A critical and liberal look at law and policy

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Don’t Panic

The riots and the rule of law.

After four days the riots seem now to have petered out. The disorder may happen again, perhaps this evening. We do not know. It is hard to predict civil disturbances, though few pundits are ever at a loss for why any riot happened, and how it can be stopped from happening again.

Indeed, partisan habits of thought are hard to break. Socio-economic determinists will always concentrate vaguely on the "underlying" causes, whilst the law-and-order brutalists will readily fantasise about calling out the army and deploying weaponry.

However, the emerging evidence does not seem to verify either determinist or brutalist approaches. Information on those being prosecuted indicates that the participants in the disorder came from a range of social and employment backgrounds. Some appear to have even been skilled responsible professionals. Similarly, the fact that the riots were ultimately dealt with by the police under their existing powers tends to undermine the latter-day General Jumbos who wanted to direct soldiers around our streets so as to police citizens.

Overall, the riots were sporadic and local. Almost every community in England was not affected. It may well be that, in terms of national crime figures, the riots will not even be that statistically significant, and that only a few hundred people were ever involved.

This is not to pretend the blatant and vile lawlessness did not take place; it is just that there is an awful lot of crime which takes place away from the media glare. There will possibly be a shift in many urban areas in the psychology of residents; many people in London and other cities went to bed genuinely scared on Monday evening. And the fears of more civil disturbances will probably linger, especially the haunting sense that disorder is now not problem for other people. But an increased fear of crime does not necessarily mean more crimes are being committed.

The brutalists may be particularly disappointed that regular policing seemed to work. Some politicians seemed giddy with excitement at the prospect of having their electors fired at with actual or rubber bullets. Many clamoured breathlessly for the introduction of emergency measures and curfews. Even supposedly liberal politicians got caught up in this frenzy.

However, existing police public order powers were always sufficient to deal with the troubles. There are legitimate questions as to the overall allocation of resources and as to the tactics adopted by police commanders to begin with; but these are problems to be dealt with inside the current policing framework, and not a basis to casually bring the army in.

In all this, the principles of the rule of law and due process continue to be important. These principles mean that there is a settled legal basis for exercising coercive powers (such as arrest and prosecution) which respects the rights both of the individuals concerned - victim, apprehender, and culprit - and of the wider community. Civil disturbances may well test the rule of law and due process, but that is surely when such fundamental principles actually become more important. People should be properly and fairly prosecuted for the crimes they have committed during the riots.

The answer to lawlessness is not more lawlessness. To the contrary, the best response is to deal with what seems to be exceptional criminal activity in just the normal way; to keep calm, and carry on.