Daily Paradox - Written by John Bittleston on Tuesday, February 14, 2012 4:09 - 9 Comments
A fairer law
The late Eddie Barker, then a Minister in Singapore, once said “John does me a great honour by introducing me as Minister of Justice. I am actually the Minister of Law because in Singapore, as elsewhere in the world, we know we have the one but are not certain that we have the other”. Never was what my friend said truer than today. The law needs to be reexamined.
The basis of law, that a person is innocent until proved guilty, has slipped in recent years. There are now many situations in which an individual is assumed to be guilty until they have proved their innocence. Aided by the media, authorities are often put in a position of judge and jury and the accused becomes guilty by innuendo or inference.
Just as capitalism, religion and other aspects of our lives served us well in the past but need reviewing in the light of today’s needs and capabilities, so too the law, the foundation of a civilized society, needs bringing up to date and re-thinking. Justice can be better served.
Witness is so important that bearing false witness is built into the list of serious sins for most religions. Yet today many go into the witness box to give false witness and never get accused of perjury when it is proved to have been so. Lying under oath has become acceptable.
Obtaining a conviction is the prime criterion for success for police and prosecutor. So much is this the case that plea bargaining, a convenient form of compromising innocence and guilt, has become the norm in many trials leading to outcomes known to be incorrect but adequately agreed by the opposing parties. In criminal law, plea bargaining should generally be unacceptable.
Adversarial law, based partly on destruction of the other side’s case, makes good theatre but less successful justice and poor subsequent harmonic living. It may be that the best form of defence is attack but the purpose of law is to move arguments from the battlefield to a more civilized and hopefully more dependable method of determining right and wrong.
Especially in civil cases such as divorce or claims of material ownership the “more reasonable of two” approach is likely to lead to greater fairness of outcome than much more expensive charge and counter charge – something that must, inevitably, still end in compromise of sorts in these disputes.
At the same time as law is reviewed we should look carefully at the way the guilty are dealt with once convicted. Prisons in many parts of the world have become universities of crime, unruly, drug-dominated and with prisoner behaviour just as unacceptable as Guantanamo Bay.
The purpose of prison is to protect society from dangerous people and to reform and equip the criminal for a crime-free life once she or he is released. The exercise of strict discipline is a prerequisite for a successful prison but so is the protection of prisoners themselves and their rehabilitation. Present systems vary in their success in achieving this; many are very poor. How to minimise time wasting and expensive detention while maximizing learning for a useful future is the subject of much study but little reform.
Justice is one aspect of life a wealthy society can afford to invest in. Maybe we could use some of the time of the unemployed to help to make it fairer.
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