Looking back at this podcast, I worried I was covering an English topic that was only useful for people who were in trouble with the UK legal system! Although that was not my intention at all. I was reading a story about a miscarriage of justice here in the UK, and the actual issue was how errors in computer software ruined the lives of innocent people. I thought you might be interested in the English vocabulary used as legalese is a strange thing and worth exploring.
As our world is ever more computerised, our lives are ever more affected by mistakes in personal data and in software. In today’s English listening conversation, we take a topic and explore the vocabulary associated with the UK legal system, which is interesting in and of itself. We will also hear a story about how computers can wreck your life.
I was talking to a friend of mine recently who discovered a spelling mistake in their name on their UK driving license. Someone had typed ‘N’ instead of ‘M’. The issues this causes are huge, because all the UK’s governmental systems are connected.
So if you want a new passport, online systems check your driving license details. If you want to submit your tax return, online systems check your driving license id or passport. And if they don’t match up, they lock you out. All the services you used to do face to face have moved online because of the pandemic. So this person had been trying to correct the problem but had failed, and there was nobody in the real world to talk to about it.
There is no greater tyranny than that which is perpetrated under the shield of the law and in the name of justice.
⭐ Montesquieu, French Philosopher
So today we look at the scary side of being on the outside of a computerised world. How officials who use these systems see the systems as always correct and the normal people, who have to use these systems are wrong until proven otherwise. Along the way we will listen to a lot of British English being spoken by a native English speaker which will help you with your English fluency and the speed of your English comprehension.
Legalese Justice Miscarriage Dishonest Convictions Shortfall
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Hi there and welcome to this latest podcast from Adept English. Let’s cover a topic today which will give you some interesting and different English vocabulary to learn. How to learn the English for the justice system? Well, here it is. And if you would like to know how to learn English faster: 7 tips, then if you haven’t done this already, go to our website at adeptenglish.com and sign up for our free (yes, free – you don’t have to pay!) - our free course The Seven Rules of Adept English.
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Today a story which made the headlines in the UK newspapers from a couple of weeks ago. When I say the word ‘headlines’ – that means the title of a piece of news, either in a newspaper, where the headlines would be in large letters, large font, or on a news programme, where the ‘news headlines’ would be read first - the most important pieces of news.
So the news item that I’m going to talk about was about what’s called ‘a miscarriage of justice’ which happened in the UK. The word ‘miscarriage’, MISCARRIAGE in this context, means ‘something that was carried out incorrectly, something that was done incorrectly’. And the word ‘justice’, JUSTICE means ‘the system for managing what’s right and what’s wrong’, what’s lawful and what’s against the law.
So the ‘justice system’ means the law courts, the system whereby legal cases are tried, are tested against the evidence. So here, I’m talking about criminal justice – where people are on trial for breaking the law and where a group of people – a jury – decide whether or not the person is ‘guilty’, ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’. If the jury find you ‘not guilty’, this means that either they don’t think you committed the crime, the wrongdoing or that there isn’t enough evidence to be sure. And if they find you ‘guilty’ – that means the jury think you did the crime and you will have to do the punishment for that crime. And punishment – that means the ‘bad consequence’, like going to prison, paying a fine, or what’s called ‘community service’ – where you have to do work for free as a punishment. Prison, PRISON means losing your freedom – famous prisons in case you don’t know that word, include Alcatraz, Chateau d’If or Robben Island.
So the national organisation in the UK, which is in charge of delivering post and parcels is called ‘The Post Office’. ‘National’ means it’s all across the nation – it’s owned by the government. And there is a Post Office in every town, although there used to be more Post Offices than there are now. It’s where you used to go to apply for a new passport, where you used to pay your tax for your car.
Now you can do most of this online. But there still are lots of things people go to the post office for – you can buy parking permits, insurance, travel insurance - all services that you pay money for – and traditionally it’s where your post letters and parcels, though of course there are many other businesses who deliver parcels now. So the Post Office is like a ‘government shop’ in many ways. And smaller Post Offices are called ‘sub-post offices’ and are run by men called sub-postmasters and by women, who’re called sub-postmistresses.
Well, it appears that between the years 2000 and 2014, the Post Office took to court 736 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, believing them to have stolen money from the Post Office. And this was based on information from a computer system, installed in 1999 called Horizon. 736 - that’s is an average of one person prosecuted every week for 14 years! ‘To prosecute’ means ‘to take to court and convict’, and ‘find guilty’.
Some sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses went to prison. Their convictions, that’s CONVICTIONS meaning what they were found guilty of – were for false accounting or theft, which means stealing. This usually happened because the amount of money taken did not match the accounting system, the Horizon system. There would be a shortfall, SHORTFALL. That means the difference between the money the accounting system said there should be there – and lesser amount of money that was actually taken. So this created scandal in small towns and villages.
In some cases, the shortfall over a period of time was as much as £400,000. Sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses are well-known within their communities, so being convicted of a crime like this meant being disgraced in front of their communities and being thought of by everyone as a criminal. Many of them faced financial ruin – they lost their jobs, their houses, their money, their pensions, their marriages. Many have had health problems because of the stress. Some have since died.
But 20 years on, after a long campaign, the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses have won a legal battle to have their convictions overturned, because it’s believed that the computer system which supplied the evidence against them was in error. The Horizon system, supplied by Japanese company Fujitsu appears itself to have generated the shortfalls, the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses did nothing wrong.
Yet some of them, in a desperate attempt to keep their jobs and not get into trouble, paid off the shortfall with their own money, even remortgaging their properties to do this. But the system kept on generating the errors. One sub-postmistress went to prison in 2010, while she was pregnant with her second child.
A photograph of the scales of justice. In today's English language conversation listening practice we talk about injustice and miscarriage of justice.
But this week, 39 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses had their convictions quashed. ‘To quash’, QUASH – that means to reverse the guilty verdict – their names are now clear. Many more cases will follow. And it looks as though the Post Office will be held responsible. Their computer system caused the problem. And all along, they refused to consider the possibility that it was not the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses who were dishonest.
They refused to consider the possibility that their computer system was in error. And this despite the fact that there were 736 people convicted on the evidence of that computer system. There are only 11,500 sub-post offices in the country – did it not seem strange to anyone that there were apparently so many dishonest people? This sounds like what is known as a ‘cover-up’ by the Post Office – when people try to obscure the truth because it makes them look bad.
It’s hard to imagine being convicted of a crime that you didn’t commit, going to prison, for up to three years, losing your savings, your house, all your money, the respect of your community - all when you’ve done nothing wrong. And also having to live with a criminal conviction on your record for up to 15 years. In the UK, once you have a criminal record, it’s really difficult to get a job, because that information is shared. And possible employers can check up, can find the record of your criminal conviction and decide not to give you a job. So the lives of these sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses have been ruined.
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Some of them died before their names could be cleared. But now their names are clear – and many will go to court to claim compensation – that’s COMPENSATION – which means money to compensate them, to make up for all that they’ve been through. I’m not sure how you can make up for ruining someone’s life like that. But least now, those who were wrongly accused, wrongly convicted and wrongly imprisoned have justice.
The problem now is that the Post Office, a government-owned organisation will have to pay the compensation. So effectively the tax-payer will have to pick this up, will have to pay for this. So far nobody at the Post Office has admitted being responsible for this – and it’s probably quite likely that we will never know who was responsible, who covered up the truth for so long. It’s hard to imagine such a scandal, such a shocking story around such a mundane government organisation as the Post Office. I imagine they may now have difficulty finding people willing to do that job of running sub-post offices.
So how to learn the English for the British justice system? There is really useful vocabulary in this podcast, so as usual, listen to it a number of times. The words in it will help you understand other news stories and the language we use around the court system, the justice system.
Enough for now. Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.