Monday, 12 August 2013

Ben Rose

The timing of my breakfast catch-up with criminal solicitor supremo Ben Rose was perfect: on my first day back from my Summer break I was keen to find out what my friends in the legal community really thought of the outrageous story that hit the headlines earlier this week about the defence barrister in the Neil Wilson rape trial accusing the 13 year old victim of being "predatory" and of having "egged the [41 year old] defendant on"!  What!?  Is this the sort of justice a 13 year old rape victim is to expect?  That can't possibly be right in an English court of law.  No sorry, that was my mistake. The defence barrister didn't use those objectionable terms. was the Prosecution counsel. And the judge!!

Now I strongly believe that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty.  And also that defence lawyers need to (and should) do whatever they decently can, to provide their client with the most robust defence possible.  As discussed in this blog before, these principles are key not only to protecting innocent people caught up in the criminal justice system, but also to ensuring convictions of the guilty are secure and can't be easily challenged or unravelled. But for even a defence barrister to suggest a 13 year old can in any way be responsible for a 41 year old rapist's actions would simply beggar belief. And as for a prosecutor.... !

If anyone could put me straight on this issue and get me to think about it differently, it would be Ben - whom I personally respect and admire and who is widely acknowledged as one of our very top criminal defence solicitors, famous for handling some of the most high profile investigations and court cases of recent years.  I've known Ben and his colleagues at Hickman & Rose for years. We caught up briefly at The Lawyer Awards this June (he was shortlisted for the Client Partner of the Year award, having been nominated by not just one but several clients) and we promised ourselves a proper catch-up over the summer, hence this week's breakfast.

A lot of Ben's work I can't talk about, as his work for high profile (sometimes celebrity) criminal defendants is often confidential. One public role he had that I can mention though, is his work for a certain media mogul and his son in the midst of one of the most significant inquiries into media ethics we have ever seen - yes, you've got it: Leveson. He is increasingly the Number One choice for any high profile individual caught up in a criminal matter, whether as a defendant or a witness. What I hadn't appreciated until our discussion over coffee this week is that he leads the way in challenging the criminal justice system itself, having run a number of Judicial Reviews of the CPS. I was fascinated. So he's actually taken the CPS to court?  "We'll, the CPS of course has a duty to all concerned to run their prosecutions properly. Victims and other witnesses may be risking a lot personally when speaking out in open court to help a prosecution. It is only right that those prosecuting are held to account. There can be serious repercussions, particularly where victims and witnesses are known to the perpetrator. If prosecutors have failed to pay attention to an important detail, or procedural step, or an obvious line of questioning, then of course they should be challenged."

This is what prompted me to ask Ben about the Neil Wilson case and whether he thought a line had been crossed. I'm pleased to report that I can't actually print his immediate response, it was so full of expletives. It ran along the lines of "Extraordinary! How does that thought ever occur to someone? What were they thinking! What planet were they on!" except in much more colourful language. He continued in a more measured tone: “At least Cameron waded in and it looks like the attorney general is going to review the ridiculously lenient sentence. [Wilson walked free with just an eight month suspended jail sentence]. Just parking the clearly barmy thinking in this case for one moment, the story does raise a serious debatable point about the fitness of our adversarial system. It is most unusual to find the prosecutor, defence and the judge in agreement, and perhaps that should have been an indication things were going wrong.  But as we well know, the problem doesn’t start in the courtroom.  The insensitive treatment that many rape victims get at the hands of the laddish police culture  in the first stage in an investigation has long been criticised.  All sorts of measures have been brought in to change this experience, but in reality the problem pervades the whole justice system. I have to say though, even acknowledging these ongoing systemic issues, what happened in the Wilson case is utterly unbelievable and I hope we never see anything close to it again for a very long time."

Well, so it’s not just soft lay people like me who have such a big problem with the Wilson case. Even those who could be forgiven for being rather battle-weary through constant exposure to the criminal justice system are shocked. Even this leading criminal defence lawyer who knows more than most the importance of doing everything decently possible to give your client the best, most robust defence. Did you spot that word there? “Decent”? This is what we expect of our criminal justice system that we are normally so proud of. The Wilson case most definitely crossed the line. No debate.  

So Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal has finally been brought to account. Regular readers of this blog will know I interviewed TLT's Richard Waller last month, the solicitor leading Mrs Sharab's case against the billionaire prince for for non-payment of a £10 million-plus commission brokering the sale of one of the Prince's private jets to libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. At the time I relayed reports of the prince's extraordinary evasiveness in the court room, Judge Peter Smith's comments about his 'capriciousness' making headlines. But worse was to come with his judgment: he branded the nephew of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah a wholly unreliable witness, saying  "It is not necessary for me to determine that he was telling lies in the witness box. He came close to admitting it..." Clearly comments from the Prince in the course of cross-examination such as "You might call it a lie, I call it a tactic." didn't help his case!

Mrs Sharab, on the other hand, was described as an impressive witness and I love her quote in response to the judgment. "Today's decision has reinforced my belief in the fairness and impartiality of the English courts." No wonder wealthy foreigners continue to queue up outside the Rolls Building for a slice of British justice.  
Huge thanks to my friends at Bonelli for such great recommendations for my trip to Venice this month. Andrea Carta Mantaglia and Alberto Saravalle were kind enough to share some of their top tips for making the most of even the shortest visit to this very special place.

Now, I have always associated Alberto with Milan, Rome and New York as he spends most of his time between these three so I hadn't appreciated that he actually comes from Venice. Not only that but his family have been there since the 1400s. Clearly there aren't many people who know this charmed city better! I won't divulge some of the more personal recommendations my friends gave me, as I know what a privilege it was to be let in to some of their secrets. But I will urge you to explore the islands around Venice if you haven't ever done this. They're exquisite, each with their own waterway system instead of roads. And if you're travelling this summer, do visit the wonderful art festival dotted around the city. Biennale only takes place every two years (the clue's in the name) and runs until November.  

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