Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Justice MUST be seen to be done.


Famously the statue of Justice that pinnacles the rotunda of the Old Bailey wears no blindfold.  One explanation for this is that she embodies the need for justice to be seen to be done.  One of the tragedies of 21st century life is that justice is less and less being seen to be done and to describe this as a tragedy is no overstatement.

Before radio, before film and television the Assizes represented a major opportunity for public spectacle.  Victorian engravings and paintings of courtroom proceedings depict courts packed to the gunwales with spectators.  Any modern barrister will tell you that save for very high profile cases their craft is executed in echoing rooms with only the occasional occupant of the public gallery attracting suspicion on the part of court staff.  It is not to salve the ego of barristers that I bemoan this state of affairs: after all the jury is always there as a captive audience and so too the careworn judge.

What this means is that fewer and fewer people in contemporary Britain have any idea of what actually goes on in a criminal court.  The attendant danger is that the salacious reporting of cases in the media leads people to think they know what goes on.  Unless you have undertaken jury service the chances are you don’t actually even know what a criminal court looks like.  Television rarely reflects that the vast majority of criminal trials take place in airless and often windowless rooms far removed from the grandeur of the Old Bailey.

The reason why Justice requires an allegorical personification as severe maiden with her scales for balance and her sword for condign punishment is that Justice is only a concept.  It is performative and if nobody sees it being performed nobody sees whether the scales are balanced or if the sword falls in the right place.
Reading the newspapers and listening to the radio will never be the same thing as sitting in a criminal trial ensuring that not only is justice being done but that it is seen to be done.  A compelling case can be assembled for including a visit to a criminal court within the school curriculum.  What is the point of teaching pupils about citizenship if they are not given the opportunity to bear witness to the most important civic responsibility of all; namely sitting in judgement with and on your peers.

Barristers toiling in the trenches of the courts are inclined to assume the Government is completely indifferent to the cause of justice.  In the thick of the Criminal Justice System (CJS) such cynicism and world weariness is forgivable.  However it may be that ministers and politicians, like so many, have simply never seen justice being done and therefore don’t know what upholding justice entails.

A popular perception is that the CJS is already a lost cause and that everybody involved is on the make or on the side of the criminals.  This is wrong and it is dangerous.  If you incline towards this view sit in your local Crown Court and you will see advocates doing their best within an imperfect system.  Very much more often than not justice is achieved: often against the odds.

The achievement of Justice can sometimes be hard to perceive or acknowledge.  Injustice is so often what attracts the headlines and one of the ironies of the degradation of the CJS within this country is that British people have a well-established abhorrence of injustice.  If people only knew how important a well-functioning CJS is to the realisation of just outcomes they might take a very much keener interest in how it is administered, funded and maintained.  It is perhaps too much to hope that laymen will take such an interest but not that they might at least once in their lives see a court doing justice.  

Because if you don’t know what justice looks like you won’t know when it’s gone.

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