Christopher Halliwell has been charged with the murder of Sian O'Callaghan. On 28th March, he appeared before magistrates sitting at Swindon and was duly "sent" for trial under the provisions of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 s.51. Such hearings are now a mere formality. No bail application may be made to magistrates in a murder case. On 30th March he appeared before the Crown Court but no application for bail was made. He will next appear in the Crown Court on 8th April but this hearing will be via a video link.
Naturally enough, emotions can run
very high in these cases but those people who attacked the Police van at Swindon Magistrates' Court and who abused him from the court's public gallery demonstrated little respect for the legal process in which, let it be said again, Mr Halliwell remains innocent until proven guilty.
Sian's father conducted himself with great dignity as he made his public statement.
Is there a real practical need for any hearing before Magistrates in a murder case? Their historical role of acting as examining justices in relation to all offences triable only by the Crown Court has been swept away. For such offences, the Magistrates have to send the case "forthwith" to the Crown Court. When the charge is murder (but not other indictable-only offences), they may not consider bail. In relation to offences triable "either-way" the Magistrates' Courts have retained jurisdiction and "committal proceedings" continue to take place.
Further comment about the growing disrespect for the judicial process appears in an article in the Law Society Gazette of 31st March 2011 - "Conduct unbecoming in our courts" - by District Judge Paul Mildred. The learned judge writes that it is time to bring back respect for the judiciary. His experience as a district judge shows that, unless those in the front line of the justice system are shown the respect due to the office they hold, then the very system of justice itself is diminished. "Judges have been the subject of physical attacks in court, attacks on their homes, verbal abuse in public places and deeply offensive abuse in writing, sometimes in postcards sent to the court and open for all to see."
It is time that the authorities started to take these matters very seriously indeed. If that requires action to be taken against people who acted out of "raw emotion" then so be it. The need to uphold the system of justice is of paramount importance.
An historical aside: At the Salisbury Assize of 1631 a report tells us that a prisoner who had just been convicted of a felony "threw a brickbat" at the judge which "narrowly missed." It appears that, for doing this, an indictment was immediately drawn up and the prisoner's right hand was cut of and fastened to the gibbet on which he was then immediately hanged.