Last night I went to the inaugural Insight Debate at the National College of Ireland. It’s not something I’d normally have gone to (my college days are long behind me and there never seems to be any time) but as the motion was “this house believes that the scales of justice are tilted towards the criminal” I made the effort.
Given the day job it was a subject that I’m more than familiar with and one that often comes up in the courts – prolonged exposure to the court beat tends to send people either to the right or the left so discussions can get heated. Even in the controlled circumstances of a formal debate structure like last night, things got heated.
The lecture theatre was packed and there were plenty of familiar faces dotted around. I was live tweeting the debate, trying to get as many of the main points as I could but once the discussion was opened to the floor it was almost impossible to keep up.
This is a subject that will always get people’s blood up. Crime is something that affects everyone living in a society and we can’t avoid the latest escapades of a bewildering array of miscreants that seem to keep some red tops in business. Now granted, for me, a substantial drop in the crime rate would be fairly disastrous for the bank balance but it’s impossible to sit through trial after trial, especially at Circuit Court level, without forming some opinions about whether or not the criminal justice system works or not.
As I said, it’s a topic that comes up fairly frequently among my colleagues and I’ve often heard the opinion that working the court beat can actually make you sleep safer in your bed. It really is a case of the devil you know. You realise that the gardai, for the most part, do their jobs well and there are a lot less miscarriages of justice than you might previously have thought. Even though I’ve written here about some of the more peculiar decisions that are made in the courts, the reason I comment on them is because they are peculiar.
More often than not once you’ve sat through the horrific details of some crime with the absolute certainty that the tattooed thug beside you did everything he was accused of and probably more, you have the satisfaction of seeing a conviction at the end of it. Juries might be subject to certain flights of lunacy on occasion but for the vast majority of the time the bad guys go to jail and the innocent men walk free. It doesn’t always work but it mostly does and it’s the safest system we have. Having 12 random men and women who will not look on court proceeding with the jaundiced eyes that familiarity can breed, is a hell of a lot fairer for all concerned than any alternative I can think of.
It was fascinating to watch the debate and hear the comments that came from the floor. Certain issues stood out through repitition and showed current preoccupations. Rather unsurprisingly the subject of white collar crime was a recurring theme. It seemed to be a general consensus that many in the audience, regardless of which side of the motion they came down on, would rather see the prisons full of bankers than many of the others who currently lodge there. I could be wrong but I think that every speaker made a crack about John O’Donoghue’s ignominious departure from the post of Ceann Comhairle earlier this week. I get the feeling though that jokes about expenses are going to be satirical currency for many months, if not years, to come.
The idea of treating those who end up in the criminal justice system through disadvantage and drug addiction with a degree of compassion is one you see a lot in the Circuit courts. The idea that there are people who wouldn’t commit crimes if they could kick the drugs comes easily if you listen to sentencing after sentencing where the defence mitigation speech sounds the same. Education for those in the lowest economic groups and access for treatment for those who become addicted to expensive drug habits with no way to support them, would appear to be a no brainer.
The idea that those involved in the criminal justice system need to be treated like human beings instead of numbers arose on both sides of the debate. The more vulnerable amoung those accused of crimes deserve a way to get themselves out of the hole they are in and the system needs it’s checks and balances to ensure that those accused of a crime get a properly fair trial. We’re back to the jury on this, and the presumption of innocence.
This presumption is the cornerstone of Irish justice. It’s the way we do things here and it’s a far more dignified way to treat those in the dock. Even the dock in Irish courts no longer exists so that the accused is not stigmatised by having a set place to sit. OK so in practice they all sit in the same place, that seat formally known as the dock, but the principal is there.
The presumption of innocence seems to be the hardest part for those affected by crime to grasp. Why should someone who you know has done you wrong, because you were there or because you know the facts of the case, get to be treated like an innocent man.
I know it can be difficult for victims families in a murder trial when the accused swans in through the Four Courts gates ahead of them each morning before the trial. They find it galling to watch the defence successfully exclude reams of evidence that make up part of the complex case the gardai have painstakingly built. I can’t comment on the wrongs and rights of the evidence and the bail but while a trial is ongoing all you can if you are there to see justice for your loved one, is trust that things will work out. Most of the time they do.
It must be hard to watch someone you believe to be guilty treated with kid gloves but better that than an innocent man treated like the devil himself.
The flip side of this issue, which was returned to time and again by both the audience and the team proposing the motion, is that of victims rights. Ger Philpott from Advocates for Victims of Homicide (AdVic), spoke movingly of his experiences of the justice system as he watched the trial of the men accused of the murder of his nephew Russell Deane.
I’ve seen mothers of those killed thrown out of the court for crying as the story of their child’s last moments is recounted to the court. I know why their displays of emotion don’t play well with the defence but it’s always one of the most awkward bits of a trial when it happens. Victims don’t really have a place in the prosecution of a case. If they weren’t around for the events leading to their relation’s death they might not even be called as a witness. Often the only thing they can do is provide a victim impact statement at the very end, once a conviction has been secured. I’ve seen some very nasty characters indeed milk their status as an innocent defendant as a blatant way of twisting the hearts of their victims even more.
Crime by it’s very nature hurts those it happens to. Those wounds run deep and the criminal justice system doesn’t always help the healing process – one of the points thrown up the the audience was that even data protection legislation conspires against victims of violent crime and their families. Under these rules the gardai are forbidden from passing on their details to some of the support groups set up expressly to help them.
It was perhaps inevitable that the ayes would have it and the motion would pass. Our justice system is a complex thing built over centuries, in need of modernisation and streamlining perhaps but for the moment it’s the one we have to work with. When we read about the criminal gangs who maim, kill and wreak lives, then terrify those who could be witnesses to send them away it’s hard not to feel that this world we live in is a dark one indeed. We can be passionate about human rights and justice but if crime comes into your life it’s hard to keep that objectivity. It was great to see the subject debated so thoroughly though. It’s always good to challenge viewpoints and I’ll look forward to the next debate with interest.
I’m just playing around with some of the ideas thrown out last night here. I’m not saying which side I voted for merely continuing the discussion. Feel free to join in!