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Judicial Perspective on Law & Order

As part of the series pf speakers on law and order Peter Collier KC spoke to York Rotary on the 13th October. Peter qualified as a criminal barrister, subsequently taking silk and ultimately being appointed a Circuit Judge on the North Eastern Circuit. He retired after 14 years distinguished service, latterly as Recorder of Leeds.

In his presentation he explained that the criminal law system in England exists for two purposes: to establish guilt and subsequently to apply an appropriate sanction. The establishment of guilt in medieval times was dealt with at grass roots by a ‘jury’ of local men. Developing over the centuries under the direction of the Crown saw the establishment of a system of Coroners and Criminal Courts overseen by the King’s Justices whilst preserving the practice of trial by jury. Essentially that framework remained until modern times when a network of Crown Courts was instituted administered by High Court judges.

Peter then turned to the response to proven guilt. Historically punishment by death or banishment was administered, but as society developed and the causes of crime multiplied, restraint became a common sanction and prisons – debtors and bridewells or houses of correction - came to be established, initially and notoriously run for profit. Transportation to the colonies was also extensively used, even for relatively trivial offences. Only in the C19th was the system reformed with the construction of a network of public purpose-built prisons and the closure the bridewells.

Peter then turned to his experience of administering the law. There are two types of criminal in his experience – the hardened criminal deserving of hard sentence and the weak and inadequate offender for more measured response.

Assessing the appropriate sanction is a vital part of the judges task – punishment, deterrence, rehabilitation, public protection, etc are all factors for consideration. Parliament has attempted to set guidelines for the standardisation of sentencing and has in recent years devised a grid of levels of culpability and sentence for the use of judges, who must determine an appropriate sanction which they must justify in open court and consider counsel responses before passing sentence. Subsequently the terms of sentence can be mitigated for good behaviour.

Peter concluded that whilst not perfect the system was balanced and fair, and his criticisms are reserved for government in keeping the system inadequately funded and in consequence providing the public with an increasingly inadequately resourced service.

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