Tag Archives: Neil Lennon

Why Did the Jury Acquit Neil Lennon’s Attacker? Paul McBride QC Thinks He Knows

 

 

Following on from the furore regarding the acquittal of John Wilson on the charge of assaulting Neil Lennon last season at Tynecastle, Paul McBride QC turned up on Newsnight to discuss the verdict.

Mr McBride is one of the finest lawyers in Scotland, and his courage in dealing with having an alleged letter bomb allegedly sent to him is much to be admired.

However I think that he was slightly less than fair in all that he said, and I wonder if his comments are a preview of a position which will become more widely adopted.

Mr McBride expressed astonishment at the verdict passed by the jury. He commented that he had spoken to no one, whether in the legal profession or outside, who could remotely understand the verdict of not guilty on the assault charge. As he was speaking, various people, some with legal backgrounds, were seeking to explain the verdict if not seeking to justify it.

Chris Fyffe, a Dundee solicitor-advocate, in a detailed and thoughtful analysis commented at length regarding the matters which had been publicised to point out how the jury might have arrived at its decision.

The process by which a jury reaches its verdict is shrouded in mystery, and under Section 8 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981  it is an offence to “obtain, disclose or solicit” details of the jurors’ deliberations. The Scottish Courts have regularly confirmed that it is impossible to go past the jury room door once the judge has sent the jury off to consider its verdict, for example in the case of Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, Petitioners in which the decision was handed down on 25th July 2001 and which is reported here.

So all that anyone can do is to guess at quite how or why the jury reached its verdict as regards Mr Wilson.

Mr McBride however did appear to be well aware of what was, in his view, relevant to the decision. He commented that the Crown had presented an excellent case. Bearing in mind that Mr McBride was not present in court throughout the case, as I have had confirmed to me, one wonders how he is in position to comment on how the case was presented. It is not uncommon for an apparently watertight case to leak like a colander once the lawyers start talking, and witnesses enter the witness box. That is why, after all, we actually hold a trial!

Whilst I have read and heard opinions expressed that the Crown must, in some way have botched the presentation of the case, I am in an equally poor position as Mr McBride to comment on how the case was laid out in court as I was not there either. Any criticism I have of Crown Office relates to the background of the apparent removal of discretion from the individual prosecutor, rather than anything done in Edinburgh Sheriff Court by them.

But Mr McBride concluded with a statement which is, to me, of great concern. Whilst he did not specifically relate it to this jury (and neither he nor anyone else is capable of speaking with authority about this particular jury) his comment by implication did seem directed towards the jury box at Edinburgh Sheriff Court.

He complained that in Scotland, unlike many other systems, we had jurors who could not read, who could not write and who were laden with prejudices. Something had to be done, said Mr McBride, to resolve this problem.

Mr McBride, as well as his prominent position in the legal firmament, is closely linked with the Conservative Party, having left the Labour Party behind.

In light of that, might his musings about the defects in the jury system be given greater credence, than those of other lawyers?

Many lawyers over the years have blamed the jury and its quirks for a case ending in a way they did not like. This applies equally to prosecution and defence. It’s like blaming the referee for losing a football game, or the doctor stating that the operation was a success, but the patient died.

Is the Scottish court system imperilled by illiterate, innumerate and prejudiced jurors? Have we now reached a stage where the jurors’ oath and the directions of the judge are no longer sufficient to ensure that justice is done? Does Mr McBride want a return to the days of “peremptory challenges” of jurors, where generally the defence would object to any teacher sitting on the jury and if a person turned up for jury duty with a suit, bowler hat, rolled umbrella and copy of the Daily Telegraph, they would be objected to before they had had a chance to move towards the jury box?

Does Mr McBride want to have jury vetting, as in the United States? In a recent high profile case there, where the baseball star Roger Clemens was tried for perjury, jury selection went on for over a week, before the trial, having started, collapsed on Day 2! Whilst the legal profession might delight in the extra work such a process would bring, it would do nothing for the hard pressed courts and the amounts of work that has to be processed.

Should there be pre-jury service questionnaires to establish competence on the part of prospective jurors? I suspect some would try to “fail” such tests so as to avoid service! Should we revert to some form of property or other qualification for jurors? For example, must they be a home owner and in employment, and how does that deal with the questions of competence and prejudice?

I may be making far too much of a throw away remark by Mr McBride QC, but he is not a man known for that. Generally his comments are well thought out and delivered clearly. If he feels that the jury system needs revised in some way, then I am sure he could persuade others to that view. Where might that lead?

In conclusion, the maxim that “Hard Cases make bad law” is figuratively engraved on anyone who has studied law. Taking unique or especially troubling, distressing or baffling cases or incidents and trying to establish some across the board change as a result is usually a recipe for disaster, for example with the Dangerous Dogs Act. Let’s hope that the decision of the jury in Mr Wilson’s case, who were of course the best placed people to determine the issue of Wilson’s guilt or innocence, is not used to make radical changes of any sort.

 

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Filed under Courts, Criminal Law, Jury System, Law Reform

Neil Lennon Was Not Assaulted by the Man Who Admitted Assaulting Him!

Lawyers are often sceptical of media reports of court cases where the media express shock at the decision of a judge or jury. The view amongst the legal profession is that, without having seen and heard all of the evidence, and legal submissions in the case, one cannot offer a properly informed opinion. It is generally not especially constructive to comment upon a court case based only upon the limited reports of proceedings in the newspapers and on television.

However, every once in a while there comes a case where even lawyers will say “What the @#%* happened there??!!”

One such reached a verdict today, in the case against John Wilson, heard before a jury at Edinburgh Sheriff Court. Mr Wilson faced charges that, at a Hearts v Celtic match last season, he had assaulted Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager, and had caused a breach of the peace “by conducting himself in a disorderly manner, running onto the field during the match, running at the away team dug out, shouting, swearing, making a sectarian remark, all to the alarm and annoyance of others and causing further disturbance within the crowd” and that both offences were aggravated by religious prejudice.

The jury returned a verdict of guilty on the charge of breach of the peace, with the sectarian element removed, and not proven on the assault charge.

Bearing in mind that the incident had been seen by several thousand spectators at the ground, by hundreds of thousands on television, and by large numbers on the Internet, it seemed astonishing that Mr Wilson was contesting the charges at all!

That surprise however was overtaken by shock at the jury’s verdict. How could this happen?

 

The “perverse” jury is an age old phenomenon.  John Liliburne was acquitted by a jury in 1649 on a charge of High Treason for his opposition to Oliver Cromwell, despite the clear direction of the court that he should be convicted. In Bushel’s Case in 1670  Edward Bushel had previously been a juror in the trail of the Quakers’ founder, William Penn. The jury had returned a verdict with which the judge had disagreed. The judge proceeded to “punish” the jurors, imprisoning and fining them. Bushel stood against this, and it was ruled that a jury could not be punished for the verdict it returned.

Even in recent years, such as in the case of Clive Ponting,  who had admitted passing on “secrets” to Tam Dalyell, MP, juries have stood against what they consider to be oppressive behaviour by the State. Mr Ponting was effectively guilty of a “Strict liability” offence under the Official Secrets Act 1911. The judge at his trial in 1985 was minded to take the case out of the jury’s hands as no legal defence existed. However the prosecution, perhaps concerned by political implications of a conviction without the jury “rubber stamping” the verdict, insisted that the matter should be put to them. Despite directions that there was no defence, the jury acquitted Mr Ponting.

It might seem strange to cite these important cases in connection with that of Mr Wilson. This, at first, seems more akin to a recent case before a jury in a Scottish court where the accused faced two charges. The Sheriff directed that he could be convicted of either, or of none, but not of both. After long consideration, the jury returned to court to seek the Sheriff’s assistance. Could they convict the man on both charges, as that was what they were minded to do? The Sheriff repeated the direction that it was one conviction, or none. After a further short break, and as the clock ticked past 5.30pm, the jury returned. A “Not Proven” verdict was delivered on both charges! The legal process puts itself in peril if it prevents a Scottish jury getting its dinner on time!

 

Already the theories regarding Mr Wilson’s jury being packed with Hearts’ fans or Rangers’ fans are doing the rounds. But comments by David Nicolson, Mr Wilson’s excellent defence counsel, seem perhaps to make the mystery clearer. He is quoted as having said in court that his client had earlier been willing to plead guilty to breach of the peace and assault under deletion of making a sectarian remark and being aggravated by religious prejudice, but the Crown had not accepted his plea.

On that basis, as an acceptable plea could not be agreed, the case had to proceed to trial.

From the evidence reported, it seems that there was only one witness who spoke in support of the “sectarian remark” allegation. As a consequence it could be argued that there was never any prospect of a conviction on that basis, and the jury, it would appear, seemed to decide to “punish” the prosecution by not convicting the man for an assault he had effectively admitted!

 

Why would the prosecution have taken such a stance, with the consequences it appears to have had?

As has been made repeatedly clear by successive Scottish administrations, there are certain types of criminal offence which are of particular concern and which the police and prosecuting authorities focus on stamping out. Offences motivated by prejudice, such as those aggravated by racial or sectarian hatred, domestic violence, and knife crime are all areas where the decision has been taken that extra effort is required to reduce, or even end, these blights on our society.

As a result, prosecutors have been given ever more strict guidelines as to how to deal with cases where there is one of these elements alleged to play a part. This can mean that prosecutors no longer have discretion, on a local basis, to remove such a part of a charge, without clearance from Crown Office in Edinburgh.

 

The net effect, as we see here with Mr Wilson, is that cases go to trial which really ought not to, and verdicts are arrived at which, frankly, make the Scottish justice system look ridiculous. The jury’s decision vindicates that plea of not guilty tendered by Mr Wilson’s legal team.

To an extent, one can sympathise with the Crown Office who must feel that they are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. Only last week they were criticised  for not acknowledging a racial element in the killing of Mr Simon San.

 

However, it is clear amongst criminal defence lawyers that the approach taken by the Crown Office regarding these matters has resulted in verdicts which seem perverse, with victims having to give evidence in cases where they really ought not to have to, and to substantial additional costs in terms of court expense and Legal Aid. One of the vital elements of the Scottish criminal justice system has always been the discretion given to each local Procurator Fiscal, often deciding how to deal with cases “in the public interest” having taken account of local circumstances and conditions. A “one size fits all” approach is not the best here, I feel.

And also the insistence on the part of the Crown that the religious/sectarian aggravations stayed as part of the charges simply confirms what the late Sheriff John Fitzsimons discussed many years ago at a session for Dumbarton Faculty solicitors, where he was speaking about the difference between “racially aggravated offences” and “offences racially aggravated”. These “hate crime” aggravations have now been extended to other areas, as mentioned above, but the late Sheriff felt that these semantic distinctions, which were important as far as disposal of a case was concerned, were confusing enough for the Sheriffs, never mind the jurors who might be required to consider them in serious cases.

 

The chickens have come home to roost today and Mr Wilson has benefited, as far as his verdict goes anyway, from the apparent insistence of the Crown to have a sectarian element attached to his conviction, perhaps especially as this incident formed part of the shameful sequence of events surrounding football earlier this year which caused the SNP Ministers to promote the flawed Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill and had the First Minister referring to the “cancer” of sectarianism.

We now have a man who undoubtedly was guilty of an assault, aggravated by the circumstances in which it took place, cleared of that offence. This makes the campaign against the curse of sectarianism seem lacklustre.

 

Hopefully it will not provoke the Justice Secretary into deciding that the Bill referred to above should be revised to make it easier to gain such convictions.

Instead it would be better if the level of Procurator Fiscal independence, within the Crown Office framework as was the case of old, could be restored.

If not, I suspect we will see continuing cases where apparently ridiculous verdicts are returned, and whilst this is a good thing for newspapers and bloggers with space to fill, it undermines and demeans the whole justice system.

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Filed under Courts, Criminal Law, Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill, The Scottish Ministers