Governments come and go but tsars remain. Like some awful nightmare, the former anti-social behaviour order (Asbo) tsar, Louise Casey, has returned – this time as the commissioner for victims and witnesses. The Con-Dem government was quick to close all sorts of quangos (many useful), but has inexcusably promoted this unelected has-been as spokesperson for reform of the criminal justice system.
Casey was a favourite of Tony Blair, presumably because she was passionate about selling regressive policy with false or no evidence. Thus Casey would claim the success of Asbos in fighting anti-social behaviour, while the breach rate would increase every year.
As coordinator for Asbo Concern I had many debates with Casey. The debate always took the same course. She would say how wonderful Asbos were, I would provide evidence of their failings. She would then accuse me of being a woolly-minded liberal who didn’t understand anti-social behaviour.
Her argument had two major flaws. First, she ignored the growing evidence that Asbos were being used inappropriately against vulnerable people. Second, she ignored the broad support that Asbo Concern represented, including mental health organisation Mind, the National Association of Probation Officers and the British Association of Social Workers. After Gordon Brown became prime minister, and children’s minister Ed Balls called for an emphasis on rehabilitation rather than Asbos, Casey was sidelined.
This July, Tory Home Office minister Theresa May announced the end of Asbos, a welcome step. However, the government has no problem with making the former Asbo tsar the guru on criminal justice reform. This is rather like asking David Laws to carry out an inquiry into MPs’ expenses.
In her new role Casey has surpassed herself by pontificating about things of which she has no experience or knowledge. Her four-page “report” suggests two areas where savings can be made in the criminal justice system, based on her position as an “informed outsider”.
Firstly, she suggests it is a waste when defendants delay pleading guilty until a late stage, with no sanction. Here she exposes her complete ignorance – the law already provides for a greater discount on sentences the earlier a defendant pleads guilty. She also suggests that a defendant should plead guilty without knowing the evidence against them. This undermines the basic right to know the prosecution case. She propagates the myth that defendants are responsible for delays, when those who work in the criminal justice system know the most common problem is the long battle to obtain the full story and evidence from the prosecution.
Last year I represented several Tamils who were charged after protests outside embassies in London following the massacre of Tamils in Sri Lanka. In almost all these cases the initial police disclosure at court about CCTV footage was wrong. Following protracted argument we managed to obtain important evidence for the defendants, all of whom were acquitted.
It is a joke to blame the defence for delays. Here are just a few examples of what really goes on. Manchester police have just dropped all charges against Unite Against Fascism (UAF) officers Weyman Bennett and Rhetta Moran some eight months after they were arrested in Bolton during a protest against the racist English Defence League. At no stage were they shown any CCTV footage in police possession. Alan Clough was arrested on the same protest. He had to wait until the eve of trial before his case was dropped. The CCTV contradicted the prosecution’s case. Earlier this year the case was dropped shortly before the trial of Jake Smith, charged over two separate allegations of violent disorder at the Gaza protests a year earlier. Again this was after the defence pursued the video evidence and the prosecution then dropped the case due to finding an “episode” – which must be a technical term for being bashed over the head by a police baton.
Much more serious, however, is her second attack. She proposes to make savings by removing the right to jury trials for some charges, by allowing magistrates to pass one-year prison sentences (at present they can only jail people for up to six months). Casey’s wonderful simplistic argument is, “Surely we are not suggesting justice cannot be dispensed fairly by magistrates, or we would not have magistrates’ courts at all.”
The figures tell a different story. Around 40 percent of crown court trials end in acquittal, whereas only 5 percent do so in magistrates’ courts. UAF officer Martin Smith’s recent conviction by a magistrates’ court for assault on a police officer (a charge that can only be heard in the magistrates’ court) was a travesty and helps explain the different conviction rates. He was arrested on the demonstration against Nick Griffin appearing on BBC Question Time. The magistrates found the officer’s account reliable even though there were six points on which it was unreliable. These included that the officer claimed he did not know any of the other officers with him when he was allegedly assaulted but then admitted he did know an officer and mysteriously did not mention the assault to him at the scene; and that there was not a single person or piece of evidence to corroborate an assault.
If a jury had heard that case, they would likely have acquitted Martin Smith in minutes. This is just one reason why Tsar Casey’s dim-witted and dangerous proposals must be strongly resisted.
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