Links of the Day…

A selection of articles that I have enjoyed over the last few days…

How to be a judge – Spinning Hugo

Key Figures In British Engineering History Who May Or May Not Have Led A Secret Double Life. Part 1 In A Series Of 1 – Why Miss Jones

With style and a dash of daring, the new SNP MPs rise to battle for their own little corner – Chris Deerin

It’s Time to Legalize Polygamy – Fredrik Deboer

They’re Trying to Be King of the Mormons – Matt Canham, Thomas Burr


Michael Gove on Justice


Image: Legatum Institute (

Michael Gove gave his first speech today in his role as Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor. Speaking at the Legatum Institute, Mr Gove set out some big picture proposals, giving an indication of his direction of travel for the coming months/years.

While there was little in terms of specific policy detail, his speech did offer some insight into his vision both for the legal system and for his approach to his role. Here are few of my take-aways:

1) A change of tone. I’ve long been a fan of Mr Gove. I am a supporter of his education reforms. However, much of his good work as Education Secretary was overshadowed by the tone and manner in which he approached his role. His adversarial approach saw him do battle with a whole host of established figures within the education system. I’m sure that much of this was unavoidable given the reforms he was championing but it seemed at times he deliberately sought-out a fight and relished the confrontation. His speech today was of a very different tone indicating that he would not be replicating his former approach. He cited and praised numerous senior legal professionals highlighted the good working relationship he has with them.

2) A Robin Hood justice system? Several times during his speech, Gove hinted that he would like to see the wealthiest legal firms ‘contribute’ more than they currently do, in order to help the poorest in society have better access to justice. Gove was careful not to get drawn into the specifics but hinted at a light-touch solution – such as encouraging an increase in pro bono work done by the big firms – rather than heavy-handed legislation or taxation that would compel them to do so. This is undoubtedly a worthy ambition…making it work (including getting buy-in from the big law firms) will be very tricky.

3) Working with – not against – the system.  Several times Mr Gove stressed that he would be working with the legal profession rather than against it. He stated that during his first few weeks in the role he has felt supported by the profession and will aim to be guided by it. He stressed his good relationship with the Lord Chief Justice, as well as his warmness to the proposals within Lord Leveson’s Review of Efficiency in Criminal Proceedings.

It’s early days but it seems like Gove is keen to embrace reforms that are coming from – and are supported by – the legal profession (very different to the head-on battles that characterised his time in the dept. of Education). In answer to a question about the existence of a “blob” within the legal system (followers of Mr Gove’s earlier work will be familiar with this term!) he stated that he has not identified one in the legal profession…yet!

4) Court closures. Gove was clear that some courts will have to close. What will the money saved be used for: simply absorbed into the wider departmental cuts or re-invested back into the legal system…? Again, refusing to be drawn on specifics, Gove stated that various options are on the table, although he did say that the Treasury is sympathetic to his case for re-investment into the system rather than straight cost-cutting.

Speaking with lawyers, think-tankers, and journalists after the speech I noted two common themes: first, positivity about the themes of the speech. Second, scepticism about how Mr Gove plans achieve it all. And that’s the whole ball game. It’s one thing to set out what you want to happen, it’s quite another to deliver it. Time will tell whether he can. I’m sure an anxious legal profession is watching and waiting.

The full text of the speech is available here:

Video here:

Elections Matter

Democratic governance is about more than calling elections and it is about more than casting votes. Democratic governance encompasses a wider landscape of rights including factors such as the rule of law, freedom of expression, accountability of institutions and transparency of elected leaders. And when it comes to elections, it also includes the freedom to vote for your preferred candidate without fear of recrimination from the state.

In the UK, we accept these conditions as standard. A quick glance through history and indeed a quick glance around the world today, reveals that we stand among the privileged.

Glance through history - quoteThe former Soviet Union countries held elections for decades. Invariably these elections produced the same results. As John Feffer points out, the Communist Party candidates—or their close allies—won the elections often by farcical margins of 99.9%. Feffer observes the near-upset in 1980 when the Party in Hungary won with only 99.3 per cent of the vote!

While holding elections is a vital ingredient of a healthy democracy, it is only part of the whole recipe. This is evidenced by countries such as Zimbabwe, Azerbaijan, Sudan, and Kazakhstan, all of whom hold elections but none of whom are categorised as full and free democracies. Despite these exceptions, elections, when they are genuinely free and fair, represent a vital pillar of the democratic system.

The Freedom in the World report by Freedom House ranks nations on the condition of political rights and civil liberties. In their 2014 report, Freedom House categorise 48 countries as “Not Free”. This represents a quarter of all countries in the world and includes nearly 2.5 billion people, or 35 percent of the global population (though Freedom House point out that more than half of this number lives in just one country: China).

The good news is that the number of electoral democracies around the world has risen over the last 25 years. This year, the number of electoral democracies stood at 122, four more than in 2012. The four countries that achieved electoral democracy status were Honduras, Kenya, Nepal, and Pakistan.

Percentage of countries that are electoral democraciesAnd so, while one-third of the world’s population do not benefit from the right to self determination, many of those who do seem to take it for granted. In the UK a huge number of the electorate has disengaged with the electoral process. At the last general election in May 2010, voter turn-out was 65% meaning that over one-third of eligible voters were so unmoved by the choices before them they opted to stay at home instead of exercising their right to choose who governs them. 

Voter apathy is no doubt linked to the behaviour of our elected politicians who must bear some, if not most, of the responsibility. The expenses scandal followed by some high profile criminal cases such as that of Lib Dem MP Chris Huhne caused a lot of damage to politicians’ already fragile reputations. While it is true to say that the vast majority of British MPs from all parties are honest, committed, and hard-working, public perception is undoubtedly swayed by the exceptional cases.

So how should we respond? Today is election day in the UK—local and European. One way to respond is to re-engage with the democratic system. When respect for the political process falls, the best response is to pick it up and hold it high. We can blame politicians if we want. We can even try to blame the system itself. But in a democracy it is us, ultimately, who have the power to make a change. And that is what makes democracy by far the best form of governance ever devised.

Or to consider the same from the opposite angle, as Winston Churchill famously observed: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”


This post first appeared on the Legatum Institute blog:
Graph source: Freedom House

Hercule Poirot and the Rule of Law

Following the final tv episode of Poirot last week, I feel now is an appropriate time to share my favourite quote from the little Belgian detective.

poirotIt comes from near the end of Murder on the Orient Express when Poirot is confronting the group of passengers to reveal to them – and to us – who the murderer is. In most Poirot stories this involves a hitherto unknown backstory in which we discover that two of the characters are secret lovers who have conspired to kill the one person standing between them and their passionate love affair.

Murder on the Orient Express is a little different.

It transpires that the murder victim, Mr Ratchett, was responsible for the abduction and murder of a five year old girl many years ago but he fled the country after being acquitted in a trial that he most likely fixed. We discover that each of the 12 passengers on the train had a connection to the murdered girl and had organised this elaborate train journey to avenge her murder by killing Mr Ratchett (they killed him by each stabbing him once so that it could not be determined who administered the fatal wound).

As Poirot reveals these facts and confronts the group of 12, there is a superb piece of dialogue about the morality of the group taking justice into their own hands. The rule of law, argues Poirot, must not be abandoned otherwise we become like “savages in the street”.

The full transcript and video are below. It’s a great quote from a great story, n’est ce pas?

Hercule Poirot
[furious] You had no right to take the law into your own hands!

Hildegarde Schmidt: M-m-monsieur Poirot, she was *five years old*!

Caroline Hubbard: We were good civilized people, and then evil got over the wall, and we looked to the law for justice, and the law let us down.

Hercule Poirot: No! No, you behave like this and we become just… savages in the street! The juries and executioners, they elect themselves! No, it is medieval! The rule of law, it must be held high and if it falls you pick it up and hold it even higher! For all of society, all civilized people will have nothing to shelter them if it is destroyed!

Greta Ohlsson: There is a higher justice than the rule of law, monsieur!

Hercule Poirot: Then you let *God* administer it… not *you*!

Greta Ohlsson: And when he doesn’t? When he creates a Hell on Earth for those wronged? When priests who are supposed to act in his name forgive what must never be forgiven? Jesus said, “Let those without sin throw the first stone.”

Hercule Poirot: Oui!

Greta Ohlsson: Well, we were without sin, monsieur! *I* was without sin!

On the Worst and Best of Humanity

NYT Mag CoverA recent episode of the brilliant Danish political drama, Borgen, included an uncharacteristically disturbing storyline about paedophilia. The episode entitled ‘Them and Us’ delved into the childhood of leading character Kasper Juul, to reveal that as a young boy he had been sexually abused by his father and by his father’s friends.

At times during the episode my wife and I found the flash-back scenes of Kasper’s childhood so upsetting that we could not watch them, opting instead to fast-forward past them.

Just a few days later on the New York Times website I stumbled across this long feature article that movingly tells the stories of several American women coming to terms with being victims of childhood sexual abuse in the knowledge that images and videos of their abuse are being shared among paedophile networks on the internet.

The article is utterly horrifying and, in parts, very difficult to read. It stirs up fierce waves of emotion that rage deep inside. Feelings of sorrow, love, and compassion for the victims soon morph into utter disgust and anger towards their abusers. I wished I could reach into the story and somehow protect the young girls from the evil being done to them. At the same time I wished all kinds of pain and misery on their abusers.

The NYT article follows the victims’ quest for some sort of legal justice. Indeed, it explores what justice even looks like when dealing with an area of the law that is constantly evolving. Thankfully, a little-known provision of the Violence Against Women Act provides some hope. This provision gives victims of sex crimes, including child pornography, the right to restitution or compensation.

With the help of lawyers, judges, and other experts, the women in the article are able to seek damages from anyone found in possession of the indecent images of them.

This financial compensation is small comfort considering the crimes committed and the lost childhoods of the victims. But the money represents something greater than compensation. It establishes a firm principle and proclaims a warning to anyone involved in child pornography: “if you participate in a market, you become responsible for that market” (quote: Paul G Cassell).

After reading an article like this it is easy (and perhaps natural) to dwell solely on what is wrong with humanity. Specifically, on the unimaginable levels of wickedness that people inflict upon each other. But the lesson I choose to take away is this: despite humanity’s seemingly endless capacity for evil, there exists in this world an unquenchable thirst for justice. This pursuit of justice is underwritten by a profound sense of compassion, made possible by men and women of courage who are standing up for what is right. In this case the lawyers, legislators, judges, and jurors who have protected and supported the victims of paedophilia.

And that, despite everything else, fills me with some hope.