Not many people know that I have a criminal record.
The stain on my character could have been avoided had I bribed the traffic cop, as was his fervent intent. Instead I was obliged to spend a day in the decrepit court buildings in the town of Nakuru in Kenya. Crumbling masonry and tottering filing cabinets posed a greater threat than the charge.
These memories of over 20 years ago were revived unexpectedly during a stint of jury service at Winchester Crown Court which ended last week. On first entering the courtroom I was disconcerted to observe that the door knob was secured in place by a generous application of Sellotape. Inside, the floor was criss-crossed with that black and yellow tape which warns of the presence of loose wiring.
Before the proceedings were far advanced, it became apparent that we were rerunning a trial that had been abandoned the previous week. Studio equipment required for the protection of witnesses had broken down. Then, as the prosecution announced its clinching evidence of a recorded telephone conversation, the tape vanished and we had to adjourn to allow the court to be searched.
At this point, my plan to present English justice as an example to developing countries was in some disarray. But the court eventually got its act together, restoring a proper contrast with the troubled judicial systems that I encounter in editing OneWorld Country Guides.
In too many countries, the law is compromised by judges who owe their positions to politicians, whose verdicts are for sale, or who are simply incompetent. The virtues of the UK system are well known but worth restating.
I could see in the Winchester case how the defendant’s rights to a fair trial were underpinned at three levels. The defence was conducted by a professional barrister through the legal aid scheme. The judge was scrupulously impartial and careful to ensure that the jury was properly briefed. The 12-person jury spent over three hours of sensitive and difficult deliberation before reaching a verdict.
This case came to court within 6 months of the charge. In India, a country with a tradition of respect for the law, the backlog of cases has rendered the judicial process something of a joke. Media headlines love the absurdity of assessing this backlog to be of the order of a hundred years or more.
Nonetheless, relating this jury experience to the context of my work leaves me less concerned with impartiality or bureaucracy in implementing laws than the failure to make them in the first place.
The Winchester trial was concerned with adult sexual activity with an under age girl. In the developing world, domestic violence and sexual abuse have emerged as possibly the greatest concerns to human rights campaigners. In many countries the issues are barely understood, let alone the subject of legislation.
As our judge stressed repeatedly: “the law exists to protect children.” The corollary must be that, without laws, children’s rights remain at risk. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 and its predecessors have caused plenty of anguish in the UK but these laws trace our progress as much as the elimination of extreme poverty.
this article was first published by OneWorld UK