Monday, 7 March 2011

Police don't criminalise people, people do

Many years, indeed a whole career ago, I made an important decision. Despite my choice of A-levels, university and degree all being aimed at a career in the law, I chose instead to join the Police. Instrumental in this decision was my experience in working for a firm of solicitors, and the strange, illogical and almost perverse pleasure I encountered in some lawyers when they used their undoubted skill, training and experience to engineer acquittals when even an 18 year-old view of the world thought it obvious that the community would be far better off with someone locked away. It was a side of the line where I knew I could not in all conscience have been happy.

Every now and then a member of the Bar or a solicitor does me the favour of reminding me how that decision was so correct. The latest, according to the Guardian website, is Ruth Hamann of Hodge,Jones & Allen - a firm which evidently specialises in the law of protest. Essentially, the firm are claiming that the Metropolitan Police are criminalising students by issuing an 'excessive number' of cautions for aggravated trespass, arising from the recent tuition fee protests. It has always been my perhaps simplistic view that Police don't criminalise people, people do (with apologies to Goldie Lookin Chain). The law is there, you choose to break it, you're a criminal. The police just clear up the mess - or at least a percentage of the mess, I suppose.

But more than this, I am shocked and a little disappointed that Ms. Hamann is quoted thus:

"This may dissuade some young people from attending subsequent protests for fear that they might be charged with an offence and required to attend court".

Now, if we start on the premise that cautions can only be administered where the cautionee admits the offence, then we must presume mustn't we that each caution results from a committed offence. In which case the excessive number of cautions might be two or more per offence, but just the one would seem to me to be about right - and certainly not excessive.

Adult cautions for offences were introduced in the 1980s not only to take cases out of the over-burdened courts system, but also to give first-time offenders the chance to appreciate the advantages of mending their ways without going to court and getting a proper conviction. If, as Ms. Hamann observes, students who find themselves cautioned then refrain from committing further offences, or indeed find themselves dissuaded from attending events such as these marches where the likelihood of offending seems to be increased, then is this a Bad Thing? Or is it just the cautioning system working as it was designed to? And therefore a reason for a solictor - 'An Officer of the Court' - to celebrate a feature of our creaky, over-sophisticated, under-resourced criminal justice system that actually works as it was meant to, rather than carp about it.

No comments:

Post a Comment