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I’ve been thinking a lot about equality recently. It is a concept bandied around all the time and after all who wouldn’t want equal life opportunities, equal status, equal justice? Whether we’re talking about gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, age, marital status. religion, sex or maternity (all protected characteristics under the Equality Act, 2010) the focus is apparently on achieving equality. But equal to what? If we’re looking for equivalence, how as a society do we decide a baseline upon which we can measure equality? Furthermore, do we all really want equality, whatever that might turn out to be?
Arguably, the creation of the ‘Welfare State’ post-WWII is one of the most concerted attempts (in the UK, at least) to lay foundations for equality. The ambition of Beveridge’s (1942) Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services was radical and expansive. Her is a clear attempt to address, what Beveridge (1942) defined as the five “Giant Evils” in society; ‘squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease’. These grand plans offer the prospect of levelling the playing field, if these aims could be achieved, there would be a clear step toward ensuring equality for all. Given Beveridge’s (1942) background in economics, the focus is on numerical calculations as to the value of a pension, the cost of NHS treatment and of course, how much members of society need to contribute to maintain this. Whilst this was (and remains, even by twenty-first century standards) a radical move, Beveridge (1942) never confronts the issue of equality explicitly. Instead, he identifies a baseline, the minimum required for a human to have a reasonable quality of life. Of course, arguments continue as to what that minimum might look like in the twenty-first century. Nonetheless, this ground-breaking work means that to some degree, we have what Beveridge (1942) perceived as care ‘from cradle to grave’.
Unfortunately, this discussion does not help with my original question; equal to what? In some instances, this appears easier to answer; for example, adults over the age of 18 have suffrage, the age of sexual consent for adults in the UK is 16. But what about women’s fight for equality, how do we measure this? Equal pay legislation has not resolved the issue, government policy indicates that women disproportionately bear the negative impact of austerity. Likewise, with race equality, whether you look at education, employment or the CJS there is a continuing disproportionate negative impact on minorities. When you consider intersectionality, many of these inequalities are heaped one on top of the other. Would equality be represented by everyone’s life chances being impacted in the same way, regardless of how detrimental we know these conditions are? Would equality mean that others have to lose their privilege, or would they give it up freely?
Unfortunately, despite extensive study, I am no closer to answering these questions. If you have any ideas, let me know.
Beveridge, William, (1942), Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services, (HMSO: London)
The Equality Act, 2010, (London: TSO)
Over the last two weeks, twitter was littered with Conservative MPs posing at foodbanks, thanking the public for donations and showing their support for this vital service. On seeing the first one I thought this was a strange way to show compassion for those in need, given how the increased use of foodbanks is directly linked to austerity policies, the rollout of universal credit and is one of the issues raised by a recent report on the impact of poverty in the UK (Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2018). The report states that spending cuts from austerity led policies have put Britain in breach of its human rights obligations and highlights discriminatory issues, as these cuts have adversely affected low income and lone parent families, ethnic minorities and the disabled. It recommends more investment in health, social care, education and housing, and a rethink of Universal Credit. In addition, a report by the United Nations has described current government policies as ‘punitive, mean-spirited and often callous’ in their impact on the most vulnerable, more alarming given we are still one of the richest countries in the world (UN, 2018).
The responses on twitter articulated what I was feeling, ranging from incredulity, to anger and shock. It is a strange state of affairs when politicians see this as a cause for celebration, but then, there is little else to choose from, in relation to policies introduced in the last two years. The cognitive dissonance between thinking this presents them as compassionate and caring about problems they have created is quite an achievement. But then, I also know I really should not be surprised – I never believed Conservatives could be considered compassionate and anything but concerned with their own interests and dismissive of those in need. When Conservative MPs received the memo to pose at foodbanks, I wonder how many refused? Or how many believed this would be accepted as an example of celebrating charity, because even at Christmas, we all too easily normalise this level of deprivation, and rationalise it as due to individual circumstances, and not structural inequalities.
The wording of the UN report is clear in its condemnation and recognition that in Britain, the government lack the political will to help those most in need, given that tax cuts signalling the ‘end of austerity’ have once again benefitted the rich, under the auspices of this wealth trickling down in the form of jobs and increased wages. However, the EHRC and UN reports have emphasised how these policies are disproportionately affecting those who cannot work, or can only do part time work, or who face discrimination and disadvantage, including employment opportunities and prospects. When foodbanks were first set up, I honestly believed this was a temporary fix, never did I think still in 2018 they would be still be needed and indeed, be increasingly used. I also never would have imagined they would be held up as an example of the good work of charities adopted as a PR stunt by the very people who have created the inequalities and harm we see today.
The small glimmer of hope is the protest in one of these pictures, and the responses via twitter which reflected how I felt. There was a clear backlash in Scotland, where it was reported that a record number of supplies were needed as Universal Credit was rolled out, and where there were calls to foodbanks and supermarkets to refuse to pose with Conservative MPs. Alas, my fear is beyond the twittersphere, most people can rationalise this as acceptable. After all, should we not celebrate charity and helping those in need at this time of year? Is this just an example of good will and thinking of others? Well, yes of course, and if these photos were simply asking people to donate without the MPs responsible being there, I would think most of us would perhaps be reminded we can do our bit to help, and we should. The presence of the MPs and acceptance of this as good PR is what really worries me, that people will still vote for a party which has been described as cruel and punitive and believes this sort of promotion makes them look good. The irony that our current Prime Minister once herself warned that the Conservatives were becoming the ‘nasty party’ is staggering. For what she now resides over are policies which are internationally condemned as harmful, discriminatory and callous.
The other slight glimmer of hope is some commentators suggest this stunt reflects rumours of a general election on the horizon, as while Theresa May celebrated the ‘success’ of negotiating a deal with the European Union, it seems this was short-lived once parliament began to debate the deal and may trigger an election. The UN report suggested that Brexit has been so much of a distraction for MPs and the public that we are not seeing domestic problems as a priority. I think for many there is a sense that once this deal is done, we can get on with resolving other issues. But for this government, I don’t think that is the case. I think for Conservatives, these negotiations and now parliamentary debates are a welcome distraction and a narrative which fits their lack of will to actually address the harms caused by austerity. A general election may bring about change and force MPs to confront where we are today as a result of political choices, but this depends on how we all really feel about poverty, homelessness, discrimination and disadvantage. I wonder if too many feel these are insurmountable problems, inevitable and therefore, beyond the abilities of government to address. But the UN and EHRC reports clearly tell us this is not the case. I hope we do get an opportunity to hold this government to account sooner rather than later. But most of all, I hope that more of us actually take up this opportunity and not allow what we see today to continue.
Senior Lecturer in Criminology
Equality and Human Rights Commission (2018) The cumulative impact on living standards of public spending changes, available from https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/publication-download/cumulative-impact-living-standards-public-spending-changes
United Nations (2018) Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, see https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=23881&LangID=E
Recently I attended an Inside Justice Live Crime event hosted by Anglia Law School at Anglia Ruskin University. The last speaker for the evening was Kevin Lane who is trying to have his wrongful conviction overturned, during his discussion he mentioned that he was found guilty of murder by a 10-2 majority verdict. It came as quite a shock to me to hear that majority verdicts are used for murder charges in England.
In 1994 Robert Magill was shot dead by a hitman while walking his dog in Hertfordshire, two men fled the scene in a BMW car. In 1995 Lane and a co-accused were charged with the murder of Magill. The prosecution alleged that Lane had received payment for this murder and submitted that fingerprints were found in bin liners in the car. Police were unable to link Lane to the scene of the crime, were unable to prove he had received payment, and he has always maintained his innocence.
There were a number of limitations and concerns in this case – the murder weapon was never recovered, two prime suspects who were brought to the police’s attention soon after the murder were not properly investigated and were later found to have an inappropriate relationship with the investigating police officer, and there were on going disclosure problems. Further, in 2002 the investigating officer was sent to prison for four years of conspiracy to steal £160,000 from the Hertfordshire Police and misconduct in a public office. (This is a very brief summary of a complicated case).
A majority verdict is used when the jury cannot reach a unanimous verdict and where the jury consists of usually 12 jurors and at least 10 or 11 agree (depending on the jurisdiction) – under certain conditions the judge is able to accept the jury’s verdict. The provision of a majority verdict is generally used when a prescribed period of time has elapsed, and the judge is satisfied that the jury are unlikely to reach a unanimous verdict after further deliberation. Majority verdicts have been used in England since 1974 and were originally introduced to prevent the intimidation or bribing of jurors.
While I am aware of majority verdicts, as they are used in Queensland, Australia (where I completed my legal education). Majority verdicts cannot be used for murder trials, for an offence which has mandatory life imprisonment as a penalty, and Commonwealth offences. The overall concern with majority verdicts is that if the jury is unable to reach a unanimous decision then they cannot be said to have reached a decision ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ which is the standard of proof for criminal matters, and as a consequence have demonstrated reasonable doubt.
Unanimous jury verdicts have been part of the common law since the 14thcentury. Prior to 1866, if a jury could not reach an agreement they could be ‘carried around in a wagon with the court without meat or drink, fire or candle until they were starved or frozen into agreement.’ We have obviously come a long way since the days of locking jurors up and separating them from their family and friends until they reached a decision.
Using unanimous verdicts is argued to reduce the risk of convicting an innocent person, that unanimity is a fundamental feature of a jury trial, it leads to better deliberation, and that disagreement in a jury is not unreasonable. When considering the issue from the perspective of the accused, majority verdicts place them at a great disadvantage when one considers that the prosecution has much more resources. There are already a number of contributors to wrongful convictions which the accused needs to contest with, and the fact that appeals are very difficult.
It can be argued there are benefits for majority verdicts – they reduce the instance of a hung jury (where the accused is neither acquitted or convicted) and the potential for a retrial (and the economic cost associated for a criminal justice system which is already overloaded). Majority verdicts are said to overcome problems with ‘rogue’ jurors, bribery and intimidation. The use of majority verdicts allows there to be finality in the case for the victim/s, the accused, the family and friend of the victim/s and accused, and the community.
Personally, I believe that in the interest of justice majority verdicts should not be used in serious criminal cases – such as murder and offences which carry mandatory life imprisonment penalty. These cases are much too serious and if reasonable doubt is present then this should be recognised. In Kevin Lane’s case he would not have been convicted, served 18 years in prison, and still be trying to overturn his conviction.
Cowdery, N. (2007). Majority jury verdicts. Reform Issue. 90, 18-19.
Garrett, B.L. & Neufeld, P.J. (2009). Invalid forensic science testimony and wrongful convictions. Virginia Law Review. 95(1), 1-97.
Gray, A. (2009). A guarantee right to trial by jury at state level? Australian Journal of Human Rights. 15(1), 97-125.
Roberts, S. & Weathered, L. (2009). Assisting the factually innocent: The contradictions and compatibility of Innocence Projects and the Criminal Cases Review Commission. Oxford Journal of Legal Studies. 29(1), 43-70.
Sankoff, P. (2006). Majority jury verdicts and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. UBC Law Review. 39(2), 333-369.