Come back Mr Bumble, Our Justice System Needs You by Trevor Plumbly

The legal system past and present

‘If the law supposes that’ said Mr Bumble in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, ‘then the law is a (sic) ass’. If it were possible for dear old Bumble to comment on the ‘modern’ system he’d probably express the same opinion. In the interim, the ass has been cross-bred with a few cash-cows, but hasn’t developed too much in the way of common sense. The system is still cluttered with outdated rigmarole, useless precedents and an internal language guaranteed to make sure the gap between the cognoscenti and lay folk doesn’t close. The old lady’s still out there but the scales don’t really mean much anymore. It seems to me as an outsider that the majority of the law fraternity stubbornly refuses to accept the fact that we live in an age that needs a justice system that functions efficiently. Problem is of course, that English law is a hoarder, and apart from a few academics and a host of frustrated legal clients, nobody really wants the cupboard cleaned.

Delays in the Legal System

Through the legal aid system, Mr or Ms Average certainly has greater access to the law these days, but overcrowded court calendars causing long delays are creating injustices in their own right. As an example, a rape trial going through the appeal process could take over a year to be heard; the victim is then expected to relive an experience that sanity alone should encourage her to forget. But to get justice she is required to publicly recall the incident under cross-examination by a skilled adversary whose sole aim is to cast doubt on her memory or honesty. She will be made to feel isolated and vulnerable in an alien environment. Confusion is almost inevitable, and when this happens, legally approved mental bullying will conjure up just enough doubt to bring into play the presumption of innocence. Small wonder some women prefer to just forget it.

Accountability for Judges

We freely criticise politicians, question and sue doctors and money managers, but judges, it seems, are virtually untouchable. Unlike lawyers, they don’t seem to have a governing body, disciplinary board or any form of peer review; if a flawed decision is reversed on appeal, nothing seems to happen regardless of the consequences. In any other profession or organisation, poor decisions are usually referred to some sort of internal board, simply to insure that such errors can be learned from. Judges carry enormous power over people’s lives, therefore logic would suggest that they need more scrutiny rather than less. They need to be seen as part of a court rather than owners of it. The practice of seating judges high above the general court should be scrapped. Some elevation is obviously required, but peering down, bewigged and gowned like gods on high, does nothing to make the accused or witnesses feel they are an integral part of the proceedings.

The Need for Change

There’s certainly no shortage of lawyers these days, but astonishingly, there’s a chronic shortage of active police staff, the majority of whom seem to spend a great deal of time satisfying the system’s insatiable demands for due process. The current criminal system guarantees that very few lawyers find they have to tailor their fees to match their ability, and seldom, if ever, will their value be questioned. But if the Judiciary and the legal profession in general want to improve current performance, that could and should happen. Plea bargaining could be seriously examined in an effort to speed-up the trial process; the ‘three strikes and out’ rule beefed up to be mandatory. Night courts for vehicular and relatively minor offences could be trialled, with JPs empowered to impose instant fines and suspensions. This alone would reduce the need for protracted legal argument and make justice at this level speedier and cheaper. In closing, I admit that I have no great knowledge of the law, but I do know that vested interest defies change, and that people will always defend the status quo. ‘It’s the best system we’ve got’, they will say. But by way of reply I have to ask, ‘Is it the best we can do?’

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