Are you Well Red?
A Review of Books on the Criminal Justice Act by Sean McSweeney
Squall 10, Summer 1995, pg. 49.
What part do books play in the fight to get the Criminal Justice Act repealed?
By pointing out loopholes and grey areas, and stating out rights they can help activists get around the legislation and prepare a defence and a strategy in the case of prosecution; and they can provide ammo for arguments against the Act. This survey attempts to analyse some of the available publications from these standpoints. Also, books can help you understand the damn thing. Many passages are incomprehensible without legal training and a stack of previous acts by your elbow. In Current Law Statutes (Chapter 33), the general notes and definitions are a help, but they are a dull read and you might not have access to a library which stocks them.
More suitable publications are available: Blackstone Press (M. Wasik and R. Taylor, £19.95) and Butterworths (J. Morton, £16.95) have both brought out guides. If your group is thinking of buying a copy of the Act (£18), you may as well pay the extra £2 (or a quid less) and get a commentary as well. And, of course, libraries buy books if asked for them often enough. Although aimed at the specialist, both these books do a good job of making the legislation understandable. Blackstone’s commentary, twice the length of Butterworths’, explores background, case law and debates more fully - this is useful for legal defence as well as general information, and sometimes highlights grey areas which might be useful 'in the field'.
Whilst generally not critical (or suspicious) enough, both are very good on secure units and the right to silence and are OK on anti-terrorism and the return of ‘sus’. Many worrying sections (eg. much of the trespass legislation) escape comment altogether in Butterworths’ - and the author’s view on raves will have you foaming at the mouth! But it is perhaps the easier to follow since it follows the Act part by part. Blackstones is excellent on samples and DNA databases and highlights some hidden nasties.
At least with Defending Your Freedom (Legal Research and Campaign Services, £5) you know whose side the authors are on - L. Lucas and A. Murdie also wrote a guide to the Poll Tax. This new handbook, which deals mainly with the trespass provisions, aims to provide the activist with info “for practical use”. Loopholes, from the plain daft to the very useful, are exposed, but - as I am sure the authors will agree - a good wodge of case law is needed before protesters can be reliably advised. There is good information on defending a squat and avoiding prohibition of trespassory assembly (don’t tell the police first!). Anyone about to defend themselves in court will find this publication very useful: rights and procedures, from arrest through to sentencing and appeal, review or complaint, are outlined; there are legal definitions, information sources and a list of some two dozen acts which still guarantee the right to silence. There is also advice on preparing a trouble- free demo.
This last area is also covered in Peaceful Protest (Liberty, £1); here is how the police actually behave on demos (and why), and here - if you ever needed them - are reminders of the importance of protest. Included is the argument for a bill of rights. Also from Liberty, Defend Diversity; Defend Dissent (£1) is an update (more clearly laid out) of last summer’s guide to the Act. All the obvious villains are here as well as the less publicised ones, such as plea bargains and changes to bail and corroboration rules. The case studies of abuses prior to the Act are very important.
These Liberty guides are excellent (now might be an appropriate time to get their briefing on ID cards), and at a quid a throw you can’t go wrong.
Finally, and slightly off the point, if you ever feel the fight going out of you and you need to rekindle your outrage, read Presumed Guilty (Mandarin £5.95) by Michael Mansfield QC, the prominent defender of civil liberties. A (real-life) bungled and damaging murder prosecution is followed through all its stages, from investigation to trial, with accompanying commentary (including concrete, well thought-out proposals for reform). This criticism of our legal system was written before the passing of the Injustice Act, and is all the more damning for that. To think that things are getting even worse! The introduction to the 1994 edition anticipates the forthcoming legislation: “....there is a transparent attempt to achieve a political quick fix with no regard for the quality of justice.”
We are beginning to see the truth of that.
For more articles about the Criminal Justice Act and Public Order Act 1994 - covering the build-up, the resistance, the consequences, plus commentary of discussions in the House of Commons about it click here.