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Smart Justice

by Bryan Gibson (author of The Pocket A-Z of Criminal Justice)

(page 2 of 4)

Plötzensee Prison
For most ordinary German people (as opposed to those scheduled for the concentration camps), the great fear that kept people in check was of disappearing within the prison system. Plötzensee Prison has been preserved as a symbol of this. It is where the July bomb plotters against Adolf Hitler were executed by being hung with piano wire. It is where the guillotine was kept until the British wrecked it in a bombing raid, which is when the Nazis switched from beheading to hanging. Prisoners, many of them professional people and hitherto quite respectable, were held in fortress-like prison wings, one of these just a few yards from the two permanent execution sheds looking like the kind of buildings into which railway engines are shunted and open to the elements at one end. Prisoners were deprived of rights of any kind, kept without information and never knew when their end would come. When it did, they were simply marched across the yard. The sheds have been preserved and a project is in place to fully document the lives of all of the 3,000 people executed there during the Nazi regime. Each story can be viewed on a computer by any interested member of the public. The victims included lawyers as well as Judges and basically anyone who stood up to contemporary events. Many were charged under anti-social behaviour-style legislation.

It’s a long way from Plötzensee to the leafy lanes of Hampshire. One of my neighbours has for very many years held a quintessential English summer party of the kind likely to feature in the popular ITV drama series “Midsomer Murders” – a marquee, waiters and waitresses, a small band. This year a busy-body moved in close by and reported the noise to the police. They threatened an ASBO. I told him he was looking at five years in prison. This is an example from my immediate experience. The newspapers abound with similar expansionist oddities. The Government wants this process to be yet slicker. They usully target the flotsam and jetsam of the social spectrum; but my albeit untypical example shows that no one is above the law, or – perhaps better put – safe from the trigger happy ASBO-police. Now they want to let the police decide everything. And confer powers on untutored parish councils. I guess my neighbour should cancel next years’ hospitality and hide in the woods!

The Jews
It is frequently with the extermination of six million or more Jews, largely on grounds of race alone, that the atrocities of the Nazis, the Nuremberg Trials of the remaining top 21 Nazis and the execution of 13 of them are associated. Hence The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe that now stands close to the Brandenburg Gate. It is enormous. The size of several football pitches and filled with nothing but countless granite blocks as far as the eye can see, of various sizes, each a reminder of 1,000 dead Jews. But the concentration camps, gross abuse and murder that the Holocaust involved can also be seen as the inevitable outcome of an unbridled regime whose ability to carry out such an operation began in small and almost imperceptible ways. This is a lesson of history as much for the UK as for Iraq, Rwanda, Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia or Guantanamo Bay.

Decency and Human Rights
People should be proud to support human rights. Any decent society should appreciate the reasons for this, and equally for taking fine points in defence of suspects, or for example the view that criminal statutes should be strictly interpreted. Holocaust is a reminder that, without such protections and attitudes, there is little to prevent a nation being hi-jacked by a gang of criminals in sheep’s clothing. We should always keep watch and seek to challenge what politicians do if they step out of line and often this means that the laws they pass or seek to pass must be opposed or constrained. But the UK Government has expressed itself to be against technical defences and is looking at what it can do to round up those lawyers who seek to use them. Without wishing to pre-judge events, it is interesting that one particular lawyer, known as “Mr Loophole” has already had his premises raided.

Small and sometimes technical challenges are important in this process; far less odious than bandying about fine sounding phrases such as “doing justice differently” or “smart justice” to bewitch an unsuspecting public. I guess that these terms were dreamed up by the special government unit that vets whether, which and what parts of the English language can be used and that presumably approved of the subliminal connection between the smart card and new forms of justice and without realizing that justice is not quite the same activity as shopping at Tesco. There is, in fact, so much more to handing police powers to deliver instant justice. A whole hinterland of implications accompanies this, from the police officer who begins to abuse his or her position, to the mind-set via which directives become mandatory, to the ethos that causes the entire process to escalate. No smart justice for me, I’m afraid. Why not call the by-passing of the courts by its proper name: “Abuse of Power” and a lack of due process.

It is of course the very vagueness of the notion of anti-social behaviour that should cause us to be most afraid (whatever the loose statutory definition). Whatever we think of organized crime, the invention of the proposed super-ASBO with an accompanying strategy to “harry, hassle and hound” should set alarm bells ringing. If the police come knocking on your door doing indefensible things, who are the criminals? As should the political illusionists trick of switching from civil to criminal liability. But who cries out apart from the few, as Lord Steyn has done, Lord Bingham in a recently acclaimed lecture, and somewhat boldly District Judge David Simpson in his hard-hitting comments in a feature in The Observer (October 22, 2006) about the parlous and chaotic ASBO-linked state of the youth justice system that, in retrospect, had so much to offer before a succesion of tabloid driven Home Secretaries got their political mits on it from the 1990s onwards (my comment). Rod Morgan, the highly respected chair of the Youth Justice Board, has since resigned, of course.

Continued ... page 1 2 3 4

© Bryan Gibson 2007. This article appeared in Justice of the Peace in March 2007

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