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Criminal justice

Institutional violence

In another life I was a teacher, and I recall that in the early nineties we used the tag Design Model to explain how injustice was embedded in formal educational institutions.

In the Scottish case the well-intentioned move to universal public education in the nineteenth century was underpinned by assumptions which gave us an institution (and buildings) designed for the a favoured group, which had the obvious characteristics of being white, male, middle class, able-bodied, straight, right-handed, etc.

More than a hundred years on and the bias was still deeply entrenched and almost invisible to the operators of this particular bureaucracy, and as the nineties drew on the politically correct terror of political correctness very efficiently shut down attempts to draw this out and deal with it. It was as late as 1994 that I worked with a group of local educationalists to draft the ideal specification for a headteacher and there was shock and horror that anyone could challenge the essential requirement for a big body and a loud voice in trousers. Arguing on the contrary for the possibility of a soft spoken head who used a wheelchair, for example, was pure political correctness and please shut up, now.

Delicious counterpoint

The Design Model came to mind again the other week. The occasion was trivial enough -- being in Derby Magistrates' Court as Angie Zelter appeared for a plea hearing on a charge of obstructing the highway relating to the blockade of Rolls Royce Raynesway in October last year.[1] Angie had heard there was a warrant out for her arrest and had handed herself into the local police station the night before, so she was appearing, as they say, “from custody”. Angie was representing herself and had been put under considerable pressure by a custody officer to get a lawyer, with the bogus threat that she would be held to the end of the day's business if she didn't.

Now, the Derby Court complex is brand spanking new, and if you appear from custody you come into court seven, where the dock is behind thick plate glass which is interrupted every so often by a three-centimetre gap. Not having an agent, Angie was obliged to poke her nose through the gap to address the court. From our point of view, in the public benches, this disadvantage and potential humiliation was much alleviated by the fact that Angie was sporting luminous red hair. (Inherited from a wonderful and abortive wedding ceremony held at the gates of Devonport naval base the day before and providing a delicious counterpoint to the insane proceedings).[2]

Mind the gap(s)

The design assumptions in this new court are clear. If you are in custody you are obviously a member of the criminal classes and your rights are thereby limited, doubly so if you don't take advantage of another aspect of the machine -- legal representation. And Derby is singing from the same hymn-sheet as Her Majesty's Court Service, whose goals in life are to:

  1. Bring offenders to justice through efficient and effective partnerships between the courts and other criminal justice agencies;
  2. Put the public at the heart of what we do so victims, witnesses and jurors feel confident in the system;
  3. Work in partnership with the judiciary to support their vital role.[3]

The gaps in that mission statement are illuminating. Not to ensure that justice is done but that offenders are brought to justice. Not to ensure that anyone, defendants and the untried included, can feel confident in the system.

Ideal machinery

We are accustomed to speak of the drift towards the authoritarian state as if it were a slow and recognisable process that we could at any time wake up to and halt. Of course, one view is that the authoritarian state is already here and has always been so, but, even from a less radical standpoint, there is the risk of a very rapid movement. These bureaucracies with their inbuilt bias against the weak are already ideal machinery and already in place.