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British justice the envy of the world? Tell that to Nigel Evans

14 April 2014

11:32 AM

14 April 2014

11:32 AM

I am utterly delighted that Nigel Evans has been acquitted of serious allegations of sexual assault. He is a good, kind, gentle and decent man and a very old friend. I hope that he will be able to reconstruct his political career.

Hope? Well yes. He might have been acquitted but the stigma is still there. The country has been salivating at tales of hands down trousers, drunken groping and late night romps. And there is a vociferous group of militants who believe that whatever the decision of a jury, any man accused of rape must be guilty. So in the eyes of some, Nigel’s acquittal is meaningless.

If nothing else this case highlights the need for anonymity of defendants in cases of sexual assault and rape. Ah, some will say, this will prevent other victims coming forward. Not so. Make it a rule that all defendants in sex-related cases are automatically granted anonymity but with the prosecution having the right to apply to a judge to waive this anonymity in exceptional circumstances.

The next question is whether there should be a review as to how the CPS brings rape cases to court. I prosecute these sorts of cases and there have been flotillas of these reviews. In lay terms the guidelines are that complainants have a right to be heard and this has to be weighed against the strength of the evidence – and each case is unique. Yet we are all victims of history; the horrors of Savile still resonate. We must never return to the days when those who want to complain are ignored or not taken seriously. This is of particular concern if the allegations are ancient. How does the CPS decide, unless it is gross and obvious, that the complainant is genuine or a vindictive gold digger? If there is supporting evidence, fine. But in most cases involving sex there is no independent evidence. Who do you believe? By and large it must be for a jury to decide. That is not to say that, where there are serious concerns, there should not be case by case reviews. As a rule of thumb, it is wise never to sound off about a trial unless you have read the court papers as opposed to the newspapers. But I did speak to Nigel after the prosecution case had closed and I commented that I would be amazed if a jury convicted after what had unfolded in court.

The question for any review is how much of this was known to officers and reviewing lawyers beforehand or did it all emerge through skilful cross examination? Dominic Grieve, one of the finest Attorney Generals in living memory, is wise to refer the Evans case back to the DPP for a full report. And there will be others. But a word of warning to the press and politicians alike: emotive words like ‘witch hunts’ help nobody. Each decision to prosecute must be made by people of cool heads and sound judgement based on the evidence. And, if they get it seriously wrong, there must be consequences.

The celebrity sex acquittals raise some very big issues. The CPS budget has been radically cut by our hopeless Minister of Justice, Chris Grayling. The CPS is working on a shoestring. Serious cases are being binned because they are too expensive to prosecute – and I mean rapes and frauds. The chances of the CPS instructing a silk nowadays, with the exception of high profile or the most serious cases, are negligible.

Then flip the coin. Despite the criminal legal aid bill plummeting over the last seven years, Grayling intends to cut it even more, driving out the talented, specialised independent Bar and replacing it with cheaper options, such as G4s, Serco and Cooperative law. The first two are under investigation for allegedly defrauding the taxpayer. And the Coop? Just say it with Flowers, like their undertaking service.

What happened to the Conservative tradition of choice? Soon High Street solicitors will be a thing of the past. The MoJ plan is to cut the number to about 600. In their place, blood sucking corporations will be filling our courts with young and inexperienced lawyers. Worse, there will be a financial incentive to persuade their clients to plead guilty.

Nigel Evans had no choice to pay for a top silk for his trial; he wouldn’t have got a certificate for one under legal aid. And yet the prosecution had forked out for its own silk. Well, at least Evans will get his costs back because he won just like in a civil case, some may say. No chance. The rules have been changed. Evans gets a bill for about £130k.

So Evans, after an acquittal, after having his reputation trashed, after having his parliamentary career put in limbo, faces the prospect of bankruptcy. And what does that mean? He would have to resign his seat. So much for British Justice. The envy of the world? Not unless you live in Russia or Zimbabwe. And if Grayling has his way it will be far, far worse. The sooner he sets sail on the Maria Celeste the better.

Jerry Hayes is a criminal barrister. He was Conservative MP for Harlow between 1983-1997.

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