, No more heroes? Part 2: leadingcounsel.co.uk
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No more heroes? Part 2

The suggestion that the police should be supportive of the public when they try and uphold the law is a good one, but in practice there are all sorts of problems.

I can recall two incidents which although not directly on point, indicate the problems. They are the usual ones of the confusion of an incident of disorder and the difficulties of getting to the bottom of it, and the reluctance of people to get involved.

One was when I was a schoolboy. I was attacked by two other boys. (No point going into the reasons, save to say that because I was keen on my studies I was regarded as a "swot", they knew me, and it was deliberate). One went to punch me, (as the other kicked me on the leg) and I ducked, and hit the first boy in the face, very hard. As he went down I hit the other one. Two punches, fight over. The next moment there was a teacher there. The only mark I could show was on my leg, which could just as easily have occurred playing football. The two boys who attacked me were both bleeding quite a bit, one from the nose, one from the mouth. They said I had attacked them. I said they had attacked me. I was telling the truth, they were lying. The teacher decided, based on the injuries, that I was the guilty party. No attention was paid to the fact that I was a studious child and they were both trouble causers, and I was caned. It wasn't the punishment which really hurt (although it did hurt), it was the feeling of injustice. I had done nothing but tell the truth, had done nothing wrong, and had been punished for something I hadn't done. Whether this dim and distant memory was the start of my being interested in the law, I cannot say.

However it does show this. It is not always so easy to get to the bottom of who did what to whom and why. Of course that is easier if there are witnesses. Frequently however, there will be no witnesses, or those who do see what happened will not want to be involved. If they do see something, they will not be likely to want to say anything against the trouble causers. Others in the playground that day had seen what happened to me, but no one wanted to say anything. The two boys who attacked me were quite likely to attack anyone who spoke against them. I was never going to attack anyone. What economists would call "market forces" tend to militate against people speaking up against people they know will cause trouble.

The second incident took place when I was a barrister. I was on a train travelling to court, I would be in my late 20s or early 30s. It was a summer's morning. When I sat down, I opened the window next to me, which would blow a cool breeze into my face. I was at the end of the carriage. A young man came from the other end of the carriage and started swearing at me for opening the window. He said he would catch cold (even though he was sitting some 40 feet way at the end of the carriage). His tone was belligerent and aggressive. He slammed the window shut and told me it was going to stay shut. I opened it again and explained politely that it was the window next to me, it was nothing to do with him, and that he might get a better response another time if he asked politely rather than swearing. By this time the journey was under way. He threatened me, and I said if necessary I would defend myself but the window was going to stay down. "Right then" he said and stormed to the other end of the carriage. The train pulled into the next station and he opened the door and started shouting "help, help". Three railway employees came up to the train, and he told them that I had been threatening him. I gave them my version of events. Probably because I was wearing a three-piece suit, they accepted my version and told him he would be thrown off the train if there was any further problem. However before this was resolved, (and indeed during the incident), the train was full of other passengers. During the dispute and the railway staff intervention everyone remained firmly behind their newspapers, or with their eyes looking away. It was obvious to anyone present that I had been trying to mind my own business, had spoken politely, and had issued no threat (unless indicating that if attacked I would defend myself vigorously can be treated as a threat). However no one wanted to get involved.

Next week, using these two admittedly unrepresentative and idiosyncratic examples as illustrations, we will examine the practical problems that will arise from suggesting the public should get involved in stopping crime and antisocial behaviour.

Michael J. Booth QC