The criminal courts are horrible.
That is an inalienable truth. It is also a succinct way of summarising the findings of a report published last week by the Criminal Justice Alliance following a 20-month study of the Crown Courts. The paper – Structured Mayhem: Personal Experiences of the Crown Court – relies on observations of Crown Court proceedings and interviews with defendants, complainants, witnesses, lawyers and judges to reach the surprising conclusion that there may be areas of forestation of scatological interest to bears.
I’d nevertheless recommend having a read, particularly if you’re fortunate enough to have never had to appear in court. While there is little in the report to take lawyers by surprise, there’s a dark pleasure in the public vindication of the complaints that I and many others have been intoning for years. It’s not simply the fat-cat, legal aid-guzzling, bloodsucking, champagne-quaffing, three-piece-suited, self-interested liberal elite friends of the criminals – to borrow from Philip Davies MP – who are saying it.
Ordinary people – defendants, victims and witnesses of crime – know first hand that the system is an utter shambles, increasingly so due to the growing realisation of successive governments that justice, unlike health or education, is something the general public simply aren’t that excited about. Which means it is easy to find “efficiency savings” in court, CPS and legal aid budgets, year on year. In the same way that a madman with a machete gleefully hacking off your limbs one by one is making staged efficiency savings.
However, as cathartic as it is to rage against the government machine, a large part of the distress of attending court as a witness is, regrettably, unavoidable. And what jumps out from the potted anecdotes and vox pops collated in the report is the failure of those witnesses to understand how and why the criminal process operates as it does.
I don’t mean that pejoratively. The fault lies in part with the legal profession, for our chronic inability to communicate to the general public what it is we do and why it matters. Partly with popular culture propagating an Americanised myth of how the courts and justice operate. Partly with the media for grinding between the sheets with governmental phalluses quivering as they ejaculate falsehoods about the legal profession to pursue their own illiberal, anti-human rights, cost-cutting dogma.
What we need, it seems to me, is a proper, helpful, honest guide for witnesses in criminal proceedings. Not coaching, but aimed to prepare them for the grizzly reality of what they, through their public-spirited contribution to the justice system, are letting themselves in for.
Over the next day or two I’ll be having a think about what dirty little institutional secrets I, as a witness, would wish to know, with the aim of cobbling something together over the weekend. Any contributions will, as ever, be welcomed.