Proposed UK legal reform.I

I’m surprised there isn’t already a thread on this subject (unless there is and I just missed it - I did look , in which case I’m sorry and perhaps a kindly passing mod would put this one to bed…)

Anyway, David Blunket is proposing some radical changes to UK legal process, namely the forfeit of the right to trial by jury for certain crimes and the forfeit of the ‘double jeopardy’ (you can be tried once only for a given crime) rule.

What do y’all folks think about that?; I can’t decide; certainly it would be frustrating if new and conclusive evidence arises after an existing case had collapsed, but it would be bad for an innocent person to keep getting hauled through the courts over and over.

Here is a BBC article on the subject.

The cartoon in the Metro this morning tickled my fancy - Two lawyers are reading a newspaper with the headline “End of double jeopardy rule” and the one says “It means that you are innocent until your defense lawyer is a very rich man”

My opinion on this is that it’s merely a crude attempt to address what appears to be increasing police incompetence in dealing with serious crime. How many high-profile trials have collapsed in recent years due to police errors or lack of evidence? It sounds to me like a second chance for the police and CPS to ‘get it right’ and secure convictions.

My worry is that (as it currently stands) nothing about the accused’s criminal record can be publicised until after their trial; if they are found not guilty, then the press makes a huge song and dance about how the jury might have decided otherwise had they known what a terrible character they were trying, then some new but still far from conclusive piece of evidence provokes a retrial, there would be little hope of finding an unprejudiced jury.

Well, I think this is a very bad move.

If there are problems with securing convictions, by all means, let’s address the reasons for these problems. Like police incompetence, or the spineless ineptitude of the CPS (for our American viewers, the Crown Prosecution Service, also known as “Couldn’t Prosecute Satan”).

But, instead, we’re talking about the abolition of double jeopardy (police can’t pin the crime on the most plausible suspect? Never mind, they can have another go!), introduction of past convictions as admissible evidence (you can be convicted of a specific crime on the grounds that you are generally a bad person), and even hearsay evidence (you can be convicted of a specific crime if enough people say you’re a generally bad person). Yes, this will make it a lot easier to secure convictions. Whether the people convicted actually did it or not.

Of course, we are assured these rules will only be applied in serious cases, where new evidence is available… yeah, right. “We are withdrawing all the traditional protections of the British subject under the law. From now on, innocent people can be hounded and harassed by the police, repeatedly tried for the same offence, and sent to jail on the basis of editorials in the Daily Mail. However, you have David Blunkett’s personal assurance that these new powers will only be used on really naughty people, so that’s all right.”

Blech. Anyone fancy joining me in a Glorious Revolution? We threw James II out on his worthless ear, I reckon we could do the same to the Reverend Blair…

There’s not going to be much of a great debate here unless somebody is prepared to say that they think Blunkett’s proposals are a good idea.

Anybody?

Hello?

Hello?

Well UDS, I’m far from being in favour of the idea, there are positive aspects*, but IMO they are very heavily outweighed by the possible abuses.

*The changes being retrospective, new forensic technologies (particularly DNA evidence (if available)) could be applied to cases that were tried before the technology was available.

I’ve often heard it said “better ten guilty men go free than an innocent man sentenced”, which makes sense, I suppose, but I wonder if there would be a point at which this would break down and be unsupportable (like “better fifty guilty and dangerous men go free than a couple of dozen innocent men are severely inconvenienced”).

Well, I have considerable reservations but…where’s my labrador…

Despite having 12 Legal Reform Bills since 1997 I think everyone accepts something has to be done (including civil libertarians/human rights activists) but from that point, it inevitably becomes an issue of justice vs. legal and financial expediency.

The headlines stats say 30,000 trials a year crack before coming to a verdict and that 79% of those tried on Merseyside are acquitted. That’s ugly.

I wonder if much of the context of the current problems and dilemmas is a little lost. The Justice system evolved over hundreds of years, principles long-established, yada, yada…the problem is that the world has changed in the past 30 years or so. People are more suspicious of the police (hate to say it but Merseyside is not exactly police friendly), criminals more switched on…there are so many potential devices by which a ‘reasonable suspicion’ can be raised (leading to acquittal). It’s a game criminals know how to play much better than they once did (It’s a fair cop, Guv).

I actually don’t really see it as a police issue. They investigate and accumulate evidence as best they can but after that, the decision to prosecute (is there the evidence ?) is a matter for the CPS and, then, the Justice system takes over (length to trial, evidential issues, bringing and preparing of witnesses, etc). It’s at the later stages that things break down. To some extent, I actually feel sorry for the police because their work is often thrown away for reasons beyond their control.

I feel pretty torn over the previous convictions rule but , maybe, it should be relaxed a very little. It’s difficult to say how such evidence will influence juries (especially when they’ll be encouraged by the Defence to adjudge on the facts of the case itself). I don’t like it but if it just goes to character…oh, I dunno. It’s damn tricky.

Contrary to the general thrust of this proposal is the ending of the Double Jeopardy rule for serious offences (apparently Murder, Rape and others not yet disclosed (as far as I know)). I don’t like it at all but if DNA evidence is used to overturn Guilty verdicts, I guess it makes sense to some extent …nontheless,.it’s a worry for me. The principle is important because it reduces every decision reached by a jury on a serious offence to that of provisional status.

I suppose judgement without jury is particularly worrisome. But again, the modern inclination towards intimidating witnesses (not just on the bigger crimes but on any council estate near you), etc needs to be addressed somehow. All very unsavoury. At least the Right to Appeal remains so if the Judge did lose their plot at the original trial there is some recourcse.

FWIW, I suppose there is still the Human Rights Act to fall back on - even if it hasn’t yet proved to be very helpful for the non-UK residents currently held indefinitely without charge (and mildly embarrassing that they can choose to go to another country instead and some have chosen France). The Anti-Terrorism legislation is pretty draconian stuff by any standard.

The real world out there is pretty ugly and the Justice System just isn’t awarding stripey suntans to enough ogf the right people. There you go, I had a stab.

In all seriousness, I think this is the weak spot. (Or, at least, one of the most serious weak spots). The CPS is seriously under-resourced; it has a massive caseload, and it’s not attracting either the number or the calibre of people it needs to do its job. This is what we need to address - not lowering the standards required for convictions, but raising the game of the CPS until it meets the standards that already exist.

I’d argue that we also need to take a long, hard look at the underlying causes of crime (didn’t somebody say he was going to be “tough on the causes of crime”? Obviously, I’m quoting him out of context and being terribly unfair here…) and at the process of criminal rehabilitation. Our prison population is at a record high, and that’s another area that needs to be addressed - who was it said that prison was just an expensive way of making bad people worse? We need to look at ways of dealing with criminals which actually reduce the rate of re-offending - not just listen to the knee-jerk clamour demanding longer and stiffer sentences for everything from murder to littering. Otherwise, the prison gates, effectively, are nothing but a revolving door - and Blunkett’s proposals will do nothing but increase the rate of spin. (How strangely appropriate, for the current government…)

The changes are proposed to the legal system in England and Wales, not the UK.

Might be hijacking a bit here, but I did a brief trawl for recidivism rates around the Web and turned up this article, which I felt was food for thought. I feel cutting recidivism rates is much more important than streamlining the conviction process. Though, obviously, it doesn’t play as well to the tabloid-reading crowd…

Oops, thank you for the correction.

I suspect his debate just isn’t going to work. Agree with you, Steve. In fact, some of my best friends worked for the CPS for a while and their view was that it is under resourced in almost every way. That notwithstanding (and I’m a little out of touch now), I believe they still use independent Barristers for many more serious cases. Still, I don’t really see this particular reform as a result of policing inadequacies.

Yep, sure addressing the cause of crime is vital as is that of re-offending – with regard the former, particularly youth and young adult crime/social exclusion, etc.

With regard re-offending, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform (known in the days of the last Tory Home Secretary as The Penal League for Howard Reform…ah, them was the days…), 52% of all prisoners released in 1996 were reconvicted within two years while it cost £500 a week to keep 'em locked up – presumably it would be higher if they actually locked up the right people…

Big issue of informing the public debate, though IMHO. Much of the public would need some convincing that pouring money into meaningful prisoner education, etc is the way to go. It clearly is in any rational sense but it remains an emotive issue, IMHO.

Have you got cites for any of this stuff? As I understand it, the whole business of “all the crims get off” and “courts are soft” is hooey. A few rich high profile crims get off. Rarely. But the govt is aware that people’s perception matches yours, and they know that there are votes therefore in making changes that will supposedly fix this non-existent problem.

Have they done the pedophiles and terrorists thing yet? You know, the one where (when introducing a bill that will affect all criminals and all trials) the government says “this change is necessary to convict pedophiles and terrorists (and other bogeymen)” and then decries any opponents as being supporters of pedophiles and terrorists.

Surprisingly no, they haven’t used that angle yet. (or not so that I have heard)

To be fair to London_Calling, he did say “enough of the right people”. The UK’s prison population is at a record high (though, proportionately, nowhere near as big as the USA’s - for 2000, the US imprisoned 690 people per 100,000 population, as against 125 per 100,000 in the UK and 110 per 100,000 in Australia - cite), but there’s certainly room to argue that too many of those are the wrong sort of people - first-time, non-violent or petty offenders who would be better off (and less likely to re-offend) under some kind of alernative punishment.

… “alernative”? Oh, lord. Feel free to insert the letter “t” anywhere you find aesthetically appealing.

For what in particular ? The whole area is fraught with guesswork, as characterised by Lord McAlpine, the Home Office Minister who said yesterday (when asked what the impact of these changes would have on the overall prison population) “We don’t know” (you might think that answer is, at least, partly political rather than reflecting an absence of pre-estimation, though)

The figure of 79% is a direct quote from the Chief Constable of Merseyside, the figure of 30,000 cracked trials comes from the CPS, we know the police appetite for greater investigative powers has been sated. But we can’t know how many of those trials would have ended in conviction, nor is it easy to argue the CPS on Merseyside are more ‘prosecution happy’ than elsewhere.

We also know the crime rate has gone down in recent years (though just on the up-swing now), we know that the prison population keep rising (now at record levels), we know that more than half those coming out of prison will re-offend.

We further know that the principle of Double Jeopardy has existed for 800 years but we also know that DNA evidence is reliable and has kept improving over the past decade.

But we don’t have any clear, non-contentious answers, IMHO, as to how best to ensure those who are innocent go free and those who are guilty are convicted - except that no one wants to go the route of the US.

Spin, spin, spin!

The House of Lords will knock back most of the contentious issues- Rights to Jury Trial, Previous Convictions, Double Jeopardy, fining defence lawyers. Even if the HofL doesn’t knock back all of them, the English Judiciary (increasingly liberal, and now interpretting the European Convention on Human Rights) and European Court of HR will look very carefully at an adversarial system which seems to have the government tampering with the rights to a defence.

It is now mid-2002. Next election 2005. Plenty of time for the Government to look hard on crime and start blaming the Judges and the ECHR.

If anything grossly contentious is part of the law in two years, I would be most surprised.

Spin, spin, spin!

Pjen - thank you for your optimism.