Complexity and Contempt of Court – an anonymous guest blog

This blog was written thanks to the anonymous contribution of someone who experienced the injustices of the legal system in the UK. This article is part of a series of guest blogs written by Injustice Documentary’s interviewees and other criminal justice reformers. If you are interested in submitting a piece, please contact us.

Making a documentary about prison and the so-called justice system is pretty depressing. Even the most critical minds out there turn to jelly when faced with law, court and prison.

I hear it every day : “He was found guilty, so…”, “He’s a XXXX so…”. And yes, it’s normally a He. Often such people are the same who will champion a fashionable injustice, particularly on death row in another country.

But the thing about injustice, and certainly the focus of the film, is that it is normal, not an exception. In the first instance, the data is pretty glaring – poor people get found guilty and go to prison. The crimes of the powerful tend not to be punished, even if they are recognised.

But a greater problem is the judicial process itself. Let me be clear: the court system in the UK is a joke. It is, irrespective of those working in it (who are often hard working, good people), systematically inept. It is not a justice system, it is an absurd pantomime.

Now, yes, there are clear-cut cases. But the problem consists in the fact that the system demands a binary: Absolute guilty or absolutely not guilty, an absolute victim or not a victim.

I was one of the critically-minded people. I was one who, since watching 14 Days in May as a child, was saddened by the number of young black men in the US on death row. Yet it wasn’t until hearing accounts making this film that my eyes were opened to the reality of the legal system. Here is one from an anonymous source, whose account is edited here.

Truth and Narrative

My evidence was extensive. I mean, there was loads of it. At the same time the prosecution evidence was so flimsy and contradictory, the statement against me had so many contradictions, that it seemed to be nonsense upon stilts, to borrow from Bentham. Two lawyers had told me that my case wouldn’t go to court because of this. Phew!

My account was also all over the place, but it cohered with the evidence although the contextual account was as complex as the context itself. Then came that utterly crushing explanation from my lawyer: the truth doesn’t matter in court. You’ll be judged on who provides the most convincing account.

I tried to stick to my guns. The truth must win out, surely? The barrister who was to represent me, having never before met me and having spent a tiny amount of time reviewing the case, was called in to meet me. It was a devastating realisation that the woman with whom I’d spent hours with going over the context and case wasn’t to sit in court at all. The person who would mediate all that complexity would be someone I’d met for about an hour.

It wasn’t her fault that the person who knew every detail wasn’t allowed to sit in court. An effective stranger would try to relay the detail. She despaired in the meeting, shaking her head at the solicitor to tell her that I can’t answer a simple question simply. “But that’s what it was”, I pleaded. “But you won’t have time to say it”, she replied.

There’s no other way to put it, you’re effectively told to lie in order to act the part in the pantomime.

Court isn’t Court

You have a pre-trial hearing in criminal cases, to determine which sort of court to go to. I’d heard of Magistrates and Crown before, not least from my many dodgy mates who’d been to one or another at some stage. But it wasn’t until the guilty verdict that a geezer simply said to me “Should have gone down the road, always go down the road”. “What? What do you mean?” “Crown, mate, everyone knows that Mag’s are crap”.

I didn’t really understand that, sat in the pre-trial that day. My lawyer came over during the break – what do you want? Crown or Magistrates? I asked about the differences:

  • Magistrates aren’t trained judges, just angry Daily Mail reading petty businesspeople and basically old farts
  • Crown courts cost a lot more
  • Crown courts can send you to prison for much longer
  • Magistrates have an 80% conviction rate

“Okay, okay, look, if I’m probably not going to be found guilty, I might as well go for the cheaper version.” And that was it, in my naivety, my decision was made.

Evidentially Unjust

So, tell the truth, pile up the evidence and I’ll get my day in court. “Objection your honour… sustained” I’d seen it on TV, I know how it goes. Piece of cake.

It’s depressing to admit my naivety – too much German philosophy! I thought the point of court was to take all available evidence, weigh it up in a considerate manner and the reach an informed judgement on the basis of that evidence. I grew up on LA Law, after all.

In the next meeting and the meeting after, I sat down with my girlfriend and lawyer to find that either we weren’t allowed to access my evidence or the prosecution refused to allow it into court. I remember my head shaking, mouth moving and no words coming out.

How can there be a fair trial when the imperative of the prosecution is to prevent evidence from being heard?

“What does it mean, though? We’re not allowed to show it to the magistrates?” “Not just that – you’re not allowed to mention it at all”.

A Trying Trial

As I was to find, the prosecution and complainant can and did reference whatever they liked without any evidence. Indeed, I was to find half way through the case that the prosecution had failed to submit its evidence.

Ah, so that’s the defence’s strategy. That’s why cross-examination was so weak. My barrister was pretty good. She fights big cases up to the High Court in London. Yet it seemed even she had failed to understand the absurdity of the Magistrates. “Oh, I’m sure we can do it now” the lead mag blathered more or less. He followed with some quip about balancing justice with economy. My life, reduced to a cost-saving exercise!

I reflected on the first half hour or so of the trial, while the complainant was being referred to as the victim. Deep down I knew it as a lost cause, unless the mismatch of prosecution evidence and testimony were to be realised.

I still don’t know if the Magistrates saw all of the prosecution evidence or not. I’m not sure if they had, that they could have found me guilty. Not even police testimony that was effectively in my favour could help.

I’m pretty sure if Jesus, Abraham, Muhammad and Krishna had simultaneously entered the court room with a full account of the incident carved into stone by God herself, it would have done me as much good as a fart in the face from Hilary Clinton.

A Rough Approximation of Justice?

The strangest thing of all is that I wanted to plead guilty. Something had happened for sure. But my lawyer advised me that I would have been pleading guilty to the way it had happened, which was utter nonsense.

So yeah, I am guilty of something, but not what I was accused of.

So is that all we can expect from a justice system? You’re absolutely guilty because we cannot say more or less guilty? I remember the last words of my barrister, insisting the magistrates understand the concept of beyond reasonable doubt. They couldn’t have understood, or didn’t care.

The problem was, for all the legal concepts and procedural rules in the world the court is a theatre for pantomime. There are good guys and bad guys, cops and robbers, villains and heroes. There’s nothing in-between.

Characterisations do shift and change according to fashion, but some remain – the young black or young white working class male is indeed the least privileged in law. The constitution of the judiciary of course influences expectations about such categories of person.

On the other side, it is pretty much recommended that some characters are typecast as victims, whatever the reality or evidence to the contrary. As long as the acting is good and stereotypes well narrated, the audience will make easy sense, and the binary can be safely protected.

Criminal Complexity

None of this is to say that nobody is guilty, of course they are. Spending a lot of time with convicts, you get to learn who’s who.

There’s the antiques dealer who got caught fencing goods for local burglars. His proclamation of innocence was as limp as could be.

There’s the businessman whose wife was “sexually assaulted” by bouncers in a nightclub. Except she wasn’t because in defending her he was found guilty of assault. That meant anything else that had happened hadn’t happened.

A bouncer in another case had lost his job because has he was restraining a punter during brawl, someone approached him from behind, grabbing his shoulders. He lashed his arm out behind him, striking the brawler. Only it was a woman police officer. Apparently event the judge had reprimanded the officer for approaching from behind and not identifying herself, but, well, he’d done it hadn’t he?

As for the fraudster who’d been found guilty of embezzling thousands through the use of the company phone, well, yeah, he did it, but to my mind it was compensation for them making him redundant.

Of course complexity simply isn’t what the court system is made for. I remember telling the court, “it was like this, it was like that”. The prosecutor shot back angrily “well, which is it, this or that?” I made the mistake of rolling my eyes and sighing, “It can be both, but at different times, things can change quickly, people are complex”. It didn’t make a dent of course. When the charge was levelled at me, however, it fitted the narrative and made sense, of course.

The Verdict

So yeah, I’m no longer convinced that the law is just, or that courts dispense justice. To my mind the problem at base is the adversarial system. It was one of the first things my lawyer advised me of in an apologetic manner. “Don’t be fazed, that’s just how it is”.

I cannot think anything good about a system where truth is subordinate to narrative, where the state’s purpose seems to be to prevent those adjudicating from seeing evidence, where there’s an imbalance in capacity to speak, and where the performance of advocates can sway the outcome.

Perhaps the most sickening thing is the licence a guilty verdict gives to the media and the public not just to affirm the totality and singularity of guilt, but to pile on the allegations, because as one media campaign put it to me, once you’ve been convicted, you’re fair game.

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