One accused man recounts his experience of the justice system for Open Justice week.
By Calum James McKay, @calumjamesmckay
John is 28 years old and lives in Glasgow. He has a normal job, takes in the football and the company of friends at the weekend and leads a life fairly typical of a male in his twenties dwelling in a British metropolitan environment, the kind of life that would be deemed by most to be unremarkable.
Early in the hours of a Saturday morning at the end of January, though, things changed irreversibly for John. After a night out with his then partner, John was visited in his home by two officers of Strathclyde Police. He was detained, charged with a domestic breach of the peace and common assault, and then passed through various entities of the Scottish justice system – police cars, interview rooms, holding cells, Reliance vans and a court rooms - before being granted bail and returned to his liberty, albeit conditionally, at Glasgow Sheriff Court the following Monday afternoon.
I’m calling him John because the court proceedings which begun a few weeks ago are still ongoing – he is to appear at a further hearing at the same court later this year, when he will learn whether he is to stand trial on the charges, which he robustly denies – and therefore his real name cannot be associated with a frank recounting of his experience such as this.
Despite the case, John is relaxed enough when we meet; the lingering emotional marks of his debut (he hopes his only) encounter of the corridors of justice, with their overwhelming private vocabulary and de trop procedure, surface only occasionally and fleetingly. The marks are definitely there though, detectable throughout our discussion in little moments of frustration and anger, worry and trepidation.
From our quiet corner table, he begins: “The thing that really galls me is what the charges were. I asked how I had breached the peace. They said, basically, because I had shouted at her. So, to my mind, I had been arrested and charged with shouting at someone in my own house – the same person who had shouted back at me.” It’s worth mentioning here that John was given the opportunity by police to make a counter-allegation, an opportunity he declined.
The relationship was by John’s own admission “tempestuous”, though nothing more than that and the argument which ignited that night had taken him by surprise. Yes, words were exchanged; there were even moments during the altercation, he tells me, where they held each other’s arms. But assault? Criminal charges? The concepts are as alien to him as the world of legalese and cell graffiti which he now finds himself inescapably embroiled in.
And this is what makes his case so interesting: John’s charges are far from the most serious that a judge in the UK will consider – though this is not to understate domestic violence’s pernicious effects or its particular social significance. He is, if there exists such a thing, an ordinary person - John tells me he had no idea how to instruct a solicitor prior to this, or that if he had simply said nothing during his interview he wouldn’t be in the position he is in currently. An ordinary person who has been placed in a system which is intended to be universal and designed to receive and deal with him fairly and in the public interest.
The first link in the chain for almost every person entering into our legal system, whether via an arrest or attendance at a station, is our police. In this regard, John was no different. The officers who were in his home and at the station were professional and pleasant enough, reassuring even, but more systemic problems with the way in which accused individuals are handled by the police became apparent.
“I had been completely calm at all points,” he explains. “It was obvious they weren’t dealing with someone who had taken part in a violent assault. The officer said we have to detain you and I didn’t realise I would then be handcuffed.”
Pretty standard stuff you might think, but when you consider John’s next point, it raises a number of questions. “They were quite happy for me and one other guy to be sitting in that room - in all honesty I finished a bottle of beer while I was sitting talking to the guy. The guy was sitting to my left on the couch, so if I wanted to I could have smashed it over his head. Now, I’m never going to do that, but I could have.”
“I can understand a better safe than sorry approach on their behalf, because they don’t know me,” he says, “but there’s no continuity with it and it doesn’t make any sense.” So why do officers place people in handcuffs after allowing them such freedom of movement? “It’s to dehumanise you, it’s to assert authority over you in whatever ways they can,” he replies.
It’s a process that continues upon arrival at the station. “Whenever you get in there they take your jacket off you,” John goes on. “You’re only allowed one set of clothes, yet you’re given as many sheets as you want, which would make a much better noose than my jacket. Even if you have slip-on shoes with no laces they are taken off you. When I was taken in to be interviewed, I wasn’t allowed to put a pair of shoes on. So you’re sitting there with just socks on: It’s like, for fuck’s sake, this is my life!”
John smiles wryly at this point, but his displeasure at the method of handling suspects is clear to see. A further source of ire - on top of what he describes as a prevalence of “procedure for procedure’s sake” - could be found in the underlying reasons for his detention. As he elaborates: “ I was told by my lawyer there was a decision made by the Lord Advocate whenever they changed this piece of legislation in 2010, a political decision that the SNP made to desperately try and increase the number of convictions for domestic violence. That’s the reason I couldn’t be bailed without seeing a sheriff.”
John was told by an officer that if he had head-butted someone on Sauchiehall Street that he’d have been released. At this stage, too, his charge was still only a breach of the peace; the common assault was later added by the Procurator Fiscal after receipt of the police report, another decision which he says “doesn’t make any sense”. He continues: “Incarceration for three days is insane for that [breach of the peace], when you consider there’s people punching random people outside pubs and committing much more offensive crimes to society. It’s frustrating.”
His sense of confusion was, it seemed, shared by his carers at the police station, all most all of whom described his being there as “bullshit”. John recalls the moment he was informed that he would be held over the weekend. “Once the tape was off,” he says “the CID officer apologised to me and said: ‘Look, I’m sorry. This will go to the Fiscal and it will probably get kicked out. But, I’m sorry, I have to do this.’ I just put my head in my hands and asked if there was anything I could do to get out of there.”
The answer was no.
John eventually emerged from the stairs into a court room having not washed for 72 hours and was granted bail by a sheriff on Monday afternoon before his release. In that time, he had passed through the sleepless monotony of the “Victorian” custody cells of two Glasgow police stations - an environment in which quickly he learned “not to ask difficult questions” - and Reliance officers had derided and confiscated the books his parents, who attended his custody hearing in tears, had brought for him to read.
He had eaten nothing but gluey microwavable meals delivered at unusual hours of the day and had negotiated the intimidating and “strange” group cell at the Sheriff Court. The experience of seeing so many young men accruing charge upon charge and conviction upon conviction is one that you can see John is still trying to make sense of.
He had stood a mute spectator in a court of law as his immediate liberty was discussed in a matter of seconds by other men whom he had never previously met. He had done all this yet it only represented the beginning of things.
John is to appear at the same court for a pre-trial hearing, or intermediate diet, in the summer, where he will find out if his case will proceed to trial and where he will continue to plead not guilty. Between now and then he has much to contemplate. The “worst three days” of his life in the preliminary mechanisms of justice have left him troubled.
As well as the immediate implications of the case and a criminal record, he worries about the impact on his future career, the effects of all this on his family and about unwittingly breaching his bail. Mostly, though, the experience has brought home an uncomfortable reality about the process of justice.
“I don’t believe that the criminal justice system is set up for the ‘average’ person to have a fair access to it,” he tells me. From his being charged to his engaging of a lawyer and standing in front of a judge in the theatre of the court room, John has witnessed what he calls “the archaic rigmarole” of the law, and more awaits. When he thinks about it all now, the persisting question in his mind is: “Who benefits?”
Copyright remains with the author.