Friday, 28 September 2012

On Not Jumping to Conclusions - and Why It Matters To Us All

I have been fascinated by the very mixed reactions to the current media narrative of one single couple during the last week. I refer of course to Megan Stammers and Jeremy Forrest. This mixture has included everything from "lock him up and throw away the keys!" to "good luck to them!". As to the bare bones of the narrative, the BBC has usefully outlined the key events in the timeline.

As well as noting the very mixed public reaction, I have been trying to form an opinion of my own. I may as well say that I don't believe that we always have "a right to an opinion", though this phrase is often used (usually with a hurt tone of voice) in many an argument. It seems to me that we should be slow - treacle-slow - in forming an opinion, especially with such emotive matters. Surely, if we want to have a "right to an opinion" we ought to make some sort of serious effort to dig beneath the surface of the media blarings and try to sift out the facts.

The facts in the public domain this matter are scarce. Megan Stammers is below the age of consent in the UK. Jeremy Forrest was a married man of 30 and a teacher at Miss Stammers' school, the Bishop Bell School in Eastbourne. People in positions of trust, such as teachers, health workers, youth leaders, must not attempt, or form, a sexual relationship with those in their care in a number of situations, even if the person in their care is over the general age of consent, or even if so, the persons in their care are vulnerable. The school was graded "outstanding" in the area, inter alia, of "safeguarding" in an Ofsted report of 2010. The pair left the country on a Dover to Calais ferry at 21.20 on Thursday 20th September. They have now, thankfully, both been found safe and well in Bordeaux, and Mr Forrest has been arrested on suspicion of child abduction.

These are the "hard" facts. There is other relevant evidence, not so easily verifiable to the public, such as the reports of hand-holding on planes, exchanges of text messages and so on. I do not intend to discuss such things, because they are really not my business and I have no way of checking whether they are true, not true at all, or recollections more appropriately examined in any future legal proceedings. I suggest that we should step way back and leave things alone for the time being. Mr Forrest has rights which we should all hold precious. Rights which may help us all one day.

Let's leave Miss Stammers and Mr Forrest out of it altogether. Things must have been immensely difficult over the last week for all immediately concerned.

Let's return to the fact of the mixed public reactions and opinions on this sort of story.

The problem is that human emotions and behaviour are scalable. The law is not. This is essentially why no law can ever be perfect for all cases, and why English Common Law is such a sound idea in principle. In any criminal case there is a binary outcome: guilty, or not guilty. You either did it, or you didn't. Never mind why. Never mind mitigating or aggravating circumstances. Never mind the impossibility of defining such material emotions in criminal cases such as "love", "fear", "hate", "fury", "loyalty", "pity", and so on. It's tough enough to define these words in any debate, let alone one where a person's liberty and reputation may depend on the outcome. That is why good and wise judges are so vital.

It's exactly the so-called "grey" boundary layers of any law that may well be causing such a mix of emotions I referred to. It may be that the statutes involved need to be amended. It may be that they don't.

I've heard a lot of toxic nonsense in the past week - from both "sides".

It seems to me that the truly civilised and humane reaction is to say, "I just don't know enough. This story should make us think. This story should make us realise that, because we are human, we need to think very intelligently about the law and its application - and to realise that gut reactions make lousy laws."

I declare now that, about this particular matter, I have no opinion and have no right to an opinion.

How about you?

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