Letters: Bias and bad justice

Testimony of victims' families could lead to bias and bad justice

Monday 05 September 2005 00:00 BST

The losses and pain of crime victims certainly need to be recognised properly and there have been great improvements in the provision of support, for example by Victim Support, better liaison with criminal justice agencies so that the progress of cases is known to victims, and better provision of financial compensation.

But allowing victims or proxy victims to appeal directly to judges is a serious step too far. The criminal justice system represents the victim's interests and the interests of society in responding to criminal acts. In doing so, it has to operate more dispassionately and more proportionately than individual victims might wish. Sentencers already take a range of factors into account, including the general seriousness of the offence, individual circumstances and aggravating factors such as, for example, the age and vulnerability of a victim.

If we allow victims' families to speak to judges about the effects of someone's death, we risk creating a hierarchy of murder based on sentiment, the willingness of family members to speak and their fluency in doing so. Sentences should rightly vary according to the nature of the crime, but surely not according to whether a victim had a family who loved him, or whether the victim's family can speak fluent English.

And will victims' families really want this? Families already suffering from grief and guilt might feel that they have let their relative down if they either don't want to testify or find that testimony doesn't seem to have resulted in a longer sentence.

Grave crimes like murder and rape have grave consequences and it may be true that, in spite of the improvements that have been made in victim care, much more needs to be done to acknowledge the damage inflicted on victims and their families in these cases. Wouldn't this be better tackled by a rebalancing of sentencing principles overall than by allowing potentially unfair bias to enter in individual cases?



Hurricane Katrina's lessons for London

Sir: Whilst shock and sympathy is rightly focused on events abroad, the horror that a storm surge can wreak on a major city supposedly behind engineered flood protection should be viewed with particular concern by Londoners.

There are important major differences between New Orleans and London: the height of the levees, the rate of recent land movements and the ferocity of the wind speeds, but there are striking similarities too. Although Category 5 hurricanes are most unlikely over here, the V-shaped coastlines of both North Sea and Thames estuary are such that funneling effects can cause large rises in the water levels of surges from lesser storms over the North Sea. That, after all, is why we have the (ageing) Thames Barrier. Like New Orleans, London has many (typically less wealthy) inhabitants living in low-lying regions behind ageing flood defences; Canvey Island is an obvious example. Engineers have been calling for higher levels of investment in coastal protection, particularly as storm frequencies may increase. John Prescott however has a singular vision; the Thames Gateway, and plans, largely for economic reasons, to move hundreds of thousands of extra people into the low-lying areas.

To hear our news reporters repeating "no one can quite believe that such a thing has occurred in a major industrialised country" should be a warning against complacency over here. Flood risk from storm surge should move up the agenda here in the UK: one need only ask the Environment Agency if they would like more money and more political support for their efforts at coastal defence. And when we build all the fancy Olympic stadia in East London for 2012, can we make sure they have adequate long-term stocks of drinking water and cans of food in case of any massive "unforeseen" civil evacuation of Mr Prescott's estuarine utopia?



Sir: The primeval horror of the lootings, shootings and barbarity of existence facing the New Orleans survivors has profound consequences for America's way of life. The speed of the breakdown implies that only the cursory removal of law and order is necessary for American society to descend into anarchy. Such scenes did not accompany the tsunami, nor the earthquake in Kobe, Japan, despite the scale of suffering and disaster being greater in both cases. New Orleans is the size of Sheffield; what would happen if a natural disaster occurred on a national scale? On the evidence of this tragedy, the world's largest economic power would rapidly descend into near-Biblical chaos. The underbelly of the American dream is being laid bare; namely that self reliance, the right to bear arms, and the pre-eminence of the individual over the state can be as destructive in times of social disaster as they are as contributors to the "economic miracle". A nation's character is often shaped more by its reaction to catastrophe than success; a maxim appropriate for the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. The tragedy in New Orleans leaves the United States with much self-examination to do.



Sir: The USA has led the world for decades in its ruthless abandonment of the concept of the common good. Healthcare, education, public transport, environmental protection, employment rights, pensions, welfare: these have all suffered as the state is "rolled back" with the ideologically driven privatisation of society. Now the devastation and ensuing anarchy in New Orleans provide a graphic warning of the ultimate direction of policy in many Western countries. The "disciplines of the market" failed to deal with this crisis, because there's no "market" in ordinary people's suffering. Perhaps it is time for the ideologues of privatisation to face up to the real consequences of "less government": misery for the masses.



Sir: In response to David Adams' letter (3 September) in which he suggests that perhaps George Bush might now launch a war on global warming, given the current disaster in New Orleans, Mr Adams is forgetting that there was no link between September 11th and Iraq. Therefore we should hardly expect him to be inconsistent and to address the cause of the problem on this occasion either.



Let's crack down on all weapons dealers

Sir: In the wake of the terrible shooting of Zainab Kalako in south London, you argue that to curb gun-crime, police and government must not simply ban possession but target the "deadly trade" of weapons dealers themselves (leading article, 30 August). The argument is a sound one, and holds equally true for the international trade of weapons which fuels conflict and stymies economic development worldwide.

Nor are gangland gun-runners and international arms dealers unconnected. Recent Oxfam research has shown that a firearm used by hitmen in Hertfordshire was originally made for Hungarian special forces. From Kalashnikovs to fighter jets, weapons will find their way round fuzzy arms control laws unless national governments stop assisting the massive promotional efforts of arms sellers.

The UK government clearly disagrees. In the same week as Jack Straw and Tony Blair discuss tighter weapons controls at the UN World Summit in New York next month, their defence ministers will be personally welcoming repressive and conflict-torn governments to meet the world's weapons dealers at the Ministry of Defence's DSEi arms fair in London's Docklands. It makes no sense to vilify weapons dealers on London's streets while supplying taxpayer-funded corporate hospitality for those higher up the supply chain.




Pamuk charges must be dropped

Sir: The decision to charge the leading writer Orhan Pamuk with "denigrating the Turkish people" offends the European value of freedom of expression (report, 2 September). His trial would do incalculable damage to Turkey's bid for EU membership, and will dismay those of us who believe that securing Turkey's successful accession should be a central European priority over the next decade.

This is a pivotal moment for debate both within Turkey and the EU as a whole. The doubts about full Turkish membership being expressed in several European capitals will undermine the position of Turkey's pro-EU reformers and strengthen their conservative opponents. The absurd charges against Pamuk show the importance of Turkey completing the extensive reforms of its legal code, which have been driven by the prospect of EU membership. If the rejectionists within and beyond Turkey prevail, we will all have missed a vital historic opportunity.



Injustice at hands of the UK visa system

Sir: I read Professor Fordham's letter ("Why must our African friends face humiliation over UK visas?", 29 August) with a sad feeling of familiarity. When I go to Niger, it takes just a week to obtain the visa. I carry out archaeological research near Zinder and have for years had the benefit of the help and hospitality of my friend and colleague Mr Faya NDiaye. In May 2004 I invited him to visit the UK to attend my wedding. This visit proved impossible as he was refused clearance to enter the country.

Mr NDiaye is a professional, middle-aged family man. I had supplied the letter of invitation, detailed itineraries, and six months' worth of bank statements requested. Mr NDiaye filled out the five-page visa request form, assembled paperwork, paid a fee, and travelled to the British High Commission in Accra.

Our request for a visa was refused. The motive was, ostensibly, the lack of birth certificates proving the existence of my friend's four children (a requirement which had not been communicated to him before he made the six-hour trip to the High Commission). The letter of refusal spoke of the Entry Clearance Officer's impression that Mr NDiaye intended to remain illegally in the UK. The official did not believe my friend, and did not believe me. At no point was I able to speak to any person of real influence, despite repeated phone calls.

Such injustices are causing real damage to the UK's image in West Africa, and the system ought to be corrected. The ukvisas.gov.uk website is excellent and informative; taking this one step further, encouraging email visa applications would prove an effective way of streamlining the process. Persons with long-standing contacts with the UK, and with UK sponsors backing them, could also be easily identified. It is well worth investing resources in ensuring the UK visa application system meets its stated aims to "deal honestly, fairly, sensitively and openly with people".



Media silence about Chechen oppression

Sir: The incident in Beslan was a tragic event. I totally condemn the use of violence especially against non-combatants. However, there is silence in the world media over extra-judicial executions, kidnappings, subjugation and occupation of the Chechens by the Russian government over many years. To add insult to injury the only thing that people seem to know about Chechens is with reference to the Beslan school atrocity. We need to bring justice to the Chechens who have been brutalised by the Tsars, Stalins and Putins for the last 400 years.



Estate agents blameless

Sir: B Slann (letter, 3 September) accuses estate agents of pushing up house prices. In order to make a living, estate agents, in common with stockbrokers, insurance brokers, et al, must achieve a high volume of sales. This quest for prompt turnover prevents consideration of any marginal change in the price on which brokers' percentages will be calculated, and causes sales accurately to reflect at any given time buyers' and sellers' own opinions of values. Estate agents' wages cannot be blamed for rising house prices, any more than stockbrokers' remuneration can be blamed for movements in the stock markets.



Spelling and the Web

Sir: Your correspondents (3 September) debate whether spelling matters. If we go back to read the works of one of the producers of much of the English language, William Shakespeare, it's easy to argue that spelling is just a matter of convention and habit, of no real consequence; he didn't even spell his name consistently.

But we live in world of computers and the internet. Imagine how hard it would be to find something through a search engine if spelling was not consistent.



Sir: As to whether spelling matters: there is always the problem of distinguishing between applicants being told of a vacancy for light housekeeping and those hearing that there's a job going in lighthouse keeping. Reading the spelling in the Sits Vac column first could save a lot of trouble.



Memphis Minnie's song

Sir: I hope popular culture motormouth Camille Paglia (3 September) isn't teaching her students that "When the Levee Breaks" was written by Led Zeppelin. They got it (although they didn't credit her) from Memphis Minnie, as any fule kno.



Gentle conquest?

Sir: In response to Hubert Froumy's reference to America as a "benevolent conqueror" (letter, 2 September); surely this skirts worryingly close to an oxymoron?



An Aussie apology

Sir: I wish to apologise, on behalf of my fellow Australians, for comments made by our cricket captain, Mr Ricky Ponting, criticising the English team's tactics. His remarks were un-Australian. We are normally far blunter than that.



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