31 July 2011

Big Ideas on Communities and Laws

I had to miss a Big Ideas discussion or two so it was good to get back in to the swing in July.

There was a familiar and pleasant start to the evening with a vegetarian and alcohol-free curry at Govinda's Restaurant just off Soho Square. Then it's back off the waggon with a pint of the guest ale at The Wheatsheaf. This month it was the very acceptable Cumberland Ale by Jennings.

Beer in hand, I headed upstairs traditionally early to ensure a decent seat.

Our topic for the evening was Do Communities Make Laws Or Do Laws Make Communities? and we were guided by Roger Cotterrell, Anniversary Professor of Legal theory at Queen Mary College, University of London.

Law is not one of the subjects that I claim to know much about so I was a little surprised at how engaged I got in the debate, that I raised a few points and easily filled the allotted one page in my A5 notebook.

Roger started by showing how laws are increasingly being divorced for states (nations) with the growth of European and International courts on one side and the call for regional, or even neighbourhood, laws on the other.

An example of judicial pluralism is Malaysia where the Malay, Chinese and Indian communities have separate courts. Nearer to home there is the suggestion that Sharia Law could be used alongside national laws in countries like the UK.

Sometimes states have to recognise other laws by default. For example, if a man who is legitimately married in his home state to more than one woman moves to a state where only one wife is allowed then that state need rules to handle things like divorce and death.

Laws are there in place of trust. If two parties trusted each other then they would not need a contract backed by laws in order to do business. Communities can build trust but laws cannot.

Roger's hypothesis was (if I understood him correctly) that laws arise from communities and not from states.

During the long discussion that followed I'm not sure that anybody agreed with that but that was hard to tell as we wandered well around the subject, as usual. In particular we drifted away from laws to consider other judicial aspects like policing and judges.

We looked at some examples of how communities react to laws. In some cases, such as the right to bludgeon a burglar, the general population had a perception of what the law was that proved to be wrong. Some other laws, like the motorway speed limit or using a mobile phone while driving, are simply ignored.

This attitude to specific laws can change over time and, for example, drink driving has gone from the norm (I drive better when I've had a few) to a complete no-no (not for me thanks, I'm driving).

State laws have the legitimacy of democracy to support them. We vote for the government that we want, they make laws and so these are our laws. And if we do not like the laws that they make then we can vote for somebody else.

Knowledge of laws is becoming increasingly problematic (in the UK at least) with even judges making mistakes over what the actual law is in some cases. It is completely unreasonable to expect communities to understand the law in these circumstances. This government's cuts to Legal Aid will make this even worse.

Even when laws do have the support of communities they are usually imposed by people outside of those communities. Judges are very different from the rest of us.

The powerful are best placed to take advantage of laws that were created for the benefit of the community.

We said a lot more than that as the conversation ebbed and flowed for the best part of two hours but I've still not mastered the art of being in a discussion and taking notes at the same time so these notes are all I've got. I hope that they are enough to give you a flavour of what the evening was like and to show why Big Ideas is worth going to every month.

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