There can be few people who did not feel outrage and revulsion in regard to the recent Lincolnshire Slavery Case. The enslavement or forced labour of one by another is something that many mistakenly assume is part of the past it’s concept is so abhorrent that we are not comfortable with the fact that not only does it still exist today but it exists here in UK and that in our everyday lives we might well use businesses whose workers rely upon them for board and lodge, that do not have access to their own money and that cannot come and go as they please, who often have their passports confiscated and who therefore fall into the category of ‘enforced labour’ which is regarded as modern day slavery.
In the Lincolnshire case media reporting often included in it’s headlines that the defendants were ‘Travellers’. In doing this it gave the impression that the ethnicity of the of the defendants was relevant to the offence in question when in truth it held no relevance at all, like all types of crime offenders come from all walks of life and all ethnic backgrounds. In the case of enforced labour can be something that is carried out by anyone who finds themselves in a position of power over another and decides to exploit that position.
The Lincolnshire case highlighted the plight of some of societies most vulnerable. Homelessness by it’s very nature makes it’s victims extremely vulnerable but when you couple that with learning difficulties, mental health issues, addiction issues or being a care leaver suddenly the vulnerability is magnified enormously. Where there are people who are so very vulnerable there will always be predators that seek them out and prey upon them. It is sad reflection on our society that we leave the most vulnerable among us to fall prey to such predators.
The Lincolnshire case was one that involved criminals it was not a cultural or ethnic issue.
I am Romany and I have been involved in advocacy and activism within the Gypsy and Traveller community for decades, a great part of our fight involves promoting a positive image of Gypsy and Traveller people, very often this involves challenging unfair or inaccurate media reporting and reporting the hate speech that often appears below online publication of such stories.
Until last month I could not envisage that possibly the most inflammatory and damaging comment on Gypsies and Travellers would not only hit the media with such force but that the media could quote the comment accurately and that this derogatory and sensational commentary would come from a Crown Court Judge during the sentencing of a convicted defendant in such a serious case.
In the process of sentencing one of the defendants Judge Timothy Spencer QC said;
“You claim that what went on at Drinsey was no different from what was going on at any Travellers camp around the country– that all Travellers had workers operating under similar circumstances – sadly I very much fear that you may be right about that “
This comment by Judge Spencer was widely reported. This was case was described as a ‘landmark case’ , the comment was made in open Court before a packed media gallery . Judges pay particular attention to what they say during sentencing, they must be clear and use words easily understood by the defendant. They must demonstrate that they have considered anything that has been said in mitigation. While it would be perfectly in order for Judge Spenser to mention what the defendant had said in relation to what he stated went on at other Travellers camps, it most certainly was not in order to expand on that himself by adding his completely unfounded opinion that he ‘very much feared’ that the defendant might be ‘right about that’.
In expressing this view Judge Spencer has demonstrated a willingness to extend guilt to others who were not before the Court, who had neither been charged with, or convicted of any crime at all.
This was indeed a landmark case attracting a huge amount of interest from the media, while we would argue that a Judge should choose his or her words wisely and with discretion in every single case before them, the need to do is magnified when they are aware that there will be a sizable amount of national and possibly international coverage. Those who read this comment in the newspaper or heard it on the evening news are possibly tomorrow’s jurors, or the neighbours who have a Gypsy or Traveller family seeking planning permission to live on a nearby piece of land. They might be a nurse, midwife Dr or Social worker who is asked to work with a Gypsy or Traveller family and visit them at home – the comments will impact on children who already struggle to access education at all and who suffer bullying when they do access it, they will impact on our already disproportionately high infant mortality rate and our life expectancy which is startlingly lower than the national average. It will impact on help for those among us who suffer with mental health, and if you haven’t picked up on the rhythm here, yes- we do have very high rates of mental ill-health which in turn means we have high rates of suicide.
Genuinely fearful of the impact this comment could have on Gypsy and Traveller families a complaint was lodged with MoJ – based on how swiftly the complaint was rejected it would appear that no actual investigation took place in relation to this. In dismissing the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office stated
“Rule 21(f) of the Judicial Conduct (Judicial and other office holders) Rules 2014 requires the JCIO to dismiss a complaint, or part of a complaint, that, even if true, would not require any disciplinary action to be taken”
And continued …
“As independent office holders, judges are entitled to express their opinions about the cases that come before them including any defence made during proceedings. While I note you found the judge’s statement about the Rooney family’s defence offensive and discriminatory towards Gypsies and Travellers, it is the judge’s role to decide which version of events is the more likely on the basis of what he or she has heard and seen. This is what HHJ Spencer did when he remarked in response to the defence”
The MoJ have dismissed the complaint by relying on the Judicial Conduct (and other office holders) Rules 2014, but they have failed to take into consideration legislation that exists to prevent discrimination against minority groups The Equality Act 2010 clearly states that any public body must “foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not.” While we appreciate that Judges are not bound by this in their decision making, the comment made by Judge Spencer was not a decision or comment made in regard to the defendant being sentenced, nor was he merely drawing in what that defendant had said during the trial, he had transcended to include ALL Gypsies & Travellers stating “I very much fear you might be right about that” To our minds words and opinion that should not have been expressed at all let alone to do so using such strong and emotive words and phrases like “very much” and “fear”.
It is our contention that the MoJ failed to consider the Bangalore Principles. These are a set of Principles implemented by The United Nations Human Rights Commission that are internationally recognised to establish standards of ‘ethical conduct’. Here in UK those Principles have been adopted and as a result The Supreme Court produced a Guide for Judges in England and Wales. The Bangalore Principles consist of six Values, and they clearly establish what should be regarded as good and ethical practice that should enable all to feel confident that they would receive a fair hearing in our Courts, Those Values are, Judicial Independence. Impartiality, Integrity. Propriety. Ensuring Equality. Competence and Diligence.
If we consider the points relevant to the complaint against Judge Spencer, his comment certainly raises questions of impartiality and bias. How can a Judge who has been seen to make such a sweeping comment that bestowed upon an entire minority group a speculative assumption of likely guilt [of such a heinous crime ] be considered not to hold some tangible degree of bias? We feel it also calls into question his competence, as he appears to fail to differentiate between the actions of the defendant before him and all other people of the same ethnicity as that defendant.
Judge Spencer also had a duty to ensure equality so we should consider what the Bangalore Principles require in regard to Ensuring Equality;
A Judge must not discriminate against vulnerable groups.
A Judge must avoid Stereotyping -a Judge that reaches the correct decision but engages in stereotyping does so at the expense of the Judges impartiality (value 2).
A Judge shall not, in the performance of judicial duties, by words or conduct, manifest bias or prejudice towards any person or group in irrelevant grounds.
When making his comments Judge Spencer did discriminate, not against the defendant before him, but against Gypsy and Traveller people in general, and as already mentioned he did so before a packed press gallery. He said he was ‘fearful’ in relation to the activities he had no evidence of at all, he was engaged in presumption, and speculation and agreement with a convicted defendants allegation that these activities were supposedly carried out on any Traveller camp around the country.
His comment was an indulgence in stereotyping, it was irrelevant because the residents of any other Travellers camp were not on trial or convicted of any offence – yet by virtue of those comments and the fact they were heavily reported in the media we are all demonised we are all presumed ‘guilty by association’ – we have been stereotyped as a people who callously prey on the vulnerable, who engage them in enforced labour and who beat and abuse them while holding them captive.
Thank you Judge Spencer
Thank you from every child from our community who is bullied at school
Thank you from every family who will have to struggle even harder to find a place to live
Thank you from every family who cannot access health care
The comments made by Judge Spencer and the dismissal of our complaint serves to highlight the inequality suffered within the Criminal Justice system by Gypsies and Travellers who are more likely to be given custodial sentences for offences that might attract a community sentence for offenders from other groups.
Gypsies and Travellers spend longer in in prison because they are unable to engage in programs within prison that could lead to an early release, they are unable to do so because they often do not have the literacy skills to take part in such programs. This can be linked to lack of site provision and stopping places that prevent Gypsy and Traveller children having reasonable access to education. Gypsies and Travellers also report disproportionately high instances of bullying based on ethnicity while they serve custodial sentances.
While these comments have highlighted the inequality faced by Gypsies and Travellers within the Criminal Justice system, not only when they come before the courts, but while they are going about their daily lives, minding their own business, trying to live in peace and obtain work to support their families that inequality, that presumed guilt based on ethnicity can hit us. Our concern is not only based on Judge Spencer making those remarks, but on the fact that he felt it was acceptable to do so, if that in itself is not disturbing enough it is astounding given Equality Laws within UK and the values set out in the Bangalore Principles that the MoJ dismissed our complaint. © shay clipson 2017
National Alliance of Gypsy Traveller & Roma Women