The British Legal Lottery

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Let us say you have fallen foul of the law. Let us say it’s not something super serious, it’s not anything premeditated, but maybe you got into a scuffle of some sort, over something and nothing, but you were caught.

Let us also say that you could have committed this foolish foulstep in one of a couple of places just so that we can compare how it works in two drastically different places. Let us take London, England and Olusosun rubbish tip in Lagos, Nigeria. These two places could not be more different, or so it seems on the outside, but let’s take a little look shall we?

London is one of the major capital cities in Europe, it is one of the most highly regulated, and controlled places in the world. If you were to spend a day moving around the centre of London you would be filmed and photographed hundreds of times during that day, if you drive through the city your registration will be filmed and checked on many, many occasions. There is an incredibly structured legal system with a series of qualified, professionals representing the long arm of the law.

The Olusosun rubbish tip is the largest landfill site in Africa and indeed one of the largest in the world. There are small shanty towns with barber shops and restaurants in these towns, each town has a leader who is elected by the other people living and working on the dump. The dump is self policing, there is no need for the Nigerian police force to set foot on the dump.

So, you are in trouble in England, you are arrested by the police and taken to the cells where you are incarcerated for a number of hours, at least overnight. You are questioned and already from this point you are treated as a second class citizen, even the duty solicitors are not treated with respect by the people who now have complete control over you, at least while incarcerated. Once charged you now have the right to choose a solicitor to represent you in the courts which are ridiculously difficult to navigate if you have no experience in them. You will however not only need to pay at least 1000 to 1500 pounds but you will also have to prove that the money you pay them with has not been earned through crime. Innocent until proven guilty? If you simply don’t have this money then you may seek legal aid but this has recently become far more difficult to obtain, if you don’t get it then you will have to represent yourself, imagine hearing that you can’t afford a surgeon and you will have to carry out your own heart surgery?

The next step, months later, is when you appear in the courts, while in court you have the unrivalled experience of having other people talk about you and around you while you basically do not get to say very much at all. The magistrates, who are laymen ( not legally trained), and volunteer for the role will then make judgements upon you which will affect your future life in a variety of ways, just or unjust depends on whether you are actually guilty and what of, but also whether you faced difficult opposition and your guilty plea was actually a compromise based on other peoples advice that you really have little chance of winning, so plead! Now if you had committed a more serious offence you would be in crown court where the judge, who has been through the whole process of being chosen by the upper middle and ruling classes, will also be judging you.

I applaud the concept of being judged by a group of ones peers but in the case of the English legal system there are not so many cases where you are actually judged by a jury of ones peers, in the case of Olasosun the judges are the alleged offenders peers, they live in the same places, they do the same work and they eat the same food, not so in England. I know of no judges who live in the area I live or eat in the same places I eat.

So, back to Nigeria, in Olusosun there is a leader in each of the shanty towns on the dump. These leaders are chosen by their community, there are many factors, such as age, experience and the respect they garner from their community. You will be held by members of the community and the leader will call a meeting with several other people of good standing, they will consider the crime and then they will judge you just as in England. There are no prisons or probation services on the dump so the punishment may be a beating, or maybe a beating and then exile from the shanty town, and in the case of the more serious crimes exile from the dump itself., this will take days at most rather than months and the decision of the leader will be final. It is interesting to note as well that in a society where people have very little, theft is a very serious offence.

Both of these systems have advantages and disadvantages. The magistrates in England would almost certainly tell you that the Olusosun model is crude and unregulated, but is it? Both the magistrates and community leaders are laymen and are chosen in some way by the community, in Olusosun they are chosen by ordinary people, in England I have never been given the opportunity to choose a judge or magistrate. The Olusosun model is simply how it was done in England way back when, have we developed or have we lost sight of the ideas behind democracy and community choice, and more importantly are we really innocent until proven guilty.

We operate in England within a system where the factors involved in a simple, low level court case are manifold; evidence is a factor, as is public policy and so is the amount of money you can afford ( or not) for your representation. High court judges have gone on record saying that the legal system is not a game but a barrister told me recently that it is just that, it is a game and as the accused you are most definitely a pawn.

I am drawing no conclusions, just making a comparison!

Draw your own conclusions!

Lucien Grey

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