The thin end of the wedge


Earlier this week, three men were convicted for committing a £1.75m armed robbery at Heathrow in 2004. They were tried without a jury, convicted by a single judge, and sentenced to 15, 17 and 20 years of imprisonment respectively. This is a deeply worrying development.

Yes, the men were dangerous, violent thugs who deserved to be convicted and punished. And yes, there were understandable reasons why holding a jury trial was problematic: at a previous trial, it is alleged that jurors had been threatened; providing them and their families with round-the-clock protection would have been both difficult and prohibitively expensive. But despite all this, I’m disturbed that such a fundamental liberty – the right to be tried by a jury of ones’ peers – should be discarded so lightly.

Perhaps the worst thing is that the evidence on which the decision to not have a jury was taken has not, and will not, be disclosed. Apparently it is too ‘sensitive’ for the public eye. Putting so much faith in administrative discretion makes me very uncomfortable – maybe they made the right call this time, but who is to say they will in the future. This, ultimately, is what the rule of law is all about – protecting us from the arbitrary exercise of state power.

Would strict adherence to the rule of law mean that bad people would sometimes go free, and that justice would occasionally not be done? Yes, of course it does. But I’m reminded of the following exchange from Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, which encapsulates this issue perfectly:

William Roper: “So now you’d give the Devil the benefit of law!”

Sir Thomas More: “Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get to the Devil?”

Roper: “I’d cut down every law in England to do that!”

More: “Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you -- where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat. This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast -- man’s laws, not God’s -- and if you cut them down -- and you’re just the man to do it -- do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of the law, for my own safety’s sake.”