Robert Dickson says deterrent sentences have worked in the past in

curbing offences ranging from mail train robberies to slashings and more

Judges taking a leaf out of Lord Carmont's book could be the answer to

the present wave of violent crime

THE death of Lord Edmund Davies last month awoke in the memory of the

public images of the Great Train Robbery and the subsequent trial of

some of those responsible. As was clear from the obituary which was

published in The Herald, he was a man of outstanding legal ability, who

chaired public inquiries, including that into police pay and conditions,

and who made a major contribution to the evolution of English law. He

will, however, always be remembered as the Judge who imposed heavy

sentences on those convicted of Britain's first major train hi-jacking.

The fact that some of the sentences were later reduced on appeal

received little publicity.

The words of the trial Judge that the original sentences were intended

as a warning to others received headline treatment in almost every

newspaper. Whether it is a coincidence or that Mr Justice (as he was)

Edmund Davies's admonition had the desired effect, there does not appear

to have been a similar attempt on such a scale to rob a mail train


A comparable situation arose 40 years ago when razor gangs ran amok in

Glasgow. When the diminutive Lord Carmont came through from Edinburgh to

preside over the High Court Circuit, few people realised that a firm

stand was about to be taken against these thugs, and that a new phrase

''Doing a Carmont'' would enter the language of the underworld. Warning

that future sentences might require to be more severe if the use of

razors and other similar weapons did not cease forthwith, the Judge

imposed sentences of up to 10 years' imprisonment on all those who

appeared before him convicted of inflicting horrific injuries on others.

One week later the Glasgow police had their first weekend since the war

without a single slashing or similar attack.

This was not the first occasion on which Glasgow 'neds' had been the

recipients of judicial wrath as violent crime escalated. The mild and

apparently gentle Lord Justice Clerk Aitchison, famous for his brilliant

representation as Oscar Slater and Donald Marrett's KC, came to Glasgow

for a High Court sitting 20 years earlier. So savage (or realistic

depending on your point of view) were his disposals that he required a

police guard on the train back home. Sir Percy Sillitoe, the Chief

Constable of Glasgow, gladly supplied the men for this task; the

resulting drop in violent crime in the Gorbals was immediately obvious

and for a period relative calm returned to the city.

Certain lessons can perhaps be learned from the effects of the three

histories. First, deterrent sentences can and do make a difference but

they depend largely on the publicity which they receive. The widespread

media coverage accorded to the 30-year sentences imposed on Charles

Wilson and his fellow robbers was an essential part of the message that

crime of this sort would not be allowed to pay. Similarly, the front

pages of all three Glasgow evening newspapers carried pictures of Lord

Carmont and his chilling words of warning. Without that support the

Judges' attempts to stem the tide of violent crime would have been in


Recently, I saw an improvement in the standard of evidence given in

court after Lord Penrose had imprisoned one witness for 18 months when

she had deliberately defied the court and repeatedly acted in total

contempt of the judicial system. Again the publicity given to what began

as another Lanarkshire knife case had an effect on outside matters. When

witnesses realise that prevarication and perjury will be severely and

immediately dealt with they consider their position more carefully

before embarking on such a dangerous course of action. The apparent

arrogance of the witness in court was in stark contrast to her state as

she descended to the cells.

A second lesson which may be apparent from looking back on the visits

of Lords Aitchison and Carmont to Glasgow is that the effect of

deterrent sentences is limited to the passage of time. For a short time

there can be a noticeable drop in statistics for particular crimes but

in due course the lessons are forgotten. Any judicial message is also

governed by the ability of the police to arrest the right person and of

the judicial process to result in a justified conviction. So long as

criminals believe either that they can avoid detection or alternatively

can, by manipulating the system, escape conviction, the fear of a

lengthy prison sentence will lose its effect.

Whether it is because juries in the past were more gullible or

realistic, or whether it is because of the publicity given to the

quashing of certain convictions in England, the task for the prosecution

of proving a case to satisfy the majority of 15 members of the public is

proving more and more difficult.

Once again assaults with weapons are greatly on the increase. The use

of knives, and in particular razor blades, has dramatically risen over

the past three years. All the threats of draconian sentences will have

no effect unless they are brought forcibly to the attention of the

public and unless those responsible for these evil crimes know that they

are liable to be caught and convicted.

Part of the trouble, in many cases, has been the reluctant witness who

refuses to speak up in court. Lord Penrose, by his stand, took the first

step towards tackling this growing problem. Once criminals know that

witnesses are aware of the perils of evasiveness in court, they will

also know that their chances of escaping conviction are diminished. When

that occurs then the courts will have started along the road to ensure

that the pattern set by Lords Aitchison and Carmont of obtaining a

temporary reduction in the rise of violent crime is possible again. If

the message from the courts is clear and unequivocal, then nobody can

complain that they are not doing their best to fight violent crime; the

rest is up to the media and the public to play their part before the war

is totally lost.

Lord Davies

Lord Carmont

Lord Aitchison

The Judge imposed sentences of up to 10 years' imprisonment . . . one

week later Glasgow police had their first weekend since the war without

a single slashing