Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Justice is blind to the suffering of innocents

How many glaring, goading examples of hard justice must we endure in British courts before the law is formally declared an ass and the great legal minds of 2013 can get their heads together and start again?

Last week the BBC interviewed a girl who, aged 10, was required to undergo live questioning in the trial of her father, accused of abusing her and seven other young witnesses.

She sat in a little rabbit hutch room next to the court, no family member or friend alongside her, and after being accused of lying by the defence team, got very upset and had to pause. In the end her ordeal was for naught as the judge halted the trial and her father walked free.

We also heard last month about the humiliations suffered by the teenage girls who testified against the Telford gang who groomed, abused and trafficked them. One girl's mother told Channel 4 her daughter had been 'broken' by three weeks of brutal questioning from seven barristers.

Another girl was called 'wicked' by the defence, whose case, according to Anna Hall, director of The Hunt for Britain's Sex Gangs, was built on presenting the victims as 'truants and drug runners'.

The gang leaders were eventually convicted of rape, child sex and various paedophile offences. But as Hall says, it was the innocence of the young female victims which was repeatedly questioned during the trial.

This situation – vulnerable witnesses being treated as guilty until proven innocent – can have long-term, sometimes incurable, effects on victims' lives. As if the horror they've already gone through wasn't enough to screw them and their families up for good. And yet time after time we hear that's just the way it goes in rape and sexual abuse cases under our wise, centuries-old adversarial legal system.

There's still a mystical awe around 'British justice', an organism we keep being told is the envy of the world, a model any fledgling democracy would do well to adopt lock, stock and barrel. Judges who reach the top of their profession are celebrated for their love of the law, as if the humble genuflection of those who have been made rich by it is irrefutable proof of the supremeness of this omnipotent deity.

It's people who have actually experienced its ludicrous imbalances and the blindness of the good (almost entirely) old boys who preside over its upper echelons who'll tell you, with fervent conviction and black, heavy hearts, that the British legal system simply isn't fit for purpose.

How does it fail us? Let me count the ways. The regular displays of ineffectuality by the CPS (PPS in NI). The stealthy withdrawal of legal aid, so that swathes of the population are cut off from 'justice'.

For me though the number one problem is pretty basic; the law is based on a set of values set out by, and still believed in, by socially privileged men. Re the top brass; of 37 appeal judges, four are women. On the Supreme Court, it's 11 to one. Northern Ireland? Worse. Percentage of high court judges who are female; zero. And less than one in four county court judges.

Men completely run the show. And it's a tired, out of date and inept performance. Throwing ourselves in front of the Queen's horse might not be the answer, but let's not pull punches; our demands should be no less ambitious than those of Emily Davison.

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