Monday, 14 April 2014

ARE THEY READING THE SMALL PRINT?

Do they know what they're doing?
Did Nigel Evans vote for the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012? Presumably not, because as a deputy speaker of the House of Commons he had forsworn political partisanship in that chamber. Would he have voted for it had that not been the case? Did he know what was in it? If he did, would he have voted for it if he had known that two years later he would be on he wrong end of a £130,000 bill for legal costs incurred in his defence against a string of sexual assault charges,of all of which he was found not guilty?

The question arises because Mr Evans has been making the rounds of the media demanding, among other things, that the Crown Prosecution Service should pay his legal bills. On Five Live Breakfast at about ten to nine this morning (14th April) the incisive Nicky Campbell was quick to note that it was not only the wrongly accused who were potential victims of legislative injustices, whether inflicted for ideological or fiscal reasons. Benefits claimants, in particular, had a right to complain, as Mr Evans was doing, that nobody who had not experienced the consequences of the legislation that targeted them could appreciate the extent of the harms that it caused.

What is surprising, however, is that Mr Evans says he did not know, until his solicitor recently told him, that his costs were irrecoverable under the 2012 Act. Nicky Campbell missed a trick here in not asking him why he did not know, bearing in mind that he was a member of the legislature that passed the act. Is it acceptable that lawmakers should not know the contents and implications of the laws that they are passing?

Part of the answer is to be found in the act's long title, which, at risk of losing my readers, is worth quoting in full:
An Act to make provision about legal aid; to make further provision about funding legal services; to make provision about costs and other amounts awarded in civil and criminal proceedings; to make provision about referral fees in connection with the provision of legal services; to make provision about sentencing offenders, including provision about release on licence or otherwise; to make provision about the collection of fines and other sums; to make provision about bail and about remand otherwise than on bail; to make provision about the employment, payment and transfer of persons detained in prisons and other institutions; to make provision about penalty notices for disorderly behaviour and cautions; to make provision about the rehabilitation of offenders; to create new offences of threatening with a weapon in public or on school premises and of causing serious injury by dangerous driving; to create a new offence relating to squatting; to increase penalties for offences relating to scrap metal dealing and to create a new offence relating to payment for scrap metal; and to amend section 76 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008.
This act contains a string of high profile and controversial provisions, including a reduction in legal aid (which is different from recovery of legal costs), the criminalisation of squatting in residential property and new, minimum sentences for knife crime. There is so much tied up in here that Mr Evans may, perhaps, be forgiven for missing the full import of the particular gem that has left him out of pocket:

After section 16 insert—“16A Legal costs (1) A defendant’s costs order may not require the payment out of central funds of an amount that includes an amount in respect of the accused’s legal costs, subject to the following provisions of this section. (2) Subsection (1) does not apply where condition A, B or C is met. (3) Condition A is that the accused is an individual and the order is made under—(a) section 16(1),(b) section 16(3), or(c) section 16(4)(a)(ii) or (iii) or (d)...."

There is always a frisson of schadenfreude when a MP falls victim to a law that their own party has enacted, and Mr Evan's case does not come close to that of Lady Scotland, who was fined £5,000 for a "technical breach" of a law that she had, as the relevant minister, been responsible for shepherding through parliament. Nonetheless, here is yet more evidence of a parliamentary system that is out of touch with reality and unable to keep tabs on a government that is far too quick to legislate on matters that it does not fully understand.

Mr Evans's more important point, that the process for prosecuting historic sex-related offences needs thorough reform, is well made. But this is a sensitive issue requiring careful thought and consultation. There are no quick wins and certainly no vote-grabbing sound-bites to be had, so don't expect Westminster to get onto it any time soon.



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