The British people enjoy a world-class legal system. The “Rule of Law” and access to justice are rightly held to be cornerstones of our democracy. Centre-stage in our criminal justice system is the jury. Twelve local people bearing a heavy burden on behalf of the local community to determine the guilt or otherwise of their peers. For less serious offences, three Justices of the Peace, also drawn from the local community, serve ostensibly the same function as juries.
Juries and lay magistrates are the common man, the ordinary person, you or I – at the very heart of the legal system. We can be confident in the veracity of verdicts (at least in theory) because it is likely, that if we were asked to pronounce on the same set of facts – we would reach the same conclusions as our fellow citizens. In the administration of justice, the presence of the “lay” person ensures as far as possible, that the core values and reasoning behind the outcome of any given trial are consistent with prevailing societal norms and values. In this way, the enormous power of the courts over the reputation and liberty of citizens is tempered, moulded and even constrained by the ordinary person.
Imperfect though our legal system is – having the “layman” at its very heart is critical to retaining public confidence and trust. Without doubt, any challenge to this aspect of our legal system should be resisted as anti-democratic and a dangerous usurpation of power.
Thirty years ago, the infamous Miners’ strike was in full flow. So intense and bitter was the conflict between the Thatcher government and the miners, that eighteen months ago, when the “Iron Lady” died, some mining communities held street parties!
In January of this year, the minutes of the cabinet meetings presided over by Mrs Thatcher were released by the National Archives. A debate in the House of Commons on the 28 October drawing on the declassified papers indicated that the government lied to the nation repeatedly about the extent of the pit closure plans, sought to influence police tactics, and that the government even considered declaring a state of emergency and deploying the army against the striking miners. According to the speech of Michael Dougher MP, Ministers were even
“prepared to override normal judicial processes, and ensure that local magistrate courts dealt with cases arising from the dispute in a much quicker fashion”.
As an extension of the executive, the interference with police tactical autonomy and the contemplation of the use of the army may not be that surprising. However, when it is remembered that the miners were striking to protect their jobs, and the economic wellbeing of their families and communities, the reality that the government contemplated deploying the army against them suggests desperation or ill-will!
The criminal behaviour of police officers during the miners’ strike is well documented. In an excellent chapter in his book “Memoirs of a radical lawyer”, Michael Mansfield (who defended some of the miners) stated it was:
“one of the biggest and most brutal police operations against citizens that Britain has ever seen. Tens of thousands of police from at least sixteen different forces [were deployed]… Roadblocks sealed off the country… miners were beaten and arrested and their leaders attacked“.
Over 10,000 miners were arrested and some 8,000 were charged with various offences, typically breach of the peace. Many miners were assaulted by the police during their arrests, some suffering fractured skulls or broken limbs. The police (many deployed without identification) “spat at, punched and kicked those arrested”, used “illegal head-locks” and intentionally provoked the miners into reacting so they could be arrested , charged and bailed “with conditions” (typically excluding them from the picket-lines) – thereby removing them from the dispute. It is clear that officers routinely gave inaccurate, even fanciful testimony in court, and their written statements were often changed or simply falsified. In some cases their statements were dictated to them by other officers!
The shameful record of the police in the Miners’ conflict, although well document – has not resulted in a single prosecution of any police officers to date and the IPCC has been told by MPs in the recent debate that it needed to “get its act together” to investigate the policing of the strike.
In the early stages of the strike, Thatcher’s government expressed concern that local magistrates were not dealing with the miners charged (on what we now known to have frequently been spurious grounds) quickly enough, and cabinet papers indicated they were keen in:
“bringing pressure on local magistrates’ committees to make more effective use of the services of stipendiary magistrates, who could readily be made available : the Government might, for example, make it known that the cause of delay was at local level and challenge the magistrates’ committees to be more co-operative”
The history of stipendiary magistrates (district judges) is interesting (and beyond the scope of this article) – but from the very beginning – their existence was treated with some suspicion, it being predicted they would soon become “corrupt jobbers and odious tyrants”! Since District judges sit alone, determine the verdict and hand-down sentences – their deployment can displace the all important “local” or “lay” involvement in the administration of justice.
The questionable practices in one Magistrates Court was the subject of a High Court challenge. It was held that:
“the individual circumstances and good character of each applicant was irrelevant once the justices were satisfied that the imposition of the condition to the grant of bail was necessary to prevent each individual applicant from joining the pickets at the collieries and committing offences against public order“.
In addition, the court held:
(i) The practice of putting into the dock together defendants who have been arrested on different occasions or at different places is to be discouraged.
(ii) It does a bench of justices no credit if their clerk is affixing standard conditions to bail forms while applications for unconditional bail are being made.
The lessons to be learned are too many to enumerate – but out of this shameful conflict – we can see the seeds of the makings of the Hillsborough football disaster, police impunity, the poll tax riots, a significant curtailing of trade union striking rights and a rapid decline in the respect people have for politicians.
Apart from the Miners, some of the unsung heroes in this conflict were in fact lawyers. Their enormously important contributions in defending the miners, exposing police corruption and challenging the cynical defects in the magistrates courts – is seldom mentioned. Nevertheless, their courageous and principled actions have done the profession an enormous credit.
Despite the pejorative title pinned on the miners by the Thatcher government (The “Enemy within”) – in reality, it was the executive which was busy undermining the constitutional principle of separation of power who should be remembered as such.
As I start on my journey in law – the lawyers who defended the miners against the full force of the establishment and the media will be my inspiration. As far as the executive are concerned – “Speak truth to power”.
The lessons from the Miners’ strike are rather depressing. History has spoken. The Thatcher government acted dishonestly, deceiving the public, micromanaging the police and creating a culture of criminal complacency within their ranks, interfering in the administration of justice and irreversibly damaging trade unions and in particular mining communities!
 Chapter 6, p.71.
 The “bouncing bricks” testimony mentioned in Mansfield’s book is an excellent example.
 National Archives – Catalogue Reference:CAB/128/79/7
 Milton, F. (1967) The English Magistracy. Oxford University Press. p.31.