Now that our CCTV report has been published, I am catching up on various stories from the past few weeks. One that you may have already seen is this, over at the Times.
Philip Bowles, a businessman, has been imprisoned for an apparent failure to pay over £1 million in VAT. So far, so fair enough. But the plot thickens.
Bowles lived with his assets frozen for three years, reliant on legal aid to help him fund his defence. In those three years, access to his firm's records (vital to establish the defence) was hampered by this, and also by the fact that the firm was in administration. So a vital report from a forensic accountancy investigation into his affairs, compiled gratis by a neutral accountancy firm, was not ready until after he was convicted on one of the three counts his faced.
The report concluded that, rather than having cheated the Revenue, Bowles had in fact overpaid.
Whilst the document was not available for the trial, was available by the time that it came to sentence this man. His QC submitted that this vital new evidence, unseen by the jury, was so significant that the Court of Appeal ought to hear about it before Bowles was sentenced. This is without precedent, but it must be right, mustn't it? The material was relevant and probative and ought to have been seen by the jury in the course of the trial. It is expert, neutral evidence, pointing directly to the innocence of the convicted man. It has emerged late through no fault of the defendant's.
For those reasons, as you can read about over at the Times, the Judge openly expressed concerns about putting a man “in a place where he should not be if he is not guilty”, saying “I am loath to let this matter drag on but equally I am loath to put a man in prison if he shouldn’t be there." And yet he nevertheless went on to sentence Bowles to custody, and he is now in prison. The Judge, acting – I must stress – entirely in accordance with established rules, protocols, procedures and precedent, sentenced him to imprisonment, pending his now-inevitable appeal.
Behind the eye-catching headline about the judge's doubts, this may at first glance seem to be a narrow or technical question about when and how one can appeal one's conviction and/or sentence. But it's one that has enormous ramifications for the individual in such a position – indeed, it has meant the difference for this man (who has no previous convictions) between being at liberty and being in prison. As he spends Christmas behind bars, to him and his family that distinction will not seem narrow or technical at all.
Until his case is heard in the Court of Appeal, this 60 year old businessman with no previous convictions will be incarcerated at our expense rather than out and earning and supporting his family. One must ask, in the circumstances – to what end?
I in no way mean to take a cheap crack at the justice system in which I have worked for some years but it seems to me that a legal system that lacks the flexibility properly to reflect the discovery or production of significant new evidence is a system in which the relationship between the state and its rigid procedures and the individual is unbalanced. It is a system in which the very serious power to deny an individual his liberty is not fettered by appropriate caution and governed by good sense as it properly should be. It is a system in need of reform.
By Alex Deane