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The Rule of Law - or Not as the Case may Be

Every so often, people claim to break the law for some larger moral purpose. We get a hubbub about the absolute need for respect for the law, and about the rule of law. Whatever the current topic, the question remains the same. 'Should one submit to an unjust law?'

I am a lawyer, and I believe in the rule of law. Without it, we descend into, well, anarchy, and then where would we, the lawyers, be? It is however a most serious topic. It is current for the activities of anti-GM activists, but arises regularly.

First, recognise that there are gradations and distinctions.

Some people will say that, for a particular given society, there is such overwhelming corruption, or any other deeply felt reason, that the entire legal system of the country should be ignored. There appears to be a rule of law, but the law is tyrannical. One can imagine for example trying to live a moral life in Hitler's Germany. Such situations are rare, thankfully unusual, but possible.

The second situation is where a particular law is felt to be quite immoral. An example here is the Salt Law in India which Ghandi sought to break in order to embarrass the British Government. Did he have the right to break the law - particularly as a lawyer?

A third situation is where a situation is felt to be such a grievous injustice that it must be remedied, and in the course of that remediation, one or two laws may need to be broken. This last is, or appears to be current GM crop damaging situation. It is also the most difficult. The situation is often unclear because the claim to right is often linked to what appears to be a potential justification in law. In a criminal damage case, the offence includes the assertion by the prosecution that there is no lawful authority to wreak such damage. The defendant then argues that, perhaps, there is some unlawfulness about the situation which either required immediate 'defence' of his own proprietory rights (the 'Tom Archer Defence'), that there is some other lawfully sufficient reason. In such cases the defendant is not claiming a right to break the law, but rather that a defence exists. He does not admit that the law is not actually being broken.

I believe in the primacy of conscience. Unless I do what my conscience tells me to do, I cannot be doing right. At the same time, I live in a society, and membership of that society is the submission by me to its rules, in order to reap the advantages of that society. How can the two be reconciled? It is easy. I can claim the right to break a law, through the demands of my conscience, because it is an unjust law, but if I do that, then I also accept the right of the society to inflict punishment upon me. If I do the crime, I must do the time. That readiness to accept the consequences of my actions, and the judgments of others, is what marks the conscience-driven law-breaker, the morally immoral, from the mere criminal. The assertion of a moral right to break the law can only make sense iin the context of an acceptance of a duty to accept that it is right for a society to punish me for breaking what I consider to be an unjust law.

Socrates knew that his actions were felt to be inimical to the society around him, that he was an irritant, and that in his understanding of the meaning of laws, that he was breaking them. That is why when he was convicted, he accepted the punishment with more good grace than one in a million could.

He refers to Socrates, who, he claims, preferred to die rather than to break the law. Much, he says can still be learned from Socrates. I am astonished that such a learned author should miss the entire point of Plato's piece. Plato puts Socrates in the position of breaking the law, but demonstrates his respect for the supremacy of the law, and that there need be no fundamental conflict.

Important: Please note that our law-bytes are retained for archival purposes only. The law changes, and these notes are often, now, out of date. You must take direct advice on your own personal situation and the law as it currently stands.
All information on this site is in general and summary form only. The content of any page on this site may be out of date and or incomplete, and you should not not rely directly upon it. Take direct professional legal advice which reflects your own particular situation.
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18 October 2013 205 18 October 2013