Justice must be seen to be done

Just as with anything else that requires human input, justice is not an exact science. Even when evidence seems irrefutable, there are often other factors, such as intent and causation or errors in procedure, making outcomes that may seem certain anything but. Nonetheless, we have an expectation that the justice system is capable of producing the ‘right’ verdict in any given trial and feel both uncomfortable and aggrieved when this isn’t the case.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that there was an outcry in the media last week when a jury found PC Harwood not guilty of the manslaughter of Ian Tomlinson, who died after being hit with a baton during the G20 protests in London in April 2009, despite his actions being caught on video.

The reaction was compounded by the fact that 14 months ago another jury at the inquest into Tomlinson’s death ruled that he was unlawfully killed.  To anyone not au fait with the intricacies of our justice system, or indeed the facts of the case, this seems baffling and wrong and, understandably, it is difficult for most lay people to reconcile this apparent anomaly.

Inquests are only concerned with the medical causes and circumstances of a death and, because of their inquisitorial rather than adversarial nature, involve less rigorous questioning of evidence than a criminal trial.

Even when an inquest does find the cause of death to be due to unlawful killing, this does not necessarily equate to a finding of homicide, although in this case it did cause the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to reverse its earlier decision not to prosecute.

Unfortunately, the mainstream media haven’t done a great deal to help explain this.  Similarly, journalists have been quick to tell us about the previous allegations against PC Harwood for use of excessive force but done little to try and understand why this, and information about the suspension of the pathologist who carried out the discredited first post mortem, was withheld from the jury.

This is not the first time popular opinion has differed from a jury’s verdict and I’m sure it won’t be the last.  Perhaps, however, the conflict is most stark in this case because we have a video of the crime being committed.  To any lay person it appears fairly obvious that Ian Tomlinson’s death was caused by being struck by a police baton and shoved to the ground.

But juries have to be certain beyond reasonable doubt that this was the case and they see a good deal more evidence, and spend a long longer considering and examining it, than journalists or their readers.  We don’t know, nor will we, the reasons why this jury found PC Harwood not guilty, but if we believe in trial by jury we have to accept their verdicts, all of them.

The blame for this apparent injustice is far better laid at the door of the CPS and the Met police.  Many legal commentators have queried why the CPS chose to prosecute under the ‘all or nothing’ charge of manslaughter and neglected to bring a charge of common assault before the six-month limitation period ran out.

To the casual observer, lessening the charge might seem a bit of a cop out, but problems with the medical evidence, caused during the botched first post mortem, meant securing a manslaughter conviction was always going to be a tall order.  Sometimes you have to be a bit creative.  Think Al Capone and tax evasion.

The Metropolitan Police needs to address questions as to how PC Harwood was even working as a police officer, never mind being in the riot squad.  He retired on medical grounds before any of the allegations against him could be investigated, but he re-applied to another force and then transferred back to the Met.  That doesn’t seem quite right, whichever way you look at it.

The co-director of Inquest, a charity providing specialist support and advice regarding contentious deaths and their investigation, Deborah Coles said the verdict is a ‘damning reflection of the systemic problems inherent in the current investigation system’.

This strikes me as a diplomatic understatement given that there have been 1,433 people who have died either in police custody or following other contact with the police, and yet not one police officer has been convicted for manslaughter committed while on duty since 1986.

It seems unbelievable to any casual observer that PC Harwood has been suspended on full pay since the incident three years ago, despite admitting hitting Tomlinson and shoving him to the ground.  Although cleared of manslaughter, he will face a misconduct hearing later in the year, to be held in public.

This may go some way to answering outstanding questions, but even so, as you would expect, the family of Ian Tomlinson is not giving up their fight for justice.  They are bringing a case under Article 2 of the Human Rights Act, the right to life, against the Met commissioner, claiming he is ultimately responsible for the death.

Aside from yet again undermining public confidence in the police, this case has highlighted quite clearly how a lack of understanding of the intricacies and nuances of the justice system, as well as sometimes unhelpful reporting, can shake our faith in that very justice system.  As the adage goes, it is not enough for justice to be done, it has to be seen to be done.



Posted in: Justice system

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