Not everyone who comes up before the bench is guilty as charged. And that includes some – no one knows how many – of those who are convicted and sentenced.
In British law you are “innocent until proven guilty”. That’s good – but only as good as that little word “proven” allows. Proof, in a court of law, isn’t always what it seems.
Newspaper reporters have to be careful how they describe people.
Timothy Evans was suspected of murdering his wife and daughter. He was a suspect, he was charged, he was tried. And then he was convicted, at which point for the first time the papers were allowed to drop the word “alleged” and to refer to him as “brutal killer”, “evil wife-murderer” and so on.
Trouble is, none of it was true. Evans was no more evil, and no more a killer, after the trial than he had been before it.
Tragically, by the time his innocence was proved – really proved – Evans had been hanged.
That ghastly fact is an example of the single most convincing case against the death penalty. It allows no way back when a court gets things wrong. Evans’s case was one of those that led indirectly to the abolition of the death penalty in Britain in 1965.
My point here, though, is that courts do get things wrong. As we saw again last week with the release of 88-year-old Roy Delph at Norwich Crown Court after 18 days of a two-year sentence the Crown Prosecution Service admits should never have been handed down.
So what would you do if you found yourself in court charged with, say, a minor theft you hadn’t committed?
Obviously, what you should do is plead not guilty and hope you, or your lawyer, could persuade the court to see the truth.
But what if you know that being found guilty after denying it could cost you a court charge of up to £1,200 as well as any fine imposed? On the other hand, if you “own up” to something you didn’t do, the fee will be a relatively affordable £150.
That sounds to me like a clear cash incentive to tell lies. To plead guilty when you’re not.
And that’s exactly the choice now faced by anyone charged with a minor offence since the charging policy was introduced in April.
Frankly, it stinks. It’s a perversion of the very idea of justice. And, like most such perversions, it’s heavily weighted against the poorest and weakest members of society.
Take the case of Stuart Barnes, who appeared at Exeter Crown Court in June. The homeless 29-year-old is a confessed serial shoplifter – and just for now he has a jail roof over his head. The judge who sent him down also imposed a £900 Criminal Courts Charge, as the new law obliged him to do.
And, as Judge Alan Large remarked as Barnes was led away: “He cannot afford to feed himself, so what are the prospects of him paying £900?”
What indeed? And what is the justice in a system that would have levied exactly the same £900 fee if he’d been a millionaire businessman charged with a string of fraud or embezzlement offences?
Or consider Louisa Sewell of Kidderminster, who admitted stealing a 75p four-pack of Mars bars in June because she hadn’t eaten for two days. She was fined £73, ordered to pay £85 in prosecution costs, a £20 victim surcharge (as well as 75p compensation) – and that £150 court charge.
How on earth is she expected to pay up? The reason she was hungry enough to steal was that her benefits had been sanctioned (i.e. stopped). So she is doubly a victim of government policies that add up to a multi-prong attack on the poor.
Unlike those “benefit claimants” Zac and Sarah made up by Iain Duncan Smith’s Department of Work and Pensions, these are real people and real cases. And a glance or two down the court lists of every town in the land will reveal many more like them.
More than 30 magistrates have quit the bench since April because they couldn’t stomach having to impose the new fees.
One of them, North Tyneside’s George Lyons, said the scheme was bound to make innocent people plead guilty. “Imagine you’re stopped by a police officer for going through a red light,” he said. “You say it was amber and it’s your word against his. You might have the choice of accepting an £80 fixed penalty notice and three points on your licence, or fighting your corner. But if you lose, you might face a bill of £840, plus the three points.”
It may not be quite as final an injustice as the judicial murder of poor Timothy Evans. But it’s an injustice all the same.
And if you or I haven’t suffered it yet, well… There but for fortune.