The MET police in London announced this week that it was ‘not practical’ to investigate certain low level crimes in London due to a strain on budget and future savings that are required to be made.
According to New Scotland Yard, there would be a shift towards ‘empowering our officers’ to assess for themselves whether it was proportionate to investigate offences such as shoplifting, criminal damage and car crime. If the complainant in a case was not willing to attend court or the value of the loss/damage was relatively low there could be a decision not to even investigate.
The MET current working procedures
Currently when a complaint is made the police will investigate and make an arrest, or interview voluntarily, if they have reasonable grounds to suspect a particular person’s involvement. If a decision cannot be made about that particular case, the suspect is either bailed to return to the police station or ‘released under investigation’ (RUI). In bail cases the police will work towards making a decision by a particular date; in RUI cases the matter is left open indefinitely whilst investigative work continues.
Increasingly, often due to workload, we have found that RUI cases do not appear to be actively investigated by officers as they do not seem to be high priority. This leaves both suspects and complainants not knowing what will happen to their case. For a complainant, this could leave them feeling justice is not done; for suspects, there will be no way of knowing whether they will face charge and potential criminal proceedings.
Has the MET really thought about the negative consequences of this cut?
There are numerous concerns we have with the proposals laid out by the MET. One of which is the stage at which the decision not to investigate will be made. If made at the point of complaint the effect is likely to be that there are no arrests; this could potentially lead to an emboldening of suspects. If a person inclined towards theft knows that there is a no investigation policy for theft below £50 they are likely to more carefully plan their theft so that it falls below that particular threshold. What is likely to happen is that there is a shift towards lower value theft but in far greater volumes.
If there is no investigation, and of course no arrest, charge and sentence to follow, victims will be left out of pocket and with a feeling that justice has not been done. This could lead to shops and retailers having to tighten their own security, the cost of which is almost inevitably going to pass to the innocent consumer.
Perhaps more worrying is the possibility that retailers and individuals alike may dispense their own justice. If a low-priority theft is not investigated, will it follow that a low-level assault committed on a suspected shoplifter also not be investigated? With budget cuts likely to continue will the new policy be extended; ie the threshold extended to £100?
Policing and law enforcement must not be cut: the criminal justice system is in danger!
We have all had to deal with the years of austerity and cut-backs, but policing and law enforcement is one of the key areas that simply cannot be cut. The criminal justice system is already at breaking point with decrepit prison conditions, prosecution failings, legal aid cuts and court closures. Of course there has to be prioritisation of certain criminal offences, but it should not be at the cost of properly policing and enforcing lower level offences.
If you require representation at the police station or court contact our team on 020 7388 1658 or email@example.com
Duncan Roberts, SolicitorRead More
A new technique for identifying criminals could be in use ‘within months’ following years of development by Sheffield Hallam University. But what is it and could there be problems?
Mass Spectrometry: analysing the ridges of the fingerprints
Fingerprints on crime scenes, weapons and stolen property have been the undoing of many a criminal over the years. With evidence being corroborated by DNA, CCTV and cell-site analysis the commission of crime, for the petty criminal at least, is getting harder and harder to get away with.
The latest development in fingerprint testing could potentially take prosecution evidence to a new level. Researchers have developed a technique called ‘mass spectrometry’, which analyses traces of substances ‘on or within the ridges of the fingerprints’.
It is claimed that the technique can reveal whether the print belongs to a male of female, whether there are traces of drugs and whether a person has handled a condom, the latter claim being so specific that the brand can be identified. This is a significant leap on from the current position of simply identifying the owner of a particular print.
Certain crimes should therefore be more detectable, for example a defendant denying that he/she has handled drugs will have a far more difficult time in court if the evidence shows that drugs have been taken.
Our concern is that unless the match is so precise it will be difficult to show a direct correlation between drugs seized and drugs taken. Any given batch of drugs is likely to have differences which could, of course, be reflected in the print it leaves. However, taking the condom claim, which is clearly intended to improve the quality of evidence in rape and sexual assault cases, an item such as that will be produced in a factory with rigorous quality controls. Deviations in product are, we expect, likely to be far fewer.
That of course brings us on to the obvious question; although the test can deduce that a suspect handled a brand ‘A’ condom is it able to provide any clue as to when? What if the complainant is mistaken and actually a brand ‘B’ condom was used in the assault? Will that negate their complaint and offer a defence.
Current problems associated to fingerprint evidence
Similar problems already exist with the use of fingerprint evidence as we currently know it. Whilst a fingerprint may well show that a suspect has a link to a particular place it does not provide the date/time on which it was left at the scene. Unless mass spectrometry is able to provide a specific date and time as to when the identified substance was handled by the suspect its use will face the same limitations as current methods. Although a significant jump forward the value of the evidence it produces will be limited unless there is other corroborating evidence against a suspect.
For years DNA was seen as infallible but recent reports show that the evidence it yields is not as clear-cut as it could be. Although an admirable leap forward and one which will no doubt be refined in years to come we should exercise caution in the reliance of mass spectrometry evidence as being the smoking gun in cases.
The biggest limitation though is the database itself. A print or sample is only ever going to be effective if there is a match on a database entry. There are numerous unsolved crimes committed each year ranging from murder and rape to theft and public order. Some will naturally lend themselves to having some form of physical evidence such as DNA or fingerprint. However, even a murder case with a fingerprint on the weapon and the perpetrator’s blood on floor means nothing if that person is not on the police database.
Duncan Roberts, SolicitorRead More
The mass murder in Las Vegas on Sunday has brought the issue of gun control to the forefront of public debate once again. The right to bear arms is a fiercely protected right in the USA but would a tightening of controls prevent such tragedies?
In the UK prohibitions on certain types of weapon have been in existence alongside the weapons themselves from as early as 1594; Queen Elizabeth I banned the possession of wheellock pistols near a royal palace through fear of assassination.
Gun control laws in the UK were tightened significantly following the Dunblane School shooting in 1996 when 17 people were killed by a lone gunman in possession of four legally carried handguns, who entered the primary school and opened fire before taking his own life.
Almost immediately in the aftermath of Dunblane the government introduced the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, followed the same year by the Firearms (Amendment) (No.2) Act, which banned the possession of handguns by civilians in the UK. This amendment to the gun control put in place in tightened those controls further.
In the 21 years since Dunblane, encompassing a series of changes in legislation, there has only been one further mass shooting. The 2010 Cumbria shootings resulted in the loss of 12 lives before the killer again took his own life. Despite the stricter gun control both weapons in the killer’s possession were also with lawful permission.
Over the years further legislation has brought us to today’s position whereby the possession of most types of firearm carries a minimum mandatory sentence. Murder of course carries a life sentence if such weaponry is used to deadly effect.
Given the need for public protection, particularly with the uncertainty that an attack may be terror based, there is a very high prospect of the perpetrator being killed by police during an incident.
The death of a perpetrator of course renders any minimum sentence ineffective as there will be no prosecution. ‘Death by police’ or suicide will surely be outcomes that a perpetrator will have considered before embarking on their actions; one therefore has to question whether the minimum sentence or control over weapons has any effect on this particular type of perpetrator.
Gun deaths in figures: US vs UK
Firearms offences in the UK do continue to take place albeit, thankfully, not on the scale we have referred to above. In 1996 there were 247 gun deaths in the UK; the last figure available (2013) showed that there had been a fall to 144 deaths in that year but the intervening figures varied from a low of 123 in 2012 to a shocking 234 in 2000.
Not all of those deaths are attributable to the deliberate killing of another person; once accidental and suicide deaths are taken out of the equation the figures again show a general downward trend with 84 homicides in 1996 falling to 23 in 2013.
The figures for the US are unsurprisingly higher given the significant difference in population, however, when taking gun death figures at a rate per 100,000 people the disparity is staggering. In 2013 the UK saw 0.22 gun deaths per 100,000; in the US the figure was 10.63.
When taking suicide and accident out of the picture the comparative rates of homicide deaths with guns involved was 0.04 in the UK for 2013 and 3.54 in the US.
Worryingly the US saw 505 unintentional gun deaths in 2013 compared to just 5 in the UK. The per-capita comparison is 0.18 to 0.01 US:UK. That means that in the US you are over four times more likely to be killed by accident than you are in a deliberate shooting in the UK.
What is just as frightening is the fact that in 2013 a person in America faced almost the same risk of being killed with a gun by accident as a person in the UK faced at all; 0.18 to 0.22.
Another astonishing statistic was that in 2013 the number of ‘justifiable homicides’ in the US was 681; 0.22 per 100,000 of population. That figure as a proportion of population is the same as the total proportion of gun deaths in the UK in the same year.
The comparisons could go on and on. What we believe it shows though is that clearly having greater control of ownership of weapons prevents gun deaths across the board, not just intentional killings.
It is commendable that in the UK we condemn those who seek to use guns through the use of strict, mandatory minimum sentences. It sends a message that those who seek to endanger themselves and, more importantly, others will serve sentences designed to punish them but also to deter others from following their example.
The problem arises when a person decides that they want to break the law and commit a criminal offence. Controls and restrictions can only go so far in those circumstances. Both perpetrators in Dunblane and Cumbria were lawfully in possession of their weapons which killed so many; although the exact type of the 47 firearms in possession of the Law Vegas shooter is still unclear what has emerged is that he purchased more than one and met state and federal requirements in order to do so.
Whether those checks were sufficient will undoubtedly be called into question but the fact remains, those weapons were available to purchase.
Are these crimes preventable?
One of the first reactions from President Trump was that the killer was ‘demented’; an inappropriate term by all accounts but one does have to question what made an otherwise law-abiding citizen kill 59 other innocent people.
Similarly ill-conceived headlines followed the Cumbria murders in the UK with The Sun declaring ‘Psycho Cabbie’s rampage on CCTV’ on their front page.
The response locally was simply to deter those with diagnosed conditions from getting the help and support they required.
A public inquest into both UK shootings found that neither perpetrator suffered any diagnosed mental health conditions although both had what would reasonably be described as ‘difficult’ backgrounds. The Cumbria killer had suffered a serious attack in his cab and was, according to his GP, ‘starting to get down’ about various ailments and was suffering flashbacks. No further intervention took place.
Similarly the Dunblane killer had no diagnosed mental health condition although that was hardly surprising given the suggestion that he had not been to a Doctor in over 20 years. Local news reported that he ‘did not have a mental illness, but did have a personality disorder’.
Given that a personality disorder is a mental illness we would suggest that the very fact that it was so dismissed is indicative of where the problem really lies.
The problem therefore rests with how ‘mental health’ is portrayed and how it is dealt with. Headlines from influential leaders declaring a person as ‘demented’ to an audience of millions belittles those who suffer with mental illness. Calling a murderer a ‘psycho’ is unhelpful to those who suffer psychotic illnesses but are able to control them.
In no way do we condone the acts any of the perpetrators undertook, or in the case of the Dunblane killer his alleged paedophilic tendencies, but, as a society we have to look at what caused them to take a path which resulted in the killing of over 80 innocent people between them.
Attitude towards guns
Attitudes to mental health need to change to work alongside regulation and control of weapons. Mental health issues are as real and as damaging to their sufferer as physical ailments. All too often depression, for example, is trivialised – ‘smile’, ‘get on with it’, ‘cheer up’, ‘it’s just a bit of sadness’ and so many more are phrases that are aimed at the sufferer by way of well-meaning advice. The sufferer is put off obtaining proper medical advice and things spiral; they may feel unable to speak out and tell friends for fear of trivialisation.
A person with a fractured wrist would not be told to just carry on regardless with a smile. Similarly a cancer patient would not be advised to seek no help at all because it was ‘just a little bit’.
Gun control is an important starting point but the attitude toward guns is just as important. Taking a tough stance on those in possession of them is admirable but we also need to look at the reason why that person is in possession in the first place. Mental health is just one factor.
The US has far less access to free medical care than in the UK; despite concerns that the NHS is failing the fact remains that we have a fundamental right to professional, medical help. Treatment of mental health issues should not be dependent on ability to pay. Instead of choosing to prioritise a right to medical care the US has chosen to maintain a right to bear arms.
Ironically those injured in Las Vegas may have to pay for medical treatment as they are not entitled to it despite being shot by a man who was exercising his entitlement to possess an assault rifle. Regardless of controls or regulations it is clear to see where the problem lies.
Although our own attitudes to guns and the reasons for them could improve we are still far further ahead than our American friends.
Duncan Roberts, SolicitorRead More
An article in the Guardian on 2nd October has highlighted some of the problems surrounding DNA evidence. Since it was first used to secure a conviction in 1986, DNA evidence has developed something of an unshakeable aura about it. It is common to hear in court ‘there is DNA evidence’ as if that somehow proves guilt beyond any doubt, let alone beyond a reasonable doubt.
Whilst science has developed to the extent that in many cases there is no doubt about who the DNA is from, what science cannot yet do is tell us how someone’s DNA found it’s way to a particular place. Some years ago, I defended in a burglary case, where the sole evidence against my client was a cigarette butt with his DNA on it found inside the burgled premises. That was sufficient for him to be charged and the case to proceed to trial. There was no evidence of the circumstances in which his DNA came to be on the cigarette butt or when and how the cigarette had found it’s way into the building. Fortunately, the District Judge trying the case recognised this and he was found not guilty, but both the police and the CPS thought they had the right man.
DNA evidence problems
Scientific developments have brought their own, fresh set of problems. Early DNA profiling was restricted in the profiles it could produce, as it required larger amounts of material for testing. Modern technology can develop a profile from smaller and smaller quantities of cellular material, and can often identify more than one person’s profile within a small sample. This gives rise to problems of cross-contamination, where one person’s DNA finds its way onto a second person, who then deposits the DNA at a different location; or cases where a DNA deposit is left at a location that becomes a crime scene later on.
DNA technology is clearly a vital tool for the police and prosecuting authorities, but there remains a need for caution when a case is substantially dependent on DNA evidence.
John Howey, Senior SolicitorRead More
Why should I have a solicitor at the police station?
Why wouldn’t you? For a start, it’s free. To everybody, no matter how much or how little they earn. That should probably be a good enough reason in itself, but many people still choose not to have a solicitor.
What happens in the police station goes a long way to deciding the outcome of the case
If you end up in court many months later, the Judge and jury, or magistrates, will know what you said or didn’t say in your interview and will pay close attention to it. If you do the right thing in your interview, you might not even get to court. You might be given a caution or your case might be dealt with in another way that means you don’t have to go to court. You might not even be charged.
It doesn’t make you look guilty
If you were ill you would go to a doctor. If your car breaks down you go to a garage. You get help from someone who knows that they are doing and is there to help you.
You won’t have to wait hours for a solicitor; at least not for one of our solicitors
When you are arrested there is usually a lot of work for the police to do before you are interviewed. It is that work that takes time, not waiting for a solicitor. If you say you want a solicitor as soon as you get to the police station, we will be contacted by the police and can arrange to attend when the police are ready to deal with you. If you are attending by appointment (often called an interview by appointment or caution +3), we will meet you there.
Just because you feel you haven’t done anything wrong, doesn’t mean you don’t need a solicitor
In fact, it makes you need one even more because if you say or do the wrong thing, you might end up getting charged with something you didn’t do.
If you are in a cell in the police station, there is no such thing as ‘not very serious’
Calling us to come and represent you is not ‘bothering us’. It is what solicitors are there for.
You can call us during office hours on 020 7388 1658 or 24 hours a day on 07939958767. Or email firstname.lastname@example.org
John Howey, Senior SolicitorRead More
Yesterday’s news included the all too familiar reports of a young man being sentenced for a knife murder. Whilst the victim is named and pictured, the reports state that the defendant ‘cannot be named for legal reasons’, without setting out what those legal reasons are. It seems that an application was made in court to name the defendant, but this was refused.
What are these legal reasons?
The general principle is that proceedings should be held in public, the evidence should be heard in public and the media should be allowed to report the proceedings. There are however, a number of exceptions to that principle. There have been recent cases of evidence being heard behind closed doors for reasons of national security; Victims of sexual offences are given life-long anonymity, unless they are later subject to criminal proceedings in relation to the alleged offence (for example Jemma Beale, who was convicted of perjury and perverting the course of justice for making false allegations); Pre-trial rulings relating to the admissibility of evidence or points of law, an unsuccessful application to dismiss at the end of the prosecution case, anything that might identify a child or young person involved in youth court proceedings (with limited exceptions) are all subject to automatic reporting restrictions.
When the defendant is a minor
In relation to under 18s in the Crown Court, S45 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 which came into force in April 2015, allows the criminal court to prevent the publication of anything that would identify that young person as a defendant, until that person reaches 18. The court must have regard to the defendant’s welfare and be satisfied that the welfare of the young person outweighs the public interest in open justice. The court can dispense with the restriction at the end of the case if ‘their effect is to impose a substantial and unreasonable restriction on the reporting of the proceedings, and it is in the public interest to remove or relax that restriction’. Once the young person reaches the age of 18, the restrictions cease to apply.
In the case reported yesterday, the Judge refused to allow the defendant to be named, because ‘nothing is added of public import beyond what is already known.’ The facts of the case, and the defendants previous convictions are now a matter of public record, so it is difficult to see how the public not knowing his name is likely to amount to an unreasonable restriction on the reporting of the case.
John Howey, Senior SolicitorRead More
Even as a criminal solicitor in London, in over 20 years I have never come across a client accused of breaching the Official Secrets Act. Reference is often made to someone ‘signing the Official Secrets Act’, and this week I came across such a signed document, headed ‘Official Secrets Act’, amongst the papers of an elderly relative who died recently.
Contrary to many people’s belief, those who are bound by the Act are bound by it whether they have signed anything or not. ‘Crown Servants’, a term that includes civil servants, police, judicial officials and the armed forces and ‘government contractors’, ie companies who produce goods or services under contract for the government, are all bound by the Act, as well as members of the security services. Signing a document merely acts as a reminder to individuals that they continue to be bound by the Act even after they cease to be employed.
Prosecutions under the Official Secrets Act
To be an offence, the disclosure must be damaging. Prosecutions under the Official Secrets Act are rare; Clive Ponting in 1985 for leaking details of the sinking of the General Belgrano during the Falklands War; Richard Tomlinson in 1997 for passing secrets to a journalist; Sarah Tisdall for leaking details of the arrival of American missiles in the UK, and David Shayler.
David Shayler was arrested in France in 1998. He had been working for MI5, and revealed sensitive information to the Daily Mail, suggesting amongst other things that the security services were deliberately planting misinformation in the media and had ignored information that could have prevented terrorist attacks in the UK. The French courts refused to extradite him, ruling that the prosecution was politically motivated. A similar bar exists in the Extradition Act, S13 ‘extraneous considerations’, which prevents the extradition of a person where the warrant is issued for the purpose of prosecuting him or punishing him on account of his race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation or political opinions, or he might be prejudiced at his trial for any of those reasons.
Shayler eventually returned to the UK and was prosecuted. He was convicted after the Judge directed the jury to convict him.
A similar direction to the previous case had been given to the jury in the trial of Clive Ponting, who argued that the Act as it then stood allowed for the publication of information if it was in the interests of the state to do so. Although the trial judge directed the jury that it was up to Government Ministers to decide what was and what was not in the interest of the state, and that the jury should convict the defendant, they acquitted him.
Katharine Gun was charged in 2003 with leaking an email from the National Security Agency in the United States. The email was asking for help in a bugging operation at the United Nations, in the run up to the UN Security Council vote on the invasion of Iraq. Countries who were thought to be undecided were to have their offices bugged. Gun’s defence was that she was acting to prevent imminent loss of life in an illegal war. On the day of trial, for reasons never fully explained, the prosecution offered no evidence.
This seems to have been the last notable prosecution under the Act. Earlier this year, the Law Commission published a paper suggesting ways to bring the Official Secrets Act up to date, to deal with modern issues. the consultation has now closed, but you can still access the documents.
With the majority of Parliamentary time over coming months and years being taken up with Brexit, it seems unlikely that there will be progress soon.
John Howey, Senior SolicitorRead More
Since May 2017 the prison population has grown beyond projected figures to 86,413 despite fewer offences being brought to court. An official capacity of 87,209 in the UK’s prisons is fast being approached. With conditions in prisons already at breaking point and provisions for prisoners worse than ever, the simple fact is that our country needs to overhaul the way in which we they are treated, especially those with mental health problems.
It is a damning indictment that the pride we place, or at least once did, on the provision of an NHS for all does not extend to those in custody. The Guardian recently reported that medical provision was so bad in some prisons that if it were a privately run service outside, it would be shut down. It should be noted that those in custody include defendants awaiting trial as well as those serving sentences, not that the distinction should matter, as health care ought to be a basic expectation.
The purpose of any sentence is not just to punish but to rehabilitate; we cannot as a society do that, or claim to do that, if the most vulnerable are left to suffer. Mental health services are in decline following years of cut-backs. As a result more defendants with mental illnesses are coming into the prison system – it is unsurprising that during the most recent HMI visit to HMP Pentonville 25% of the population declared that they were suffering depression or suicidal tendencies on arrival, with 84% declaring problems of some kind more generally.
One of our own clients has reported that in response to his request for assistance with his serious mental health issues he was given a colouring in book. It is a sad reflection of our times that the care provision has reached such a sorry state of affairs that medical professionals actively avoid practising in some establishments.
UK prisons; profit over care?
Prisons too have suffered cut-backs; successive Conservative governments have sold off prison estate and the running of prisons to private investors. The emphasis has moved to profit over care. The direct result of those cut backs are that prisoners face more time in their cells because the ratio of staff to population is 1 to 50. Imagine being responsible for 50 young men or women, all with their own unique challenges and demands. Shockingly our zoos have a better ratio of staff to population. Couple this with the lack of appropriate mental health care and one can see why there is a rising trend of prison riots and disturbances.
Internet and mobile phones for prisoners?
Although a recent suggestion by MP Vicky Ford that inmates at HMP Chelmsford be given access to mobile phones and other technology was met with ridicule on social media, the idea is sound. With almost one in three adult offenders re-offending there has to be better support for prisoners post-release. Allowing better and more regular contact with families and friends would surely instil a sense of trust in prisoners which in turn is likely to improve self-esteem and confidence.
Our society has changed, we are now connected in far more ways than before in a digital era. Withdrawing that freedom of contact from prisoners is punishment, earning it back demonstrates that we trust them to use it properly. Incentivising learning and development with a trust based reward system has to be better than the current attitude of excessive lockdown.
If the prison population continues to grow and funding continues to decrease, we will soon be at tipping point with a prison system that does nothing to educate and rehabilitate offenders nor maintain their physical or mental health and wellbeing whilst inside. Of course, there has to be an aspect of punishment, and prison should be a deterrent, but that does not mean that we should treat our criminals with no dignity, deny them basic rights and an opportunity to rehabilitate themselves.
As we often remind the court the purpose of any sentence is punishment and rehabilitation, let’s not lose sight of the latter.
If you are facing a criminal proceedings which could carry a custodial sentence contact our team at JFH Crime on 020 7388 1658 or email@example.com.
John Howey, Senior SolicitorRead More
In December 2013, the Home Office appointed an expert panel to investigate what it saw as the increasingly problematic use of psychoactive substances, including nitrous oxide, better known as laughing gas. An expert panel, made up of senior law enforcement officers, policy advisors, academics and medical professionals considered a number of alternative approaches that had already been adopted in other parts of the world. The result was the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, which came into force in May last year.
Within the Act, a psychoactive substance is defined as ‘a substance which produces a psychoactive effect in a person if, by stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system, if affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state’. Of course, this wide definition would include items such as tobacco, alcohol and caffeine and other foodstuffs, so the Act included a list of exempt substances. Also within the exempted substances list are medicinal products, which includes ‘any substance or combination of substances that may be used or administered to human beings with a view to restoring, correcting or modifying a physiological function by exerting a pharmacological, immunological or metabolic action, or making a medical diagnosis’.
In two recent Crown Court cases, prosecutions were brought against individuals who had attempted to supply nitrous oxide, more commonly known as laughing gas. The cases collapsed when the prosecution experts took the view that nitrous oxide was covered by the medicinal products exemption. According to the BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-41098996 around 50 people have already pleaded guilty to the same offence, and this was the first occasion that the charges had actually been contested.
Clearly this piece of legislation will require an urgent review. As it stands it is failing to meet the basic issue it was designed to address.
If you require advice about a similar case, or any other criminal case, please contact us firstname.lastname@example.org or on 020 7388 1658.Read More
A recently issued guidance note from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has sparked a very carefully worded debate about the fine balance of social media, personal comment and the implications a solicitor’s private opinions may have for their professional careers if they spill over into public forums.
The guidance includes reference to the appropriate conduct to be adhered to in practice and professional scenarios, which one would hope are adhered to out of general common sense and decency, but what seems to have prompted the publication is the section dealing with solicitors and their conduct outside of practice.
Although most solicitors do indeed uphold the professional standards expected of them there are times when the SRA has to intervene following complaints by members of the public. Given the potential sanctions, which include exclusion from practice as well as heavy costs and fines, it is of great importance that solicitors know how to avoid falling foul of the SRA when using social media.
One recent example which has featured in the Law Society Gazette was the case of Majid Mahmood who was fined £25,000, suspended from practice for 12 months and ordered to pay £9,500 in costs. His punishment was issued for posting offensive comments on Facebook about shooting ‘Zionists’ and blowing up the ‘chosen people’. To make matters worse Mr Mahmood went on to tell other users to ‘go and fuck yourself’ when it was suggested his comments would be reported to the SRA.
The comments were not made in any professional capacity, nor did Mr Mahmood explicitly state that as a solicitor his opinion did or should carry any additional gravity. However, a hyperlink to his name showed that his job title was a ‘senior solicitor’ with his then employer. The offending posts were removed as apparently was the entire Facebook account.
This case highlights the importance that the SRA and Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal place on maintaining the integrity of the profession to such a high standard that solicitor’s private lives are also potentially subject to heavy scrutiny.
We do not in any way condone Mr Mahmood comments or the subsequent argument with those seeking to challenge him but it does raise the question as to where the line should be drawn in relation to both freedom of information and privacy & family life.
The rise of social media and the ease with which we access it on a daily basis means that it is now easier than ever to express our opinions, whether popular or not. Although Mr Mahmood was not hiding behind a pseudonym or anonymity there are many who do and many who use that cloak to make comments and threats even more offensive than those referred to here.
In its guidance, the SRA reminds solicitors that the principles that have to be upheld outside practice are the administration of justice, public trust and integrity. We would all do well to abide by the recommendation to conduct ourselves with integrity rather than perpetuating online abuse which quite frankly the majority of society would not tolerate, permit or spout in the real world.
The legal profession is one which most of its members are proud to be part of and who would not act contrary to the SRA guidance; issuing this guidance could be seen as somewhat draconian bearing in mind the many other issues the profession faces.