Last week it emerged that a British teenager had been jailed for two months for taking a photo on his cellphone from the public gallery of a courtroom. Now, I know in the U.S. you’d probably just have executed the kid, but to us effete Europeans it seems a little harsh to dish out prison time for such a minor offence.
The sentence — which drew criticism even from the right-leaning Times newspaper — follows the unusually tough terms given to those involved in the U.K.’s August riots. In one instance, a judge jailed two men for four years each for setting up Facebook pages inciting others to riot — despite the fact that neither page resulted in any rioting. In another case, a 23-year old electrical-engineering student with no previous convictions was given a six-month custodial sentence for stealing a £3.50 ($5.45) case of bottled water from a ransacked discount store in South London.
Brits are split on this new mood of authoritarianism….
Some, like our Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, reckon it’s necessary in order to cleanse a “sick society.” Others, such as Lord McDonald, the U.K.’s former director of public prosecutions, think the courts risk being swept up in a “collective loss of proportion.”
Next week we’ll get a sense of whether the zero tolerance approach is here to stay, when our senior judges give their judgments on the first ten appeals to arise from the riots.
As we await to hear the rioters’ fates, it was interesting to read on Sunday new revelations about the famously riotous Oxford University club — the Bullingdon Club — to which Prime Minister Cameron and several other senior members of his party belonged during their student days. The revelations include claims of fist fights, cocaine, and damage to the property of small businesses.
The most notorious practice of the Bullingdon Club — which is open only to sons of aristocratic families or the super-rich — is to dine at a restaurant, then completely trash it, before very politely handing over a cheque to cover the damage. “All the food and plates had been thrown everywhere and they were jumping on top of each other on the table like kids in a playground,” said the landlord of an Oxford gastropub visited by the club in 2005. “But they apologised profusely afterwards,” he added. The melee saw a window and 18 wine bottles smashed — for which the club offered to pay £500 in damages.
In an interesting Biglaw footnote, one of Cameron’s fellow Bullingdon members during his time at Oxford in the mid-1980s was Ewen Fergusson, now a partner in the banking and finance team of U.K. law firm Herbert Smith. Fergusson, the son of Scottish rugby player and diplomat Sir Ewen Fergusson, is said to be responsible for a notorious Bullingdon incident in which a plant pot was thrown through a restaurant window. The affair resulted in six club members, including current Mayor of London Boris Johnson, spending a night in police cells.
Elsewhere, life in Britain isn’t just getting worse for the committers of minor criminal offences, it’s going downhill for lawyers, too. Last month U.K. Biglaw came up with an ingenious plan to cut rookie lawyers’ pay — something firms have been longing to do since the 2008 crash, but have shied away from because of the negative publicity it would generate.
I outlined the scheme in its full, cynical glory for The Guardian last week. But here’s the gist: a third-party company known as Acculaw — founded by a former lawyer and backed by several senior figures within the profession — employs graduates on considerably less favourable terms than most current new U.K. law recruits enjoy, then loans them out to law firms. Because Acculaw does not provide legal services itself, and has no reputation to protect, it doesn’t have to worry about the PR implications of paying its employees roughly half the salary of their peers at top firms. Nor does it lose any kudos by making no contribution at all towards its recruits’ law school fees (as is the norm among top U.K. firms).
And with many British law graduates currently struggling to find work, Acculaw — which has already signed a pilot deal with top media law firm Olswang — will have no problem hiring.
Alex Aldridge is a London-based journalist specialising in legal affairs. He writes a weekly column for The Guardian and contributes regularly to specialist legal publications. Previously Alex was Associate Editor of Legal Week, having begun his career with The Times. Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexAldridgeUK or email him at [email protected].