Thursday, 4 February 2010

Cherie Blair under fire for sparing religious man jail

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The National Secular Society have lodged an official complaint against Cherie Blair with the Office for Judicial Complaints, after she appeared to let a man off with a suspended sentence for assault on account of him being "a religious man". Cherie was sitting as a judge – under her professional moniker Cherie Booth – in Inner London Crown Court, and heard the case of Shamso Miah of Redbridge who, having just been to the Mosque, decided to indulge in the highly religious activity of getting into an argument with a man in a bank queue, before punching him in the face and breaking his jaw. And when the man had the tenacity to chase Miah outside and demand to know why he had been punched, he punched him again.

Miah pleaded guilty to actual bodily harm, but was spared jail and given a suspended sentence by Cherie, who said:
“I am going to suspend this sentence for the period of two years based on the fact you are a religious person and have not been in trouble before. You caused a mild fracture to the jaw of a member of the public standing in a queue at Lloyds Bank. You are a religious man and you know this is not acceptable behaviour.”
So, just so we have this clear, if you have any plans to punch anyone in the face, it's probably a good idea to go to a place of worship first, and tell the judge you're a religious person. But what if you're an atheist? If we're following Cherie's logic, you'd be heading straight for the slammer.

Naturally, the National Secular Society objected to this and lodged the complaint, with president Terry Sanderson saying “This seems to indicate that she would not have treated a non-religious person with the same latitude. We think this is discriminatory and unjust.”

Update: A lively debate has broken out about this story online since earlier this morning. The Guardian's Andrew Brown wrote a rather unfair piece accusing NSS president Terry Sanderson of wishing to make religious belief a mark of bad character:
"In Sanderson's world, judges should say things like 'Although you have no previous convictions, you are none the less a follower of Pope Benedict XVI and so unable to tell right from wrong. I therefore find myself compelled to impose a custodial sentence.'"
If Brown could identify a time when Sanderson has suggested this, then fair enough. But he never has, and so the assertion is unfair and utterly ridiculous. Indeed, we have a piece by Sanderson in our current issue in which he points out that he's entirely indifferent about religion. He just wants it left out of public life. There's a lively comment thread on Brown's article, should you feel moved to join in.

A further debate around this issue centres on the issue of whether or not Booth's words amount to discrimination. When the story broke, legal blogger Jack of Kent – well known for his insightful analysis of the Simon Singh / chiropractic case – immediately called foul. The NSS state that the ruling "seems to indicate that she [Booth] would not have treated a non-religious person with the same latitude. We think this is discriminatory and unjust." However, Jack of Kent (who, in fact, has now commented on this post) and other legally-minded folk have pointed out that unless there is evidence of a case where a judge has imposed a heavier sentence on an atheist on account of their lack of religious belief, and thus implied lack of good character, then this can not be seen as discrimination. It is common for defence lawyers to point to their clients' good character when arguing for a lenient sentence, and this may involve reference to their group affiliations, including religion. Of course, there is an interesting debate to be had as to whether judges should be accepting religious belief as an indication of good character (which as the BHA have pointed out, it clearly isn't always). It seems that, rather than discrimination, is the real story with regards to Cherie's ruling.

20 comments:

rb said...

I think you mean "suspended" rather than "prison" in the para immediately before the quote from Cherie. You might want to correct it?

Eric said...

Wouldn't it be wonderful if lawyers and judges in particular had a good grasp on the nature of evidence?

Paul Sims said...

I did indeed! An unfortunate error that, thanks for pointing it out.

Eiskrystal said...

"You are a religious man and you know this is not acceptable behaviour.”"

Implying of course that the non-religious wouldn't have a clue that beating someone over a bit of queuing was a bad thing.

Lucky we have the religious to show us exactly how to behave in public eh?

Jack of Kent said...

There are perhaps two issues here.

The allegation of discrimination is serious. However, there is no actual evidence in this case that an atheist would have received less favourable treatment in seeking to similarly mitigate their sentence.

An allegation of discrimination needs more than an "implication" of words which may not even be reported correctly or may even be taken out of context.

Unless and until there is an example of a similar defendant seeking mitigation on the basis of secular/ethical/humanist/atheist affiliations, and then having a less favourable result, then there is no basis for allegation of discrimination.

In fact, judges usually refer, when sentencing, to the mitigation made in that particular case.



Second, is religious belief (or any belief or lack of belief) even relevant to evidencing good character?

Here, as a liberal, I think any defendant should be allowed to put any mitigation to a judge. Criminal sanctions are rather serious things and so a defendant should not be restricted from raising whatever mitigation he or she can.

So it then becomes an issue for the judge. If a judge thinks that good character has been established/evidenced by certain affiliations, then the judge should say so.

That is not the same thing as saying ONLY those affiliations can establish good character to that judge; and so we return to the discrimination point.

Here, do note I am an atheist; I also dislike the Blairs generally.

But there is no evidence here that Cheire Booth acted improperly in discharging her judicial function.

Indeed, one would find every day judges giving mitigation for a variety of reasons based on the pleas in mitigation made in particular cases.

Reported statements in court by judges can be misreported. Bad court/legal journalism is as common as bad science journalism. One should always be sceptical of court or any reporting which confirms one's prejudices.

For me, unless there is evidence of discrimination (a similar crime with similar facts with good character being pleaded in mitigation, but on a non-religious basis, leading to a harsher punishment) then this appears to be a non-story.

Mark Jones said...

Well Jack of Kent's the lawyer, so I accept his legal opinion on the niceties of discrimination.

But the more important issue that needs highlighting is the unthinking equating of 'religious' to 'moral' (and neither do I think it's desirable that 'religious' should be considered 'immoral'). It's just not relevant when considering moral character. As I've said elsewhere, as long as Cherie Blair will also say:

"I am going to suspend this sentence for the period of two years based on the fact you are a godless heathen and have not been in trouble before."

...then I see nothing to complain about!

Lucifee said...

Agree completely with J of K as usual.

Would add further point. This man pleaded guilty. I think his barrister was probably submitting to the Judge that he knew he had done wrong - the relevance of his religion would be (and could only be) that it made him aware or even particularly aware that he had done wrong. It is not equating religious with moral. It is stating that on the facts of this case the defendant's religious belief made him particularly remorseful.

That is a perfectly respectable ground on which to mitigate someone's sentence. It is the only ground on which religious belief could be relevant. And what Cherie Booth is reported as saying is entirely consistent with that.

Mark Jones said...

Lucifee said:

"It is stating that on the facts of this case the defendant's religious belief made him particularly remorseful."

Just to be clear then, Cherie Blair's reference to 'religious' is to show that the man is *remorseful* (and that mitigates the sentence), not that he's of good moral character?

Saronimo said...

Surely she was at best 'alluding to' religious people knowing the correct (ahem) way to behave rather than 'implying'.

If she were explicitly implying she would have said "You know this is not acceptable behaviour because you are a religious man." - perhaps this is what she meant in her head, but no one except she knows that.

If someone follows an organised religion and uses it as part of mitigation then it makes it easy for a judge to see exactly what 'moral code' they claim to ascribe to. Which, perhaps, makes it easier to see whether they knew their behaviour was wrong.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

It seems that Jack of Kent requires proof of discrimination against atheists before he will concede there is some discrimination in favour of the religious.

Clearly the defendant should be allowed to put any mitigation to the judge, for example they should be allowed to cite being "A Man", or "White" or "Very Rich" as mitigating reasons why they should receive leniency.

Should a judge then exercise his, or her, discretion and announce that as "A very rich white man you know you did wrong so I am suspending your sentence for violent assault" can we expect Jack of Kent to leap to defend the judge? Would he demand proof that poor, black or female defendants had been discriminated against?

No, of course he wouldnt. Jack is, like most people, making a special exemption for religion that nobody would dream of making for anything else.

This is beside the point, whether the non-believer is discriminated against is secondary to the issue that a violent thug has got away with his crime simply by telling the judge that he is religious.

And let's face it, had he gone before the devout Catholic Mrs Blair and said he was a Satanist she wouldn't have shown leniency. Admittedly we don't have sufficient evidence to convict but we all know beyond any reasonable doubt that its true.

Jack of Kent said...

@WoollyMindedLiberal

"It seems that Jack of Kent requires proof of discrimination against atheists before he will concede there is some discrimination in favour of the religious."

Yes, I would indeed need an example of discrimination before I said there was discrimination.

As for the rest, as I don't recognise that characterisation of my views, there is really nothing for me to add.

Splattermail said...

Whilst I am personally satisfied that any impropriety on Cherie's part here is insufficient to warrant any further action, I find it far more distressing that the judiciary (acting by Ms Blair) is simply re-affirming here the disgraceful fallacy that there is a correlation between religion and morality.

Fifty years ago, a judge might well have taken a defendant's lineage, race, gender or sexual orientation in explicit mitigation of sentence (of course, this will still happen tacitly).

Paint it which way you will, but Cherie is blatantly prejudiced in favour of religion, and I don't doubt for one second that she would have been less lenient on an atheist. After all, the Blairs' vomitous piety is hardly a national secret.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Hi Jack, sorry I misrepresented your views. For the record I retract that statement.

Clearly JackofKent would have no complaints at all if a defendant were to plead being "A rich white man" in mitigation and the judge to accept those factors.

My apologies to JackOfKent for the confusion. I had previously thought him a liberal and liberals believe that the law should apply equally to all. I am corrected!

Andrew Brow said...

he's entirely indifferent about religion. He just wants it left out of public life

Well, which? Suppose I was to say I was entirely indifferent to secularism; I just wanted it left out of public life ...

tucola said...

@JackofKent – Now no doubt you are just being a wily advocate here, but if we are talking about mischaracterisation of views, of course you are not being fair to WoollyMindedLiberal with the remark "Yes, I would indeed need an example of discrimination before I said there was discrimination".

There are at least two ways of identifying discrimination here. On the one hand, there would be evidence of atheists being treated differently to religious people across a sufficiently large sample of cases. Quite difficult, though, where every case will be different and there will be a large number of factors being taken into account in each case in determining sentence.

On the other hand, and what WoollyMindedLiberal is obviously talking about, is discrimination evidenced by a consideration that should be irrelevant apparently being taken into account in reaching a decision.

In that respect, Judge Booth’s choice of language (“based on the fact you are a religious person”) was at the very least unfortunate because it suggests that this was part of the reason that a more lenient sentence was imposed in this case and is, of itself, a valid reason for imposing a more lenient sentence.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

It occurs to me that it might well be worth joining the Labour Party if one is the sort of person likely to go up in front of the beak. If you can get time off just for being religious think how much time you would get off for being a religious Labour supporter!

Nick Sharratt said...

@Andrew Brow re:religion/secularism

the latter is the absence of the former, and hence asking to leave secularism out of public life would be skin to asking to leave dark out of box. The box is dark unless it has light in it. You can add light to something, but you can't add the absence of light - if you tried, your just removing light.

Thus one could be indifferent to light but wish it wasn't being shone annoyingly in everyone's eyes. :)

TK said...

As a judge and the wife of an ex PM, Booth should know that choice of words matters. Saying 'based on the fact that you are a religious person' represents all religious people as a homogenous group, all possessed of the same characteristic.

It does also, by implication, suggest that religious people know the difference between right and wrong, which the non-religious don't.

The defendant may be a) religious and b) remorseful but the two facts should not be conflated.

Eiskrystal said...

-It is not equating religious with moral. It is stating that on the facts of this case the defendant's religious belief made him particularly remorseful.-

Didn't stop him doing it in the first place. Does he feel bad because now he will burn in hell perhaps?

sailor1031 said...

I am intrigued by the odd notion that knowing an action is wrong is a mitigating factor while not knowing it is wrong is deserving of greater punishment. Is this only in english law? I find no mention in the codes of the USA and Virginia, where I reside. I wonder if the lack of a (written) constitution, in which all would be explicitly equal before the law, is what permits these little anomalies to exist?