LICENCE TO KILL

It was with considerable disquiet that I read of the death of the young barrister at the hands of police marksmen. Several months from now we will get a report from the Independent Police Complaints Commission, so I don’t wish to jump to conclusions or to prejudice the outcome of their investigations.

Reliable information is thin on the ground. From what we have been told, the deceased must have been suffering from a severe mental problem, the cause of which is unknown. Naturally, there is speculation about the pressure of work, an unstable relationship, and something that triggered a sudden explosion of anger.

But my disquiet arises from the way in which he died, at the hands of police marksmen who shot him five times, and I wonder why. The deceased was armed with a shotgun, which those of us who shoot game will know has a lethal range of no more than fifty metres. So whilst blasting off from the window of his apartment in Chelsea was obviously disturbing to tame and wild life respectively, once the area had been cleared, the threat to life and limb could have been contained.

Mercifully, incidents of legalised killing by the police are few and far between. We all have our own memories. There was the man, clearly deranged and possibly drunk, shot dead by police whilst brandishing a table leg, and besides, he wasn’t an up and coming barrister earning £500,000 a year! I’ll believe that when I see it! More recently there was the killing of Carlos de Menendes, but exceptional circumstances applied, and besides, he was a Johnny Foreigner who shouldn’t have been in this country in the first place.

 

I have read the guidelines issued to the police about “shoot to kill” policy, and it remains to be seen if they were followed. At first glance, they weren’t. But what perplexes me, and this tragic death highlights it, is what steps could and should have been taken to retrieve a volatile situation short of shooting to kill. Where are the trained mediators, indeed, are there any, to soothe the savage breast? The facts could have been ascertained quite quickly, especially with his partner in the wings, a disturbed young man with a shotgun, not a terrorist, who needed help, a quiet soothing voice and a shoulder to cry on. Even if it takes hours to talk a disturbed young man out of his moment of madness, surely it’s worth the effort.

Even if mediation wasn’t going to work, surely there are ways of ending such a confrontation without the use of weapons of last resort. What about smoke grenades for starters? If we believe in the sanctity of life sufficient to allow a known and self admitted terrorist to defeat a deportation order as a denial of his human rights, then what is the justification for ending the life of this otherwise perfectly decent young man so violently?

I have an uneasy feeling that more, much more, could have been done before the shoot out at the OK Corral, and once the police started shooting, the outcome was inevitable. This shouldn’t be James Bond territory. Let’s hope lessons are learned, and wiser counsels prevail in the future. Somehow, though, I doubt it.

KEEP OFF THE GRASS

I applaud the government’s decision to reclassify cannabis as a Class B illegal drug. It should never have been declassified in the first place. In so doing, they are ignoring the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which recommends that it remains Class C. I applaud this decision in my professional capacity, and also personally, as the father of four children, fearful as I am that this declassification might send out the wrong message. The fact that the Prime Minister responsible for this declassification in 2004 had smoked cannabis in his youth, but of course never inhaled, is hardly reassuring.

I listened to two of the proponents of the status quo, one speaking as a so called expert, and the other a man of God whose contribution made absolutely no sense whatsoever, so I am none the wiser. I am not remotely interested in the constituent parts of cannabis, strong, medium or mild, it completely misses the point, and I remain unimpressed by the claims from cannabis users that the drug has medicinal qualities to cure everything from ingrowing toenails to senile dementia and, for all I know, the eradication of third world poverty.

From a professional point of view, I start with a bald statement. Those addicted to hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine began their slippery slide into oblivion by experimenting with cannabis, so it is absurd to isolate the use of cannabis and treat it as irrelevant to the wider picture. Cannabis is the catalyst, not an end in itself. Any serious drug dealer will tell you, as they tell me, that cannabis is the “loss leader” in the successful pushing of street corner drugs. They all but give it away, buy one and get one free as Tesco would say, and once the cannabis user becomes an habitual user, they move on to ply their trade in hard drugs, where the real profits are to be made.

This debate is all about sending out the wrong signals. If there were no correlation between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ drugs, then all this hand wringing by the Advisory Council might have some purpose. Treated in isolation, they might have a valid point. But they lose sight of the wood for the trees. Illicit drugs are illicit regardless of their classification. In the vast majority of cases, those using them are sad, sick, individuals who need help in making something of their sad, sick, lives, but drugs are not the answer. They are a quick fix, a palliative, and not a cure.

This debate is not how the courts should deal with drug users or dealers, that is their domain, they have adequate sentencing powers, and should use them. This debate is all about persuading potential users not to use in the first place, and that is the message that should be trumpeted from the rooftops, time and time again.

I hope the government stand by their convictions and reclassify cannabis, and if they do so, wasted lives may yet be saved.

MAN’S BEST FRIEND

I am not an animal lover. There, I’ve said it, and condemn me if you will as hard hearted and unfeeling! By animals, I refer of course to the domestic pets variety, not kings of the jungle and other wild animals going about their daily business and, unless disturbed, little bother to man or fellow beast, with the obvious exception of a passing impala.

I can see an argument for working cats and dogs providing a useful service. Farmyard cats can keep vermin at bay, and big butch dogs can scare the living daylights out of unwelcome visitors. Guide dogs are top of everybody’s list, and hunting and shooting dogs return board and lodging with a long hard day in the field. But I part company with animal lovers where cats and dogs are kept simply as pets, lolling around the house all day long and doing absolutely nothing to justify their existence.

Against this background, my eye caught a report in my local newspaper of a couple who received a hefty fine and narrowly escaped imprisonment, for allowing their cats to starve to death. Apparently, they had bought them for breeding purposes, lost enthusiasm, and simply forgot all about them. On any view, an outrageous way to behave towards defenceless creatures.

I am told we are a nation of animal lovers, and judging by the popularity of Crufts Dog Show, for a small besotted minority this is probably right. And have you noticed the uncanny resemblance between owner and dog? Quite what Freud would have said on the subject makes the mind boggle.

But let’s examine the facts for a moment. I am reliably informed that dogs deposit approximately 30,000 tons of faeces each year on the highways and byways of this sceptred isle, and there’s a good chance that all of us, at one time or another, have unwittingly taken home a deposit or two on the bottom of our shoes. They yap, they crap, they pee, and they eat you out of house and home.

Cats, needless to say, confine their deposits to our favourite flower beds, and whilst they have the good grace to bury their faeces after evacuation, it’s an unwelcome discovery when you’re pricking out your new bedding plants.

For those who buy cats and dogs as pets, and often without thinking through the consequences, the problem arises when the love goes out of the relationship, and they become an encumbrance. It happens, and all those glib car stickers reminding us that a dog is for life, not just for Christmas, may prick our conscience but it doesn’t provide a solution.

And that was the problem for the couple who were convicted of cruelty to their cats. Unwanted pets are nigh on impossible to rehouse, as new homes are few and far between. Give your cat to somebody living two hundred miles away, and there’s an odds on chance the ungrateful moggy will turn up on your doorstep within the week. To resolve this problem, the Chinese eat them, which to our western palates is unattractive. Anglo Saxons struggle enough as it is to stomach horse meat dressed as fillet steak in some of the finest French restaurants, but to add fricassee de pussy au gratin to the menu would be a step too far. Mark you, with frogs and snails on the menu, not to mention oysters, the sewage sifters of the seabed, I suppose it’s simply a matter of time.

For those who crave the companionship of pet cats and dogs, there’s a thriving market in very realistic look-alike toys. For the cost of two Duracell batteries, these toy pets will walk, talk, yap, purr and even wag their tails. And when you grow tired of them, you can dump them unceremoniously in the bin without fear of prosecution and the disapprobation of polite society. And the best part of all is that they don’t crap and pee all over the place, although with the ingenuity of these toy manufacturers, I suppose that too is simply a matter of time.

TOP OF THE POPS

It’s been a rag bag sort of week on the law and order front, so I’m struggling to add to your store of knowledge on matters of great import.

Let me take a moment to ventilate one of my bêtes noires. Have you noticed how many people, and some who are otherwise quite articulate, use the expression “you know” almost all the time in conversation? And does it irritate you as much as it irritates me? I mean, if “I know,” then why tell me? And if I don’t, then why make an assumption on a false premise? I am told by my nearest and dearest that I’m overreacting, and to go with the flow. So I will.

So back to the plot. I read recent reports that the judiciary are, you know, on a collision course with the government, yet again, over “terror” legislation, and specifically, executive powers to freeze bank accounts, stop paying benefits and, you know, control the spending of people designated as terror suspects. The thorn in their side is the ubiquitous Mr. Justice Collins, yes him again, who is expected to deliver an adverse ruling on Thursday, with the government threatening to, you know, rewrite relevant
sections of the Counter Terrorism Bill, so deux doigts to the learned judge. I suggest a re-reading of my recent article Quis Custodies Custodiet before battle lines are hardened and, you know, positions become polarised. Nobody wins in this clash of the Titans.

Frances Gibb, Legal Editor of The Times, is back from the dead, and suddenly all over us like a rash. Her latest offering in the Law Times, co-authored with Alex Spence, is to compile a list of the top 100 most powerful and influential lawyers in Britain. I think she means Top Judges and Lawyers, as topping the list is Lord Bingham of Cornhill, or ‘Tom’ to our impish scribe, who has been a judge for the past twenty eight years. Now I have the highest regard for ‘Tom’, which will come as no surprise as I climb the
greasy pole to fame and fortune, but check out his photo! No disrespect intended, but he looks as if he’s on an away day from the twilight home for the bewildered.

Surprisingly, to some at least, no room in the Top 10 for Mr. Justice Collins!The biops for some of the entrants in the Top 10 make for interesting and colourful reading. Lord Carlile at Number 7 is noted for successfully defending Paul Burrell on charges of dishonesty. Now wasn’t he the same Paul Burrell who was a witness at the recent Diana/Dodi circus? The worm turns! The entrant at Number 10, whom I confess I’ve never heard of, is described as “a ruthless rottweiler.” Not very flattering for him or rottweilers, you may think.

Sadly, and a glaring omission, is my absence from the Top 10, and proof, if proof be needed, that these surveys are not worth the paper they’re written on, especially as one of the judging panel boasts the unlikely name of Gary Slapper.

Finally, we are enjoined to go online, a fruitless exercise if ever there was, to discover the identities of the remaining ninety. I wonder how many of my aspiring colleagues, judges and lawyers alike, have taken the plunge. For my part, if I’m not in the Top 10, then it’s not worth the candle, but I’d love to know, you know, who scrapes in at Number 100. Still, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, there’s only one thing worse than bad publicity, and that’s no publicity.

HEALTH AND SAFETY GONE MAD

Just when I thought it was safe to go back into the water, along comes another piece of useless legislation to disturb my Karma, and to prove, if proof be needed, that this government is legislating simply for the sake of it.

I refer, of course, to the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act, a snappy title if ever there was, which came into force last week. I am told by the authors of this new Act that it makes it easier to prosecute organisations, predominantly charities, for negligently causing death without the need to find any particular individual at fault. In the region of 18,000 incorporated charities could be affected. Lord give me strength!

Since 1974, we have “benefited” from health and safety legislation which now affects every aspect of our daily lives. Some of it is obvious common sense, and some complete rubbish.

We’ve all read examples in the past of health and safety gone mad, and for my part, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Remember the local authority that felled an avenue of beautiful and perfectly healthy horse chestnut trees, on the off chance that a child might run out into the road to collect conkers? Then there was the local authority that removed all its hanging baskets, just in case one fell and injured a passer by. And another that removed all its playground equipment? And the little old lady who was in the habit of planting a nearby roundabout with flowers, and had been doing so for thirty years, only to be told she must wear a hard hat and erect road signs warning approaching motorists. Then there was the children’s entertainer who was prevented from blowing bubbles as part of his act, as he couldn’t get insurance. The list is endless, and I’m sure you’ve all got your favourites.

As the Master of the Rolls once remarked, and I paraphrase, where is our spirit of adventure? It’s being snuffed out, full stop! A legal expert on the subject gives this advice to charities organising fund raising events:

“Make sure you have all the correct training, equipment and safety policies in place to cover any event you organise.”

Charities, more than any other organisations, raise millions of pounds each year for worthy causes, and thrills and spills are part and parcel of their fund raising activities. Two consequences could flow from this wretched legislation:

The cost of organising the fund raising event, to cover every possible exigency, could exceed the funds raised, so it won’t be worth doing it in the first place;

Those worthy causes, not funded by government, would lose out big time, and either the government would have to pick up the tab, which they won’t, or the charity folds.

One example known to me personally will suffice to highlight the plight of those benefiting from charitable donations, and who may be at risk with this asinine legislation. The St. Margaret’s Somerset Hospice has an annual bill of £3 million to service all their life and death enhancing activities. £2 million has to be found from donations. There are just so many tea and cucumber sandwich events they can host before they reach the point of diminishing returns and the donations dry up. And besides, what happens if
somebody chokes to death on one of their cucumber sandwiches? It doesn’t bear thinking about.