Friday 20 May 2022

Trying people in secret


It would be an understatement to suggest that many people are mystified by the conclusions of the Met investigation into events at Downing Street. Various explanations have been suggested as to how this might have happened, ranging from some people being penalised for answering the infamous questionnaire honestly, or the police looking for only ‘slam dunk’ cases where the evidence is absolutely incontrovertible, to strange loopholes involving the fact that Downing Street is both a home and an office. Whatever the reason, it does seem as though junior and middle-ranking staff have taken the brunt of the punishments whilst those at the top setting the tone and culture have largely escaped. Whilst the detail about who has been fined and for what remains officially secret, the chances of further information being made public by disgruntled staff look to be high. As Keir Starmer has discovered, the Tories are enthusiastically in favour of demanding that the police re-open investigations where the rationale for the police conclusion is inexplicable and happy to use ‘new evidence’, however flimsy, to boost their case. In the interests of consistency, they will surely demand a re-investigation of Johnson when new evidence does come to light. And porcine aviation is established fact.

The question which the outcome does – or should – raise is whether fixed penalty notices are an appropriate way of dealing with such matters. It’s not like a parking fine, for instance, where it’s usually simply a matter of fact as to whether a vehicle was parked in a particular location for a particular period of time. And whilst it’s true that those fined could decline to pay and demand a court hearing, it’s easy to see why many might decide not to for reasons of hassle and cost, especially when their real gripe isn’t that they’ve been fined but that someone else has not. Use of FPNs looks to be more about saving cost in the justice system than about ensuring that justice is not only done but is also seen to be done. But in cases where evidence has to be sifted and weighed and will never be officially revealed, and where complex and changing regulations have to be assessed and interpreted, is it really appropriate to allow the police to act as judge, jury and executioner – and to do so in secret?

No comments: