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Justice on Trial

Witness for the Prosecution

Last weekend I was fortunate enough to be treated to theatre tickets for Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution. The setting – London’s County Hall – was exquisite, the play sublime and the actors fabulous. An afternoon of sheer escapism, even for a die hard Christie fan like myself. Having read the short story/play many times is no replacement for seeing this on the stage. The theatre offers the opportunity to see the action from all perspectives; you can put yourself in the shoes of the defendant, the court actors and of course, the witnesses. Such a perspective vividly demonstrates the immense power of the State, not only through physical violence (although this is also evident) but through verbal dexterity.  To see the defendant – Leonard Vole – on trial; so small and defenceless against the majesty of the courtroom, is thought provoking. Furthermore, this environment is staffed by legal professionals, who unlike him, understand the world in which they operate. The cut and thrust of legalistic argument performed in the play (and in modern day courts daily) conceals the sheer ferocity of authority’s attack on the individual. Remember at the time the play was written, the death penalty was still in force, and Leonard Vole is on trial for the capital crime of murder. In essence, he is openly fighting for his very life, but subjected to the machinations and mediation of professionals who openly profess to be seeking justice. When he tries to speak, to argue, to cajole, he is silenced. There is no place for the defendant’s perspective unless it is expressed via the mandated professional who speaks on his (or her) behalf.

In the twenty-first century (and indeed, for the latter part of the twentieth century), capital punishment in the UK has not been a sentencing option. Whilst defendants may not be faced with a possible date with the hangman, the finality of sentencing and punishment is no laughing matter. Whilst there is no doubt that dramatic denouements have their place in the theatre, in the serious business of the criminal courts such antics seem out of place. If we look at the criminal court as a theatrical scene, we start to observe all manner of incongruity (cf. Carlen, 1976). For starters; the language used and the costumes worn. For anyone that has ever grappled to understand the works of Shakespeare or the Brontë’s, such reading requires patience and perseverance to understand the beauty of such writing.   In 2018, we would not request that our surgeons operate on us without the benefit of anaesthesia, neither would we want to be treated with procedures such as bloodletting or trepanning. Similarly, we don’t expect soldiers to carry muskets or form into schiltrons just because that’s how it used to be. Yet we accept and arguably, expect our courts to run as if they were stuck in time. What chance does the individual defendant have in this archaic, theatrical setting? After all, they are the star of the show, yet they have neither costume, nor the opportunity to learn their lines. It is hard to argue, that such practices are conducive to the pursuit of justice.

On the surface, going to the theatre appears to offer a pleasurable break from academia, yet the reality is it offers the opportunity to consider criminology from a novel perspective. Reading (and you all know how keen I am on reading!!) is only part of Criminology; talking, listening, thinking and exploring away from the classroom are equally important. My advice; get out, explore – the arts; theatre, cinema, literature, museums – and add this experiential knowledge to your academic studies. See things from a different perspective and unleash your Criminological Imagination (Young, 2011).


Carlen, Pat, (1976), ‘The Staging of Magistrates’ Justice,’ The British Journal of Criminology, 16, 1: 48–55

Christie, Agatha, (2018), Witness for the Prosecution, Directed by Lucy Bailey. London County Hall, [11 February 2018]

Young, Jock, (2011), The Criminological Imagination, (London: Polity)


A Problem with the Criminal Justice System?

Nahida is a BA Criminology graduate of 2017. Her dissertation, ‘On Degradation and Shaming’ explored the problems noted in this post. 

scales of just 2

Throughout studying for a Criminology degree, we are lectured upon the causation of crime, and how there is no, one single cause. However, it is interesting to see how the stereotypes that were once instilled inside us, are no longer a part of our daily voice of reason. We begin to question the very organisation, many of us want to become a part of; that being the criminal justice system itself. We come to realise, that the system, as most things is flawed.

It is public knowledge that the criminal justice system is full to the brim with defendants, offenders, victims and the innocent; amongst many other people. Therefore, as a result of these massive caseloads, the whole process from a crime being reported, to the guilty being sentenced, can become similar to a factory-line; making the procedure very impersonal. Justice can often be delayed and denied. This has a huge impact on all the parties involved; including the ones accused of a crime i.e. the defendants.

Throughout the whole process, defendants can often feel as though they are being discriminated against. It has been found that the criminal justice system, particularly the courtrooms create distance between society and the defendant. Courtrooms in England and Wales are set up in a manner in which the defendants are removed, and made to stand out of the ordinary. They are often placed in their own cage of sorts, and told to not speak, unless spoken to. This can leave defendants, who are potentially innocent, feel degraded and shamed. Courtrooms can often leave defendants without a voice, prohibiting them to feel, or even express remorse. Disallowing an offender to express remorse, can be detrimental to their rehabilitation; and even the victim’s lives. We, as a society, can have hope for criminal rehabilitation, but the way in which our justice system is set up, can hinder that very process.

Through observations made at the local crown court, it has been found that judges tend to not address the causation of the supposed crime. It is understood that people do not commit crime in a vacuum. Something has to lead them to it. Therefore, not allowing one to truly comprehend what has caused the alleged crime in the first place, can be argued as problematic, for the root issue cannot be solved, if it is not identified in the first place. This could be argued as one of the many reasons why there still remains to be a high reoffending rate. To stop reoffending, one must address the causation. However, it can be found that many parts of our criminal justice system does not perform such investigations. Therefore, how can we expect the system to achieve its aim of reducing crime, when it is potentially causing further criminality, without even intending to?



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