I spent a few days in our local magistrates’ court over a few months, observing for my novel and a possible non-fiction work. Much of the detail in Gadget and other blogs was there to see. I had to stop a fight in one corridor. It was between two struggs, one having just found out the other had blown him out and once shagged his munter. The whole thing lacked charm, and I saw a police woman make off as it started. Outside, on the steps was Gadget and Nightjack to a tee. I’m scruffy and don’t care, unless work forces me into a suit. I didn’t stand out, and listened a lot, smoking tabs, paying for my rent amongst the crew by giving a few up. The ‘conversations’, as we’d expect from IG when not doing his PR, were loud, foul and difficult to follow. Occasionally, as the voices lapsed to hubbub resembling primate squabble, I wished I was observing from the safety of a distant tree. The language was horrible, much like children bickering at that point one knows it’s time to intervene. Much of it was sordid, along the lines of pick up talk now he was going down, with endless half-tales on where to shoplift and solicit; sometimes obvious slags would claim aggressively they were not. Children in buggies showed no sign of contented life, the occasional buggie bursting forth the earlier shoplifting. This, and the hapless state of many of the criminals we catch, is obvious and easy enough to garner.
Much going on in court has been done in the BBC ‘Outlaws’ series. The mugs are lucky if they get a good, seedy solicitor. Just as when I was a cop, most of the briefs appeared to be presenting a defence, but were actually just earning their £800 fees with a little learned flatulence. Those with no briefs got left to last, a courtesy to the busy solicitors. By chance, I saw some people I knew who terrorise their neighbourhood, but no sign of any victim or community impact statements. Few defendants really got chance to put any case, if they had one. My overall impression was of a sausage factory processing sawdust. There was vast prosecution bias, I suspect largely because no defendant can actually get his or her side of things investigated. Police and other professional evidence, some of which I could see was clearly wrong, broadly went through on the nod. Magistrates would lay claim to be able to assess the credibility of other witnesses, but I saw no sign they were competent to do so. Clerks to the Court seemed pale imitations of those I remember, and I saw many mistakes, and much that should have been recorded for potential appeal not recorded. My guess is 95% or more defendants being squeezed through were guilty, though a smaller number guilty as charged.
When it comes to questions like ‘what is assault?’, courts like this have a great bearing on the actual answer. We can all run to the ‘legal dictionary’, but the actual definition is something else. One might, like Wittgenstein, ask ‘what is the meaning in use?’ I found very little evidence to satisfy me in the trials I watched, that there is really much clarity.
This is not surprising when one looks at what details, in over two years have emerged in the Sgt. Andrews case. What was assault in one court was not in a later one. In the three assault trials I watched, I saw no evidence clearer than in the publicised CCTV on Andrews, but all 4 defendants were found guilty. If I had been a Magistrate, I might well have wanted to sentence all defendants and witnesses to death! On the basis of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ I would have convicted only one defendant.
This experience and wider reading on miscarriage has led me to believe that even offences we think we understand as we read act and section, really need to be re-worked. Assault (or any offence) in legal-empirical terms would have to be understood in terms of convictions, acquittals and the evidence given in court, otherwise disclosed or hidden, and trackbacks into the investigations. Questions on why what is assault (and probable police perjury) to one court, yet merely ‘the cop should have done better’ in another would also be pertinent. It’s more complicated even than this. We should be trying. We might come up with a quicker, more accurate and cheaper system of evidence if we opened the can of worms, instead of persisting in the belief it contains lovely peaches. I can think of many empirical experiments we could do and have recently completed one. Sadly, it wasn’t to do with placing a bug in the room with Andrews and his lawyers.
The scum on the court steps don’t define assault as the law does. I don’t really care, but surprisingly they are no less rational than our legal system and may be fairer in their interpretations. Given abject stereotyping in this group, I found worse amongst cops (some) and court staff (almost all). This was frightening. You are much more likely to be convicted of assault if you are honest and tell the truth, can’t spend £25K on lawyers and so on. It will be a complex definition by the time I write it up. The complexity doesn’t surprise me – we always find this in studying nature. The amazing simplexity of natural systems is something we break up to understand them and build. The evidence Judge Roy Bean (with apologies to Phanty Roy Bean jnr. – probably a finer man) found ‘missing’ (and yet found so present by another judge), was missing in each trial I witnessed, all with guilty verdicts. If this was science, we’d be thinking the core definitions of our research programme were wrong and we had a decadent paradigm. Lawyers notice this a long way from courtrooms, in bars and academic journals.
The horrible sods on the court steps lie, cheat, steal and the rest, but do their time when the judge calls time. They strangely accept the law better than the rich, professionals or cops who stray. It might just be against human rights law to treat them so differently. What most of us who commit more or less no crime consider much is how offences are really defined, and how our treatment will be defined. The Andrews case and I believe thousands more from failures to police our streets, get appropriate law (largely to help cops sort this out), dire miscarriages, police corruption and massive wastage on the perpetuation of an evil poor and half-policing of it, whilst lawyers will be beyond our reach or cost so much we may as well give up on justice, all this and much more would give an accurate understanding of what is really going on. Tell me what assault is and I show you why it probably isn’t.