Many years ago, I met up for a drink with a friend who had just become a pupil to a junior barrister. I should perhaps explain that the latter was actually the wrong side of fifty, but – because he had never ‘taken silk’ (become a QC) – he was still technically a ‘junior’. My pal shared with me his shock at going through some police witness statements of an interview conducted with a client that they were about to defend.
His boss had marked up some two and a half pages of one statement and announced, based simply upon his knowledge and experience, that they were completely made up. By the police.
After my pal had expressed his outrage at even the possibility, his boss counselled restraint and told him a few home truths. Fabrication of evidence by the police was rife, if not perhaps standard practice. It was borne of practicality and ‘the game’ that played out under the criminal law.
Stripped to its basics, there were hundreds of petty criminals known to the police and, as regards any particular arrest or charge, the challenge of the day in court was whether or not the prosecution could ‘pot’ the defendant … or, alternatively, his defence lawyers could prompt enough doubt in the minds of the jury that it would decide that the police had failed the ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ threshold required to gain a conviction.
Registering that my pal was reeling from these revelations, his boss unleashed more ‘facts of judicial life’. His job, as a defence counsel, was to spot holes in the prosecution case and/or persuade the jury that all was not quite as the police had alleged. As it frequently wasn’t. Never mind any fabrication of evidence, the police also habitually colluded with each other – as they were not supposed to – in order ensure that their ‘version’ of the facts were consistent.
The other side of ‘the game’, of course, was that petty criminals were as aware of its ‘rules’ as the police.
Much later, after my pal had left the Bar – partly because of his distaste at ‘the game’ – he told me of the time at a Crown Court when he had been downstairs to commiserate with a client who had been found guilty. He was shocked (again) to find that, far from being disgruntled at the outcome, the client had praised his conduct of the case and his speech in mitigation, commenting that he’d certainly hire him again if necessary. My pal left that meeting – and indeed, the profession – convinced that his client was innocent of the crime in question, but had accepted his conviction for it (and six months in gaol) as ‘par for the course’ in terms of the fifty-or-more other burglaries over the previous year or so that he’d undertaken without being caught.
As indeed did the police.
I was reminded of the above yesterday, as I caught Sky News’ fascinating ‘live’ coverage of Tory MP Andrew Mitchell’s press conference following the Criminal Prosecution Service’s announcement of its conclusions and actions regarding the infamous ‘Plebgate’ Affair which had ultimately cost Mitchell his job in the Coalition Government.
He, along with friend and fellow Tory MP David Davies and two lawyers, did a compelling job of attacking the CPS’s findings and the witness statements of the policemen involved in the 49 second encounter at the gates leading to Number 10 Downing Street, as Mitchell set off on his bicycle, presumably to go home.
It certainly poured scorn on the contents of PC Toby Rowland’s statement of what happened, simply by reference to the available ‘real time’ CCTV footage.
Firstly, Rowland’s account of his conversation with Mitchell on the night appeared to amount to something far more substantial than was technically possible in 49 seconds.
Secondly, Rowland’s version – which told of a number of ‘members of the public’ witnessing, and being shocked by, Mitchell’s language and attitude – was hardly borne out. All that the CCTV footage showed was one male individual hanging around outside the gate, and two women walking by and paying no attention to the incident at all.
After the best part of fifteen months beyond the incident – and much police time and taxpayers’ money spent – we seem to have come to one officer being charged with ‘misconduct in public office’ for falsely claiming in an email to have been present, with another seven being subjected to disciplinary action.
The police service has gained little credit from this entire episode and its aftermath. The sheer length of time it has taken them to conduct their investigation into the matter condemns them on its own. The comments of the Metropolitan Police commissioner and the extraordinary ‘interview’ between Mitchell and three Police Federation officers (from which their accounts and Mitchell’s own recording of the meeting are irreconcilable) don’t help either.
For those who didn’t see the Mitchell press conference yesterday, below is included a Channel Four report on it.
To watch it, click on the video clip at the top of the page. In it, presenter Jon Snow introduces the subject and then a report by Michael Crick, who broke the original story, on the day’s developments – see here – CHANNEL FOUR NEWS