Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Eroding justice in the UK

Two years ago, the British government introduced a system of control orders, allowing them to restrict the freedom of movement, speech or association of suspected terrorists, or even place them under house arrest, all with the flick of a minister's pen. One of the arguments against this move was that it circumvented the vital protections of independent review before a judge and jury. Another was that this erosion of fundamental human rights would not long be restricted to suspected terrorists, but would inevitably be extended into other parts of the criminal justice system. Sadly, it seems these fears are about to be realised. The government's new Serious Crime Bill includes a control order-style system for suspected criminals, allowing a court to restrict the movements, business, associations, or access to banking services or the internet of anyone found to be acting in a way which helps or is likely to help a serious crime. As a civil order, the standard of proof would be a "balance of probabilities" rather than the criminal "beyond reasonable doubt" - meaning that people could find their liberties significantly restricted on the grounds that they are "probably" criminals.

This is simply monstrous. The orders would effectively impose criminal sanctions on a civil standard of proof, and it is difficult to see them as anything other than an attempt by a party desperate to be seen to be "doing something" to circumvent the safeguards built into the criminal justice system. But as I have said before, those safeguards exist for very good reason: to prevent injustice. They help keep the innocent out of jail, and that the police do their job and thoroughly investigate crimes rather than just pinning them on the first likely suspect they come across. Removing them opens the door to innocent people incorrectly suspected of criminal activity losing their liberty, their jobs, and even their lives. And it opens the door to lazy policing and gross miscarriages of justice.

In a free and democratic society, restrictions on an individual's liberty must meet the highest standards of evidence. This proposal does not. it is unjust, unsafe, and should not proceed.