Labours Reforms Of The Legal System

In the run-up to Christmas Tory leader William Hague was widely hammered in the media for linking the deaths of Steven Lawrence and Damilola Taylor to ‘police incompetence’ and Labour cuts in police numbers respec-tively. By general consent Hague was attempting to play the race card out of political opportunism borne of desperation.

Linking the decline in ‘stop and search’ and the consequent rise in street crime to the Macpherson report saw him lambasted by what he refers to disparagingly as the ‘feign outrage of the liberal elite’. Imagine the furore had he further demanded the abolition of jury trial for certain people for certain offences - and given that a racial spin? Exactly. Hague’s chagrin that jack Straw is allowed to do so, and come up smelling of roses is therefore perhaps understandable.

Straw wants to get rid of jury trial, for certain offences - for certain people. jury trial is expensive. Many people opt for jury trial because the chance of conviction there hovers around 50%, where as in the magistrates, or, as they were once commonly called ‘police courts’, the conviction rate can be somewhere in the 90% and upward bracket. So Jack Straw’s initiative having already been rejected by the House of Lords and seen a rebellion by Labour MP’s is not a widely popular move with civil liberties groups, influential sections of the legal profession and nor, despite his protestations to the contrary, is there any significant public backing either. Understandably, given the weight of opinion what was needed, jack decided, was to wrong-foot his opponents, and in the process make himself fireproof on the issue.

What jack needed was some of that old Millbank spin. And what better way currently to protect himself and his legislation, than stamp the Lawrence logo on it. Hence his rationale that the Lawrence case was the ‘defining case of the 90s’; the ‘political equiva-lent’ of the score or more of Irish citizens incarcerated by a lazy incompetent and bigoted police force in the ‘70s and ‘80s.The principle difference with Lawrence being, that rather than fit a victim up, the system just as controversially let a victim down. Or as he put it is his own words: "the issue was not someone who was innocent and found guilty, but the opposite failing: the system’s failure to secure a conviction in respect of whoever it was who murdered a black teenager."

But unfortunately for Straw apologists it is not the opposite failing, but the same one. It is the same lazy, incompetent and bigoted police force responsible whatever the scenario. A police force the Macpherson inquiry decided, are moreover ‘institutionally racist’, which is to say they were prone to decisions that led to discriminatory conclusions. And if the police are institutionally racist, is it not a fair bet ‘their’ courts might be as well? No inquiries planned there though, in effect greater powers instead. One amendment Straw proposed was that only those with ‘a reputation to protect’ would be entitled to opt for jury trial. On what criteria someone’s ‘reputation’ was to be assessed has never been made entirely clear. Moreover if in assessing whether or not the defen-dant was sufficiently respectable, in that a conviction for say, theft, would unduly damage his reputation; the defendants current social standing (ie whether upper middle or lower class) would undoubtedly be a consideration.

Whether of ‘good character’ or the other. Good character being based on whether the defendant ‘had form’ or was, as the saying goes, ‘known to the police’. Now obviously if someone on a shop-lifting charge had a string of previous convic-tions for a similar offence then is unlikely his or her reputation would be unduly damaged by a further conviction. A sort of common sense analogy Straw himself might have employed to reassure his doubters, but for the fact it would have let the cat out of the bag. For whether de facto or de jure it underlines the need for a magistrate to have access to a defendants record prior to hearing the evidence.

Consequently, in sitting as judge and jury to speak, it would require of the magistrate in ‘Diplock court’ fashion to ‘remind himself’ once having been convinced of the defen-dants guilt, to set aside any preconception or prejudices, in handing down out a sentence. Quite clearly, under such a system any defendant with a record, once charged would, faced with the inherent presumption of guilt, understand the need to prove his innocence. Many would also quickly come to understand, that even when innocent, copping a guilty plea might be preferable to pleading not guilty and subsequently incurring the possible wrath a vengeful magistrate. The then arbitrary nature of British justice, would not be lost on the ‘bobby on the beat’ either, Any arrest where actual evidence other than the word of an officer(s) was absent, could result not only in a charge, but would also practically guarantee a verdict of guilty. Wary of allegations of discrimination Straw nonetheless proposes to extend that logic to include jury trials as well. But if, as Straw insists, the police are ‘institutionally racist’ on what precise sectors of society does the caring Mr Straw imagine his ‘anti-racist reforms’ will have the greatest negative impact?

Any removal of jury rights aligned to prior disclosure, will certainly guarantee for Straw the fast track American style justice he so craves, but only by turning the law on its head. America, so admired in certain liberal/left circles for its overt affir-mative action policies, implemented such measures some years back, it now has more people, and more working class black people in jail, one million and counting, than other country in the world.

Allowing for the reality of class rather than race being ultimately the defining factor, the hypocrisy bridging anti-racist rhetoric and reality is surely unsustainable. In the meantime for scoundrels everywhere ‘anti-racism’ has displaced ‘patriotism’, as the body armour of choice.

Reproduced from RA vol 4, Issue 10, March/April '01