 17 year olds are treated as adults. Once cases get to court, it has long been recognised that someone their age needs additional support and protections.

Any defence solicitor will tell you that what is said and done in the police station can have serious consequences for the rest of a case. Harm which could have been avoided or minimised by careful, informed advice can be all but impossible to undo later on. A young person, desperate to get home before their parents find out, who admits guilt and accepts a police caution will have no idea of the seriousness of that decision. Until a ruling earlier this year, even the most youthful misdemeanour could be revealed to employers decades later. In one case, a 17-year-old was turned down for a part-time job in a local football club because he was cautioned when he was 11 for stealing bikes. The caution was disclosed again during a Criminal Records Bureau check when he applied for university four years later.

The age at which children become adults is a question for philosophers as much as lawyers. However, it is surely an aberration that someone who is not trusted to buy a drink in a pub, or vote in an election, is deemed mature enough to face arrest, with no sympathetic adult on hand to advise.

This government regularly spouts off about the importance of good parenting. It is to their great discredit then that they opposed the change, claiming it will cost an extra £20m a year (a figure contested by NAAN, which puts it at more like £1.5m). But they can’t have it both ways. Even leaving aside political rhetoric about the importance of families, there have been consistent moves in recent years to make parents legally liable for their children. Last year, over 40,000 of them were fined because of their child’s truancy. In extreme cases, parents of truants can go to prison. Youth courts can now impose parenting orders, and parents can wind up at the adult magistrates court, and fined up to £1,000, if their child continues to misbehave by, say, ignoring curfews.

While the recent ruling is welcome, there is no room for complacency. Even where safeguards exist in the criminal justice system, they are not always followed, as we saw during the 2011 riots, when sleep-deprived children as young as 13 were brought into court at two or three o’clock in the morning, some after having spent 48 hours in a police cell.

At least now, thanks to Lord Justice Moses’ good sense, it is now officially recognised that 17-year-olds should be treated as children first, and (alleged) offenders, second.

Welcome to the world of bullying adults, Paris Brown

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Joshua Unsworth was just 15 when he killed himself after, allegedly, being subject to vicious internet bullying. His heart-breaking suicide was covered extensively in the press, including the Mail on Sunday, which reported that the teen had been ‘bullied to death by trolls on the internet’.

article-2303566-190F7982000005DC-946_634x401The very same day that the MoS reported the hounding of Unsworth, it embarked on some teen bullying of its own, turning the full force of its not inconsiderable firepower on someone not much older than Unsworth, pillorying her as foul-mouthed, boastful, racist and homophobic.

The teen in question was 17 year-old Paris Brown (above), the now ex-youth police and crime commissioner (YPCC) for Kent. As has been widely reported, Brown resigned after the MoS published a series of her particularly brainless tweets, and her own constabulary launched an investigation into her for racism.

Brown’s comments about ‘pikeys’, ‘illegals’ and ‘fags’, are not easy to defend. And I don’t really buy the line from some commentators that these are just the daft things that typical teenagers say. I reckon you’d have to have a fairly low opinion of teenagers to believe that (surely, only those who take their political cues from the likes of the Mail would think it OK to refer to travellers, immigrants and gay people so insultingly).

However, even before Brown’s comments came to light, the Mail had reported her appointment with a characteristic mix of fury and derision. ‘She’s not even old enough to vote, can’t drive and only left school last year [Yes. She’s a teenager!]… As well as her salary, Paris will be given a desk [A desk? She’ll be wanting a chair next…], a telephone and official car – with her own emblem.’

Like much of the media, the Mail rarely has a good word to say about teenagers, who are mainly portrayed as overindulged, feckless or dangerous. The whole notion of the introduction of police and crime commissioners was controversial and has been treated with (at best) scepticism by the press from the outset. It was, therefore, entirely predictable that the first YPCC would be subject to intense and probably hostile media scrutiny. For all her idiocy, Brown has been badly let down by the adults in this scenario.

In the first place, where the hell were her parents when she was tweeting this offensive garbage? (The same parents who were happy enough to be quoted in the initial coverage of their daughter’s appointment, saying how proud they were of her.) Second, why didn’t her employers do more to protect her? Are they really not media savvy enough to realise that, within minutes of Brown’s name being announced to such a controversial post, some journalist somewhere would be most likely be trawling the internet to see what dirt they could dig up about her on Facebook or Twitter? To put someone so young (Brown was 17 the day her appointment was announced) into the media firing line without doing even the most basic checks seems an extraordinary dereliction of duty.

Instead of protecting her, Brown was allowed to be served up on a plate as a the tabloid’s cartoon version of a teenage girl: foulmouthed, ignorant, binge-drinking, drug-taking and promiscuous. (It’s probably worth mentioning here that what the MoS describes as Brown’s ‘vile drug tweets’ (see below) appear to consist of one particularly fatuous quip about wanting to make ‘hash brownies’.)

We’ll never know if Brown would have made a decent fist of being Kent’s YPCC, but we do know there is a job to be done in improving relations between young people and the police. Research into the 2011 riots showed that stop and search is still a source of huge resentment among many young people which skews their attitude towards police. Teenagers are disproportionately likely to be victims of crime, yet invariably treated as offenders (or potential offenders). Crimes against young people are massively under reported. The British Crime Survey didn’t even start recording offences against under-18s until 2009. For any urban teen, mugging – often by people around their own age – is a day-to-day hazard, which is rarely reported or even recognised by the victim as a crime. (Although, my own experience suggests that police treat teen-on-teen mugging seriously, regardless of how little was actually stolen.)

By appointing Brown, Kent’s elected police and crime commissioner, Ann Barnes (below, left), showed admirable commitment to meeting the needs of young people (not least because she was contributing £5,000 towards Brown’s salary from her own pocket). Barnes has insisted publicly that she intends to appoint a new candidate, but it would now be a brave teen to put themselves forward (and a reckless parent to let them).

article-2306335-193316C5000005DC-411_634x469Like all good bullies, the MoS doesn’t give up easily once it has a victim in its sights. Despite Brown’s tearful apology and subsequent resignation,  it continued its onslaught against Brown again this week. Accompanying a story challenging Barnes’ claims about how long ago the offending comments were made (‘Paris was 16 when she wrote vile sex and drugs tweets. So why is her ex-boss insisting she was only 14?’), the MoS took the opportunity to republish the worst of Brown’s comments, along with a photo her sobbing at the press conference. The picture shows Brown clutching a sodden tissue and what looks for all the world like a toddler’s security blanket (although to be fair it could just as easily be a scarf).

No doubt Brown has learned a hard lesson. She’s certainly not the first person to come a cropper after tweeting inadvisably – just ask the likes of Sally Bercow and the usually sanctimonious George Monbiot – so let’s hope this horrible episode won’t have completely extinguished the ambition that made her want to be YPCC in the first place.

However, the suicide of Joshua Unsworth is just the latest reminder that teens can be intensely vulnerable to bullying and may lack the resilience of someone older. Having won Brown’s scalp, the Mail and the rest of the media should now do the adult thing and call off the dogs.

Who me? A smug vegetarian? Neigh, neigh…

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I know I usually use this blog to discuss weightier subjects, but I just can’t resist any longer.

For we veggies, the news over the past few weeks just gets better and better, causing us greater and greater merriment.

UnknownHow we smirked at reports that Tesco ‘value’ (now there’s a word that should ring alarm bells whenever applied to meat products) burgers were more Dobbin than Daisy. Even more so when this resulted in some 10 million suspect burgers being removed from supermarket shelves. In the days that followed, supermarket after supermarket, even Waitrose (truly, nothing is sacred) followed suit; then Burger King revealed its burgers were also contaminated with horsemeat. Yesterday, it was reported that, rather than being bovine, some Findus ‘beef’ lasagne is, in fact, 100% equine. It was at that point that I finally cracked. As I heard the news on the radio, I found myself doing a little celebratory dance around the kitchen. (Not, I should point out, because I have anything against Findus. There was a time in my life when I lived on their crispy cheese pancakes.)

Vegetarians may be above eating fowl, but we are certainly not above feeling cocky.  As the FSA gives all British companies a week to test their meat products, we smug non-meat-eaters are waiting, salivating even, for more stomach-churning horror stories.

Vegetarians: not above crowing about horse meat scare

Vegetarians: not above crowing about horse meat scare

Of course, I’m not suggesting there is anything inherently more repulsive about eating horse than any other kind of meat. As Jonathan Safran Foer so eloquently explains it in his majestic book Eating Animals, the kind of animals eaten is wholly culturally determined. Clearly, there is no logical basis for our eating rabbit, beef and lamb, but feeling queasy at the thought of, say, dog, horse and guinea pig.

While the public seems to have greeted the revelations more with humour than outrage, responding with a series of lame (see what I did there?) horse jokes, the official response has been even lamer. The Environment Secretary said the contamination was ‘completely unacceptable’ (no shit, Sherlock!); the head of the Food Standards Agency pronounced it ‘highly likely there has been fraudulent activity’ (ditto); but went on to reassure everyone there was no risk to human health. How she knows this when, by definition, no one has a clue at this stage where the rogue meat came from, is anyone’s guess. A Downing Street spokesperson – displaying more wit than we normally associate with such people – described the situation as ‘distasteful’.

The only person talking any sense seems to be the shadow environment secretary, Mary Creagh, who called on the government to give guidance on whether people should, at this stage, be eating any processed beef – sorry, I’ll try that again – processed ‘beef’ products. Creagh said: ‘I certainly wouldn’t, but I’m waiting for the government, the experts, the scientists to tell us and issue proper clear guidance.’

(Well, while you’re waiting, Mary, love, may I suggest you take yourself off to the nearest bookshop (if such things still exist) and score yourself anything you can find by Rose Elliott, the doyen of vegetarian cooking (the woman is a goddess). I discovered Rose when I was barely out of my teens and have never looked back.)

Even if the FSA head is right and there are no risks to human health (and this kind of processed, pre-prepared pap is exactly the kind of stuff that tends to get foisted on vulnerable groups, like children and elderly), there is still plenty of cause for alarm. If no one knows where the meat came from, no one knows anything about the conditions in which these animals lived and died. I don’t know a lot about the illegal meat trade, but would hazard a guess that those involved aren’t overly worried about meeting even minimum animal welfare standards.

For anyone tempted by recent events to bin their bacon butties, or kick their chop habit, and join the ranks of the smug veggies, below is a guide to answering the questions you will inevitably face when people learn you are now A Vegetarian:

 Q: Do you eat chicken/fish?

A: No of course not. I just told you, I’m a bloody vegetarian, you idiot!

Q: Do you eat lamb?

A: Huh?!?’ (I have actually been asked this, and given we had just been discussing the fact that I don’t eat meat, concluded that no there was sensible answer I could give.)

Q: Did you know Hitler was a vegetarian?

A: I am not sure you will find that is entirely historically accurate. Even if it is, are you suggesting there is some connection between this and his genocidal tendencies? Also, how come no one ever mentions that every other murderous despot you can think of (Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe, Pol Pot, Stalin, et al) was a carnivore?

 Q: What do you eat instead of meat?

A: Everything else! (Asking a long-term veggie what they eat ‘instead’ of meat is akin to asking someone who has never had an interest in philately what they do instead of collecting stamps.)

For the victim’s sake, men accused of Indian gang rape must have due process

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William Roper: So, now you give the Devil benefit of law!

Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ‘round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast….And if you cut them down…do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of the law, for my own safety’s sake!

 Man for All Seasons (Robert Bolt)

 Unknown-1I was reminded (not for the first time) of Thomas Moore’s impassioned defence of the rule of law by reports of the Indian justice system’s response to the extraordinarily brutal gang rape and murder of a young woman on a bus in Delhi.

Two local lawyers’ groups, the Sakhet and Delhi Bar Associations, voted not to act for the accused and created a ruckus in court when one solicitor did come forward to represent the men. Members of a campaigning group also present in court, Pragatisheel Mahila Sangathan, joined in with the abuse.

The Delhi Bar Association website maintains it is ‘in the vanguard for upholding the democratic values that our Constitution stands for’. However, it was left to the lawyer acting for the victim’s family to point out after the courtroom rumpus that the constitution guarantees equality before the law. “They have to be properly defended. Otherwise, how can it be a fair trial?,’ he asked.

The details of the appalling attack on the 23-year-old student are, by now seared into all our minds. Six men are accused of subjecting her to a prolonged and horrific assault: she was raped, brutalised with an iron bar, and then thrown naked from the moving bus. She died later in hospital from her injuries. A male companion was also badly assaulted.

It is difficult to think of a more savage crime – nor one where it is more important that the accused (like the devil himself) have the benefit of due process. Those who committed this horrific attack are owed no sympathy – but they are, as the family’s lawyer was alone in remembering, owed a fair trial (as I write, at least some of the arrested men reportedly plan to plead not guilty).

If ever there were a case where it is imperative that the police, prosecution, judiciary and defence do everything by the book, this is it. The victim and her family deserve nothing less. Nor do the hundreds of Indian women who have taken to the streets to condemn the rapists, and protest against the shocking levels of sexual violence that blights their daily lives. They all deserve to see justice done, by which I mean convictions that are demonstrably safe, and which won’t be open to appeal because they were obtained by cut corners or coerced confessions.

Like many, I applaud the level of public fury that has followed this horrific crime and the overdue debate about attitudes towards women in India. I don’t blame Indian women for being angry. They have much to be angry about.  But, while angry protest may be vital if wider social change is to be achieved, the mob has no place in the courtroom. The court needs to remain a place where evidence can be calmly and objectively weighed and decisions reached on the basis of that evidence, regardless of what might be going on outside its door. A magistrate who dealt with some of the first defendants to reach court during the UK riots of summer 2011, admitted it wasn’t easy remaining objective as the disorder carried on outside. How much more difficult for a judge to remain dispassionate if she has just had to eject what was described as a  ‘writhing phalanx of lawyers, police, media and members of the public’ who had been ‘noisily crammed into the courtroom’.images

The six accused are due to be tried under a fast track system, introduced in response to concerns that the Indian justice system is slow and inefficient, particularly in handling sexual assault cases. However, Colin Gonsalves, an Indian lawyer and founder of Human Rights Law Network, has already dubbed the new system ‘fast track injustice’. He warns that decisions are made on the basis of ‘hunches and guess work’, with judges ‘cutting down on evidence, not allowing full cross-examinations, proceeding in the absence of lawyers in many cases.’

Even without the issue of being tried under an unproven expedited system, this case has many ingredients familiar to anyone with knowledge of the miscarriages of justice that blighted our own legal system. In common with the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six cases, it too involves a particularly shocking crime; overwhelming pressure for speedy convictions; ‘confessions’ obtained without lawyers present; and subsequent claims of police brutality and torture.

It took 14 and 16 years, respectively, for the exonerated defendants in the Guildford and Birmingham cases to walk free from prison. With the Indian defendants facing the death penalty, the stakes if mistakes are made are even higher. To add to the sense of a mob being out for blood, rather that justice, there have been calls for the men to be publicly hanged, and for a change in the law so that the 17-year-old defendant can also be executed.

However, Indian women and other vulnerable groups should be careful what they wish for. If history tells us anything, it is that when a society turns away from the rule of law and towards summary justice, it is they who have most to lose.

By barracking their colleague or demanding to see a teenager swing, the lawyers and rights campaigners of Delhi are doing a fine job of flattening the laws of the land to get after these particular ‘devils’.  But I guarantee that, if they succeed, it will be the already protected and powerful, not Indian women, who are left standing upright in the winds that will inevitably follow.

Female ‘victims’; male ‘experts’: how men and women make front page news

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When Australian prime minister Julia Gillard let the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, have both barrels – labelling him sexist and misogynist during a parliamentary debate – footage of her onslaught rapidly went viral.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard lambasts Opposition leader Tony Abbott for his sexist behaviour towards her.

Gillard’s perfectly pitched attack in which, although clearly furious she remained utterly coherent and calm, has been described as a turning point in Australian sexual politics. It prompted the Macquarie Dictionary (Australia’s answer to the Oxford English Dictionary, apparently) to revise its definition of the word ‘misogyny’; and, in the wake of President Obama’s lacklustre performance in his first election TV debate, the New Yorker even suggested he could learn something from Gillard.

Like many, I watched Gillard’s demolition of Abbott with an equal mix of glee and awe.

Perhaps inevitably, it hasn’t take long for Gillard to get her comeuppance. Just a week after being lauded as a fearsome political performer, Gillard is once again attracting headlines, but this time for being a hapless, ditsy female, who can’t walk in her high heels.

One a three-day state visit to India, which until that point had received zero attention in the British media, Gillard had the misfortune to get her heel stuck in wet grass and fall flat on her face, literally. She had the even greater misfortune for the episode to be captured on film, which is now receiving as much press coverage as did her barnstorming performance just a few days earlier.

Footage of Gillard going sprawling (sometimes accompanied by with frame-by-frame still photos), made it on to most of UK newspaper websites, including some, like the Mirror and the Sun, which hadn’t reported her earlier trouncing of Abbott. ‘Aussie PM’s hilarious face-first tumble,’ was the Sun’s headline; it was her ‘third faux pas involving shoes this year,’ reported the Mail Online; more than one newspaper described it as her ‘fall from grace’. It’s surely no coincidence that, in a neat reversal of the notion of ’power heels’, all the coverage laboured the point that what brought about Gillard’s downfall was her high heels – the footwear most emblematic of femaleness.

It is ironic that, between Gillard being feted for her triumph in parliament and ridiculed for her slip in India, the campaigning group Women in Journalism (of which I am deputy chair) published research* into the way women are portrayed in the British press.

As well as confirming how much men dominate newspaper front pages (80% of bylines were male; 84% of people mentioned or quoted in lead stories were male), the research also showed distinct differences in the roles that men and women play in news stories.

WiJ found that women are disproportionately likely to be portrayed as some kind of ‘victim’ – whether of crime, illness, or even, as in Gillard’s case, pesky high heels. By contrast, men quoted or mentioned were disproportionately likely to be ‘experts’. Three quarters of all the ‘experts’ in newspaper lead stories were male; nearly 80% of ‘victims’ were women.  Of the women named in lead stories, nearly a fifth (19%) were victims; the comparable figure for men was tiny, just 2%; whereas 61% of women were mentioned of quoted in an expert or professional capacity, the figure for men was 82%.

The research also looked at the way photos are used. It found that men account for the majority of front page photographs (64%), and that no female politicians featured in the top-ten images used on front pages during the period of the research. Where photos of senior women were used, the images were often unflattering or apparently intended to make them look ridiculous. For instance, home secretary Theresa May, appeared on a front page as the main picture four times during the month, but three of those were of the same image, with her pulling her mouth down in a grimace. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, was pictured three times during the research period, but twice the shot was of her with her hands up in the air, puffing her cheeks out. There were few pictures in which women looked sensible and serious.

It remains to be seen which version of Julia Gillard has the strongest hold on the media imagination in the longer term: the formidable politician, in command of herself and her argument; or the woman who can’t even walk on wet grass in her heels without falling on her face.

Seen but not heard: how women make front page news,’  Women in Journalism, October 2012.

‘BMW-driving defence lawyers?’ We’ll accept your apology, Mr Straw

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As the legal profession holds its breath to see what the appointment of Chris Grayling as new Justice Secretary will bring, it seems an opportune time to debunk one of the myths perpetrated by a Labour predecessor.

When Jack Straw was Home Secretary (he would go on to become Justice Secretary in 2007), he seemed to go out of his way to enrage the legal profession, attacking defence lawyers for being too ‘aggressive’, and forgetting their ‘wider social responsibilities’ (it’s an adversarial system, Jack! The clue’s in the name…).

Former Home and Justice Secretary accused criminal law solicitors of hypocrisy and being ‘too aggressive’ in defence of clients’ interests

He also claimed lawyers were in danger of outnumbering police officers. (A meaningless claim, if ever there was one.) It was left to the then Law Society president Michael Napier to calmly point out that, while there might be 83,000 practising solicitors, only 11,300 of these did criminal defence work, compared with 125,000 police officers. (What Straw had against the rest of the legal profession –  conveyancers, will-writers, those advising businesses or accident victims or would-be divorcees – was never entirely explained.)

However, the comment of Straw’s which still rankles more than a decade later was his depiction of defence solicitors as BMW-driving hypocrites. Speaking to an audience of senior police officers in 1999, Straw condemned civil liberties lawyers for campaigning against Asbos when they themselves were blissfully cocooned from the impact of anti-social behaviour.  There was, he said, ‘a huge issue of hypocrisy here. They represent the perpetrator of the crime and then get into their BMWs and drive off into areas where they are immune from much crime.’

Whether or not criminal law solicitors ever primarily resided in such crime-free idylls, they certainly don’t seem to any more. During interviews with 50 defence lawyers for the Guardian/London School of Economics studyinto last August’s disturbances, it was striking how many of them lived in inner city areas directly affected by the rioting. Many spoke about seeing the destruction, literally, on their own doorsteps; one described being under ‘house arrest’, as he was unable to leave his home in Hackney for several days as the trouble continued. Another, who was driving home to Brixton (whether in a ‘bimmer’ or not, he didn’t say), turned his car around 500 yards from home as the trouble erupted in front of him in the middle of the afternoon. A solicitor living in Tottenham described being kept awake by police helicopters and watching the retail park being looted from her house. Even some of the most senior solicitors interviewed lived in areas of relatively high crime, like Finsbury Park and Hackney.

Another defence solicitor arrives home after a hard day challenging Anti-social behaviour orders…

The new Justice Secretary may not like the activities of defence lawyers any better than Straw did, but these kinds of charges of hypocrisy no longer stick.

Interestingly, the research also included 130 police officers and a very different picture emerged here. It won’t be true in every case, clearly, but the interviews suggest that it is now the police, rather than defence solicitors, who after a shift in the inner city,  are likely to be heading home to the leafy suburbs.

The discrepancy over where lawyers and police officers live doesn’t seem to be purely an issue of finances: a two-year qualified solicitor doing defence work in London will be earning roughly the same (circa £30,000) as a Met PC with the same length of experience. All of which suggests that something else may be at work, and that police officers are more adverse than other professionals to living in the areas – or even the same kinds of areas – where they work.

It’s a point not lost on the Tottenham Citizens Inquiry in its response to the riots.

Among the inquiry’s recommendations for rebuilding Tottenham’s notoriously fraught relations with police was a call for the Met to recruit more Londoners. It also wanted to see officers new to Tottenham undergo a ‘six-month orientation process’ to help them better understand the area and its people. However, when one of the ‘commissioners’ to the inquiry asked Haringey borough commander Sandra Looby how many of her officers lived locally, her response was that she didn’t know, and, anyway, ‘it was not her job to tell people where to live’.

The police have long been criticised for failing to recruit enough black officers but the issue of recruiting people who live in urban areas to police urban areas seems to have been missed, previously. If officers’ only experience of an urban street or a racially mixed community is in their official capacity – where everyone they meet is a potential victim or presumed perpetrator –that is bound to have a skewing affect on their perception of and attitude towards the diverse mix of people they are there to serve.

Fiona Bawdon worked as a senior researcher for the Guardian/LSE ‘Reading the Riots’ research from September 2011-July 2012.

So that’s what they mean by deterrent prison sentences…

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Even the ‘case-hardened’ prosecutor was reduced to tears.

A 17-year-old A-level student – who had never been in any trouble before – had just been given 18 months in Feltham Young Offenders Institution for looting during the August riots.

The boy, who hoped to go to university, had gone into a café in Ealing, where he picked up two bottles of wine, and a T-shirt, all of which he gave away immediately. He was utterly ashamed of his actions and admitted that he had got carried away in the moment and, at the time, thought it was all a bit of a joke.

His parents, respectable, hard-working folk, took a different view: when they found out the following day, they took him straight to the police station, taking the clothes he had been wearing.

In court, both parents pleaded with the judge to spare their son from custody, and it’s hard to imagine their feelings when she imposed a lengthy custodial sentence. The judge told him that, were it not for the fact he handed himself in, his sentence would have been two years.

It wasn’t just the parents who were shocked at the judge’s harshness. The prosecutor involved in the case says: ‘Was that justice? Because I don’t think it was. That boy’s life has been ruined, and I’m paying for that. He just didn’t think about his actions, didn’t think about the consequences – but that’s what young men are like. It’s called growing up.’

She later saw the boy carted off  in a prison van alongside one of her more regular customers, a member of the notorious ‘Murder Dem Pussies’ gang. The latter was, she says, ‘a serious, serious offender with a book of convictions’, and fairly typical of the young men the 17-year-old will be rubbing shoulders with during his sentence.

No doubt, the parents had thought by turning their son in, they were doing the right thing; that if he owned up immediately, somehow everything would be all right. No doubt, they assumed his punishment would be tempered with mercy, not least because of his youth, previous good behaviour and genuine remorse.

But they hadn’t banked on what even the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Ken Macdonald QC, has described as ‘the collective loss of proportionality’  which has afflicted sentencing after the riots. (In fact, the boy’s sentence was subsequently reduced on appeal to four months in custody.)

As a mother of a son of similar age to the lad sent to Feltham, I am haunted by the image of his well-meaning parents marching their son off to the police station to face the music. It haunts me because, I would have been that parent. If that had been my son, I, too, would have had him at the police station first thing the next morning to own up to what he’d done. But not any more.

If these severe sentences are intended to act as a deterrent, they are certainly effective, although probably not in the way the courts expected. They would certainly deter me from turning anyone in – and I suspect may have a similar effect on other people, which may hamper police efforts to identify rioters and looters by trawling through hours of CCTV footage. These sentences would also deter me from having faith in the justice system’s capacity to deal humanely with foolish but fundamentally decent teenagers who got carried away in the madness of last August.

My blunt advice now to anyone inclined to turn in a child would be: don’t. Don’t own up; don’t go to the police. Keep your head down, and pray the police don’t call. If police do come knocking, get yourself a good solicitor, and in the meantime admit nothing.

As one defence solicitor says, while parents with no previous involvement with the criminal justice system assume their wayward offspring will be in for  ‘a good bollocking’ from the police, those guilty of even the most minor offences are likely to face months in a YOI.  Whereas previously, his standard advice to clients in this situation would be turn yourself in immediately, in order to get maximum credit from the court for an early admission, now it would be to sit tight and hope for the best.

Another lawyer whose firm has handled many riot cases for adults and youths says that some juries are now acquitting defendants facing minor charges – in the face of strong evidence – and speculates this is because jurors know the sentences imposed if found guilty will be harsh. ‘Let’s just say, we’ve had some very good results for our clients,’ he says.

Of course, there is a place for deterrent sentencing in any justice system. Of course looting a pair of trainers in the context of the riots is more serious, and warrants harsher punishment, than run-of-the mill shoplifting. However, while the riots are undoubtedly an aggravating factor where sentencing of adults is concerned, isn’t the opposite true for children? Many of these young people now coming through the courts would, literally, never have seen anything like the looting and disorder we experienced last summer. How on earth were they meant to exercise judgement and restraint when none of the adults around them appeared to be? At the time, it must have seemed as if the world had turned upside down, normal rules no longer applied, and, crucially, everyone – mothers with babies in buggies, even elderly people on mobility scooters – was getting involved. How realistic is it to expect an excitable teenager in that situation to stop and think what the consequences might be? As one magistrate told me, ‘because they saw so many people doing it, they just thought it somehow wasn’t criminal.’

It’s not just defence lawyers and prosecutors who are concerned at the severity of the sentences. With police investigations continuing, one youth court sentencer worries that thousands more children – who were never in trouble before the riots and who would be unlikely ever to offend again – will end up in prison, with find their lives and educational chances blighted.

For some, the damage caused by a prison sentence may be far worse. There are already reports of vulnerable young people incarcerated for riot offences attempting to harm themselves. And last week’s suicides of two children who were in YOIs for non-riot related cases – 15 year old Alex Kelly and 17-year-old Jake Hardy – come as a gruesome reminder of just how unsafe these places can be.

If we get through this episode with no incidents of serious harm, or worse, among children sent to custody for the riots, it will be nothing short of a miracle.

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Doreen Lawrence: the diminutive ‘giantess’ who changed the world


I had planned to make my first blog in 2012 about sentencing in riot cases (having spent the past four months – and counting – as senior researcher on the Guardian/LSE ‘Reading the Riots’ project). However, following yesterday’s momentous jury decision in the trial of Gary Dobson and David Norris for the 1993 murder of Stephen Lawrence, the important subject of riot sentences will have to wait for another day.

Doreen with Smita Bajaria of Birnbergs, and Baljeet Sandhu of Islington Law Centre at the 2011 Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards. Baljeet said afterwards that she had been inspired to become a lawyer by the Lawrence family's campaign for justice, saying: "Up until that point, I'd always just assumed that no one was interested in what ethnic minority kids from an inner city background had to say. The Lawrence inquiry showed that, although it might be really, really hard, you could change things."

The impact of the Lawrence case on this country is almost impossible to overstate. It has led to huge change in the legal system (abolition of double jeopardy, without which Dobson could not have stood trial this time); powerful anti-discrimination legislation (including the 2000 Race Relations Amendment Act, which places a positive duty on public bodies to eliminate inequality); changes to policing (with Cressida Dick, acting deputy commissioner at the Met, admitting it had had ‘more impact on policing than any other case’); even changes to our vocabulary (giving us the phrase ‘institutional racism’ to describe the systematic way that black people are discriminated against by organisations). It is hard to think of an area of life that this case has not touched.

But I don’t want to talk about any of that, here.

For me, the most incredible element of this case and the changes it has wrought is what it tells us about the power of a mother’s love. Not one of these reforms would have come about were it not for the awe-inspiring courage of Stephen’s mother, Doreen, driven by her determination to see justice for her boy. As Doreen says herself: ‘I’m just a regular mum that’s lost a son. From the word go, if the police had done their job and caught his killers, no one would have heard from me or known who I am.’

Speaking immediately after the verdict, Doreen talked about her enduring passion for her son and how he is in her thoughts every day. ‘How can I celebrate when my son lies buried; when I cannot see him, or speak to him.’ she said.

As the mother of two teen boys who are not that much younger than Stephen was when he was killed, I know a little about the ferocity of a mother’s love for her sons. I like to think that I would go through fire for them but have not (thankfully, so far) had that conviction put to the test. Doreen was tested in the most cruel way possible – and she has not been found wanting. She took that all-consuming love and what threatened to be overwhelming grief and channelled them into action. I only hope that, if the need arose, I would find just a fraction of the raw courage and indefatigability that she has sustained over nearly two decades.

This tiny woman (barely over five feet tall) is a giantess – an inspiration for mothers everywhere.

I have worked with Doreen for nearly 10 years as she is a judge for an awards ceremony that I organise, and she is one of the most modest and unassuming people you could ever meet. She is never comfortable in the limelight and is not a natural public speaker (when the original presenter pulled out of last year’s awards, she agreed to step into the breach so long as she didn’t have to make any kind of speech). She can be taciturn and is not one to emote on cue for the cameras. Yet where her murdered son is concerned, she is a tigress.

Her love for Stephen was so powerful that it changed the world – and she has done it all with grace and humility.

Doreen was awarded an OBE in 2003, which now seems scant recognition of what she has achieved and what she represents. I have no idea what the highest available honour in the land might be, but I do know that, nine exhausting years on from her previous award, if anyone deserves to receive it, Doreen does.

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