David Cameron’s effort to “fight back” against rioters, which includes keeping water cannons on standby and having judges sit through the night, may strain the U.K.’s cramped, un-renovated courts.
The confrontations in neighborhoods throughout the capital have resulted in at least 922 arrests, with 401 people charged and police continuing to investigate. At least three courts have stayed open all night this week to handle the volume of charges and prosecutors have volunteered to work extra hours, according to the Crown Prosecution Service.
“A lot of courts in England are relatively small buildings in poor condition,” said Robert Brown, a criminal lawyer who defended the adopted son of Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour over his actions during student protests last year. “If people were working in a group and they’re tried together, it will be physically difficult to handle.”
The British Prime Minister said the scenes of looting and arson showed parts of society were “sick” and that if the perpetrators were old enough to commit the crimes, they were old enough to be punished. London’s Metropolitan Police have reported some of those arrested were as young as seven. Though police didn’t provide data on the ages of those charged, the U.K.’s juvenile courts will bear most of the burden.
The seven-year-olds won’t be charged, as the age of criminal responsibility in the U.K. is 10-17, said Brown, a partner at London law firm Corker Binning. Only the most serious offenses by people in that age group will be prosecuted in adult court, such as robbery, arson and violence, he said. A person is considered an adult for legal purposes at age 18 in the U.K.
Both London’s Westminster Magistrates Court and Manchester City Magistrates Court were open all night last night, CPS spokesman Tim McAtackney said. Earlier in the week, another court where suspects face their first appearance, Highbury Corner Magistrates Court, stayed open all night. Prosecutors are volunteering to work additional hours to help, he said.
The violence has led shops and offices to close early, forced the cancellation of soccer matches and raised security concerns a year before London is to host the 2012 Olympic Games, as the deepest budget cuts since World War II have reduced the number of police across the country. Cameron has recalled Parliament for an emergency session today.
Cameron, who when in opposition said some young thugs needed “more love,” told reporters yesterday he wanted “stronger penalties” for wrongdoers, with people convicted of violent disorder jailed. He said he won’t let “phony concerns about human rights” stop the publication of suspects’ photos.
Yet the difficulties of dealing out the punishments don’t stop with physical limits of the U.K.’s courts, some of which are centuries old. The age of the offenders can also slow things down, Brown said.
“The court needs to be sensitive to the way young people are tried,” Brown said. “They have to make sure offenders understand the nature of the proceedings. There have to be frequent breaks.”
Police have said they are investigating the use of social- networking services such as operated by Twitter Inc., Facebook Inc. and Research in Motion Ltd. (RIM)’s BlackBerry Messenger to incite rioting. Three people were arrested by police in Southampton, England, on suspicion of using Twitter and Blackberry Messenger to encourage rioting. A member of parliament had called for a suspension of BlackBerry Messenger service to prevent rioters using it to organize themselves.
“In the early hours of this morning we started knocking on doors to arrest people,” Steve Kavanagh, deputy assistant commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police, said in an e- mailed statement today. “We have got more than 100 warrants which we will be working our way through over the coming hours and days.”
Kiron Reid, from the University of Liverpool’s School of Law and Social Justice, said people who encouraged riots by using social media are easier to prosecute after a 2007 change in the law to provide for “encouraging crime.” Police action “against those encouraging crime on Facebook and Twitter should send a strong signal that people have to take responsibility for their behavior,” she said in an e-mail.
British police are normally unarmed, and tactics for dealing with angry crowds in recent years have focused on containment, with regular use of the tactic of “kettling,” where groups are surrounded for hours and then gradually released. This technique was used last year in London against students protesting rises in tuition fees.
As disturbances spread across the city on the nights of Aug. 7 and 8, officers were unable to deploy kettling effectively and looters fled.
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