The story surrounding the suspended sentence passed down to Neil Wilson at Snaresbrook Crown Court has gained a large media following in the past week. This is unsurprising given the description of the 13 year old victim as ‘predatory in all her actions,’ by the prosecuting barrister, Mr Robert Colover QC. Since then a number of politicians have spoken out against the appropriateness of such comments and the CPS has chosen to suspend Mr Colover from prosecuting further sex abuse cases until a proper investigation can be completed.
…this case brings to light two important constitutional issues with reference to the application of criminal law.
However, aside from the reported controversy, this case brings to light two important constitutional issues with reference to the application of criminal law. Firstly, given the media outcry and political pressures involved, it calls into question the correct use of the Attorney General’s authority to refer a case to the Court of Appeal. Secondly, it highlights the competing duties of a prosecutor as an advocate of the crown and a servant of the court. These issues are discussed below with particular reference to the separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches of government.
The application of criminal law attracts political debate. No government wishes to be seen as soft on crime. Political posturing in this area, therefore, has a natural bias and brings into question the correct balance between executive oversight and judicial independence. Whether or not one agrees with the comments used during this particular case, it appears that the immediate political response is fuelled by the public outcry towards the statements used, rather than specific concerns as to their accuracy, or the subsequent weight given to them by the judge. If this is indeed the case, then it begs the question as to whether a minister of parliament, such as the Attorney General, can provide an appropriate decision, regarding an appeal, without being guided by the thought of political fallout. When the media drives political pressure it can be seen to taint executive oversight. The separation of powers within the UK then fails in its function as a check and balance and in so doing allows the independence of the judiciary to become marred by politics.
When the media drives political pressure it can be seen to taint executive oversight.
Knowing this, if we are to assume that Mr Colover truly believed his description of the girl to be accurate, it is right that he gave his controversial submission, given his duty to the court. His honesty here would serve as a balance against the weight of the Crown acting upon a single individual. This safeguard can then be seen to legitimise the judicial process. Therefore it is suggested that any executive interference, based upon the subsequent media outrage, would be an improper use of government authority. In addition it would prove to highlight a failing in the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary.
It is impossible to say whether or not Mr Colover believes in the necessity of giving his statements. Given the anonymity of the victim it will be incredibly difficult for anyone outside the case to accurately judge the validity of the language used. That is not what this article attempts to discuss. The issues that are discussed, however, are ones which reoccur time and time again within constitutional debate. The separation of powers is a key safeguard with respect to the maintenance of an independent judiciary. This, in turn, helps to secure a fair and legitimate court system whereby the prosecution is able to act as a servant of that system and not solely as an advocate of the Crown. However, cases, such as the one above, can highlight the potential failings of our constitutional structure, which can lead to trending media pressures influencing the process of justice via the action of a politically aware executive.
Alistair Henwood graduated in Law from the University of Westminster, after completing a science degree at the University of Southampton. He begins an LLM at UCL in September.