Friday, November 23, 2012

The Process is the Punishment

I was somewhat surprised yesterday when I turned on the radio to hear that Rangers had won their tax case against HMRC. Somehow, that news had slipped past me.

Now, to a certain extent, I just don't care all that much. As I've mentioned before, I'm not exactly a football fan, nor particularly a Rangers fan.

On the other hand, I am rather concerned about justice, and there's a major problem here.

This tax case has gone on for years, with Rangers struggling under massive financial difficulties for all of that time. The massive uncertainty surrounding the club made them an absolutely poisonous prospect for any potential investor. The consequence of this was that they were unable to find a buyer, they gradually fell to ruin, and they were eventually forced to liquidate.

Now, the consequences of liquidation are bad enough for the company involved. But hundreds of people lost their jobs as a result of Rangers going into first administration and then liquidation. Hundreds of other people and small businesses were owed money by Rangers, and when they disappeared so too did any prospect of getting most of that money back. And most of those small businesses could ill afford to be without that money. Not to mention the domino effect of losing Rangers, which looks likely to be a factor in at least one other club disappearing, and probably several others in time. Plus, a great many people have bound up their self-esteem in the fortunes of their club (rather foolishly, I might note, but they do nonetheless) - all of whom were affected when the club disappeared.

And now it turns out that the case failed. Rangers have been vindicated.

Now, I'm not suggesting for a moment that this is a case that shouldn't have been brought. It is absolutely right that HMRC investigate where they think there is wrong-doing, and there most certainly was at least a case to answer.

But natural justice demands that, having answered their case, Rangers should continue as if the case hadn't happened - they shouldn't be punished for not having done anything wrong. And punished they most definitely have been, severely and over many years.

The fundamental problem here is that the system works far too slowly. HMRC brought the case, with a massive potential liability, and then the wheels turned. Very. Very. Slowly. And as long as they turned (and, indeed, continue to turn - there's still a potential appeal, which may go on another three years), Rangers were dead in the water. The process was the punishment - in the event, a punishment no less severe than a loss could have been. That punishment applied regardless of guilt or innocence.

And that is wrong.

The simple fact is that from the moment a person or business is known to be facing charges until the moment that the final verdict is know, the accused is being punished - inevitably and unavoidably. Further, the bureaucracy at the centre of our society is entirely capable of utterly crushing someone if it is not controlled, and being impersonal it is utterly incapable of caring. That being the case, because it is unacceptable for an innocent person to be punished, and since the balance of power lies with the bureaucracy, it is vital that the wheels of justice run quickly.

In fact, this is one where it's probably necessary to legislate - if a case cannot be brought to trial within an appropriate time period of charges being laid (say 6 months), then that case is automatically thrown out. Our courts are quite capable of working quickly when we want them to (see the response to the riots), so they should be made to work quickly in all cases, in the interests of natural justice.

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