Friday, 1 July 2011

Blind Justice

Lurid headlines have greeted the trial and conviction of two women, a mother and daughter from Wallasey, Liverpool, who kept the corpse of the mother's own mother unreported and unburied. The daughter received a suspended sentence, while the mother was jailed for 11 months in order to claim social security benefits due to the deceased.

That the case is dreadful, no one can doubt. But both the media and the Courts, the latter possibly egged on by the former, have behaved questionably to say the least. The reportage conjures up notions of the old lady being hidden away in a freezer while her relatives enjoyed a life of fraudulent luxury living off their ill-gotten gains, callously ignoring any dignity or respect due to the departed.

The truth would seem rather more prosaic: the woman was left in her bed, her body rotting until the house was full of mice and blowflies; and the total benefits defrauded amounted two payments totalling a little over £200. One look at the photograph of the outside of the ramshackle house would raise immediate questions about the psychological state of its inhabitants and the descriptions of the interior pretty much would confirm that the mother and daughter themselves have, to say the least, been struggling to cope with life.

In such circumstances, is the full attention of the print and televised media, the ire of the self-appointed guardians of the nation's morals in news columns and readers' boards, and, above all, an 11 month custodial sentence really the sort of justice that lets us all sleep better at night?

The daughter described an extremely dysfunctional family during the trial, a household totally dominated by the dead grandmother. They left her in her room initially in fear of disturbing her. Latterly, the mother did feel that she needed to secure the benefit money - but is living with a festering corpse in a filthy house for 6 months in return for £200 really the actions of some dreadful criminal minds?

Or is it rather more obviously a case of two people as much in need of help as the deceased was in need of burial? Is our country, with the current Government's obsession with costs, served well by locking up this woman in a prison for the rest of this year? Or might it, and the two women on trial, have been better served by providing practical assistance and psychological treatment to sort out the mess their lives have clearly been in for some time?

Of course, mention benefits and fraud in the same sentence (although in the Mail you only need one as in their world the words are interchangeable) and in the current climate you immediately incur the blind condemnation of hundreds of thousands of tax-dodging neanderthals, but was it too much to hope that, just for once, Justice might have truly been done and the Court might have looked beyond the next day's headlines?

A life of luxury? The run down house where the family lived, and died.

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