Taimour Lay explains the meaning of the post-riot ‘show trials’
The criminal courts’ reaction to the riots was to instinctively follow the hysteria of a panicking government and a shocked police. Of 3000 people arrested, 1000 were charged in August alone. Magistrates have been sending hundreds to jail (an average of five months for theft or handling stolen goods), with the majority remanded in custody until a Crown Court can hand down an even longer term.
– 3000 arrested nationwide
– London’s Met police set ‘target’ of 3000 convictions
– six months jail for stealing a £3.50 bottle of water
– five-month sentence given to mother-of-two who ‘handled’ stolen pair of shorts
– burglary charge and jail threat for stealing two scoops of ice-cream
– rioters’ families face being turfed out of council houses, benefit cuts
It is hard to overstate quite how extraordinary this spasm of rushed ‘justice’ has been. Sentencing principles have been thrown out the window: it hasn’t helped defendants to plead guilty, be young, have a clean record, turn themselves in, express remorse, come from an abusive home or take a bottle of water as opposed to a plasma TV. Bail rights have been systematically disregarded. These are show-trials if the only aim is deterrence.
Should this surprise us? Partly, yes. Judges guard their own “independence” carefully, are willing to be truculent and often swim against the tide of opinion. The more aggressive a government is, and the weaker political movements are, the better judges tend to look – it might have been tempting over the last decade to place our faith in the liberal reasoning of the bewigged. In the absence of effective political movements managing to achieve structural change, the law can at least look like a route to individual redress. And the aggregation of those individual victories might appear a shift in the balance of power between classes. Legal aid cuts are a class attack, after all, designed to prevent the realisation of people’s rights within the system.
Of course, there is a strain of left thinking that has always taken a completely unforgiving view of the courts, not only as a tool of the existing government but as a threat to any future socialist programme. Judges may have been ‘liberal’ compared to Thatcher but their underlying positions have been pretty consistent. Would not these judges, liberal civil libertarians in the main, use their power to block radical social and economic policy? But this strain of thinking assumes a misguided belief in the possibility of parliamentary socialism, that a government at Westminster could one day use the current system in order to transform it.
Judges ultimately fall into line for two reasons. One is political: the government places pressure through directives, sentencing guidelines and the threat of legislation to impose their will. The second is more subtle: judges are part of the state, drawn from the same ruling class. They share the same assumptions and fears. When push comes to shove to smashed high street window, libertarian reasoning gives way to authoritarian instinct. It becomes a case of ‘us’ and ‘them’. In the end, there is a place where the utility of law ends and politics begins.