During the last week two legal stories emerged, both of which sound terrible, and in respect of each there was much frantic and horrified social media activity.
The first was the predicament of Stephen Neary, which was raised powerfully on the blog of the highly-regarded Anna Raccoon.
Quite quickly after she posted there were dozens of invitations to support the campaign to release Stephen Neary and to publicise the situation.
But what concerned me, even as someone ready to call out abuses of power, was that the information provided was one-sided. Although it is clearly a case which prompts serious attention, it also remained one where further information would be needed before reacting with passion and trumpeting a cause.
Even the two excellent legal bloggers Charon QC and Obiter J who have so far covered this have had to be cautious. Charon QC is alarmed but he carefully notes that he has had to rely on one version of events, whilst Obiter J only goes so far to say attention should be drawn to "the case which appears to be extremely unsatisfactory" (emphasis added).
This caution is completely right.
There is nothing wrong whatsoever with campaigners emphasising perceived injustices (I do it myself) and there is nothing exceptional in having to base a piece only on the information available (I do this as well). But it is important also for those whose attention is sought and obtained by such stories to realise that there can be other sides to a startling matter and that the information provided can be incomplete.
Sometimes getting further information can make apparent injustices seem even worse. For example, it was only when the CPS were probed about why they were using the section 127 offence that the scale of the injustice, based on (in my view) a unacceptable misunderstanding of the applicable law, became apparent.
Alternatively, closer examination of a story makes the media version of a story seem simplistic and sometimes misleading. To my mind, this is what happened when this blog (especially its commenters) looked at the cases of Paul Clarke (the shotgun case) and Gary McKinnon.
And so when another "Bad Law" story (a story which is explicable by either the misuse of law or the misrepresentation of a legally-related matter) appeared yesterday about a 12-year old visited at a school by a police officer in respect of a planned demonstration, my instinctive reaction again was caution.
The report is in the Guardian and has already had an excellent and largely-balanced blogpost by Late for a Lawschool.
What struck me was that the emotive force of the story was based mainly on taking the boy's reported account at face value and disregarding the police explanation. This is not to call the boy a potential liar, for there are many reasons why such a source may need corraboration or simple checking that he was quoted properly.
If the police visit was by an appointed schools officer, and if the conversation took place before a senior member of teaching staff in accordance to the police account, then there perhaps is little to get too upset about. In some ways, such a pro-active police approach to a planned demonstration is preferable to no prior police involvement at all. I don't even see the need for a parent to be present if the police account is correct that this was an appointed schools officer giving merely the advisory talk as described.
I am always quite ready to take a hostile view of police conduct, and I even believe that certain police misconduct is systemic, but even the police are not always in the wrong on every matter.
In the case of this particular school visit, it obviously went rather badly and the reaction of the child and the mother is emphatic. But here are two versions to what happened and unless the head of year also present gives an account of the conversation, there is the plausible possibility that the police version may indeed be correct.
The law can be an ass, and it often is.
But legal matters can also be misreported and misunderstood.
So should they be ignored?
No. But such stories call for a critical rather than a quietist response: to look at the sources used and what their limitations may be before yelping "what the fuck" and shaking ones head in disgust.
For, just as Ben Goldacre and the Bad Science bloggers have repeatedly shown with sensationalist misreporting and misrepresentations of science matters, in "Bad Law" stories "it may be a bit more complicated than that".
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