Review: Legal essays of a high standard

Review: Legal essays of a high standard

This book, part of the series “Studies in International & Comparative Criminal Law”, contains 17 essays, by authors, both national and international in honour of Ralph Henham, who for many years was on the staff of Nottingham Trent University and was a professor there from 1998 until retirement in 2015. The editor is a reader in international law at the University of Edinburgh.

The challenges which these essays address come under three broad headings (i) criminal law as a regulatory mechanism, which includes the issue whether we need a particular piece of legislation. (MPs and MSPs take note); (ii) criminal law and its relation to morality – which is not a fixed concept – and (iii) criminal law and discrimination which involves creating a “them” and “us”, “them” being criminalised.

The book is in five parts, the first “Introduction and Foundations” (four essays) examining, for example, the concept of crime in a transnational perspective; the second “Domestic and Comparative Criminal Justice” (five essays) looking e.g. at the crime of murder, its definition and mandatory life sentences; the third “International Criminal Justice” (five essays) which include two on genocide, but from different perspectives, and an insight into The International Court of Justice; the fourth “Transnational Criminal Justice (two essays) one on terrorism and the other on a world criminal code; and the fifth “Concluding Thoughts” (one essay which is entitled “Criminal Justice in an Age of Uncertainty”).

Dipping into the book, there are several references to legislation on which there has been inadequate time allocated to MPs for discussion, and one example is the Criminal Justice Bill which became an Act in 2003 (Paras. 4.2 and 4.03). The bill dealt, among other things, with mandatory life sentences and it is clear from this book and other writings that the then Home Secretary was determined to get “his” bill passed and in so doing, dismissed observations made by the Lord Chief Justice, and no doubt others.

This approach highlights relates to what is said by another author at para. 2.2 on the issue of criminal law and morality and that is that members of parliaments should be aware that the public can, if so minded, disregard what the law might say. For example, Lord Melchett and Clive Ponting were both acquitted by juries, because the juries did not approve of their being convicted. In some cases more debate might highlight problems which are then left to the courts to decide, but they are not because those in power have convinced themselves that they are “right” and that the proposed legislation leaves not room for debate. The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act which has just come into force is a good example where the person who introduced the bill tells the public what it means, and brooks no criticism of it!

A subject which is very topical in Scotland at present is assisted dying, which in the book is dealt with under “mercy-killing”. Defining “murder” is now with the Scottish Law Commission. It is clear that even if the act of homicide is within the definition of “murder”, juries may be willing to convict only of culpable homicide or manslaughter, leaving the judge with a discretion not available where the conviction is for murder. An exercise in (re)defining “murder” must accommodate “mercy-killing”.

These essays are of a very high standard and a tribute to the person in whose honour they are produced. As is clear from the chapter-headings, they are wide-ranging and one has to admire someone who, for example tackles the topic of a world criminal code. One also admires the editor who in the “Concluding Thoughts” chapter attempts with a considerable measure of success to summarise and connect the disparate contributions.

It would be stretching matters to suggest that lay people and indeed lawyers will rush to buy this book. That said, the authors are to be congratulated on tackling difficult and in many instances, highly-controversial topics, but in a very readable fashion. Well done, all.

Contemporary Challenges to Criminal Justice, edited by Paul Behrens. Published by MacMillan, 464pp, £90.

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