Legal Opinion: Endless new criminal laws that lead to injustice

More than 50 new criminal justice bills have been introduced in the last decade. Such a welter of complex legislation is taking its toll, says Robert Verkaik, Law Editor

Clarity and certainty form the bedrock of any fair criminal justice system. So it is alarming to discover that in one recent case the Court of Appeal was so confouded by a raft of new laws that it couldn't decide whether a defendant was innocent or guilty.

The case was raised by Sir Igor Judge, one of Britain's most experienced judges, who said that the court's failure to get to grips with the law meant that an innocent man spent time in prison.

The simple question before the judges was whether the defendant was guilty of an offence of failing to register as a sex offender contrary to the 2003 Sexual Offences Act.

"Any intelligent observer would have been baffled to discover there could be any doubt about whether or not the defendant was guilty of this criminal offence," said the judge, one of a panel of three hearing the case.

"For the Court of Appeal to decide the issue, we heard detailed submissions about the legislative provisions in no less than five statutes... The problem was so complicated that three judges had to reserve judgment because at the end of the hearing we could not work out whether or not the defendant was guilty. After reserving judgment we concluded that no offence had been committed. Yet the appellant had spent time in custody."

Sir Igor, speaking to an audience of students and lawyers on Monday evening, was careful not to blame any particular political party for the court's confusion.

But it is difficult to hide from the statistics. In the last 10 years Labour has has created more than 3,000 new criminal offences, passed 115,000 pages of legislation and introduced more than 50 Bills, including 24 criminal justice measures. Compare this with the 60 years between 1925 and 1985 when governments of different colours managed to get by with only six Criminal Justice Acts, an average of one every decade.

In the case before the Court of Appeal the five statutes were the Sex Offenders Act 1997, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which was replaced by section 73-79 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000, which repealed sections 73-79 of the 1998 Act, and the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

Sir Igor said: "My concern here is not just the quantity of legislation, the absence of certainty, the vast increase in complication in the sentencing process. It can also produce injustice."

But most telling was his added observation that "S" was not a unique case. How many others have been wrongly imprisoned or had extended prison sentences simply because the criminal law has become unmanageable?

While Sir Igor is constitutional constrained in what he can say about the politics of such a mess of legislation, others are less diplomatic.

The Liberal Democrats accuse the Government of being hopelessly addicted to eye-catching initiatives that require endless legislation, an accusation echoed by the Conservatives. Surely what is required now is for politicians of all hues to take a step back and work together to bring about a codification of the criminal law. For an innocent person to spend time in prison simply because the law is too confusing can only shame our system of justice.

r.verkaik@independent.co.uk

Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
Life & Style
life
Arts & Entertainment
Back in the suit: There are only so many variations you can spin on the lives or adventures of Peter Parker
filmReview: Almost every sequence and set-up in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 seems familiar from some earlier superhero film
Arts & Entertainment
Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones
tv
Life & Style
Father and son: Michael Williams with son Edmund
lifeAs his son’s bar mitzvah approaches, CofE-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys he’s experienced in learning about his family’s other faith
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Life & Style
Stir it up: the writer gets a lichen masterclass from executive chef Vivek Singh of the Cinnamon restaurants
food + drinkLichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines
Extras
indybest
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
News
The academic, Annamaria Testa, has set out on her website a list of 300 English words that she says Italians ought to stop using
newsAcademic speaks out against 'Italianglo' - the use of English words in Italian language
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit