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Last Updated: Monday, 18 April, 2005, 00:26 GMT 01:26 UK
Law used as 'political football'
By Chris Summers
BBC News

One of Britain's most respected barristers has criticised the government for playing "fast and loose" with the criminal justice system.

But Richard Ferguson, QC, said Labour was not alone in using the law as a "political football".

Mr Ferguson told the BBC News website: "Even during World War II we didn't have a regime which was as repressive as what is now being urged upon us."

The government said it was making life harder for dangerous criminals.

Home Secretary Charles Clarke said: "Labour is not playing fast and loose with the criminal justice system."

Richard Ferguson QC
One of the great features of the criminal justice system in our society is that it does not compromise itself in the face of what may be transient dangers
Richard Ferguson QC

But Mr Ferguson criticised detentions without trial and anonymity for witnesses.

And he did not reserve his criticism for the Labour government.

He said: "When Michael Howard was home secretary he was just as guilty of using it (the law) as a political football as the Labour Party is. I make no distinction on that between the political parties."

On the subject of suspected al-Qaeda members being held for years without charge and then being released under control orders, he said: "None of us knows what the degree of threat is and if one accepts what we are told by the government you can understand why there has to be severe limitations on individual liberty.

"But one of the great features of the criminal justice system in our society is that it does not compromise itself in the face of what may be transient dangers."

Tafarwa Beckford sketch
Tafarwa Beckford, represented by Mr Ferguson, was acquitted in February

The Northern Ireland-born advocate has represented numerous high-profile clients including Rose West, Nicholas Van Hoogstraten, and recently pop star Jamelia's half-brother Tafarwa Beckford, acquitted of murdering Letisha Shakespeare and Charlene Ellis.

The trial set a legal precedent because for the first time some prosecution witnesses were granted anonymity, with only the judge and the prosecutor knowing their identity.

'Price worth paying?'

Mr Ferguson said: "That is a very difficult issue that the criminal justice system is going to have to grapple with.

"It's up to society if it thinks that is a proper price worth paying."

Public opinion is a very unruly horse to ride. If it were to be given full effect one would have capital punishment
Richard Ferguson QC

Mr Ferguson said: "This present government seems to be prepared to play fast and loose with what we have regarded as deep-rooted principles in the criminal justice system."

He said he had "great misgivings" about the abolition of double jeopardy, which now allows a person to be tried a second time for an offence for which they have been acquitted.

Mr Ferguson said: "It would be very difficult to ensure a fair trial for somebody who is being tried for the second time."

He criticised the "diminution of sacrosanct legal standards" and warned politicians, judges and Law Lords about the dangers of sacrificing the law to public opinion.

Fred and Rose
Mr Ferguson's clients have included Rose West

"Public opinion is a very unruly horse to ride. If it were to be given full effect one would have capital punishment.

"The legal establishment has to strive to maintain the confidence of public opinion without sacrificing itself to the less desirable manifestations, " he said.

'Making life difficult'

Home Secretary Charles Clarke said the Criminal Justice Act had brought in changes to the legal system so that "the most dangerous, sexual and violent offenders can be locked up, if necessary, forever".

Double jeopardy was abolished so when new evidence arose people could face retrial, he said.

A Conservative Party spokesman said: "Conservatives are committed to justice. Under Labour, the forgotten majority feel that our system of justice has become unbalanced in favour of the criminals, not the victim. We will reverse this trend."

As for the question of anonymity for witnesses, he said: "We believe in open courts as a principle of justice but at the same time if a witness's life is in danger we believe they should be able to give evidence anonymously."

We are the only party to have stood firm in defence of the principles of justice
Mark Oaten MP
Lib Dems
Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Mark Oaten said: "We are the only party to have stood firm in defence of the principles of justice. We opposed Labour's attempts to do away with jury trial, to allow defendants' previous convictions to be read out in court, and to lock people up on the say-so of the home secretary.

"Civil liberties and the rule of law are at the heart of what we stand for as a party."





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SEE ALSO:
Murder trial sets legal precedent
18 Mar 05 |  West Midlands
New Year shootings man acquitted
18 Feb 05 |  West Midlands
Q&A: Terror law row explained
12 Mar 05 |  UK Politics


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