Presumptions of Guilt

I’m on holiday so I haven’t really been following the legal news closely recently.

The coverage of the Levi Bellfield trial though has been troublesome.

Beneath the Wig has a very good explanation of the underlying issues and I’d suggest you go there to look at the reasons the trial went as it did.

This may also explain why law bloggers have been largely dismayed by the attitudes about the trial in the media.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It also doesn’t work well for a justice system. Much of the uproar has been on the basis that ‘Bellfield shouldn’t have been entitled to a defence because he was obviously guilty‘. Such firmness of conviction comes from the verdict rather than the indictment.

Bellfield may have been “obviously guilty” (though I disagree). But then so was Colin Stagg. So too were the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six and so on. So too Craig Charles, and a whole load of people whose convictions appeared damning.

The suggestion is that the defence should pull their punches to save everyone some discomfort. That may well make for a more sanitised trial, but it will, as sure as night follows day, result in innocent people being sent to prison.

If you are innocent, it means at least one person has been mistaken, negligent or dishonest. You cannot tiptoe around the issue. It has to come out and it has to be put directly to the person. This is, believe it or not, for the benefit of the witness: cross examination is the chance they have to refute any such accusation.

You may say that that’s all well and good in theory, but it doesn’t detract from the fact that the Dowler family went through a traumatic experience in the witness box. Of course it doesn’t.

But let’s turn it around. As you will see from the link above, the police at one point suspected Mr Dowler of being involved in his daughter’s disappearance and death. They had reason to be suspicious. This was the reason the defence was pursued as it was. Suppose, as is known to happen, the police got over-excited or sloppy, and it was Mr Dowler in the dock rather than Mr Bellfield. Would you honestly say that his innocence should be compromised to spare the feelings of others? Would you be happy with a conviction that resulted from such misplaced goodwill?

Of course not.

Spin Spin Spin

Stop presses, the Daily Mail is running a story that bears no relation to reality.

Following the climbdown on proposed reforms to the criminal justice system, the Mail is in jubilant mood. In particular it’s claiming the following as a victory:

Homeowners and shopkeepers are to be given the right to protect themselves against burglars and robbers.

They will now be allowed to use reasonable force if they perceive a threat to their property. Previously they could act only when they feared for their lives.

Except there’s one slight problem: this is already the law. The test for self-defence is reasonable force, and the law applies to the protection of property. It’s all neatly laid out here.

So who’s fibbing?

Save Bailii

You will notice that in some of my posts I link to transcripts of judgments.

These are provided by Bailii, the British and Irish Legal Information Institute. They are a charity that take the judgments of the higher courts, convert them to a simple format and upload them free of charge.

If it were not for Bailii, the only databases of judgments would be the expensive commercial ones such as Lexis Library and Westlaw. While these are excellent, they are so expensive as to make them effectively unavailable as a general database for use by private citizens.

The great advantage Bailii offers you if you are a lay person is that it allows you to go off and check the source of many of the legal stories in the press. You don’t have to rely on a newspaper account, nor do you have to rely on the excerpts I provide you in my posts. If Bailii did not exist you would be at the mercy of editorial decisions and unable to go off and verify what has been written for yourself.

Bailii is, however, in a funding crisis. Their annual operating costs are around £160,000. One of their main donors has pulled out, and others are making funny noises. They need donations to meet the funding shortfall or they may go under.

I take making the law accessible to the public very seriously. It is one of the reasons I set up this blog. Bailii is one of the best ways this is being done, by making the judgments that decide the law of the land available to the general public free of charge. It is an essential service.

They are appealing for funds here. I implore you to donate whatever you can to them.

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