LAW IN ACTION
BBC Radio 4's Law In Action
Tuesday 17 March 1600 GMT
On Radio 4 and online
High levels of distrust of the police among significant numbers of young black people mean the prospects of tackling tit-for-tat shootings and stabbings currently look bleak.
Earlier this year 15-year-old Steven Lewis became the first teenager to be stabbed to death in London in 2009.
Clive Coleman met some of those who knew him and were there when he died as they took part in the Young Leaders for Safer Cities programme in the London borough of Newham.
This initiative, spearheaded by the Metropolitan Black Police Association, aims to create a new generation of young black leaders.
Victims of gun and knife crime last year
Built around a one-year Btec course leading to a GCSE-equivalent qualification, the Young Leaders programme covers a wide variety of skills, ranging from communication and media to finance and confidence-building.
Law in Action spends time with some of the young people on the violent crime module which includes dramatic sessions from the Metropolitan Police's armed response unit CO19, Operation Trident, the initiative targeting gun crime among London's black communities, and Crimestoppers.
The pressing need for the Young Leaders programme can be seen from the figures on gun crime in London, where 75% of the suspects and 60% of the victims are black.
Campaign CD aiming to involve young black people with police work
That, says David Okoro, a trainer on the course, is a dramatic over-representation of black communities which comprise 30% of the capital's population.
Using powerful footage of the arrest of armed criminals and shocking images of the victims of gun and knife crime, the course is a two-way learning exercise.
It enables young people to understand and debate how and why the police behave as they do.
And it provides the police with a ready-made focus group of young black people with extensive experience of high-crime neighbourhoods.
"Case hardened" magistrates - the debate hots up
Also on the programme, barrister Kirsty Brimelow returns to the studio to defend her controversial remarks last week that magistrates dealing with criminal offences can become "case-hardened" in weeks.
Barrister Kirsty Brimelow is back to defend her remarks on magistrates
John Thornhill from the Magistrates' Association vigorously contests her claims and defends the magistrates' courts system.
He argues that any disparity in conviction rates is the result of a number of factors, including the greater length of time given to trials at crown courts and the larger number of witnesses there.
John Thornhill maintains that, if charged with an offence such as theft - which could be tried in either court - he would opt for the magistrates' court.
Given the same choice, Kirsty Brimelow wouldn't even have to think about it. For her, it would be the crown court every time.
With more and more people facing redundancy and dismissal, we spend a day at an employment tribunal, talking to judges, employer and employee litigants and their lawyers about the issues facing our courts as a result of the recession.
This week's programme - your thoughts
Over the last 15 or 20 years you'd have had to be blind not to have noticed rapidly multiplying juvenile elements in this country - including young policemen in pursuit cars - who seem to have been nursing a self-fulfilling death-wish that the streets and school playgrounds of inner-city Britain could soon be turned into something more closely approximating their TV, video and movie inspired idea of crime scene USA. And, as your show ably demonstrates, it looks as if, at last, they've succeeded...!!!
I was a little uneasy at the comments during the piece on the project to develop young black leaders. I'm not trying to denigrate the good work going on, but I'm sure that many of the problems stated could be applied to non-black youth in many areas. It is the culture which is the problem, not the race. In Salford for example there are similar problems of low achievement and crime with a white population. Is it time to move on from the racial views epitomised by the existence of a black police association and just see the people and the crimes and look for strategies without the "it's because I'm black" approach.
I am afraid I agree with Ms Brimelow, I would choose a jury of 12 over a bench of 3 any day, as indeed most hardened criminals do. This is simply because there is security in knowing 12 strangers with nothing in common will apply themselves more equitably and fairly to the task than 3 people who have applied for the position (and some of whom take great delight in having business cards made up with the 'JP' on) and who may have a propensity to behave like sheep, depending on their individual strength of character. Consistency in decision making suffers in a magistrates court. In addition to which, a jury is not 'on the clock' - there is no restriction on time, compared with magistrates who have a time estimate, anticipate delay, and - because of the order of court procedure - inevitably end up prejudicing the defendant at decision making time after a long day, a large lunch, and the resulting lack of attention late in the afternoon.
Sadly we all know that the magistracy see themselves as police courts and that acquittal in a contested trial before magistrates is a rarity. Most advocates will have horror stories of trials where despite the manifest shortcomings of prosecution witnesses and evidence, the bench had no difficulty in convicting. My favourite is from Harrogate Youth Court a few years ago now, when a child witness in TV link cross-examination clearly stated that she did not know the difference between truth and untruth. I pressed her whereupon she produced a large red card. I paused to wonder what that was for and carried on, whereupon the Court Clerk stopped me and said that I had to stop cross examining the witness as she was "under pressure." I was dumbfounded by this completely extra-statutory "special measure." We had a break and carried on. Needless to say a conviction ensued notwithstanding the admission as to truth/lies.
The figures quoted by Ms. Brimelow to support her argument that magistrates become "case hardened", could equally be used to suggest that trial in a Crown Court is more likely to lead to acquittal of a defendant due to the inexperience and naivety of members of a jury. Magistrates are trained in active listening, evaluating evidence, recognising and addressing their own prejudices, noting salient points of argument and also being aware of when a barrister is attempting to lead them down a certain path. They also have access to case law and Appeal Court decisions which can be discussed when making judgements. Is not a panel of three, trained magistrates as, or even more, likely to deliver justice than an unpredictable group of twelve untrained members of the public?
I was surprised that the serious allegations made by Ms. Brimelow were not backed up by evidence in the form of properly set up and moderated research. In consequence her repeated reference to percentages of acquittals etc sounded facile and anecdotal.
Having been a "victim" of a case-hardened magistrate I absolutely agreed with everything the Barrister Kirsty Brimelow said today on Law in Action. I wanted to appeal against the magistrates' decision but was advised against it on the grounds of cost and that a Crown Court is unlikely to overturn the magistrates' decision. For me that day was a travesty of justice and it has shaken my belief in the magisterial system.
As a magistrate who has also done jury service I have seen the risk of a jury being misdirected (in a magician's sense) rather than look at the relevant facts. Because I am a magistrate I was able to help focus the discussion on the real issues. It would be interesting to know statistics for acquittals by district judges as opposed to a lay bench. I think this may be far more revealing than those of jury trial. Who would be more case-hardened, the DJ doing cases daily or the Magistrate sitting 1 day a fortnight?
Contact the programme
If you have thoughts on any of the topics we've covered, or any other legal issues, you can contact us by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by post at Law In Action, BBC White City, Wood Lane, London W12 7TS.
Law In Action is broadcast on Tuesday 17 March 2009 at 1600 GMT on BBC Radio 4.