Thursday, November 16, 2006

Judge Dread

In his 2004 Labour Party Conference speech, Tony Blair seemed to call for the abolition of trial by jury. This was largely unreported at the time, presumably because it seemed so far-fetched. Yet here it is again. Today, Home Secretary John ‘Chopper’ Reid said he wanted to,

‘move away from the traditional view that justice has to involve going to court’.

He was talking about the Government’s number one cause of forelock tugging anxiety, anti-social behaviour. What he wants to do is give the police increased powers to issue on the spot fines to those they judge to be breaching the peace. Since this government came in ten years ago there have been 23 different measures introduced to establish a state of law and order satisfactory to ministers. There are 3,000 more possible offences to commit than there were in 1997, many of these relating to public behaviour. That means 3,000 more opportunities for ordinary people to end up on the wrong side of the law.

Chances are that most of us break some obscure law almost every day. Every time I call a cyclist a c**t for trying to run me down on the footpath or play my Pure Urban Essentials CD a bit too loud to compensate for my hardness of hearing, I’m probably committing ASB. As a population, we ought to take some responsibility for this. We are finding it much easier to piss each other off than we used to. Why?

When it comes to being left alone, I admit I have very high expectations indeed. I find myself shopping at six in the morning and going to the cinema in the middle of the day so that other people’s annoying little habits don’t filter their way into my viscera. I become enraged when a recorded message has the audacity to masquerade as a person of my intimate acquaintance wishing to connect with me. Cold callers from mobile phone companies receive an interrogation from me that makes their own script look like a wedding invitation. I give them as much incentive as I possibly can to delete me from their database and feel threatened that their own security of identity has been seriously compromised.

Nobody wants to dispense with the jury system. It is the one chance a person has of a group of people with some common sense hearing your side of the story. If it was up to the police, they’d convict everyone they catch because they honestly believe we are all villains and they also have targets to meet. We ordinary citizens dread being called for jury service, not because we wish to shun our civic duty, but because it inevitably means sitting in a cold corridor for days or even weeks with nothing to do but drink tea and eat biscuits. This is because the jury selection procedure is at least ten times as arduous as the court duty itself. I have never been called for jury duty myself but Pandemian posted an eloquent description of this ordeal just days ago.

If anyone is in any doubt about what really needs reforming in this country, all they need to do is watch the Queen opening parliament. She arrives in her Cinderella coach, tarted up in a sequined gown draped in endangered species and jewels looted from formerly occupied countries, surrounded by men frocked in tablecloths and tights, her family all looking like they’ve come straight from their Gilbert & Sullivan rehearsal. Her agent, Black Rod, marches up to the House of Commons. Her majesty’s commoners then slam the door in his face and can be heard guffawing inside. This snub signifies that we have a democracy – for about two seconds. Undeterred, Black Rod bangs on the door and demands the riff raff attend the Queen in the House of Lords, whereupon someone cracks a dignity-demolishing joke. This year it was,

‘I hope they’ve got Helen Mirren on standby.’ Drole.

The Queen then delivers a speech which has been written for her by the Prime Minister’s aides and looks about as committed to it as turkeys are to Christmas. Around forty new pieces of legislation are proposed to keep us safe in our beds. Today, she spoke of ‘putting victims at the heart of the criminal justice system.’ Well, they sort of are, aren’t they? If it weren’t for victims, there wouldn’t actually be crimes, would there? Perhaps I’m knit-picking.

More urbane metaphors are to be found in Anthony Minghella’s new film Breaking and Entering. This is a much more interesting take on anti-social behaviour. The dramatis personae are bog standard. You have the talented but traumatised asylum seeker youth and his hard-working, decent but lonely mother. There is the wealthy and successful but ultimately bored ‘victim’ of crime who, ironically, is dedicated to a revolutionary urban plan which aims to eliminate crime by good design. Finally, you have Ray Winstone who plays a scruffy but good-hearted cop who whisks troubled fifteen year olds up to Hampstead Heath on the back of his Vespa for a bit of unofficial mentoring. Eh? It’s perfectly innocent, promise.

But here’s where it gets really interesting. Without giving the plot away, Minghella proposes an entirely new take on perpetrator and victim reconciliation. The victim gets to have wild cinematic sex with a member of the perpetrator’s immediate family. Now that’s what I call restitution. Everyone involved seemed very happy with the outcome anyway. If Government is so insistent on replacing our centuries old criminal justice system with a policeman who’s attended a one day training course based on the format of Whose Line Is It Anway?, they could do worse than hire in Anthony Minghella to steer it.

Must get off to rehearsals for Gilbert & Sullivan’s Trial by Jury now. I’m playing the Defendant. The Plaintiff will be played by Princess Anne and the Learned Judge by the Duke of Edinburgh. We shall be appearing at a Magistrates Court near you soon. Check your listings guide for details…

Picture from


Groucho said...

Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.

Dave Hill said...

Y'know, I've done jury service twice - don't ask me how come - and I've really enjoyed it on both occasions. Does this mean I'm ill? As for Black Rod, I prefered him when he was a blues singer. Boom! Boom!

Harpo said...

Uriah Heep, Uriah Heep.

That's so pants said...

Dave - I'm very interested in the concept of 'enjoying' jury duty. Although I've lived in Britain nearly all my adult life, I have never really got hold of the concept that you can control the enjoyment factor of mandatory activity. Someone needs to explain this to me.

Marx Bros - you so need to move on. There are other blogs.