Lady Justice must be allowed to do her job

In a previous column, I expressed my view that the reason the ancient Greeks and Romans were building temples, baths with hot and cold running water, eating grapes and discussing politics while most of our ancestors were scratching in the dirt came down to the fact they lived their lives by an ancient Greek saying: “Moderation in all things.” 

While other cultures became obsessed with cults, food, pleasure or war, the Greeks and Romans practiced moderation. These cultures only went into decline when they stopped living by their own sage legacy.

The human right of an individual to be presumed innocent until proven guilty was a staple of the ancient Greek and Roman culture. The now-familiar “Lady Justice” was an image and belief of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Known to the Romans by her Latin name Lustitia, from which our English word "justice" originates, and to the Greeks as Themis and Dike, her image is usually that of a woman blindfolded, with a balance in one hand and a sword in the other.

Yet the principle of innocent until proven guilty dates back even before these cultures.

The fifth book of the Bible, Deuteronomy, states that a single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong they may have committed.

I think it’s important to acknowledge the current practice of standing down a person who has been accused of misconduct, even very serious misconduct, is a recent one. When it took place in the past, it was usually associated with human devolution, such as lynch mobs.

The current controversy surrounding rugby league star Jack de Belin, who pleaded not guilty to a charge of aggravated sexual assault earlier this month in a Wollongong court, is not a first for the game.

Given that the court relaxed de Belin’s bail conditions on account of his celebrity footballer status - notwithstanding advice given or directives from rugby league officials - in justice, should de Belin be permitted to play as he awaits trial?

How presumptuous it would be of me to declare here either de Belin’s innocence or guilt. However, I believe the league commission should have taken a more cautious approach to the case when one considers several rugby league precedents.

Consider the sad case of retired Australian rugby league international Brett Stewart, who had his name dragged through the mud for more than 1½ years before he was acquitted of charges of sexual assault. I am not the only one to claim he was never the same player again.

Or the sad case of New Zealand rugby league international Shaun Kenny-Dowall, who was charged with 11 domestic violence offences against his former partner.

The couple's intimate text message exchanges were scrutinised, as were their family finances, during proceedings. The magistrate, meanwhile, was scathing in his criticisms of Kenny-Dowall’s partner. Kenny-Dowall fought back tears as a not guilty verdict was delivered.

In my own childhood, I remember well when Australian international rugby league legend Ben Elias was cleared of rape charges. Even so, for the rest of his career Elias had to endure very unsavoury crowd abuse and nicknames.

Sir William Blackstone’s ratio “it is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer” may sound silly logic to a younger generation. But it describes just how willing some of the sagacious of history have been willing to support the human right of presuming a person innocent until proven guilty.

Sir William Blackstone’s ratio “it is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer” may sound silly logic to a younger generation.

But it describes just how willing some of the sagacious of history have been willing to support the human right of presuming a person innocent until proven guilty. 

If we step a person down and the person is guilty, what have you gained? You have stopped them from enjoying a short-lived sunshine that will only turn darker once it is revealed that they not only sinned but lied about it. The guilty person will also have the excuse that they could not properly prepare their defence as everybody pre-judged them, and their mental health and ability to defend themselves suffered.  

I’m musing that the ancients had it right.

Twitter: @fatherbrendanelee