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Taking a liberty, legally speaking

November 24, 2015

 

You’ve probably never heard of Charles de Montesquieu. To be honest, the only reason I know his name is because I came across it once when writing an essay.

 

He said, “There is no crueller tyranny than that which is perpetuated under the shield of law and in the name of justice”.

 

His perspective was ga

 

ined in early 18th century France where justice was dispensed by whoever occupied the throne. Montesquieu argued for what we now call a constitutional ‘separation of powers’ whereby law-making, policing and the courts operate independently of each other - or at least notionally anyway. 

 

You could argue that democracy anywhere can only thrive when the principles of an independent judiciary are fully protected. So it’s worrying to see the way lines are currently being blurred here.

 

In March this year, the UK government introduced court charges which they insisted were designed to ensure that criminals "pay their way". The new fee comes on top of fines, compensation orders and defendants' own legal charges, and is higher for those convicted after pleading not guilty.

 

Lawyers, judges, penal reform groups and now MPs are questioning whether these financial arrangements are actually compatible with the principles of justice.

 

I know a few lawyers. Most I’ve spoken with reckon that the charges are not just disproportionate but are also an incentive for people to save cash by pleading guilty.

 

Members of the House of Commons Justice Committee have also recently complained that very limited discretion for judges and magistrates on the size of the charges was creating "unacceptable consequences within the criminal justice system".

 

They cited the case of a woman who admitted stealing a four-pack of Mars Bars worth 75p, saying she "had not eaten in days" after her welfare benefits were stopped.

 

She was ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge. This was on top of her £73 fine, £85 in costs, £20 victim surcharge and 75p compensation.

 

Thankfully, it looks possible the government may yet be forced to rethink these charges.

 

The same goes for stalled Ministry of Justice plans to ‘overhaul’ the legal-aid system which has seen over a hundred challenges from solicitors’ firms who claim the whole process is fundamentally flawed.

 

Practices in England and Wales are contesting the award of 527 contracts to provide legal-aid advice in police stations and magistrates courts on the grounds that competing bids for the work from solicitors were assessed by staff without specialist knowledge.

 

Added to this slightly shambolic situation is the leaked letter, recently sent by one of the UK's most senior police officers to Home Secretary Theresa May. This warned that proposed cuts to mainstream policing, expected to be announced in this week's Spending Review, will harm the ability of forces to respond to a Paris-style attack.

 

Austerity is one thing but an under-resourced police force hampered by an ill-equipped judiciary means that matters can only end badly for most of us. Justice on the cheap is no justice at all.

 

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Seasonal aspirations

 

Well so much for my plans to attend the ‘Swansea Bay Reborn’ event held in Swansea University last week.

 

A last minute conference call stopped me from leaving the office and I was left to console myself by thumbing through the recently published Welsh CBI ‘manifesto’ while listening on the phone (such is life in the fast lane).

 

I have to say though that the document is worth a read if only for its scale of aspirations.

 

The employers’ organisation wants improvements to how critical infrastructure projects are delivered, a closing of the skills gap and ‘an economic strategy to enhance competitiveness and productivity’.

 

Other items on their shopping list includes measures to ensure a common business tax regime, simplified financial regulation, a single energy market and a cross-border set of employment laws across Great Britain.

 

All in all, an impressive list. The only surprise is that it didn’t begin with “Dear Santa”.

 

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Capital comparisons

 

Something I hear often is how it’s counterproductive to compare ourselves with Cardiff. Yet you’d be surprised to learn how frequently folks in the Welsh capital complain in the local press how their city misses out to us.

 

 

 I visit the place often. Whatever the business occasion, Swansea’s premier league status never fails to rankle - mostly because I tend to raise it at every opportunity.

 

The same green-eyed attitude comes across whenever it’s mentioned how we are the chosen location for the world’s first tidal barrage.

 

And now we have a case of tower-envy as developers announce they aim to build Wales' tallest building in the capital, displacing our 107 metre high Meridian Tower from top spot.

 

No offence, but from what I’ve seen, their proposed student accommodation block hardly compares with the quality waterfront development we presently have overlooking Swansea Bay.

 

Which just goes to confirm that size isn’t everything.

 

 

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