Saturday, 2 June 2012

Innocent until proven guilty

This is a commentary on some of the legal issues that the Pace case raised that I recently ran across, published eighty-four years ago today:

The comfortable British belief that in this country every accused person is treated as innocent until proved guilty has been upset by the finding in the matter of Mrs. Pace and her late husband. The Coroner’s jury, on the evidence before them, formed the opinion that the man did not lose his life through natural causes or by his own act. But they could not leave the matter there. By the Coroners Act of 1887 they were required to fasten guilt on some particular person or persons.

Thus Mrs. Pace, who has yet to be tried, was by them declared to have administered poison to the dead man. On a strict legal view, such a declaration is no more than a charge, but people in general lump all verdicts together, and until the wording, or the procedure, is changed there must be risks of the jury at the trial being prejudiced by the finding at the inquest. Why should not the Coroner’s jury be content to find simply that death was apparently the result of action by some party other than the deceased?

It is not only with reference to Coroners’ procedure that there is a case for enquiry. The time has come, it seems to us, when there might usefully be an investigation into the whole question of what we may call trials before true trials. The legal mind and the mind of the instructed layman may be depended upon to distinguish between preliminary proceedings, which result only in a charge, and true verdicts; but as regards the general public there is no small amount of confusion and prejudice.

Press publicity brings the results in Magistrates’ courts and Coroners’ inquests before a huge body of readers, and whatever the eventual fate of an accused person there does cling to him or her some of the discredit or criminality imputed by the preliminary finding. The motives with which the existing system was established are not in question, but a thorough investigation of its workings would be beneficial.

(‘Notes of the Week’, Saturday Review, 2 June 1928, p. 686. Some paragraph breaks added.)

Both of these matters--the role of the coroner and the press--became the subject of intense debate around the case and are discussed in depth in the book.

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