The criminal law has long had an image problem.
Partly, the fault is internal: the ridiculous costume; the alienating hybrid of legalese and obsequious formality that renders court hearings nonsensical to anyone in the public gallery; the impenetrability and inaccessibility of updated statute and case law; the historic failure of those of us in the system to lawsplain to those outside how justice works and why our founding principles are so important.
But part of the problem is broader: the refusal of successive governments to provide any meaningful legal education in schools; irresponsible and inaccurate news reporting; and legal illiteracy indulged and expounded by politicians using the law as a cheap crop to beat their hobby horse of choice.
The result has been inevitable. Centuries of compounded negligence have culminated in a disconnect between the criminal justice system and those it purports to serve. And most days it feels as if it’s getting worse. No longer are rabble-rousing mis-reports of legal stories confined to a day’s news cycle before being scrunched around tomorrow’s cod-and-chips; the rags are now frequently doused in the kerosene of social media and sizzle with white hot rage for days, weeks and even months on end.
While I don’t pretend that this is a problem confined to criminal law, it is often the tales of “soft sentences” and “putting criminals’ rights ahead of the victim” that burn the brightest. The formula is predictable: there will be a headline attack on an “out of touch” judge (pictured, for enhanced ludicrousness, in their ceremonial wig), with a decontextualised snippet of the judicial remarks and a gaping absence of informed fact or sober analysis.
And over the past twelve months, we’ve suffered 365 Groundhog Days of these. The case of Ched Evans kicked things off, with outlets eager to report the outright untruths of politicians suggesting that this case set a dangerous precedent allowing complainants in sex cases to be gratuitously humiliated in court over their sexual history. A campaign to not just reform section 41 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, but to issue a blanket ban on any questions about sexual behaviour, is still being propelled by several MPs. It matters not that to do so would result, inevitably, in vital defence questions being prohibited and innocent people being convicted. A straw man effigy of section 41 has been hoisted onto the bonfire along with the presumption of innocence, with Harriet Harman proudly holding aloft the matchbox.
A run of sentencing “outrages” has followed.
The man who beat his wife with a cricket bat and was spared jail, because the judge deemed that the victim was “not vulnerable” (except the judge didn’t say those words, and it wasn’t the reason for the custodial sentence being (initially) suspended). The paedophile released only five years into a 22-year prison sentence (except it wasn’t a 22-year prison sentence, and he served longer than five years). Lavinia Woodward, the Oxford undergrad whose gratuitous bikini shots accompanied the squeals of horror that this rich white girl had been spared prison for stabbing her boyfriend, just because the rich white judge thought she was “too intelligent” to be locked up. Was that the reason she was spared jail? Did the judge ever say those words? Are any more rhetorical questions needed?
Rarely, if ever, is the reader informed of the Sentencing Guidelines and case law that constrain judges as to their approach in these cases, and which explain certain terms deployed in the sentencing remarks. Rarely are those remarks published in full — a flaw in the channels of official judicial communications for sure, but also the responsibility of those trained in shorthand in the press gallery. And rarely is there any voice of expertise explaining the apparently inexplicable, or offering a counterpoint to the incitement to fulminate.
Sometimes, of course, decisions will be made in court which do horrify, and for which there is no sensible justification. But most often, a straightforward, prosaic explanation exists. It’s just not reported. Neither editor nor politician will deal in full facts, whether through ignorance or malice.
The greatest tragedy is that if, instead of scything the low-hanging, rotten fruit the reporters reached a little higher, they would find that there is so much in criminal justice for their readership and Twitter followers to get angry about.
There’s the obliteration of legal aid, cutting the middle-classes out of publicly-funded legal assistance if they are wrongly accused of a criminal offence. There’s the ‘innocence tax’, which means that if, having been refused legal aid, you pay privately for your defence, you are not allowed to reclaim your full fees even if acquitted. Everyone in the system can speak for hours about the stack-em-high, sell-em-cheap model of warehouse justice in the magistrates’ courts, which is being rolled out in the crown courts under the euphemism of glorious efficiency. Disclosure — the means by which most innocent people secure the key to their escape — is found by report after report to be an abomination due to a hybrid of poor training and insufficient resources at the cut-to-the-bone police and Crown Prosecution Service.
But these problems evade meaningful public scrutiny, perhaps through ignorance, or perhaps because it’s simply far easier to report, and get angry about, a pervert getting help in the community rather than rotting in our violent, suicide-ridden prisons.
Public legal education is needed now more than ever. The Solicitor General, to his credit, appears to recognise this. His new Public Legal Education Panel is a start. Something needs to change if the public are going to have a hope of recognising where the real problems in justice lie; and who, in reality, poses the greatest threat to their rights. The thing about criminal justice is that, for all too many people, the realisation of how far basic protections have been eroded only dawns when it’s too late.
This article first appeared on Legal Cheek, and is available here.