No Justice, No Peace?

Stuart McMillan calls for social and legal reason in the wake of the English Riots


It is, I suppose, understandable that, in the heat of the moment, it would be very easy to pin even the creation of the Devil himself on the rioters that swept many of England’s major cities during the first week of August. But I’d like to think that the powers that be might have more sense, and might understand that whatever is being said by the public shouldn’t affect the way the Law deals with these people. Some of the things filling the column-inches of Britain’s newspapers have shown how polarised the debate is becoming: the riots were the product of the deprived and of the disenfranchised; they stole tellys because they didn’t have one of their own; the riots were the product of blatant opportunism by those who were willing to transgress the law to get what they wanted. The rioters were black, they were white or, according to David Starkey, the whites had become black.

As such, we have seen a rather startling chapter in law and order during these recent events, and we might just need to calm down a bit. The new e-petitions website set up by the British Government as a way for the public to suggest important issues for debate crashed because of the amount of petitions for convicted London rioters to lose access to their benefits was astronomical. The count now stands at over 100,000, and according to a survey carried out by YouGov, almost 70% of people agree with this policy. Just under half of the people surveyed believe that families with children involved in the riots should be evicted from their council properties, whilst less than only one seventh of the people surveyed see the current sentences being dished out to those involved in the riots as too harsh.

Strong sentencing is not something to be fought against, but it is worth remembering that, as with any situation concerning the Law, a modicum of common sense is always required. The courts should think through every case individually and try each case as designated by the letter of the law; that is how the justice system works, and when a situation demands harsh punishment, then it should be given. But that inevitably will not involve every single person involved.

Mother of two Ursula Nevin had been in bed during the looting, but had accepted a pair of shorts stolen in the riots from a friend. She received a sentence of five months in prison, but it was later cut through appeal to 75 hours’ voluntary work. Her story illustrates not only how ill-thought through some of the sentences have been, but also how flimsy they look when an appeal can turn a lengthy jail term into a week’s worth of community service.

From the beginning David Cameron said that the looters would pay, though I’m sure he meant figuratively and not literally, as many probably would not have the spare cash to reimburse Dixons for that widescreen they nicked. However, we must be careful not to miss the point; looters should be shown what they did wrong and deterred from doing it again, the reason why Britain abolished the Death Penalty is that the British penal system believes, or so we are led to believe, in rehabilitation and not retribution.

Ed Miliband, Leader of the Opposition, said that the reasons were manifold and, while most people didn’t listen to him because he’s Ed Miliband, he was much closer to the mark than was the PM; these riots were the result of many different groups, reasons and stories; they involved people with jobs, and unemployed people, the more well-off, and the poorer, black people and white people. What seems to have been very much swept under the carpet is that the original riots stemmed from one source: the shooting of 29- year-old Mark Duggan, although it seems that we will have to wait until the heat dies down before actually learning the truth of how big a part his death really played, and the circumstances which surround it.

That Britain’s prisons are already overcrowded should not be an excuse for lesser sentences, but the judges and the politicians need to make sure that they keep their heads or, at least, try to get inside the ones of those involved in the riots. No doubt some will deserve heavy jail sentences for arson, or for murder, but some definitely will not, and will benefit far better from community service. Then, after that, when Parliament resumes and Cameron and Clegg are back side by side, fighting the good fight, and Theresa May is three seats down looking as if she’s just realised that she’s left the oven on, the real questions will emerge. If there’s deprivation, what should we do about it? If it was opportunism, how do we make sure that it does not happen again? If our law and order system shuddered, then what must we do to ensure that, when something like this happens again, it can stand firm, but equally, fair?


Stuart McMillan


Image credit – Wikimedia Commons