Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Head of Humberside Police wonders why justice isn't normally so swift

I read an article in The Independent today that quoted Tim Hollis, Chief Constable of Humberside Police. In the wake of the worst riots the UK has seen in decades, he had this to say:
"We really did see rapid and robust justice with offenders being arrested, charged, put before the courts and sentenced in days.

"This undoubtedly contributed to taking the momentum out of the disorder - but for the police and public it did raise the question as to why cases take so long to get to court in the normal course of events."
If Mr. Hollis doesn't mind terribly, I'd like to take that one. Although defendants have a right to a speedy trial, they also need time to prepare an adequate defence. In fact, they need time to consider a defence. Defendants are innocent until they have been proven guilty as a result of a legal process that does not benefit from being rushed. The swift justice we've seen following the UK riots has impeded some people's abilities to defend themselves properly. This is dangerous and should absolutely never be the norm.

In some cases we saw defendants hauled before the magistrates within a couple days of being charged. People who used social media to comment ironically on the riots were accused of committing the serious crime of incitement. One 17 year old young man was charged with an offence under the infamous section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 for sending a menacing message via a public electronic communications network for a Facebook update and subsequent conversation that resulted in the offending message being deleted after 20 minutes. Had there been more than two days between the charge and the hearing, he might have come to realize that he did not have to enter a guilty plea. That the message was menacing in its context was not disputed. That the defendant had an awareness of this was also not disputed. There was no time to consider an adequate defence.

Hollis then questions "why imprisonment is not used more effectively at an early stage for those who make the lives of the law-abiding a misery on a more routine basis". Again, a person is law-abiding until proven otherwise. This is true even of people who have offended in the past. It's the job of the magistrates and professional judiciary to determine whether bail should be granted. They follow guidelines. I'm sure police would like to see speedier justice in most cases. It makes their jobs easier. However, that's not what justice is for. The administration of justice is designed to protect the innocent, first and foremost. That's every man woman and child, regardless of suspicion or evidence, until the justice system pronounces a verdict. Punishing and rehabilitating the guilty comes second and by a long way. Perhaps Hollis is commenting on the failure of custodial punishment to serve as a deterrent. I can't quite tell what he's trying to say.

To be fair to Chief Constable Hollis, here is the piece he wrote in the Yorkshire Post today that was quoted by The Indy. It is not a bad piece. The tone is overall positive and I agree with much of what he has to say. Unfortunately, his paragraph fourteen ruins it for me. If the swift administration of justice served to take the momentum out of the riots, as he suggests, then I suppose it went some way toward fulfilling the primary duties of the police and the courts to protect the innocent. It was unfortunately full of errors and there are many successful appeals expected. There has already been one successful appeal overturning a custodial sentence. This should never be considered business as usual. That would be arsehole justice.

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