Oblique intent

Why the name? Well criminal law afficionados will recognise the phrase 'oblique intent' as referring to a problem of mens rea:can a person who intends to do x (such as setting fire to a building to scare the occupants) also be said to have an intention to kill if one of the occupants dies? This is a problem that has consumed an inordinate amount of time in the appeal courts and in the legal journals, and can be taken to represent a certain kind of approach to legal theory. My approach is intended to be more oblique to this mainstream approach, and thus to raise different kinds of questions and issues. Hence the name.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

On burglary

There have been eyebrows raised in response to the comments of Judge Michael Pert this week. While sentencing two men found guilty of burglary, he said that burglars who chose to burgle homes where the owner legally possessed a gun should accept the risk of being shot. In his exact words:
If you burgle a house in the country where the householder owns a legally held shotgun, that is the chance you take. You cannot come to court and ask for a lighter sentence because of it.
Joshua O'Gorman and Daniel Mansell,
who were shot in the course of burglary
Further comment then came this morning from Lord Chief Justice Judge, who responded to questions on the case by suggesting that burglary of a home was more than a crime against property, but was also a crime against the person:
It's not a matter of being sentimental. When you are at home you want to feel safe. You are entitled to feel safe and secure.
Sir Edward Coke:
"For a man's house is his castle..."
At one level this seems intuitively right - even without having to dress it up in the language of the Englishman's home being his castle, and so on. There might be two reasons for this. The first is present in LCJ Judge's statement, but might be spelled out more fully. This is that there is a difference between being in public and private spaces such as the home. When we venture out into public, we perhaps adopt a certain front or persona, we are ready for encounters or engagement with strangers. This might also be true of certain private spaces where we meet others. However, in our home, either on our own or with intimates, we generally do not feel the need to put on that front, unless perhaps we are inviting guests into our space - but even then there might be a different kind of negotiation, as we deal differently with friends or acquaintances and strangers. It is not just a matter of safety or security. One might feel safe in public, and a lot of feminist reserach has documented how for many women and children the home is not a place of safety. It is more that the uninvited entry of a stranger is a particular kind of transgression or threat. Thus at one level this might have nothing to do with property at all. It would be just as much of a threat to find an intruder in a hotel bedroom as in a home that you home. While a burglary of other kinds of buildings or dwellings houses would not be so threatening in the absence of people living there.

The second reason is also hinted at in the Lord Chief Justice's remarks, and is that a burglary might feel like a crime against the person. This might be because while we own or possess different kinds of property, we have a different kind of relation with them. I own some property which is in a sense 'disposable'. If certain kinds of property are taken they are easy to replace, and the lack of police interest, say, in tracking stolen bikes or even cars reflects this to some extent. But there are other kinds of property that might have less intrinsic value, but which have value to me because of their sentimental meaning or because I have worked on them or identify with the property in a certain way, and it would hurt me more to lose or have this stolen. And of course in our culture, our homes  represent a particular kind of investment. They are not just a structure in which to eat or sleep, but a particular place in which we ccan decorate and embellish as an expression of our identity - and to which we return at night to recover our sense of self. And it not then surprising that one often finds the victim of burglary reporting the sense of violation that they feel or the loss of a sense of security - the hurt goes far beyond the value of any property taken. So burglary, as with certain kinds of theft, might seem like a kind of invasion of the person.

But we should be careful where we go with this. Should a crime be treated as more serious becuase of the value of the property to the victim? Probably not, though it might at least be arguable that in some cases it might be worse to steal something (even of no value) that you know to be of value to the victim because, say, you want to hurt them.

But what about self defence?  The danger of going down this road of seeing threats to property as threats against the person is that we extend the scope of self defence, making it easier to see any intrusion or taking as a threat to self which would justify the use of (possbily fatal) force. It may be that, as LCJ Judge says, homeowners dealing with intruders should not necessarily have to hang around to find out the precise degree of threat offered by that intruder, But at the same time, many burglaries are routine and much of the property stolen is that which is 'disposable'  - not easily identifed and quickly convertible into cash (electronics etc). So we should be wary about defining our sense of burglary in terms of what might be an extreme or special case, and we should be especially wary about analogies which make it too easy to extend the scope of self defence.

Friday, 21 September 2012

On criminalization (again)

As regular readers will know, one of my main interests is criminalization: how is it that certain conduct or individuals become defined as criminal, and given that this involves the exercise of state power, what makes this exercise of power justified or legitimate?

Given that these questions have a certain currency and meaning in contemporary writings on the topic, it was interesting to go to the Oxford English Dictionary to see how the term is defined historically.

The dictionary gives two main meanings for the verb to criminalize. The first is
"to turn a person into a criminal, esp by making his or her activities criminal".
This draws a direct analogy with the French term 'criminaliser', meaning to accuse, and most of the early usages listed relate to the accusing of particular individuals with having committed crimes. It is not until the middle of the nineteenth century, that it takes on a more modern (and perhaps sociological) sense of defining individuals or groups as criminal or deviant in some way (Thus from the Law Magazine in 1854: "Young offenders had better be reformed than criminalized.")

The second meaning is that which is more familiar from philosophical writings on the topic and is
"to turn (an activity) into a criminal offence by making it illegal."
What is surprising to me about this second usage is that it appears to be relatively recent in origin. The first recorded usage in this sense listed dates only from 1832 and is (not surprisingly) from Jeremy Bentham, who was an enthusiastic inventor of neologisms. What is surprising, is that in using the term he is not referring to a legislative process, or at least not directly ("Asceticism has sought to brand and criminalize the desires to which nature has confided the perpetuity of the species"). It is not until the end of the century that it is listed as being used to refer to a legislative process more directly (from the Columbia Law Review in 1906: "it may confiscate the goods ... or criminalize the selling of them.")

What conclusions can be drawn from this? The first is that to understand criminalization in the second, legislative, sense does not seem to pre-date the existence of a modern parliament which is actively legislating to make certain activities or conduct criminal. To be sure conduct was criminalized prior to this, but the legislative sense implies some sort of choice about how or why this is done. Second, and more tentatively, it seems to me that it implies the prior existence of an idea of the criminal law as a distinct body of rules, and the bringing of a certain activity within the scope of what it means to be criminal. In this sense the activity is the object to which the criminal law is applied (as subject). Being criminal in the modern sense is thus not, and cannot be, a quality of the conduct or activity itself. And the meaning of any particular act of criminalization depends on our understanding of what the criminal law is and does.

Monday, 17 September 2012

On naked rambling

The latest step in the long saga of the 'naked rambler' was played out in Scotland last week, as Stephen Gough was sentenced to five months in prison - around his twentieth such sentence.

For those unfamiliar with the story the basic facts are these. Former marine, Stephen Gough, has become known as the 'naked rambler' for his desire to hike through Britain without wearing any clothes. He completed a Land's End to John O'Groats walk in 2003-4, but his attempt to repeat this, which began in 2006 has been dogged by controversy. He was arrested at Edinburgh Airport, after removing his clothes on the flight and refusing to put them on again, and has subsequently spent most of the past six years in prison, as each time he has been released he has attempted to walk without his clothes on and each time has been rearrested and charged with the crime of breach of the peace. He has been kept in near solitary confinement in prison, because of his refusal to wear clothes, and has also been charged with contempt of court on several occasions for his refusal to wear clothes in the courtroom.

And so last week Gough was once again charged with breach of the peace, after complaints from members of the public as he tried to walk near to a children's playground in Dunfermline, and on refusing to either wear clothes in court or to submit to a psychiatric assessment was sentenced once again to a period of five months in prison.

It seems clear that this does not reflect well on anyone. Whatever your views on the acceptability or even the advisability of naked rambling, it is surely not desirable to keep on sending to Gough to prison, and little is being accomplished by this protracted stand-off. This seems to have been recognised by the Scottish authorities as, according to reports last week, they apparently offered him either a lift out of Scotland or suggested that he might change his route to avoid populated areas in an attempt to break the cycle of release and re-arrest. On Gough's side, his seeming inflexibility has drawn criticism from some members of the groups who supported his campaign, and there have to be legitimate concerns about the impact of solitary confinement on his mental health. Either way, without something changing it seems likely that the whole situation will play out once again in a few months time once Gough is released from prison.

So what should be done here? One of the proposals of the Scottish police is admirably pragmatic - a lift out of Scotland, so that he can become someone else's problem. And indeed this might be an end to the problem. It is possible that Scottish society is more prudish or disapproving of public nudity than elsewhere in the UK. And there is no direct counterpart in English law to the Scottish crime of breach of the peace, which has been notorious for its flexibility and for its use by the courts as a means of maintaining community moral standards, and so it might be harder to charge him with a criminal offence merely for public nudity.

The arguments here tend to be reduced to questions of individual freedom versus (repressive) public morality, or questions of public versus private morality. This indeed is how Gough seems to want to frame the question himself, presenting himself on his website and in interviews as someone who seeks only to be himself, presenting an inner truth, and is fighting against oppressive social conventions. And there may be room for debate about whether members of the public were generally alarmed or distressed by the sight of a naked man, or whether this was an assertion by the police to obtain a conviction. But the matter is surely more complex than this, as our ideas about what is disgusting or offensive are not simply black and white - liberty versus repression - but depend on complex social expectations of each other and the appropriateness of certain conduct to certain places.

One of the most acute analyses of how conventions about public behaviour work was carried out by the American sociologist, Erving Goffman, in the 1960s. Goffman argued that public conduct is governed by conventions about how one interacts with strangers – not making eye contact, avoiding physical contact, not talking too loudly, and so on – and that conduct which breaches these conventions may disturb both particular individuals and the social order itself. He thus concluded that social relations, and in particular public interaction, depend on a minimal demand to make oneself ‘disattendable’ by not making claims on the fears or concerns of others. This, crucially, demands not only a respect for others but also on the setting of the interaction. That is to say that it does not make sense only to talk of private and public space, but it is also important to recognise that there are different kinds of public space. There are thus two factors at work here. First, it is necessary to recognise the negotiated nature of public interaction, in which as individuals we need to tailor our conduct to the expectations and fears of others - and one of the roles of the criminal law is to police the boundary of the acceptable and to intervene when conduct becomes threatening. This is not to say that such conventions cannot, or should not be challenged, but that simply asserting that something is natural is not likely to be an effective mode of challenge. There may be lots of things that are natural but that we would not tolerate or permit in public places. Second, this is situation and space dependent - what is acceptable in one setting or space may not be so in another. There are certain kinds of social situations where one might expect to see naked bodies, and others where such conduct would be challenging or a surprise. And likewise, naked rambling might be non-threatening (if surprising) on the remote moors or mountains of Scotland, but more threatening by a school playground or outside a church on a Sunday morning.

All of which can tell us something about why Gough is in the situation he is in, and perhaps also something about the naivete of his arguments. It is probably also the case that it tells us something about the criminal law. It may be justifiable for the law to intervene, but it is only really justified where there is some real threat to others in public places. A mere threat to the dignity of the law should not be enough.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

On bigamy

The general rule in most common law jurisdictions is that acts committed outwith the territory are not cognisable by the courts of that country. Thus even in a case such as the apparent assassination of a British family holidaying in France last week, it would be highly unusual if the British authorities were to seek to prosecute the wrongdoers (should they be found) in England. Murder is a crime under French law and when committed in France it should be prosecuted there.

As with any rule of this kind there are exceptions (and the list is a growing one) and one of the most curious exceptions is the crime of bigamy. Under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 s.57, a British citizen who undergoes a bigamous marriage ceremony anywhere in the world (i.e. knowing or suspecting that they are already married) can be prosecuted for the crime of bigamy in England. An example of the application of this rule is the prosecution in 1901 of the second Earl Russell, older brother of the philosopher Bertrand Russell - a case which is also an early example of the, now popular, Nevada wedding.

The trial of Earl Russell before the House of Lords
Russell had first married in 1890, but seems quickly to have become estranged from his first wife - though no divorce or legal separation was secured. In 1900 he obtained a divorce and entered into a second marriage in Reno, Nevada. His first wife then sued in England for divorce on the grounds of bigamous adultery. On returning to the UK he was charged with bigamy, and as a peer was prosecuted before the House of Lords. He sought to argue that on the basis of the "best legal advice obtainable in Nevada" that he had believed the divorce to be legal. However, the House of Lords, acting on the advice of Lord Halsbury, the Lord Chancellor, declined to recognise the legality of the divorce. He was convicted of bigamy and sentenced to three monhs imprisonment. (You can read a contemporary newspaper account of the trial here).

It is worth asking why it was that bigamy should have been treated as one of the few offences under English criminal law of extraterritorial application in the nineteenth century. (Why prosecute for bigamous marraiges committed abroad when you would not prosecute for murder or other serious crimes?) One possible answer to this might be that most murders committed abroad would crimes under the law where they took place, and the authorities there would be expected to prosecute. By contrast, bigamy would normally come to light for the British authorities when the couple were living in England, or as in this case where the first wife sued for divorce in the English courts, thereby making it a problem for the British authorities to deal with. And it is certainly the case that the Victorians were keen to uphold the respectability of marriage.

The Tichborne Claimant
But I think that there is potentially something else involved here as well, which was an anxiety over mobility and identity, which made the crime of bigamy appear to be a particular problem for the Victorians. The nineteenth century was a period in which it become possible to travel as never before. A young man might go abroad to seek his fortune, but this led to new worries as the apparently respectable young suitor might be someone who was seeking to escape a less than respectable past - and this could spell ruin for a respectable woman. And it could be hard to establish just who a person was in an era where there were no fixed or clear markers of identity - leading to such celebrated cases as the 'Tichborne Claimant', where an Australian butcher was seemingly able to pass himself off as the missing heir to the Tichborne fortune. Thus in the crime of bigamy anxieties over identity, mobility and the sttaus of marriage came together, adn the extraterritorial application of the law can be seen as an attempt to control this in a rapidly changing world.

Of course, the extraterritorial application of the crime is of little importance these days, as the prosecution (and presumably incidence) of the crime of bigamy has declined with the more ready availiability of divorce and the decline of marraige more generally. There are still prosecutions, but these now more often concern attempts to breach immigration law, pointing to a change in the focus of the crime which will have to be the subject of a separate post.

Friday, 7 September 2012

On preventing the lawful burial of a body

Criminal offences are like buses. Sometimes they are not used at all, and then several come along at once. And this has been the case this summer with use of the highly unusual charge of 'preventing the lawful and decent burial of a body' in two very high profile cases.

Hans Kristian Rausing
The first is the case of Hans Kristian Rausing, heir to the Tetrapak fortune, who pleaded guilty to the offence and admitted to having kept the body of his dead wife for two months in his Chelsea mansion. Then later in the summer, Jackie Powell, the mental health advocate of the so-called 'Moors murderer' Ian Brady was arrested on suspicion of having committed the same offence. However, the facts in the two cases are quite different, and it is worth looking at these because it suggests that the justification for the offence is confused at best.

In the first case, Rausing admitted to drug use and mental health problems stretching back over a period of some years. On his account, his failure to report the death of his wife (who suffered from similar problems) was due to an unwillingness to face up to the reality that his wife had died. The use of the offence seems to have been a way of ensuring thta he undertook some sort of treatment - he was given a suspended prison sentence and ordered to undertake a drug rehabilitation programme. This may already be troubling, given the existence of civil procedures which might have accomplished the same end, but the use of the the charge against Jackie Powell, is even more worrying.

Police searching Saddleworth Moor 
The facts here are that Brady and his accomplice Myra Hindley were convicted of the murder of five young children in the 1960s. However, they never revealed where the body of one of the victims was buried, and in spiite of regular police searches of the moorland where it is believed to be hidden, it has never been discovered. In this case, then, Brady allegedly revealed the location of the body to Powell, soemthing that was disclosed by Powell during the filing of a TV documentary, though she is claiming privilege and refuses to disclose the location to the police. While this is arguably preventing the lawful burial of the body, what appears to be happening here then is that the threat of the charge is being used to try and force Powell to disclose the location.

Grave robbers at work
The offence itself is an unusual one and, as is pointed out here, is rarely used. It is a common law offence which was apparently revived in the 1970s after years of desuetude, that seems to have been used where those under a duty to provide a burial, such as gaolers or workhouse masters evaded that duty. Its recent usage appears to be in cases where individuals have sought to conceal the body of someone who has died as a result of some sort of accident or misadventure. It is not immediately obvious why this should be a criminal offence. One justification might be the risk that a decomposing corpse might pose to public health - and this seems to underpin some statutory offences in this area, such as those relating to cremation, or simply the common law offence of leaving a corpse unburied. It seems that something hangs on the concealment - a failure to bring the death to the proper notice of the authorities, but absent concerns over health, this might be dealt with as an administrative offence under s.36 of the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953. In certain circumstances this could also be charged as obstruction of coroners, where the concealment is to prevent the discovery of a body or to prevent a coroner from carrying out an inquest. This can be justified on the grounds that this would prevent other alleged crimes from coming to light, but this does not appear to be the situation in either of the cases here.

However, as pointed out here, the inclusion in the crime definition of 'lawful and decent' burial, also points to more fundamental beliefs about bodies and their disposal - and, historically at least, the need to give a body a proper Christian burial and to prevent grave robbers passing bodies to hospitals. What is important then is not the fact of burial, but that it should be both lawful and decent, or perhaps more broadly that the corpse should be treated with proper respect. If this is accepted, then it appears that there might be room for an offence of this kind which can be justified on grounds distinct from public health, breach of an adminstrative duty or the concealment of another crime. However, it is not clear either that this should be a serious offence, nor that its use would be appropriate in either of the two cases discussed above.