Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Justice?

"On 14 June 2016, the resident judge at Exeter Crown Court stayed all further proceedings against M, at 97 years old the oldest defendant so far to have stood trial in a Crown Court in England and Wales.
...
Following pre-trial legal argument, the trial judge ruled that some allegations should be stayed, due to the loss of documents and the impossibility of now having a fair trial. The Crown challenged the decision, unsuccessfully, in interlocutory proceedings in the Court of Appeal ([2015] EWCA Crim 1928). ... M suffered from a catalogue of age-related ailments, and a range of special measures were introduced. Statements had to be read out to M as he was virtually blind. Audio amplification equipment was used as he was 90% deaf. M’s powers of processing information and recall were inhibited by Parkinson’s disease, requiring unnatural pauses in the evidence as each question and answer had to be repeated. M’s short-term memory was greatly diminished, and at the beginning and end of each court session the evidence had to be summarised to him by counsel. Court sitting was limited to 45-minute sessions, with a maximum of four sessions a day. Sitting days were often much shorter on the advice of ever present doctors and court appointed intermediaries.

Two trials progressed to jury verdicts. Both resulted in acquittals. Undeterred, the Crown sought a further trial, and was only prevented from doing so with the judge’s intervention in staying all further proceedings.
"

Read the whole thing here. Pretty shocking, right? In England, in 2016, hounding an old man like that?

Well, maybe. As you will have guessed, this is a case involving allegations of historic sexual abuse. I'm pretty sure that 97 year olds who were active but uncaught burglars in the 1950s are safe now.

It's an extreme case and I am doubtful that there was much public interest in this prosecution. I can think of better uses of taxpayers' money. But perhaps the law is in fact in the right place on this point. 

One of passages covered by an ellipsis above was this: "M was headmaster of a boarding school in the 1960s and 1970s. He had been tried four times for similar allegations in the 1970s. All previous proceedings resulted in acquittal or dismissal of charges. Complainant pressure led to a Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) review in 2013. Witnesses were re-interviewed and enquiries made to identify further potential evidence. Fresh allegations emerged, including from two further complainants, now pensioners, who had provided character evidence for M in the 1970s proceedings. They now alleged abuse by M from their childhood in the 1950s." That puts a bit of a different spin on it, doesn't it?  Imagine you were a complainant in one of the 1970s cases who saw (presumably) your fellow pupils lie to support the defendant, a man who (so they all have now said, I assume) abused them. There's something to be said for vindication in a case like that, and better late than never.

Moreover, there's something to be said for the law saying that you can never rest easy if you commit crimes such as those. What would we think if someone could wait (say) 20 years and then turn around and say "aha! I got away with it!"? Is it wrong to say that if all the guilty child abusers lose some sleep worrying whether the past will catch up with them then a little bit of justice is done?

The article I've linked to above is a good and sensible one. It's a good example of how looking at the nuts and bolts of a legal process can be more interesting than the theory. The issue seems to be that the public interest does not put much weight on the condition of the defendant, and surely even (especially?) in a case such as this it should do. There is a good reason for that: everyone is entitled to a fair trial, and some people are so ill or disabled that they can't fairly defend themselves. And I do mean everyone. Let me repeat: M has been repeatedly acquitted of serious allegations; please consider that he is the real victim here, of malicious or of innocent errors that have led to him being unjustly hounded for serious accusations over the decades.

So read the article and form your own views, or at least your own doubts.

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