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Smart Justice

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

(page 4 of 4)

The Need for Vigilance
So the move to increasing reliance on anti-social behaviour powers and instant justice is indicative of a mind-set. A few years ago we only had real criminal offences. Now we have a lot that we will only hear about when someone is arrested and a plethora of largely shapeless, uncontrollable and easily proved anti-social behaviour-based civil wrongs that may lead to criminal offences attracting quite Draconian punishment in inappropriate circumstances. The 60 or so criminal justice statutes of uncertain content have baffled many Judges, justices of the peace and lawyers as novel offences pop up, previously lost in a mass of overpowering detail. With changes, amalgamations, restructuring and the erosion of clear and historic working cultures that are being eaten into all the time, the criminal justice system itself is being run largely by government. Judges, commentators, academics and others who complain are labelled, bad mouthed or marginalized as part of the same process of state control. Occasionally a morsel is thrown, then writ large, to show that human rights are not a dead letter. The judiciary, and theoretically many of the other services or agencies, retain their independence and autonomy, but these are being hedged in all the time and made increasingly cosmetic.

What sort of country is it in which a Home Secretary publicly asserts that he wishes to abolish laws against the torturing of suspects (however dangerous) or even mere witnesses, or where a government seeks to contain freedom of speech whilst pretending to laud it? Whether swept along by a post-September 11/July 7 momentum or opportunist politicians, some of whom may themselves yet face trial as war criminals or purveyors of public honours, what sort of a place is it in which function creep, familiarity and rhetoric serve to weld these and various other strands of “smart justice” into a more cohesive and frightening whole. Imperceptibly, we are sleepwalking into a new and legal Dark Age in which changes made with superficial scrutiny bite into and damage irreparably the foundations of English law.

At the time of the Queen’s Speech, the Prime Minister tried to sum up matters by saying that this is no more than “dealing with reality” or “getting real”. But it is difficult to respect such a view. To give so much authority and discretion to the state and its various arms, to allow so much influence about how the criminal justice services respond to day-to-day events, to control so much of people’s lives via strategies and structures, to weaken the protection of the courts and then to pass laws that cow people into submission is not getting real but power gone mad. It is about as convincing as the further assertion that history, like some of that touched upon in this article, has little to offer.

How long before they come bursting though your door in the early hours?

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

The Pocket A-Z of Criminal Justice is available in colour paperback.

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