The tilted scales of justice

October 6, 2011 3:05 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Justitia, the Roman goddess of Justice, is found frequenting the facades of British courtrooms, wielding, in her right hand, the sword of justice and punishment while bearing the scales of proof, in her left.

However, despite the presence of this iconography of truth and reason, British legal history has borne witness to many a case where the scales of proof have been loaded to tip the wrong way. An example of such injustice against the common man was exemplified by the arrest and subsequent deportation, in 1834, of the Tolpuddle Martyrs: six farm labourers guilty of the ‘crime’ of forming an early trade union in response to wage cuts. The arrest of the ‘Pentonville Five’ in 1972, London dockers arrested for picketing a depot to defend their jobs and working conditions, is a more recent example of the state’s disapproval of workers taking industrial action. In both cases, the detained were released after campaigns of mass protest and public outrage.

Modern times have brought with them the phenomenon of kettling and the beating and arrest of students protesting, peacefully for the most part, at the withdrawal of the educational maintenance allowance and the rise in ‘top up’ fees.

Each time the state has felt its grasp on society being threatened, it has resorted to brutality and unjustly severe punishment directed at the citizens it deems to be undermining its, electorally bestowed, authority.

Whilst in my local co-op the other day, looking for a certain high quality newspaper, my eye was drawn to the front page of the Daily Mail and the words of the Lord Chief Justice, Baron Igor Judge, who felt that those sentenced for their complicity in the recent London riots deserve custodial sentences that are ‘significantly higher’ than average on account of the so called ‘ghastliness’ of the violence. His colleague, Judge Andrew Gilbart, QC, who wields the hammer at Manchester Crown Court, has been blamed for overstepping the mark by pronouncing overly harsh sentences on rioters in his neck of the woods. Justice Gilbart felt his decisions to be just, saying that the riots had been ‘completely outside the usual context of criminality’

Though this is the sort of short-sighted ‘reasoning’ one might expect from the average Daily Mail reader, who has no real influence on what goes on around them, one worries when people in a position of power start thinking the same way.

What seems clear to most, apart from apparently the Lord Chief Justice, clearly the Tory crowd in the cabinet, and predictably a number of their Daily Mail reading disciples, is that the overwhelming majority of the rioters were from deprived communities. These youth, tired of being abandoned by Cameron’s neo-Orwellian ‘Big Society’, were overcome by a raw anger which, although appallingly misdirected, allowed them to enjoy their ’15 minutes of fame’ on the television and remind those across the River Thames that ”yes, we do exist”.

At the risk of stating the obvious – contented individuals with aspirations do not tend to riot.

The typically short-sighted, knee-jerk mode of dealing with the rioters is to blame the poor, underprivileged and abandoned for being angry with their predicament and going a little further than writing a polite letter to their MP.

Back to our Judges, the ‘defenders of justice and the status quo’. By the clear unfairness of excessive custodial sentencing handed down to prove a point, the elements of fairness and justice, of the punishment fitting the crime, go down the pan straight away.

It is not implausible to suggest that such judgments are politically motivated and an automatic reaction by a riled establishment. It is not just the youth of Tottenham, Croydon and Peckham who have been at the receiving end of an overly harsh and what could be deemed to be an increasingly more politically motivated, judiciary. Last November, we witnessed police violence during the student protests against fees and withdrawal of EMA at the end of last year when kettling, police brutality and arrests were the order of the day.

On the day of the large anti-cuts rally in London, March 26th this year, over 150 activists, belonging to the anti-tax avoidance group UK Uncut, were arrested and many were charged with aggravated trespass for their part in a peaceful occupation of department store Fortnum and Mason. The action was entirely non-violent and was even described by a senior police office as a ‘sensible’ demonstration. Nevertheless, the very same police officer, Chief Inspector Claire Clark asked the protestors to come outside telling them that they would be free to go. Once outside, all activists were arrested. Watch how a senior functionary of the state deceives brave and decent activists.

Charges were eventually dropped against all but thirty of the activists, whose cases are still ongoing.

As the Con-Dems enact their long awaited plans to slaughter the public sector and unemployment, privatisation and poverty become more prevalent, we will no doubt witness more strikes, rallies and occupations. We may even see the rise of a new generation of political prisoners guilty of standing in the way of the rampaging free market Juggernaut let loose by Thatcher. The ruling Coalition will be faced with two choices- either stop or reverse their austerity plan and increase public spending to off-set further recession or, use increased force with further brutality and lead us further down the road towards a kleptocratic police state.

The Health and Social Care Bill has been voted through the Commons and will be debated in the House of Lords on the 11th October. The Bill is being opposed by many in the health sector, including senior figures in the NHS, as it would allow for private companies and other ‘not for profit’ organisations, such as social enterprises, to suck the life blood out of the NHS by cherry picking the most lucrative contracts. This would be on top of an already agreed £20 billion of cutbacks (efficiency savings as they are affectionately known) to be made over the course of the next 4-5 years.

Earlier this year, a private health company, Care UK, was granted a £53 million contract to provide healthcare services to approximately 5000 prisoners in several jails in the North East. The NHS trust, for which I once worked and which had, up till that point, been offering the service was deemed to be able to provide a higher quality service than the private bidder. Nevertheless, Care UK was given the contract. Perhaps it was a coincidence that the former CEO of Care UK, John Nash and his wife, had given the Conservative party £200,000 before the election, including an amount of £21,000 to the office of Andrew Lansley, whilst he has Shadow Health Secretary.

One can only praise the public sector workers, the students, the unemployed, the pensioners, and the activists from UK Uncut for expressing their disgust at the Con-Dem agenda and the tax-dodgers roaming at large. Well done to them!

But this begs the question, how far would healthcare workers- unionised and non-unionised, including doctors, nurses and auxiliary staff, be prepared to go to stop the Bill becoming law, and if it does, how they would react to private companies eating away at the NHS or the closure of hospitals? After the Bill was voted through the Commons, a left Labour MP stated via social media that ‘Parliament has failed to save the NHS so now it’s down to us to fight against every cut and closure. Prepare for the demos & occupations’

Doctors and nurses have a professional duty to make the care of their patients their primary concerns. Indeed, the website of the General Medical Council has listed, under the section ‘Good Medical Practice: Duties of a Doctor’ that doctors must:

· Make the care of your patient your first concern

· Protect and promote the health of patients and the public

· Provide a good standard of practice and care

One could thus argue that doctors and all healthcare staff have a duty to speak out and do all they can to oppose the Bill, even if it requires peaceful civil disobedience and means that their resistance serves to aggravate the ‘establishment’.

I have heard it said before that when ‘injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.’

Tomasz Pierscionek is a doctor working in the North East of England


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This post was written by Tomasz Pierscionek

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