Justice delayed is justice denied
That is a legal maxim we can all understand. If the victims of crime are unable to have their day in court in a timely fashion, they lose confidence in the criminal justice system. That is bad enough in any circumstances, but if the people waiting for justice are victims of serious sexual assault or historic child sexual exploitation, that is even more unjust. It is not easy to go into a witness box with the offender a few feet away and to recite in detail what happened to you. It is not easy to have the defence barrister question your character, your motives or your veracity. Victims (and witnesses) need a great deal of support on their journey through the justice system, and if their cases are adjourned they may find waiting intolerable and give up.
Similarly, it is hardly just that someone falsely accused should have to wait a long time before their fate is decided. Either way, justice delayed is justice denied.
Yet this is what we are now in the greatest danger of seeing across the country, including here in South Yorkshire. For various reasons there was already a backlog building in the system, but Covid19 is now threatening to make it far worse. The need for social distancing has made the courts in their present configurations impossible for jury trials and they have been suspended nationwide since March. The problem is managing social distancing when you have large numbers of potential jurors congregating before a trial, then twelve jurors in the court and the jury room, then all queuing for the toilets at the same time.
Court staff and the judiciary are working hard to overcome this and a jury trial will be held in Sheffield at the end of June. But this is a trial with just one defendant and one set of defence barristers. There are some far more complex cases to come.
So what is the solution?
It may be possible to build suitable courts in the way we built so-called Nightingale hospitals, though all this should have been started weeks ago. But there may be another solution: we could suspend trial by jury for the duration of the crisis. Trials could be held with a judge sitting alone or with, say, two lay magistrates. This is not something to be done lightly. The principle that we are judged by our fellow citizens, not a judge, is the bedrock on which the criminal justice system rests, going back to Magna Carta. But the alternative could be worse: victims of rape or historic child sexual exploitation might have to wait even longer. And justice denied for these victims would be no justice at all.
Slavery – past and present
The anger at the death of George Floyd has become a more general protest about Britain’s part in the slave trade. And it has inaugurated a national debate about racism to which we (PCCs and police) must respond.
However, I was very disappointed to hear one young activist say on television that ‘slavery has been abolished, but its legacy, racism, has not’. The legacy of racism I don’t dispute, but the idea that slavery has been abolished is not true and it is worrying if some think it has. The (African) slavery of the nineteenth century was highly visible. Modern slavery and trafficking is invisible because the enslaved are from all and every ethnic group and are distributed throughout the multi-racial society that is modern Britain. They are people in thrall to the traffickers, brought here as domestic slaves or for sexual purposes or to work in certain industries. The first trafficked person I met was from Algeria. He knew no English and had travelled on a false passport. He was forced to spend his days cultivating cannabis plants. He existed in the utterly squalid kitchen of a small terraced house with every other room given over to the cannabis. I don’t know what his story was – perhaps the gang threatened to harm his family if he didn’t co-operate – but he was clearly more scared of them than the British police.
In our understandable wish to find out more about Britain’s past involvement in the slave trade we must not lose sight of what is happening now, in plain sight, yet invisible.
I hope you are staying safe and well.