What of Justice?
In recent years, I have taken an interest in three court cases that have been heard before the High Court at the Royal Courts Of Justice in London. My experiences have been varied, but one thread that runs throughout is that justice via these hallowed halls is now only for those who can afford it – and that troubles me greatly…
Let’s start with the case of Paul Chambers, the now infamous #TwitterJokeTrial – where a man had his life blighted with a criminal conviction simply for making a joke about the fact his local airport had closed due to adverse weather. Whilst it is true that Chambers was eventually cleared at the High Court, it should not be forgotten that this was the culmination of a very long fight throughout the Magistrates Court, the Crown Court, and the High Court. His defence was possible partly though the benevolence of a number of legal professionals who worked on his case on a pro bono basis, partly because the community on Twitter came together to raise funds, partly through a number of high profile comedians holding a benefit gig. The sincere support of people like Stephen Fry, Al Murray and Graham Linehan, who were prepared to very publicly stand by both Chambers and his cause, did his case no harm at all.
What would have happened though Chambers not had these assets to bring to the fore, on a freedom of information case, and instead found himself contesting say a charge of assaulting a police officer. Could Chambers have pursued a campaign to establish his innocence without such a support movement behind him? Of course not.
Now, this raises for me two important points. First of all, I believe that the genuinely innocent man / woman should have the basic right to appeal their conviction, and finance ought not to come into it. For this reason, we had the system of “Legal Aid” in this country, but it is now been watered down to such an extent that it is barely recognisable, and certainly lacks the efficacy it once had. It is no longer properly resourced, and until this is remedied, neither is justice in this land.
The second point we must consider is that where the courts have convicted the wrong person, not only does the innocent suffer an unwarranted conviction, but the actual perpetrator is left to commit further offences. It is for this reason that I feel the genuinely innocent actually have a moral obligation to fight – but in a courts system so ruled by money and resource, many are not in a position to do so.
The second case I would invite you to consider is that of Jacqui Thompson, a Welsh Political Blogger who ended up fighting a libel battle over comments on this very blog, and indeed her own. The High Court managed to conclude that Thompson was conducting some form of personal vendetta against her local council’s Chief Executive, a Mr. Mark James. They also ruled that that Thompson had attempted to pervert the course of justice – a finding that resulted in the insurers backing both Thompson’s case and her defence from a countersuit backing out.
There are many interesting aspects of this case, and I don’t want to focus on this case too closely in this post, so we’ll just cover a couple of them. First of all, an attempt to pervert the course of justice would be a criminal matter, triable under the criminal burden of proof, and not by the judge in a libel trial, which is of course civil law. Secondly, it’s interesting that Mr. James managed to secure an indemnity against his legal expenses from his employer, the legality of which appears highly questionable indeed.
Although Thompson has had an appeal, which incredibly she lost, she is now in a position of owing hundreds of thousand of pounds, has a charge against her home, and will in all likelihood eventually lose it. What’s remarkable here is that now the mainstream press are beginning to take an interest in events around the council, they seem to agree with the overwhelming majority of the points that Thompson has made. Rather than pursuing a grudge, she is merely scrutinising (and incredibly effectively) the local council who act in her name. The woman deserves the freedom of the city, not losing her home!
Unfortunately though, finance alone means that Thompson will almost certainly never be able to clear her name. A woman who has tirelessly campaigned against waste and corruption will lose her home, merely because she refused to let them get away with it and lacks the financial resources to fight the case.
Cases should not be brought and fought merely on the basis of who can afford justice – justice is a right.
Finallly, let’s consider the case of Tim Ireland, a candidate in the recent general election who tried to bring a petition against Nadine Dorries MP. Dorries and Ireland have a lengthy history, and for a number of years Dorries has maintained that Ireland has been stalking her. The police have repeatedly found that Ireland has no case to answer, and Ireland has asked on a number of occasions that Dorries should publish evidence (such as emails she claims to have received…), without success.
In the run up to the election, Dorries repeated in the media her claim that Ireland was stalking her, even going to far as to suggest it was unsafe to attend a hustings event because Ireland would be present. She did however send a number of supporters, including her own daughters, to this “unsafe” event, who then distributed material Ireland considered to be libelous to those gathered at the event. Ireland also noticed that this material did not comply with certain aspects of election law, such as bearing the candidate’s address and details of where the leaflet had been printed.
At the High Court, the matter was thrown out because Ireland’s legal team not not served Dorries with legal papers correctly. The matter of whether or not Ireland is a dangerous stalker was not even considered, much less decided by the court. Surely, if the claims were genuine, Dorries should be entitled to have Ireland exposed. Similarly, if the claims are lies, Ireland should be entitled to have the matter settled as well.
Rather than allowing for the procedural mistake in serving papers, allowing Ireland’s legal team to serve Dorries again, and reconvening a further hearing in say a couple of month’s time, the court simply struck out the petition. This has a number of consequences – besides the lack of a proper scrutinly of the claims Dorries has made, we also now have an electorate unsure of whether or not she conducted herself unlawfully in the lead up to the election. Isn’t Dorries herself entitled to have that issue put to bed at the very least? Isn’t Ireland entitled to have his accuser’s claims tested in open court?
The most serious consequence however is that Ireland is now reportedly saddled with over £150K of debts in the case, and that sends a very negative message indeed to anyone else thinking, quite properly, of bringing a similar case in similar circumstances in the future. The effect therefore is that rather than being exposed, dodgy practices are indirectly actually PROTECTED by the judicial system! What a tangled web we weave…
If justice is to mean anything, then our courts need to focus on the task of ensuring it is delivered, irrespective of cost, and delivered consistently to all members of society, great and small. Justice isn’t a budget – it’s a principal and a right. Sometimes expensive, sometimes inconvenient perhaps, but absolutely essential if we are truly to live in a fair, free and hopefully just society.