In the Media

Loss of confidence in courts taking legal system into dangerous terrain

PUBLISHED August 29, 2006

THE Director of Public Prosecutions has given warning that the legal system will stray into ?dangerous territory? if people feel justice cannot be achieved through the courts. However, the widespread perception is that the law and the legal profession have already lost the confidence of victims and the general public.

The British Crime Survey 2005-06 reflects this view: 80 per cent of respondents thought the system was fair to the accused, but only 36 per cent were confident that it met the needs of victims.

The widely held opinion is that criminals receive soft sentences, paedophiles are pitied, foreign terrorists are given vast sums in legal aid and illegal immigrants who commit crimes are never deported.

Ordinary people who stand up for themselves and their families are either punished or become victims. Perhaps worst of all, the rights of such victims are ignored.

 Last month a judge was heavily criticised after sentencing a paedophile, who had repeatedly sexually assaulted an 18-month-old baby boy, to four years in jail. Judge Simon Hammond, sitting at Leicester Crown Court, said that Christopher Downes, 24, needed help for his ?undoubted problems?.

Michele Elliott, of the charity Kidscape, said: ?There is something wrong when a man could admit to sexually abusing an 18-month-old baby regularly and be out of prison in two years.?

The concern of campaigners is outstripped by the anger of the families of victims.

Last month the family of Natalie Glasgow described as laughable the sentence imposed on Mark Hambleton, an electrician whose van hit and killed the 17-year-old girl as she walked home from a party. Hambleton was given a 100-hour community service order and banned from driving for a year.

The dead girl?s father, Paul, said: ?The law says it doesn?t matter whether you hit a teenage girl or a lamppost in terms of the charge of failing to report an accident. That can?t be right. It must be changed.?

The apparent downgrading of victims? rights, compared with those of the defendant, also causes anger.

The defence of Kamel Bourgass, the Algerian terrorist trained by al-Qaeda who is serving life for murder and conspiring to make ricin toxins, cost the public purse ?996,934 in legal aid.

The family of DC Stephen Oake, who was stabbed to death by Bourgass in 2003, received only ?13,000 from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority.

Judges reply that the legislative straitjacket is the cause of many of the current problems.

The case of Craig Sweeney attracted huge attention. Sweeney was jailed for life by Cardiff Crown Court for abducting and indecently assaulting a three-year-old girl but Judge John Griffith Williams cut his minimum tariff in recognition of his guilty plea. It meant that Sweeney could be considered for parole in five years.

As The Times reported last month, John Reid, the Home Secretary, said that this was unduly lenient. Vera Baird, QC, the Constitutional Affairs Minister, had to apologise after saying that the judge was wrong. The judiciary rallied round the judge, saying he had followed the law to the letter.

Both Victim Support and Nacro, the crime reduction charity, say that perceived soft sentencing and the treatment of victims are separate issues. Paul Cavadino, chief executive of Nacro, said: ?The sentencing in this country is harsher than most other Western Europe countries. And we have the highest prison population in Western Europe, both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of the population.

?I don?t accept that you can measure how supportive a criminal justice system is to victims by the sentences given out.

?It is not in the interests of victims to pass sentences that don?t reduce future offences.?

A spokesman for Victim Support said: ?Victims want a system whereby we deal with criminals properly and we give out punishments that are an effective deterrent. Our experience is that even if victims are happy with the result in court, the happiness is short-lived because their lives have still been altered.?

Liz Jones said that she lost her faith in the criminal justice system when a teenager who smashed her cheekbone avoided a jail sentence last month. Dexter Hungwa, 16, attacked Ms Jones, a headmistress, because she had asked him to shut a door. Ms Jones, 51, said: ?At first I was frightened because I thought he could turn up at any time. The experience was horrendous but when I found out that he had been given a referral order, I was really, really angry.?

  • Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, the Lord Chief Justice: Born Nicholas Addison Phillips, he was educated at Bryanston School, Blandford, Dorset, and King?s College, Cambridge. Chaired the 1998 BSE inquiry and was Master of the Rolls until 2005. Lists his hobbies in Who?s Who as the sea, mountains and music
  • Sir Anthony Clarke, Master of the Rolls, educated at Oakham School, Rutland, and King?s College, Cambridge. He became Head of Civil Justice in 2005 after seven years as a Lord Justice of Appeal
  • Lord Justice Judge, President of the Queen?s Division of the High Court. Educated at The Oratory School, Woodcote, Oxfordshire, and Magdalene College, Cambridge
  • Ken Macdonald, QC, Director of Public Prosecutions, educated at Prior Park College, Bishop Wordsworth?s Grammar school, Salisbury, and St Edmund Hall, Oxford. His hobbies, listed in Debrett?s People of Today, include 20th-century history, crime fiction and Arsenal FC
  • Stephen Hockman, QC, Chairman of the Bar, educated at Eltham College, and Jesus College, Cambridge
  • Nicholas Hilliard, QC, Chairman of the Criminal Bar Association: educated at Bradfield College, Berkshire, and Lincoln College, Oxford
  • Lord Falconer of Thoroton, QC, Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs: educated at Trinity College, Glenalmond, Scotland and Queens? College, Cambridge
  • Michael Mansfield, QC, leading human rights lawyer and defence barrister; educated at Highgate School and Keele University, called to the Bar 1967, QC 1989. He is president of the National Civil Rights Movement
  • Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws, QC: Labour peer, barrister, writer, broadcaster, member of several public bodies and committees; educated Holyrood Secondary School, Glasgow, Council of Legal Education, called to the Bar 1972, QC 1991. She is a director of The Independent newspaper and involved with Liberty, the Civil Liberties Trust, and the Howard League for Penal Reform