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In Defence Of The Rule Of Law

by | Wednesday, 6th January 2016
No freemen shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor send upon him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land — Article 39, Magna Carta (1215)

Recently, it was reported that "senior government sources say the prime minister is prepared to change the law in 2016 to make it harder to drag police officers through the courts if they shoot to kill." A review, to be conducted by the Home Office, the attorney general and the Ministry of Justice, is to report privately to David Cameron.

The two most high profile cases in which public concern over the lack of police officers accountability for their use of firearms has been raised include the deaths of Jean Charles De Menezes and Harry Stanley. Jean Charles de Menezes was shot dead at Stockwell Underground station in London after police marksmen wrongly suspected he was a suicide bomber.  The second case occured in 1999 when Harry Stanley, an unarmed painter and decorator was shot in the head and hand on a London street while walking home after a table leg he had in a bag was mistaken for a gun.

In 2005 there were some who suggested that it appeared that British justice "puts police officers above the law". To the best of our knowledge no police officer has ever been successfully prosecuted for any of the fatalities caused by police marksmen.

In separate reports it appears that controversial plans now being discussed by Washington and London include the introduction of armed US  border guards being stationed at British airports. Reports suggest that they would benefit from diplomatic immunity meaning they couldn't be prosecuted for any crime they committed on British soil.

These proposals represent a serious assault on one of the fundemental principles of our Constitution: the rule of law.

A more detailed explanation of the principle of the rule of law first documented in Magna Carta is provided by reference to A. V. Dicey: Introduction to the study of the law of the Constitution. In 1885 he wrote

'In England the idea of legal equality, or of the universal subjection of all classes to one law administered by the ordinary Courts, has been pushed to its utmost limit. With us every official, from the Prime Minister down to a constable or a collector of taxes, is under the same responsibility for every act done without legal justification as any other citizen. The Reports abound with cases in which officials have been brought before the Courts, and made, in their personal capacity, liable to punishment, or to the payment of damages, for acts done in their official character but in excess of their lawful authority. A colonial governor, a secretary of state, a military officer, and all subordinates, though carrying out the commands of their official superiors, are as responsible for any act which the law does not authorise as is any private and unofficial person'.

As recently as October 2009 the International Bar Association passed a resolution endorsing a substantive or "thick" definition of the rule of law. This required

'An independent, impartial judiciary; the presumption of innocence; the right to a fair and public trial without undue delay; a rational and proportionate approach to punishment; a strong and independent legal profession; strict protection of confidential communications between lawyer and client; equality of all before the law; these are all fundamental principles of the Rule of Law. Accordingly, arbitrary arrests; secret trials; indefinite detention without trial; cruel or degrading treatment or punishment; intimidation or corruption in the electoral process, are all unacceptable. The Rule of Law is the foundation of a civilised society. It establishes a transparent process accessible and equal to all. It ensures adherence to principles that both liberate and protect'.

The UK Column believes that any review into shoot-to-kill must be held in public because of the number of historical cases in which innocent members of the British public have been killed. Those specialist Police Officers who carry firearms in order to uphold the law should not themselves enjoy immunity from it. The proposals currently under consideration represent too radical a shift away from the Peelian Principles of Policing.

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