If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Sunday, 27 September 2009

A country of criminals

No, not Government Ministers - I mean the rest of us. I was struck by a comment on this article on The Times website:

This government has created so many new criminal offences and civil penalties that it is delightful to see the Attorney General become a victim of its legislation. As a lawyer practising criminal defence I've been saying for years that it will in due course become the accepted norm in society to have a conviction or two. By 'criminalising' so many people (and in particular children), the rule of law is severely weakened and morality, good character and integrity become less and less important.

In reckon that only about 20% of the pressure to obey the law comes from the consideration of penalties for breaking it. The other 80% comes from the desire not to be seen to be a lawbreaker. In other words, when I think about what is stopping me robbing a post office and retiring on the takings, it is only partly about the prison that might follow (let's face it, without a criminal record, I reckon the chances of being caught would be small). Far more is the idea of having a criminal conviction to my name, and the prospect of that old-fashioned idea that we don't hear much about today - shame. (I am talking about deterrents here, before you leap in - I wouldn't rob a post office because in the first case it is immoral and wrong. I am talking only about the deterrent sanctions that society has to regulate itself.)

I think 'Chris the Brief' has it about right. While laws were few and generally agreed to be 'right' (such as those against murder, rape, robbery or fraud), comparatively few people were convicted of breaking them, and the majority of the population behaved itself, keeping well on the side of the law-abiding. The level of compliance is very high. But when laws multiply exponentially, as they seem to have done in the last ten years, more and more people will commit some kind of offence, even unwittingly, and the value of being in the innocent majority will be lost. Add to that the fact that a lot of the laws passed recently do not necessarily have the support of the majority of the public (such as the 'hate speech' laws or the smoking and hunting bans), and you have a recipe for a gradual decline in the general unspoken support for the rule of law that we once had.

When I was 18, and had been driving a car for a whole six weeks, I was caught speeding by a policeman with a speed detector gun. I was fined and got an 'endorsement', as we used to call them, on my licence. I had to deal with explaining it to my Dad, whose car it was, and the insurers, and so on. It was difficult, and I felt that I had transgressed in quite a serious way. I got another endorsement four years later, this time on a motorbike (biking readers will choke with laughter when I reveal that my only speeding conviction on two wheels was on a Jawa). This had to be declared every time I took out motor insurance, and there was a faint sucking of teeth at the other end whenever I mentioned it.

And after that - nothing. I held a clean licence for the next 26 years, and it was a source of pride. I used to enjoy the tiny little buzz that came whenever I had to tick a box for 'convictions' on things like insurance applications, and could tick the box marked 'none'. I passed my car and bike tests for the IAM and felt that I was a sensible and responsible motorist - one of the law-abiding majority. There was a certain sense of security in this, and also an internal pressure to keep it that way.

Then one night I was caught by a Gatso. I was driving up the A15 in Lincolnshire, returning my daughters to their Mum after a weekend away. We had stopped for a Big Mac in Lincoln, and were a bit behind schedule. There is a stretch of the A15 going past Waddingham airfield which had been reduced to 50 mph because the Red Arrows were based there, and there were a number of accidents through people looking at the sky rather than where they were going. The Red Arrows were long gone, but the speed limit remained (no-one should be surprised at this). And I broke it that night, recorded by a camera that didn't understand that 60 was quite safe on an empty road in good weather, in the way that a proper policeman might have done.

I didn't contest it, as I was sure I was guilty, but I was mightily pissed off by it - not because of the fine, but because I no longer had a clean licence. That was important to me. And then, a revelation. A couple of years later, I was invited by Saga to apply for their car insurance (yes, I had reached that milestone). I confessed my sins, and the girl on the other end of the phone dismissed it. "Don't worry at all." she said. "Most of our customers have at least one conviction. We don't bother about three points - start worrying when you get to nine."

That got me thinking. If everyone has three points, what't the problem? It's no longer seen as unacceptable, or a mark of anti-social behaviour - it's just something that everyone has, like underarm hair. So when those points passed away and I almost immediately got three more (which I contested, as I was certain I was not guilty*), it wasn't so much of a problem. In fact, my attitude now is - as long as it doesn't cost me money in increased premiums, I really don't care. Three points, six points, we've all got them, welcome to the club. Now it takes a drink-driving conviction to get people tut-tutting - but if the blood alcohol levels are reduced even further, how long before people are saying "Oh, drink-driving, yes everyone's got one of those."

If you extrapolate this experience onto the wider world of social order and the rule of law, I think it's pretty disturbing. Keeping a clean sheet is a massive incentive to stay on the right side of the law. So is the disapproval of other people when you transgress. If we pass so many laws that no-one can obey them all, then no-one can keep a clean sheet, and no-one minds when other people get caught out. Add to this the way that a lot of new laws are contentious, partisan or simply vindictive, and you have a recipe for anarchy.

An urgent task for the next Government (asuming it is not Labour) is to have a review of all the laws and regulations that have been enacted since 1997, and a bonfire of all those that are stupid, petty, vindictive or unfair. Hopeful? I'm not.

* How's this for justice? I was fined £60 for an SP30, if I didn't argue and paid up quickly. I genuinely believed that the machine was faulty (the date was right, but the time of the offence was a time when I was several miles away in a meeting, and also I was certain my speedometer read 31 mph at the time I was seen) and I contested it. They still found me guilty, but increased the fine to £90 and added £150 costs on top. So that's £60 for speeding, and £180 for having the bare-faced cheek to challenge the system. Imagine that in a 'developing' country - a system where you are given a punishment without any due process, and told it will be quadrupled if you protest your innocence. We'd be invading them to 'liberate' their people and 'give them the benefits of democracy' before you could say knife.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comment is free, according to C P Scott, so go for it. Word verification is turned off for the time being. Play nicely.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...