The Real World of the Rule of Law: Courts as Oppressive Organizations, Part One

Introduction 

The following series of posts are meant to complement the series of posts on the issue of reforming versus abolishing the police (see for example Reform or Abolition of the Police, Part One or Reform Versus Abolition of the Police, Part 8: The Police and the Political Economy of Capitalism).

The following is mainly a series of quotes from the book by Doreen McBarnet (1983) Conviction: Law, the State and the Construction of Justice as well as short commentaries related to the quotes. I use her book as a way of exposing the real nature of the rule of law and the role of courts in both hiding the real nature and enforcing the real nature of the rule of law.

A note on the limitations of the following: Ms. McBarnet draws on English and Scottish law; the situation here in Canada may be somewhat different. If anyone knows of sources relevant for determining the real operationalization of the rule of law in Canada, please provide them in the comments section.

The social-democratic left here in Toronto have little to say about the role of courts in general in oppressing members of the working class, citizens, immigrants and migrants. There are of course particular criticisms of court decisions, but there is no critique of the systemic oppression of the courts.

Alternatively, some social democrats imply that the court system somehow embodies the “rule of law,” which is something positive. Thus, the social democrat Bruce Campbell (Adjunct Professor York University, Department of Environmental Sciences (and former Executive Director (1994-2015) of the social-democratic organization Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA)), in July 2008, published the article “A Denial of Fundamental Justice: Conservatives’ no-fly list violates rights, rule of law” in the CCPA journal The Monitor:

Since September 11, 2001, both Liberal and Conservative governments have introduced a vast array of measures that they claim are needed to combat terrorism. Some are enacted through laws such as the Public Safety Act and the Anti-Terrorism Act. Many others have come into being through bilateral agreements with the United States, such as the Smart Border Declaration and Action Plan, and the Safe Third Country Agreement.

These measures, which dramatically expand state power at the expense of our deeply held rights and freedoms and the rule of law [my emphasis], were not needed to deal with a genuine security threat. They were introduced mainly in response to U.S. government intimidation to bring Canadian security measures into line with draconian U.S. practices, and from Canadian business wanting to “do what it takes” to keep trade flowing across the border. (This harmonization process continues under the North American Security and Prosperity Partnership.)

Components of the Rule of Law

Ms. McBarnet’s book gives the lie to the idea that there is such a thing as the “rule of law” in the sense of the application of laws in a consistent and fair manner. Of what does the rule of law supposedly consist? Page 2: 

The conviction process in the legal sense poses a problem for explanation because it raises a strange paradox. All the rhetoric of justice we are so familiar with presents a picture of a system of criminal justice bending over backwards to favour the defendant rather than the prosecution. Every accused has the right to a fair trial. He is innocent till proved guilty; it is the prosecutor who must prove his case. What is more, the accused has a right to silence, he is not a compellable witness and he need not incriminate himself, so that the prosecutor has to be able to prove his case without the cooperation of the accused

Wow. These are an impressive list of legal rights–if they exist. Did Mr. Campbell inquire into whether in fact they do exist, or did he assume that they existed? 

The Paradoxes of the Rule of Law

Those who refer to the rule of law without further ado have some explaining to do since the rule of law ends up resulting in some interesting effects that seem to contradict its positive nature. Page 2:

The accused need prove nothing, but can choose if he wishes to establish a defence case to counter that of the prosecution with the less stringent requirement not of ‘proof’ but merely of raising a reasonable doubt, and he may use legal expertise to do that. The whole flavour of the rhetoric of justice is summed up in the idea that it is better for ten guilty men to go free than for one innocent man to be wrongly convicted. Why then the paradox that the vast majority of cases processed through a criminal justice system so geared to favouring the accused results in a finding of guilt?

The social-democratic left, like Bruce Campbell, remain silent about this fact of the real rule of law. Why is that? Perhaps because they cling to the rhetoric of the rule of law and hence to its ideology rather than to its real nature? 

The social-democratic or social-reformist left, by clinging to such an ideology, contribute to the perpetuation of the oppressive nature of law. 

Let us continue. Page 2: 

In the rhetoric of justice everyone is entitled to a fair trial; yet most defendants plead guilty. In the rhetoric of justice any reasonable doubt should result in acquittal; yet for the clear majority of cases the court is convinced beyond reasonable doubt, despite all the rhetorical hamstrings on police and prosecution, that the accused is guilty. Why?

One obvious answer is that mainly the guilty pass through the criminal justice system and therefore are indeed found guilty because they are guilty. Page 2: 

One answer might be quite simply that the defendants are guilty; the case against them is too strong to be plausibly disputed; the facts speak for themselves. Sir Robert Mark has suggested indeed that the very limitations placed on police and prosecution bringing a case to court make it highly probable that only the indisputably guilty come through the process at all.

However, being judged guilty of a crime is not a self-evident fact. What activities are defined as crimes and the procedures and the processes for determining whether an activity constitutes a crime are not self-evident; they form part of a social process of defining an activity as a crime. Page 3:

But this is where we come to the process of conviction in its other, subjective, sense. Given the ambiguities and uncertainties that dog real-life incidents, how are clear-cut facts of the case and strong cases produced? How do judges and juries come to be persuaded beyond reasonable doubt by one case or another? Evidence, the facts of the case, strong and weak cases are not simply self-evident absolutes; they are the end-product of a process which organises and selects the available ‘facts’ and constructs cases for and in the courtroom. Behind the facts of the case that convince judges or juries to an unambiguous verdict lies a process of construction and a structure of proof that need to be probed and analysed.

… What exactly are the procedures of criminal justice that are so readily assumed to protect the accused? For though they are constantly referred to in theory and in practice they are remarkably little investigated.

Both the social-democratic left and the right, despite their many differences, share the assumption that the rule of law provides many safeguards for protecting the rights of the accused. Page 5: 

Throughout the debate of the 1970s both those advocating law geared more to crime control, like Sir Robert Mark, or his successor as Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir David McNee, and those advocating more effective civil rights, like the National Council for Civil Liberties [NCCL], tend to assume that the law does incorporate safeguards for the accused. Hence from one perspective the police are too hamstrung by the law to do their job and the guilty go free; from the other, the law does not work because the police abuse it to secure convictions. So NCCL writers note: 

All policemen are under the same pressure; bend the rules to deliver the goods in the form of convictions. . . . It is the abuse of police powers in these circumstances-arrest, search and questioning that has created the most intractable police/civil liberty problem in recent years. (Cox, 1975, p. 164. [Ms. McBarnet’s emphasis].

For both the the social-democratic left and the right, the problem is not the rules of law themselves but the abuse of those who are supposed to uphold them. Pages 4-5:

The assumption has been in effect that the law incorporates rights for the accused, and the problem has been simply to ask why and how the police and courts subvert, negate or abuse them.

The Rule of Law as Rhetoric Versus the Rule of Law as Reality

The issue is not this or that particular abuse of the law by judges (courts) and the police; it is obvious that that happens. The issue is whether law as it is operationalized is itself an abuse.

Social democrats and the right both operate at the level of the rhetoric of the rule of law–and not at the level of real law, which is the operationalization or the putting into practice of law on a daily basis. Page 6:

But does the law incorporate due process, safeguards for the accused, civil rights? The vague notion of ‘due process’ or ‘the law in the books’ in fact collapses two quite distinct aspects of law into one: the general principles around which the law is discussed-the rhetoric of justice-and the actual procedures and rules by which justice or legality are operationalised. The rhetoric used when justice is discussed resounds with high-sounding principles but does the law incorporate the rhetoric? This cannot simply be assumed; the law itself, not just the people who operate it, must be put under the microscope for analysis.

It is necessary to inquire into whether the legal system actually does what it claims to do: to protect the rights of citizens (if not immigrants and migrants) from abuse. Page 8:

To question whether the law incorporates its own rhetoric is to ask whether deviation from standards of justice and legality are not merely the product of informalities and unintended consequences at the level of petty officials, but institutionalised in the formal law of the state. This has implications for how the state rules. One of the essential justifications of the democratic state is precisely that it is based on legality, that the relationship between the state and the individuals of civil society is one governed not by the arbitrary exercise of power but by power exercised within the constraints of
law. The criminal justice process is the most explicit coercive apparatus of the state and the idea that police and courts can interfere with the liberties of citizens only under known law and by means of due process of law is thus a crucial element in the ideology of the democratic state. To question whether the law in fact incorporates the rhetoric of justice is to question the ideological foundations of the state. It is to raise the possibility of contradictions within dominant ideology and questions about the mechanics of its management. It is to raise questions about what the whole idea of the rule of law means and how it operates.

The above quotes are taken from chapter one of Ms. McBarnet’s book. Chapter two of her book is titled “Convincing the Court: The Structure of Legal Proof.” She has this introductory thing to say about the rhetoric (not the reality) of legal proof:

The core of the liberal democratic concept of criminal justice is that a person is innocent until proved guilty. Justice does not rule out punishment; on the contrary it deals in ‘just deserts’. What the ideology of justice is opposed to is arbitrary punishment. The important criterion in dealing out ‘just deserts’ is that the recipient should have been proved guilty.

… 

The trial is where that process of proof is not only carried out but put on public display-where justice has not only to be done, but be seen to be done. The plausibility of the trial as a process of proving the accused guilty is one criterion by which the ideology of justice stands or falls.

One of the issues is what judges understand by “reasonable doubt.” In cases where there is a jury, it is still the judge who decides what constitutes sufficiency of proof; it is the jury (if there is one) that decides whether what is offered as proof is credible or not. In other words, if the jury finds certain events are indeed facts (are credible), the number of credible facts  will determine whether the accused is considered guilty or not (and the number of pieces of credible facts is determined by the judge). Page 13: 

So the courts have drawn a line at what will do as proof. Prosecutors do not have to prove everything a jury might want to know, they only have to produce a sufficiency of evidence. Juries have to be convinced beyond reasonable doubt-but they cannot choose the issues that they have to be convinced about: sufficiency and credibility are distinguished in law. The law defines how much evidence constitutes ‘sufficient’ to prove a case and it is the judge’s role to decide that this standard has been met. The jury’s role is to decide whether they believe it. But the legal demands involved in ‘sufficiency’ are often rather lower than one might expect. Indeed from judges’ summing-up addresses it seems clear they recognise they have to persuade juries-whose only knowledge of the law is after all the rhetoric-that enough evidence is not as much as they might think.

Ms. McBarnet then provides evidence from real court cases of how judges impose their own view of what constitute sufficient evidence to convict (to find the accused guilty as charged). Pages 13-14: 

In Case 103 where the accused was charged with theft but the goods were still alongside the car they had been stolen from, the judge took pains to point out this was not mere attempt but legally constituted theft:

But note this, ladies and gentlemen, [then he picked up and read from a legal text] it is sufficient to complete the crime of theft if the thing be removed for the shortest time and [loudly] but a small distance … and he continued for two minutes with the details.

The same applies in another case:

In Case 91 the judge addressed the jury:

You might expect you would need an eye-witness for proof, but that is not necessary in cases of theft. There are facts and circumstances from which theft can be inferred without eye witnesses. Here the Crown can infer theft according to the doctrine of recent possession …

Again, in another case: 

In Case 93, where one of the charges was breach of the peace, the judge (the same one as in Case 103) again read from a law book on the definition of the offence (having prefaced the law with the comment that this was a common but fundamental offence, ‘because without the peace there is no order, and if there is no order there is certainly no civilisation as we have been brought up to know it’):

Breach of the peace is behaviour which “might reasonably be expected to lead to lieges being upset”. Note that “might be”. There is no need to lead evidence that anyone was upset.

He continued on the question of evidence for the second charge of assault with an ornamental sword:

It was perhaps revealing that the accused’s idea of assault was an idea held by many-hitting a person. That is not the law. An assault in law [and out comes the book again] is an intentional attack on the person of another whether it injures him or not. To aim a blow at a victim is an assault though the blow never lands, to set a dog on someone, to make a gesture of violence are all assaults. Disabuse yourself of the idea that there’s got to be blood, got to be bruises. To aim a blow, a fist, a boot [pause] a sword,
[pause] is assault.

The reality of what constitutes “reasonable doubt” and the rhetoric of the prosecutor having to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” gives the lie to those who claim that we merely need to transform the legal system, such as the social democrat Herman Rosenfeld, here in Toronto. Let us see what he writes:

Shouldn’t that institution [the police] be thoroughly transformed, by political struggle, into a more humane, limited and less autonomous one?

(For a criticism of his defense of the idea of “transforming” the police into “a more humane, limited and less autonomous institution,’ see, among others, the post Reform or Abolition of the Police, Part One). 

Although Mr. Rosenfeld refers to the police, his logic applies as well to the courts. Perhaps Mr. Rosenfeld and other social democrats will provide us with a description of how they propose to reform the courts in such a manner that judges do not influence how “reasonable doubt” is defined. 

My prediction is that they will neither provide any such description nor, for that matter, will they actually attempt to “transform the courts (and police) into “a more humane, limited and less autonomous institution.” I have not seen any articles written by Mr. Rosenfeld that indicates that he has initiated any attempt to “transform the police (and courts] into a more humane,, limited and less autonomous institution.”

This should not surprise those who read this blog. Social democrats often. on the one hand, accept the rhetoric (ideology) expressed by various social institutions and, on the other, do not lift a finger to really change those institutions in any fundamental way.

I will continue quoting from McBarnet’s book and providing comments in the next post in this series. 

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