Cruel springtime for justice

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If April is the cruellest month, then March 2013 has laid claim to being quite the opposite. There has been a definite whiff of official compassion in the air.

The Home Office a few days ago (26 March) told a grateful nation that it was to relax the rules around criminal records checks, for which more than four million people had to apply in 2011-12. The new spirit of clemency follows a January Court of Appeal ruling that blanket checks for an offender’s lifetime do not comply with human rights law.

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The court might just have well ruled that they do not always comply with common sense, either, because the appeal was brought by appellants including an adult job applicant who had to disclose police cautions that he had received when found in possession of two stolen bicycles – aged 11.

Otherwise, he had a clean record and was a model citizen, but was still turned down for a part-time job at a football club because of his record.

The Home Office has now said that new legislation, a statutory instrument under the Police Act 1997, will ‘filter’ certain old or minor offences from checks by the Disclosure and Barring Service (which replaced the Criminal Records Bureau). However, all violent and sexual offences, offences with a custodial sentence and multiple offences regardless of their nature must continue to be disclosed.

Adult cautions will be filtered from records after six years, while cautions and equivalents administered to young offenders will be filtered after two years. Convictions resulting in a non-custodial sentence are to be filtered from adults after 11 years and young offenders after five and a half years.

All good stuff, but one swallow doesn’t make a spring, as Aristotle said, so what other evidence has there been this month of a new willingness to wipe the slate clean?

Answer: a man successfully applied to have his name removed from the sex offenders’ register, the first time this has been achieved

It has been technically possible since April 2010, when five judges sitting in the Supreme Court ruled that sex offenders should be allowed to apply to have their names deleted from the sex offenders’ register after 15 years.

The judges didn’t say that sex offenders' names should automatically be deleted from the register. They didn’t criticise the register. It’s a good thing, they said, if it stops people re-offending. But it makes no sense keeping someone’s name on it if that someone has demonstrated that he or she is unlikely to repeat his or her offence.

And this month George St Angeli, 71, became the first convicted paedophile to have his name struck off the register.

He was released from prison on parole in May 1996 and signed on to the register in September 1997 – now more than 15 years ago - and has had a clean record ever since. Nonetheless, the police turned down his appeal, but a district judge ruled that he was a reformed character and should be removed from the register.

Cue howls of outrage from sectors of the media. None mentioned that the law simply allows offenders to apply to be removed from the register and that most of them, and certainly the worst ones, will be refused.

Former Supreme Court president Lord Philips, giving the ruling back in 2010, tried to make things clear to laymen and lawyers alike. The protection of potential victims of sex crimes is a priority, he said, but once someone can demonstrate that they no longer pose any significant risk of committing a further sexual offence, then there is no good reason to interfere with their right to respect for private and family life.

Curtailing such criminal behaviour is the important thing, not imposing draconian – and pointless – penalties on the offenders.

Which makes sense to me.

But now for the bad news: on almost the last day of this month of enlightenment – 26 March – the Ministry of Justice, supported by the House of Lords, brought us all down to earth with the Justice and Security Bill.

Peers voted by 174 to 158 to allow closed material procedure (CMP) hearings to be extended into the country’s main civil courts, in the process rejecting a Labour amendment to the bill that would have allowed CMPs to be convened only if a judge rules it impossible to reach a fair verdict ‘by any other means’.

We will now have secret court hearings from which claimants and their legal teams are not only excluded, but will also never learn the evidence and precise charges against them.

On the eve of changes to legal aid and employment law protections, justice has just got another kick in the stomach. Maybe March is the cruellest month after all.

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