Suspended sentencing: the case of Javed Miah

This is a blog about sentencing, and outrage, and outrageous sentencing.

In particular, it’s about this case of sexual assault perpetrated by a stranger, reported in the Mirror as “Dad who attacked woman walking home at night avoids jail as he ‘would lose his job.’”

The facts are thrown into particularly sharp relief this week, in the wake of the abduction and murder of Sarah Everard. The defendant, Javed Miah, walked behind the victim and bumped into her, asking her the time. After following her for a minute, he groped her bottom, pushed her to the ground, and moved his hand from her crotch up to her chest. The victim managed to connect an emergency SOS call on her mobile phone at which point he ran away. 

Miah was given a six month sentence, suspended for two years. He will also have to complete 250 hours of unpaid work, complete the sex offenders rehabilitation programme, and sign the sex offenders register for seven years. 

Women are justifiably outraged. How can a man push a woman to the ground, commit a sexual assault, seemingly intent on worse and yet walk free from court? 

Other commentators can point you towards the Sentencing Guidelines and point out that the judge has followed them. The Mirror reported that the judge called the attack ‘sustained.’  That would make it a Category 2, Culpability B offence, carrying a one year starting point with a range of a community order to two years custody. With both the logic and the emotion of a Sudoku puzzle, the starting point of one year is then adjusted up for location and timing (alleyway, after dark), then down for previous good character and remorse, ending at a 9 month sentence. A further 30% off is applied for a guilty plea, bringing it down to six months. The judge must then consider mitigation and whether or not the sentence can properly be suspended. Any sentence of 2 years or less is capable of being suspended – and there are good reasons for this: if someone loses their home, job, relationship and future prospects they are more, not less, likely to reoffend. Feed the data here into the OASys machine and we have a defendant who has a secure relationship – ding! – with a job – ding! – and a home – ding! – and children, meaning community ties – ding! – which all feeds into the assessment of a low risk of reoffending. 

So yes, assuming from the limited information in the reports that it was correctly categorised, the magistrate has applied the guidelines correctly. The defendant pleaded guilty, so we don’t even need to get into whether the prosecutor has done their job well: plainly they have. Defence lawyers are often blamed for ‘getting their client off the hook,’ but since this defendant had pleaded guilty, we can blame the defence for nothing more sinister than effective mitigation, which is the right of the most egregious criminal in the land. And of course, it would be absolutely wrong to suggest the judge was entitled to sentence the defendant for what he (probably) would have done if not for the victim’s actions, rather than for what he did do. We do not sentence people for things they didn’t do – even if we think they might have done had they had the opportunity. This is fundamental to the rule of law.

And yet. 

The purpose of this blog is not to reassure readers that the system is infallible. It is to make plain that the disquiet felt by women at sentences like this is not because women have failed to understand how the guidelines work, but because the guidelines do not reflect the terror that this type of offending causes to women going about our daily lives. We can reassure readers that such sentences are not the result of outright bias or corruption – but we would, ourselves, prefer an assurance that the Sentencing Guidelines will be updated and improved.

Do Right, Fear No One (except possibly Stonewall)

Garden Court Chambers is a prominent and highly regarded set of barristers’ chambers based in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. Garden Court prides itself on its “progressive” attitude to law: for example, its members will defend but not prosecute, in common with other “progressive” sets. Its motto, “Do right, fear no one,” reflects its stated commitment to “fighting your corner, no matter how formidable the opponent might seem”. 

So how has such a set found itself at the heart of a legal challenge from one of its own barristers, who accuses it along with Stonewall of discriminating against her as a woman and a lesbian? 

Garden Court is a member of Stonewall’s Diversity Champions scheme

Stonewall has recently attracted some accusations of homophobia for quietly redefining “sexuality” to mean an attraction to a gender, not a sex. Stonewall’s definitions, from their glossary, are these:

Homosexual: This might be considered a more medical term used to describe someone who has a romantic and/or sexual orientation towards someone of the same gender. 

Gender: Often expressed in terms of masculinity and femininity, gender is largely culturally determined and is assumed from the sex assigned at birth

Gender identity: A person’s innate sense of their own gender, whether male, female or something else (see non-binary below), which may or may not correspond to the sex assigned at birth.

So for Stonewall, being L, G or B has nothing to do with a person’s sex, but rather means one is attracted towards a person’s “innate sense” of masculinity or femininity “which may or may not correspond to the sex assigned at birth.”  

The idea that femininity is innate in women – and by extension, that unfeminine women are not women, and that the culturally determined status of women globally is not attributable to patriarchy but innate to women ourselves – is offensive to many women. Many lesbians (and gay men) are aghast at the proposition that sexual orientation derives from some sort of soul-based echolocation and disregards biological sex. 

One of those women is Allison Bailey, a criminal defence specialist at Garden Court, who is herself a lesbian. She sets out in the background to her action that she is the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and an active anti-racism campaigner who spent a night in a San Francisco jail for a peaceful protest in the wake of the acquittal of the officers involved in the beating of Rodney King – in summary, a woman who would seem to typify Garden Court’s ethos.

She was involved in setting up the LGB Alliance in 2019 to advance and protect the rights of lesbians, gay men and bisexuals to affirm themselves as attracted to members of their own or both sexes. LGB Alliance dissents from Stonewall’s position on the definition of homosexuality, accusing Stonewall of homophobia. That has upset Stonewall.

So far, so perfectly ordinary: private citizens are well within their rights to be involved in whatever social and political voluntary work they wish within permissible legal confines, without interference from their employers or their colleagues.  

However, when Allison tweeted in support of the LGB Alliance immediately following its first public meeting, Garden Court hastily put out a disclaimer distancing itself from Allison and her views, instigated a disciplinary procedure, and (she alleges), restricted the flow of work to her, causing her income to drop considerably. Allison says this was done under pressure from Stonewall. 

In her fundraiser, she sets out how in response to her Subject Access Requests, her chambers replied with four lever arch files of documents, while Stonewall blandly denied any correspondence about her. That, as she knew from the documents her chambers had provided, was untrue.  She pursued the inquiry, and this has resulted in her bringing an action against both Garden Court and Stonewall.

The legalities of the action are worth considering. She alleges that Garden Court discriminated against her as a woman and as a lesbian, so on the basis of the two protected characteristics of sex and sexual orientation. At the same time, she says that Stonewall engaged in “prohibited conduct” under s.111 of the Equality Act by instructing, causing or inducing Garden Court to discriminate against her. We are not aware of any other s.111 case that has been reported, so this may be  a legal first.

This week, Stonewall and Garden Court applied to the tribunal to strike out her claim. To succeed, they would have had to show that Allison’s claim was unarguable – that it was so ill-founded that it stood no prospect of success at trial. When a strike out application is heard, the judge has to take the Claimant’s case “at its highest” – because if it cannot succeed even at its highest then it is unarguable. 

Garden Court filed a 120 paragraph witness statement in support of its contention that the claim was unarguable. A cynic might suggest that anything that takes 120 paragraphs to refute or undermine is plainly arguable. Garden Court argued that the claim could not succeed on merits, and Stonewall argued that the s.111 point could not succeed as there was no relationship that could meet the requirement of instructing, causing or inducing. Allison asked for permission to amend her claim.  

In order to establish whether a claim is arguable or not it is inevitable that some of the evidence will have to be referred to. During this hearing, it emerged that Stonewall had leaned hard on Garden Court, writing emails which were characterised by the judge as a “threat” of reputational damage to Garden Court, including that for Garden Court to continue to support Allison “puts us in a difficult position with yourselves”, that Stonewall trusted Garden Court “would do what is right and stand in solidarity with trans people”, and that Garden Court must take disciplinary action against Allison or, as summarised by her barrister, face the reputational consequences.

Unsurprisingly, the judge concluded that it was at least arguable that this was “inducing” Garden Court to take the steps against Allison Bailey which it did. She also concluded that the Diversity Champions Scheme provided the requisite relationship, and that Allison had a “more than reasonable” argument that the steps taken amounted to discrimination. She refused the strike out application and granted the application to amend.

It remains to be seen whether the Employment Tribunal will conclude in June that the actions of Garden Court and Stonewall were actually unlawful rather than merely astonishing. 

In the meantime though, the question arises as to how much power and influence a charitable organisation should have over individuals with whom it disagrees. Even the most zealous defender of the Stonewall position would, we think, baulk if equivalent pressure were applied by another large and well regarded charity firmly embedded in the establishment – for example, the Church of England. If the Church were to lean as hard on an employer (or chambers) to disown a member for setting up an LGB organisation, there would quite rightly be uproar from Stonewall’s supporters. No charity, no matter how well intentioned, well financed or well regarded, should be able to use a diversity scheme to exert pressure which is at best (on Stonewall’s case) intrusive and at worst (on Allison’s case) unlawful. 

Garden Court is currently recruiting for specialists in business ethics.

Access to equity and access to justice: legal aid and domestic abuse

Congratulations to Public Law Project and their instructed counsel on an important and far-reaching win. This is a guest blog.

R(GR) v Director of Legal Aid Casework EWHC 3140 (Admin) is a new case relating to the availability of legal aid in cases of domestic abuse, where the victim has theoretical but not practical access to value in a property.

In 2013 the government made sweeping cuts to the availability of legal aid for most areas of civil law, including family law. However, it also made a commitment to retain legal aid for victims of domestic abuse, in order to avoid situations in which an unrepresented victim of abuse might have to face the perpetrator of abuse in the family court.

In order to qualify for legal aid for family proceedings, women who have experienced domestic abuse must meet strict financial eligibility criteria, assessed on the basis of both their income and capital. This has led to women being denied legal aid on the basis of an interest in capital, usually the family home, which is jointly owned with the perpetrator of abuse, and which in practice they are completely unable to access. 

In this case, GR had experienced serious physical, sexual and financial abuse from her ex-partner. She had obtained a non-molestation order without legal representation. At that hearing, on seeing her ex-partner for the first time, she vomited in court. She then sought legal aid in order to be represented in family proceedings concerning their children and in relation to the sale and division of the equity in the family home. At the time of her legal aid application her only income was Universal Credit. She was living in the family home with her two children, but was unable to borrow against the capital without her ex-partner’s consent. She had attempted to take out loans, but had been refused credit on the basis of her extremely low income. She had already sold jewellery and furniture to pay for limited representation in relation to an initial hearing concerning the arrangements for their children. 

GR’s application for legal aid was refused on the basis of an assessment that she had a 50% interest in the value of the family home (disputed by her ex-partner), which put her well above the £8,000 threshold set out in the Civil Legal Aid (Financial Eligibility and Payment for Services) Regulations 2013 (“the Means Regulations”). Regulation 31 of the Means Regulations provides that in relation to the valuation of capital resources:

In so far as any resource of a capital nature does not consist of money, its value must be taken to be—

(a) the amount which that resource would realise if sold; or

(b) the value assessed in such other manner as appears to the Director to be equitable.

However, regulation 37 of the Means Regulations makes specific provision for capital in the form of an interest in land, and does not make provision for the equitable assessment provided for by regulation 31:

In calculating the disposable capital of the individual, the value of any interest in land must be taken to be the amount for which that interest could be sold after deducting, subject to paragraphs (2) and (3), the amount of any debt secured by a mortgage or charge on the property.

The case turned on whether the Legal Aid Agency could assess the value of GR’s share in the family home as nil on an equitable basis under regulation 31, or whether it was required by regulation 37 to value her share as the amount for which it could theoretically be sold. It was accepted that she could not borrow against the property, and that if she agreed to her ex-partner’s application to force the sale of the home, she would have agreed to the very thing that she required legal advice about. It was also accepted that if GR were to be granted legal aid, the ‘statutory charge’ would apply, which would mean that if she obtained any benefit, such as an interest in the home, as result of the proceedings, she would be required to repay some of the costs to the Legal Aid Agency. Any legal aid she did receive would effectively be a loan. 

The Court heard that the Catch-22 position GR found herself in was a common one. The family solicitor who had helped GR apply for legal aid explained: “Whilst difficult to quantify, it is the case at Beck Fitzgerald that, on average, we cannot assist 1-2 clients per week in securing legal aid as the equity in the property they live in is considered by the Legal Aid Agency as an asset which they can access. This is irrespective of whether the property is occupied by the client and their children, thus providing a home and irrespective of whether the property is jointly owned by the client and the perpetrator of abuse. These clients are unable to take out loans, are on a low income and often, the question of sale/occupation of the family home is the subject matter of the dispute.”

The organisation Rights of Women also provided evidence of the way in which the financial eligibility criteria enable perpetrators of abuse to continue to exercise control through the family courts, explaining that: “It is well recognised that abusers will use any means they can to continue to control the victim of their behaviour following the end of the relationship. Preventing them from accessing legal advice would be an easy way to do so.”

The Court found that the Legal Aid Agency was wrong to say that it had no discretion to make an equitable assessment of the value of a capital resource, and that by taking that approach, some people on low incomes would be prevented from having fair and effective access to justice. In order to prevent that from happening the discretion in regulation 31 could be applied to the valuation of any resource of a capital nature, save for the valuation of money. 

This means that in any case where an applicant for legal aid has an interest in a capital resource, the Legal Aid Agency will now have to assess that interest on an equitable basis, taking into account the applicant’s ability to access that interest, and their ability to represent themselves effectively. In domestic abuse cases, where it is established that women are disadvantaged in legal proceedings if they are forced to represent themselves against the perpetrator of that abuse, it will increase access to justice, and ensure that more women are able to access legal representation. 

Johnny Depp: how was the decision reached?

The decision in the Johnny Depp libel trial extends to 585 paragraphs of text. It is not a judgment which is easily skim-read or which lends itself to cherry picked quotes. It is divided into sections: §1 – 37 recounts the background and procedural history; §38 – 46 sets out the law. §48 – §74 set out what the Defendant (the Sun) and the Claimant (Depp) each said about fourteen separate incidents (broadly, the Sun asserted that there was domestic abuse and Depp denied it). At §75 – §84 the ‘ordinary meaning’ of the articles is considered. §85 – §94 sets out the evidence which was heard. §95 – §106 sets out the background to the relationship between Depp and Ms Heard.

At §107 – §205 the judge considered a number of factors raised by the Claimant as to why Ms Heard should be disbelieved out of hand – attacks on her credibility. These were rejected, and the judge went on at §206 – §573 to set out each and every incident, the evidence on it, whose evidence he preferred, and why.

At §574 – §583 the summary of conclusions on the evidence as a whole are set out, and finally §584 – §585 gives the conclusion itself.

It is important when looking at the judgment to bear in mind that this is not Depp v Heard, but Depp v Sun Newspaper. That is to say – Amber Heard did not herself publicise the allegations thereby triggering the libel claim. She was dragged into the spotlight not to defend her own reputation, but as a witness in defence of the Sun. Though publicly vindicated, this process has not been one of her own choice.

It is also important to note that this was not a criminal case, although it did involve allegations of criminal conduct. The standard of proof was the civil standard of ‘balance of probabilities’ – was it more likely than not.

So what of the counter-allegations? Depp also alleged that Heard had hit him and produced audio evidence of an alleged confession. Were these simply ignored by the judge? The answer to that is no: these were raised and considered as part of the factors raised as an attack on Ms Heard’s credibility. Audio recordings by both were taken into account but viewed as less rigorous evidence than that which is tested in cross examination. Ms Heard accepted that she had thrown pots at him and also on one occasion slapped him, but said this was in self defence. The judge also expressly considered this at §191-2 and said:

It may be asked why Ms Heard’s record or non-record for violence is of any relevance at all. It may be said that the libel which the Defendants are alleging is true is that Mr Depp was violent towards Ms Heard. Why then is it of any relevance to investigate whether Ms Heard was violent towards Mr Depp? Mr Sherborne offered two answers to this. First, it was integral to the defence of truth that the violence used by Mr Depp had been unlawful or unjustified. If, for instance, the only violence which Mr Depp had used had been in defence of himself it would hardly assist the Defendants in establishing the substantial truth of their allegation that he was a ‘wife-beater’.

Second, it was Mr Depp’s case that it was not he, but Ms Heard who had been the violent party. She denied this was so, but, if his account was correct, that would reflect adversely on her credibility.

The Claimant’s case was not simply that he had only used violence in defence of himself, but that the episodes of abuse hadn’t happened at all. Looking at the incidents individually, we see that

Incident 1: allegations that JD repeatedly slapped AH in the face and knocked her to the floor. The Claimant did not say that she had provoked it with violence; he denied that it had happened at all.
Incident 2: allegations that he hit her in the face, shook her and shoved her in to the wall. The Claimant did not say that she had provoked it with violence; he denied that it had happened at all.
Incident 3: allegations that he smashed glasses and ripped her dress. The Claimant did not say that she had provoked it with violence; he denied that it had happened at all.
Incident 4: allegations that he kicked her to the ground and threw a boot at her. The Claimant did not say that she had provoked it with violence; he denied that it had happened at all.

…. the rest continue in a similar vein. The incidents said to have been provoked by Ms Heard are Incidents 8, 9, 12 and 13 – four of the fourteen. For Depp to succeed, it was not enough for him to assert that she had once admitted a slap. He had to show that the Sun had not established that violence happened in any of the claims other than those said to be provoked by her, and also that her violence began the episodes rather than being in response to them.

In relation to each incident, the judge goes on to weigh up the evidence given by everyone involved and reach findings as to whether it did or did not happen. It is not the case that the judge did not accept that Ms Heard was ever aggressive – indeed she had accepted that in two of the incidents she had retaliated physically. In numerous of them there are what seemingly amounts to an admission by Depp in the form of an apology or text message following the event. It was the judge’s task to go through all of that evidence, hear what other witnesses had to say, and then reach a decision as to whether it was more likely than not that each incident had been proven by the Sun. Not every incident was found proved, but enough to prove the “substantial truth” of the article.

Much has been made on social media of a single line in the judgment: “It is not even of significant relevance to whether Ms Heard assaulted Mr Depp.” This line should be read more carefully than social media perhaps permits. It is a reference to whether the judge needed to make a finding as to who had left faeces on the bed. Depp alleged it was Ms Heard; Ms Heard denied it; it may have been one of the dogs. It is worth quoting the paragraph in full:

“Mr Depp’s belief that Ms Heard or one of her friends was responsible for leaving the faeces on the bed is relevant because (a) it led him to conclude that his marriage to Ms Heard could not continue and (b) it was the cause of part of the argument which subsequently took place on 21st May 2016. In my view, whether Ms Heard or one of her friends was in fact responsible is not important. It is remote from the central issue, namely whether Mr Depp assaulted Ms Heard. It is not even of significant relevance to whether Ms Heard assaulted Mr Depp. For what it is worth, I consider that it is unlikely that Ms Heard or one of her friends was responsible. Mr Depp had left that night for his property in Sweetzer. As long as he was away, it was Ms Heard who was likely to suffer from the faeces on the bed, not him. It was, therefore, a singularly ineffective means for Ms Heard or one of her friends to ‘get back’ at Mr Depp. Other evidence in the case showed that Boo (one of the two dogs) had an incomplete mastery of her bowels after she had accidentally consumed some marijuana.” [emphasis added]

In other words, “it” (meaning a finding as to who had left the faeces on the bed) was not of relevance to whether either Mr Depp had assaulted Ms Heard or as to whether Ms Heard had assaulted him. The meaning of this is absolutely not, as some have been led to believe, that the judge thinks that any assault by Ms Heard on Mr Depp is insignificant or irrelevant. It just means that if the judge had made firm findings as to who left the faeces on the bed, it would not have helped him to come to a decision on whether either of them had assaulted the other.

The judgment is lengthy and detailed. Each allegation seems to have been carefully assessed and reasons given for the findings made. The decision details a lifestyle which in a less wealthy litigant would at best be described as “chaotic.” In many regards it is almost repetitively similar to every account of domestic abuse heard in court: questioning by his barrister as to why she ‘went back to him’ alongside characterisation of the victim as a gold-digger and / or unstable, lies said to have been told by each party many years ago excavated and aired as proof positive that the other is an irredeemable fantasist. The unusual factor is that the public is able to see the reasoning given for each finding: most abuse trials are criminal trials in which the reasons for the jury’s findings are never disclosed.

Depp has indicated that he will seek leave to appeal.

The Sun proves ‘truth’ in Johnny Depp libel trial

Judgment has been handed down in Depp II v News Group Newspapers Ltd & Anor [2020] EWHC 2911 (QB), perhaps better known as the Johnny Depp libel trial.

Johnny Depp brought a claim for libel against the Sun newspaper, after it published a headline reading ‘GONE POTTY: How Can J K Rowling be “genuinely happy” casting wife beater Johnny Depp in the new Fantastic Beasts film?’ The headline was later amended to reference an “assault claim.” The article referenced the allegations made about Depp being violent to his partner Amber Heard.

Those allegations might have been so much chip wrapping had Depp not pursued a claim through the courts. To succeed in a libel claim a claimant must show that the words complained of, in their ‘ordinary meaning,’ had caused serious harm to their reputation. If so, the defendant is guilty of libel unless they have a defence.

One of those defences is to show that what was said was true. To succeed in this defence there is no need to show that each and every allegation is true – just that they are “substantially true.” It is a risky defence to run, because to run it and lose risks increased damages, to reflect the harm and distress done by airing the issues through a trial.

The ‘ordinary meaning’ of the Sun’s article was said to be that

“The Claimant was guilty, on overwhelming evidence, of serious domestic violence against his then wife, causing significant injury and leading to her fearing for her life, for which the Claimant was constrained to pay no less than £5 million to compensate her, and which resulted in him being subjected to a continuing restraining order; and for that reason is not fit to work in the film industry.”

Needless to say, if untrue, such an accusation would indeed be libellous.

The trial therefore meant a hearing of all of the evidence about abuse. The allegations were for the defence – the Sun – to prove, not for Depp to disprove, but on the civil standard of proof (“the balance of probabilities”) and not the criminal standard (“beyond reasonable doubt”). The judge was therefore concerned with whether, having heard the evidence, it was more likely than not that Depp was guilty of serious domestic violence against Amber Heard.

The examination of the allegations is conducted in careful detail in the judgment. The judge concluded that of the fourteen separate incidents alleged, twelve were proved, and so the defence of truth was successful. There had been no libel and Depp’s claim failed.

Not only did his claim fail, but the evidence does not show him in a particularly good light: ‘joking’ about being violent to women in prostitution, admitting violence to Ms Heard in messages, blaming his behaviour on a persona he called the Monster, and a chronic drink and drugs problem – all evidence which would not otherwise have been public.

It remains to be seen as to what effect, if any, this will have on Depp’s career. Certainly his fan base are firmly of the view that the judge is wrong, some in more base terms than others. What is certain is that Ms Heard’s career has already been badly affected: she has been the subject of online abuse, petitions to have her removed from her work, characterised in court as a gold digger, and publicly and in the glare of publicity described by Depp as an “overused flappy fish market” and “waste of a cum guzzler” in a rant in which he promised her “total global humiliation.”

The sad fact is that vindication in the courts cannot retrospectively protect Ms Heard from that humiliation already visited upon her. This is a persistent problem for women who report abuse by powerful men.

Timothy Brehmer: from coercive control to loss of control

This week Timothy Brehmer was acquitted of the murder of Claire Parry. Brehmer, a former police officer, had not denied that his actions had killed her. Instead, he said that he had not intended to kill her. That he had intended only to shove her out of the car, and yet somehow, she had ended up dead. 

Women across the UK followed the case as Brehmer’s story changed. She had been breathing when he left the car, he said. He said she had tried to stab him. Or maybe not, maybe he had tried to stab himself. Her death must have been positional asphyxiation. Whatever, he hadn’t intended to kill or seriously harm her. Media reporting revealed descriptions of controlling coercive behaviour, and few had sympathy for the pity parade that constituted his reported evidence. 

The verdict, acquitting him of murder, was met with outrage from feminists. How could we reach a stage where a man strangles a woman for at least 10-30 seconds with enough force to break three bones in her neck, his evidence is a kaleidoscope of unlikelihood, and yet somehow he is not guilty of her murder?

The answer lies in the “loss of control” defence. Importantly, we will never know why it is that the jury came to the verdict which they did. They had two options to reach their conclusion. One was that Brehmer’s evidence was true – or at least, they had some doubt that it was lies – and that he hadn’t really intended to seriously hurt or kill her when he strangled her. The second was that he had intended to seriously hurt or kill her, but that his actions arose from a “loss of control.”

Although we will not find out which of the two were the basis for the jury’s decision, we do know that the judge sentenced on the basis of loss of control. Once the verdict is in, it is for the judge to decide which is more likely, and to sentence on that basis. 

The Bournemouth Echo, reporting the sentencing hearing, records that the judge said 

“This is a case where I should sentence you [on the basis] that you lost your self control following the message that was sent to your wife, rather than you unintentionally killing Mrs Parry. 

“I am sure that you did deliberately take Mrs Parry by the neck.” 

He went on to make findings that the “loss of control” trigger was “only just met” and that Brehmer’s actions bore high culpability within the sentencing guidelines.

So what is “loss of control,” and how does it fit within the legal framework?

Before 2010, the defence was one of “provocation.” It was up to the jury to decide whether a person had been provoked sufficiently to lose their control and thereby to benefit from the reduced sentence for manslaughter, not being guilty of murder. It produced some absolutely shocking results: Thomas Corlett, who got three years for killing his wife after she ‘provoked’ him by moving the mustard pot to the wrong side of the table, for example. It was referred to by campaign stalwarts Justice for Women as the “nagging and shagging” defence, because it enabled men to argue that their wife being unfaithful or arguing had reasonably provoked them to kill her. After some significant campaigning, law reform was finally proposed in 2008, slowly made its way into the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, which was enacted in 2010. The relevant provision is this:

What is this “qualifying trigger?” Nagging and shagging is explicitly excluded, or so the drafters hoped:

In plainer terms, the questions are these: under s.54, was there a loss of control? Was there a qualifying trigger? And might any other comparator in similar circumstances have behaved the same way?  If so, s.55 tells us what the qualifying triggers are – here, did the victim say something or do something ‘extremely grave’ and causing the defendant to have a ‘justifiable sense of being seriously wronged?’ 

“The fact that a thing done or said constituted sexual infidelity is to be disregarded” was intended to ensure that men who felt ‘provoked’ by their partner’s cheating (or alleged cheating) did not get away with murder. 

We should recall, a decade later, that there was considerable opposition to this from some quarters. Feminists were accused of “feminising the law.” Dominic Grieve objected that “the Government have decided that thousands of years of human history and experience should be jettisoned for a piece of political correctness and proclamation: a declaratory statement that sexual infidelity can never justify violent behaviour.”  Others pointed out that since men do kill in violent rage, it would be improper to prevent a jury from considering infidelity. 

There were also objections that the clause was poorly drafted. These, unfortunately, were rather better founded. What constitutes ‘sexual infidelity,’ how grave is extremely grave and how serious is a serious wrong? Most importantly, what happens if sexual infidelity is just part of a wider context of loss of control? These were the questions considered in R v Clinton, a case concerning three men, who in the span of three weeks had each killed their partner. The Lord Chief Justice, giving judgment, said that “The starting point is that it has been recognised for centuries that sexual infidelity may produce a loss of control in men, and, more recently in women as well as men who are confronted with sexual infidelity.”

The Court went on to take the view that while the new law meant that infidelity alone could not constitute a qualifying trigger, infidelity could still be considered if there was a wider context:  “In our judgment, where sexual infidelity is integral to and forms an essential part of the context in which to make a just evaluation whether a qualifying trigger properly falls within the ambit of subsections 55(3) and (4), the prohibition in section 55(6)(c) does not operate to exclude it.”

In Brehmer’s case, the trigger was not sexual infidelity, but the fear of her revealing the affair they were having, and so there was no prohibition on this being considered a ‘qualifying trigger.’ 

One question raised by all of this is where coercive control, not considered in 2008, would fit in. How should the law approach men who kill not because they lose control of themselves, but because they are losing control of their partner? Can or should statute try to draw the distinction? 

It leads us to a situation where the solution is, perhaps, not available in law. The 2009 changes sought to block one such avenue, but were rather defeated in Clinton. What the defence of “loss of control” really needs is social change whereby the question as to whether a man in the same circumstances, with a “normal degree of tolerance and self-restraint” might act the same way, is met with a jury which says “absolutely not.” 

Friday Round Up

A solicitor has been fined £17,500 by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal after being convicted of sexual assault. 

Concerns continue to mount about the impact on victims of lengthy delays to trials. These problems, already in existence last year, have been exacerbated by Covid. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Naz Shah MP has received an apology and compensation after the Leave.EU group falsely accused her of being a grooming gang apologist. Leave.EU have accepted that the allegation was libellous and that she is a ‘vociferous campaigner for victims of grooming gangs.’

In global news, the UN Secretary General has called for an investigation after more than 50 women have come forward with reports of sexual exploitation and abuse by workers at the WHO and leading NGOs.

Spearmint Rhino have closed their doors in Sheffield, bringing to an end the third judicial review taken on Public Sector Equality Duty grounds against Sheffield. This was not the only litigation surrounding the Rhino: the club, arguably using dancers as a shield, had attempted to prevent the organisation Not Buying It from disclosing evidence of their licence breaches despite NBI’s undertaking never to disclose the identities of the dancers. Spearmint Rhino withdrew the claim and agreed to pay NBI’s costs soon before closing down. Not Buying It are calling on Sheffield to ensure that the women who worked there are supported to find alternative work and mental health support if necessary, since as self employed workers they would not have been eligible for furlough. You can see their campaign here.

In news on sex and gender: 

This week Keira Bell’s case has been heard at the High Court. Keira is challenging the Tavistock for their issuing of hormone blockers to children aged 10-16, arguing that children do not fully understand the implications of that decision. The Tavistock argues that they do, and that the whole principle of Gillick competence stands at risk. Judgment is expected at a later date. 

Ann Sinnott is issuing judicial review proceedings against EHRC and GEO in relation to their guidance on the single sex exceptions contained in Schedule 3 to the Equality Act 2010. These exceptions permit single sex or separate sex provision of services, and also allow a service provider to discriminate lawfully on the basis of gender reassignment. The EHRC and GEO’s guidance stated that it would be unlawful to discriminate on this basis against someone who had a GRC, whereas we now know that it is lawful to have a single sex provision which is restricted to one sex, irrespective of someone’s GRC status. The uncertainty over who may and may not access single sex services has been at the heart of much of the debate triggered by Stonewall’s move to abolish them altogether contained in its GRA submission. Whatever the outcome, this action should provide some much needed clarity. You can see her crowdfunder here.

The Law Society has issued a template for firms wanting to support employees who are transitioning or otherwise changing their gender expression. This describes biological sex as “stereotyped categories,” indicates that all employees should use facilities of their choice regardless of the stage of their intended transition, and that pronouns should not just be chosen at will but dispensed with altogether. It suggests phrases such as “Sam is going to get Sam’s coat” for the pronoun-free, and warns that failure to accept a gender identity amounts to transphobia. What a traditional client base would make of it remains to be seen; Legal Feminist wonders whether this will have a genuinely adverse effect on recruitment of those who are gender non-conforming for fear that they will insist on speaking like this to clients.

Stella Creasey MP and Stonewall hosted a workshop on the upcoming consultation on misogyny as a hate crime, at which attendees were invited to ask questions. WPUK founder Kiri Tunks asked “Given the Single Sex Exemptions in the Equality Act are in place to address the misogyny and sexism faced by women and girls, can Stonewall explain why they are lobbying to have them removed?”  Readers might think that this is relevant to the subject matter of the workshop: why is Stonewall campaigning to remove the existing redress to misogyny in law?  Kiri was removed from the meeting for asking the question, and Stella Creasy MP rather huffily replied on Twitter to the ensuing criticism that a workshop is not the appropriate forum for discussion. If a workshop on misogyny and law is not the appropriate forum for a discussion on misogyny and law, what is? 

In news from Ireland, where self-ID was brought into law, a teenager has been remanded into a women’s prison after making threats to kill. The report indicates that no bail application was made and the defendant was reportedly “anxious” to be admitted to a women’s facility. Court reports link this defendant to an extremely disturbed, violent and unpredictable young person who does not have a dysphoria diagnosis (and would therefore not be eligible for a GRC in the UK, or to consequent placement in a women’s prison) and who has declared persistent intent to do serious harm targeted expressly at women. The individual had previously attacked a social worker while she was driving, ripping her eyelid, and reportedly expressed remorse only that the social worker had survived the attack.  The Limerick Leader reported the case and the objections of the radical feminist organisation Radicailín. The Limerick Feminist Network were quick to condemn… the reporting: 

Link to the text of the Limerick Feminist Network's objections to the reporting.

It is astonishing that their objection was only to the “deadnaming” of the defendant, not to the placement of an individual hellbent on harm to women being placed in an already overcrowded women’s prison.

Friday Round Up

It’s been a while since our last Friday round-up – here’s this week’s feminist legal news, plus a few highlights from the month.

In Scotland, Adnan Ahmed won his appeal against conviction. Ahmed was a “pick up artist” who made a career out of unsolicited approaches to young women, including two who were in school uniform at the time. Indicating a depressing lack of insight into the difference between “street harassment” and “a compliment,” the all-male appeal court held that “It does not seem to us that a polite conversational request or complement [sic] can be construed as threatening merely because it is uninvited or unwelcome.” They also had much to say about the Sheriff’s descent into the arena of cross-examination.

At Yew Trees hospital, which housed autistic women and / or women with learning disabilities, ten staff have been suspended after footage showing abuse was passed to the CQC. Police action appears to be pending.

Mirth among legal twitter from the judgment in Pile v Chief Constable of Merseyside Police, which was introduced in the first paragraph as looking at the “liberty of inebriated English subjects to be allowed to lie undisturbed overnight in their own vomit soaked clothing.” This seems to have been a slightly facetious introduction to a case which looked at the balancing of a detainee’s right to consent to the removal of clothing and the police’s obligations to ensure her safety and dignity including the necessity of a male officer to check on her while she was in her underwear. The conclusion was that the practical needs outweighed her concerns about consent, but that is not quite how it was introduced. The judgment, while circulated as an example of judicial humour, carries an unfortunate note of contempt for drunken women. As to merits, someone had plainly granted permission, so it wasn’t entirely unmeritorious. Legal Feminist wonders whether an equally insensible male claimant would have been the subject of quite so much elbow-jogging amusement.

In Leeds, it appears that the council have decided to extend the “managed zone” in which prostitution is legalised. This is on the strength of the review document, which concluded that while the system failed from 2014-2018, the claimed improvements of 2019 justified extension. It will be interesting to learn whether or not Leeds have complied with PSED in making this decision. 

Barrister Alexandra Wilson has received an apology from HMCTS after being mistaken for a defendant three times in one day. BAME barristers being asked if they are defendants or interpreters is sadly not uncommon, and we hope this apology leads to real change. 

In sex and gender news, a busy period recently: 

In the case of Taylor v Jaguar Land Rover, the Claimant, who identified as gender fluid / non-binary and wore women’s clothing to work, had applied to the Employment Tribunal as a result of a course of harassment over a period of time, including insults and abuse. S.7 Equality Act 2010 defines the protected characteristic of “gender reassignment” as follows:

A person has the protected characteristic of gender reassignment if the person is proposing to undergo, is undergoing or has undergone a process (or part of a process) for the purpose of reassigning the person’s sex by changing physiological or other attributes of sex.

The Claimant’s submission was that she was included within the protected characteristic of “gender reassignment” while Jaguar as the Defendant argued that gender-fluid or non-binary identities did not meet the relevant definition. Finding for the Claimant, the Tribunal awarded aggravated damages “because of the egregious way the claimant was treated and because of the insensitive stance taken by the respondent in defending these proceedings.”  Although this is a first-instance decision, and therefore not binding on any other court or tribunal, it demonstrates that the Employment Tribunal is willing to consider that the definition of gender reassignment should be broadly interpreted. Congratulations on a good win to Robin White of Old Square Chambers who was instructed for the Claimant.

Liz Truss MP announced this week that there would be no change to the substantive requirements to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate. Applicants will continue to produce evidence of gender dysphoria. However the process will be made less expensive and waiting times will be cut considerably with three new gender clinics opening.

At the same time, the NHS announced that there will be an independent review, led by Dr Hilary Cass OBE, into gender identity services for young people. This follows the cases brought by Keira Bell and by Sonia Appleby relating to concerns at GIDS. We note that the first ‘no win no fee’ adverts by solicitors to represent negligence claims brought by detransitioners are already being seen.

The Department for Education has also published guidance on teaching Relationships and Sexual Health (RSE) clarifying that “You should not reinforce harmful stereotypes, for instance by suggesting that children might be a different gender based on their personality and interests or the clothes they prefer to wear. Resources used in teaching about this topic must always be age-appropriate and evidence based. Materials which suggest that non-conformity to gender stereotypes should be seen as synonymous with having a different gender identity should not be used and you should not work with external agencies or organisations that produce such material.” It is shocking that in 2020 it was necessary to clarify that girls can like engineering and trousers, but welcome guidance nonetheless. 

Self-ID dropped, says the Sunday Times

News from the Sunday Times that the proposals to amend the Gender Recognition Act to allow a change of sex on a birth certificate on application (“self-ID”), in place of a dysphoria diagnosis, have been dropped, replaced by a promise to reduce the current £140 fee.

There has been enormous controversy around the proposals, which gained far more public interest than most legal reforms when Stonewall called not just for self-identification but also for the abolition of single-sex exceptions to the Equality Act 2010. These represent the strides made over the twentieth century for women to access public life, public space, spaces in which to recover from male violence, and sports, among others. Needless to say, many women’s groups were aghast at the prospect of these exceptions being removed and a return to the “unisex” – in practice, male – spaces of the nineteenth century.

There was also disquiet over the possibility of the process being abused, and of the practical obstacles to women’s groups distinguishing between a person who identified as (but took no steps to look like) a woman, and a man. Such instances might not be common, but the law must cater responsibly for the uncommon but reasonably foreseeable.

Perhaps now that there is clarity over self-ID, there is scope for truly radical legislation and guidance capable of support across the feminist and transgender communities. We could start with proposals for CAMHS funding to be doubled; mental health support for adults to be provided within a strict six month window; improvements to the public sector’s adherence to PSED to ensure quality Equality Impact Assessments are undertaken; free legal support for anyone who has been unlawfully discriminated against by an employer; the abolition of gendered work and school uniform; and access to free education for young adults whose school-age education was disrupted by gender difficulties or sexual harassment.

Meshed Up: The Treatment of Women Following Mesh Surgery

Victoria Phillips, partner and head of employment rights (client relations) at social justice law firm Thompsons Solicitors, discusses how women have been treated following complications from surgical mesh.

Over the years, there has been growing awareness and press coverage surrounding the issues of surgical mesh, particularly following the publication of the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review on 8 July 2020, led by Baroness Cumberlege. The First Do No Harm report looked into three medical scandals: primodos, a hormone pregnancy test associated with birth defects that was withdrawn in the 1970s; sodium valproate, an anti-epileptic drug, which can harm children during pregnancy; and vaginal mesh implants, a cause of unbearable pain and life-long complications. 

We represent more than 200 women in vaginal mesh surgery claims so, in terms of the review, our focus has always been on this medical intervention. But the commonalities that bind the three are far more staggering than their differences. The review had many overarching themes but the concerns of female patients being ignored by health professionals was a significant common denominator, which exposed an institutionalised inability for the healthcare system to listen to women.

At Thompsons Solicitors, we’ve witnessed how male surgeons patronise female patients and dismiss legitimate concerns in a way that we’re convinced would never happen if the patient was a man. There has been an overriding  paternalistic approach to female issues and patients have had no choice but to trust their surgeon, despite their body telling them something quite different. 

If mesh was to be inserted anywhere near male sexual organs, I believe there would have been rigorous and comprehensive pre-market testing before it was even hinted at as a potential treatment option. If there was even a slight risk to a man’s ability to function sexually , mesh probably would have been dropped far sooner, or more likely, never considered an option in the first place. 

It begs the question that should a man have been put in the same position, would he have been given all of the necessary information? Would he have been listened to when he voiced concerns about the pain he was feeling after his mesh surgery? Would his medical team have looked into the issue thoroughly and found a suitable alternative? Looking at the findings of the review and speaking to our clients, the answer is a resounding yes. Instead, women were told it was “all in their head”, or part of the menopause, and often referred for counselling in lieu of any effort being made to discover the true cause of their agony. 

Many who had mesh surgery didn’t experience issues until years later, but some reported pain and complications immediately after regaining consciousness from their surgeries with assurances it was completely normal and in time would wane. For thousands of women, it never did. They spoke to their GPs, numerous surgeons and other healthcare professionals but were often dismissed  when they suggested their pain was from mesh. One client recalled her surgeon telling her parents she was inventing her pain because of school-related anxiety. That client has since been told the rectopexy surgery she had at just 15 years old, which has left her self-irrigating every night since, was unnecessary. She must continue to self-irrigate for the foreseeable future, unless she agrees to have a colostomy bag. She is just 22 years old. 

The review team heard hundreds of accounts across the country on all three health scandals and Baroness Cumberlege summed it up by saying she “couldn’t believe that people had gone through so much agony and suffering and had been ignored” and that “much of this suffering was entirely avoidable.” 

The life-changing disabilities our clients have suffered from mesh implants has been heart-breaking to see. There has been a systematic failure with a lack of warning from both the manufacturers and the surgeons and hospitals who carried out the operations, without adequate consent. When they tried to complain, our clients faced rejection and belittlement while being wracked with pain. 

Baroness Cumberlege didn’t pull any punches in her review. The changes she called for are too late for those we represent, but they offer the possibility of real reform. This is not just about the NHS. Her recommendations must equally apply to the private healthcare sector, which is every bit, if not more, complicit. 

An apology to the women and men who have suffered, as well as their families, is as welcome as it is overdue, but it won’t bring back the people our clients once were or the childhoods or relationships they have lost. 

To ensure this is not a further slap in the face for our clients, and others affected, the promised changes must be swift, real and resourced from new money, not recycled funds taken from other parts of the health service.

What those who have suffered for so long deserve is decisive action that leads to real change. And that must start without delay.