The Cradle of Human Rights

In Uncategorized on December 14, 2010 by grahamharrowell

Before the arrival of the Police & Criminal Evidence Act in 1984, Judges’ Rules required that an arrested person be reminded of his right to silence. After the 1984 Act the suspect also became entitled to free legal advice privately and during any interviews. In the period before this change some claimed that nobody would ever be convicted again and that the criminal justice system would fall apart. It didn’t. What happened was that the new procedures acted as a quality assurance test for the police who tried harder, produced better evidence, better interviews and, hopefully, fewer innocent people suffered injustices.

In France the suspect also enjoys the right to silence but no law requires the police or gendarmerie to tell him that, so nobody does. Recently a group of lawyers challenged the detention of their clients without legal advice as a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights and won. The French government was given some time to sort the situation out by the courts. The bill goes before parliament in January.

The French will often get onto their extremely high horse about their country being the Cradle of Human Rights. Despite this claim anyone having the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time can end up in some fairly primitive detention for 48 hours being interviewed in an ordinary office (often handcuffed to a chair or convenient radiator) whilst being questioned fairly oppresively and not being advised about the right to say nothing nor with the benefit of tape recording (except in the most serious cases). Eventually, if you’re in there long enough, you can call your lawyer (if you have one and if you have the money to pay) and have a brief consulation but he won’t be allowed to observe your interview.

All this has generally been considered fair game because criminal investigations are technically conducted by a judge (who gets the cops to do his legwork) and as we all know even an investigating magistrate would never (as some policemen are said to be) breach the detainee’s rights or treat him unjustly. The police can however start the interviewing if someone is caught in the act and they also frequently call people in to the police station to question them. This is useful because you can go to lunch rather than bother finding your man and arresting him and return replete safe in the knowledge that he’ll generally be there waiting for you. If he isn’t, then you can go round and drag him to the nick.

It’s the marked increase in the number of people being dealt with directly by the police rather than at the behest of a judge that has started to make people sit up and worry about the rights of the suspect. Unsurprisingly the same concerns are being expressed here as were in England all those years ago. All the criminals will get way with it, lawyers will make even more easy money, civilization will collapse. Nobody as yet has suggested as far as I’ve noticed, that it will improve police performance and ensure that the innocent walk free and that those who get convicted stay convicted.

The judges, seeing into the future, have asked the police and gendarmes to anticipate the forthcoming changes and to tell people they have the right to silence. The cops have refused. Some just don’t do it and risk proceedings for disobeying the orders of a judge, others don’t do it even though the judges then release the person put before them and yet another group are getting to the interview stage and then bailing the person indefinitely.

The future? Watch this space but don’t let them preach to you about Human Rights.


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