Law in the balance

As a former student of legal philosophy, I have an abiding admiration for our system of justice, so it pains me to see that as a nation we appear to be having a rather unhappy relationship with the Law at the moment.

Currently, it seems that the legal system is either being ignored or pilloried. For sure, there are improvements which could be made to it, but, by and large, I think it deserves another chance.

First though, I have a rather controversial suggestion. I can’t claim it as my idea but it is one I am increasingly in favour of. I think anyone accused of a sexual crime, should, like their accuser, be allowed instant anonymity. I say this because, despite my own fiercely protective instinct which wells up if anyone so much as looks at my children oddly, I trust the legal system to find out the guilty and then name, shame and punish them.

Precisely because sexual crimes are so abhorrent, individuals who are accused of them are instantly targets for the strongest vitriol that people can conjure up. But what if they are innocent? If they are named by the police, the media will name them, hold their own trial in the papers or on TV and before you can say, “here’s your summons”, those accused are cast in the eyes of the public as guilty, or at least tainted with great doubt of being a monster.

Just last week, a senior figure of a well-known property company was accused of rape. I have no idea whether the allegations are well-founded, but then that’s not my job, that’s the job of the courts. However, whether through conscience or a sense of duty, he resigned and his resignation and the reasons for it were widely reported in the business press.

Whether or not he is ultimately found guilty of this hateful crime is now largely irrelevant. Many people will only remember two things about him: “rape” and “resigned”. They won’t be interested in the detail of his actual culpability. Meanwhile, as he awaits being charged, and his wife and children struggle to understand what is going on, he is out of a job and will have an uphill struggle to find a new one. If he is ultimately found guilty I will have no sympathy with his predicament at all, but at the moment, all this has occurred and he hasn’t even been charged.

Whilst I completely acknowledge that false accusations of rape are rare, the ramifications of a false accusation are so far-reaching that surely the Legislature should act to protect the innocent until proven guilty?

Will the senior Tory figure ever fully recover from being falsely accused of child abuse? He can sue for libel and slander, but will his reputation ever be resurrected? Will he not always suffer from the misremembered musings of people: “Oh, yeah, him, wasn’t there something about him and child abuse?”. The damage has been done. He was tried and convicted by a the court of public opinion. Should such power to ruin lives really lie in the public domain?

Jimmy Saville is an interesting case in point. Yes, the sheer volume of evidence against him is staggering and compelling, but he will never be tried in a court. It will never be the conclusion of a legal trial that identifies him as an abuser. He will be forever remembered as such, but there is a slight tinge of unconventional rough justice to his condemnation so far before the police inquiry has been concluded.

Then when the full power of the English legal system is invoked, some decisions are not popular either, such as the repeatedly rebuffed attempts to deport Abu Qatada.

Just to recap, Qatada is due to face trial in Jordan for various bomb plot offences dating back to 1998. The Special Immigration Appeals Court decided last week that as there was a real risk that evidence obtained under torture would be used against him in a trial in Jordan, his trial would not be fair, so they refused to allow him to be deported.

Whilst it is deeply frustrating that someone embargoed by the UN Security Council for his terrorist links is walking the streets of suburban London, the Article of the Convention on Human Rights invoked by his lawyers exists to protect those falsely accused by despotic regimes. Criticism should not be leveled at the courts who historically have protected the individual against the power of the State, but rather at the Government’s handling of this. They knew where the problems against having Qatada deported lay and failed to address them sufficiently.

Often those who criticise the Convention on Human Rights as being unnecessary and incompatible with our legal system point at the common law safeguards of individual liberty enshrined in English law, but even these are now under attack. David Cameron’s announcement on Monday to the CBI that he wants to make it harder for people to apply for a judicial review is deeply concerning.

Judicial review has long been a cornerstone of our democracy. Under this procedure an individual can challenge the application of a rule or law by a public body. It ranks right up there with habeus corpus as an important check and balance against the powers of the Executive and other public bodies.

It remains to be seen exactly what Cameron has in mind. The judicial review process is supposed to weed out those who might abuse this procedure well before trial, whether they be land developers, other corporates or indeed, vexatious litigants. If the real problem is the time it takes to bring cases to trial, then the legal system needs streamlining, or dare I say it, investment, to speed things up. The solution lies not in denying or frustrating an individual’s right to be heard.


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