Justice Peeks

There’s a reason that the figure of Justice is traditionally represented as blind.  A fundamental principle of justice is that it applies equally to all who are subject to it and, though historically the crown has been partially exempt, that in theory means everyone else – rich or poor, grand or humble, old and young, man and woman.

There’s also a reason why the separation of powers was built into the constitution of the United States.  It was recognised that for justice to function it had to be free of political influence so it could hold the other arms of the state, the legislature and the executive, to account.

Having lived in and reported from a country where the judiciary was utterly compromised to the extent that it was simply believed to do the bidding of the government (and little I ever saw contradicted that) I know what a cancerous effect that has on a society.

It’s about more than justice.  It’s about social cohesion.  Take away from someone the belief that society (in the shape of the state) will act on their behalf to right wrongs done them and their sense of belonging withers.  Even in the Middle Ages feudal lords were bound to provide justice and protection as their side of a bargain that gave them status, money and free labour.

Yet in Britain we face a growing culture of impunity that gives the impression that certain groups or sections of society do not face proper justice while others feel its full force.

Like many people I was near apoplectic watching the scenes of destruction from around London during the August riots.  For many of the rioters it appeared to be little more than a guerrilla shopping expedition and I felt scant sympathy for them even if the statistics out today suggest that they are more accurately described “poorer, younger and of lower educational achievement than average” rather than as well organised criminals, gang members or middle class idiots having a little fun living dangerously.

Though the resulting sentencing has been somewhat uneven, many of those linked to the rioting have had some pretty substantial prison terms imposed on them, not least the two men who were each jailed for four years  for using Facebook to incite people to riot.

The tough approach might be easier to justify if we saw the law taking an equally tough line with other groups who seem to fare better under the criminal justice system.

A number stand out; bankers, business leaders and the police for instance.  According to the group Inquest juries at coroners inquests have returned 12 verdicts of unlawful killing related to deaths in custody (of which there have been about 300) since 1990.  There have been no prosecutions.  None, nada, zero.

There have been 45 people killed by police firearms officers since 1993.  No police officer has been convicted of any offence in relation to any of these incidents despite there being grave doubts over some of them.

The initial lack of action over the death of Ian Tomlinson was symptomatic, not exceptional as were the denials and disinformation following the killings of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell and Mark Duggan in Tottenham.

Most people recognise that the police have a tough job and wish them well in doing it – me included (and I’m not paying lip service to the sentiment when I say it).  That’s why they approve of legislation that gives the police additional protection, making it, for instance, a more serious offence to assault a police officer than an average member of the public in the street.  But the flipside of that is that we need to hold officers to account in accordance with the professional standards we expect of them.  The perception is that this isn’t happening.

Likewise there have been no prosecutions over the actions of financial institutions whose recklessness resulted in our needing to pump £80Bn into them to keep them afloat.  If someone had driven a car as recklessly as bankers ran their institutions they would have come before the law.

It’s not a case of ‘somebody must pay’.  It’s that we know that bankers pushed the rules to the limit and possibly broke them.  We know that they repackaged high-risk debt as AAA securities in a way that may have been fraudulent.  Given the enormity of the crisis they brought about the criminal justice system seems to have applied different standards.  There’s been no proper criminal investigation.  Bankers get the benefit of the doubt.  Stupid people on Facebook get four years.

Then there are corporations.  For years it was almost impossible to hold the people at the top of a company to account for that corporation’s actions.  The death of Simon Jones at Shoreham Docks was a case in point.  The company paid a fine.  No individual or group of individuals was held to account.  Bad people have been allowed to hide behind their business’s legal personality and escape prosecution.  That is wrong.

It should not be about revenge, it should be about justice.  There is the sense abroad that justice may turn a blind eye when it comes to the establishment but that it peeks out from under its blindfold at everyone else.

That runs the serious risk of undermining faith in the judicial process.  If people think the system is unfair they won’t participate.  I know some on the right think that criminal justice isn’t about participation.  I think they’re naïve. There are swathes of the country where the police are already unwelcome.  The lack of cooperation from those communities makes the police’s task far harder.  As a result some crimes go unsolved while others require far more resources in order that they be brought to court.

We already have elements of a ‘them and us’ justice system.  If it continues on its present trajectory eventually we won’t be able to call it a justice system at all.



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