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If they can break the law, why can't we?

Establishment bad behaviour weakens rule of law

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Yet even if it were not, there is a very serious issue of principle a stake here. Legal academics have long debated the point at which it is "right" to disobey the law. The usual response relates to the underlying "justness" of the law and whether or not an effective process exists whereby laws can be changed to reflect changing views. The issue is put most succinctly in "A Man for All Seasons" by Robert Bolt, in what has come to be regarded as the quintessential argument against the view that one ought to "cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil".

To that, Sir Thomas More, the hero of the play, responds: "And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide... the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down... do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?"

If the Chief Constable has been outspoken in his defiance of the law, ordinary police officers have been bending it, occasionally breaking it, in ways that may evoke their own backlash. Breaking the law is always to be condemned, and wherever possible, should be dealt with through the legal system.

One problem in recent years has been a series of incidents, in which individual police officers appear to have committed sometimes serious offences – and no action has been taken: the apparent assault on an innocent passer-by at the G20 demonstration; the shooting of a Brazilian electrician (following a number of firearms incidents in which there is a perception in some quarters that the police have shot too soon); or the simple unlawful removal of equipment from photographers.

To be fair, such events are rare and newsworthy because they are rare. What is far more common is the way in which the law is bent for outwardly benign purposes. Many police forces now set up "knife arches" as part of their drive against knife crime. They have no legal power to compel an individual to walk through them, yet the Met has indicated that refusal to walk through an arch when asked to do so by an officer "may" be grounds for a search. In other words, the police have no explicit power to compel an individual to walk through an arch – if parliament had wished to grant that power, it probably would have – but creative interpretation of the law has given it to them all the same.

Directly related to this, according to Lib Dem MP David Howarth, is a dangerous disrespect by the police for democratic forms of expression. Speaking to El Reg, he said: "Police now seem to see their job as disrupting and preventing protest as though protest itself were illegitimate. When we reach that point, it is impossible to police in a democratic way."

One result of this attitude, which looks on occasion as though it is sanctioned at senior level, has been a rash of pundits tweaking the noses of the police in very public fashion. Comedian Mark Thomas responded to an unlawful stop and search by taking the matter to the Police Complaints Commission, and subsequently by expressing his intention to take out a private prosecution. His publicly expressed view was that if the police waste his time, he will certainly waste theirs.

A week or so back, Daily Mail columnist Peter Hitchens wrote of his own encounter with the police. He took down details of a police vehicle that appeared to be illegally parked. Moments later, he was accosted by a police officer who demanded his name and an explanation. He responded by asking whether the officer had the legal power to do this, at which point the pc claimed he had the right to carry out a search under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act: however, he wouldn’t do that if he could just write down a description.

(This is a requirement of the current police bureaucracy, that wherever possible, stops should result in a form filled and a database entry detailing who was stopped and their ethnicity).

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