Opinion: How Craig was locked up at the court's convenience

You were grossly mistreated and spat out only as an afterthought
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The Independent Online
Craig Charles, what a relief for you. You were acquitted. Though with most of my clients, it's often not just the acquittal that counts. It is also the fact that the whole business has finished. No more sitting wondering what is going to happen ... and, in your case, sitting for three and a half months in prison on remand.

What I was curious about was this: How could that have happened?

Were you likely to commit other offences? No. Were you unable to produce sureties or "community ties"? Of course you could, and one of your sureties was a police inspector. Were you going to run off? Not likely, with the whole of Fleet Street baying after you. Were you going to try to interfere with prosecution witnesses? I don't think so, for the same reason.

So why were you remanded in custody? I wasn't on your case, but I've handled dozens like yours, so I'll make an educated guess at what happened.

At the magistrates' court, the first thing the prosecution would have said was that the offence was likely to result in a custodial sentence. They might well also have said that the complainant was frightened of you. You would have been puzzled at that as a reason for refusing bail since it rather raises the question of whether or not you are guilty, or whether the Crown witness is to be believed. But there you are, before trial the mere allegation is enough.

There would probably have been selected excerpts read from the complainant's witness statement emphasising how awful the event was. If it was like the cases I've handled, you or your lawyers would probably not have been allowed to see this statement until much later. By then any selective quotations would have faded from everyone's memory.

There would certainly have been a reference to the forensic evidence that was being prepared. It probably took months to come, but while it was coming there would always have been the thought that when it did it would convict you out of hand - so everybody would have felt, "We'd better wait and see". Or "better he's inside while we wait and see."

Was there a comment that investigations "were continuing"? That is always an effective remark. The magistrates do not know what nameless horrors are going to emerge.

But you'll know by now that the Crown is never called upon to justify such remarks. Things always move on. In your case, as I understand it, the forensic evidence alone nearly acquitted you.

There is no tort known to the civil courts as the remanding of a man in custody by exaggeration. No policeman is ever held to account such action. Indeed, once at the Old Bailey, when I asked the judge to make a record of what was said, I was reminded sharply that this was "just a bail application".

After that first bail application, you will be given only one more chance at the magistrates' court. If that second attempt fails - and in practical terms the burden is on you to show why you should be let out of prison with such a serious charge hanging over you - you can apply to the Crown Court. There you would have had another surprise waiting.

Everything is done in private, and you have no right to be present. Not only are you being locked up unconvicted, you are also not even allowed to hear it being done. Neither is your family.

The Independent challenged this secret system some years ago with no success. I have never heard any reason - other than convenience (that is, the court's convenience, not the defendant's - given for it. The proceedings at the lower court are in public, so why not in the Crown Court?

I think you were eventually released before the trial. That often happens: the excitement dies down and everybody starts behaving calmly - after about six weeks, though in your case it was 13. Of course, during that time you were in prison and people were thinking: "Well, there must be something in this, then."

The ones who do not get out will lose their jobs. They will not be able to help their solicitors round up the evidence. They are serving sentences before conviction - try telling them that they are not.

They will be locked up, as you were, for 23 hours a day, no lavatory at night. Neither work nor facilities for recreation are provided since the people concerned are, of course, unconvicted. The times during which their lawyers can see them are ludicrously restricted.

Of course, most of the people to whom this happens are guilty of something. But so what? Guilty or not, the treatment of unconvicted defendants is slowly chipping away at what trust the courts still retain.

Anyone who experiences this unfairness, anyone who knows someone who has experienced it, or knows someone who knows someone, (the circle is widening) is irrevocably convinced of the courts' readiness to assume guilt.

My guess is that your acquittal will not make you feel that you have been vindicated. Rather, you will feel that you were sucked into an unfair system, grossly mistreated and spat out, unconvicted, only as an afterthought.

Am I right? You did serve your time, hard time, didn't you?

The writer is a barrister practising in criminal law.

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