What makes Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce so compelling is that we all live on the brink of disaster

A leading criminal lawyer reflects on why people slide into criminality

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The Independent Online

Chris Huhne was sent to prison today. But if his fall from grace seems remote from anything that might happen in our own lives, we should think again.

In my experience all of us, at any stage, are potentially just a few steps from disaster. It takes no more than a handful of bad decisions to reach the point that events are out of our control and disaster overtakes us.

It's not unusual

Mr Huhne’s decisions to speed and to cover up his offence, were not unusual. Up to 300,000 of us may have persuaded others to take our penalty points for speeding, according to a survey for the AA in 2011. However, once Mr Huhne rejected his wife and forfeited her loyalty, his ability to control events passed out of his hands. The disaster that followed was entirely predictable.

As a lawyer specialising in criminal law, the point that strikes me over and over again is how close we all are to the disaster of a criminal investigation and trial, whatever our background or circumstances.  We are all capable of committing crimes. It takes very little - a moment of temptation, a rush of anger, a reckless impulse - to commit many crimes.  Then all that stands between us and a criminal conviction is discovery, investigation and trial. 

Goethe once said that there was no crime of which he did not deem himself capable.  Most of us will understand the sense of what he was saying even if we cannot sign up to the entire proposition.  In identifying with his thought, we do not condone acts of violence or dishonesty, we simply recognise our own capacity to fail.

So why do people who have every advantage in life – a happy family background, a decent education, a good job - commit crimes? Few of us with such a background set out to commit a crime. There is too much stopping us: we have grown up believing in, obeying, and benefiting from rules, and we have prospered. The fear of losing all we have is a strong motivator to obey the law. We spent much of our lives controlling our behaviour. 

It is when an event or set of circumstances occurs which causes us to lose control, or when we think that the risks are minimal, that the danger surfaces. People convicted of stealing from their employers often do so because the pressure of debt in their personal lives overwhelms them. They begin with a genuine intention to repay the money that they “borrow” when circumstances allow, but somehow this moment never arrives.

Losing control

Often people convicted of downloading indecent images commit their crimes because they cannot control their behaviour but they also convince themselves that they will never be caught. These cases rarely involve a single instance of criminality. Instead they begin with a single bad decision (to take from petty cash or look at an image), followed by a further decision which commits the individual to the path that they choose.

Then there are other factors in the mix that are particular to ourselves: our appetite for risk and the extent to which we think we can control events.

When Dominique Strauss Kahn approached the maid in his New York hotel room; when Jonathan Aitken announced he would begin a libel action to “cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country”; when Lord Archer sued the Daily Star for libel over allegations (subsequently proved to be true) that he had slept with a prostitute – they were spinning the dice but also, I suspect, taking the gamblers pleasure in doing so. They thought they could win.

It may be that the biggest risk-takers are also those most likely to take the bad decisions that lead to disaster. But we have all done things we regret which through happenchance never become known, or have compounded an error by our subsequent decisions. The Huhne case illustrates the additional danger of entrusting a secret to others.

Once that step has been taken, then all depends on their ability or willingness to continue the deception.

Stephen Parkinson is is head of Criminal & Regulatory Law at Kingsley Napley LLP