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Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights we are all supposed to be equal before the law.
The declaration, adopted by a war-wounded United Nations General Assembly in 1948, attempted to enshrine everything that the Allies had been fighting for. Its Article 7 spells out that not only are we equal in the eyes of the law, but that we should also have protection against any discrimination that could infringe upon that right.
The trouble is, some say, that in today’s world of online lynch mobs those rights have been eroded and that wealthy and high-profile individuals, in particular, can sometimes be in for a nasty surprise.
Ben Rose, a criminal defence lawyer at Hickman Rose in London, says the shock can be particularly acute in the UK. To begin with, he says, some clients who feel they deserve better treatment by the law because of their position in society will fast realise that the country’s traditional culture of deference has been eroded.
Rose’s clients have included Tulisa Contostavlos, the singer and former X-Factor judge who last year was acquitted of being concerned in the supplying of a class A drug; Hans Kristian Rausing, heir to the fortune derived from the Tetra Pak packaging empire for whom Rose acted in connection with his arrest following the death of his wife, Eva Rausing, over which he was given a suspended sentence in July 2012 after being convicted of preventing her lawful burial; and the artist David Hockney, for whom Rose acted in the inquest into the death of his assistant Dominic Elliott.
There are new factors, he says, that leave wealthy or prominent individuals at a disadvantage. For example, he continues, there has been a rise in the UK of asset confiscation powers that have had the effect of providing financial incentives to both prosecutors and courts to go after the very wealthy.
Prosecutors are now empowered to train and employ their own accredited financial investigators, Rose explains, and allowed to keep substantial proportions of the sums confiscated for their own funds. “We are now seeing a clear tendency for some prosecuting agencies to size up a suspect’s assets at the investigative stage,” he says.
But worst of all for the prominent individuals that Rose represents is the intense media interest in their lives.
“The really devastating factor is the amount and type of reporting,” he says, adding that while normally such attention is focused on crimes such as terrorism or child abuse, many lawyers already believe this media-feeding frenzy has contributed to past miscarriages of justice in the UK, such as the series of wrongly convicted Irish defendants in the 1980s at the height of a bombing campaign conducted by the Irish Republican Army.
“But the wealthy may now suffer similar attention,” Rose argues, “which I am sure places pressure on the judge and the jury to return a verdict perceived as socially acceptable.”
David Engel, a media lawyer and partner at the law firm Addleshaw Goddard, says that, on the whole, high-profile defendants do still seem to get a fair trial. He says problems arise when, for example, a high-profile defendant is charged and prosecuted but ultimately acquitted after months of negative publicity. “While the legal theory is that he leaves court without a stain on his character, the practical reality is that he will have suffered huge damage to his reputation and it is difficult to see how anyone can ever fully recover from that,” Engel says.
Wealthy white collar criminals are also in for harsh sentencing. Engel points to the recent hefty sentences handed down by UK courts to those in the finance industry.
Tom Hayes, a former star trader at UBS and Citigroup, was sentenced to 14 years in August for conspiring to manipulate Libor rates. Earlier this year, Magnus Peterson, the founder of collapsed hedge fund Weavering Capital, was given a 13-year sentence for perpetrating a $530m fraud, while UBS rogue trader Kweku Adoboli received seven years in 2012.
Not all lawyers agree that the rights of the defendant, and particularly the wealthy defendant, are being eroded, however. Former director of public prosecutions, Lord Macdonald QC, now at Matrix Chambers, has a unique perspective.
“I never felt as DPP that we were enjoying any advantage in prosecuting very wealthy people,” he says. “In fact, quite the opposite, because they can afford the most expensive representation and that gives them a real head start in a criminal trial.
“People of modest means don’t want to go to prison or to lose their possessions either and it hurts them and their families just as much,” he says.
However, Stuart Leach, managing director of crisis and litigation at Bell Pottinger, the public relations firm, believes circumstances can rapidly turn against a wealthy individual when they enter the legal process. “High net-worth individuals are always under public scrutiny. Just because you’re rich doesn’t mean you can’t be wronged.”
“The media has such a powerful grip on public sentiment that we verge on trial by stereotype,” adds Rose.