The laws that govern us in the UK are often used to describe the freedoms that we enjoy. There are no political prisoners (although follows of Julian Assange may disagree), freedom of speech is widely practiced and people can go about their business without fear of persecution. It has not always been this way in the UK, but a succession of investigations, inquiries and laws bought in since the 1980's had bought Britain to this place. Robert Leach describes Law Making as "ostensibly the most important function of parliament". (Leach, 2006, P233). Lets start by looking at the law as a whole.
The law is essentially to protect its citizens. Law's passed down by the central powers, investigated and enforced by the police and the Judiciary will determine the level of punishment if necessary. Laws don't just ensure that people can't commit murders, robbery or vandalism but will also cover how your employer may treat you and the obligations they have to support you as an employee. Laws will also affect how one companies do business with another and how you drive your car. Law affects us as an individual on a daily basis, not just when we have done something wrong.
There are many different variations of law's. International law will affect how nations interact with each other. National law is the law of the land, and can vary widely between states. In the United Kingdom corporal and capital punishment has been removed, but corporal punishment can still be found in some states such as Iran and capital punishment can be found in more developed nations such as the USA and India. In the UK THE National legal system is broken into three; that of England & Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. National laws will fall into one of two categories again; public & private. (Martin, 2007, p1)
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Public law will involve the government or the state, and there are three main types of public law; Constitutional Law - covering electoral or democratic issues and disputes; Administrative Law - looking at how the state is allowed to operate; Criminal Law - the application, enforcement and punishment of the individuals who break clearly stated law. (ibid, p2)
Private law sees no state involvement, as the disputes are ones of a private matter. This could be an individual who felt that the new television he or she bought was not up to the standard advertised (contract law), a brother and sister trying to settle their late father's will (family law) or a PLC's obligations to their shareholder (company law). There are many more forms of private law and many laws laid down to regulate the state in which we live. (ibid, p3)
As we can see, the laws in this country cover many different areas and many different groups. The laws are there to protect the people. Without laws, there would be anarchy. In the early 19th Century an man called John Austin defined law as being a command issued from a superior (the State), to an inferior (the individual) and enforced by sanctions. Some would consider this an inaccurate description as the law (and the State) can be challenged in the 21st Century. (ibid, p9)
The Police are the front line force of law enforcement. They are responsible for investigating crimes, gathering evidence and deciding whether to charge a suspect. They play a wide and important role in the overall application of the law. The Police hove powers over suspected criminals that can be used to assist the conviction of the guilty. However, the police have been criticised for abusing their powers, occasionally leading to serious miscarriages of justice as the well know cases of the Guildford 4 and the Birmingham 6 demonstrated, and it was incidents such as these that led to the introduction of PACE. (Elliott, 2010, p384).
The Police and Criminal Evidence act 1984 (PACE) was introduced to modernise the power of policed in the UK as a result of an inquiry led by the Royal Commission on Common Procedure (RCCP). PACE provides the code of practice that police forces have to abide by. Failure to comply with PACE can lead to misconduct charges against a police officer. As PACE is a code of practice rather then an Act of Parliament it can be easily amended if necessary. (Malcolm, 2007, p154) The codes cover several areas; Code A deals stop and search powers, Code B gives powers to search premises and seize property, Code C deals with detention treatment and suspect questioning, Code D relates to identification procedures, Code E deals with tape-recording suspect interviews, Code F guides on visual recording with sound interviews, Code G on arrest powers and Code H terrorism suspects under the Terrorism Act (2000). (Martin, 2007, p149).
PACE affects every police officer in the country, but police forces in the UK are traditionally run as local police forces. The theory behind having a more decentralised approach was to create links to the community being policed and reduce the risk of Police oppression. A more centralised approach was taken with the Police Magistrates' Courts Act (1994) which allowed the Home Secretary to set objectives for all UK police authorities. The power increased further with the Police Reform Act (2002) and the Home Secretary will now produce an annual National Policing Plan which will set strategic policing policies for Police Forces in England and Wales. (Elliott, 2010, p382)
The Bichard inquiry into the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in 2002 was heavily critical of the Humberside police (ibid, p382). Published in June 2004 the inquiry noted that the failings of the Humberside Police were 'systemic and corporate' (Bichard, 2004, p7). Despite the effects of this report, the Chief Constable of Humberside Police refused to resign. The Home Secretary suspended the Police chief, who challenged the legality of this action. The matter went to court where the Home Secretary's right was upheld. Since the inquiry the Police and Justice Act (2006) has increased the powers of the Home Secretary over the Police. (Elliott, 2010, p382)
It is not just the Home Secretary that has powers over the police, but ordinary citizens as well. Should they wish to make a complaint to a police authority then this must be recorded by that police authority. The police must 'obtain and/or preserve evidence' which is relevant to the complaint. Minor complaints can be dealt with by an acknowledgement of the error and a formal apology. If the complaint is upheld for a serious matter then senior figures form the police force will investigate and take any appropriate disciplinary action. If the complaint relates to a senior officer, the matter will be investigated by a separate police force. (Martin, 2007, p165)
The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) exists to supervise the complaints procedure against police officers and staff and will set out and enforce the standards which must be followed. The IPCC also has powers to investigate any serious issues they may discover or that are bought to it's attention (Martin, 2007, p166). This was the case with John Charles De Menezes when his family made a formal complaint in 2005 (IPCC website - accesses 29/12/2010).
The IPCC is designed to protect the people form those whose role is to protect the people. Acts such as PACE exist to give clear guidelines as to what a police officer can and can't do, yet there is an inevitable clash with Civil Rights issues
In order investigate criminal suspects and criminal activity effectively the Police will need to have powers to stop and search individuals, to enter a person's house and make arrests if they suspect an individual is guilty of a crime. The power to interview and interrogate suspects and hold them in detention if necessary is a vital part of the investigative process. These are indisputable facts, and the power the police have over the individual is great. So what of civil rights? Anyone who is suspected of a crime should be safe in the knowledge that they will not be tortured, beaten or have a false confessions taken from them. (Davies, 2007, p153).
In light of events in recent years police may need to prove that a suspect has not been chosen as a suspect because of their race or ethnicity. The BBC documentary "the Secret Policeman" first aired in October 2003. Film-maker Mark Daley went undercover in a police training camp to find out if the police was an institutionally racist organisation. Despite the reporter finding that this was not the case, there were several instances of clearly racist and bigoted behaviour which was described by the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality as "truly shocking". (BBC Website - accessed 29/12/10)
Following the documentary ten police officers involved resigned and twelve more were disciplined and three police trainers were removed following a Police Complaints Authority (PCA) investigation, in agreement with the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). The Campaign for Racial Equality launched a formal inquiry and made 125 recommendations for change. (BBC Website - accessed 29/12/10)
A topical issue of recent times concerns the policing of demonstrations. On 01 April 2009 Ian Tomlinson was assaulted at the G20 demonstrations in London. Although not a participant of the demonstrations, the Mr Tomlinson was in the area at the time of the protest. Later that day he seemingly died of a heart attack. A short while later, The Guardian released footage showing Mr Tomlinson being violently pushed to the ground by a policeman shortly before he died. A second autopsy alleged that Mr Tomlinson had died of internal injuries. (Elliott, 2010, p416). Allegations of Mr Tomlinson being beaten by police prior to the footage of him being forced to the ground by an officer continue, and a full inquiry will begin on 28th March 2011 (www.iantomlinsonfamilycampaign.org.uk - accessed 05/01/11).
The debate between police powers and civil rights will continue over the next few years from 2011. The outcome of miscarriages of justice such as the Guildford 4 and the Birmingham 6 led to the introduction of PACE. The Secret Policeman documentary sprung from the MacPherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence which called the police "institutionally racist". The death of Ian Tomlinson, as well as the recent clashes between police and demonstrators over university tuition fee's in November and December 2010 and the Police's use of the 'Kettling' technique, has called into question the policing of demonstrations. With more demonstrations planned for 2011 as well as the results inquiry into the death of Ian Tomlinson, police power and accountability will debated again.
The simple truth is that police officers need the rational-legal authority to investigate and prevent criminal action. Without it they could not effectively enforce the law. None the less, civil liberties that many people have fought and died must be protected. Malcolm Davies is right when he says that "legislation on police powers must balance conflicting needs of crime prevention and due process" (Davies, 2007, p153).
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