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Thursday, 14 March, 2002, 12:26 GMT
Does the criminal justice system favour the accused?
One of Britain's chief police officers has been criticised after he accused lawyers and judges of treating witnesses and victims with contempt.
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens told students in a speech at Leicester University on Wednesday that the legal system favoured defendants and put victims and witnesses on trial.
He said there was a real danger of civil unrest unless the criminal justice system was radically overhauled to stop the guilty walking free.
The Bar Council and the Law Society attacked Sir John's comments, saying lawyers acted within strict rules to ensure they acted in the interests of justice.
Does Britain's criminal justice system need a radical overhaul? Should more be done to protect the rights of the victim?
This Talking Point was suggested by Barry P, England :
In the light of Sir John Steven's comments on the criminal justice system, is it not time for a root and branch reappraisal of the way in which the rights of the accused have totally overtaken the rights of the innocent victim?
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This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
The clear reason for a raise in crime is the influx of refugees, mostly blacks, whose one priority is to thieve of the honest pure white man.
Tim, Denver, USA
Doesn't Sir John Stevens know that it's supposed to be difficult to put someone in prison? I wouldn't want to live in a society where policemen decided the standard of evidence required for conviction. Our present rights and liberties have been hard won over centuries and Sir John would throw them away to keep the streets tidy. As a society we already jail more of our citizens than any other in Western Europe and it shows no sign of solving our ills. Perhaps we ought to wake up and realise that building more jails wont make Britain a better place. Can we hear from some creative thinkers please?
I believe that the criminal justice system should be tilted in favour of the accused. You want the burden of proof to be put on the prosecution, otherwise, you get kangaroo courts, and nobody wants that. Sometimes the guilty do go free, but the vast majority do get convicted, as long as the jury does its work properly. As far as cutting down crime, remember, when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns. I think that the UK went way to far in the outlawing of guns. I personally have a concealed gun permit, and carry a pistol as a matter of fact. I pray that I never have to use it, but no one will shoot my family without a fight, as did the people that were shot over mobile phones and watches, as described in today's on-line story.
Surely what we need in this country is harsher sentencing for those convicted in our court system. This is the only area I have a problem with. What makes our system a laughing stock is when somebody has been caught for a major offence and is then given a small custodial sentence which then is halved on good behaviour. What a total joke.
Magistrates Courts are police courts where the Police always get their own way. I was falsely accused by a fairly senior police officer in my hometown with whom I had a long-standing personal dispute. Evidence against me was falsified and it came down to my word against the Police. Who do you think the Magistrates sided with? Justice in this country is a joke. The Police are just as bad as the criminals but they get away with it.
I am a recently retired Police Officer, who despite what some here think, worked hard and honestly at the job alongside the vast majority of my colleagues.
I left the job disillusioned, demoralised and above all cynical about everything to do with the alleged justice system. I say 'alleged' because it isn't a justice system; it is a plaything for lawyers, a playground for criminals and a passing fancy for home secretaries who seem to make it up as they go along.
David Blunkett is no different from his predecessor.... he talks a tough job, but continues to make it impossible for those employed in the Police to battle against an increasing tide of anti social criminality.
Oh, and by the way, for those who think the Police should work harder at gathering evidence, I couldn't have fitted all I had to do into a 16-hour day never mind an 8-hour day, so if you think he will reorganise the existing resources into something more efficient, don't hold your breath.
Naturally, all of those who didn't have 100% attention to their particular problem thought I couldn't be bothered about it, or was busy drinking tea.
I was reorganised once a year, whether I needed it or not in pathetic attempts to squeeze a little more blood from the stone, but a quart of work will never be obtained from a pint pot of Police Officers.
Scrap the Crown Prosecution Service which often prevents the police from putting forward perfectly reasonable cases to court.
The story does not have a happy end: my two ex-friends are now successful criminal lawyers. They are wealthy and respected by their colleagues. They discuss over the dinner table their day's work, laughing at witnesses and victims whom they humiliated that day at court. When asked whether they truly believe all their clients to be poor innocents unjustly accused, they righteously reply in the affirmative. I try to avoid meeting them, even though we once were very friendly. I fear that new look on their faces, a look of greed, brashness, and disdain, the look that is usually found on the faces of their clients.
I am a serving police officer, who is tired of seeing individuals who commit crime on a daily basis walk free from courts and flout the conditions that are placed upon them, safe in the knowledge that they will suffer no further punishment if they should breach such conditions.
I daily face the frustration of the victims who cannot understand why time and time again criminals are allowed to wander our streets only hours after committing serious crimes against them.
More and more we see a self obsessed legal elite making the rules, refusing time and time again to listen to the plea of a few brave outspoken people, like the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, who see the real picture and are prepared to speak out and not be afraid of the loud complaining of the dinner party liberals. Sir John Stevens simply voiced the feelings of most of the decent people living in our country.
I've been a victim of crime on a number of occasions but I still think the system is well balanced. The problem is that the police seem to still think they're policing the same society that they were 50 years ago. Quite rightly, a working class youth's testimony is no longer automatically disregarded in favour of that of his "betters". Consequently, they now need to work a darned sight harder in order to obtain the necessary evidence. Sir John Stevens needs to start recruiting and training officers for the 21st century and stop complaining that the era of Dixon of Dock Green is passed.
The last time I called the police to report a violent assault I was on hold for 13 minutes before the call was answered. By that stage all I could offer the victim was first aid and his muggers, who beat him half to death got clean away. I live less than 10 minutes from a police station.....!
Defendants should not have more rights than victims. It does seem that too many guilty people walk free. But at the same time, a proper legal system that is fair and impartial must be maintained.
Last week I met with police over a complaint and found them pleasant, professional and wishing to do a good job. The sad problem is that I live in a nice part of Wandsworth and our central government has cynically sucked resources and officers out of our area to the point where we have 5 officers for all of West Hill. The residents here want more officers but our taxes are wasted on criminal support activities in the East End. Can you be surprised that the residents are working on hiring more officers directly under the guise of a security firm. It is always so easy to blame the foot soldiers when the problems start at the top.
The biggest criticism of the British justice system that I have ever heard, is that it exists mainly to protect the 'rich' from the 'poor'. I have never personally subscribed to this theory. However I have noticed a trend towards stiff sentencing in cases regarding theft of property, and leniency in cases of violence. I have been privileged to have been called to do jury service on two occasions, and consequently have a great deal of faith in our court system but there is an imbalance creeping in which, if not addressed, could encourage a reactionary backlash which would be extremely damaging for society in the future.
As Sir John says, the criminal justice system fails whenever it acquits the guilty. What he didn't mention is that it also fails whenever it convicts the innocent.
The only useful solution to high crime levels is a fundamental and unpopular one - the eradication of poverty. As other people have pointed out, middle class affluent people don't become criminals - they become barristers. We have one of the highest poverty levels of western countries, and a correspondingly high level of crime. Therein lies the real problem. Make everyone financially comfortable and we'll have a nation of unemployed defence barristers.
I am a police officer and have been for 3 years in Central London. The key problem here is the court process. Every law-abiding citizen who can ought to go along and watch "justice" in progress at their local court.
They will rapidly form the opinion that it is indeed a joke. West London youth court is a case in point. One night duty I arrested a young mugger for breaching his bail conditions. This was the third night in a row that he had been arrested. We kept him in custody to be put before the court. The duty solicitor laughed when I suggested a remand in custody. I got told off in court for using the defendants surname instead of his Christian name, apparently it's oppressive. After waiting six hours on overtime he pleaded guilty to the breach and left the court with exactly the same bail conditions he went in with. That night I saw him again in the same place, I thought twice before nicking him again. Justice is a joke, the criminals are laughing, "their" solicitors getting richer with your money, think about it.
Sir Stevens is absolutely right. Anyone who's ever been dragged through the whole legal process and forced to give evidence as a witness knows how humiliating, demeaning, and unfair it is. I can only imagine how much worse it must be for the victim. Personally I've got no problem with the police. For the most part they're decent and even brave people. No, its the Lawyers and magistrates that I despise. It is simply the most cowardly, dishonourable, immoral profession I can think of. They're all intelligent, educated, middle-class people who have been greatly blessed and privileged in life, but they are utterly bereft of compassion, empathy, or conscience.
After going through the nightmare of being a witness, I will never give evidence in court or make a statement to the Police again. If I see a crime - even a murder, it will be 'Sorry Officer, didn't see a thing!' The only people who showed any compassion were the charity Victim Support - God bless them. Any one of them is worth a thousand miserable lawyers!
The legal system in Britain is almost perfect and is working well. It ensures the rights of the victims as well as the accused persons. If the law enforcement agencies and the courts of law realise their responsibilities there will not be any complaint against the system which has evolved in the course of several centuries. Those who say that this system gives more rights to the accused which should be curtailed should understand that the British legal system will degenerate into the systems that prevail in the underdeveloped countries of Asia and Africa. In the British system we find a balance between the rights of the accused and the victim. What Britain need is more competent members of the judiciary, a strong moral approach of the practising lawyers and more honest maw enforcement personnel.
There should definitely be more done to protect the rights of the victim in the UK. Since the 'Flower Power' era of the sixties Britain (and some parts of Europe) have been becoming more and more liberal to the extent that, now the criminal gets all the counselling and the victim gets nothing. Drug taking is becoming socially acceptable and children are becoming less respectable toward adults. Common manners are disappearing and the younger generation are becoming more aggressive. Violent crime is increasing and the police force is becoming more and more disillusioned. Something has to be done about the crime and the legal system in the UK pretty soon otherwise our society will become more and more unbearable.
Has it escaped Sir John's notice that there have been numerous miscarriages of justice in recent years resulting in the conviction of innocent people. If he now feels the standards of evidence required for conviction are too high he should ask himself exactly where the blame for that lies.
I always regarded myself as a liberal and believed in trying to help criminals not to repeat offend. Having lived in East London for a number of years I now realise how deluded most of the sociologists and 'do-gooders' are. Most criminals are not 'victims' of the society around them. Most criminals are ultra selfish, lazy, immoral sociopaths who are so self-obsessed and arrogant they think society is there to serve them anything they want on a platter. The CJS has had its head held in the sand for so long by deluded liberals that it has to be forced to look at reality. Yes a case has to be proved in court, but then a realistic sentence has to be given AND carried out. I fully support John Stevens statement.
Chris B, UK
As long as lawyers and barristers see the courts as a place to make money, there will never be a 'fair' legal system in this country. Time will always be wasted on legal technicalities to prolong the time that can be charged by legal practitioners. If the all criminal barristers, etc were employed as civil servants most cases would be dealt with on the basis of the evidence presented rather than on how much could be earnt from them.
The Law Society is widely regarded as one of the most self-serving of our institutions. As someone once said: "There is no indignation more noisy than vested interest paraded as public concern."
In the criminal justice system, various competing interests must be weighed. When one part is consistently given too much weight or consideration, it puts the whole system out of balance, and correction is needed. What seems to be missing from the current debate is an examination of why lawyers and judges are seen as "treating witnesses and victims with contempt". What is the process by which this happens, i.e. what's really going on here?
While most would agree that the UK legal system is flawed it is worth noting that other countries view our system of justice with envy. The European Human Rights laws were based more on British Justice than any other countries.
Niyi Opaleye, UK
I firmly believe the system is flawed. As a 17 year old, I was attacked by two drunken skin-heads one wielding a broken bottle, I defended myself with my motor-cycle helmet, broke ones nose and chased the other off. I was arrested and charged with GBH and use of an offensive weapon. The system is too quick to judge - the police filed the case before even thinking to work the circumstances out and I had to go all the way to the crown court to prove my innocence. The system favoured two thugs expelled from school at 15, over a 6th former accepted for university and who had never been in trouble in his life.
I was still found guilty of wounding, because the system demanded it (the jury was sent away and the judge castigated the police and DPP for ever bringing the case). Though the Judge did not sentence me to anything.
As a consequence of having such a conviction against my name, I could not pursue the career I'd wanted to since I was a child by going to Sandhurst and becoming an officer in the Army.
That all happened 20 years ago, I'm now a successful business person, with a 1st class honours degree and an MBA. But every time I read about cases like the Martin case, it makes my blood boil. If I'd followed the law, I'd have probably been maimed for life, or even killed - I stood up to my attackers, and had to go through a year of hell to prove something, which was settled by my barrister in 5 minutes.
So yes I think the system is flawed. And if it happened again, I'd still stand up for myself and fight back - its everyone¿s inalienable right to defend themselves with all necessary means to protect their health. And if that means shooting a burglar, then so be it.
Sorry Chris, but you're wrong about the number of lawyers and police. There are 85,000 solicitors and about 10,000 barristers - compared to 180,000 police officers and civilian employees. Of those lawyers, about 5,700 duty solicitors face up to the 126,000 coppers. The government spends eight times on the police what it spends on its lawyers.
Trials these days seem to spend more time considering fine legal distinctions and procedural issues rather than trying to determine whether or not the accused actually did it.
That can't be right.
When someone¿s liberty is at stake, the burden of proof must be at its highest. That said, it is time that we built more prisons, and set longer sentences. There can be no justification to the argument that we cannot jail an offender due to lack of space in the prison service.
Why can't I beat up someone who tries to mug me?
Isn't it my right as a human being to defend myself to the full ability?
If more criminals got a good hiding from the public, many would think twice about petty crime.
Firstly I am not a Police Officer,
I am an ex serviceman who served
for 21 years. I believe that Sir John
Stevens is absolutely right.
It's all a question of backing
the Police up when they prove
someone guilty. Lets give out
realistic sentences, community
service etc is a joke. If they
steal something, take something
of theirs and sell it to
compensate their victim,
then bang them up!
I was recently a victim. The police sent several letters offering support services. They did not offer the only 'support' I wanted: for them to do their job. They were only interested in recording statistics, and made no attempt to catch the criminal.
We have looked at how to prevent crime and be soft on criminals for too long. It hasn't worked. Let's go back to the drawing board and ask the public and police what they want. Ignore the Law Society - they have vested interests. And let's leave the politicians out of it, too, they are constrained by the politically correct atmosphere in which we are forced to live.
Of course this Policeman is correct. Lets face it, he should know. But as ever nothing will happen. The victim will continue to be ignored and the criminal will continue to be sent on holiday. I hope that someday soon our society will wake up from the politically correct nightmare we now find ourselves in.
Comments about the number of Lawyers outnumbering police are misleading and wrong headed. The number of lawyers doing criminal defence & prosecution work is relatively small. The majority do work connected to the country's personal and business wealth. There are more lawyers involved in transactions such as conveyancing and commercial contracts then criminal defence and prosecution work. Like so many things in life, it may be a nice headline but is it the truth?
There is plainly no point in reforming the trial and criminal processes until the police actually start catching people in the first place.
The howls of rage which greeted David Blunkett's attempt to get the police to adopt more modern work practices show clearly where the real problem lies.
People have lost all confidence in the police, the police have lost all confidence in the ability of the courts to deliver an appropriate sentence for the crime. I must say, I find some of the sentences dished out by the courts beyond belief. For murder it's either time to bring back hanging or for life to mean life. For crimes of violence the sentences must be increased and a message sent to the criminals, we will not allow this in our society any longer!
The law is nothing without suitable punishment for offenders and protection for the victims. And our law is nothing in those respects.
Unless we overcome the apathy of punishment and correction, society will suffer and our Police Forces will be severely degraded in their ability.
After all, they execute the law of the government we as voters empower. The blame ultimately lies with us.
The Police get paid too much for too little intelligence. 5 GCSE's are all you need to be a Police Officer against some of the most intelligent people in the country (defence barristers). No competition. No wonder criminals walk all over them.
I think the fact that there are now more people in the legal profession than in the police service speaks volumes.
British justice is simply too complex and too expensive. The only people who benefit from it are those who work in the system. They seem to treat it as some kind of a game, played at the expense of both the guilty and innocent.
I think the comments are fair and most people would agree. It is about time that someone in a prime position admitted what the public knows. I know that if a burglar came into my home at night and I tried to protect my family using any household implement against him/her, then I would be charged with hurting the burglar by the police. This is the nonsense society we live in and I doubt it will change.
Julian Hayward, UK
I have always admired the plea bargaining system in the US. This would lead to a huge reduction in the load on the courts. In turn, it would lead to faster prosecutions.
The words "would you mind leaving my property please?" for some reason does not work.
If I defend myself, I am punished.
YES the system needs a radical overhaul.
"Innocent until proven guilty" - the way it should be. What I think needs to be looked at is not the way the system treats the accused but the way it treats the witnesses and victims.
Yes - but that's its great virtue. By presuming the accused is innocent until positively proven guilty, the judicial system is indeed more likely to free the guilty than convict the innocent. But that is an unmitigated good. The police should stop whingeing and produce better evidence.
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