Wednesday, 4 March 2009

What is the point of allowing arrest without charge?

I seem to be on the rule of law at the moment.

On Sunday at church, there was a reading from the Bible about the trial of Jesus Christ before the chief priests. Part of it (Mark 14:55-59) went like this:

“Now the chief priests and the whole Council were seeking testimony against Jesus to put him to death, but they found none. For many bore false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree. And some stood up and bore false witness against him, saying, "We heard him say, 'I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.'" Yet even about this their testimony did not agree.”

Notice that, on the face of it, there is a determination to give the arrested man a fair trial. The court pays lip service to the rule of law. But one or two things are wrong. For a start, it seems that the court has decided on the sentence they are looking for before the trial even begins. They have presumably also decided that they are going to find the prisoner guilty before the trial begins.

But there is something even more subtle. It is clear that before the arrest took place, the prosecution was uncertain about what the prisoner would be charged with.

And this is simply, it seems to me, the sure sign that the justice system has broken down, and that justice is not going to be done. To arrest someone, and then spend ages trying to work out what to charge them with is wrong.

For hundreds of years in Britain, the writ of habeas corpus went far to ensuring that no one could be held longer than a few days without being taken before a court. That all changed in 2005 with the Terrorism Act. A prisoner can now be held for 28 days without charge. The government actually wanted 90 days.

Frederick Forsyth has written of how, throughout the terrorist threat from Irish Republicans in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, Habeas corpus remained in place, but

“Now the Blair government proposes the law system of fascism and communism. The citizen can be arrested and held without charge or trial, not even on the careful consideration of an experienced judge, but the whim of a political activist called a government minister. To be protected from terror the government says, we must become a tyranny. But a tyranny is based on the citizen's terror. This is not victory; this is defeat before a shot is fired.”

It is strange how a miscarriage of justice 2000 years ago mirrors what is happening in Britain today.