Friday, September 02, 2005

No more silence in court


In the misery and tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and the chilling video pictures of Mohammed Sidique Khan, it's easy to lose sight of significant news developments on the home front which could have repercussions for generations. One of these may or may not be the government's move towards allowing the families of murder and manslaughter victims to make statements in court before sentencing of a guilty party.

The government is on a roll, in its perceived invincibility on starting a third term, in its quest to bend the judiciary to its will and ensure that, basically, independent people like judges do not tiresomely get in the way of enabling ministers to order us all to do their bidding. In the form of 'victim statements' it has hit on a lucky combination: it can rob the judiciary of a smidgen of its independence whilst at the same time bowing to the most populist, emotion-driven element among the public.

Let's be clear - no one likes to be a victim of crime. My stepmother was (somewhat gently) mugged recently; my mother was on the receiving end of abuse from kids as young as ten near her home; my partner's car was broken into. All of these things have a terrible impact on the victim and I'm sure all of us can recount a personal experience which leaves us feeling at best troubled and at worst with nightmares and a feeling of having been violated. How much worse it must be to have a loved one murdered (or 'manslaughtered'). Moreover, nobody who has any personal experience of crime can deny that the victims are the ones who are often forgotten or feel sidelined, even when the police and support groups make an effort to console them.

But it's hard to see what benefit to the victims' families these statements in court may have. In a murder case, what is the statement likely to be? "We are all devastated by the loss of a beloved father/mother/brother/sister/son/daughter (delete as applicable) who wanted nothing more than to live a peaceful life and who, if he/she had lived, would have had so much more to give to his/her family and the world." Any judge worth his salt (and, granted, there are some who are not) would likely as not include such sentiment in his summing-up. There are only two purposes which could be served by the introduction of such statements:

(a) a feeling of catharsis for the grieving relatives (though it is debatable whether they would really feel any satisfaction from this), and
(b) greater pressure on the judge to pass a sentence which is more retributive than sensible (because by that stage every person in court will be burning with hatred for the villian in the dock).

Again, in the second case, it is doubtful that most judges will bow to this pressure at the present time. The trouble is that murder cases are necessarily high-profile and the more exposure (and implied legitimacy, given that they will be made as part of the trial) granted to such statements over time, the more there is a risk that judges will be seen to be even further out of step with the public mood. In such circumstances, it is likely that the judiciary will find its discretion curtailed as there is a public clamour (real or fabricated) to "stop these old fools letting people off".


Blogger ? said...

Apparently, victims already submit a written impact statement, which to some extent may influence sentencing.

I think this is a response to the feeling of many victims, or, at least, of Victim Support, Victims ofd Crime Trust ets that for very many people who are not actually witnesses, the feeling that they are irrelevant to the process hinders the healing process.

11:43 am  
Blogger CuriousHamster said...

Good post, Oscar. This proposal is another small step back in the direction of public hangings.

8:02 pm  

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