In support of equality before the law, and of David Laws

by Stephen Tall on May 16, 2011

Equality before the law is a pretty fundamental liberal maxim. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’ve come from, what you do: Lady Justice should always be blind.

Last week, the Sentencing Council for England and Wales began a three-month consultation to find out what the public’s views are of sentences handed down to convicted burglars. I was struck by this quote from Council chairman Lord Justice Leveson:

“We advise, consistent with the law, that judges should consider harm and culpability: greater harm and greater culpability always jail, but lesser harm and lesser culpability, not necessarily.”

Harm and culpability: what hurt have you caused, and how much are you to blame? They seem fair enough criteria to me.

So let’s allow for equality before the law and apply them to the case of David Laws, the former Lib Dem cabinet minister who resigned last year when it came to light that he’d claimed housing expenses when living with his male partner.

What harm did Mr Laws’ mistakes cause? None. He immediately repaid to the public purse all the claims open to question, as recognised by the Parliamentary Commmissioner’s inquiry into his case:

“It is to Mr. Laws’ considerable and personal credit that, when his living arrangements came to public attention in May 2010, he immediately and publicly accepted that his claims from July 2006 had not been above reproach … resigned from the Cabinet … made early repayment of £56,592 … making no allowance for the fact that, had he arranged matters differently, he could legitimately have claimed for overnight stays away from his main home.” (Paragraph 324)

What culpability is attached to Mr Laws for his mistakes? He’s admitted the errors, and taken responsibility for them. Yet it’s clear, maybe even to his most vitriolic critics, that his motivation was not greed. If it were greed, then he was pretty incompetent, foregoing an estimated £30k of claims he could’ve made:

“We also recognise the fact that if he had been more open Mr Laws would have made substantial legitimate claims against his Somerset property.” (Paragraph 36)

So why did he do it? That, too, is evident to anyone prepared to look at the case objectively:

“I have no reason to doubt that Mr. Laws’ primary motivation was to keep secret the sexuality that he had hidden” (Also Paragraph 325)

If we are to judge Mr Laws’ case, then, in the same way that other cases are judged he can largely be absolved both on grounds of harm and of culpability.

Quite simply, this was a man who went to extraordinary, and wrong-headed, lengths to protect his privacy. And in doing so, incidentally, saved taxpayers tens of thousands of pounds.

If justice truly is blind, then David Laws will be rightly restored to government before long.