The councils spitting out bad laws

Why is Waltham Forest fining people for little more than bad manners?

A magistrate’s court in Waltham Forest, London, has fined two young men £300 for spitting in the street - creating a precedent that is likely to lead to similar cases across the country.

This case may have been celebrated by the local council, but it raises worrying questions about the rule of the law and its application.

The men were fined and prosecuted under litter laws - Waltham Forest being one of the few councils, along with Hillingdon in London, which currently fines people for spitting under litter legislation.

The council said that its streets were being defaced with ‘piles of spit’. This is simply not true. Spit is largely water; it leaves almost no trace. Yes, it is rude - or can be rude, spitting joggers aside - but it is not litter. Guidance from the environment ministry Defra on litter fines specifically says that fines should not be given for ‘small’ offences (it gives the examples of ‘a dropped crisp; some bread that is dropped on the ground to feed some ducks; a piece of orange peel’). Spit is a long way down the list from orange peel.

The transformation of spitting into a civil offence shows the free and easy approach councils now take to the law. They decide they want to ‘get’ people for a particular action, then they look for a law under which they can be prosecuted. (The more normal and liberal approach is to prosecute crimes only as defined in the law.) It is concerning that Waltham Forest’s sleight of hand is now being confirmed in the courts.

A grandmother of one of the fined boys said that she personally found spitting disgusting, but that ‘everyone does it’ in the area, so ‘everyone should be fined’. In general, the criminal law should not be applied against actions that the majority of people do; in such cases, any trial is a show trial, making an example of someone, rather than the enforcement of common mores.

Inasmuch as spitting is a problem, it is a problem of disrespect. But disrespect is a moral problem, which can only be tackled informally. Badged busybodies handing out fines to young people on street corners can only foster further contempt for authority.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club. She is speaking at the Battle of Ideas session Policing public space: banned in London at the Barbican on Saturday 19 October.

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