, No more heroes? Part 1: leadingcounsel.co.uk
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No more heroes? Part 1

What should citizens do or be expected to do about crime? Should they ever interfere? How should prosecuting authorities deal with them if they do?

There have been contradictory comments from ministers at various times as regards what members of the public should and should not do faced with crime or loutish behaviour. The matter has been thrown into focus again by recent comments of the Shadow Home Secretary Dominic Grieve, suggesting that the law should be more generous in favour of people challenging antisocial behaviour or attempting to detain offenders. This would involve rewriting guidance under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act and also in respect of the guidelines for the Crown Prosecution Service. The aim of this would be to introduce a greater element of discretion, to increase public confidence that if they get involved with a view to maintaining the law they are unlikely to find themselves stigmatised as a criminal, and the mean that people are more likely to deal with minor matters themselves rather than by calling the police.

One issue relevant to this is the effect of the National Crime Recording Standard introduced in 2002 by the Home Office. The effect of this is that if someone tells the police that a crime has been committed they should record it. This of course means that the original offender when he makes a complaint in his turn is likely to have it recorded and taken equally seriously. Whilst no one is suggesting that public involvement should extend to vigilante or violent behaviour, it reflects a perception that many members of the public and politicians across the spectrum have, which is that the public should feel more comfortable about preventing crime.

Whilst this may be the desire, society has changed and it is difficult to see how this would work in practice. My own view is that citizens should interfere in order to prevent violence or bullying against others, if they feel physically and mentally able to interfere. I think it is laudable if they attempt to prevent other types of crime, but I would not advise anyone to interfere in those circumstances.

Interfering in respect of antisocial behaviour usually leads to abuse or worse. I shall give some illustrations (none witnessed by me, but reported from reliable witnesses). Three people in their late teens get on public transport. To boys, one a girl. The boys are smoking in defiance of the sign saying they should not. An elderly gentleman points to sign out to them and asked them very politely if they will refrain from smoking. This is met with a torrent of foulmouthed and threatening abuse, which is only stopped by the girl apologising to the man and asking the two young men to stop. If the old man had been assaulted, should passengers have come to his rescue? In my view yes if they felt able to do so. However, was trying to deal with the anti social behaviour a good idea? Again I think it was laudable, but the reality is (and this is but one of a number of similar instances I could mention reported to me by reliable witnesses) 9 times out of 10 a polite request in respect of antisocial behaviour will lead to a potentially threatening confrontation.

Next week we will consider this issue further.

Michael J. Booth QC