It’s not often you hear senior members of the judiciary criticising the law for being on the side of dominant groups in society. And in Britain you don’t get much more senior than Lord Bingham of Cornhill, formerly Master of the Rolls, then Lord Chief Justice, then Senior Law Lord – or, to be precise, the Senior Lord of Appeal in Ordinary – aka Tom Bingham.
So I was for a moment heartened to hear the following exchange with the poet Simon Armitage, who said,
…as a probation officer in a magistrates’ court in the north of England – the high street supermarket of the legal system – I got to the point where I felt I was enforcing… not some gold standard of justice every day, but actually a series of moral values. And there would be… students of history who would say that many laws are designed to keep the wealth and power with a certain proportion of the population and stop the others from getting it.
Nice point! What do you say to that, Tom Bingham?
There have undoubtedly been periods in history when the law reflected the interests of the dominant class. They were represented in Parliament and they made laws that were convenient for them.
Cool, I thought. What a promising recognition. He continued,
But I think that we would now claim, and certainly aim, at a situation in which there is true equality before the law: you don’t get a lesser punishment – indeed, rather the opposite – if you’re well-to-do…
Oh well. Silly me for thinking that the problems were things like low rape conviction rates, or imprisoning drug addicts for petty theft when white collar fraudsters do deals to avoid prosecution, or the provocation defence which tends to recognise men’s ‘crimes of passion’ but not the years of abuse suffered by battered women.
Nope, turns out it’s all okay now, because – after conviction – rich people get the same punishment as poor people for the same crime. Thank goodness we’re all equal before the law!