Wheels of justice

A GREAT BRITISH VIEW - Asif Ahmad - The Philippine Star

As a young boy, my grandfather, who was a member of the judiciary in Bengal, used to allow me to sit next to him in court, as well as listen to the pleadings of chained prisoners who came to his house for parole hearings. After a number of days, I asked him why everyone pleaded guilty in his court. He said that the defendants feared being subject to extrajudicial measures by aggrieved parties if they were not jailed. He preferred to mete out justice for those he considered innocent by giving them early release. My sense of injustice from these memories have not diminished with the passage of time. The wheels of justice cannot trample on the rights of suspects, perpetrators or victims of crime. And the institutions need to be in a good state of repair.

The Old Bailey in London has been a criminal court for over 430 years. We probably began the fashion of wigs and fancy dress amongst the legal fraternity, though we are not the only ones in the world following this trend. In our case, the explanation is that wigs make the judges appear alike and symbolise objectivity. Even an ancient legal system needs modernisation.

The British Justice Secretary has just announced a significant plan to reform prisons and courts. A range of measures will bolster the protection of victims and vulnerable witnesses in court. Courts should be places where victims get the justice they deserve, and where outstanding independent judiciary can flourish and focus on the cases that matter. Enshrined in a new law will be the key purpose of prison, which is to reform and rehabilitate offenders, as well as punish them for the crimes they have committed. Prison Governors will take control of budgets for education, employment and health.  They will be held to account for getting people off drugs, into jobs and learning English and maths.

 Many hearings, such as bail applications, will be resolved via video or telephone conferencing, allowing justice to be delivered more swiftly. Less serious uncontested cases will be settled on line with instant payments of any financial penalty. Businesses will be able to recover money much more easily, with digital services that allow them to issue and pursue their cases quickly.

Members of the judiciary see themselves as part of a global fraternity. Eminent judges serve in the International Criminal Court and other global institutions. In keeping with a well established tradition, legal experts share knowledge. The Philippine Chief Justice has just returned from a visit to the UK accompanied by a number of her colleagues in the Supreme Court and other senior judges. Both sides agreed that there was greater public scrutiny now, including personal attacks on the integrity of judges. Social media generates fake news and judges face unwarranted threats.  Chief Justice Sereno noted that 6 judges had been killed during her tenure. The judiciary has to respond proactively and part of the answer is to allow even greater media access to hearings.

The visitors were particularly interested in our ideas on reform, shortening procedures and digitisation.  Complexities of cases, especially those related to commerce and competition, required closer and more interdisciplinary approaches amongst legal and other government bodies. On average, cases concerning property and business were concluded within a year in the UK. Inevitably, the Philippines, like the UK, will need to establish more specialist courts in addition to the ones dealing with taxes and corruption here. We will continue to offer opportunities for legal education and specialist training for Filipinos. The British Council in the Philippines is delivering the European Union’s GOJUST program which will work on the Justice Sector Coordinating Council, long term reform and pioneer measures to decongest trials. This 270m Pesos program will run until 2019.

It was truly refreshing to hear the most senior judges of the UK and the Philippines were in agreement on core values and principles. They drew their inspiration from the Magna Carta which gave people the right to be tried by their peers in accordance with the law. Separation of powers between the monarch, or executive in modern states, and the judiciary was the bedrock of justice. Challenges of terrorism, protection of human rights and international territorial disputes could not be dealt with outside the terms of domestic and international law informed by jurisprudence.

Justice can and should be delivered more speedily. But that does not mean expediency at any cost. Vengeance is not justice. Punishment should reflect the seriousness of the impact of crime on victims and yet leave room for genuine reflection, repentance and reform of those who are justly convicted. Laws are man-made and justice is upheld by its rightful imposition as it is diminished by a lack of humanity.

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Asif Ahmad, British Ambassador

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