Leading Article: No business like legal business?

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The Independent Online
THE AUTHORITY of law has always been the central certainty in American life: the rock on which the Constitution is built and the theme of countless films that have become part of American mythology. The righteous sheriff who prevents a lynching, the dogged detective who ensures that justice is done, the brave juryman who refuses to be swayed by prejudice are expressions of how Americans like to see themselves.

So it must be worrying for them, as well as for outsiders, when the law appears to be failing to uncover truth or to demonstrate convincingly that justice is being done. True, the grasping antics of American lawyers have long been the subject of black humour (Why are lawyers now being used in laboratory experiments? Because they'll do things that rats won't), but the system as a whole, with the possible exception of excessive plea bargaining, has earned a reasonable level of public confidence.

Recent cases, including the Bobbitts and the Menendez brothers, who murdered their parents, are sowing doubts. Yesterday, Michael Jackson's lawyers offered a large payment to the boy who accused him of sexual abuse. Although this is in settlement of a civil case, it will in effect stop criminal proceedings. Technically, the boy could still be forced to take the stand, since reluctance would be attributed to the monetary settlement rather than his need for moral protection. In practice, however, his serious allegations against a public figure now seem unlikely to be tested.

A settlement of this sort does not necessarily demonstrate that Mr Jackson is guilty. He may simply be anxious to avoid the strain and publicity of a trial that might anyway fail to resolve the matter completely. But it cannot be good for the system if allegations of abuse and extortion, from opposite sides, are shelved.

The case will therefore join a lengthening list of others in which justice has appeared to stumble under the weight of money, publicity and public emotion. The distinction between the law and show business is becoming blurred as witnesses sign up for lucrative contracts with the media, and television invades the courtroom.

Are there lessons here for Britain? Our most conspicuous miscarriages of justice have been the result of bad police work; there is little sign of money diverting justice. But show business is creeping in, especially to libel cases. The trend needs watching.