Want to punch this man in the face? That’ll be £100 please mate!
A man viciously assaults a passer-by: he gets a £100 fine. A local refuses to fill in the 2011 census: £230 fine. All things aside, there is an injustice here, surely? If the government aims to punish in each case, why must the census-decliner pay more than the thug? All things aside, why is the former punished more than the latter?
I ask because I visited the law courts this week, and these two cases were side-by-side in adjacent courtrooms, like an exhibition on the Iniquity of British Law.
I watched the trial of the red-shirted, aforementioned rogue. He pleaded guilty to an unprovoked, drunken assault of a man at a bus stop. We heard he biffed this bloke on the nose, knocking him to the floor, and delivered a “sustained assault”. The victim bore injuries to the face and ribs. Then the attacker said, verbatim, “Shall we call it quits mate?”
His defence was that he was drunk at the time, so he couldn’t remember exactly the details. I’m sure we’ve all had one of those nights!
The defence lawyer stood up and said that the lad did have a rotten upbringing. She then went on to describe his rotten upbringing. Heartening, I thought, but I wasn’t sure if it was entirely relevant to the matter of the ol’ brutal attack thing – remember that? I mean, if I were at the trial of Fred West, I don’t think a brief reading of Fred West’s autobiography by the defence lawyer would help.
The lawyer said he was one of those lads who is very pleasant and charming when he is sober, but just behaves differently when he’s drunk. I nearly choked on my cheese roll! Differently?!? You can say that again. And I’m not sure it’s much of a defence to say, “Well, he’s a real charmer to his defence solicitor!” I mean, he’s not going to go in with a middle-finger’d salute and say, “Eff you, you dirty cow!”
The solicitor then said something shocking, which changed everything. She said that her client could commit suicide if he were locked up or given a curfew. She said he had a history of self-harm, and there was a good risk of his topping himself.
Let’s pause here. I sympathise greatly with this man. He has endured a terrible upbringing, not tragic, but woefully humdrum in its hope-crushing poverty. I do not doubt his despair with the world or with his lot.
But I worry about the efficacy of granting points for mental insecurities. I am not wholly comfortable with the idea that markings to the wrist can be presented in court to let one off punishment. There I sat as the barrister reeled off a great list of psychological flaws: drinking problems, mental health disorders, suicidal tendencies. She did so, zealous for a lower sentence.
For few of them was there any evidence. After questioning from the magistrates, we find out he has never visited the AA, there is no doctor’s note and no evidence for any alcoholism, there is “no formal diagnosis” for his mental problems, and he has visited a mental health clinic only briefly, only recently – perhaps on the suggestion of his solicitor, perhaps not.
What then are we to make of his suicidal nature? That he has thought of giving up on the world? Very likely. That he expressed this to a lawyer? Very likely. That he expressed this with a blade? Likely. That he does this repeatedly? Perhaps. That he did so once or twice some time ago? Perhaps.
One can’t be sure. But it struck me as sickeningly easy to proclaim, “I am so in danger of suicide, that I cannot be punished.” Answer this dark, unthinkable question. How many offenders have at one stage in their lives contemplated – even thought of – ending it all? How many offenders have had upbringings so tragic that the thought occurs? If it were law that we could never punish these guilty men, how many would walk free?
In any case, the sentence was up. Six months’ community order for an unprovoked attack. That meant supervision, anger management classes and mental health classes. There was no curfew, no drinking ban, no prison. The only punishment I could see was the £100 fine, which – since he was on benefits – meant that the government still paid him for his crime, but slightly less than they would’ve done.
Since he had £400-worth of outstanding fines for previous convictions – harassment, possessing cannabis, battery – the court was prepared to let him pay by docking from his benefits £5 a week. So, if we are honest, there is no punishment. Does this matter? I think it does. Even if one is not of a vindictive nature, it leaves one with a foul feeling in one’s gut. I call that injustice.