Crime & Punishment In Britain

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, left, answers a reporter's questions as Japan's Foreign Minister Taro Aso looks on during a joint press conference after their bilateral talk at the Foreign Ministry annex in Tokyo Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2006. AP Photo/Pool

The British government's tough as nails reaction to a rise in violent crime is raising worries that a pillar of civil rights, the jury trial, might be sacrificed to satisfy a concerned public.

CBS News Correspondent Tom Fenton reports incidents like the stabbing death of black teen-ager Stephen Lawrence have helped to harden opinion against aspects of the legal system.

The young men accused of the crime were set free on a technicality, outraging the British public. The police were heavily criticized for mishandling the investigation, and the Lawrence case became a symbol of a wider problem, as an increase in violent crimes began to make the government look weak on law and order.

"There is a real crime problem in Britain," said Geoffrey Robertson, a trial lawyer. "London is more dangerous these days than New York."

Last year, CBS News reported that the government's own crime statistics revealed that Britain is an increasingly violent society.

Robertson, one of Britain's leading trial lawyers says the shocking crime statistics panicked Prime Minister Tony Blair's government into going for a quick fix.

"The quick-fix solution is always the populist one: Let's get rid of jury trials. Let's abolish the rule against double jeopardy. Let's confiscate the assets of criminals without trial," he said. "But this doesn't help to detect crime."

And all of this is happening in the country that gave America its basic concepts of justice. One of those legal rights that the government is now chipping away at, trial by jury, was guaranteed, on the banks of the river Thames at Runnymede, when King John signed the Magna Carta nearly 800 years ago.

That historic document held that, "No Freeman shall be taken, or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any otherwise destroyed; nor will we pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful Judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land."

Tired of excessive royal power, English barons rebelled against the king and forced him to sign the decree in 1215.

Civil rights lawyer Mike Mansfield believes the government couldn't care less about Magna Carta and is manipulating British law for political reasons — to make itself look tough.

What shocks him most is a plan to abolish the double jeopardy rule, which prohibits trying a person twice for the same crime.

"It's all about image," he said. "The moment you allow a second bite of the cherry, then the first time around the police relax. They don't necessarily do the investigation that they should have done."

In other words, some say, it encourages bad police work.

"I think it's fair to say that Britain has perhaps the stupidest police force in the advanced world," said Robertson.

Civil rights advocates believe tat the British police are largely responsible for the government's poor record on crime, and that changing the law will only make things worse.

With the Blair government looking weak on crime and facing an election, there are fears that it is about to ride roughshod over some of this country's ancient freedoms, and that Magna Carta may soon be relegated to the role of just another British tourist attraction.


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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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