Let law rule, not the mob

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The Independent Online
Is Michael Howard in favour of abolishing the monarchy? The question is asked because, earlier this year, the Sun polled its readers on whether the monarchy should end with the Queen's death. They voted overwhelmingly that it should. We may safely assume, nonetheless, that Mr Howard is not now drawing up plans for a British republic. Yet on a matter that concerns law and justice, Mr Howard is apparently happy to be guided by 21,000 coupons filled out by Sun readers and by other petitions and representations. These demanded longer sentences for the killers of two-year-old James Bulger. The Lord Chief Justice had already decreed that they should serve a minimum of 10 years (the trial judge recommended eight); some petitioners wanted the two boys to serve 25 years, others wanted them imprisoned for ever. Mr Howard settled on 15 years. Further, he ignored social and psychiatric reports. The only evidence admitted was the state of public opinion; evidence relating to the criminals, their backgrounds, personal traumas that may have led them to commit their terrible crime, was ruled out. Last week, the Court of Appeal concluded that Mr Howard was wrong to respond to public pressure in this way.

The Bulger murder was so exceptionally horrific, so shocking to the national psyche that any attempt to secure the rights of its perpetrators is bound to be deeply unpopular. Details about the killers' backgrounds are "excuses"; social workers and psychiatrists are, in any case, "bleeding hearts"; insistence on proper treatment for Thompson and Venables is to "take the criminals' side" and to show "no feeling" for the grieving parents. But it is precisely when the crime is most evil, precisely when those responsible seem most beyond human sympathy, that we should be most scrupulous about upholding the due process of law. This is the test of a mature society that has advanced beyond the rule of the mob - one that is as vigilant for the rights of a murderer or a terrorist as it is for a little old lady accused of shoplifting. Not for the criminals' sakes, but for all our sakes, for our sense of our own civilisation and dignity, for our confidence in the law. The courts are often accused of encouraging disorder through inadequate sentencing. But to sentence by a count of Sun readers' coupons is to replace one kind of disorder with another.

The law is under siege from the assertion of a new and pernicious right - the right to punishment, supposedly enjoyed by the victims and their bereaved families. We see it when women weep and shriek outside courts because a driver who ran over their husband or child has got too "light" a sentence. We see it when newspapers solicit the opinions of Denise Bulger, the murdered boy's mother, on last week's appeal court decision.

The bereaved themselves should not be criticised. The premature death of someone close nearly always creates anger and rage, even when the causes are entirely natural or accidental. Initially, there is often a search for someone to blame - a negligent doctor or nurse, a slave-driving employer, a quarrelsome relative. How much greater and more focused must be the rage when an infant is lost to the viciousness of two amoral children. The desire for revenge is the most deep-seated of human emotions. And the law should pay heed to it; otherwise, it will fail to restrain people from carrying out their own acts of vengeance. But there is no point in the law if it simply delivers the same justice as the mob or the enraged victim. The law must stand above crude human emotions and temporary passions - that is why it has its special formulaic language, its impersonal and immutable procedures. Sentencing must certainly take into account the scale of injury inflicted on victims but it must never be a calculation of how much punishment will mollify and satisfy those injured and/or their relatives. Still less should it be based on coupons or petitions or polls.

Perhaps, as a society, we find the killing of a small child so odious a crime, so much an offence against nature, that we think imprisonment for life the only proper response, whatever the circumstances and whoever the perpetrator. If so, we should amend our laws accordingly. But we should not allow the punishment of Thompson and Venables, or any other individuals, to be swayed by the happenstance of public emotion.