A NEW and thoroughgoing report on our courts and legal systems, and a lot of changes in them are long overdue. For those unfortunate enough to have to visit the courts, much of their indignation is about the length of time it takes to bring a person to trial, about how what is supposed to be a public hearing cannot be so, because either a public address system is inadequate or those who use it on the legal benches do not use it properly – some of us preachers made the same mistake. And the refusal of bail on grounds which even non-legalistic spectators can see should be challenged. Etcetera, etcetera.
For those of us with a radical turn of mind and a long-suppressed indignation, some solutions present themselves – for instance, that those whose trial has not formally begun, with all preliminaries completed, after nine months at most should walk out of court free.
That would liven things up a bit.
And where the proceedings for any reason are not progressed within a reasonable time – that time to be decided by competent human rights authorities – the expenditure of state money is held back from prosecutors until after an inquiry into the reasons. And, of course, bail to be recognised as a right which can be refused only in very serious and clearly proven circumstances, which do not include any reference to the defendant “possibly committing other offences” when he or she has not been proved to have committed this one. And sentencing to take place either at once or within days and a defendant to be called into court to hear it only once at a clearly appointed time. And judges not to sentence people to prison unless they are a danger to themselves or others. And confessions taken while under interrogation to be declared void after a simple denial by a defendant in court.
And, as a bonus, all court officials to be in normal, respectable dress, recognising that their dignity and their authority depends on how they do their work and not on how they dress. Churches could help them on this.
This might be like a slow, unsteady journey back to our ancient Irish pre-Christian justice in which the main aim was to restore the goods and dignity victims had lost more than just punishing those responsible. Will proposed changes in our present legal systems help bring us back to those ancient Irish ideals of restitution rather than punishment or revenge?
How sensible were those ancient Irish laws then? Well, look at other pre-Roman, pre-Christian legal systems we know about; for instance, the law of Moses, the Babylonian Code under Hamurabi, China in the 6th century BC, and compare and contrast them with the ancient Irish laws before we adopted the Roman idea of setting up the perfect man, woman, child and society and demanding everyone be like that. What do you find? No surprise – the Irish codes were more humane and less vengeful than the others.
And that suggests that what we really need is not just a new set of arrangements for our courts and legal systems, but a new attitude to them as well, based on the most ancient of Irish traditions: restoration of our innate dignity rather than desire for punishment or revenge.
That is our real Irish legal heritage and every proposed change should be judged by that principle.