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21 August 2007

Has the law deprived Frances Lawrence of justice?

Without humanity or justice for victims like this bravest of mothers, the law is utterly worthless.

She is a good and brave woman, Frances Lawrence. Widowed in 1995 with four young children after her headmaster husband was stabbed to death trying to save a teenager from a gang attack outside his school, she has never been vengeful.

Rather than expressing hatred, she showed love - and in setting up the Philip Lawrence Awards to honour young people who try to tackle social ills, she showed compassion for those who grow up in fractured, violent communities of the kind that produced Learco Chindamo, the Italian immigrant who became a murderer at 15.

But though Mrs Lawrence did not want revenge, she did want justice. And she feels now - like all too many people in our society - hat the law has lost sight of natural justice and has become so detached from reality that, legalistically, it protects the human rights of perpetrators at the expense of their victims.

Mrs Lawrence is not protesting about the likelihood of Chindamo being released next year.

What makes her - in her own words - "devastated and demoralised", is that immigration judges have ruled that he may not be deported because, under the Human Rights Act introduced by New Labour, he would be denied the right to a "family life" because his language is English and his ties are with Britain, whose hospitality he has abused shamefully.

When Mrs Lawrence spoke on BBC Radio 4's Today programme yesterday, her voice conveyed her deep shock, pain, disillusion and - perhaps even more importantly - a sense of the powerlessness of ordinary people that struck a resonant chord with me and, I would guess, most other listeners.

Her testimony is especially telling because she is an idealist who applauded the introduction of the Human Rights Act, which, she believed, "was set up as an exemplar to show how human beings should live together fairly, equally and kindly."

Her interpretation of this law did not include the notion that the person who removed from her husband his basic human right to life would be able to use the Human Rights Act for his own selfish interests.

If Chindamo was truly remorseful, he would have taken his punishment quietly and left to try to lead a decent life in the country in which he was born.

Mrs Lawrence expressed in her interview what she described as "a major conundrum" - the gap between theory and practice, between intellect and emotions.

Asked if the judges did have a point in saying Chindamo's natural home was Britain, since he had lived here from the age of five, she said with startling honesty: "If I was one of the three judges, I would have come to the same decision."

But what she pointed out compellingly was that there is more to such decisions than the logic of lawyers: the law surely has to reflect humanity.

Intellectually, she could accept their ruling; viscerally, she could not deal with the discovery that the law was on Chindamo's side and not on hers and her family's.

More importantly, for Frances Lawrence is a fine and thoughtful woman, she was frightened by the wider picture. The decision highlighted what she had already learned from thousands of letters of sympathy: "That the voices of ordinary people don't become part of the equation when these laws are considered.

"The law is not always what must be our context. Humanity is more important . . . People feel their needs and desires are second-place, squashed by some bureaucratic insensate law."

This surely goes to the heart of what is so wrong about the concept of justice in modern Britain.

Trying to articulate what was going wrong with society, she spoke up for the mostly silent majority when she said that when people like her "speak of morality, we are derided. When we speak of the relationship between rights and responsibilities we are held in contempt".

It was impossible to discuss such concepts "without sounding antiquated".

Yet surely the time has come to put them right back at the forefront of British society - a set of shared values we can all take pride in, wherever we come from.

For strangely, what Frances Lawrence said with such piercing truth connected with an experience I had on Monday morning at the community centre of the ugly Broadwater Farm estate where I was taking part in a BBC programme about multiculturalism.

Infamous as the place where in 1985 PC Keith Blakelock was hacked to death by a mob, it has a shifting - largely immigrant - population, now predominantly Turkish and Kurdish.

These days, it is a much more harmonious place than in the Eighties, for decent people took responsibility for healing the community and their patient efforts have borne fruit.

The chairman of the community centre showed me some of the work he is doing with teenagers. Asked what troubled them, they responded much as Middle England might: they were frightened by knives, guns, violence and gangs. Asked what to do about this, many of them called for the death penalty and long prison sentences.

Essentially, they wanted punishments to fit the crime.

Now while, in their eye-foraneye view, these children did not reflect the Christianity of Frances Lawrence, their hunger for justice did match hers, just as it surely mirrors those of most decent, law-abiding people.

Lawyers meant nothing to these young people. What mattered was that their right to life, and the right to life of others, should be protected.

Like Frances Lawrence - and like us - they felt powerless to deal with the dangers confronting them. Yet in their day-to-day lives, they see that teachers, police, clergy and parents also seem powerless to tackle what makes their lives unstable and threatened.

The terrible truth is that - through their own fault - our rulers are powerless, too. The Human Rights Act, EU law and other well-meaning, highminded and Utopian legislation has left Britain at the mercy of judges - domestic and foreign - who seem to have forgotten the very concept of justice as they hide behind the letter of the law.

Successive Home Secretaries have come to rue the day they cheered on Tony Blair when he took power away from parliament and tossed it blithely to the courts.

If back-bench parliamentarians don't feel guilty, then they should, for they have for years uncomplainingly rubberstamped European legislation that surrenders our sovereignty and replaces the common law by abstract principles over which lawyers can argue until eternity.

At its best, the common law was rooted in common sense - a commodity almost entirely lacking from legislation instigated by bureaucrats and academic lawyers, who have given us what have been described as "dutiless rights".

But of course, to speak of duty - as of responsibilities and morality - is to invite ridicule and contempt in smart society.

Mrs Lawrence spoke movingly to the BBC of "a schism between appreciating the legal process, the Human Rights Act and the European dimension, but at the same time feeling that as human beings, sometimes the law bypasses us. It bypasses humanity."

She could not have put it better. Without humanity, we are nothing and the law is but dry and dusty language.

What we desperately need is to have the interests of the common people put back at the centre of our law.

Is that so very much to ask, not just for Frances Lawrence, but for all our sakes?

Ruth Dudley Edwards


Ruth posts articles that interest or amuse her and replies to comments from her eclectic group of friends and followers.

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