With the Mail speculating an alleged affair said to be political dynamite to No 10 and multiple News International appearances to answer charges at Southwark Crown Court, reporting (and non-reporting) of Hackgate was busy last week. Defendants have understandably been the main focus of attention, whilst one person in the courtroom has largely escaped notice – the judge. The Honourable Mr. Justice Saunders, a.k.a. Sir John Henry Boulton Saunders, is handling pre-trial case management and may be the anticipated Hackgate replacement for newly-promoted Lord Justice Fulford.
Mr Justice Saunders was called to the Bar (Gray’s Inn) in 1972, and was appointed as a Queen’s Counsel in 1991. He was appointed as a Recorder in 1990, and became a Senior Circuit Judge and the Recorder of Birmingham in 2004. In 2007 he was appointed as a High Court Judge in the Queen’s Bench Division. Saunders was appointed as Presiding Judge on the South Eastern Circuit in January 2009, again replacing Fulford who was unable to take up the post due to his commitments at the International Criminal Court. (here)
As one of ‘London’s 1000 most Influential People 2011’, it was said that his “self-assured approach in the media spotlight means he is being increasingly trusted for major criminal cases.” (here)
Mr Justice Saunders has long experience as trial judge, such as high profile cases of corruption and misconduct in public office, including senior police officers. The legal issues of public trust will stand him in good stead.
In 2006, Saunders jailed two corrupt police officers in Nottingham who passed data on serious enquiries to suspected criminals. The convictions were for ‘conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office’ and ‘conspiracy to pervert the course of justice’. Saunders said their activities put the lives of vital witnesses and informants at risk, damaged the morale of the Nottinghamshire police force and undermined the trust placed in the police by members of the public. He added, “Corrupt police officers do untold damage to the criminal justice system.” (here)
More recently, Saunders was trial judge for cases in the Parliamentary expenses scandal. He “presided over three trials – those of Lords Taylor and Hanningfield, and former MP Jim Devine, and has sentenced others who pleaded guilty before their trials began – Elliot Morley, David Chaytor and Eric Illsley.” He also proved fearless in publicly remonstrating with Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg and David Cameron for taking part in a “pre-election frenzy” which risked jeopardising the trials. (here)
Fortunately, Saunders J seems to value transparency through the frequent publication of his sentencing remarks. His reasoning in the case of Labour MP Jim Devine shows a keen awareness of concerns which may be relevant to Hackgate (p2 Sentencing Remarks, 31 March 2011):
By the time that Mr. Devine committed these offences the parliamentary expenses’ scandal was front page news. Disclosure of MP’s expenses claims had been ordered by the Information Commissioner and, although disclosure had not yet taken place, there had been regular leaks appearing in the press including one concerning Mr. Devine’s expenses claims. I, of course, ignore the content of that report, but it does mean that Mr. Devine made his false claims at a time when the papers were full of stories about MP’s claims for expenses and the public were already making clear the sense of outrage they felt. He made his false claims knowing full well just how wrong it was and the effect that false claims were having on the public’s belief and confidence in Parliament.
In another MP prosecution case, Saunders drew press criticism for a decision which took account of the defendant’s psychiatric reports. In the face of much adverse publicity, he adhered to his legal obligations in ruling she was “not fit mentally to defend herself…What the court has done and has to do is to act in accordance with the law of the land and on the basis of the evidence that it hears.” (here)
He has already undertaken a similar – and deft – handling in the case of a journalist previously charged under Operation Elveden, following “medical reports which had been sought by both the prosecution and defence.” (here)
In Feb 2012, Mr Justice Saunders jailed a senior Metropolitan Police officer for three years for ‘misconduct in public office’ and ‘perverting the course of justice’. Commander Ali Dizaei had previously been described by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) as a “criminal in uniform”. (here)
In his sentencing remarks (here), Saunders told Dizaei:
You are a very senior officer. The breach of trust that the public has placed in you is the more serious because of your senior appointment. You have been a role model to many other people as a result of your achievements as a police officer.
Mr Justice Saunders was also trial judge for one of the cricket spot-fixing cases in 2011-12, that of Essex cricketer Mervyn Westfield.
[The more infamous spot-fixing trials under a different trial judge were those of Pakistan cricketers – exposed by a News of the World (NOTW) undercover sting by ‘fake sheikh’ Mazher Mahmood. One of the defendants (Aamer) pleaded guilty, but the jury was not told and reporting restrictions were imposed so as not to prejudice the trials of the others who had pleaded not guilty. (Daily Mail) The Prime Minister’s older brother, Alex Cameron QC, was involved in defending those accused (here). Alex Cameron was at Eton with his friend Charlie Brooks and is Head of Chambers of Rebekah Brooks’ Hackgate defence QC, Hugo Keith. (here) The chambers, Three Raymond Buildings, have responded (here) by denying this association is in any way inappropriate.]
Whilst these two spot-fixing trials were otherwise unconnected, the convictions went jointly to the Court of Appeal on the grounds of shared technical issues of law. Essex cricketer Mervyn Westfield had been sentenced by Justice Saunders to accepting corrupt payments, contrary to s.1(1) of the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906. Saunders’ ruling was considered correct by the Court of Appeal and the appeal dismissed. (here)
[As an aside – whilst not relevant to the spot-fixing cases – the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906 has no public interest defence.]
In December 2012, Mr Justice Saunders was trial judge in the case of R-v – Edward Devenney. It was a complex case involving the defendant attempting to give top secret material to another state whilst a serving Royal Navy officer. The intended recipients of the secrets were in fact security services agents in a sting operation (Sentencing Remarks)
The Defendant was in a position, by virtue of his job, to access top secret information that could be of use to another country. He had taken and downloaded onto his computer photographs of part of the Crypto code system to which he should not have had access… he had to obtain access to a locked safe. This suggests that he was prepared to take risks to obtain secret information and had the ability to get away with it.” It is of note that the abuse of trust was regarded as extremely serious even though there was no actual harm done to national security, nor was it ever alleged that Devenney’s actions were motivated by financial gain: “The Court also has to mark the Defendant’s attempted betrayal of not only his country but also his colleagues who must feel great anger at his behaviour. Those who serve their country loyally must know that those who don’t will receive proper punishment.
Saunders’ profile clearly demonstrates his experience and familiarity with issues that will be central to Hackgate trials in the glare of press and media scrutiny. His extensive trial experience is witness to his ability to deal with press, police and politicians without fear or favour. In April 2013 he was appointed to the Sentencing Council, appointed by the Lord Chief Justice with the agreement of the Lord Chancellor. (here) He will be serving on the Sentencing Council with other notable senior judiciary such as The Right Honourable Lord Justice Leveson and Surrey Police Chief Constable Lynne Owens. (Council Members here)
At Southwark this week, Saunders showed empathy for public and press in a rare occurrence of a judge allowing standing room only in his courtroom. However, he has proved less sympathetic to anyone risking the breach of imposed reporting restrictions – or those perceived as jeopardising fair trial via social media.
In January 2011, during the trial of a member of the House of Lords, Mr Justice Saunders ordered Lord Alan Sugar to delete a tweet which he thought could prejudice a fair trial – Lord Sugar complied with Saunders’ ruling within 20 minutes. “When he learnt of the peer’s message, Mr Justice Saunders cleared the court and said ‘can someone contact Lord Sugar and get that removed’. He also referred the matter to the Attorney General Dominic Grieve – who has the power to bring charges against individuals deemed to have harmed the judicial process. Mr Grieve decided to take no action on the matter.” (here)
I reported the matter to the attorney general not for the purpose of taking any action against Lord Sugar but to investigate whether entries on Twitter sites of high profile figures relating to trials which were going to take place or were taking place posed a risk of prejudicing the fairness of a trial… And if so whether there were steps that could be taken to minimise that risk.
What CAN be tweeted however is:
This post originally appeared on the Brown Moses – the Hackgate Files blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks