Some of those who walk through the doors of a court building as defendants are criminals. I would suggest the vast majority of them have committed some offence at some time. Quite a few have contributed in some way to them being there that day, whether it is by committing the offence they are charged with or by committing some offence in the course of their conduct or their conduct otherwise contributing to them being there.
A significant proportion of them, however, are innocent. A greater proportion of them are of previous good character and are there due to the one error they have made in their lives. It is an error that they will be punished for but not something that wiped the good they have done off the slate. They are young men, with anxious parents, who will never again in their lives raise a fist in anger. They are people who gave into temptation in a coincidence of circumstance that will never again collide to propel them through the doors of the Crown Court. They are drivers who face a judgement because their error, their error that has been committed by dozens of un-prosecuted drivers, has led to a serious consequence and police involvement. And they are people who are guilty of no misdemeanour at all.
Once convicted, these defendants will be punished. Once convicted they may be subject to piercing criticism of their conduct. And rightly so. But until such time as they are convicted, they remain just one component of the criminal justice system.
Now I throw my hands in the air in frustration when I hear about “customer surveys” or “consumer feedback” when talking about court users. People do not choose to partake in the criminal justice system. So they are not consumers or customers yet they are fellow human beings. And as such they all deserve to be treated with respect and consideration. Witnesses, complainants, victims and defendants all deserve being treated as we would wish to be treated by others.
Over time I have witnessed the criminal justice system trying to do much better when it comes to dealing with people. When I began my career I would go so far as to say that the system, and those professionals that operated within it, treated every other actor with considerable disdain. Where we thought we acted with a degree of sang froid we were in fact being aloof and arrogant. We mistook disdain for detachment. Gradually things have improved with consideration being given to witnesses and their understandable needs. I am not suggesting that it is perfect but the system has worked to improve.
That improvement, however, has not been extended to defendants. So you have the situation where young men of previous good character stand in the dock in their suits on the day when their trial was due to be heard but has been cancelled at the last minute, and refixed nine months hence, to hear the Judge observe that at least no witnesses have attended because the case was pulled the night before. Some Judges will apologise to the defendants. Most do not.
The fact is that the defendants’ attendance in those circumstances is otiose. They have probably already taken the week off work. They will already have waited a year with this case hanging over their heads. And the reason for the further delay to their case is not because they have exercised their right to deny the offence they are charged with. The further delay is because the courts are under resourced.
For all the talk of Brandon Lewis announcing that the 28 day bail regime will bring about less delay and uncertainty for the arrested it is just talk. All it means is less people released on bail and more people just released pending further investigation. Like most Government initiatives it is all talk. Talk usually focused on making it sound like it is good for the victims of crime but it is just that. Talk. Talk that politicians hope appeals to voters but talk that is not backed by action to tackle the real problems that beset the justice system.
Whilst the politicians fail to put our taxpayers money where their duplicitous mouth is, the system creaks on with inevitable delay. And as those delays impact upon all involved the very least we can do is treat everyone with consideration and dignity. Even those in the dock.