Monday, 14 September 2009

The Law of Unintended Consequences

All bad precedents have their origin in measures that at the time seemed good - Julius Ceasar

Even the liberal lawyer Helena Kennedy QC admits that the best intentions in legal reform can sometimes produce unexpected and unpalatable consequences.

She is particularly concerned about the development of alternative systems of justice that bypass the courts. Restraining orders to protect the victims of domestic violence, once championed by lawyers like her, have in recent years been broadened in scope and application by politicians, particularly by David Blunkett, with very troubling results. She discusses this on BBC Radio 4 which can be heard iPlayer by clicking on the heading.

This reminds me of the deeply unwise extension of laws relating to terrorism; the flawed new law championed by the idiotic Jacqui Smith against the clients of prostitutes; and the Home Office's supine acceptance of a lop-sided extradition treaty with the United States as well as the extraordinarily ill-thought out vetting of people who regularly work with young children. In each of these instances, media-championed attention seems to bring out the worst in law-makers, who consistently forget that any change in the criminal law has far-reaching and easily unforeseen consequences.

The core of all this foolishness is the absence of wise and experienced minds in government. Wisdom, and the moral authority to say no to the silly ideas put forward by well-meaning but narrow-minded reformers, seems to have disappeared compeletely. The appointment of Jacqui Smith was possibly the lowest point the country has ever reached in its long and distinguished criminal justice history - the nation that created habeas corpus and based justice on establishing mens rea through transparent due proces is now allowing small minds to nibble away at these cornerstones of liberty.