Clean up the mess

20 05 2010

Category: Politics, Law

The British Deputy Prime Minister has announced that some of the thousands of laws created by the last government will be scaled back.

Good thing too. There are plenty that can be got rid of, but in terms of criminal law it’s the absurd complexity that needs to be addressed head on.

I’ve devoted several posts on this blog to someone who was charged with the most minor criminal offence possible. That case was interesting for other reasons, but the procedures highlight what an unwieldy monster the criminal justice system has become.

I’ll try and break down the case so you can see what I mean…

  • A man is alleged to have shouted abuse in a gym. The abuse is directed at a particular ethnic group/religion and nationality.
  • He is arrested under the Racial and Religious Hatred Act for incitement to racial or religious hatred.
  • He is told that if he agrees he will be cautioned for the offence
  • This offer is then withdrawn (I do not know whether he had agreed to be cautioned or not)
  • He is charged with racially aggravated public disorder (s.5 Public Order Act)
  • He is tried
  • He is convicted of racially aggravated public disorder
  • He appeals
  • He is retried
  • He is acquitted on retrial.

That’s the bare bones. It merely hints at the ludicrous layers of complexity involved.

Time

The offence took place in late January 2009. He was charged in May 2009, tried in September 2009 and retried in March 2010. You’ll get bored of me pointing out that this was for one of the most trivial offences on the statute book. It’s what people who shout at strangers in bus-stops are charged with.

Hearings

One of the participants in the case told me that there were 2-3 hours of legal argument before the first case and a full day of legal argument before the second trial. There may have been more hearings I do not know about.

Just think about that. 2-3 hours tying-up the magistrates’ court where the first case was heard, with a district judge, ushers, lawyers, witnesses and defendant waiting. A full day of time in the Crown Court where the retrial took place, with Judge and lay magistrates, stenographer, clerk, ushers, witnesses and defendant.

Think about what that costs in terms of the money to pay all those people, and what was not happening in those courts because they were tied up with this one trivial matter. And the inconvenience to the witnesses; the loss of productive time at work, the stress, the inconvenience, and for the defendant too.

And the police. Much is made of the time the police spend on paperwork. they also spend massive amounts of time hanging around courts for cases that don’t happen, drag on or appearing for cases that don’t really need them.

Charge

One of the requirements of justice is certainty. Having such a muddle of laws takes that away. The man in this case was arrested for one offence – a new one invented by the Labour government; he was charged with a different offence – also a new one. He was convicted and acquitted of the same offence.

He was also offered a caution which was, either before or after it was accepted, withdrawn.

According to the Crown Prosecution Charging Policy he ought also to have been charged with yet another offence, which it would seem he would have been convicted of at the second trial had it been charged.

Giving you a headache? Imagine working every day with that chaos.

Bureacracy

After an arrest the officers would have to take witness statements, interview him, make their own witness statements, gather all the incidental material, gather any physical evidence, including CCTV, ensuring it is properly recorded, preserved and exhibited. To take a made-up example, a CCTV video in a shoplifting case would need statements something like this:

  • “My name is John Smith. I am responsible for the CCTV at Sainsbury’s Neasden Branch. I have passed onto officers CCTV recordings from the Neasden Store taken on 1st January 2010 showing an incident in our store involving a theft…”
  • “My name is PC Steve Brown I attended the Sainsbury’s store in Neasden on 1st January 2010 and there took possession of a computer disc containing video images which I exhibit as EX1…”
  • “My name is Phil Patton I am a employed by the Metropolitan Police in the Video Technology Unit. I was given video footage taken at the Sainsburys store in Neasden on 1st January 2010 by PC Steve Brown. The footage was recorded on a computer disc labelled EX1 which was in a sealed bag. The footage was recorded in Multiplex format. I transferred the footage etc etc

Police officers would draw their own conclusions as to the appropriate charge but they would pass all evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) which would have the power to decide what charge would be preferred, and if the case ought to go ahead.

The requirement for all charges to be considered by the CPS lawyers is a new layer of bureaucracy added by the last government to make sure the right charge was chosen.

The CPS lawyer then has to put the case together and supply the defence with the evidence. Later on they will have to supply all the unused material too. Files of papers, hours of preparing and photocopying. And arguments about what the defence wants and what the police and CPS think they ought to get.

Cost

Look above at all the stages this case has gone through. For a trivial offence. How much do you think it all costs?

Far too much is the simple answer. Far too much money, far too much stress for those involved, far too much wasted court time, lawyers’ time, witnesses’ time, defendant’s time. All for an offence of minimal importance. This isn’t an extreme example; it’s run of the mill for cases to proceed like this.

Judgment

Perhaps the strongest evidence of the failure of the current system is the seeming total failure of the Crown Court Judge at the retrial in this case to understand the law. Having failed to give reasons for the acquittal – a judicial requirement, he was then informed he had to give a reason. He retired briefly before supplying a reasoning that was firmly in the realm of the surreal.

Words two independent witnesses heard the defendant shouting were not in fact used. And if they were used the defendant didn’t think anyone would hear them.

In fact there were other words used which also made out the offence – and the CPS guidelines said another charge should also have been put which was also made out even without the disputed words.

But His Honour’s confusion is understandable. I hope that apart from a headache you have some window on the complete mess that is the criminal justice process.

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