It was inevitable, of course, from the moment Tony Blair abolished the Lord Chancellor’s Department and replaced it with something called the “Ministry of Justice”, that the new department would be devoted to attacking justice. The great advantage, or one of them, of the office of Lord Chancellor was that it was nearly always held by people who, though politicians, owed a higher duty to the law and justice. Mr Blair, with a sort of fifth form understanding of the doctrine of the separation of powers, decided that the person taking the place of the Lord Chancellor should no longer be the head of the judiciary and should be purely a politician.
Obviously, it is possible for a pure politician to be in favour of justice. Michael Gove, whatever you think of his Brexit performances, demonstrated that fact. Within days of his appointment he undid many of the appalling policies of his notorious predecessor, Chris Grayling. He, Gove, made it clear that he considered it his duty to put justice first and political interest very much second. Mr Grayling, on the other hand, saw himself as, first and foremost, a politician whose policies should be dictated by tabloid journalists, not by abstract theories of justice.
I know some of you think I am too hard on Mr Grayling and his pursuit of praise from the Daily Mail. I think you have a point. I admit that it is not his fault that he considered justice to be unimportant. He has the defence that the whole idea was that the Justice Secretary should be an ordinary politician, not someone with quaint old-fashioned notions of justice. He had political ambitions going much further than being a mere Justice Secretary. Everything he did, as is often the way with politicians, was devoted to seeking popularity (which he equates with praise from the Daily Mail) rather than to furthering justice. And, this is the problem, his approach to the job is bound to be the one favoured by almost all those who come to do it.
What has brought on this latest Utley rant? I will tell you.
Tragically, a young man died in a road accident earlier this year. He was called George Beresford. He was hit by a motor car. The driver of the car was found to be above the permitted alcohol level. He was subsequently convicted (I assume he pleaded guilty) of that offence, disqualified from driving and fined. He was not convicted of causing death by careless or dangerous driving. I don’t know whether he was charged with either of those offences. I suspect, because there seem to be no news reports of the trial, that he wasn’t. Anyway, either a jury concluded that the manner of his driving did not cause the death or the Crown Prosecution Service concluded that the evidence was not sufficient to lead to a finding that it did. In other words, Mr Beresford’s tragic death was not caused by poor driving on the part of the defendant. It was a dreadful accident, and nothing more than that.
Mr Beresford’s parents, who must still be horribly distressed by their loss, are furious that the driver was not sent to prison. It does not seem, from what I have read, that they complain that he was not convicted of causing death by careless or dangerous driving. Their point is different. They say that, if anyone is killed in a road accident and it transpires that a driver whose car was in the accident had consumed more than the permitted amount of alcohol, that driver should automatically be sent to prison even though the manner of his driving was faultless. Taken to its extreme, their case is that, should a man intent on committing suicide throw himself into the path of an oncoming car and thereby succeed in his aim, and the driver of that car is then found to be marginally over the limit, the driver should automatically be sent to prison.
The Beresfords’ argument, I suppose, is that those who have had too much to drink should not be driving. If the driver of the car which hit their son had not been driving, his car would not have killed their son. Therefore, they would say, it follows that the drinking was the cause of the accident. I don’t think you have to be a lawyer to see the fallacy in that argument. The simple point is that, even if the driver had consumed nothing but tomato juice, the accident would still have happened. The drinking, reprehensible though it was, played no part in the tragedy.
One can, of course, have nothing but sympathy for Mr and Mrs Beresford. I think one can go further and say it is understandable that they want someone to be punished for their son’s death. But one would certainly expect a government minister whose job it was to support justice to explain, sympathetically, that the change in the law which they are seeking would be wholly wrong in principle. That has not happened. The Beresfords have put their case to someone called Sam Gyimah, a junior “Justice” Minister. He, being a politician, recognises that the tabloids are bound to be on the Beresfords’ side. He has therefore said that the law will now be urgently reviewed with a view to forcing courts to imprison over the limit drivers who, despite driving perfectly well, are involved in accidents which cause death.
I wonder if George Orwell would be surprised by all this.