09 January 2007

'Justice centres' to provide killing service?

There's nothing like watching an execution to give people a taste for judicial murder.

The latest person to jump on the death penalty bandwagon is Dominic Lawson in the Independent. A discussion of his article can be found at Not Saussure. NS points out that, apart from the question of whether it's a good idea, there is an issue about whether it should be treated as a form of empowerment for the victims of crimes, as is sometimes suggested.

What would certainly seem unjust is a situation in which the penalty depended, even in part, on how forgiving or how vengeful were the grieving relatives. One of the main points about the law is that the penalties for breaking it should be known and consistent. Pace people who think that sentencing depends on what sort of mood the judge is in and how convincing a sob-story he’s given, there are pretty well-defined aggravating and mitigating features laid down by the Sentencing Guidelines Council and the Court of Appeal — and, for murder, by Parliament — that the judge has to stick to.

To throw that out of kilter when someone’s life is in the balance seems appallingly arbitrary, and it also seems quite dreadful to put someone in the position — as happened a few years ago, as I recall, when a young British woman was murdered while on holiday with her fiancĂ© in Florida — to put the survivor in a position where he has to plead for the lives of his partner’s killers on the grounds she was profoundly opposed to capital punishment.
There’s a worrying trend these days to make sentencing depend on the emotional reactions of various participants – victims, judges, the public. Last year it was decided to allow the families of murder victims to tell courts of their grief. In my opinion, this was another step on the road from a proper legal system towards ‘justice’ by tabloid editors and kangaroo courts.

The change in the law on double jeopardy a couple of years back was justified by the Attorney General saying that he would not be able to “look murder victim Julie Hogg’s mother in the eye” if the change didn't go through. This trend to personalise the law is not unique to Britain. I've read of US judges being criticised by fellow judges for failing to display sufficient emotions, or empathy with victims.

In a comment to his post, NS mentions that the crown court where he spends much of his time is being transferred to a new complex amalgamating the magistrates’ court, the police station and the Crown Prosecution Service offices. This complex will be referred to as a ‘Justice Centre’ - a development giving the legal staff some concerns.
This, they think, is a terrible idea since it’s promising something that they can’t deliver and don’t try to. Everyone involved in a case is going to have different ideas about what a ‘just outcome’ would be, and they can’t all be satisfied.
I think they’re right to be concerned. Names can matter, even if the change is merely part of a superficial rebranding exercise.

It is in my view a key symptom of mediocracy to relabel things in ways that both (a) dumb down and (b) have subtle propaganda objectives. An example is the name change of the Department of Trade and Industry in 2005 to “Department for Productivity”, which fortunately was quickly reversed after general derision from businesses.

The acolytes of Blairism seem to think that a name change is enough to bring about a brighter and better world. It’s the political equivalent of the fashion for makeover programmes on the telly. The implicit message is that appearance is more important than content.

Unfortunately, there is often something more sinister involved as well. In the case of ‘justice centres’, as NS suggests, it gives a false impression of what courts are there to do. Plus it reinforces the tendency to turn courts into something which will apply currently fashionable definitions of ‘fairness’, rather than the law as defined in statute.