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TAKING CRAP TO COURT

December 22, 2011 1281

The ponderousness, and consequent unnecessary expense, of many legal processes was brought home to me yet again with my recent appearance as an expert witness in the hallowed halls of the Royal Courts of Justice. In a curious turn of the tables some prisoners were bringing the Ministry of Justice to trial on the grounds that the conditions they experienced in prison were against the law. I was called to give expert evidence derived from my earlier work as an environmental psychologist.

The central argument of my evidence drew on information from building scientists, architects and hygiene experts about the conditions in cells in Albany prison on the Isle of Wight. Crucial to the case was the use of buckets for in-cell sanitation. These were needed overnight if, for staffing or other reasons, the prisoner was not allowed out of his cell to get to the toilets.  The buckets have to be emptied the following day into a sluice, a process known as ‘slopping out’.

This was one of hundreds of cases being considered by courts in the UK that are being brought under European Human Rights legislation. Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights outlaws “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. The court is therefore required to decide whether the need to use a bucket to defecate into, in a small poorly ventilated cell, is inhuman and/or degrading. In the way that only the British court of appeal can do, po-faced lawyers (no pun intended) use their advocacy wiles to make or challenge the case that being required to shit in a plastic bucket is degrading.

Barristers in their wigs, with plenty of ‘my lord’s and other polite assertions, can happily spend weeks considering this subtle issue, reviewing precedents and framing clever questions to trip up the experts. This is despite the fact that a number of official enquiries over the last decade and before have said that slopping out is unacceptable in British prisons and that integral sanitation or some other more salubrious approach to cell hygiene is appropriate for a developed, civilised nation.

The compensation that the successful appellant can be awarded is a minute fraction of what the lawyers and expert witnesses will get paid. Yet each individual case has to be dealt with using the full might of the court. There are hundreds of cases pending, especially in Scotland which has been much slower than the rest of Britain in getting its prisons up to twentieth century standards.

As an environmental and forensic psychologist who has some reasonable experience of the court process I was aghast at the way the lawyers set about presenting and attacking my evidence.  No psychologist would think the conditions in the cells in HMP Albany were conducive to rehabilitating their inmates. Yet even so, in the spirit of the adversarial system an experienced Forensic Psychologist, Professor David Cooke, was brought in to challenge my evidence. He did this by raising the sort of methodological challenges that psychologists are very good at and can be done with just about any piece of psychological research.  His barrister managed to deflect the discussion from my point that the conditions did not allow what most in the UK would regard as degrading, brutalising conditions, to debate about whether there was evidence that such conditions caused stress.

Yet, if Professor Cooke and I had been allowed to sit down together we could have developed a protocol that could be applied to every pending case, which would have assessed the degree to which they had experienced the unsanitary conditions. This protocol could be related to a compensation scale and each claimant dealt with in a matter of hours rather than the weeks that the court process requires. This would have saved the tax payer thousands, possibly millions, or pounds and have given every prisoner a similar process, which would not rely on the skills of his lawyers.

The court process is excellent for determining guilt or innocence. I also believe the jury system is a crucial bulwark for any democracy. But the application of the complexities, and expense, of the courts to decisions about the daily experiences of prisoners seems to me to be a huge waste of money. It also distorts the value that social science can bring to issues of Human Rights.

Professor David Canter, the internationally renowned applied social researcher and world-leading crime psychologist, is perhaps most widely known as one of the pioneers of "Offender Profiling" being the first to introduce its use to the UK.

View all posts by David Canter

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