In the bad old days – which, for the purposes of argument, may be deemed to be the 1950s to the 1970s – justice may not have been certain but it was certainly swift.
If he put his mind to it, an individual might appear and be acquitted at Inner London Quarter Sessions four times in a year for offences allegedly committed after the first acquittal. Or be arrested for, say, ‘sus’ at 11pm one night, plead not guilty, have a contested hearing and be on the way in the prison van for a three-month sentence by 1pm the next day.
And it was not just trivial offences. When Ronald Marwood was accused of killing a police officer in a brawl in north London on 14 December 1958 his case was a masterclass of speed. He was not arrested until the end of January 1959, by which time a number of men had already been committed for trial for affray. Their trial took place in February.
Marwood’s trial began on 18 March and, appeals over, he was hanged on 8 May. Nowadays he would probably still be on police bail awaiting charges to be preferred.
How has this situation arisen? Back then people were arrested if there was some evidence against them. They were then questioned and either charged or released within a matter of days. Now it seems that the rules have changed. Arrest first and find the evidence afterwards.
Most recently a number of ageing pop stars and the like have been accused of indecency with young people some 20 or 30 years ago. The men have been identified even before a decision has been made whether any charges will be brought. Once young, now middle-aged, alleged victims face a seemingly endless wait before, to use a modern phrase, they ‘can have closure’.
In this increasingly Salem-like atmosphere, mid- to late-2014 seems an increasingly optimistic timescale. Is that good for anyone? In passing, what happened to the next-day appearance on bail or otherwise after an arrest? Why are people who are charged in March bailed to appear in a magistrates’ court in mid-May? As Beachcomber once wrote: ‘Justice must be seen to be believed.’ At present it is not.
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor