In the wake of Levi Bellfield's conviction for the murder of Amanda ("Millie") Dowler, I have been conducting an unpopular defence of our adversarial system of criminal trials over at the excellent blog of Inspector Gadget. It's an important issue. Our rights to be presumed innocent if accused of a crime and to have our arguments put vigorously in open court to an independent judge and a jury of our peers are more important than our right to vote. Before anyone indignantly tells me that we owe those rights to politicians, please remember they predate democracy in England by centuries. The right to choose our masters is less valuable than the restraints on their power. Democracy itself has, after all, proved to be no restraint, as politicians bribe election-swinging minorities of voters with cash extorted violently from others.
The debate at Gadget's gaff has been depressing. If some of his readers are representative of Britain's police, our ancient rights are neither understood nor valued by a constabulary that would give us up to Continental style inquisitors in a heartbeat. The Bill, it seems, regards defence lawyers as the enemy; stereotyping them coarsely as mercenaries who profit from keeping offenders at large. That part, at least, is sadly not surprising to me. Burglars stole all our wedding presents in the weeks after our marriage. At the time I was practising (as I did for one year after qualifying) as a criminal lawyer. Mrs P. and I have a sad, humiliating memory of our tiny flat full of amused police officers (including an inspector). They showed up to gloat when they learned over their radios both that a criminal defence lawyer had been burgled and that he was living (we are self-made and were just starting out) in entertaining poverty. There was scarcely room for the scene of crime officer to dust the place for prints.
Even more depressingly, the influential Conservative blogger Ellie Seymour has failed to live up to her surname and joined the blindly sentimental tabloid frenzy claiming that the treatment of the Dowler family by Levi Bellfield's defence team amounted to a "travesty of justice". In particular she calls for defendants to be forced (at gunpoint, Ellie?) to testify. If neither our Conservatives nor our policemen understand or value the presumption of innocence and our open, adversarial system of justice, what hope is there for Liberty?
I was girding up my loins to write a piece here summarising my comments elswhere, when I read the linked post. It makes further effort on my part redundant and I hope as many people as possible read it. It is an important antidote to the sickly, cloying, Oprah Winfrey-style, sentimentalism of the media coverage of the Dowler family's ordeal. Hypocritical coverage given that the media's sickening pandering to the prurience of the British public made it an ordeal. Not to mention of course the prurience of the investigating police officers which had them taking their eye off the ball (the metaphorical ball, not the one in the father's gag).
I can't help but feel that the hue and cry for Bellfield's legal team is a cynical attempt to distract attention from the failings of others. The cosseted, self-esteem-laden products of our "all must have prizes" education system and our "no-one must be offended" victim culture may whinge and moan about the rigours of a trial their yeoman ancestors would have handled with courage. Our political class may curry favour with the ignorant by betraying the rights that made us free. Our journalists may sell papers with prurience and hypocrisy. Our constabulary may seize the chance of using a hard case to demand bad laws to make their lives easier (and ours more dangerous). But justice has, for now, been served. I am not optimistic, given all I have read, that it will always be so in this country.