Not Saussure

January 17, 2007

Serious crime bill

Filed under: civil liberties — notsaussure @ 3:37 pm

The BBC reports

New powers restricting the activities of those suspected of money laundering, fraud, drugs and human trafficking are to be included in a Serious Crime Bill.

But the government faces criticism that the civil orders may prove unworkable given the problems it has had imposing control orders on terrorist suspects.

and, of course, criticism on the grounds they’re a monstrosity:

Jago Russell, policy officer for civil rights campaign group Liberty, said: “We used to believe in hard evidence and fair trials in this country – now we dispense rapid-fire justice as quickly as the Government can develop a catchy four-letter acronym for it.”These new orders targeted at the ‘Mr Bigs’ of the criminal world will likely be as unfair and ineffective as Asbos and control orders before them.”

And former deputy chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, John Stalker, told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme that the government was going down a dangerous route.

He added: “My view is that criminals should be dealt with under the criminal law and that Asbos, super-Asbos as these are being called, are not the answer to heavyweight criminals. They maybe OK for hoodies on the street but they are not for heavyweight criminals.

“This is sort of an Al Capone bill – you know, if we can’t get you on one, we’ll get you on another.”

The comparison with ASBOs is, I think, somewhat misleading. Bad though ASBOs are, these are considerably worse — they’re more like control orders in principle. ASBOs, at least, are granted when there’s some evidence that the person has actually been making a nuisance of himself in some way —

(a) that the person has acted, since the commencement date, in an anti-social manner, that is to say, in a manner that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to one or more persons not of the same household as himself; and (b) that such an order is necessary to protect persons in the local government area in which the harassment, alarm or distress was caused or was likely to be caused from further anti-social acts by him;

and they’re used to prohibit — sometimes rather bizarrely — specific behaviours that are thought to have been causing the harassment, alarm or distress.

These civil orders are very different prospect. They’re to be used, says Home Office Minister Vernon Coaker, against

people who try to stay remote from crime, who try to encourage crime but never get their hands dirty.We want to ensure that, while our methods are proportionate, we can get to them.

In other words, people who can’t be proved to have done anything — quite possibly haven’t done anything — but whom the courts believe

on the balance of probability that the suspect had acted in a way which helped or was likely to help a serious crime.

If the courts are persuaded of this, then the suspects (not criminals, as the BBC — who’ve apparently been got at by Dr Reid — calls them) will face restrictions on their

  • Financial, property or business dealings

  • Working arrangements

  • People who can be associated or communicated with

  • Access to premises

  • Travel in the UK or abroad

and risk up to five years in prison if they don’t comply.

Apart from anything else, this raises the all-too-real prospect of someone finding themselves caught up in a conspiracy case, where you quite often find that, along with the main players, the police and CPS have netted some people who may have been involved but may also just have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, taken in by people who didn’t seem to them to be involved in anything particularly shady.

The jury, working to the criminal standard of proof, quite rightly acquits in these circumstances; now Dr Reid is giving the prosecution a second bite at the cherry, as it were; we couldn’t actually find enough evidence to make a jury sure, so let’s see if we can make a High Court judge — who is used to trying civil rather than criminal matters — think that on the balance of probabilities he has to issue an order making it a reasonably serious offence (one that you’d probably get at least a year for, if sentencing for breaches of ASBOs is anything to go by) to do something otherwise perfectly legal, such as travel from one part of the country to another.

This, after all, is pretty much what happened after the Ricin conspiracy trial ended in acquittals for several of the defendants; when this happened, the then Home Secretary, Charles Clarke

denied that the collapse of a second trial and the acquittal of eight of the nine accused case was an embarrassment.

“We will obviously keep a very close eye on the eight men being freed today, and consider exactly what to do in the light of this decision,” he said.

Commenting on this, Steven Poole writes in Unspeak (the book rather than the blog),

Once you are a ‘terrorist suspect’, it seems, not even acquittal will help you. You are for ever guilty of having been a suspect. (p 145)

It’s now being extended, it would seem, by an inexorable logic that some of us warned against at the time, from ‘terrorist suspects’ to ‘criminal suspects’. ‘I’m not worried about being suspected of being a terrorist,’ say some people, often meaning they feel confident that neither their colour nor their religion expose them to such suspicions.

Well, the Home Office are very logical about some matters. ‘Why,’ they reason, should the authorities have powers to deal with some serious criminals — those who plot serious crimes for political ends — and be denied them in their fight against the far more numerous, and equally dangerous, people who plot serious crimes for mere lucre?’ Once the point’s been conceded for those unfortunate enough to be suspected of terrorism, it’s hard to sustain it against this line of argument. And, while the offender profile for potential terrorists may well be rather limited — at the moment (it’s changeable, as those of us from an Irish Catholic background, even if we were born and brought up on the Mainland, may recall if we were around in the 1970s and 80s), the profile of those potentially involved in serious crime at some remove is considerably less specific.

I hope — God, I really hope — this is just another example of a beleaguered Home Secretary and a demob happy Prime Minister dreaming up a wheeze to attack their opponents for being soft on crime; as Dr Reid puts it,

“We hope this will have a huge impact, and we hope opposition parties will give the support necessary rather than what they have done every time we have tried to bring in strong powers to tackle crime and terrorism, which is vote against them and claim they aren’t strong enough.”

I have my doubts, though. We’ve got the civil standard for ASBOs and now they want to introduce the civil standard both for being possibly involved in serious crime and — in the form of VOOs — for being possibly going to commit a crime at some point in the future. If they announce ‘a war on crime’ anytime soon, then I’ll be very worried indeed.

As ARCH-Rights commented about the VOOs,

They ought to issue an uber-ASBO to everyone at birth so that they can dispense with the so last-year hassle of fair trials

UPDATE: The text of the bill has now been published, along with explanatory notes and so forth. Only had a quick look, but it seems pretty much what was described in the press. No sign of the Violent Offender Orders, though.

UPDATE II:  I’ve had a longer look, and so has the Telegraph. Not good at all.

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  1. This is pretty scary. Am I right in thinking that the government are also planning to introduce Asbos for people who they predict might possibly be guilty of anti-social behaviour at some point in the future, but have yet to actually be guilty of anything? Seems like they want to abandon the small matter of actual evidence. Carry on like this and they’ll be teaching Pinochet to suck eggs.

    Comment by Ms Melancholy — January 17, 2007 @ 11:20 pm

  2. Yup,Ms Melancholy,or so The Sunday Times would have us believe.    As I recall (and Mr Google confirms), Violent Offender Orders were originally planned by Charles Clarke; they were supposed to be imposed by a judge on some violent offenders after their release from custody as a sort of extended period of licence if the judge thought — using the civil standard of proof — that this was justified for fear they’d go on to commit further violent offences.   Given the sentencing powers already available to judges under the Criminal Justice Act 2003 — which they have to use, as a matter of law — when they’re dealing with violent offenders, combined with the probable reluctance of a High Court judge to interfere with the trial judge’s sentence (properly the territory of the Court of Appeal, if the CPS think he sentenced too leniently), I couldn’t see that these things would be used very frequently and assumed they were just another gimmick.     Anyway, Charles Clarke retired hurt shortly thereafter, trampled by a hoard of mistakenly-released foreign prisoners, and Dr Reid had other things on his mind for a while.

    Now they’ve re-surfaced and it looks as if Dr Reid can’t really see the point of waiting for a trial (we already knew  of his impatience with such matters from his speech about how the judiciary frustrate his attempts to protect us from terrorists and generally just don’t get it).    Among the pieces of ‘evidence’ that will be used to assess (on the balance of probilities) the potential danger posed at some point in the future by someone as yet not necessarily convicted of any offence will be, or so says The Sunday Times,

    a series of “risk factors” […]. These include a person’s formative years and upbringing, “cognitive deficiencies”, “entrenched pro-criminal or antisocial attitudes,” “a history of substance abuse or mental health issues”.

    Factors could also include a person’s domestic situation or relationship with their partner or family, as well as more obvious signs such as “possession of paraphernalia related to violent offending (eg, balaclava, baseball bat), or extremist material”.

    Comment by notsaussure — January 18, 2007 @ 1:03 am

  3. Given that these new “super Asbos” are going to be applied on people that are only suspected of serious crime it is inevitable that at least some will be placed on people who are not guilty of ever crime. After all if there was solid proof they were guilty then they would be prosecuted and jailed.

    Given that the question has to be, is it reasonable to impose these restrictions on innocent people and I think the answer to that is clearly no.


    Comment by Andrew — January 19, 2007 @ 9:22 am

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