14 November 2010

The sad state of England's legal system (or What the f**k is wrong with English laws?)

For a land that gave the free world the likes of John Stuart Mill and his seminal work ‘On Liberty’, England has become a decidedly unfree place, particularly for writers and communicators. Two cases highlight the sad state of English law, which currently advocates narrow literalism, rigid process and stagnant tradition over intelligent interpretation, context and even justice.

First, we have the case of Paul Chambers, a former accountant who was convicted under anti-terrorism laws for the following Twitter post:

"Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!"

Chambers’s tweet was aimed at his Twitter followers, which included friends whom he had planned to meet up with, a plan that was frustrated by Robin Hood airport’s closure. Now, anyone with the tiniest grasp of linguistic nuance can see that the tweet was an obvious peevish joke. That is, any ordinary person can see that.

But Judge Jacqueline Davies thought otherwise. In her sentencing statement, Davies referred to the tweet as “menacing in its content and obviously so. […] Any ordinary person reading this would see it in that way and be alarmed.” Clearly the good judge’s conception of an ‘ordinary person’ takes their paranoia and/or lousy sense of humour as a given.

Second, we have the case of English libel law being used to muzzle those who question or criticise dubious claims made by companies hawking products like breast enlargement cream. English libel laws have the distinction of being the laws of choice for foreign companies or individuals to silence their detractors. This ‘libel tourism’ happens because England’s laws favour plaintiffs and cast the burden of proof on the critics. These are usually writers or bloggers who lack the abundant war chests of corporations and billionaires, and so are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to mounting a successful defence of their writing against claims of libel or defamation.

Earlier this year I wrote about British science journalist Simon Singh’s victory in the libel suit brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association. Singh’s case was arguably the fire-starter for the current campaign calling for reform in English libel law, which is garnering much support both locally and overseas.

Will commonsense and justice return to that fair isle from whence sprung so many historic ideas promoting liberty of expression and thought? England’s current rash of illiberalism is part of a worrying trend across apparently free democracies, where civil liberties are curtailed for often questionable reasons, whether in the interest of security (with the Paul Chambers incident) or simply maintaining the status quo (with the unfair libel laws).

If free, secular, law-ruled and democratic government is to remain one of the finest achievements of our species, this toxic erosion must be recognised and stopped. As Thomas Jefferson, a founding father of that superpowered example of a free democracy, solemnly observed, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” But it must not be a misplaced vigilance that exchanges hard-won and necessary freedoms for either imaginary monsters under the bed or shielding bullies from deserved criticism.


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