Towards Justice: Law Enforcement & Reconciliation – Blog

A blog post reflecting on our Towards Justice: Law Enforcement & Reconciliation conference, hosted virtually on 17-18 June 2021

Avani Amalya Tandon Vieira

This year, Cumberland Lodge convened its annual Police Conference on the theme, ‘Towards Justice: Law Enforcement & Reconciliation’. The conference, now in its 40th year, brought together a group of legal professionals, academics, senior civil servants, and representatives from all levels of the police to discuss the place of law enforcement in addressing and remedying past injustices.

Held in the wake of the Hillsborough trial, the Daniel Morgan report, and the Government’s rape review, the two-day event sought to explore the challenges of addressing non-recent injustices. Amongst the themes explored were the processes by which such events have been brought to light, the aspects of police action that have caused harm, and the means by which such harm could be better understood, addressed and mitigated.

Whilst my research does not deal directly with ideas of justice or law enforcement, as an international student in the UK it was interesting to see questions of accountability and historical wrongdoing that have been relevant in multiple international settings – from the violent policing of protest in India to institutional racism in the United States – applied to the context of Britain.

A range of professional perspectives

The conference programme was varied and interactive, with a range of high-profile guest speakers. Panellists included academic experts in dispute resolution and psychology, leading legal professionals, members of the police force in senior investigative roles, media representatives and victims.

Attendees participated in group discussions, breakout rooms, and lively Q&A sessions. The focus of the conference was dual – to explore challenging issues in the space of justice and law enforcement and to allow cross-sector learning and engagement between professionals working in these important areas.

Anchor issues and fundamental questions

As the conference progressed, it quickly became evident that the issues being explored were vast and multi-layered. Discussions were lengthy and revealed several considerations and potential directions of debate. To anchor these discussions, speakers and participants frequently situated their discussions in real-world examples.

Important points were made, for instance, about the length of trauma endured by victims and families through the lens of the Hillsborough disaster and the subsequent public inquiries. How can we more accurately understand and address the depth and persistence of injustices through the continued suffering of families?

Similarly, the Daniel Morgan case served as an example to illustrate the factors that enable institutional corruption and the dangers of a lack of candour in law enforcement.

How can we better address institutional defensiveness and a culture of resistance around acknowledging harm that has been caused?

In speaking of these high-profile cases, a fundamental question was raised about what made these cases high-profile in the first place, and what, conversely, has prevented other significant cases from receiving the attention they deserve.

The core reasons identified for selective attention to injustices included a cultural resistance to looking back and a tendency to be defensive; bureaucracy and poor organisation; risk averse legal advice and a subsequent unwillingness to admit fault; and the excessive safeguarding of information to the detriment of victims and the public. The cases discussed were often acknowledged and addressed in the public because of the organised efforts of victim groups, media attention, and interest from major political figures – all factors that make the process of addressing harm arbitrary and partial.

Victims perspectives and possible solutions

With these challenges in mind, several potential directions for change emerged over two days of discussion. On day two, participants had the unique opportunity to partake in candid discussions with victims and survivors of injustice. This session was particularly valuable as it gave participants the opportunity to engage directly with and learn from the people central to, but often absent from, discussions of how to improve systems of law enforcement.

Recommendations put forth during these discussions included:

  • Building systems of redressal with survivors and victims at the heart of the process. Creating systems that are designed to minimise victim suffering, and including trauma awareness as part of police training.
  • Highlighting and formalising a duty of candour for law enforcement officers. Encouraging early and regular responses to police complaints and an honest admission of fault where it arises.
  • Identifying suitable alternatives to criminal justice outcomes, with a focus on restorative processes. Information sharing should be central to these processes and the right of victims and their families to be heard should be addressed.
  • Involving independent bodies in various stages of the justice process, from decisions on launching inquiries to recording testimonies and reviewing police actions.
  • Shifting approaches to evidence gathering to break down the binary between lived experience and evidentiary practice. Treating witness testimony with the care afforded to trace evidence, particularly in response to the challenges of non-recent injustices and the dangers of retraumatising victims during evidence gathering.
  • Building cultures of consistent learning that move away from the easy solutions of individualised blame towards long-term, institutional restructuring.

While the conference did not aim to provide definitive solutions to issues of justice and law enforcement, it highlighted several central areas of concern and potential directions for further debate and improvement. Key themes of discussion and cross-sector recommendations from this conference will inform a Cumberland Lodge Report to be presented later this year.