by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (May 4th 2013)
The downfall of British judge Constance Briscoe has been long overdue. She claimed to have hauled herself up from adversity to sit on the Bench – a role model for aspiring black lawyers, but was she ever the inspiration she claimed to be? The 57-year-old barrister and part time judge was no stranger to controversy, having claimed to have triumphed over adversity in childhood and successfully sued her mother for libel.
She now contemplates her spectacular fall from grace from a prison cell – sentenced to 16 months for intending to pervert the course of justice. She deceived police investigating the offences committed by former Minister Chris Huhne and his estranged wife, the economist wife Vicky Pryce.
Briscoe’s recent crimes have been well reported, but should it have ever come to this? Fifteen years ago the Bar Council failed to investigate whether she was fit to practice over several very serious allegations, including forging signatures. The astonishing thing was the complainant was Briscoe’s mother whom she sued for libel. Her mother’s allegations are now being investigated.
“Perjury strikes at the heart of the criminal justice system”, Mr Justice (Sir David) Maddison said when he jailed three witnesses who had lied in a notorious miscarriage of justice – the Lynette White Inquiry. Unlike Briscoe, Mark Grommek, Angela Psaila and Learnne Vilday had an excuse – a good one. They had been browbeaten into telling the lies the police demanded of them. Unlike Briscoe the intent to pervert the course of justice was not their’s, but they alone paid the price.
They had no real choice, but to tell the lies they told and once they had told the first batch, they were boxed in. They had little choice but to stick to a monstrous script – one that they were later sent to jail for sticking to. Unlike Briscoe they had mitigation – plenty of it. The judge, Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and even the police that investigated their perjury admitted that they had been bullied. They were subjected to conduct that was in Maddison’s words: “unacceptable in a civilised society”. They were denied a defence by an ass of a law that found this conduct unacceptable, but did not meet the legal standard of duress.
They had perverted the course of justice, but unlike Briscoe only because justice had been so perverted as to force them to commit those crimes against justice. They were then punished for committing the very crimes that they were given no choice but to commit. The law that resulted in their convictions is archaic and unjust. The lawyers and functionaries implementing it must know that In their situation virtually all of us would have done as they did, but it matters not a whit to the law and those charged to uphold it. Where was that same law and its enforcers when these victims of a grave injustice needed protection and support?
Freedom of Choice
Unlike them, Constance Briscoe freely chose her path to disgrace, but she was treated more leniently than they were. The New Cardiff Three were sent to jail for 18 months – two more than Briscoe who had no excuse. Briscoe was intended to be the star witness against Huhne, but her friendship with Pryce and role in her friend’s revenge almost caused the trial to collapse. Briscoe and Pryce and Huhne – all of whom had privileged lives – had no excuse. The New Cardiff Three really had rotten lives and were vulnerable to the abuse by the criminal justice system that overcame them partly because of the vulnerability to abuse those lives left them open to.
Briscoe claims she overcame serious adversity in her childhood – her family tell a different story. Years after the allegations of her being a fantasist and worse first surfaced, they are finally being investigated seriously. Briscoe may yet face further trials.
Unfit for Purpose
The CPS has had over a quarter of a century to overcome teething problems. But it remains unfit for purpose. It botched the prosecution of police officers over a notorious miscarriage of justice through utter incompetence. It refuses to take responsibility for an appalling job throughout the notorious Lynette White Inquiry – far from the only botched prosecution it has been responsible for.
It prosecuted innocent men in spite of its Code for Crown Prosecutors, even having the chutzpah to justify the decision to prosecute by having secured convictions – now recognised as it should have been back then as one of Britain’s most notorious miscarriages of justice. It ignored the law when failing to appeal the outrageous leniency of the real killer’s tariff. Its performance in that case – and others too – has been a litany of gross failure.
It appointed a Disclosure Officer in a case where it knew that the defendants – former police officers – would seek to exploit disclosure obligations to undermine the trial. Despite this it fails to explain how the trial could have collapsed over disclosure if that lawyer had done his job. It refuses to account for the millions of public resources it has shamefully wasted, but it can prosecute people it accepts were bullied by those police officers and punish them alone for all the flaws its rotten performance in this case exemplifies.
The New Cardiff Three (Mark Grommek, Angela Psaila and Learnne Vilday) perjured themselves and perverted the course of justice, but unlike Briscoe they had no choice and the trial of those accused of forcing them to lie collapsed on an absurd technicality, meaning they evaded the consequences of their actions and uncivilised conduct. Our concern remains the conduct of the CPS. Judges being jailed for perjury is a rare occurrence – thankfully. However, justice must be dispensed evenly. In this case it has been, but what about all the others?
Embittered but Credible
Huhne, admittedly an embittered and ordinarily discredited source, raises important questions about the CPS. “Constance Briscoe has been revealed as a compulsive and self-publicising fantasist”, Huhne said after her conviction. “British justice is likely to be a lot fairer with Briscoe behind bars. If she can make up the witness statement used as the key evidence against me, she is clearly capable of hiding evidence she should have disclosed to the defence in the many cases that she prosecuted for the Crown Prosecution Service. Aggrieved defendants will now seek a CPS review”.
The Bar Council dismissed previous complaints against Briscoe as a family dispute. The judiciary also failed to rein in a judge, now exposed as rogue. The CPS has no plans to investigate cases handled by Briscoe as judge or barrister. Such decisions bring it into further disrepute. Surely now there can be no confidence in her conduct on the Bench and indeed as a barrister. And with the refusal of the CPS to investigate here cases, can there be any confidence in it?
The CPS will not investigate whether she has contributed to miscarriages of justice during her career at the Bar and on the Bench, which lasted almost three decades. The CPS has issued a statement: “We have no plans to review cases involving Constance Briscoe as counsel”. Why not? And why does the criminal justice system allow the CPS to betray justice yet again?