Law Scandals of the Times

Scandals come in batches, in Britain, political, parliamentary, banking, press, food, and law scandals follow hard on each other’s heels. Any scandal is bad, but law scandals are the most shocking because law, legal and justice systems regulate behaviour the government’s to the people, the people to society, and individuals and company’s behaviour in society. Law, legal, and justice systems need to be certain to gain respect and obedience and so that everyone knows what they are doing.

Citizens need to be able to trust the law, justice and legal system and to know their legal rights are respected. An independent judiciary underpins the legal system and the constitution, providing necessary checks and balances to government power over citizens. The United Kingdom has a constitution, although there is no single document called the constitution, it derives from statute, Common Law, convention, usage and observance over centuries. Citizens need to trust the law itself, personnel in the legal and justice system and that government does not try to fetter or politicize the judiciary and that individuals will receive fair treatment under the law and justice system. Law scandals undermine that trust and that is why they cause shock and horror.

Parliament originally passed The Terrorism Act 2000, amended, 2001, 2005, 2006, and 2008 to deal with terrorist acts by British citizens and those inciting others to commit such acts. The misuse of the legislation has been a long running scandal. This legislation has been used by local councils to snoop on residents, allegedly putting recycling in the ordinary rubbish and those allegedly fibbing about where they live to obtain a child a school place in a popular state school, when they actually live outside the catchment area of that school. The police used terrorism legislation to conduct speculative stop and search (that is when they do not have reasonable suspicion under The Police and Criminal Evidence Act or any other legislation) to detain peaceful demonstrators. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2010 that these powers were too widely drawn to prevent abuse of the right under the European Convention on Human Rights to privacy. The scandal is that police are still using the terrorism Act 2000 as amended, when they cannot substantiate the “reasonable suspicion” required under other legislation.

The British Government’s independent reviewer of terrorism laws, David Anderson QC,  recently criticized the “bewildering array of Terrorism Legislation passed since 2000” nine separate pieces of terrorism legislation in thirteen years, many of which contradict one another. Governments have hastily passed legislation to demonstrate that they are doing something, rather than considering whether existing laws would cover the situation or properly considering the drafting of a suitable act. Government departments can use this legislation for unintended purposes and this can lead to oppression of citizens. When different laws on the same subject, contradict one another it makes the law an ass. Having too many laws is confusing and when government departments can use legislation for unintended purposes, especially where they can quote National Security as the reason, citizen’s rights and liberties are eroded. Britain is now the most watched nation on earth. Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras are everywhere. People’s private, banking, and other information is available to government. Internet, and telephone providers must retain information for the security services. The British people have lost many rights in the cause of national security.     

Citizens need not only to trust the law but also the legal and justice system. To do that they need to trust the officials within those systems, from police officers, to court officials, lawyers, and judges. The recent Levenson Enquiry into the hacking scandal and press standards found that some police officers habitually sold citizens’ private information, as well as information on current police investigations to newspapers. Apart from being illegal on many counts, this behaviour undermines trust in police officers to act fairly, justly, and in the public interest. Corrupt police officers undermine trust in the force as a whole and tarnish their innocent colleagues.

People need to trust that lawyers respect the law, are properly qualified, honest and are not lining their pockets at the public’s expense. Barristers, in the English legal system, are advocates, who speak in the higher courts, on behalf of litigants, defendants and others The Law Society Gazette reports on the 11th February 2013 the case of a Queen’s Counsel (senior barrister), who had not paid value added tax due on his services for 12 years, although he had collected VAT on all his bills. Another scandalous case proves that procedures within some chambers are, or were, lax. Soma Sengupta won a highly prized pupilage at a prestigious London chambers, due to her impressive curriculum vitae and references. No one checked her background, and she handled 80 criminal trials in court before the sharp-eyed clerk of chambers realized that her CV was “impossibly impressive” for someone claiming to be 29. Her references, CV, and even her age were fabrications and now more than 80 criminal cases must be re-examined, at public expense, to see whether her unqualified status prejudiced any criminal trials. All eighty cases may have to go to retrial. A court in Manhattan recently convicted Miss Goma for offences connected with her actions. 

A solicitor and three immigration advisors used a London solicitor’s practice, specializing in immigration advice, as a marriage broker for bogus marriages between European Union citizens and others from outside the EU. The spouse of an EU citizen has a right to reside in Europe. More than a 1000 men could live in the United Kingdom because of these marriages. A court found the four guilty variously of fraud, conspiracy to break immigration law, receiving proceeds from crime and in one case money laundering.

These are a few cases, and there are bad apples in every barrel. However, when the law’s personnel break the law, it brings the law itself into disrepute and it makes the Public distrust its workings.

The most important bulwark against government power in any democracy is an independent judiciary. In England and Wales, where the executive has become over-powerful and Parliament and the Opposition do not provide the necessary checks and balances on executive power an independent judiciary is essential. The Judges interpret and apply the law, as it stands, to the individual case before the court. The Home Secretary, Mrs. Theresa May issued guidelines, to the judiciary, in cases where deportation of convicted criminals was under consideration, that they should weigh the  right to a family life under The European Convention of Human Rights against prospective danger to the public. Opposition parties in Parliament warned the Home Secretary, at the time, that she would need to put the guidelines into primary legislation to achieve what she wished to achieve, which they would vote through. After various high profile cases, in which criminals were not deported, Mrs. May made a public attack on Judges. Leading human rights lawyers, including Lady Helena Kennedy condemned the attack, which compromises judicial independence and politicizes the judiciary. Had the Home Secretary done as the opposition said she should, the situation would not have arisen.

Perhaps the greatest law scandal in Britain today is that only the rich really have access to legal action to right their wrongs. Unless you are poor enough to claim legal aid, now very limited, or as rich as Croesus, civil legal action is very costly and, therefore unavailable to ordinary people. There are no win no fee solicitors, but most ordinary people are too frightened of incurring huge bills to seek legal advice. Funding for neighbourhood law centres, citizen’s advice bureaux and other sources of legal help is extremely scarce. Although the small claims procedure was intended to provide greater access to justice for ordinary people, and had some success, most ordinary people do not feel that they can access the justice system for their problems.

The British Public mistrusts all institutions now. They do not feel that they can trust their members of Parliament, bankers, supermarkets, or newspapers. Scandals within the law, however, worry the public even more, because they see the law as a constant. The aftermath of the ruling that police operated a cover up over the Hillsborough disaster, although vindicating the people of Merseyside, has combined with current scandals to compound mistrust in the law, legal and justice system. When people begin to doubt the system’s credibility, every bad thing they hear about the law or the personnel in the legal or justice system creates further doubt. Corrupt personnel, Governments misusing laws, for unintended purposes, and ministers trying to direct an independent judiciary, all exacerbate citizens’ belief that the law, legal and justice system works against them. When the system is also far too expensive, for the vast majority of British people to access at all, it becomes irrelevant.