UK Justice Lags Behind in Transparency

The UK is lagging behind other jurisdictions when it comes to transparency, according to the Centre for Criminal Appeals. However, with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) very much under public pressure to provide an open and transparent system, a new charter drawn up by the Centre aims to tackle these problems and bring the UK up to the standards of openness enjoyed by some other nations.

According to the Centre for Criminal Appeals, even the poorest of states in the USA currently enjoys a more transparent justice system than that of England and Wales. At the recent launch of the new charter, one of the speakers was attorney Dean Strang who took part in a recent, high-profile US case involving a miscarriage of justice. Specifically, he acted in the appeal of Steven Avery, who was imprisoned in Wisconsin for 18 years for sexual assault but was ultimately found to be innocent. Avery’s case was brought to the attention of the world through popular documentary Making a Murderer. At the event, Strang said that miscarriages of justice like the Avery case would be more difficult to uncover in England and Wales, and cited a lack of transparency as the key reason for this.

The availability of court transcripts was singled out as a key example of the way in which the UK justice system fails to provide the level of openness enjoyed by the USA and many other jurisdictions. In the USA, Strang said, members the media is able to obtain a transcript of a trial for very little expense. Those who hold sufficient stake in a case will automatically be entitled to access transcripts – often at public expense.

In England and Wales, by contrast, it is policy to erase recordings after seven years so unless the case is a recent one transcripts might not be available at all. If the media wishes to request a transcript of a trial and this is still available, then the fees can be much higher than in the US. The cost of obtaining a transcript can be thousands of pounds.

The new charter calls for the following reforms to support transparency in the justice system:

  • The defence counsel should have access to police documents unless the police are able to provide a valid reason to withhold them.

  • Access to all court recordings should be available at no cost. The charter also suggests that, if complete recordings are not available, this should constitute grounds for appeal.

  • Journalists should usually be allowed to visit and speak to prisoners, providing the prisoner in question consents. If such visits are not granted, it should be the responsibility of the governor of the prison to prove this is justified.

  • Those pursuing an appeal against a conviction should have a controlled level of access to evidence.

  • The Criminal Cases Review Commission should make materials available to applicants and their representatives.

“Alan Turing Law” Comes Into Effect

Today has seen Royal Assent given to the Policing and Crime Bill, which contained what has become popularly known as the “Alan Turing Law.” As a result the law, which pardons thousands of men prosecuted for homosexual acts prior to their legalisation in the 1960s, have now received posthumous pardons.

The act takes its name from wartime codebreaker and computing pioneer Alan Turing (pictured above). Turing was homosexual, and was famously found guilty of gross indecency after being caught engaging in sexual acts with other men. He was subjected to chemical castration, believed to be a major contributing factor to his decision to commit suicide two years later.

After an official apology was given in 2009, Turing was pardoned of his “crimes” posthumously in 2013, almost six decades after his 1954 suicide, and while the decision to do so was welcomed many campaigners felt like a single pardon, however high-profile the case, was of limited use as a symbolic gesture when so many others were still on record as criminals. These concerns prompted calls for a more wide-reaching pardon, which is what the act which comes into force today provides. Turing’s own relatives played a prominent role in launching campaigns for such a pardon to be delivered.

The act provides a posthumous pardon to roughly 49,000 gay and bisexual men who were found guilty of offences that would not be considered criminal today. Men who were convicted in this way and are still living can also be cleared of their crimes, but they have to apply for their statutory pardon rather than receiving it automatically.

The act applies to men found guilty of committing consensual sex acts with members of the same sex, and the decision to issue the widespread pardon was first announced last year. However, like all laws the act had to make its way through the necessary processes before it could actually be enacted, and now the act has received Royal Assent the pardon is effective from today.

The enactment of the pardon was described as a “truly momentous day by Sam Gyimah. The justice minister went on to say that “We can never undo the hurt caused, but we have apologised and taken action to right these wrongs.”

LGBT rights activists also welcomed the pardon and its passing into law. Major gay rights organisation Stonewall said that it represented “Another important milestone of equality” and that “The more equality is enshrined into our law books, the stronger our equality becomes, and the stronger we as a community become.”