criminal justice


The News of the World, a Sunday tabloid, campaigned to allow parents to find out where paedophiles live, the so-called Sarah’s Law. Sarah Payne was a girl who was murdered by a previously convicted paedophile. The campaign has been partially successful and pilots are underway around the country. The police feared vigilantism. This has not happened because the scope of the scheme has been restricted to enquiring about specific individuals who have contact with one’s children. It is not an open list of paedophiles. The police carry out a risk assessment before deciding to respond.

There is a balance between public protection and the right to privacy. The risk of a child being snatched is greater in the vicinity of paedophiles. Even if the risk is low, many parents would like to know if there is a specific risk. Meanwhile society wants to rehabilitate the low-risk convicted paedophiles so they can rebuild their lives and put their past behind them. In these circumstances, the right to privacy gives way to the need for public protection. The right to privacy is surrendered upon conviction.

The mother behind the campaign, Sarah Payne, has been recognised for her extraordinary achievement in bringing about greater openness in hereunto private information. She has received an honour from the Queen. She has also recently become our first Victim’s Champion and will speak up for victims who are now at the centre of the criminal justice system. This new role raises a fundamental constitutional issue.

Emphasising victimhood marks a further departure away from justice for defendants. Currently, Victim Impact Statements are read out at the end of a trial prior to sentencing which capture the sorrowful nature of the offence. It is for the judge to decide on sentencing bearing in mind all aspects of the case. Under our legal system the sentencing is based primarily upon culpability, not on consequence. This is why death by driving cases cause so much anguish. A single moment’s inattention is not punished with life imprisonment. An eloquent impact statement should not lead to a more severe penalty than one where the family does not prepare a statement.

There is a further concern if the Victim’s Champion is also a progenitor of an eponymous law. To what extent is the Victim’s Champion pursuing a personal agenda? If the country is to introduce such a role, it should be defined in an objective way. What is meant by a victim? Who can speak for victims? What do victims need? How can the court experience be improved? What happens if the defendant is found Not Guilty? A Home Office Minister should answer these questions properly and after a due political process. Fundamental questions should not be left to a celebrated victim with a strong media presence.

The government is placing victims and witnesses at the “centre” of the criminal justice system. The Law Reform, Victims and Witnesses Act will enable anonymity of victims and witnesses in court. Appearing in court is scary enough for most people. Those who are intimidated or vulnerable would be spared having to testify in person against the object of their fears. If more people are prepared to stand up in court, there will be more convictions. This is part of the government agenda to bring more offences to justice, reflecting public sentiment.

The inherent contradiction in this approach is that we also need to ensure that the defendant has a fair trial. It is essential that the defendant should know what he or she is accused of and who the witnesses are. A witness who is granted anonymity presents two types of problem. Firstly, the fact that special measures have been taken will indicate to the jurors that the defendant is regarded as intimidating. Secondly, the possibility of challenging the evidence is restricted. Of course, we can get more convictions if we are prepared to compromise on fairness, but is this what society really wants?

Sean Hodgson has just been released after 27 years in jail for a murder that he did not commit. He was not eligible for parole since it is conditional upon an admission of guilt. He refused to admit guilt on the not unreasonable grounds that he did not commit the crime. Even though he suffered from mental health problems, he maintained his integrity and dignity.

These “miscarriages of justice” always command considerable media interest reflecting the genuine public concern that the criminal justice system should be reliably accurate in identifying perpetrators. The fact that Hodgson had originally confessed to the crime, and provided details to the police which were not generally known, demonstrates why the original conviction was beyond reasonable doubt. The conviction has now been deemed unsafe following a review of the DNA evidence. This evidence could have been reviewed over the years, but never was. It took a determined new defence solicitor, instructed following an advert in the prison newspaper, to track it down. What this shows is the vital role of the defence. The rest of the criminal justice system has little incentive to uncover exculpatory material unless prompted.

The Oxford Dictionary of Modern English defines a victim as a person injured or killed as a result of an event or circumstance. Judging by his fragile state of health as he emerged down the steps of the Court of Appeal, the released man is a victim. He will be entitled to financial compensation although nothing can make up for his loss of freedom and health. The question we have to confront is whether we want to have more Sean Hodgsons in the future – people who will be convicted on the testimony of anonymous witnesses. The criminal justice system should accurately separate out the guilty from the innocent. Stacking the odds against some defendants is going to increase the number of wrongful convictions.