Tag Archive | law

The voice of the majority is no proof of justice

In less than one month, on November 15th, elections are being held for Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC).   Not that you would know, given the nearly complete lack of publicity it has received.  It doesn’t bode well for turnout numbers.

Ever since the Tories introduced the PCC concept, I’ve struggled with the purpose of it, or what benefits the average citizen would see against what the current commissioning structure provides.  Will it usher in smarter budgets at a time of austerity, a louder voice for citizens, a better democracy, or will we be saddled with concentrated power, a draconian knee-jerk justice system or whacky pet projects?

Early on in the push for PCCs, some candidates withdrew from the process due to the punitive nature of the qualifying rules relating to the criminal records of candidates.  A PCC candidate can’t stand if they have a past criminal record, even if those crimes were committed as a juvenile.  Many were from petty crimes from many years ago, some committed as children, some as a result of circumstances and lifestyles which the candidates left behind long ago.  People have been held back from engaging in a democratic process over long forgotten crimes.  Not a good start for democracy.

It’s no surprise that the deposit for standing, a whopping £5,000, has put many people off standing a a candidate.  Raising the money, and then being willing to risk losing it on an electoral gamble is a barrier that most people wouldn’t be able to breach.  Labour have a clear advantage in the PCC funding stakes as the party will centrally fund candidates.  Tory candidates are expected to raise their funds themselves from local party donors.  Independents will have to find the money themselves, or enjoy the benevolence of a generous backer.

Add to that £5,000 deposit, any candidate who is serious about being elected needs to have funding for any kind of effective publicity.  Just hoping someone will vote for you without any kind of campaign or media exposure almost guarantees electoral ambivalence.

Most of the candidates who will end up with their names on the ballot paper will come from party political backgrounds.  That means they come from the same networks, the same social groups.  Those connections give an access to business people, local government bureaucrats and politicians; an advantageous level of access to people and information that those on the outside of the political hot-house could only dream of.  In addition, there is a support network for advice, marketing, press relations, even an army of feet on the high streets handing out leaflets and callers on the end of promotional phone lines.  The result: political power will be further concentrated into existing party groupings.

Spent and forgotten crimes, a costly deposit, a lack of media exposure, no support network and the difficulty of breaking through a rigid political structure aren’t the best ingredients for an open democracy.

The new role, and the nature of it being subject to that next election in a few years time, could also present risks to existing structures and initiatives, where hunting the populist vote may mean less popular or complex and difficult to describe projects could be dropped in favour of policies designed to put sound bites before efficacy.  As we saw with the Prof David Nutt episode, the electorally pragmatic temptation for politicians to put votes before evidence and facts can be just too tempting.

Drug treatment, youth crime reduction and offender rehabilitation schemes could all fall under the knife of a commissioner desperate to satiate the hang-em and flog-em blood lust of the daily mail commentariat.  Such initiatives could face mortal cuts, funnelling money from prevention schemes to commission more visible policies, or even pie-in-sky  headline grabbers (like Rangers) with an eye on the next election.

And once a PCC is in, they’re in.  If they perform poorly, do something stupid or wrong, the electorate are stuck with them until the next election.  Only the Secretary of State can remove them from post.

The goal should be the improvement of police services and crime prevention; lower crime rates and safer communities, and a police force that considers itself part of the community, rather than above it.

The Police and Crime Commissioners initiative risks making justice even more remote from the citizenry, locking decision making on budgets and commissioning into yet another cycle of political electioneering, and creating another professional political cadre detached from the realities of crime and justice and the concerns of the average citizen on the streets.

Bullshit detection–or how Cameron uses the Kyle method

Most rational people agree that electronic equipment is really bad at detecting ghosts.  EMF meters, ghost boxes and motion detectors are equally rubbish at detecting spirits, ghosts, souls or whatever you would call them.  You wouldn’t expect the UK law enforcement agencies to use ghost boxes to try and ask a murdered man who his killer was.  It would be stupid.  Why?  Because such equipment has not been proven to do what its proponents claim.

However, this doesn’t mean that law enforcement agencies aren’t subject to the same biases and fallibilities as optimistic ghost hunters. 

Today the government has announced that polygraph testing is to be introduced across the UK for serious sex offenders on probation.  This is problematic, as polygraph testing, despite being around for about 90 years, has not been proven and still exists in the realm of pseudoscience.  Almost all psychologists agree that polygraph testing cannot be relied upon to identify if someone is telling the truth.

Despite this, the government wants to use the magic truth divining box – as seen on Jeremy Kyle to see if a chav has been lying to his girlfriend.

From the reports it seems that the test used by the probation service was little more than an elaborate wheeze to trick the offenders into coughing up the truth.  The pilot programme results claimed that:

mandatory lie detector tests prompted sex offenders to:

• Be more honest with their offender managers. A No 10 source said they provided probation staff with more information about the potential risks they pose.

• Make twice as many disclosures to probation staff, such as admitting that they had contacted a victim.

• Admit the tests helped them manage their own behaviour more effectively.

The first two claims rely on several assumptions:

(a) the offenders believed the lie detector works;

(b) the offenders were completely truthful and not leaving out key information;

(c) the offenders were not able to game the test.

The third claim should have the bullshit claxon sounding off in any objective mind.  Of course the offenders are going to claim the lie detector test worked if they think it would be favourable for them.  There would be a self interested motivation for the offenders to tell their interviewers what they wanted to hear.

Polygraph tests rely heavily on the subjective judgement of the person conducting the test, by inference rather than intelligence.  This appears to be little more than casting runes or reading tarot cards, except with the modern sparkle of electronics.  Why not bring back phrenology to spot criminals?

Such a system might work, but it relies on the assumption that offenders don’t wise up to the truth: that polygraph tests are so fallible as to make them worthless.  I can easily imagine offenders in prison training each other on passing these tests.

The government claims the pilot was a success (even the Guardian does), based on nothing more than what appears to be wishful thinking.  That all adds up to a lot of bullshit.

Sacrificing liberty for security

The riots last week were an indicator of a society which has some things wrong with it.  Not broken, as the Tories love to keep telling us, but there are some places where things could be a lot better.

Another indicator of our society’s dark heart can be found in the state’s response to the riots.  Harsh and overly punitive sentencing handed out by the 21st Century equivalent of hanging judges seems to be designed to satisfy the blood lust we’ve seen in the media and on blogs.  Even some self-proclaimed libertarians suspended their principles, making them subservient to impotent rage.  This populist approach to the law will serve to further reduce the public’s faith in the judiciary and alienate further a section of society which feels it has already been poorly treated.  A judiciary which follows the howls of the mob is not just and not fit for purpose in a liberal society.

Then there’s talk of the government suspending communications media in an attempt to hamper the organisation of looting sprees.  That’s the kind of illiberal response we’d expect from China or the Yemen.  If our government is taking tips from the cruellest regimes in the world then we should be worried.

Now Theresa May has announced that the coalition government is going to lavish the UK’s police forces with even more powers, including the right to declare curfews.  If it goes ahead it represents a huge change and a terrifying shift of power to the police force.  A government which came into power promising a great repeal of Labour’s illiberal laws has quickly got hooked back on the good old Tory addiction to authoritarian rule.

This isn’t a party political issue.  If anything, the Labour opposition response has been little more than a water treading manoeuvre, allowing Labour front benchers media airtime without actually saying anything useful, or potentially risky.  Despite Ed Miliband’s lacklustre and unconvincing appeal for a ‘tough on the causes of crime’ approach, if Labour had been in power and Jack Straw had been on that podium instead of Theresa May, I’m confident he would have talked in similarly tough terms and would have happily sacrificed more of our liberty for a half-baked notion of security.  The Lib Dems, who consider themselves to be a moderating influence on government, are a failing to protect true liberal values, and just seem to be shoring up a Coalition where their influence is non-existent.  They’re a pitiful joke.

At the minute, it looks like no-one in Parliament can be trusted with our liberty.

Hang ’em High

I wonder if people like MP Andrew Turner, who support capital punishment, do so with the confidence that they will a) never murder anyone, or b) never be falsely convicted of murder.  If you want no a simple reason to say no to the death penalty, then it’s b.

British history is full of miscarriages of justice: the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four, Maguire Seven, Stephen Downing, Barry George and Stefan Kiszko.  Fortunately they were incarcerated after the death penalty had been abolished in the UK, and most of them lived to see freedom.

Derek Bentley wasn’t so lucky, and over the years of a tyrannical legal system weighted against the poor and the uneducated, many innocent people like Bentley, with severe learning dificulties and psychological problems, were executed.  Many such people are still executed with alarming regularity today in the USA.  Some victims of the death penalty were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The argument for the death penalty according to Leicester city councillor Barbara Potter is:

“I’m a mother myself, so I want to keep them as safe as possible. I believe in an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth and a life for a life.”

With such a bronze-age attitude to justice, Potter would fit better not on the board of a modern British local Police Authority, but as a black-hatted judge in Victorian Britain, or in a modern-day sharia court in Saudi Arabia.

“With all the DNA technology we can be 100% sure that someone is guilty and when we are 100% sure that this man has killed this child and the evidence is there, then capital punishment is appropriate.”

The naivete is staggering.  This idiot shouldn’t be let anywhere near the justice system.  DNA evidence is just that, evidence, and subject to interpretation as part of a wider body of facts to build a case.  There is no 100% certainty.

Add to that the danger of a tabloid media only too quick to convict murder suspects in the pages of their rags, sometimes the only evidence being that the suspect looked a bit weird.

Unfortunately the justice system is just as fallible as it was forty years ago, and the risk of a faulty conviction is always present.  That’s why the death penalty should never be returned.

There’s no walk to freedom from the grave.

Can I haz some defamation money pleez?

South Tyneside Council’s legal foray into Twitter’s nether data regions doesn’t seem to be going away. Today’s Guardian legal blog has some comment questioning the legal basis for South Tyneside Council’s use of public money for the case, and  news site the Register has covered the news, kindly linking to the original Demand For Jury Trial at San Mateo Superior Court over the alleged defamation on various Mr Monkey WordPress blogs.

I didn’t know the document was in the public domain until it was featured on tonight’s BBC North East news so I’ve not read it before.  It does make interesting reading.  On page 58, referring to False Defamatory Statement number 94 against David Potts, the local blogger Rossinisbird is mentioned.  It refers to a post on the Mr Monkey ‘Monkeyhouse’ blog in July 2008, which I’d forgotten all about.  However, the Monkeyhouse blog post selectively referred to in the statement mentions me specifically by name.

If you’ve read the original full blog post, you’ll see that David Potts wasn’t the main target.  I was.  David Potts was drive-by collateral damage in the Monkey’s sub-literate attempt at humour at my expense, which contained nothing truthful about me.  Despite the horrendous slight on my good name, I resisted pursuing anyone in the courts for comparing me to David Potts.

Besides, I’ve been called much worse than a malfunctioning dildo and likely will again, and making a big issue of it would only have raised the silly simian’s profile and ego.  Anyhow, I don’t have the deep and generous pockets of South Tyneside’s council-tax payers to back expensive legal actions.

It’s already been suggested to me that I should have a tee-shirt made with “I was defamed by Mr Monkey” to wear as a badge of honour.  Given the number of people the Monkey maligned in South Tyneside, it might be a lucrative seller too.

Under what law?

Another photographer is harassed by police abusing civil liberties.

This is a recording with a photo montage of a law abiding citizen being harassed and detained by police for the crime of taking photographs.  Throughout the incident the police officer in charge of the operation was unable to advise Jules Mattsson which law or act he was breaching, making several up until resting on that old favourite, terrorism.  Read Jules’ story here, although the audio recording says everything you need to know.

Labour: offensive and menacing

Reading or watching the news today you’d think that the big story of the day affecting all of our lives is that Gordon Brown is planning to step down as Prime Minister, and that men with superbly tailored suits and expense accounts are deciding the make up of our future government.  Really is that such a big surprise?  It’s no surprise to anyone who remembers Nick Clegg’s claim a few weeks ago that the Lib Dems couldn’t do business in a coalition with a Labour government that has Brown at the helm.  It’s no surprise to the many people here in South Shields that have noticed that our MP David Miliband spent more time out of his constituency than in during the election campaign, enjoying a whistle-stop tour of Labour parliamentary candidates up and down the country, and then sweetly tweeting about how lovely they all are.  Building a support base needs plenty of honey I suppose.

No fly zone

Nope, the really important news today was none of that.  The big news story of the day, which has actually received very little coverage, was that a man who tweeted an irate message on twitter a while back today received a fine of £1,000 and a criminal record for his lapse of judgement.  Paul Chambers claims it was a black joke to match his black humour at his disappointment that Robin Hood airport was closed:

“Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week… otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!”

Okay, it’s not a funny joke at all, but that isn’t the point.  Mr Chambers was blowing off steam on his twitter account with a tasteless comment, maybe offensive, but not hurting anyone.  However, Yorkshire police and the Crown Prosecution Service thought different and that the full weight of our unjust laws should be brought to bear on Mr Chambers.  I won’t go into detail, because the ever excellent Jack of Kent has been covering the case and has been instrumental in bringing it to a wider audience, today largely to the burgeoning twitter hashtag #twitterjoketrial which has demonstrated a huge amount of outrage at what essentially has been a test case to ban free speech on twitter.

Imagine the bother

In another airport brouhaha, self confessed ‘militant atheist’ (whatever one of them is) Harry Taylor was given a six month prison sentence (suspended for two years) and an ASBO last month for leaving anti-religious cartoons at a prayer room at Liverpool John Lennon Airport in 2008.  Mr Taylor was annoyed that an airport named after a famous non theist should have a chapel or prayer room so set out on his own campaign to ‘convert believers to atheism’ by leaving cartoons and posters at the prayer room.  His actions and literature were provocative, but shouldn’t have caused too much offence to an open minded adult.  Well, except for the airport chaplain who immediately, instead of just putting the cartoons in the bin, took terrible offence, became ‘severely distressed’ and contacted the police, who then arrested and charged Taylor with religiously aggravated harassment.  I suppose this is how ‘Jesus is love’. Or something.

Free Speech vs Bad Laws

As Jack of Kent suggests, Chambers’ trial has wider implications on commentary on any electronic publishing medium, as section 127 0f the Communications Act 2003 says:

“A person is guilty of an offence if he sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”
This makes any anyone who makes a comment on a blog, forum, twitter account or even on Xbox Live considered to fit the above criteria at risk of prosecution.  If you’ve been on Xbox Live or any online gaming environment you will know things can get heated.  Instead of ignoring the perpetrator the perennially offended or worried can call the law in to put you in the dock.

Taylor’s case shows that how after England’s ancient blasphemy laws were dropped from the statute, these new blasphemy laws dressed up as religiously aggravated harassment have been introduced, laws with such a wide remit that even this blog post may actually fall foul if someone was suitably offended. Merely causing offence or distress has become enough to get you in front of the beak.

Labouring the point

Okay, but what’s all of this got to do with today’s Lab-Dem coalition scuttlebutt you say?  Well, Labour were the boys and girls who brought the laws in to prosecute both Mr Chambers and Mr Taylor.  Labour have brought in so many illiberal laws over their tenure that now you can have your DNA taken from you and a criminal record given in return for nothing more than speaking your mind.

In a liberal country, people would be free to say stupid things and be offensive without fear of a fine, imprisonment and criminal record.

Do we really want Labour back for another term to continue bringing in such legislation?  Or can we believe that the naturally authoritarian Tories leading a Con-Dem coalition be any better?  Would the Lib-Dems get out their liberal cojones to make the next government roll back these unjust laws?