Civilisation and the Law

We often hear talk of ‘The Rule of Law’, but I think the best indicator of a civilisaed society is when it is understood that the law should be a guideline for living that ensures everyone has a peaceful, happy and prosperous life. Most of all that means that hoary old chestnut of ‘ignorance of the law is no excuse’ should never be heard: where possible, those who break or are about to break the law should be educated and, if necessary, restrained from breaking it without criminalising them. I do not refer to the sort of nonsense we see too often in our courts, where a burglar is let off time and again with a suspended sentence or light fine (that won’t be paid) only to reoffend once more; by that point, they have had their chance to be educated or treated lightly in the hope of rehabilitation and had they been adequately dealt with wouldn’t be offending yet again.

No, what I am talking about are those generally petty acts, sometimes due to ignorance or misunderstanding, sometimes due to errors such as a lack of signage, and sometimes due to selfishness, that in themselves are not terribly serious, but if allowed to continue or pile up can cause problems, and which, in the hands of the petty dictators who populate the police and council workforce, are too often an excuse for raising funds or making people’s lives a misery. For example, should a traffic warden spy somebody about to park where they shouldn’t, they should ask them to move their vehicle to an appropriate parking place: that may reduce the council’s income from parking fines, but in a civilised society we should be attempting to ensure safety and harmony, not raise funds; whether the motorist is ignorant or chancing his arm, or the parking rules unclear, it is better to inform him (hopefully educating him to avoid that error in future) and allow him to correct his error (by moving his car) than to slap a ticket on it (which does nothing to resolve the issue of it restricting traffic flow or blocking a pedestrian crossing or whatever the reason for the ticket is).

Then, in cases where a person is a repeat offender or is at risk of breaking the law due to a condition, there should be option of restraining them from being able to break the law, such as banning them from certain activities. Surely it is a kinder and more civilised approach to ban someone from driving than to criminalise them? Obviously if restraint is ineffective, such as a banned driver continuing to drive, they should be dealt with through the full power of the law, but most people are reasonable and things needn’t get that far.

Which brings me to the news story that inspire this post. An elderly man is going to prison for the foolish but not malicious act of leaving a loaded shotgun on the front seat of his car. He had a licence for the gun and had done nothing with it that could be construed as alarming. In fact, the report to the police about it appears to have been made by some teenagers who had been making his life a misery – he hadn’t threatened them with it, so it seems the report was purely malicious, and certainly not public spirited.

The man had certainly acted foolishly – the gun should have been secured in the boot of the car and given that he thought it unloaded when it was actually loaded, it seems he probably wasn’t fit to continue to handle firearms. At the very least, he needed to be reminded of how to safely handle firearms, and assessed to check whether the forgetfulness of age was making him unsafe to own firearms.If so, the sensible thing would have been for the police to confiscate the weapon (and any others he might own) and revoke his licence. That was all that needed to happen. Nobody had been threatened. Nobody had been hurt. No real crime has been committed. Instead, as too often is the case, the powers that be decided to waste time and money on a trial and to put him into a prison that is so overcrowded we are frequently told dangerous prisoners cannot be jailed or must be set free early due to a lack of space, again costing money to jail him and risking his fragile health. And, for what? Achieving nothing that couldn’t have been achieved with a swift and simple confiscation and revocation!

Clearly Britain is not a very civilised nation…


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