Justice and the Innocent

Recently in England several famous people have been acquitted in the criminal courts having faced serious charges in which it was alleged they had sexually assaulted women many years ago. The people were famous but not incredibly wealthy. I understand that they had good homes and a better than average lifestyle but these people were not multimillionaires, but people of middle wealth in the last years of their lives. They were famous because they had appeared on television or radio.

The spirit of the times, once forgiving of the crimes of the rich and famous, is less forgiving of those crimes, unless the famous are incredibly rich. Under English law there is no statute of limitation on serious crime; crimes can be prosecuted after any number of years, provided there is the evidence that will secure a conviction. Prosecutors were once loath to prosecute serious crime after many years have elapsed where the sole evidence depended upon the memory of the victims because memories change and fade and there are false memories which develop. The spirit of the times seemed to demand prosecution in these cases, however flimsy the evidence. I expect that the prosecutors may have been frightened of being criticised for not prosecuting, in light of the indulgence previously given to the rich and the famous.

Those prosecuted had to defend themselves and were not eligible for legal aid because they owned their own homes had incomes in excess of £22,000 a year and probably had savings as well. In England it used to be the case that if you were acquitted of a crime by a court you are usually, but not always, were entitled to have the state pay most of your legal costs. The traditional order is that costs should be paid out of central funds.

Since 1st October 2012 regulations have applied which only enable defendants to recover costs at the same rate as is allowable for people who are eligible for legal aid. Those rates were always low, but in recent years have become so low that solicitors and barristers accepting those rates would probably find themselves out of business due to bankruptcy, if they provided a proper defence.

This has meant that in the recent cases the people charged and acquitted by juries have had to sell their homes in order to pay the cost of their defence. The prosecution could not prove their guilt but the defendants were still punished even though the allegations made against them were found to be groundless. In the winter of your life to have to sell your home in these circumstances is a punishment, a great punishment.

It is just that those suspected of crime where there are reasonable prospects of conviction should be tried. If they are found guilty they should be punished. If they are found not guilty they should not be punished, yet that is what has happened in England with its proud and long history of the rule of law and its development of concepts of justice.

English law is now developing another tradition; punishment by injustice. The Ministry of Justice says that it works “to protect the public and reduce reoffending, and to provide a more effective, transparent and responsive criminal justice system for victims and the public”. Those who are innocent but are caught in its net deserve no justice, it would seem.

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