When we take justice for granted

The entire criminal justice system, according to The Independent on 10th January this year, is infiltrated by organised crime gangs. That was the conclusion of a leaked Scotland Yard report which was supposed to remain secret.

We could certainly be forgiven for thinking that corruption is rife throughout the great institutions of state.  The integrity of the police, hammered by the tragic mishandling of the Stephen Lawrence case, was hit further as the phone hacking scandal exposed appalling corruption.  Phone hacking also revealed wrongdoing by print journalists, some close to the heart of political power, while the BBC’s reputation was tarnished by numerous revelations about Jimmy Savile. The political establishment has gone through five years of torment over the expenses scandal with powerful aftershocks still being felt today.  Nor has the Church escaped, especially the Romish one whose reputation globally lies in tatters.

These and other scandals have left scars in the public psyche, but how deep does distrust run?  Is the UK really facing a crisis of confidence in its ability to run things cleanly? And is that distrust justified?

Recent ComRes research for International Justice Mission (IJM), published to coincide with The Locust Effect – written by IJM’s Founder and CEO Gary Haugen – reveals a wide seam of disaffection with the UK’s justice system.

The good news is that most people, 59%, are ‘generally satisfied that Britain operates under the rule of law’.  Also encouraging is that while there is a gap in confidence between older and younger people, the latter register as more sceptical largely because there are more who decline to offer a view at all.

And this positive outlook translates into confidence in how people live their lives: 54% report feeling safe walking alone at night in the area where they live, despite a big variation between men and women.

But the real shocker in the survey is the revelation that between a third and 40% of people regard the criminal justice system as corrupt, depending on which part of it you ask about.

Most significantly, 40% do not agree that ‘generally speaking, people in Britain are treated equally under the law’ - yet that is a fundamental tenet of our legal system.  Similarly 37% cannot agree with the statement that ‘I don’t generally regard the British Government as corrupt’.

On the efficacy of the justice system again we find a surprisingly large pocket of disquiet: 36% believe the police in Britain ‘have a significant corruption problem’ (agreeing, it would seem, with Scotland Yard’s own ‘secret’ report) and a further 34% ‘do not trust the courts in Britain to deliver just outcomes’.

Across every measure, people in lower income groups are the most negative towards the ability of the State to see that justice is done.  Forty-four percent in social group DE, which includes the jobless and dispossessed, regard the British Government as corrupt, compared to 31% in social group AB at the other end of the spectrum.  Similarly 49% of DEs do not believe people are generally treated equally under the law, compared to 34% of the more privileged ABs.

The proportion of people who feel safe walking at night compares extremely favourably with countries where the rule of law is so clearly a major problem and a cause of inequality and injustice.  At 54% it is much higher, for example, than in Venezuela (34%), South Africa (38%), Paraguay (40%), Costa Rica (41%) and Bolivia (43%),

It is this more positive personal experience of safety which reveal the reality that access to justice is far worse in many parts of the Developing World than in Britain.  A 2008 United Nations report estimates that four billion people live outside of the protection of the rule of law. The Locust Effect points to other global studies which reveal troubling trends showing that ‘everyday violence’ – acts of violence that are already against the law, including rape, forced labour, sex trafficking, land grabbing and police brutality – not only threaten the safety of billions of people worldwide but significantly undermine international development efforts aimed at ending poverty across the world.

As author Haugen points out, “the answer to ending global poverty lies first and foremost in ending common, everyday violence and introducing effective local law enforcement. The problem is that the justice systems are so broken that they do not shield the poor from violence.”

He goes on to suggest a reason why, while people in the UK feel more secure than their counterparts in the developing world, many Britons are still deeply pessimistic about their country’s justice institutions.  Law enforcement ‘is a service that is often out of sight, out of mind’ and Haugen suggests that affluent societies have grown so accustomed to the comfort of a secure and effective justice system that we focus more on its failings than its efficacy.

Haugen’s global analysis does seem to be echoed in the variations in our own British attitudes survey; it is particularly troubling that the poor in our own country have the greatest distrust of the institutions created to defend us.

But while we in the prosperous West fret over corrupt police selling personal information to tabloid journalists, however odious that may be, we must not get out of proportion the huge advantages we enjoy. Our justice system largely works impartially and effectively.  Girls here do not boycott school for fear of being sexually assaulted, the poor are not routinely run off their property and we do not fear being arrested for a crime we have not committed in order to satisfy a bribe-greedy police force.

Haugen’s book is a great antidote to our lack of appreciation for the advantages we enjoy, and an important contribution to the literature about why so many languish in poverty and how they deserve our help.

For more information go to www.TheLocustEffect.com