A while ago a number of fellow campaigners and I sent letters to our respective MPs regarding our severe concerns about the current dreadful state of the British justice system and the high number of miscarriages of justice we feel are being perpetrated.
Some time later, while there were a small number of genuine replies from sympathetic-sounding MPs, many of those who received any response at all from Government ministers found the reply disappointing in respect of the complacent attitude it betrayed. It was essentially a brush off and blandly proclaimed how great our justice system has always been:
“It is deeply unfortunate that miscarriages of justice can, and do, happen in our society. There are a number of reasons why this occurs, including perjury, insufficient evidence and cases of confirmation bias.
However, the British legal system is in place to protect us, and I’m delighted that over the past thousand years, our legal system has proved to be one of the best in the world. Therefore, I have the utmost faith in the British Justice System.”
Discussions amongst us led to the discovery that a number of replies were exactly the same! It was evidently a ‘standard’ letter, devised by the Justice Department for MPs to fend off any of those irritating, pesky constituents who dare to criticise our criminal justice system.
A few days ago, I was preparing this post to discuss the issue when I read the latest issue of SAFARI which mentioned the same thing and referring to the same letter.
“It seems that some MPs are so complacent about the “thousand years” history that they fail to recognise that the British legal system cannot be allowed to rest on its laurels.”
Absolutely right. However, I believe it is worse than that – what I find objectionable is not necessarily that our MPs believe the thousand year history nonsense, but that they are not prepared to give it any thought at all. They are happy simply to dish out a formulaic reply without even considering the matter or taking on board the genuine considered concerns of their constituents – concerns which are based on our experience of the justice system today.
Also, the Justice Department itself is not just complacent, but negligent in its refusal to address any criticism raised by those whom it is supposed to serve.
So I will address some of the points the letter raises here:
- There is, at least, an open admission that miscarriages of justice can and do occur and the reasons that are given are also correct, though a tiny proportion of a complete list.
- insufficient evidence
- confirmation bias.
The letter then states that “the British legal system is in place to protect us”. We would all like to believe that, in principle, this is true, but the very reason for the complaints from campaigners is that it is failing dismally to do so.
An old legal system - hangings, witch-hunts, the lot...
The letter skips the question of whether or not the legal system is succeeding in this purpose and jumps to the 1000 year nonsense…
“… and I’m delighted that over the past thousand years, our legal system has proved to be one of the best in the world…”
Trying to claim validity from the fact that it is very old is an incredibly weak argument. Hundreds of years ago, the justice system we had in this country may well have been more advanced and better than many others elsewhere in the world – and probably much better than no system.
But at the height of the 17th Century witch-hunts, our legal system was already very old – would the Justice Department still want to brag about the system which sent hundreds of innocent people to the gallows for being witches?
The point here is not how old a system is or what is what like in the past, but what it is like today. Sadly, there are worrying similarities between the period of witch-trials and some of the practices in place today.
No system can rest on its laurels and those who are in charge in any good system, legal or otherwise, are continually seeking to improve.
Over the past few years of domination in F1, did the Mercedes team say “well we had the best car last year so we don’t need to bother trying to improve it for next year?”
No; they asked how they could improve it and made an even better one.
That is the attitude I want, and expect, from those in charge of our justice system, and every Government Department – not the self-congratulatory patting themselves on the back for the achievements of their predecessors, but instead, always to be asking “what can we do to make it better?” That is what I would expect, even if it was great to begin with, which it is not.
In fact, many of the biggest complaints from campaigners are that the justice system has gone backwards and actually become much less fair and less protective in recent times.
It is one thing to boast about past achievement but something else to brag about something which has been allowed to become worse than it was before.
To protect us
One fundamental principle “in place to protect us” is a dual concept:
- the Presumption of Innocence
- that guilt must be Proven beyond reasonable doubt.
In recent times, this and other basic principles have been eroded, ignored and, in some cases, reversed.
Innocent people can be convicted of murder on a basis of Joint Enterprise, a principle which the High Court admitted many years ago had “taken a wrong turn” but about which nothing has since changed.
In cases involving sexual assault, the requirement for corroboration was dropped so that it is now possible, and frequent, that alleged sexual assaults can be prosecuted on no more evidence than one person’s word against another.
A jury of 12 humans, singularly ill-equipped to tell who is lying and who is not (as every study on the subject has discovered), is asked to decide exactly that. Proof beyond reasonable doubt does not enter into it.
This scenario is a perfect storm for those “reasons why miscarriages of justice happen” quoted by the letter.
- Perjury – a false accuser tempted by the lure of easy compensation
- Insufficient Evidence – the unsupported allegations of a single individual
- Confirmation Bias – a jury selected from a public brainwashed with the notion that our society is riddled with paedophiles and rapists around every corner
Appeal in vain
So – miscarriages of justice happen but fear not, we have another another safety measure in our wondrous justice system. If you’re wrongly convicted, you can appeal, can’t you?
If only if it were so simple.
In our ‘glorious’ 1000 year history of the British legal system, it wasn’t until 1907 that the Court of Appeal was introduced. This was a new development which was indeed designed to “help protect us” – “us” in this case being any innocent person who finds themselves wrongly convicted of a crime they didn’t commit. It was recognised that, for whatever reason, juries do make mistakes, and find people guilty without real justification.
Oddly, however, there was always a reluctance of Appeal judges to actually do their job – i.e. quash unsafe convictions – but one might reasonably expect that in the 100+ years since its formation, the Court of Appeal would have become more efficient at weeding out miscarriages of justice.
It has not – instead it has become next to useless for most innocents.
The Royal Commission of 1993, unhappy with Court’s excessive reluctance to overturn jury decisions, said that it should more readily quash convictions than it had in the past. The Court of Appeal, after all, is one of the main aspects “in place to protect us”.
What actually happened is the opposite – it became much much harder to gain a successful appeal than before – so one of those major features “in place to protect us” has all but been removed. Even the establishment of the, supposedly independent, CCRC has not helped, largely because it is bound by the same restrictions – the requirement for fresh evidence – as the rest of us.
Evidence? No need!
Furthermore, the requirement for independent corroboration in sex cases was dropped. The word of a single complainant can be sufficient for conviction, leading to a situation where, if it goes to court, it is much easier to be convicted of such a crime, and then much harder to appeal against it if you’re innocent. Paranoia concerning alleged historic sex crimes against children (leading to aforementioned “Conformation Bias”) has led to a situation not so far removed from the witch-hunts, and our system is no better equipped to prevent gross injustice from happening than it was then.
So this, dear MPs, is why your cut-and-pasted platitudes about our glorious 1000 year history are nothing but meaningless drivel. They are an insult to our intelligence and demonstrate a disheartening lack of respect for your constituents.
We have better things to do than spend our days writing to you about trivialities. We choose to write because we are experiencing – today, in the 21st Century – a justice system which is profoundly unworthy of a nation such as ours.
And, Dear Justice Department, you have the responsibility of making our justice system as good as it can be. There were politicians of the past who recognised the injustice of the witch trials and put an end to them; politicians in 1907 who saw the need for a genuine Appeal system in which miscarriages of justice could be identified and overturned. They will be turning in their graves.
What will you do? Do you have what it takes to improve the system or are you happy to trade on the work of your predecessors? If you don’t, please step aside and appoint someone who does. That is what this country, and we, deserve.
…Ah, I see that the former Justice secretary, Mr. Buckalnd, has indeed stepped aside, albeit not voluntarily. Does Dominic Raab has what it takes to improve it? Time will tell.