Helena Kennedy: 'Government should not read fear as a blank cheque'

From the keynote speech by the human rights lawyer to the Commonwealth Law Conference, at the Queen Elizabeth Centre in Westminster
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Citizens within our disturbingly uncertain world do seek areas of certainty. People are alarmed by the idea that barbarians are at every gate, including their own, in the form of criminals and asylum seekers and terrorists. As a result they are prepared to sacrifice a significant level of freedom and privacy in exchange for greater security. The temptation is for governments to read expressions of public fear and the willingness of citizens to make sacrifices, as giving them carte blanche to rewrite underlying principles of law. The other serious problem is that when citizens express a willingness to sacrifice liberty it is rarely their own that is going to be infringed. The liberty of the "other"- the brown-skinned Muslim - is usually the person making the trade-off.

Policy makers are claiming that our criminal law was premised on "old-think" with standards of proof which are now too high, evidential rules, which are burdensome, and principles which provide too much protection for those who stand accused.

They deny the centuries of struggle that went into the creation of law and display an ignorance of the origins of our rights and freedoms often paid for with blood. They crassly dismisses the wisdom of experience and forget the moral component of law, which are at the heart of civil liberty and human rights.

Law has a central role to play in our new landscape, and it is correct that legal systems must adapt. Governments have a responsibility to provide for the security of the people and people have every reason to be afraid for their lives and those of their children. The terrorist threat is real and governments should not be expected to remain passive, but governments should not read fear as a blank cheque. It is vital that any change to our laws must be against a backdrop of principle: a retreat from the Rule of Law, human rights and civil liberties is short-sighted and should be unthinkable.