Vigilantes

SHOW OF FORCE: Search for justice in naming a ‘suspect’ pre-charge

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On the afternoon of Thursday 14th August 2014, police attended at a Berkshire residence to carry out a search of the property. They had apparently received a complaint from somebody and decided that searching the property was something that should be done in order to investigate the complaint. Nothing so unusual about that, you may think. After all, it is something that happens daily, up and down the country, when complaints are made to the police.

What happened in this case, however, is slightly more unusual. According to Amanda Platell in this morning’s Daily Mail*, the police admitted that they had confirmed to the BBC that they were going to search the property. Having received this information, the BBC then obviously do what any self-respecting national television station would do and turn up at the property to secure as much footage as they can about the ‘story’.

Amanda Platell may be a veritable bottomless pit of misplaced moral outrage but I suspect, rather like the broken watch that tells the correct time twice a day, she has probably hit upon an issue here which, in the interests of justice, needs to be addressed, and quickly.

The person whose home was being searched last Thursday is a ‘national celebrity’. That fact, obviously, secures him no immunity from the law and its processes. What it does do, however, is mean that in the event that ‘plod’ comes knocking at his or her door, it is going to arouse the interest of the media if and when they find out there is a criminal allegation being made against them. The bigger they are, the harder they fall, and the media has an economic interest in stories involving ‘celebrities’. And if these ‘stories’ involve allegations of some of the most detested and detestable human behaviour, the more interest there is going to be. The media know that the public is now almost seemingly intoxicated by the cult of celebrity, and will milk that for all it is worth.

The media, like all of us, are subject to restrictions on what can or can’t be said about a story like the one I have described above. Why not? Because in the event that the matter comes to trial, it is essential that the individual concerned can secure a fair trial by a jury who have not been influenced by extraneous material and by soaking up what is often little more than the groundless opinion of others. The legal process often involves, for example, applications being made by the defence for certain evidence to be excluded under statutes such as sections 76 and 78 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and others. The more the case has been discussed and commented on in the media, the greater the likelihood that the jury may become aware of matters which, if they are deemed legally inadmissible, they should not. The fairness of any trial is then thrown into doubt.

But the possible legal implications are not the only ones that are at play here. As Amanda Platell probably rightly suggests, the implications of how this particular story has been reported go beyond legal issues. It touches upon how we, as human beings, respond when we are told that an unnamed complainant has suggested the commission of a repugnant criminal offence by another, ‘celebrity’ or otherwise. Many of us may be able to look at matters such as this objectively, and say something like ‘Well, he (or she) is innocent until they are proven guilty’, but should we have to?

Anyone who knows me will know I am a hardened opponent of any but the most necessary legal regulations to ensure that society functions in a way which creates the most harmony for the most people, and in any event justice and fairness for all. What I question about what has happened since Thursday lunchtime, when this story broke, is why the person was ever named, or details of the search disclosed. The inevitable media frenzy creates potential injustice and unfairness, and an atmosphere in which an individual (whatever the eventual outcome) has had his or her reputation brought into the public spotlight for examination.

None of us should engage in any kind of comment or speculation in relation to the individual concerned. Although we all now know who it is, I have deliberately refrained from using his name, and the only reason for mentioning the incident at all is because it highlights something I suggest we need to address now, particularly bearing in mind the ongoing police operations and enquiries into serious allegations of child abuse by ‘prominent’ people.

I have two questions arising out of all of this. Firstly, should the name of anyone who has not been charged with a criminal offence ever be made public in relation to an ongoing criminal investigation? Whilst in the vast majority of cases, the press have no interest in reporting pre-charge (or even post-charge) criminal cases, I suggest that cases like this serve only to run the risk of blighting someone’s reputation unnecessarily and increase the prospects of a trial being rendered unfair. Secondly, should the name of an accused person after being charged with a sexual offence ever be made public prior to conviction? This is, perhaps, the more debatable issue, bearing in mind it cannot be denied that releasing limited details of the name of an accused and some information about the charges may lead to other victims coming forward and making the case against him/her more compelling.

As I invite responses to these questions, I make one appeal. Please do not mention the name of any individual who has not been convicted of any criminal offence. It is not necessary to make your point, and the questions are aimed at stimulating a debate about the general issue, and not specific individuals.

* ‘Cliff Doesn’t Deserve This Lurid Trial By Television’: Amanda Platell Daily Mail 16th August 2014: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2726393/PLATELLS-PEOPLE-Cliff-doesnt-deserve-lurid-trial-television.html

 

Mark Fletton is a former barrister. He is now a writer/researcher and lives in Exeter.

SPEAK NOW OR FOREVER HOLD YOUR JUSTICE OF THE PEACE

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Until last week, Abid Sharif was a magistrate who had been appointed to the Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale bench in Lancashire. Following an investigation by the Conduct Panel, Mr Sharif was removed from the Magistracy with the approval of the Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice.

The Conduct Investigation into Mr Sharif was in relation to comments Mr Sharif had made to the press* , including the allegation that what he described as the “slap on the wrist” justice system threatened to make vigilantes of householders, that police cutbacks were “crazy”, and apparently that criminals knew more about human rights law than their legal representatives.

On the face of it, Mr Sharif was just the kind of ‘ordinary bloke’ that many people would want to see more of in the magistrates’ court. He is a bus driver and family man, and far removed from the type of stuffy middle-class image that many have of those who sit on magistrates’ benches up and down the country. And in many ways, Mr Sharif was simply expressing views that may well be shared by a substantial number of people up and down the country. So what, exactly, was the problem here?

Well, firstly, Mr Sharif had been the recent victim of a domestic burglary himself where those responsible had stolen some £10,000 worth of electrical items and his wedding ring. Mr Sharif told the press that had he confronted the perpetrators in flagrante delicto and used force to confront them, then he would have been sent to prison for assault. He said “If I had been in my house when these people came in and I had knocked one of them out I would be inside for assault and I don’t think it’s fair.”

In some ways I feel a little sorry for Mr Sharif. On the one hand he was simply displaying his human nature openly, and for all to see. He was honest enough, in the light of what is the obvious trauma of having your home and privacy invaded and personal items taken, to express how frustrated he felt. If he had not been quite so honest he would perhaps have held his tongue, and would now still be sitting in Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale – but still harbouring all these opinions that he publicly aired. And in that circumstance he would, of course, still be sitting in cases involving burglaries, day in and day out, which according to the press report occupied in his experience a good part of the court day.

It is clear that what Mr Sharif said creates an issue in relation to his suitability to continue to sit. At the end of the day, all parties to a criminal case need to know that those who are deciding their guilt, and their punishment, are as free from personal bias against them as possible. Can anyone really say that if they were to appear before Mr Sharif accused of burglary any time soon they would be expecting a fair trial?

Mr Sharif was clearly frustrated by many things, from police response times to incidents, to the powers of householders to protect their homes, to the powers that the law gave him and other magistrates to deal with those who came before him. I don’t doubt that many lay magistrates up and down the country share his sentiments and frustration. It is simply that those who play the game and keep their frustrations to themselves are still sitting in judgement on those that come before them, and Mr Sharif has surrendered to his humanity and told us explicitly what we already know: that the criminal justice system in this country is a source of frustration and is, frankly, in a bit of a mess.

* The original press report is to be found at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/10610025/Magistrate-warns-of-Britains-slap-on-the-wrist-justice-system.html

About the author: Mark Fletton is a former barrister.

Not to be confused: Vigilant & Vigilantes

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One area that never ceases to amaze is that of public opinion. As an active voice for people with convictions, I was dumbstruck earlier this week when a tweet appeared on my timeline from a person I have never engaged with previously. The tweet was “informing” me of the online presence of a certain individual. Now, I am not one to encroach on other people’s opinions, and like the proverbial rectum, we all have one and some are larger than others.

My ongoing research, digging into the CJS brings some unpleasant truths. There are crimes against children which are heinous, of this there is no doubt. I am a mother, I am a daughter and despite my fractured family circumstances, my emotional involvement with my family remains. A crime against a child can, and is never, condoned by me. As the modern gift of technology gives the public a voice, I enjoy the vehicles we have in order to voice our opinions, be those good, challenging or diametrically opposed. I am of the mind that being given the opportunity to re-think a matter is not a bad idea. It is a constant learning curve as I look into the dungeons of the CJS.

As the buzz of my phone told me there was a tweet to my account, I do look and I do read. The tweet, although inoffensive, was a polite tweet asking me if I knew who I was conversing with. I responded I was fully aware of whom I was conversing with. I added in the same question back to the person, in asking him if he knew he was conversing with a convicted fraudster. The account stated he didn’t. But that there was a huge difference between fraud and offences of a sexual nature against children. I am impartial on this one. I don’t condone any offence against a child sexual or otherwise. I also do not condone my own offences of fraud.

What then transpired was a clear attempt to rid Twitter of this individual. Every single follower of this account had the same tweet and those who defended their right to make their own choices were then accused of supporting child abuse, covering up child abuse and a string of profane tweets between a group of individuals who have posted the location of the account concerned and listed the individual on a website that screams “vigilantes”. I was told my position “incensed” other people in that they were confused over my stance on those with convictions. Coupled with the profane tweets from “supporters” I made use of the block button fairly quickly. I do not feel harassed nor do I feel victimised by this unsavoury event. But there are some people one just cannot reason with.

Looking back and a further discussion with a friend, who received a separate attack due to her opinions on those who are falsely accused (proven in court by the way) of sexual offences and not necessarily against children, I am amazed not at this vigilante attack but at the insulting manner in which many people’s chosen followers were questioned. Twitter is full of the human race, tweeting regularly on media matters, personal matters and a whole diverse range of subject matter from A-Z. Removing my opinion on vigilantism from the following, I felt one thing and only one thing. The moment a person questions who I follow is the moment a red flag appears and an attempt to control not only me, but many others who rightly so, follow and converse with whom they please. That is our right as human beings, it is not a right for others to question because that choice does not sit with their moral outrage at events.

Challenge my opinions by all means, challenge what I put out there, I am not adverse to discussion and debate about where I stand. But under no circumstances, attempt to clean up my choice over whom I follow and converse with. That smacks of control and an attempt to overrule people’s right of choice. It is unacceptable and punitive behaviour.

There is a world of difference between being vigilant with our online presence, the footprint we leave behind and vigilantism. I respect people’s choice to follow, unfollow or block whom they like and it is not my right to question their decision and nor would I ever want to insult their intelligence with such behaviour. Vigilantism is not an “ism” I am comfortable with and nor will I subscribe. I find the recent events of a cultish nature and we all know what a cult is. It is when there is not enough people to form a minority.