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I am minded to write something about both utilitarianism and human rights as a consequence of watching the news the other night. Two separate but linked news articles struck a chord. The first about police being heavy handed in applying the emergency laws surrounding the restricting of movement and the second about the emergency laws being passed to suspend jury trials in Scotland. Both have an impact in respect of human rights.
Turning to the first, the complaint is that the police across England and Wales have in some cases been disproportionate in their dealing with the public when attempting to manage the restrictions around movement. The example shown was the uploading of videos onto social media depicting people walking around the Peak District. The captions simply asked whether the trip was necessary.
The government guidance is pretty clear regarding staying at home but perhaps is a little less clear about travelling to a location to partake in exercise. I must admit though I am a little perplexed at the accusation of heavy handedness. The Human Rights Act 1998 provides for a right to life and it has been held that the government and its agencies have a positive obligation to facilitate this. There are of course some caveats as it would be almost impossible to ensure this in all circumstances. There is no doubt that people are dying from Covid-19. The approach to enforce social distancing, presently predominantly through information and the reliance on responsibility and good will, seems to be the only current viable approach to combating this killer. The curtailment of some Human Rights is it seems necessary to ensure the greater good and to preserve life. The latter of course is a primary duty that most police officers would recognise. The greater good for the many is it seems compatible with a key principle of human rights.
Turning to the second news article. The right to a fair trial is a fundamental human right. The suspension of a jury may be against longstanding legal principles but, the Human Rights Act does not specify that the trial should be before a jury, merely an independent judge. The argument could be made that trials should be suspended but this might be impinging on rights in respect of defendants being held in custody awaiting trial. The convening of a jury would flout the rationale behind current legislation in place to enforce social distancing and would quite simply be contrary to obligations to protect life.
The notions of utilitarianism are often viewed as in conflict with individual rights and therefore the Human Rights Act. Many see the two as incompatible, one relates to the many and the other the individual. This argument though fails to have vision, it is not truly consequentialist. Human Rights are utilitarian in their very nature. Is it not to the greater good that people have a right to life, a right to freedom of association, a right to a fair trail to name but a few? Should it not be considered that every individual case that is examined under the Human Rights Act has consequences for the many as well as the individual? A breach of the Act if unchallenged opens the way for abuses by governments and their agencies, it is utilitarian in nature, it is there for the greater good, not just the individual circumstances that are being examined. But should we also not consider that there is a need to prioritise rights, particularly in the circumstances the country and world finds itself in? Some parts of the Act are in clearly on occasions, incompatible with others. Curtailment of some freedoms and rights is necessary for the greater good but more importantly, it is necessary to save lives, perhaps even the life of the individual complaining of the curtailment. We can but hope that amidst all of this, good sense prevails.
Odd thing superstition, it makes reasonable and seemingly rational people think and behave in the most irrational and inexplicable manner. Always we notice these behaviours and thoughts in other people, but so many of us carry in the back of our minds equally irrational ideas and beliefs. We hear of football club managers who always wear the same clothes at a game, athletes that engage in the same pre-game routine and of course, politicians who act in certain ways during their election campaign. For the rest of us there are ladders in the street, black cats, that we may avoid or there are dates in the calendar that we take notice. Friday the 13th is one of those Anglo-Saxon dates that people take notice of.
I am sure that some of my historian friends will be able to give a good account of the origin of the unfortunate date, but I can only go with the “official tradition” of Jesus, the 13th student, (Judas) and his subsequent arrest on the Friday before the Crucifixion. The day, somehow, became one of those that we notice, even when we are not superstitious. There is even a psychologically recognised fear of the date Triskaidekaphobia; which in Greek means the fear of 13! Of course social fears are blended with wider social anxieties, whether that is the fear of the unknown or the realisation that in life, there are things that we have little control of.
In the days leading up to this Friday the 13th we engaged with political discussions about what direction the country shall take. The health service, the justice system, the state’s responsibility, all the way to welfare and the state of the union, were all eclipsed by one topic that has dominated discourses, that of the execution of leave from the European Union commonly known as Brexit. Ironically the “exit” preface was used before for Greece (Grexit), and Italy (Italexit) but seems that Brexit has won the battle of the modern lexicon. The previous “exits” where used as a cautionary tale for the countries being forced out of the union, whilst Brexit is about leaving the Union.
Having considered all the issues, this one issue became the impetus for people to give politicians a mandate. Complete this issue before and above all the rest. It is an issue likened to a divorce, given a texture, (soft/hard) and has even been seen as the reason for generational conflicts. Therefore the expectation is clear now . Leave the European Union, and then let’s see what we can do next. The message is fairly clear and the expectation is palpable. Beliefs and hopes of the people narrowed down to one political move that shall terminate membership to the European Union. Of course there are subsequent questions and issues that this act of national defiance may come with. As for the state of the Union, that may have to be the next thing we discuss. This follow up conversation may not be as welcome, but it is definitely interesting. If joining the EU back in 1975, warranted a discussion, then the 1536 Act of Union may become the next topic for conversation. As for healthcare, justice, education and welfare, we may have to wait a little bit more longer. Whether this will mark Friday 13th December 2019 as a date of fortune or misfortune, that is yet to be decided, but that is the same for every day of the week.
Just for your records and for the Triskaidekaphobians out there, the next Friday the 13 is in March 2020 followed by the one in November 2020. Just saying…
In a number of blog posts colleagues and myself (New Beginnings, Modern University or New University? Waterside: What an exciting time to be a student, Park Life, The ever rolling stream rolls on), we talked about the move to a new campus and the pedagogies it will develop for staff and students. Despite being in one of the newest campuses in the country, we also deliver some of our course content in the Sessions House. This is one of the oldest and most historic buildings in town. Sometimes with students we leave the modern to take a plunge in history in a matter of hours. Traditionally the court has been used in education primarily for mooting in the study of law or for reenactment for humanities. On this occasion, criminology occupies the space for learning enhancement that shall go beyond these roles.
The Sessions House is the old court in the centre of Northampton, built 1676 following the great fire of Northampton in 1675. The building was the seat of justice for the town, where the public heard unspeakable crimes from matricide to witchcraft. Justice in the 17th century appear as a drama to be played in public, where all could hear the details of those wicked people, to be judged. Once condemned, their execution at the gallows at the back of the court completed the spectacle of justice. In criminology discourse, at the time this building was founded, Locke was writing about toleration and the constrains of earthy judges. The building for the town became the embodiment of justice and the representation of fairness. How can criminology not be part of this legacy?
There were some of the reasons why we have made this connection with the past but sometimes these connections may not be so apparent or clear. It was in one of those sessions that I began to think of the importance of what we do. This is not just a space; it is a connection to the past that contains part of the history of what we now recognise as criminology. The witch trials of Northampton, among other lessons they can demonstrate, show a society suspicious of those women who are visible. Something that four centuries after we still struggle with, if we were to observe for example the #metoo movement. Furthermore, from the historic trials on those who murdered their partners we can now gain a new understanding, in a room full of students, instead of judges debating the merits of punishment and the boundaries of sentencing.
These are some of the reasons that will take this historic building forward and project it forward reclaiming it for what it was intended to be. A courthouse is a place of arbitration and debate. In the world of pedagogy knowledge is constant and ever evolving but knowing one’s roots allows the exploration of the subject to be anchored in a way that one can identify how debates and issues evolve in the discipline. Academic work can be solitary work, long hours of reading and assignment preparation, but it can also be demonstrative. In this case we a group (or maybe a gang) of criminologists explore how justice and penal policy changes so sitting at the green leather seats of courtroom, whilst tapping notes on a tablet. We are delighted to reclaim this space so that the criminologists of the future to figure out many ethical dilemmas some of whom once may have occupied the mind of the bench and formed legal precedent. History has a lot to teach us and we can project this into the future as new theoretical conventions are to emerge.
Locke J, (1689), A letter Concerning Toleration, assessed 01/11/18 https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/A_Letter_Concerning_Toleration