Thursday, October 26, 2006

No punishment without law

Ruth Kelly has been outlining plans to give local councils more power, including expounding on the 'local laws for local people' theme on the Today programme:
Ms Kelly earlier told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Rather than the government having to approve every single local bylaw, it should be local people that decide whether they want a particular law tackling anti-social behaviour." People should be "able to go out and impose an instant fine if someone breaks that", she said.
We've been here before, when the draconian Antisocial Behaviour Act was making its way through Parliament, and as we pointed out then, a little knowledge of common law and of case law from the European Court of Human Rights might come in handy.


In one of those landmark cases, Kokkinakis v Greece, the Court found that:
...the Convention ...also embodies, more generally, the principle that only the law can define a crime and prescribe a penalty ...and the principle that the criminal law must not be extensively construed to an accused's detriment, for instance by analogy; it follows from this that an offence must be clearly defined in law. This condition is satisfied where the individual can know from the wording of the relevant provision and, if need be, with the assistance of the courts' interpretation of it, what acts and omissions will make him liable.
How does that work when each area is making up its own laws? Is antisocial behaviour in Lower Puddlescombe the same as antisocial behaviour in Tottenham? I guess, to be on the safe side, we would all have to read a copy of the local bylaws every time we crossed a parish boundary - perhaps they could be included in map books. Or the Foreign Office could expand its travel advice section to offer such useful information as: "in St. Bigotwold, being on the public highway between the hours of 9pm and 7am whilst under 18 is a capital offence."

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