Contempt for Justice

October 02, 2023 22:13
Black Lives Matter protesters observe one minute of silence in front of New Scotland Yard building in central London demanding justice for 24 year old Chris Kaba, who was shot dead by the police last week, London, Britain, September 10, 2022. REUTERS

On 5 September 2022 armed police boxed in Chris Kaba, an unarmed man driving his Audi in South London, and then killed him with one shot through his car windscreen.

Other than these cursory details, there is little information in the public arena of this incident.

On 20 September 2022, Rosemary Ainslie, the head of the Crown Prosecution Service’s Special Crime Division, announced that following a thorough review of the evidence provided by the Independent Office for Police Conduct, the CPS has authorised a charge of murder against an un-named Metropolitan Police officer following the death of Chris Kaba.

In response to the charge, roughly 100 Metropolitan Police officers handed in their licence to carry a weapon.

This prompted the Home Secretary Suella Braverman KC to tweet:“We depend on our brave firearms officers to protect us from the most dangerous and violent in society. In the interest of public safety they have to make split-second decisions under extraordinary pressures.”

Lest anyone might have misinterpreted this as not relating to the Chris Kaba case, she added that armed officers should not “fear ending up in the dock for carrying out their duties.”

Clearly anxious not to be seen as letting the side down, Sir Mark Rowley, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner declared of the armed members of his force “They are not only prepared to confront the armed and dangerous to protect London’s communities but they do so recognising the uniquely intense and lengthy personal accountability they will face for their split-second operational decisions.”

What these two highly influential figures in the justice system were doing was commenting on an ongoing criminal prosecution in a way that risks prejudicing the fair trial of the matter, conduct which constitutes contempt of court.

The Commissioner must surely have been aware that he was courting censure but presumably decided that he would take the risk in order to support the morale of his officers. Understandable but exceedingly ill-advised.

Suella Braverman, however, is a barrister and though she was only appointed KC when she was made Attorney-General, even a junior barrister would be ridiculed for such a blatant breach of the contempt rules.

This is not the first illustration of her ignorance of the law, which, if she can remember any of her legal studies at all states that ignorantia non excusat.

The trial of the as yet anonymous police officer will undoubtedly be held in the Old Bailey and such biased pronouncements prompted the Recorder of London, Judge Mark Lucraft KC to summon counsel in the case to a special hearing at which he stated “It is extremely important there should be no reporting, commentary or sharing of information online which could in any way prejudice these proceedings.”

A more robust judiciary would have reacted by summoning both Sir Mark and Ms. Braverman to answer why they should not be committed to prison for their contempt, that would have emphasised that no-one, Home Secretary or Police Commissioner is above the law.

Something which is often overlooked is that the UK has a civil police force whose members are answerable to the criminal law just as the rest of society save that their use of reasonable force can be legitimate if carried out in the execution of their duties.

But Ms. Braverman’s knee jerk launch of a review into the legal protections for officers on firearms duties and Sir Mark’s statement that an urgent reset is needed to address accountability mechanisms relating to armed police, including the policies and practices of the Independent Office for Police Conduct and the Crown Prosecution Service, sounds a clear and disturbing warning.

Given a government that appears increasingly subservient to a Home Secretary who would be more comfortable in North Korea, the guardians of a free society will have to watch like a hawk for subtle changes that will diminish the accountability of the forces of law and order.

The existing criminal law is more than adequate to address the checks and balances in the use of force by police to maintain public safety.

However, the crucial decision making process governing whether or not to prosecute in any situation lies with the Director of Public Prosecutions who is appointed by the Attorney General, a political appointee.

Meanwhile, let it not be a vain hope that Sir Mark and especially Ms. Braverman will maintain a proper silence until the matter comes before a jury selected at random to hear and determine the case.

It has taken a year to decide whether to lay the charge and it will be at least another year before the trial. Successive governments having grossly underfunded the UK’s Justice system, the criminal prosecution process is now a national disgrace.

“The court reminds every one of the obligation on all of us to ensure we comply with the Contempt of Court process and ensure nothing is said which could in any way be thought to prejudice ongoing criminal proceedings.” Braverman said.

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King's Counsel