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100 Questions Answered: Law and Order (Q90-Q94)

Q90. How are the police organised?

There are 52 police forces in Britain, mainly organised on a local basis. The Metropolitan Police Force and the City of London force are responsible for policing London.

British policelamp

Each force in England and Wales is responsible to a police authority consisting of local councillors, magistrates and independent members. Since April 1996 the police authority in Scotland comprises four joint police boards made up of local councillors. The police force in Northern Ireland, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, is responsible to an independent police authority appointed by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. For historical reasons, the Home Secretary is responsible for London’s Metropolitan Police Force, advised by the Metropolitan Police Committee. For the City of London Police the authority is a committee of the Corporation of London.

Provincial forces are headed by a chief constable, deputy chief constable and assistant chief constable. The top Metropolitan Police ranks are the commissioner, deputy commissioner, assistant commissioner, deputy assistant commissioner and commander. Thereafter all ranks are the same in the forces - chief superintendent, superintendent, chief inspector, inspector, sergeant and constable.

Police/community liaison consultative groups operate in every police authority; they consist of representatives from the police, local councillors and community groups. Most forces use customer surveys to provide information on public attitudes. These are used to shape the standards of service being provided.

The heart of policing is the work done by police constables, who are in constant contact with the public. They patrol the streets on foot, or in cars, give advice and deal with disturbances. Local crime prevention panels - each one assisted by the police - identify crime problems and try to tackle them through publicity. The police are closely involved in setting up "neighbourhood watch" schemes, advising residents on home security and encouraging residents to keep an eye on properties in their area and pass on information to the police about suspicious people or vehicles.

There are about 150,000 full-time police officers in Britain, of whom around 12 per cent are women.

Q91. When can the police carry guns?

Usually uniformed police officers carry a truncheon or baton to protect themselves against violence. In England, Scotland and Wales firearms may be issued only to specially trained police officers, known as Authorised Firearms Officers, and then only on the authority of a senior officer.

Authority is given when an officer is likely to face an armed criminal or when an officer is deployed to protect a person who may be at risk of attack. Officers may fire weapons only as a last resort if they believe that their or other lives are in danger.

Each Authorised Firearms Officer is personally responsible for the decision to fire, and may be required to justify this action before the courts.

Most forces in England and Wales operate a system of armed response vehicles - patrol cars which carry weapons in a locked box - to provide a speedy initial response to a firearms incident.

Because of terrorist campaigns in Northern Ireland, members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary carry firearms for personal protection.

Q92. What is the difference between a judge, a barrister and a solicitor?

A judge is a crucial figure in the trial system. He or she supervises the conduct of the trial and passes sentence on those who have been convicted. Judges are normally appointed from practising barristers (advocates in Scotland) or solicitors and must have at least 10 years professional standing.

The kind of judge chosen to preside over a case in court depends on its seriousness and complexity. Very serious offences are tried on indictment only by the Crown Court. The Crown Court sits in about 94 centres in England and Wales, many of them consisting of several courtrooms.

Appeals from the Crown Court are made to the Court of Appeal. A further appeal from the Court of Appeal to the House of Lords can be brought if a point of law of general public importance is considered to be involved.

Most minor civil cases are dealt with by the county courts, of which there are about 270. Cases are heard by circuit judges or district judges. Magistrates courts are the lowest tier of the criminal justice system. Justice is delivered not by professional judges or lawyers, but by appointed representatives of the community, called Magistrates. Their main job is to deliver "summary justice" to people charged with less serious crimes. They refer grave offences to the Crown Court.

The legal profession in Britain is divided into two branches: barristers (advocates in Scotland) and solicitors.

Solicitors undertake legal business for individual and corporate clients, while barristers advise on legal problems submitted through solicitors and present cases in the higher courts. Certain functions are common to both - for example, the presentation of cases in the lower courts.

Barristers must pass professional examinations before being called to the Bar (Barristers are known collectively as the Bar), and they must then serve an apprenticeship or "pupillage" with a qualified barrister for one year.

Solicitors must also pass professional examinations and serve a two-year period of apprenticeship called "articles" in a solicitor’s office. Once qualified in this way, a newly admitted solicitor is supervised for three years.

Q93. Why are wigs worn by lawyers?

Although English legal dress has a long history, it has for the most part evolved in the same way as common law, without written regulation. Before the 17th century lawyers did not wear wigs, but professional discipline required that their hair and beards should be moderately short.

Nevertheless, the introduction of wigs into polite society in the reign of Charles II (1660-85) was an innovation which could not be resisted! After a period of disapproval, wigs were generally assumed by lawyers in the 1680s.

Early wigs are difficult to identify in portraits of the period because they were of a natural colour and were sometimes combined with a lock of growing hair at the forehead. However, wigs soon became larger and increasingly stylised. By the middle of the 17th century wigs of powdered white or grey hair were the universal custom, but during George III’s reign (1760-1820) wigs went rapidly out of general use.

Although bishops were given royal permission to abandon their wigs in the 1830s, this was not necessarily true of other officials. There is a story that Lord Eldon, the Lord Chancellor of the day, was refused permission to leave off his wig at court!

In the 1860s the counsel were permitted to remove their wigs during a heatwave - this attracted some comment in the press and it was suggested that wigs were abandoned altogether by the legal profession. However, the proposal met with little support, though it has been a common occurrence ever since for judges to allow wigs to be left off in very hot weather, and sometimes turbans are allowed to be worn instead of wigs on religious grounds.

Q94. What is the Old Bailey?

The Old Bailey is the most famous Crown Court in Britain. Its official title is the Central Criminal Court, and the figure on the dome of the building holding the scales of justice remains one of the most enduring symbols of justice in a free society.

The Old Bailey normally has 19 courts sitting at one time. Built on the site of the notorious Newgate Prison, it has brought to trial some infamous murderers - among them Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged for murder in England; the "Brides in the Bath Murderer", George Joseph Smith; John Christie who murdered his wife and at least five other women; and the "Yorkshire Ripper", Peter Sutcliffe.

The old courthouse, built in 1773, was replaced in 1907 by the present building designed by E.W. Mountford. The name "Old Bailey" is taken from the street where the court is situated, which is itself named after an "old bailey" or former outer castle wall which once stood there.

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