Reports that luminaries of the ‘establishment,’ including Archbishop Carey, were queuing up to write letters directly to the Director of Public Prosecutions in support of Bishop Peter Ball, who was eventually convicted of numerous sex offences, is hardly a revelation. Bishops of the Church of England move in the rarefied circles of the establishment, such as the London clubs. Bishop Ball’s influential friends promoted the interests of their friend. What else are friends for? No doubt, those who wrote in Bishop Ball’s defence did so in good faith and were, hopefully, as astounded by his eventual confession as the rest of us were outraged.
What should shake us out of our complacency, and perhaps our self–righteousness, is that when threatened by prosecution, not all accused people enter the criminal justice fray on equal footing. Even the lowliest of us may well have friends who seek to influence the course of justice. An experience common amongst police officers is that having arrested someone for some commonplace transgression, they find themselves surrounded by all manner of friends and relations of the accused pleading their innocence. These entreaties are rarely listened to. Sometimes, fearing an attempt to release the arrested person from custody by force, the police will whisk away their captive. Sometimes, arrest can result in a full–blown riot. Yet, even a riot does not exert the influence of a carefully crafted letter from an archbishop, Member of Parliament (Lords or Commons), or other establishment figure.
It doesn’t stop there. When prosecuting a member of the establishment, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) will brace itself to face the legal ‘heavy artillery’ that will ensure the best possible defence. The accused will be accompanied in any interview by well qualified lawyers, wise to the wiles of the police to elicit self–incrimination and advising their client at every turn. Once the person is charged, the defence will demand the disclosure not only of evidence in the case, but also anything else that might discredit the prosecution. The police will need to assemble an investigative team capable of resisting the unrelenting scrutiny that is supposed to be part and parcel of our adversary system of trial, but is capable of exploitation only by those with the resources to do so. If it comes to trial, then the defence barrister will be a Queen’s Counsel, supported by the full entourage of junior counsel, solicitors and private investigators. Influential people and their friends are doing nothing improper. They are simply making full use of the safeguards that are designed to protect us all from over–zealous policing.
“the scales of justice, though equally applied to both cases, will be tipped to the latter’s disadvantage”
The police and CPS know all this and they can work out that they will need to assemble resources to equal those of the defence, with the consequential drain on the budget. To pass the test that the CPS is mandated to apply to all prosecutions — that there must be a better than evens probability of conviction — will be correspondingly more daunting when a member of the establishment is accused of criminality. Hence, for those who have so much to lose, the scales of justice are tipped to their advantage. By contrast, a penniless welfare dependent, perhaps suffering a drink or drug habit, with a string of previous convictions will have meagre resources with which to defend himself (or more rarely, herself) and, therefore, is more likely to plead guilty, knowing their situation is hapless. Hence, the scales of justice, though equally applied to both cases, will be tipped to the latter’s disadvantage.
Perhaps none of this is very surprising; after all, ‘it’s the rich wot gets the pleasure and the poor wot gets the blame’. However, do not imagine that the scales of justice are tipped only in favour of bishops, members of parliament, et al; they can be tipped equally effectively by those with enough resources to protect their reputation. Local politicians, members of statutory authorities, local notable businesspeople, well-connected professionals and, yes, even academics, are more able to influence the criminal justice system to their advantage.
This is the reality that lies behind the scandals that Justice Lowell and her colleagues on the Statutory Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse will be delving into. However, they will also experience the influences that enable highly–placed, well–connected people to remain, if not hidden, then obscured from view. Those influential people will mobilise to undermine the authority: to question the competence and independence of its members; the legitimacy of its procedures; and much more besides. Their lawyers will be vigilant in pointing out departures from proper procedures. Witnesses with much to lose will be thoroughly briefed and coached in how to give their evidence with maximum impact. Most of all they will question the credibility of the Inquiry’s witnesses. The impact of these accumulated influences has already been felt in the impossibility of the terms of reference and the shenanigans that have already seen the resignation of two Chairs, even before the Inquiry was commenced. It is likely to result in extended deadlines that will put the Chilcott Inquiry in the shade and in reaching anodyne conclusions, when they are eventually published. Let us hope that Justice Lowell is made of sterner stuff.
Featured image credit: “The Eastern end of Government Offices Great George St, from Parliament Square, Westminster” by Carlos Delgado. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.