River Wissey Lovell Fuller


September 2006


The Legal System

In past issues I have reported examples of what appeared to be inappropriately lean sentences given to criminals which have made Tony Blair's promise to be tough on crime to seem like a joke, in fairness, however, I do not think the fault lies with Tony Blair. Yet another example of inappropriate sentencing recently was the case of Brette Conroy of Thetford who kicked and beat Shawn Ligget to death. Mr Conroy had 17 previous convictions, including violence. He was found guilty of manslaughter and was sentenced to five years in prison which, presumably, could mean that he could be out in two and a half years. Is that being tough? We have also seen a number of decisions by judges in recent times that go contrary to common sense and even human justice. Efforts to deport foreign criminals have been thwarted by lawyers and judges against the wishes of the politicians and the public at large. So much so that a member of the Immigration Tribunal, Lady Mar, resigned "because of the prevarication by lawyers". The excuse given by the lawyers is that they are acting according to the law, which just confirms the truth in the old quote "the law is an ass". But it is not the fault of the law when judges hand down sentences far less than was within their power and far less than seemed appropriate for the offence. The net result of prevarication by lawyers and light sentences by judges is a fairly widespread loss of confidence in the law and the legal system.

Clearly there is a need to modify the laws in order to achieve common sense trial verdicts. Unfortunately this just means additional legislation which means more words, the meaning and interpretation of which the lawyers can argue about for an indefinite time. Isn't it a pity that we cannot have simply worded laws in which the aims are clear and leave it to the judges to put a sensible interpretation for each case. Unfortunately, on the evidence to date, it seems doubtful that we could rely on our judges to do that.

The adversarial nature of our court trials is also cause for concern and tends to undermine confidence in the system. It seems the job of barristers in criminal trials is more to do with discrediting witnesses of the opposing side rather than elucidating the truth. The manner in which efforts are made to pry into the past history of witnesses in an attempts to find something that might throw doubt on their credibility is shameful, this occurs in most cases where the opportunity arises, but it is especially so in rape cases. Barristers leave the impression that they are not interested in justice at all, merely interested in winning their case. The defence lawyer sees it as his duty to get his client off regardless of his guilt.

There are inquisitorial judicial systems where, on the face of it, a greater effort is made to arrive at the truth. Such a system would seem to be a preferable alternative to the adversarial court room battles. Perhaps it is time for a radical reform of the justice system.

Ron Watts

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