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British riots: Cameron clashes with basic law

By proposing that rioters and their families be evicted from public housing, British Prime Minister Cameron is promoting collective punishment for the acts of an individual – an ancient injustice that the Old Testament rejected.

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If we ask, then, what is meant by the rule of law, the eight criteria suggested by the late Harvard professor and legal philosopher Lon Fuller provide a useful guide: (1) there must be rules; (2) the rules must be published; (3) they must be prospective, (4) intelligible, (5) free from contradiction, (6) possible to comply with, (7) not constantly changing, and (8) the declared rule and official action must correspond. David Cameron’s call to evict entire families for the acts of a single family member violates at least five of the eight criteria. It is not a ringing endorsement of the rule of law.

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Just a generation ago in another troubled period across the Atlantic, Justice William Douglas wrote that “an overwhelming sense of futility possesses the young generation. There is in the end a feeling that the individual is caught in a pot of glue and is utterly helpless.” Britain is now passing through a similar period. Yet rather than seeking to calm the fury aroused by anarchic destruction, the government seems to be advocating collective guilt, which is a radical break from its historic rule-of-law tradition.

To talk of “phoney” human rights concerns and to advocate collective guilt and the eviction of entire families from public housing may or may not be good politics. But it amounts to a leader undermining the laws of his own nation, and implying that a European human rights treaty can be ignored.

For people around the world who look to Britain for guidance and leadership in legal matters, not to mention the British people themselves, it is a sad commentary.

Ronald Sokol is a member of the bar in France and in the United States. He practices law in Aix-en-Provence. He is the author of Justice After Darwin, Federal Habeas Corpus, The Law-Abiding Policeman and other books and articles. He gives an annual lecture on “What is justice?” at Imperial College, London.


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