Open Eye: Have a go? No, just walk on by

Dr Gary Slapper, Director of the OU Law Programme, takes a critical look at recent advice from the Home Secretary, Jack Straw - and judges it misguided
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The Independent Online
When Dionne Warwick exhorted a lost lover to "walk on by" in a hit single of the 1960s, she probably had little idea that more than 30 years later a British Home Secretary would be using the phrase at the centre of his new policy for law and order.

In a recent article, Jack Straw has called on the public to end the "walk- on-by" society and to intervene if they see youths breaking the law.

He says that adults should not hesitate to upbraid young delinquents as it is everybody's responsibility to ensure that youngsters obey the law.

This sort of response to endemic youth crime leaves a lot to be desired. It does have certain merits for the government. It articulates a stern approach and postures in punitive anger, yet costs nothing to operate and allows blame to fall on inactive "walkers on by" if crime continues.

The new approach, however, will be a disaster if implemented.

Even assuming that Mr Straw's soundbite phrase arises from the parable of the Good Samaritan rather than the 1960s song, the Home Secretary is still in very difficult territory. The biblical story (Luke 10; 30-37) concerned a man who was beaten up and robbed on the road to Jericho.

The first two people to come across him on the road "went by on the other side", whereas a Samaritan went over to help the victim. The Bible reports Jesus as urging people to copy such behaviour.

There is no mention of people being urged to intervene in a violent robbery, but even if there is a passage with such a moral in the Bible, British law in 1999 does not support this principle. In a leading case from 1932, the House of Lords ruled that there is no positive duty on citizens to intercede where there is trouble.

In the Bible story Jesus was advocating that a person should always help his "neighbour", but the House of Lords said: "The rule that you are to love your neighbour becomes, in law, you must not injure your neighbour".

You have no legal obligation to your fellows beyond the duty not to hurt them.The new scheme of high street vigilante justice will, though, run into much more serious problems than this.

A few years ago the newspapers went in for some flamboyant deification of "have-a-go heroes" - ordinary people furious with apparently unstoppable crimes who took on criminals in the street, or sometimes in their own homes. The lionising soon sloped off when it became clear that many of the vigilantes were ending up in the local A&E unit, and some finished up in the morgue.

Also, in some cases in which the virtuous vanquished the villains, the public was aghast to learn later that damages were payable by the "good" to the "bad". The courts do not accept that the violated or wronged are the best people to decide on the appropriate type of punishment for their wrongdoers.

Most vandalism and violent crime is committed by young men. Many of these people will not hesitate to use further violence if interfered with in the course of their offending. Today, it is very common for young men involved in crime of various sorts to carry knives. It is thus rather inadequate for Mr Straw to spur into action any citizen who witnesses a crime with the cry "if we do not, who will?".

The police are supposed to, and, indeed, have been given a great variety of additional powers under recent legislation to deal with truants.

After a particularly nasty series of savaged Samaritans, advice from various police forces was clear: don't get involved, call a police officer.

Now, reversing the instructions, the government appears to rely on a combination of heroic passions duly flamed, and collective amnesia.

Before he again urges anyone not to walk on by, perhaps Mr Straw ought to venture out into the rougher parts of town, and take a walk on the wild side.