Sunday, 9 June 2013

Sallie Bennett-Jenkins

Sallie Bennett-Jenkins’ work/life juggling act makes my life as MD of Kysen and mum of three (including twins) look like a leisurely stroll around Covent Garden piazza.  This lady balances a career as one of our top criminal QCs with a home life focussed on triplets of 16, twins of 13 plus a singleton of 11.  No, you haven’t made a mistake with your arithmetic; that’s six children altogether!

I first met 2 Hare Court’s Sallie a month ago when she kindly stepped in to do a Sky News interview for us that a client was unable to fulfil (about typical sentences and time served on the day Huhne and Pryce were released from custody).  We met in Temple at the crack of dawn to prepare for an 8.30 interview outside the Royal Courts of Justice and even at this unreasonable hour of the morning she looked polished and utterly immaculate.  In the words of former Evening Standard journalist, author and screenwriter Allison Pearson, “I don’t know how she does it”!

I spoke to Sallie again this week, keen to hear her take on the current Legal Aid row and how lawyers’ worries about threats to access to justice are so often misrepresented by certain parts of the media.  As one of our top-earning criminal QCs, her name was mentioned in a classic example this week: a Daily Mail piece naming the lawyers on the so-called “legal aid gravy train”.

“The article published this week is an example of the way the Government seeks to ignore the critical work we do in relation to the liberty of the individual.  Let’s leave aside the fact that the figures the Mail suggested I personally was paid per annum were nothing of the sort: they were sums earned over two or three years, not one; they included VAT at 20% and made no allowance for income tax and practise expenses I have to pay, nor for travel. None of this was explained. They do not reflect the fact that barristers have to make arrangements for their own pensions, they have no provision for payment if taken ill, and do not receive any paid maternity leave. The impression deliberately created was highly misleading.

The far more harmful problem however, is that the real issues in this debate are being distorted beyond recognition, which really doesn’t help a sensible public discussion.  The press often use the term that we as lawyers practising in criminal law are "defending criminals". We are not, we are representing those accused of crime by the state and who are innocent until proved guilty.  We have to remember some 45% of all people charged turn out to be innocent. A robust defence of those accused of crime lies at the very heart of a civilised system.

The example of Asil Nadir is often used to illustrate these sorts of pieces [indeed his photo dominates the Mail’s spread on the topic this week], as he famously rented a 23,000 pounds-a-month London residence for the duration of his 1m pound legal-aid-funded trial.  But this simply isn’t representative. 

It goes without saying, surely, that innocent people dragged through the criminal justice system need the protection and assurance that they will have access to the best legal representation  possible. The availability of a robust defence is essential to protect the integrity of our justice system; and it is critical to ensure that those who are innocent are acquitted and that convictions against the guilty are secure, and can’t be unpicked on the basis that a defendant was denied access to a proper defence.  After all, a rise in appeals resulting from an increase in unsafe convictions and miscarriages of justice will only mean a further drain on the public purse, so aside from the justice and human rights issues, skimping in this area is a false economy anyway.”

The Daily Mail piece quotes retired Court of Appeal judge Sir Anthony Hooper’s concerns that the withdrawal of defendants’ rights to choose their own legal representatives particularly hits those needing specialist expertise.  Sallie feels particularly strongly on this point: "In the last week, I have represented an 18 year old boy of good character accused of murder. He had much against him: preconceptions about his particular community in London; about the behaviour of young men men his age and his ethnicity; even his own timidity and inability to put himself across worked against him.

The conduct of his case demanded specialist skills in communicating with young people, those who are perhaps less able to express themselves, in order to draw out particular features that related to his defence. Over the course  of trial, we worked tirelessly, using all the skills garnered over nearly 30 years in practise, to test the evidence and to expose flaws in the prosecution case that lead to no evidence being offered against him. 

He left court able to return to his normal life rather than facing a sentence of life imprisonment with a minimum term to be served that would be expected to be in excess of 25 years.  His family wrote to me, expressing their deep gratitude for the way in which the case had been handled and explaining what an impact our work had had on their lives.  These are the sorts of stories that should be making the headlines in the debate about Legal Aid and the work lawyers do in this area.  But of course they never do.”

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling is quoted in the Mail piece saying that it is simply “not sustainable for tax payers to keep funding a legal aid system that has become one of the most expensive in the world”. But tell me, what happened to the Government’s pride in our world-leading legal system? When it comes to our commercial courts, the Government is only too happy to promote the fact we have one of the most enviable legal systems in the world, attracting cases from all over the world because judgments from the UK are so respected (and therefore more enforceable elsewhere).  We all know the statistics by now, that litigation involving former Russian oligarchs and other Eastern European parties accounted for an incredible 60% of all commercial cases in London last year.  It draws a very nice income stream in to the UK legal system. But of course our domestic criminal justice system can’t offer financial returns on investment in this way.  And in the absence of this, the Government appears to see these points about world-leading quality as a waste of tax-payers’ money.  This thinking simply isn't just.
We love the new FAST FT breaking news service! The irrepressible Megan Murphy, whom we first got to know at Bloomberg, then in her role as the FT’s law courts correspondent, is running the new service, which is highly appropriate given her reputation for living life at 120 miles per hour. 

The service, supported by a FAST FT Twitter account, promises "live reporting and comment on market-moving news" and is part of the FT’s new Digital First Strategy announced earlier this year. 30 journalists took redundancy at this time to make way for 10 new digital journalist posts. The face of journalism is changing fast. With Megan at the helm, this latest development is in very good hands.

So what did you make of the new Star Trek Into Darkness? Talking to friends, the opinion on this film is divided, Marmite-style. People seem to either love it (I did!) or hate it. But taking a poll in the office this week, I was shocked that half people in our team have not only never seen any of the Star Trek films or TV programmes, but deliberately give a swerve to any story centred on space, in fact any Sci Fi fare at all. "Too unrealistic", they say, and they simply "don’t see the point". I’m finding this hard to take in! One of the reasons this is a favourite genre for me is precisely what these stories have to say about our own society, altering one truth to show an aspect of our daily reality in sharp relief. Who doesn’t love the ongoing tussle in the Kirk-Spok bromance to prove whether "logic" or "gut-instinct" is the better strategy?  And of course the answer is that both are important and team-work is everything.  What's not to like!  Am I out on a limb here? Someone tell me I’m not alone... 

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