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Bad Laws Undermine the Rule of Law

Bad Laws Undermine the Rule of Law

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On 1st October 2015, The Smoke-free (Private Vehicles) Regulations 2015 made it illegal to smoke in cars with children onboard. On the face of it, this appeared to be a good law; everyone can agree that exposing innocent children to harmful chemicals is not a good thing. Yet, in the first year since the legislation was passed, there was only one fine- this is a major red flag, as it signifies that the law is unenforceable. Perhaps what is worse, is not that the law is effectively irrelevant if unenforceable (there are many irrelevant laws — it is illegal to ‘handle a salmon in suspicious circumstances’), but that where it has been enforced, either via warnings or fines, it has not been done universally. Of all six warnings in the first three months, four were from Dyfed Powys Police, and two were from London's Metropolitan Police. Of course, this does not mean the citizens of Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire and The City of London have an unrivalled tendency to smoke with kids in the car. Instead, it means this law impedes the rule of law. In fact, any law that could, by and large, act as a catalyst to arbitrary exercise of power by our police force or courts, is a bad law.

According to this argument, however, laws against speeding are bad; piracy laws are bad; laws against the use of fake ID by teenagers are bad. If all laws that are impossible to enforce in most circumstances were repealed, anarchy would surely ensue. Yet, there is a key difference between these laws and the one outlawing smoking with children in the car. There is an undefined scope of illegality when it comes to speeding, piracy and the use of fake identification which relies on police judgement. A 90mph street race in a 30mph zone is quite different from a husband speeding his pregnant wife to the hospital. Similarly, hosting a torrenting website with potentially billions of pounds worth of copyrighted material uploaded does not compare to downloading a song from YouTube using a third-party website. Nor can a seventeen-year-old trying to get a few drinks with his friends a week before his eighteenth, be considered equally as wrongful as somebody using an illegitimate passport to unlawfully gain entry to the UK. When it comes to smoking in cars with kids, however, there is no grey area. The law is technically well-defined, yet it goes unenforced.

Laws like these have become more frequent due to the rise of the ‘nanny state’ — just last week the South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Dr. Alan Billings adopted the slogan ‘Hate Hurts’ and urged the public to report offensive insults on social media that hurt feelings, despite not being illegal. In a time when the police are already sufficiently out of their depth in dealing with major crimes (according to The Times, only 9.1 per cent of recorded violent crime led to a charge in 2017), in which it is commonplace for police forces to side-line drug charges and to discount laws such as the 2015 Smoke Regulation law; it seems absurd to ask the Police force to handle complaints from offended Twitter users — yet the aforementioned Labour commissioner continues to defend his view.

This is a microcosm of a larger trend that could lead to a new era of bad laws that infringe upon personal choice and undermine the rule of law, especially under a Labour government, who have consistently advocated a stance for greater state-intervention and have more recently developed a tendency to pander to the pious liberal horde. If the law is to be continually respected and upheld in this country, it requires greater care from legislators, so as not to create laws that are ineffective, unenforceable or downright unnecessary.

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