Recently I wrote a piece on the failings of the jury system as a way of delivering justice. However, juries are just the secret voting system which decides the winner of a battle between two champions and we also need to consider whether the adversarial court system is the best way of doing things.
It is worth noting that the reason we do things this way is a hangover from the medieval practice of trial by combat. This allowed disputants who were not in a position to physically fight their own cause (women for example) to appoint a champion to represent them. The barrister in a wig with a silver tongue is the equivalent of a knight on a horse with a lance.
In this piece I am only exploring possible improvements in the criminal justice system. In the UK we also have an adversarial system for civil matters where it is often even less appropriate than in the criminal courts.
Neutral third party mediation offers many advantages over the adversarial system in civil matters. It should be less formal and time consuming and my preference would be for it to be run by a private organisation rather that the government. The process involves a mediation that evaluates the circumstances and attempts to come to a fair outcome that benefits all parties that are involved. The outcome is not necessarily a one-sided judgement, so there is not a winner or a loser. Mediation is an excellent process for working through civil matters such as divorce, child custody disputes, neighbour dispute, debt and financial disputes, etc.
Mediation is more desirable than traditional litigation to resolve matters such as custody. The “win-lose” approach of the adversarial system often does not promote the best interests of the child. Private mediators require qualifications in psychology and social work for family or neighbour matters or financial qualifications for debt cases. They have an advantage over most judges because of their training in the specific field. Child custody involves a lifetime of cooperation. As people change over time they can return to the mediator to work through changes that benefit all parties. This can be done in a much quicker manner than in an adversarial court system.
Another advantage to private mediation is the substantial saving to the individuals involved because they do not necessarily need a lawyer to represent them. The taxpayer also benefits because participants must cover the costs of their own cases.
Returning to criminal law, shouldn’t it be self-evident that instead of a battle taking place between prosecution and defence over who can win twelve people to their side, the objective of a court should be to uncover the truth and protect society by ensuring that criminals are dealt with and innocent people do not suffer injustice. Apart from the problem of the outcome being dependent on the the most persuasive lawyer rather than the truth of what happened, the adversarial system also has ‘rules of combat’ which can only get in the way of exposing everything that needs to be known. We could probably agree that an accused person should be presumed to be innocent until they have been found to be guilty of a crime, but why should that include a right to silence? If a person has been wrongfully accused of a crime they ought to be eager to give every assistance in establishing their innocence. Silence from the accused only has the purpose of allowing the battle between the barristers can go on without the defence lawyer having his lance blunted. It has nothing to give to the discovery of truth.
Some might object that a defendant should not be forced to say that he was committing one crime in order to show that he could not have done the one of which he is accused. Why not? More justifiably it might be said that there may be alibi evidence that an accused person is entitled to keep private. Quite so and that is no problem. Although there should be no right to silence, there is also no requirement that all evidence is revealed in open court. If an investigating judge is provided with solid evidence that an accused could not possibly have committed a crime due to a strong alibi, that is all that the world needs to know. The key point is that all citizens have a responsibility to assist the pursuit of justice and an accused person is not excused from that duty.
As with the right of silence, the double jeopardy rule must be discarded. In recent years in the UK a second trial of an acquitted person has been allowed in a few circumstance of new evidence as it is increasingly recognised that dangerous criminals should not enjoy lifelong impunity because of a failed trial. The rule needs to go completely, along with the whole mindset that a trial can be tripped up on procedural challenges and a criminal acquitted unjustly.
So how would an alternative to the battleground court work? The alternative to adversarial trials is usually described as an inquisitorial method. Systems in use vary in their detail, but the basic principle is that crimes brought before the courts are first handled by an investigating judge or magistrate. It is the responsibility of this person to uncover as much evidence as possible about the crime and the possible responsibility for it. When sufficient evidence has been gathered to indicate that a person or persons have a case to answer, charges are laid and the case goes to hearing before a trial judge. The investigating judge will continue to gather evidence, if necessary, right up to trial. All parties are required to provide honest cooperation with the investigator at all stages and there is no right to withhold information. Giving false information or concealing evidence is a crime irrespective of whether it is done by a defendant, the police or lawyers.
When the case comes to trial, instead of examination and cross examination in a theatrical performance before a jury, prosecution and defence lawyers present their case to the judge in a verbal statement to add to the written submission already passed on by the investigating judge. The trial judge can ask questions of anybody involved in the case and if he or she wants to explore the quality of expert evidence or require additional expertise, they are able to do so.
One of the most important aspects is that even if a defendant has confessed or pleaded guilty, the trial must continue until the judge is satisfied that guilt is established or the accused is acquitted. This is an essential protection for people who are vulnerable to police pressure or who have mental difficulties that pre-dispose them to take responsibility for things they haven’t done.
I have referred throughout to the trial judge in the singular, but this is an oversimplification. One judge is satisfactory for cases where the possible custodial sentence is no greater than one year. Where there is a possibility of custody of between one and ten years there should be three presiding judges and for the most serious crimes a panel of five senior judges is appropriate.
Unlike jury trials in which no reason is ever given for the verdict and there is no way of knowing what reasoning the jurors undertook in reaching their conclusion, the judgements in an inquisitorial system must always be supported by written reasons. If the reasoning is faulty that is a basis for appeal.
Abolish the Jury System (malpoet.wordpress.com)