The law can only be effective when it’s both feared and respected. Respect is essential, for experience shows that fear alone isn’t a sufficient deterrent.
Yet even in a residually law-abiding country like Britain, the law must earn respect – and keep earning it. Failure to do so will deliver pinpricks to the law, and respect will escape through the holes.
The first requirement is that the law be just and seen to be just. Hence every time a burglar gets off with a slap on the wrist (and on average it takes more than a hundred burglaries and several convictions for the criminal to do any time), a bit more respect bleeds off.
Every time a violent mugger gets a lighter sentence than a tax-avoiding chap, ditto. Every time a man like the footballer Evans gets unjustly convicted for rape, ditto. Every time a man gets a hefty fine for going a few miles over the limit on an empty motorway, ditto. As those dittos multiply, the law diminishes and consequently crime increases.
Yet it’s not all about just sentences commensurate with the crime. It’s also about the dignity, solemnity and, if you will, ritual of the judicial process. Pomp and circumstance do matter.
That’s why our judges and barristers wear robes and wigs in court. This is seen as necessary decorum conferring gravity on the proceedings, much like clerical dress does in church, royal garments on state occasions or dress uniforms on army parades.
This brings us to the bit of dialogue that took place the other day at Chelmsford Crown Court, when Judge Patricia Lynch QC was sentencing a piece of particularly feral plankton to 18 months for his ninth ASBO breach in 11 years.
The plankton doesn’t seem to have much time for racial and ethnic minorities, which feelings he tends to vent as vile public abuse. Without claiming any judiciary rigour, personally I’d send him down just for the way he looks, but that’s beside the point.
When Judge Lynch, Queen’s Counsel (for the benefit of my foreign readers, that’s a special status conferred by the crown upon eminent lawyers,) announced her verdict, the plankton reacted the way human plankton does. He screamed abuse at the Judge, calling her “a bit of a c***.”
However, Her Honour didn’t respond in the way judges normally do. She screamed right back: “You’re a bit of a c*** yourself!” Having thus received his licence to proceed in the same vein, the plankton shouted: “Go f*** yourself!” to which Her Honour replied in the same barroom style: “You too!”
The plankton then performed a Nazi salute and demonstrated his command of foreign languages by twice shouting “Sieg Heil!”. Then, for the delectation of those present, he delivered a rousing rendition of the popular song “Jews, gas them all…”
At this point I’d do two things: first, I’d disbar Judge Lynch, QC, for bringing our whole legal system into disrepute; second, I’d tag 18 years onto the 18 months that the plankton received.
My second proposal has been neither seconded nor aired by the public, but hundreds of people have communicated their admiration for Judge Lynch through social media, calling her a ‘hero’, a ‘legend’ an ‘idol’ and many other words of praise to the same effect.
This only goes to show the extent to which our public has been brutalised. The plankton in question still leads the pack, but apparently not by that wide a margin, and Judge Lynch is right in the pack.
Now I have an admission to make: my own language doesn’t always conform to the standards set by the original Debrett’s Etiquette for Young Ladies. My wife thinks I swear more than is seemly in all my languages, and my priest friend once mentioned in passing that he had never met anyone who swears as much as I do (he obviously hadn’t met many other London ex-admen, especially those who grew up in Russia).
Mea culpa, although expletives do add spice and colour to language, when used in appropriate settings. However, when used in a courtroom by a Queen’s Counsel, whose mission in life isn’t just to execute the law but also to bolster respect for it, such words don’t just offend – they destroy.
They implicitly countenance illegality and explicitly endorse our prevalent disintegration of civility. When a crusty old chap like me effs and blinds into his whisky, it’s only a sign of irascibility and abrasiveness. When five-year-olds routinely talk to their parents and strangers in the idiom suggesting familiarity with intimate anatomy and most sexual variants, it’s a sign of social collapse.
And when a QC uses such language in court, whatever the provocation, it’s a sign of a legal system rapidly losing justification to claim respect. A legal system, in other words, that’s failing all over the place.