Much has been written about justice, a concept that dates back thousands of years, but there are differing views as to what it means. Like education, it is a notion that evokes strong feelings, controversy, and competing definitions. For some, it is summed up by the Old Testament phrase ‘an eye for and a tooth for a tooth’, while others of a more compassionate disposition would place the emphasis on rehabilitation and ‘restorative justice’ rather than deterrence and retribution.
Pre-requisites for justice
However justice is defined it presupposes at least three things: (1) that there exists a recognised system of laws that require a society’s members to act towards each other within certain normative constraints, (2) that the laws are fair, equitable, and reasonable, and (3) that members of the society can obtain redress should they be wronged or in any way made to suffer as a result of a breach of the laws.
Necessarily, the ‘law of the land’ must be administered by institutions that have nation-wide recognition, and in most modern democracies (including, of course, the UK) it is accepted that these institutions (the ‘judiciary’) must be independent of the government (the ‘legislature’). This arrangement is intended to ensure that the laws themselves are framed and enacted according to the moderated will of the people, by Parliament, but administered independently and without interference by government.
Limiting state power — Human and Civil Rights,
and a Written Constitution
The sole task of the Courts is to interpret the laws and determine how they should be applied in each case, so in a sense the Courts are no more than agents of the government, despite the separation of powers. Admittedly they are sometimes called upon to weigh up the competing claims of domestic law and European Community and Human Rights legislation, but this does not mean that they are in a position, of themselves, to constrain or restrain Parliament, since it would be possible (if difficult) for Parliament to tear up the Human Rights legislation or to leave the European Community.
The Peace Party holds the view that the ‘sovereignty of parliament’ should not be absolute, but should be constrained within a framework defining the limits to its powers — in other words a Written Constitution. Such a Written Constitution would incorporate (among other things) the fundamental principles of Human Rights such as habeas corpus, the right to a fair trial, the unacceptability of torture and ‘cruel and unusual punishment’, and innocence until proven guilty.
Unequal access to legal processes
It has often been said that the rich and the poor (but not those in between) have access to the law — the poor because they can call upon Legal Aid, and the rich because they don’t need to. The present government’s ‘budgetary constraints’ (that is, cuts) are likely to reduce the availability of legal aid to the poor, and we could very well find ourselves in the position where only the rich have access to justice.
A legal system that disenfranchises most of the population is in danger of losing the respect of that population and of being seen as operating only for the benefit of the rich minority who can afford it. This is not only unjust but also socially dangerous. We recognise that Legal Aid is expensive, however, and would argue for serious investigation into alternatives to costly and divisive adversarial legal processes and penal systems.
Mediation, arbitration, and restorative justice all have a part to play, as could a change, in certain circumstances, to an inquisitorial rather than an adversarial approach.
Enforcement and police accountability
In tyrannical states, the forces of law and order rapidly become conscripted as agents of the regime. Typically this is through a system of under-payment, corruption, and sponsorship, not to mention intimidation. A civilised democratic society by contrast expects its police forces, like its politicians, to be its servants, not its masters — in the sadly out-dated cliches, to help old ladies across the road, to tell you the time, and to look after lost children.
Even in a civilised democratic society however, there is still a tendency for police forces to drift towards increasing authoritarianism in the belief that the more powers they have at their disposal the more effectively they can do their job.
We believe that strict and clear guidelines should be laid down for police behaviour and that where breaches occur (such as the unnecessary use of violence towards demonstrators) the offender should no longer be allowed to continue as a police officer. We recognise that there have been many changes for the better in police culture over the years, but there is considerable room for improvement.
The role of quasi-judicial systems
The Archbishop of Canterbury was much vilified in the press in 2010 for his suggestion that there could be a place under the British legal system for ‘Sharia Law’ — a code of conduct regulated by Muslim courts. His suggestions were generally taken as suggesting two parallel legal systems — one for Muslims and one for everyone else.
This was of course an absurd and unfair caricature. There are many quasi-judicial systems within the UK, from the rules of the golf-club, to the standing orders of a Trade Union, to the rules of a local school. None of these systems is binding in the sense that the ‘law of the land’ is binding. They are systems that are entered into voluntarily and can equally easily (in most cases) be opted out of, even if this means leaving the organisation they are associated with. Where there is a conflict with the law of the land (vide the cases over racism in the BNP’s constitution and the admission of women to golf-clubs on an equal footing to men), the law of the land takes precedence. There is no problem.
The Peace Party is sympathetic to the recognition of the cultural traditions of many of the Muslims in our society that would be expressed by supporting the establishment of Sharia Courts subject to the over-riding requirements of British law. Indeed, it is difficult to see how it could legally be prevented in any case.
Detention without trial — ‘innocent until proved guilty’
An absolutely fundamental aspect of our traditional view of justice is that an individual is ‘innocent until proven guilty’. Without a trial a ‘suspect’ is just a suspect, and an injustice is done whenever someone is imprisoned without trial and without even the prospect of a trial.
The rhetoric of ‘the war on terror’ has made it easier for politicians to detain people, albeit not very many, without trial, but it is a short-sighted approach. In a war there are no ‘good guys and bad guys’ — it’s just ‘us and them’. Consequently using the language of war rather than the language of law makes it easier for people to decide to be, as George Bush put it, ‘against us’ rather than ‘for us’.
We believe that terrorism should be regarded as criminal, not military, activity, and be dealt with respecting the normal and proper constraints of legal enforcement and investigation.