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.

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14 comments

New post: In support of equality before the law, and of David Laws http://bit.ly/l6Oy3y

by Stephen Tall on May 16, 2011 at 9:55 am. Reply #

RT @stephentall: New post: In support of equality before the law, and of David Laws http://bit.ly/l6Oy3y

by Max Atkinson on May 16, 2011 at 10:01 am. Reply #

RT @stephentall New post: In support of equality before the law, and of David Laws http://bit.ly/l6Oy3y

by HouseofTwitsLib on May 16, 2011 at 10:10 am. Reply #

RT @stephentall New post: In support of equality before the law, and of David Laws http://bit.ly/l6Oy3y

by House Of Twits on May 16, 2011 at 10:10 am. Reply #

RT @stephentall: New post: In support of equality before the law, and of David Laws http://bit.ly/l6Oy3y

by Madmogs on May 16, 2011 at 10:17 am. Reply #

V. sensible & accurate post –> RT @stephentall: New post: In support of equality before the law, and of David Laws http://bit.ly/l6Oy3y

by Stace on May 16, 2011 at 10:20 am. Reply #

Oh, wait… “He immediately repaid” is not good enough. That’s redress of harm, not avoidance of harm. I don’t think that his claim caused any harm, but your line of reasoning is completely flawed.

by Ian Eiloart on May 16, 2011 at 10:20 am. Reply #

Can’t agree with everything you are saying here, despite my admiration of the work of David Laws.

He was guilty of deception, and whether or not he could have claimed more and didn’t is irrelevant.

Imagine a similar scenario, someone on a welfare benefit having claimed similar amounts to Mr Laws, for similar reasons. I think you’d find, whether they’d repaid the funds or not, a judge, the press and more importantly the tax paying public would have not been satisfied with anything less than a custodial sentence.

by Dawn Willis on May 16, 2011 at 10:29 am. Reply #

Dawn,

I don’t think the welfare benefit example is the right comparison. What the Parliamentary Commissioner found is that David Laws should have changed his Somerset home to be his main home in 2004/05 (because he was spending more nights there from 2004/05 onwards) — but the Inquiry concluded that the consequence of this was that David should have claimed more money in expenses than he did – almost £30,000 more over 2004-2010.

If someone had been claiming for welfare benefit, and it was subsequently discovered that they were in fact entitled to a higher rate of benefit, they would most likely be paid the difference.

by Stephen Tall on May 16, 2011 at 1:36 pm. Reply #

If we want justice to be truly blind, then it needs to be available to the poor and vulnerable as well as the rich. Yet our Government is proposing to abolish most civil legal aid, and a Bill will be brought forward to do this next month – this funding does not support high cost lawyers etc, rather it funds free low cost advice delivered in communities by CABx and law centres on complex social welfare legal matters such as benefit appeals, issues with dodgy landlords, sharp practice by creditors etc.

Yes, equality before the law ia a liberal maxim, but if our MPs support this Bill, then it will be no more..

see http://www.justice-for-all.org.uk

by James on May 16, 2011 at 2:36 pm. Reply #

[…] clear that he accepted the motivation had been maintaining privacy and not financial benefit. As I commented back then: Quite simply, this was a man who went to extraordinary, and wrong-headed, lengths to […]

by David Laws set for ministerial return in autumn? on August 6, 2011 at 2:55 pm. Reply #

New from me > In support of equality before the law, and of David Laws http://t.co/ULczzxX1

by Stephen Tall on September 4, 2012 at 6:58 am. Reply #

New from me > In support of equality before the law, and of David Laws http://t.co/HY85gbwv

by Stephen Tall on September 4, 2012 at 9:58 am. Reply #

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