River Wissey Lovell Fuller

The Village Pump Soapbox

June 2003

Our Judiciary

There can be no denying that there are occasions when we suffer the most horrendous noise from military aircraft. As I think I mentioned once before in these columns, I was surprised when we first came here that nobody seemed to be too upset by it. For my part it was something that I was used to at one time in my professional life and, whilst I can't claim to enjoy it, there is the compensation of the nostalgia that it tends to generate. I also accept that, if we are to have a defence capability, it is something that we have to put up with as part of living here. Thus it would not occur to me to sue for damages or even complain as long as the noise is restricted to the waking hours.

I was absolutely astounded then to read that Mr and Mrs Denis, who live close to RAF Wittering, were awarded £1,000,000, no less, as compensation for the "unbearable noise" they suffered. The award was given by Mr Justice Buckley on the grounds that the noise amounted to "an interference with their right to respect for their home, family life and privacy." I have had cause in the past to use this 'Soapbox' to complain about the decisions made by our judiciary in relation to sentencing and surely this is another example of an inappropriate decision of a different type. Even though they live near the end of the runway, the noise that Mr and Mrs Denis suffer cannot be significantly worse that that which we hear when these aircraft fly low over us at full power plus reheat. If this case sets a precedent there could be thousands of people with similar claims, not only against the Ministry of Defence but against civil aircraft operators. It could put an impossible burden on the defence budget and it must be a nonsense.

Of course the success of Mr and Mrs Denis could have been in no small measure due to the fact that they are wealthy enough to bring the case and wealthy enough to live in an extremely large 17th century mansion. Would the judge have found in favour of Mr and Mrs Joe Bloggs and awarded them a similar sum even though the noise was just as much "an interference with their right to respect for their home, family and privacy"?

Whilst on the subject of court decisions I noted further evidence yet again in the Lynn News of a sentence which I would regard as being soft on crime. In this instance an 18 year old man was caught driving without a licence (he may have had a provisional licence the report was not clear on this), no L plates, no insurance, his vehicle had no MoT and he had no instructor, his passenger only held a provisional licence. The penalty? A fine of £140 for no insurance and £70 for no licence, there was no penalty for not having an MoT certificate. Some may regard his offences as not that serious, he may not have been very far from his home. To my mind, however, his lack of experience combined with the lack of an instructor meant that he was a high accident risk, especially so since his car may not have been roadworthy and to have no insurance when he could have seriously injured someone really is a crime. His penalty was totally inappropriate, the fine for no insurance was a lot less than his insurance premium would have been. What kind of deterrent is that? What message does it give to other potential offenders? The same can be said about the absence of a penalty for not having an MoT certificate, why do any of us bother?

Another case was reported recently, which is an aspect of the judicial system that strikes me as very wrong and I have commented on before. I refer to the question of parole for murderers. It seems that many murderers receive sentences between 14 and 25 years but with parole they may be released after 8 to 11 years. One might argue that this term is too short for many of the crimes that they have committed. That argument apart, however, obtaining this parole seems to be dependent, among other things on the murderer admitting his guilt and showing some remorse. If the convict maintains his innocence throughout and refuses to admit to something that he claims he did not do then, no matter what, it seems, he will not get parole. Thus the parole boards are quite happy to release a man that they know to be a murderer but refuse point blank to release a man who may or may not be guilty of the crime. I just cannot understand the logic in their argument it just seems like vindictiveness on the part of the establishment, punishing a man for daring to accuse the system of having got it wrong.

The case of Tony Martin, the Norfolk farmer who shot and killed a burglar who, with an accomplice broke into his house in the early hours, is another example of a crazy judiciary. He admits to the offence and, some say he deserves some punishment, but, once again he is being denied parole, despite serving several years in prison, because he does not accept that he did wrong. In my opinion to find two intruders in your isolated house in the middle of the night would be a frightening experience and anyone might act hastily out of shock and fear and would not deserve the extreme punishment that Tony Martin has suffered. His case led to a recent headline in a national newspaper "Government lawyers say burglars need protection." Most people would consider that anyone who breaks the law and breaks into someone's home in the middle of the night forfeits the right to the protection of the law. A headline such as this opens the legal system up to ridicule.

The Home Secretary, is intent on specifying minimum sentences for some of the most violent crimes, such as child abduction and murder, murder by terrorists etc. This is opposed, of course, by the judges, who see it as a curtailment of their powers. To my mind, however, it is long overdue and it should help to remove the inequity in sentencing that has been so evident in the past, for this type of crime at least. So three cheers for David Blunkett, not just for his action in this respect but for other measures, he seems to be someone who is really trying to make a difference, a welcome change from his immediate predecessor.

At the risk of sounding like some sort of class war warrior, which I am not, I do get the impression that our judges are mainly recruited from a rather restricted group who come from a privileged background. I do wonder if there is not the possibility that their judgements are sometimes influenced by the class background of the person appearing before them, especially so when considering more serious cases of fraud and theft and in compensation awards. In this respect, as in others, this nation appears to be locked into the past. I do not approve of the tradition of judges wearing wigs and fancy dress and believe that there is an urgent need for a blast of fresh air through the whole judicial system. Perhaps David Blunkett is the man to start blowing.

Ron Watts

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