Tuesday, June 7
Reviewed by Paul Clarke
Australia's legal system is modelled on Britain's, and for anyone watching Presumed Guilty, that is not a reassuring thought. The British legal system has been spectacularly humiliated in recent years through the exposure of a series of notorious miscarriages of justice.
Top British defence lawyer and civil libertarian Michael Mansfield QC dissects the present system, which is stacked in favour of the police and the prosecution.
As a result of this system, the Birmingham Six, accused of the 1974 pub bombings, spent 16 years in jail for crimes they did not commit.
Mansfield interviews some of the best-known victims of the present lopsided system, including Hughie Callaghan and Billy Power of the Birmingham Six and Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four, whose story is told in the film In the Name of the Father.
Mansfield's basic case is that the police, instead of seriously investigating crime, use a "targeting" system, making early assumptions about the culprits and then trying to force confessions out of them — or, as in some of the spectacular miscarriages of justice, beating the confessions out of them. Sixty-eight per cent of convictions in British courts rely on confession evidence, without supporting proof.
Once someone is targeted by the police as having committed a crime, the defence faces huge obstacles. Ninety per cent of all cases are heard in magistrates courts with no jury; the type of cases which can be heard by juries is being whittled down yearly.
Legal aid to enable defendants to afford lawyers is being slashed, and early access to a lawyer is often denied to those arrested. Amazingly, at any one time there are 10,000 people in British jails just awaiting trial and, according to legal formality, "presumed innocent". There is no time limit for holding someone awaiting trial.
The police have a powerful machine for collecting forensic evidence and interviewing witnesses, which the defence lawyers lack — and access to police evidence is often denied the defence.
To top it off, the judge has enormous powers to sway a jury through the summing up. Often juries are told that the defence evidence is incredible and they should convict. In the Birmingham Six trial, the defence evidence was simply ridiculed in the judge's summary. With majority verdicts now possible, the British judges — overwhelmingly old, reactionary men — stand a good chance of pressuring any but the most independent jury.
Michael Mansfield, who has personally defended many of the victims of the most outrageous miscarriages of justice, presents an irrefutable case that British justice is no justice at all. He proposes sweeping reforms which would really guard the rights of the accused and ensure that they were presumed innocent, pointing to some of the safeguards of the French and US legal systems.
There are a number of problems here. The US and French systems have their own drawbacks, as, for example, the huge black prison population in the US demonstrates. The British establishment is not going to accept a democratic reform of its legal system because the whole system is not about the impartial seeking of truth and justice.
Mansfield never asks the underlying question about why the police are not really interested in finding the culprits of particular crimes, or why, for that matter, so many crimes are committed.
Because Michael Mansfield is a radical lawyer and seeks the reform of his own (very lucrative) profession, he doesn't step outside a legalistic framework and comprehend modern policing as a form of social control.
Yes, the British legal system is rotten to the core, yes there are thousands of people "fitted up" by the police. That's because Britain is a society in crisis and decay.
Democratic reforms to protect those wrongly accused should be fought for, and Michael Mansfield has done a brilliant job is exposing some of the worst cases of wrongful conviction. But a "fair" legal system is not achievable within capitalism, precisely because it is about protecting the privileges of the powerful against the poor and the dispossessed.