Thursday, 11 August 2011

The rule of law and the jerk of the knee

Three observations on recent events in London and other cities of the United Kingdom.

1. Should those found to be responsible for criminal activity in the course of recent events, who are receiving state benefits and/or living in social housing, lose their benefits and/or social housing by way of penalty?

This appears to me to be a very ready knee jerk reaction to what has happened, perhaps driven by a degree of stereotyping and a certain political ideology. It is perhaps an idea that certain sections of the media will very readily rally behind, and drive public opinion. It is an idea that I would warn against.

One of the efforts of the former Labour government was to make providers of social housing - either Councils, council owned management organisations or private social housing organisations - share the responsibility for handling anti-social behaviour on their estates (and indirectly in the area of the local authority as a whole). Hence the "neighbourhood warden" or equivalent.

It is one thing for a resident to suffer a penalty relating to their housing if their behaviour has in some way been related to their residence - perhaps anti-social behaviour directed at neighbours or property on their own estate. But it seems to me quite a different thing for such a penalty to be applied for behaviour that has no relation to their residence. There is a question about justice, about due process with regard to tenancy conditions and due consideration for the circumstances of individual cases, particularly those cases where participation in recent events constitutes a "one off".

I am unable to see how putting people into financial and housing difficulties forms a just and effective response to the types of misconduct we have seen. For those who are convicted of offences after the recent events, there is already the possibility of serious knock-on consequences in employment without adding further consequences.

2. The rule of law

The word "lawlessness" has been often used over recent days in connection with events in the cities of the UK. Phrases like "lack of responsibility" and , less commonly, "lack of morals" have also been used.

From the point of view of a democratic society, or, perhaps more fundamentally, any free society even were it not based on a democratic process, is acceptance of the rule of law. This does have an element of coercion - the system of criminal law and the courts, governed by due process. But, as we have seen, it breaks down when those who are subject to the rule of law reject the legitimacy of that rule. There is a question - and the ages and profiles of those now appearing before all night court sittings suggest that it does not extend just to young people - of how society promotes the importance of the rule of law to its citizens.

It is also one thing to make some expression of solidarity in your local community, but quite another to take the law into your own hands. Some of what we have seen in the last two nights appears to me to be rather more like the latter than the former, something that is very vulnerable to being taken up by an objectionable style of political ideology. I did, however, spot a very neat and powerful act of solidarity via a thank you note in a tweet (published on the web) from one of the police forces. This thanked all those members of the public who, during the course of Wednesday, had brought cakes to police stations throughout the county. I am sure that my own work place is far from being the only one where the custom is to bring cakes in on your birthday - but the "minsitry of hospitality" strikes me as being a way of expressing solidarity with those affected by events that does not carry with it the danger of vigilantism.

This question of respect for the rule of law might attract the term "responsibility" from those in the political world, but an interesting thought has occured to me, though I have not really had the time to explore it. St Thomas Aquinas treatment of the subject of natural law in the Summa - "morals", if one wants to translate it approximately into a language of the politicl sphere - is placed within his treatment of law in general. This suggests that it will not be possible to separate a promotion of respect for the rule of law without at the same time promoting an objective sense of morality.

3. International Comment

La Croix has a thoughful comment from an overseas perspective, though I have not had time to translate any of it.


Rita said...

I got all my news for La Croix, whilst away. I do wonder if "little britian" could run to a Catholic daily of such quality?...probably not, the politics of Catholics over here is rather too factional.

Having said that,La Croix describing Bristol as "une petite ville" brought a smile to my face.

ps. Glad your blogging again.

Joe said...

Dear Rita

I hope you are keeping well.

I spotted the quality of La Croix in Lourdes this time last year, and have tried to keep an eye on it ever since.