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

Related Topics

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

Day In a Page

Read Next

I don't blame parents who move to get their child into a good school

Chris Blackhurst
William Hague, addresses delegates at the Conservative party conference for the last time in his political career in Birmingham  

It’s only natural for politicians like William Hague to end up as journalists

Simon Kelner
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

That's a bit rich

The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

Britain's Atlantis

Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

David Starkey's assessment
Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

'An enormous privilege and adventure'

Oliver Sacks writing about his life
'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago