Responding to a public perception of a breakdown of law and
order, Britain's government is dramatically reshaping Britain's
criminal justice system.
Changes include curtailing some traditional rights, increasing
police powers and imposing stricter penalties for a broad variety
of major and minor offenses.
The changes are aimed at violent crime, violent videos, dance
parties called "raves" and mass squattings on private property by
groups calling themselves "New Age Travelers."
Examples include the right to refuse to answer questions when
accused of a crime, the right to free assembly and restrictions on
searches and seizures by police - all of which are affected by the
government's new Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which
became law last week after a year's struggle.
The most controversial provision of the new law makes it harder
for people to remain silent when questioned by police. A person may
still refuse to answer questions, but the new law allows judges and
juries in some circumstances to take a defendant's silence into
account when determining guilt or innocence.
Before the new law, officers instructed suspects, "You do not
have to say anything unless you want to do so, but what you say may
be given in evidence." Now, police will say: "You do not have to
say anything. But if you do not mention now something which you
later use in your defense, the court may decide that your failure
to mention it now strengthens the case against you."
The law allows police greater freedom to stop and search
vehicles and pedestrians; to arrest and disperse squatters,
trespassers and "illegal campers"; and to prevent and break up
raves - the often drug-laden dance parties that are gaining
The law increases government censorship of videos, and provides
stiffer sentences - including incarceration in "secure training
centers" - for juvenile offenders down to age 12.
In the United States, legislation such as the new law would be
challenged as unconstitutional. However, Britain has no written
constitution, only a body of legal precedent, stretching back to
nearly a thousand years.
In fact, the principles at issue in the new law evolved slowly
and painfully over the centuries with the shaping of English Common
Law and were embodied in the U.S. Bill of Rights. Probably more
than any other body of laws in the world, they have been much
admired and often imitated throughout the world.
The new law, shepherded through the House of Commons by the
government of Prime Minister John Major, was bitterly attacked by
the opposition Labor Party. The House of Lords, not usually known
as a hotbed of civil liberties protests, tried unsuccessfully to
block some parts of the measure. Editorial writers have attacked
the law, while activists have registered their disapproval with
street demonstrations. …