In recent years British society has become increasingly litigious. Both the government and the public increasingly turn to the law to resolve problems. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has beaten even his predecessor’s record, introducing 2,823 new laws during his first year in office. This is the highest record for law-making by anyone at Number 10, and 40% higher than the annual average created by Margaret Thatcher. Meanwhile, disputes between neighbours, and often trivial harassment cases, are increasingly likely to come to court.
This legalistic approach to social and political problems is causing disquiet, however. Critics question whether fines or imprisonment are always the answer to interpersonal problems. Questions are being raised about the impact new laws are having on British justice, and the individuals’ relationship to the state and to each other. The use of the law for political ends is also said to be corrupting the criminal justice system, with the abolition of double jeopardy (so that the accused can now be tried twice), proposals to increase the detention without trial of terrorist suspects to 42 days and the rise of race and religious hate laws. A drive to increase the conviction rate in cases such as rape, the increased prominence of the victim in harassment law and the trial process are also attracting criticism as well as support. Are we overburdening the law with social and political problems, and undermining it in the process?
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leading criminal and human rights barrister; regular columnist, The Times and Observer; editor, Criminal Bar Quarterly
professor of law and director, Kent Law Clinic, University of Kent, Canterbury
barrister; author with particular expertise in the area of Harassment and Religious Discrimination law
investigative journalist; director, The Queen & Us
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