Philip Lawrence: hard cases make bad law

The furore over the decision not to deport the killer of a headmaster from the UK is being used to promote a dangerous idea: victims’ justice.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

A UK immigration tribunal has decided that a man who killed a school headteacher 12 years ago should be allowed to remain in Britain when he is released from jail. The decision has caused a storm of indignation. However, the furore appears to have little to do with the case itself – the facts of which have generally been glossed over – and everything to do with grandstanding about the rights of victims and the Human Rights Act.

Learco Chindamo was a 15-year-old boy when he stabbed Philip Lawrence outside the gates of St George’s School in west London in December 1995. Lawrence, who was headmaster of the school, had gone to the aid of a 13-year-old boy who was being attacked by a gang of youths, including Chindamo. Chindamo, who was born in Italy but moved to Britain when he was six years old, was sentenced to an indefinite term in prison in October 1996.

He is due to be considered for parole in January 2008. He is currently being held in a relatively high-security prison because it was assumed that he would be considered for deportation, being a foreign citizen, when he finished his sentence. However, the immigration tribunal has now ruled, based on the fact that Chindamo was brought up in the UK, that deportation would be inappropriate. In making its decision, the tribunal referred to both European Union law and the Human Rights Act, and it particularly flagged up Chindamo’s right to a family life.

The leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, was quick to condemn the decision – and the Human Rights Act: ‘It has to go. Abolish the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights, which sets out rights and responsibilities. The fact that the murderer of Philip Lawrence cannot be deported flies in the face of common sense. It is a glaring example of what is going wrong in our country. What about the rights of Mrs Lawrence?’ (1)

For its part, the New Labour government was unhappy with the decision, too. The justice secretary, Jack Straw, said: ‘We are very vigorously appealing this. It was not our expectation that this man would be open to live in this country on his release. I have not yet been able to see the judgement. What I have been able to glean is that it is very probable that most of this issue arises not from the Human Rights Act but from European Union law.’ (2)

On the facts available in the public domain, the immigration tribunal’s decision to allow Chindamo to stay after his release appears to be the right one. Chindamo, it seems, has little connection with Italy. While deporting foreign nationals after they have served their time is not always unreasonable, in Chindamo’s case there appears to be little logic to it. His crime – the murder of an upstanding public servant trying to protect a younger boy – was a heinous one. But the normal rules that govern sentencing should apply, and when he has served the time deemed appropriate by those rules, he should be allowed to get on with his life.

The rules shouldn’t be altered on a whim just because a particular outcome seems to jar with our sense of what is appropriate – especially when the full facts of the matter are reduced, by both politicians and sections of the media, to a few bullet points designed to produce a Pavlovian reaction of revulsion. If those getting hot under the collar about how unjust it is that Chindamo may not serve a very long sentence (although spending half of his life in jail as a result of his actions as a hot-headed 15-year-old is hardly getting off scot free), that is a matter for public debate about sentencing and parole policy, not for changing rules as we go along.

More dangerous still is the notion of ‘victims’ justice’. Many are asking: what about justice for the victims of this crime – Philip Lawrence and his widow, Frances, who has been quoted widely over the past two days expressing her distress about the fact that Chindamo will not be deported upon his release? But ‘victims’ justice’ is deeply problematic. Already there have been moves down this path, with pilot schemes allowing a victim’s advocate to make statements in court as part of the sentencing process. This blurs two very different things: the sentencing of a criminal and the grieving of someone affected by crime. The court should, as far as possible, act as the objective representative of society determining how to deal with someone who’s done something wrong rather than as an outlet for people’s understandable anger or grief (see Courtroom therapy makes a mockery of justice, by Frank Furedi).

In fact, victims have been useful tools for the remaking of government policy more widely. Frances Lawrence has been a good example of this. After the death of her husband, Mrs Lawrence put forward the idea of teaching people to be good citizens, which was quickly picked up by all of the major political parties, but particularly by the present New Labour government which has used cases like hers to justify the introduction of citizenship classes.

Equally, the families of other high-profile murder victims like Stephen Lawrence and Sarah Payne have been drawn into a very direct relationship with the Home Office or have been used to justify demands for other policy changes. Mrs Lawrence notes that she’s known almost every home secretary to have held office since her husband’s death. To her credit, she has mixed feelings about this fact, describing her high-level access to figures of authority as ‘a kind of privilege, but you are forced into these very Orwellian relationships with the police, the prison system, the justice system, the government. It’s not something that I would have chosen.’ (3)

Victims are seen as having the ultimate authority in matters of policing and justice today. The wishes of victims are presented as unanswerable, rising above mere politics. It may be that in the absence of any wider principle to govern policymaking, politicians really are in thrall to the thoughts of those who have suffered – and perhaps their tendency to justify new policy measures as a means of addressing victims’ concerns are not simply a cover for authoritarianism but are driven by genuine concerns. However, whatever the motives, short-circuiting proper debate about how we should take society forward is bad news for the rest of us. It is all too easy to justify the removal of important liberties in the name of victims, most notably the change in the rules on ‘double jeopardy’ after the Stephen Lawrence case that allowed someone to be tried twice for the same killing (see Why nobody should be tried twice for the same offence, by John Fitzpatrick).

While the interests of the powers-that-be are very much served by using victims to justify measures that might otherwise be considered draconian, it is far from clear that the victims themselves benefit at all. Mrs Lawrence was reported to be mortified that Chindamo would not be deported – but only because she had been assured by various politicians that he would be shipped out as soon as he left jail, something they were not in a position to promise. More broadly, the elevation of the victim means that many are in no position to move on from their grief, as they become defined in the public eye by the tragic events they were caught up in.

As for the Human Rights Act, the criticisms put forward by the Conservatives are shallow and potentially even more undemocratic than the Act itself. Replacing an Act based on the European Convention on Human Rights with one based on some foggy set of homegrown principles simply leaves our freedoms in the hands of an unaccountable judiciary. These ‘rights’ look good on paper but they are hedged in such a way as to make them fairly meaningless. And as Mick Hume has argued on spiked, the proliferation of rights has done little to prevent the creeping intervention of the authorities into every microcosm of our lives, from how we feed our children to where we choose to light a cigarette (see A rights kerfuffle, by Mick Hume).

The old phrase ‘hard cases make bad law’ is worth remembering. Changing the law based on a particularly emotive set of circumstances won’t change those circumstances, but it may very well saddle the rest of us with illiberal rules that only put yet more power in the hands of those who are only their ‘to protect us’.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

(1) David Cameron: Scrap the Human Rights Act, Daily Telegraph, 22 August 2007

(2) David Cameron: Scrap the Human Rights Act, Daily Telegraph, 22 August 2007

(3) ‘It’s the devil at your shoulder’, Guardian, 5 August 2006

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Topics Politics


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