Can you tell the difference between a “suspect” and an “offender”? Maybe you have never considered this terminology, maybe you think the two words mean the same or maybe you just don’t care. As a warning against apathy let me suggest why it is so important. Lawyers are often accused, sometimes rightly, of debating the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin, but this is very different and it is a distinction which is fundamental to any proper system of justice.
Of course a suspect may become an offender, but traditionally this occurs only after guilt has been admitted or established in court. When Claude Rains said "round up the usual suspects” in Casablanca it was meant to convey a cynical and perhaps half-hearted attempt to cover for Rick. Little did we know that 71 years later an even less subtle cry would come from the UK Home Office.
If you haven’t seen it, have a look at the Home Office Twitter feed and even at the front page of their website where they are trumpeting an unsubtle and worrying campaign to target “immigration offending”. One problem is that some of their output refers to the arrest of “offenders”, albeit most of it states that the arrests are of “suspected offenders”.
If those in charge there don’t know the difference between offenders and suspects we should shut the place down until they have all been for basic re-education. Why the ministerial rush to judgment? In the past 25 years almost all of the changes in our justice system have removed rights from suspects and accused persons. With a little patience many, perhaps even most, of those arrested as “immigration offenders” will be convicted and sentenced. I may have become rather old-fashioned, but I still prefer to see things happen in that order.
It has been suggested that the Home Office may be guilty of contempt of court. That is not my view. Fair trials should still be possible but we should insist on them taking place before the relevant labels are changed.
John Scott QC is a solicitor advocate. He is nominated as Criminal Lawyer of the Year at the Law Awards of Scotland 2013