Letter: When public pressure distorts the law

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The Independent Online
Sir: Roger Lake's response (letter, 27 July) to my letter on abolishing the Home Secretary's right to overrule sentences in criminal matters (25 July) misunderstands my point. It is perfectly true, and proper, that in a democracy the law, including sentences in criminal matters, reflects popular sentiment. The point is that it should do so uniformly and without discrimination. The problem arises when public feelings can determine the result in any particular case, so that the fundamental principle of equality before the law is imperilled, as is plainly the case under the present arrangements.

The power of the Home Secretary to alter a particular sentence on the strength of public feelings is a modern equivalent of the lynch mob. In the Bulger case, half a million citizens called for blood and 33 for mercy (report, 23 July), and Mr Howard, sacrificing principle on the altar of political expediency, gave them blood.

The principle of equality is not some 'Platonic abstraction', as Mr Lake would have it; it is just one of those little eccentricities of any just legal system which, when applied, helps to keep us safe from barbarism.

Yours sincerely,


University of St Andrews

St Andrews, Fife