Friday, 28 March 2014

"Broadchalke is one of the most pleasing villages in England..."

Lord Denning MR in Lloyds Bank v Bundy [1975] QB 326

It's a turbulent time in the Criminal Justice System.  As I type, Grayling has partially retreated in the face of the dispute with the Criminal Bar, agreeing to "defer savings" until next summer.  Solicitors are still nervous.  Yesterday evening I talked about this with a criminal solicitor in one of the Police Stations in the area, and she is still very nervous about what is going to happen to her profession, and her life and career.

Being a criminal solicitor is an interesting career choice.  Unless you're amazingly successful, or you represent people who have significant resources, you're unlikely to be rich.  If you're on call to the police station, your earnings per call are capped by the system, so it's likely that if one happens to be arrested, and opts for the right to engage the duty solicitor, that the person arriving at the station with your life and liberty in their hands, will be a solicitor's rep.  Don't get me wrong - solicitor's reps are trained and accredited, and the vast majority that I've seen are really good at what they do.  But, there are some times and some cases, where the experience of a solicitor might be preferable, because they have a broader understanding of the legal system.

And, then there's the latest scandal in the system - Grayling's attempt to make the prison system more vindictive still.  We heard about this at the weekend, when the twittersphere publicised this article regarding the ban on sending books and other items into prisons.  Bonkers.  Truly, bonkers.  I suppose that your sympathies for this depend one what you consider the purpose of prison - whether you want prisoners to experience a harsh regime in punishment for their crimes, or whether you want there to be some form of rehabilitation and a chance for people to change their lives.  The debate has polarised opinion, but when even the Daily Mail's Jan Moir writes that "this book ban is criminal", then it's pretty clear that the Justice Secretary's really misjudged this one.  So, like thousands of others, I tweeted my 'shelfie' to the Ministry of Justice, and I talk to my students about the situation.

Which brings me to Lloyds Bank v Bundy.  This week I taught this case to my Equity classes, discussing the doctrine of unconscionability and the setting aside of contracts.  Bundy's one of my favourite cases to teach, mostly because of the Denning judgment;  I love teaching Denning - I can take the opportunity to luxuriate in the language that he used, and in the way in which he constructed very powerful images of the people at the centre of the cases that he decided.  Bundy, is no exception.  Denning described Mr Bundy as "Old Herbert Bundy", he talked of the fact that Bundy "did a very foolish thing" in mortgaging his farm on behalf of his son.  While I was discussing this with my seminar groups, a sentence in the judgment which I think Denning intended as evidence for the vulnerability of the old man jumped out at me.  He said "[h]e was granted legal aid."

Wow.  The implication of this hadn't hit me before, but this week it did in spades.  In 1975 Old Herbert Bundy was granted legal aid to fight the bank to save his farm, his home and his livelihood from the bank.  He wouldn't have been granted legal aid today, meaning that if the same situation occurred in 2014, Old Herbert Bundy's situation would have been more precarious, and that he might well have lost his farm and become homeless.

We teach our students that the legal system is evolving - we have the system of precedent after all - and in 1975 Legal Aid assisted in that evolution, giving the possibility of just outcomes for those who had been subject to unconscionable bargains.  What kind of evolution can we expect now, when those without the resources to fight legal battles are priced out of the system?

If only the rich have access to justice, then that is truly unconscionable.

Friday, 7 March 2014

"If writing did not exist, what terrible depressions we should suffer from."

Sei Shonagon (c966-c1013)

Nobody working in higher education would have been surprised to read this in the Guardian this week.  It has apparently been discovered that "University staff battling anxiety, poor work-life balance and isolation aren't finding the support they need".  No shit Sherlock.  I think that we could all have told them that.

It's a strange life as a PhD student - you're doing something that you absolutely love (most of the time), and because of that, it takes over your life completely.  Yes, our actual "working" time may appear to the un-tutored eye (no pun intended) to be relatively short.  Personally, I find that I don't spend every waking hour of my life shackled to my laptop, even if it feels that way sometimes, but I very rarely stop thinking, planning, worrying about my thesis.  I know that this is true of all my friends at Uni.  

But, add into the mix the teaching that we do, and other paid work (invigilating next term for me), and suddenly our working weeks start to look a lot longer.  And, without PhD students picking up this teaching and invigilating or marking examination papers, the university would really struggle.

Then, there's the pressure to get a job.  To do that, you don't just have to write a fabulous thesis, you have to get published.  You have to provide evidence that you can act collegiately, that your future research will impact positively on the REF and that there's something about you that makes you stand out amongst all the other bright shiny new PhDs.  Being a great teacher just isn't enough.

Possibly one of the greatest sources of stress for the PhD student is our relationship with our supervisor.  I have a huge amount of respect for mine, but she drives me to the very edge of reason.  She's a typical academic - flighty, brilliant, and slightly divorced from the reality of the stresses and strains of the nearly-50-year-old student who's worrying about her future, and whether she's going to be able to get a job and crucially access to a contributory pension scheme.  It's one of the most intense and frustrating relationships I've ever had.  My whole self-definition now and for the last five years has been as a PhD student - very little else has mattered in my life (family notwithstanding), and so much of that is caught up with the feedback that I get from her.  If I feel that she's not reading my work, or giving me comments to help me improve, that can thrust me into a black hole of reactive depression.

We have to develop coping strategies to try to stop slipping down into a pit of academic despair.  For me, that's been my family and the voluntary work that I do.  It takes time out of my potential working hours, but I think that it's worth while, from my own selfish point of view.  If I stop hammering my brain incessantly, I'm giving it time to recover so that when I get back to the laptop, it works better - simple as that.

I have never worked so hard in my life.  I've held down highly pressurised jobs during the course of my career, and I've worked extended working weeks for no extra pay (life in the public sector's always been hard).  But, when I've been employed to do a job, it's been what I do, not what I am.  The job title's described me during my working week - at the weekend I could just be me.

But now, I'm a PhD student.  It's what I am and it's relentless.  Only another 9 months or so to go before my registration ends and I have to have submitted my thesis.  Then, I have to become something else.

Wow.  That's pressure.

Monday, 17 February 2014

"Or have we eaten on the insane root that takes the reason prisoner?"

Macbeth, 1(iii)

I'm doing my best to cling to sanity, but I can feel it slipping through my fingers.  Between the frustrations of the impending re-write, hampered by the non-availability of The Supervisor, and the rising panic of needing to find a job with a pension scheme before I turn 50, I don't know which way to turn most of the time.

It's madness.  Total madness.  Intellectually I know that I'm going to finish this thesis - if it kills me and/or The Supervisor.  And, intellectually I know how fortunate that I am to have had the opportunity to spend the last four years or so following a route that I'd never thought would be open to me.  I have to keep hold of this, and try to suppress the panic and negativity.  I have the support of family and friends.  I have an amazing flat and quality of life.  I live in a beautiful town, surrounded by some wonderful people.  I have everything going for me.

I must keep telling myself this.

Spending time in Custody helps me to remember this, even if sometimes I get submerged in the sadness of a particular situation.  But, even here, the madness is becoming more obvious, and it's the fault of the bloody politicians.  You may be aware of the Government's proposal to save money by slashing the legal aid budget, and of the recent walk out by barristers at the criminal bar.  Perhaps you think that these barristers don't have a very good case to make, and that they're all well paid.  If only that were true.

A lot of the people who I support in custody need access to legal advice, and this is provided free of charge to them (at the expense of the public purse), usually by a Solicitor's Rep.  These are not qualified solicitors, but are people who are accredited to give legal advice in the Police Station.  The ones that I've seen are really good, and they're absolutely essential for the system to work properly.  For a young person or vulnerable adult, the situation in which they find themselves can be as complicated as I found calculus in 1981 - you know what I mean, the words that describe what is going on are individually straight forward, but the concepts are just not clear and your brain feels like it's working in a fog.  If you're in custody, you need someone who's available, motivated, and who can provide the help that you need.  I was shocked this week to find out how little a Solicitor's rep is paid.  They're incredibly busy people, dashing from one interview or consultation to another, constantly on the go from one Police Station to another, and I'm told that in real terms their financial recompense is under siege.   They have an in depth knowledge of the criminal law, care passionately about their clients, making representations where needed, and stand up for their interests.

The proposed changes to Legal Aid are, in my opinion, going to hit the people who need support the most.  The criminal bar, solicitors who work in the criminal system, and the Solicitors' Reps need to be good - really good.  People's lives are in the balance here, whether they're victim, the guilty or the unjustly accused.  How can we allow our cynical government, made up as it is of the rich, the privileged, and the remote, make the kind of decisions that would impact so adversely on those people who need the support so much?

You can tell a lot about a society by the way in which it treats those who are in conflict with the law (to paraphrase Dostoyevsky).  It seems to me that I'm not the only one struggling with maintaining sanity and order in my life.

Still.  It's better than thinking about the thesis.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

L'eloquence continue ennuie

Continual eloquence is tedious - Blaise Pascal

OK.  It's happened.  I've reached the point that everyone forecast, and I didn't quite believe would ever arrive.

I'm sick of it.  Bloody thesis, bloody postgraduate life.

I'm re-writing, and this brings tedium, frustration and stress.  For the last couple of days I've been trying to re-frame my research question into something elegant and readable that will draw the reader (and examiner) into the rest of the thesis.  I had a meeting with The Supervisor before Christmas to discuss how to do this, and when I left her office, I was convinced that I'd be able to get on with this quite nicely before term started when I'd be embroiled in teaching once again.  Unfortunately, as it often does, real life has got in the way a bit.

I took some time off during the Christmas break, and made a conscious effort not to go anywhere near anything Victorian or baby-related, and this went well.  The festivities came and went - very quiet, although somewhat coloured by the fact that Uncle B wasn't very well at all.  Then, on New Year's Day I decided to put away the few decorations that I'd put up in my flat, and while attempting to get off a stepladder, I stepped backwards into thin air, and cracked my head open on a 17th century oak coffer.  There was so much blood around I looked like Lady Macbeth.  Clearly, I wasn't in a position to drive myself to the hospital, so my mother dialled 999, and one set of paramedics and a community responder later, my scalp was stuck together with glue, and I was left with a headache and the unwelcome news that I wouldn't be able to wash my hair for five days.

A couple of days later, Uncle B was hospitalised with a heart problem, and this thrust me into the role of sole driver in the house.  I don't begrudge the running people around, or the seemingly interminable waiting in the local hospital for one reason or another, but it's really cut into my writing time.  I think I'm about 10 days behind my self-imposed schedule.

Back to it this week - shackled to my laptop, attempting to remember the discussion that I had with The Supervisor, and I find myself constantly irritated.  I'm jibbing at the Social Sciences thesis structure, at the fact that I wish that The Supervisor and I had addressed the research question and theoretical framework at least a year ago, and at the irritation of the emails going into my in-box from the Law School.  I'm constantly stressed about the fact that I should be finishing within the next six months or so, and then I'm going to need gainful employment.  And, I'm desperately worried about that.

The obvious conclusion to this amount of post-graduate study would be to find a teaching job.  I love teaching, but I'm really not sure that I want to work in the rarified atmosphere of a university.  I'm constantly beset with the feeling that my research is somehow less 'respectable' than the work of my colleagues, and that I won't interest any university recruitment committee in my potential - I frequently feel that other postgrads and teachers don't take my work seriously.  In my favour, I do teach Equity which is niche, to say the least, so that might help.  But, on balance, I really can't see it happening.  Even if I were lucky enough to get a post, it would only be a matter of time before I blew up in frustration with a colleague making pronouncements about how life should be, with very little relationship to the world outside universities.  You know, the one where people don't have the luxury of spending most of their paid life doing what they want to do, sprinkled about with (admittedly annoying) admin work and a bit of teaching.  I'd like to see some of my colleagues working more at the coal face as well as in the ivory tower - it's very easy to pontificate about structural inequalities if you're not really at the sharp end of them.  Having said that, one of the teaching staff in the Law School knows very well those sharp ends, and I have enormous respect for her.  I love the way that she looks quizzically at the learned people as they start to tell us how it should all be.

I also don't want to leave Seasidetown.  So, I'd like to work down here - preferably in a charity or the third sector.  I'm loving the Appropriate Adult stuff that I do - it's a welcome blast of reality in an otherwise closeted and artificial existence - and I'd love to do something along those lines.  If only a paid opportunity would arise, I'd jump at it.  But I worry.  I turned 49 this week, and while unemployment levels down here remain as high as they are, I'm going to find it very difficult to get a job, in spite of a CV stuffed full of 20 years professional experience.  I have, after all, spent the best part of the past seven years, out of the full-time workplace.  I can see more reasons for prospective employers to reject an application from me than I can see advantages.

I must push these thoughts to the back of my mind, drag my distracted brain back to the 19th century, and try to make my work "more academic", "more respectable", and more likely to get me through the viva.  I must try and stop the niggling feeling that I should have taken the graduate trainee place that I was offered five years ago, and that I've been wasting my time doing all of this.  After all, what have I gained?

Bugger it.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Plebs? Trigger Happy? Liars? Media fodder?

It's been a bad week for the Police, one way or another.

The verdict in the Duggan inquest, stating as it did that Duggan had been killed lawfully, led to widespread abuse and accusations once again that the Police are racist, abusive, and will shoot at will.  The Duggan family are clearly hurting in their loss, and for that I feel for them.  I have no doubt that they truly believe that the justice system let them down.  But, it worked in the only way that it can - a jury of ordinary people, weighed up the evidence in front of them and came to a conclusion.  It's the only system that we have, and I applaud Duggan's mother in her stated aim to use the court system to examine what has gone before.

Then, we have the shameful case of the Police Officer who lied to try and 'prove' that Andrew Mitchell, then the chief whip, had referred to Police Officers as 'plebs'.  At least he's pled guilty now, saving the public purse the cost of a trial, but this has just given fuel to those who believe that the Police are somehow less than honest.

My experience with the Police this week, has been somewhat different.  I volunteer as an Appropriate Adult, attending custody to provide independent support for young people and vulnerable adults after arrest, and during the interview process.  My observations thus far have been very positive - the Police Officers with whom I've dealt have been nothing but professional.  But, this week, they excelled themselves.

I was called to custody to support someone who'd been arrested for a fairly low level offence.  During the course of the investigation, before I'd arrived, it had become clear that the situation was less clear than it might have appeared to begin with, and that it was possible that the detained person was, in fact, a victim.  By the time that I got there, to support this person, a neighbourhood police officer who was dealing with the case had arranged for the right people to be in attendance. He'd liaised with social services and other relevant agencies, and was quite frankly moving heaven and earth to ensure that this particular person got the support that they so badly need.  Nobody will ever know about this, it's not newsworthy, and he's 'only' a neighbourhood police officer, but it was incredible care.  All of us present, including me, the solicitor representing the detained person, the nurse who works at the station, and officers higher up the chain of command were working to the same end, but it was this PC who was leading the charge.  Nobody cared about the statistics, nobody was interested in seeing that there was a box to be ticked, all we cared about was the welfare of the person in front of us, and the Police were at the forefront of this.

That neighbourhood police officer is a hero.  And, I told him that.

Monday, 23 December 2013

It's starting to look a bit like Christmas...

... or, actually in my case, it isn't.

I don't know what's wrong with me this year - everything's prepared and there is no stress, but I'm not excited by the season.  At all.  The turkey is in the fridge upstairs, and OldGirl Towers is, as usual, a brussel sprout free zone.  There is a minute Christmas cake in the cupboard, and Wensleydale cheese in the fridge to enjoy with it.  I have the ingredients for Boxing Day mince pies.  Presents are present and correct, and just need to be wrapped.

But, it just doesn't feel festive.  No matter how much I attempt to eat my own body weight in After Eights.  And, believe me, that's an awful lot of chocolate mints.

Not that it matters, of course.  My mother and I shall have a nice turkey lunch with C and B, we shall open our presents, and then snooze gently through the afternoon.  I'm on call for my latest voluntary work (acting as an Appropriate Adult for juveniles and vulnerable people in custody), and I've spent a couple of mornings shaking a collection tin for the local hospice, and I have to say, both of these activities give me more pleasure than the thought of conspicuous consumption.

However, The Guardian newspaper has not let me down.  I don't know who writes their headlines, but ladies and gentlemen, I give you this:  'My Reindeer Tried to Kill Me'.  Genius.

Merry Christmas all - I wish you peace, and all the joy of the season.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

"We will now discuss in a little more detail the Struggle for Existence"

Charles Darwin - On the Origin of Species

Ok.  I am ailing, and I am suffering.  Sitting at my dining tale, shackled to my laptop, it feels as though someone is sticking cocktail sticks into my brain.  I am at the moment still engaged on a chapter of case studies of two of my 'ladies', their lives, their crimes, their court cases and their fates.

It is, I think fair to say, not going as smoothly as I think it should.

This morning I found myself in the corner of the kitchen, engaged on cleaning out the salad drawer of the fridge.  This is an unusual occurrence, and one indicative of severe displacement activity.  I looked up, reading glasses perched on the end of my nose, slightly distracted, scratched my nose with the bottom of my wrist, so as to avoid the rubber glove, and realised that I've really succumbed to it.

I've got 'writing-up syndrome'.

We were warned about this in the first term of our studies by those first rung young academics, whose PhD letters after their name still had a glint of sunlight and shine upon them.  When we would describe in such serious voices what our theses were, trying to imply they were the most interesting thing to happen in academia, they would nod in a knowing and slightly patronising manner.

"You wait," they'd say, "it won't be long before you're sick of it."

But, nobody tells you, until you get to the third year, of the toll that being a PhD student will have on your body and your temperament.  You're used to being a bore, to people edging away from you in social situations when you start to discuss your topic.  Or when you give a brief, unexpected, talk on the implications of the latest Bill before the Commons regarding Anti Social Behaviour.  For indeed, at that point, your bemused audience is wondering how such legislation could be used against you and your extemporisation.  Nobody tells you that never again will you be able to read a book, watch a television programme or film without deconstructing it, and that this will make you even more of a bore and unfit for human society.

No.  They don't tell you about the physical toll that really kicks in when you're in the writing-up phase.  About the knotted trapezius muscles and completely knackered shoulders caused by hours hunched up over the laptop.  The inability to sleep through the night (you know you're a true PhD student when you wake up with post it note tabs stuck to your face because you've fallen asleep reading Foucault).  The permanently furrowed brow and attendant wondering about the possibility of botox before the viva.  They don't tell you about the compulsive eating, about the dire diet made up of pringles, twiglets and chocolate and the corresponding weight gain.   About the fact that your skin will turn to sandpaper because you don't get outside often enough.  That every day will be a bad hair day, and that you will stop caring about this.

They don't warn you about the changes to your temperament.  That nothing seems important if it's not associated with your thesis.  That you'll start wanting to maim your nearest and dearest if they commit the cardinal sin of interrupting your thought process.  That taking a half hour walk seems like too much of interruption in your day when you're quite capable of whiling away hours looking at videos of cats on the internet.  You snap, groan, grumble with your peers, and wonder why it is that normal people avoid you.

But, worst of all, they don't warn you that even though you 'know' this stuff, that you've discovered really interesting knowledge that hasn't appeared before in the books and journals, you stop being able to bloody well write it down.  You think back, fondly, to those days some two years previously, when you could knock out 10,000 words in a matter of days.  When you've got 'writing-up syndrome' each word has to be pursued around the inside of your cranium, wrangled into some kind of order, and tortuously rounded up and spat onto your laptop.  And when you read back what you've written, it's still crap.

Going badly today?  What do you think?