So the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) have blundered and let loose into the wild some highly personal data on almost 300 individuals - both the convicted and, far more alarmingly, the acquitted. Am I surprised? Not in the least, though it saddens me to have to say so.
Because behind this, all too sadly, lies a culture of disrespect for ordinary men and women and, worse, a bunch of highly-paid legal types who have forgotten the fundamental principle at the heart of English law: that you remain innocent until proven guilty.
The story of the story
When I first got wind of this story, about a month ago, I was sceptical. I've put a fair few FOI requests in to the forces of law 'n'order in my time, and the usual response is: no. Or more precisely, a polite letter repeating in tedious detail what I asked, and then explaining in slightly patronising terms why it is that my request fails is being denied on grounds of public interest. So there!
I found it hard to imagine what sort of request might have called forth this file: or indeed how it was that any such request would have got past first base at the CPS.
But I buried my scepticism, got on a train and, a couple of hours later found myself looking at exactly what my informant had told me I would see. A list of people arrested, some prosecuted, some not prosecuted. Some under 18. Most with charging details. A few with personal comments attached.
I mulled this around a bit, spoke to some editorial contacts and, on 13 September, asked the CPS some questions. This is the point at which, as the CPS themselves own, they became "aware" of the breach: I told them about it, taking care - lest anyone on the list is worried - also to explain that I had not taken a copy. It's not my business to be writing about people on that list, unless they approach me as individuals or there is something in their case that is newsworthy.
In the end, the story broke because, while I had been getting my version ready, the CPS turned themselves in, confessing all to the Information Commissioner, putting in hand an internal inquiry and, yesterday, sending out a letter of apology.
So all's well that ends well? Or is this just a cynical ploy to cover tracks and manage the inevitable fall-out from bad news. Somewhere, I'd guess, in the middle. On many issues I respect the CPS greatly: they perform a difficult task.
Dealing with criminals
But on one front I am seriously underwhelmed. This is the way in which it deals with people in the system. The way, frankly, they put on their jobsworth hat and act in ways that are frequently cruel, outwardly vindictive - though I suspect are no more than the habits of people who have become too wedded to performance statistics to the exclusion of humanity.
Writing, as I do, about the law and sexuality, I encounter a fair few people who are on the receiving end of criminal sanction. Some are probably guilty, some not. Some are creepy, some charming. All human life, as you would expect, is there. And given that I am dealing with people who have been accused, sometimes, of the most awful acts imaginable I have become quite cynical.
I can't pretend that I have never been taken in by a plausible liar - or that some of those who have given me heart-rending pitches about how police and the law have treated them are little more than career criminals.
Yet I do feel for some of these folk. Above all, I feel for those who seem least at home with the criminal system: who are chewed up and spat out, innocent, but broken. And that has a lot to do with the cruelty of the process.
The cruelty of the system...
Take possession of child abuse material. I have no problem at all with those guilty being punished to the full extent of the law. Yet what about those - and there are some - who are wrongly accused? I would expect that following due process they would be acquitted and pick up their lives once more. Except: cutbacks in forensic budgets mean that if you are accused your computing equipment may be seized, your life on hold for 6, 12, 18 months even before anyone takes a look at your hard drive. Not the CPS' fault, I'll grant, but an aspect of system cruelty.
Elsewhere, I have written about folk who are accused of the most heinous crimes, put through personal hell in the run-up to trial (which can take 12 months or more) and then exonerated within an hour of arriving in court. Often because the CPS really didn't have a leg to stand on, but they also did not have the grace to back down without going the full mile.
No heed, no respect paid to the fact that in the interim individuals may be excluded from contact with families or children: arrive at the edge of suicide; see marriage breakdown.
This is cruel, inhuman - though I guess the CPS might just have the excuse here that they are under-staffed, so briefs are picked up at the last minute.
Less so with these recent demonstrations. I have come across at least two cases where the first court appearance has magically been held off until the accused is over 18 - at which point the case can be reported in the press. That, I think, is nothing to do with resource, everything to do with cynical news management.
So do I blame the CPS for this list release? Not especially: unless overwhelming evidence to the contrary appears, I'll happily accept it was an error. But still, it was an error made by an organisation whose respect for individuals seems to be waning and whose humanity score, of late has been dipping dangerously low.
The point? People ARE innocent until proven guilty. It's about time the CPS remember that.
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