The meaning of justice

This will be (for now) my last word on the Tommy Robinson appeal. My legal analysis based on the facts as we now know them deals exhaustively and exhaustingly with the law; my reflections at the conclusion of that piece on whether I was too hasty to assume the correctness of the procedure, I stand by. Being quick to form views in the absence of the full facts is a bear trap I haughtily deplore when others fall in; it is only right to acknowledge if and when I teeter on the brink myself.

But I want to say something, for what little it is worth, about our understanding of justice. And my leaping-off point for this is something that a number of people have drawn my attention to today – this leader in The Sun.

The tweets to me accompanying this photo have been almost uniform: Who’d Have Thunk it, The Sun sticking it to Robinson and Co, Good On ‘Em.

And parts of this leader are indeed brilliant. Whacking to pieces the myth of this oppressed citizen journalist is vital, and needs doing as often as the piñata is reassembled by far-right agitators. Pointing out that the reporting restrictions that Robinson breached have nothing to do with political correctness and everything to do with ensuring a fair trial – the genius is in the simplicity of its expression. Spelling out in equally simple and clear terms the danger that such actions pose to victims of crime receiving justice – [INSERT MERYL STREEP APPLAUSE GIF].

But there’s a line buried within which troubles me, and echoes a sentiment that has been tweeted at me a lot in the erroneous assumption that I share it:

“His many convictions stretch from violence to fraud. We have no sympathy.”

This ugly and unnecessary throwaway reveals one of the biggest problems we have with our understanding of justice; the same problems that many of us are quick to highlight in our opponents. And that is that Robinson’s character, conduct and previous convictions, as reprehensible as they may be, are utterly irrelevant to the issue determined at the appeal, namely whether he received a fair hearing. If he did not – and he did not – he is as entitled as any of us to redress, or at the very least to an acknowledgment of being wronged. The attitude of “Who cares? He’s a criminal” mirrors the exact sentiment that has left the criminal justice system – from legal aid through to prisons – in its present desperate state.

It is immaterial whether Robinson has committed horrible crimes. Many people who appear before the courts have, especially in my line of work. And rights, if they mean anything, have to apply to everyone. It’s an obvious point, but this fundament of the rule of law is too often forgotten when we are confronted by society’s most unlovely.

If we neglect our first principles of justice, we fall into the trap carefully lain by the far-right. Their entire, dishonest thesis – from Trump through to Robinson – is that they are deprived of natural justice by its unequal, unprincipled application at the hands of liberal enemies of the people. By denigrating and distorting the rule of law they aim to undermine and ultimately destroy it. Implying that Robinson’s previous criminal record renders him less deserving of justice than the rest of us hands the far-right the prize they crave.

Don’t be fooled by the strained triumphalism of the far-right over yesterday’s outcome. This result is a disaster for them. It categorically disproves to a global audience every conspiratorial tenet of their religion. The liberal judges are not locking up political dissidents. There is no state cover-up. Mistakes, when made in the legal system, can and often will publicly be righted.

They may be proclaiming that they fought the law and won, but for the truth just ask The Clash. The winner, if we must talk in such terms, is justice.

Which moves me back to The Sun, and the risk of an equivalent false triumphalism on the other side. For just as the far-right mendaciously spin this righting of a procedural wrong as a “victory for free speech” – by which they mean the right to hound Asians accused of criminal offences – so we risk self-denigration by dismissing, or worse revelling in, the punitive effect of the court’s error. The joy that some are taking in the notion of Robinson’s imprisonment borders on the macabre.

I’m afraid if you’re supportively tweeting me amidst the blizzard of the racist bots to share a gloat that Robinson has maybe spent more time in prison than he should have, or to gleefully cross fingers that he gets longer next time, I’m not your ally in this cause.

It may be, when the contempt matter is dealt with anew by the Old Bailey, that a sentence is passed which matches or even exceeds what Robinson has already served. But at present, he served a sentence that followed an unlawful procedure. That shouldn’t happen. To anybody.

And if he does receive a lesser sentence – if the court, after a full and leisurely hearing at which all mitigation is made available finds that the appropriate sentence is much lower than he received first time round – and if it means he has therefore served longer than he should have, all the arguments I’ve made in my book about miscarriages of justice apply. It’s wrong. He should be entitled to an apology, and recompense, and all the other make-goods I demand on behalf of others. His perceived or actual shittiness is not material. If he has been imprisoned when he should not have been due to state error, it’s as much a problem as if it happened to “one of the good guys”.

So those are my closing musings. I have no issue at all – and nor should any of us – with Robinson seeking to and succeeding to challenge the lawfulness of his treatment at the hands of the courts. We are all entitled to due process, and should all expect, however abominable others may consider us to be, that the law will be applied fairly and correctly. My concern, contrary to what the Breitbarters would like to pretend, has always been the mob lining up behind Robinson to spread lies and quite literal fake news as to what took place, what the factual and legal issues are and how the law operates. Those peddlers of hate and deceit – the UKIPs, the Breitbarts, the Rebel Media, the Infowars, the unmentionable Twitter favourites – I will continue to resist as long as I keep up this vainglorious mission to bring law to the people who own it.

But as for what happens to Robinson now, all that should matter is that he gets justice. If, in his righteous pursuit, he encourages his supporters to continue their threats to the rule of law, their riots, their organised campaigns of racialised misinformation, I will be there waving my tiny paper sword on the front line.

But taking any sort of pleasure in anybody being failed by the justice system? We’re better than that. Let’s show it.

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15 thoughts on “The meaning of justice

  1. This is it: “The attitude of “Who cares? He’s a criminal” mirrors the exact sentiment that has left the CJS .. in its present desperate state.” Excellent, as always. Thank you!

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  2. thanks for the clarity and precision of your articles. we appreciate them very much and try to include some of your analysis in our articles. facts, knowledge and accuracy can blast idiocy off social media. cheers, Mal!

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  3. I’m with you all the way as regards your rebuttal of the insidious suggestion that Robinson deserves everything coming to him, even unfair treatment at the hands of the law.

    The rule of law ultimately stands or falls on its ability to withstand attempts to deflect it from its proper course, which lies in its impartial application irrespective of any pressures that may be brought to bear, and the ability to recognise that mistakes can be made. Yesterday, I’m sure that Bingham would have nodded sagely.

    And however appalling what is happening at present in America is to observe from afar, I still cleave to the conviction that the rule of law will ultimately prevail there too, whatever the harm being done along the way.

    A final point of pedantry. Traps are laid, not lain (and this story is unlikely to be laid to rest until long after the new sentencing hearing).

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  4. Secret Barrister’s explanation back when the fracas erupted was exceptionally lucid and mercifully devoid of “you’re too dumb to understand this complex issue. It covered the material issues simply, clearly, & directly. Seems to me folks unwilling to accept it are subscribing to a cynical self aggrandizing explanation to suit their ideology. That’s unfortunate. Barrister’s humility in admitting what he got wrong seemed heartfelt and consistent with his reputation for fairness in the pursuit of justice. I look forward to reading his book.

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  5. Pingback: The best of the blogs - Legal Cheek

  6. Once again, a fair, decent and accurate summary of the legal issues. As a magistrate I’ve only once had to deal with a Contempt, and that was only a matter of getting a (probable) drunk out of the court and into the cells for the afternoon before the ranting threats escalated into violence. (All ended well in the traditional way with an apology before the last court of the day to be sitting.) It did highlight what a difficult thing it is to deal with though, and the difficulty of having the presiding person, judge or mag, dealing with it themselves and with the heat of the moment fresh in their minds.

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  7. The ideas of liberal justice that you have illustrated and that we all depend on are not taught in schools. They weren’t taught to me when I was in school and as far as I know they aren’t now. I’m guessing that they are only taught to lawyers who are the only ones who need to know because the system of justice must be thought to be the flawless and ideal mechanism for the delivery of True Justice, and the less the peasants know the better. Or is it just a cock-up? My opinion: it’s both.

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  8. Perhaps another point that ought to be made is when you find yourself arguing on the other side of an issue to others, assuming the worst of them doesn’t help. There are many reasons why others may reach a different conclusion to you. Particularly when those from other countries are concerned. Someone from the US often will be horrified by the news some one was arrested for talking about a trial as we often are by their regular trial by media in advance of a proper criminal trial.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Reblogged this on | truthaholics and commented:
    On the pitfalls of confirmation bias:
    ““His many convictions stretch from violence to fraud. We have no sympathy.”

    This ugly and unnecessary throwaway reveals one of the biggest problems we have with our understanding of justice; the same problems that many of us are quick to highlight in our opponents. And that is that Robinson’s character, conduct and previous convictions, as reprehensible as they may be, are utterly irrelevant to the issue determined at the appeal, namely whether he received a fair hearing. If he did not – and he did not – he is as entitled as any of us to redress, or at the very least to an acknowledgment of being wronged. The attitude of “Who cares? He’s a criminal” mirrors the exact sentiment that has left the criminal justice system – from legal aid through to prisons – in its present desperate state.

    It is immaterial whether Robinson has committed horrible crimes. Many people who appear before the courts have, especially in my line of work. And rights, if they mean anything, have to apply to everyone. It’s an obvious point, but this fundament of the rule of law is too often forgotten when we are confronted by society’s most unlovely.”

    Like

  10. I think you’re being much too generous to his opponents, I’d say they are exactly as bad as his supporters. Neither group cares about anything that doesn’t suit their narrative. No, we’re not ‘better than that’. There is not some fundamental quality about ‘us’ which makes us more capable of self-reflection than ‘them’.

    This trial has shown exactly how equally incapable of dispassionate and apolitical thinking both sides are. I was impressed by your humility in this article, until you started talking about how this type of thinking is a ‘trap carefully lain by the far right’. So basically, ‘they’ started it, and ‘they’ are just so tricksy and deceptive, that even ‘us’ noble and virtuous liberals can fall into ‘their’ trap sometimes.

    It is a testament to the power of propaganda that people defending Robinson have been so summarily dismissed as ‘far right’ or even ‘Nazis’, as if it REQUIRES extreme political views to defend an unpopular public figure. It is also a marvellous testament to the power of doublethink that the ‘far right’ are considered the villains in the pantomine that is the current political paradigm who commit evil out of some inherent moral defect, whereas the left (or sometimes simply ‘we’) err because we’re well-intentioned but misguided souls ensnared by these sub-human Dementors on the other side.

    In fairness, I think overall you have done a public service by giving your professional analysis of the trial, I find your legal reasoning compelling and tend to agree with you that he was in contempt of court and will likely face another sentence. I also commend the intention of this particular article, I think you do offer some valuable and admirable self-reflection; humility and self-criticism in the current political climate are sorely lacking and I unreservedly applaud the intent (if not quite the execution).

    This wasn’t meant to come across as dismissive, to dismiss and dehumanise would make me guilty of exactly what I’m lamenting. I’m just trying to get across my frustration regarding a trend I’ve seen recently, namely, bemoaning social division, and then unironically pointing the finger at the people across the aisle and blaming them for all the social division. YOU are better than that.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Ad arguendo, may I suggest that there are bad laws whereby The Law brings itself into disrepute? Hate laws, up-one-thing-and-down-something-else laws, dangerous dogs, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

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