From the August 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard
Her Royal Majesty the Queen of England is to all British workers the fons justiciae or fountain of justice. The word ‘workers’ is used because members of the capitalist class and politicians do not seem to be disposed to become involved with these courts of law. Lord Kagan and Sir Eric Miller have recently demonstrated this. In order to discover to what extent justice is actually splashed over British workers by our Royal Fountain, some days of observation were spent in one of her courts.
The magistrates court at Bow Street is one of the most busy and famous of its type in England. Here, dispensing (with?) justice, are not the lay magistrates (unpaid factotums) of local courts but stipendiary magistrates: qualified lawyers of at least five years’ standing, but usually with a bit more ‘standing’ than that.
The three courtrooms are craftily designed to elevate the importance of the presiding magistrate in a high throne-chair, humiliate the defendant in a small caged stand, and deter the inquisitive public visitor with either no public seating or very small wooden benches.
On Monday morning some charges of prostitution were first up for trial. The policeman confidently read the charge to a frowning magistrate; there was no defence, and after a procedural conviction a fine was levied for the Crown. This is not very harsh, for although a prostitute sells her skills like any wage-slave, her pimp-employer will pay the fine for this occupational hazard. An atmosphere of moral censure was provided by various lawyers in the court who, it is said, sometimes exit from the courts with the prostitute only by coincidence.
Next up were a series of workers charged with ‘obstruction of the highway’. Hamburger vendors and photographers were ordered to pay comparatively lenient fines. They had been acting within the ethos of capitalism, if not within some of its minor rules. However another defendant charged with exactly the same offence was punished with a heavier sentence because she was a ‘moonie’ distributing free records.
The next offender was a young visitor from New Zealand charged with assaulting a police officer and with multifarious offences concerning a dilapidated caravanette. In a fracas the defendant had struck the policeman in the ribs, which accounted for the first charge, and the other charges were made by the policeman with technical legitimacy but with not over-subtle retribution. The policeman, no doubt remembering his injured ribs, gabbled out the copious petty charges concerning the motor vehicle — “failure to install workable windscreen washers; displaced registration plates . . .” The New Zealander submissively re-affirmed his intentions made in his visitor oath, to be a law-abiding subject, and was punished with what the magistrate called a ‘fair fine’.
Who could be dissatisfied with our decent, honest police force? Witnessing some of the jackbooted, uniformed haircuts blustering through notebooks of ‘written evidence’ does leave room for cynicism. Should we be grateful for ‘our’ police force? The police are agents of whom? Of the members of the working class whom they daily caution, bludgeon, arrest and incarcerate? In whose interest is the protection of private property; the workers who own about ten per cent of the accumulated wealth, or the capitalists who own about ninety per cent?
In another courtroom, a penniless, parentless fifteen year old lad was convicted of wilfully damaging the window of a restaurant. He was sentenced to pay a heavy fine from his ‘living wage’, and to psychiatric care. Do we really need psychiatrists to explain to us why an underfed, overworked, maltreated child would be likely to batter against the tinted window of a restaurant? A uniformed Martian in the courtroom might have wondered who was on trial for the damage; the child in the dock — the perpetrator of the act — or the magistrate as representative of the brutal social system which was responsible for the damage to the child.
In the next case an alleged car-thief with substantial evidence against him was given a heavy fine, escaping a prison sentence because the defence lawyer was able to persuade the magistrate that the defendant had just been offered full time employment in the building industry. The defendant avoided incarceration on the condition of prolonged honest work. By relentless use of this ploy, the courts have been able to socially impregnate the notion that employment — the whoring of mental and physical labour-power for money — is socially inevitable, necessary and desirable. It is all very simple. Wage slavery is the order of the day; if you opt out of this system you either go hungry or are imprisoned, and if you sell yourself to someone you are taken to have automatically signed the social contract of the allegiance to the profit system with the countless millions of others who are only living for the work they have to do for someone else tomorrow.
On following days at Bow Street, the methodical fraudulence became tiresome to observe. Policemen marching up to the witness box to perjure themselves after swearing to be honest on a book none of them had ever read, let alone believed; magistrates deciding cases with overt sympathies and prejudices (and even ignorance of the law), and childish excuses from frightened defendants: “I did not mean to assault the bartender, I was having a fit of hiccoughs”.
Cases varied in length from a few minutes to about an hour, depending on the amount of evidence and the need for cross-examination, but by some miraculous chance, no matter what the nature of the last case to be heard each day, justice always seemed to be arrived at within a few minutes of 4.30pm, when the court closed. Adjournments are extremely rare.
At the end of the day, the ‘judges' and some of the more fortunate of the judged exit from the court at the same time. To look at, they are of the same size, shape and species, but when servile chauffeurs open large car doors for some of the departing characters, it is not altogether impossible to guess which of them has been of service to capitalism that day.