The Devil and Benefit of Law

There has been a huge hooha going on the press about Jon Venables. The red tops are baying for blood and the BBC Have Your Say pages are full of comments from those who are incapable of making the distinction between justice and revenge.

Don’t get me wrong – what Venables did was horrific, and, had it happened in my family, I would find it next to impossible to forgive and forget. But there is a far more important issue here than just him. Denise Fergus claims that she has a right to know what he is alleged to have done. Were Straw to give in and tell her, how long would that information stay secret? Not long, I suspect, given her publicly expressed (and very understandable) feelings.

The first (and minor) point is that, no, Denise Fergus doesn’t have any special right in this. Venables was convicted and subject to punishment for what he did. By that fact he becomes the interest of the prison and probation service and not the wider public.

The second (and very important point) is whether we are prepared to scarifice two fundamental principles of our justice system.

First is “innocent until proven guilty”. It’s clear from reading some of the message forums and blogs that are already running on this, that many people have already convicted him in their own minds.

Second, and twining round the first, is the right to a fair trial. If details of Venables and his new identity are released now it makes it virtually impossible to bring him to trial. Jury selection would be a minefield and it would provide him with a ready-made ground for appeal in the event of a conviction.

I quote from Robert Bolt’s play “A Man for all Seasons” where Sir Thomas Moore makes the point quite forcefully to his son in law Will Roper:-

Wife Arrest him!
More For what?
Wife He’s dangerous!
Roper For all we know he’s a spy!
Daughter Father, that man’s bad!
More There’s no law against that!
Roper There is, God’s law!
More Then let God arrest him!
Wife While you talk he’s gone!
More And go he should, if he were the Devil himself, until he broke the law!
Roper So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
More Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down (and you’re just the man to do it!), do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?

Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

Whatever you may think of Venables, none of us should open that box of nasties, because if we do none of us can rest easy.