“The decision… gave rise to unfairness”

The appeals court has published its ruling in the Tommy Robinson case. The summary is particularly helpful but the full opinion is worth giving a good look as well. (Also see the discussions at Tim’s blog, here and here.)

The appellate judges produced an excellent explanation of the errors and irregularities during the contempt trial at the Leeds Crown Court on May 25, 2018. That trial proceeded at the speed of a court martial in wartime, with the same regard for the defendant’s rights and protections. Reading the appellate judgment is like going through a not particularly funny comedy of errors.

The charges were not read out in full and no plea was taken. The judge, however, assumed the defendant had pled guilty and sentenced him under this assumption, accepting the non-existent admission of guilt as mitigation. “Sentence first – verdict, never.” In light of this, the judge’s reluctance to actually examine the evidence seems a minor imperfection.

Now, I realize that contempt proceedings are a freak of the Anglo-American legal system. Although the charges are criminal in all but name, potentially resulting in prison time, the judge gets to act as the accuser, trier of fact and passer of sentence. That’s atypical of any modern system of justice and makes the defendant particularly vulnerable. Even more than usual, she has to rely on the decency of the judge.

However – as the appeals court explains – contempt is not legally a crime and the sanction for it is not a “sentence of imprisonment” but “committal.” A person committed for contempt is supposed to be treated  as an inmate on remand, not as a convict. Despite this, the Leeds judge entered an “order of imprisonment” – not of committal – and imposed a “victim surcharge,” which is only applicable to criminal convictions.

Why did judge Marson, with his 40-plus years of legal experience, conduct the trial as if he were an ill-intentioned amateur? He had good reasons to be angry with Robinson for putting a major sex abuse trial at risk; perhaps he lost his poise and good judgment. Perhaps. Some argue that he deliberately broke the law to send a message.

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