April 13, 2005

The End of the Rule of Law in Britain

The Rule of Law, that which has elevated out of the Hobbesian version of life being nasty, short, and brutish, has collapsed in England. I base this on anecdotal evidence, the best kind really. I find this truly shocking when you realize that England is the home to what we consider the start of real civil liberties.

So, before we dive in, let's consider for a moment what is meant by the Rule of Law ("RoL") and the role of the Government in that scheme. At its base, the RoL will preserve the security of private property, both from invasion from abroad and from invasion from within. The RoL will make sure that you are safe in your property -- safe from intruders, perhaps from fire, safe in your title to it as you are protected from false and adverse claims to your ownership, and safe and secure in your castle, as the old saying goes. At its base, without that assurance of security, your willingness to participate in society, and perhaps your ability to do so, is fatally compromised. How do I support that? Easy. If your overriding concern is protecting your property from threats, you have no time to do anything else -- to grow food, to vote, to travel to local markets, to worship with your neighbors, to do practically anything except stand guard. You pay for this protection through taxes levied on your property and that is a rather acceptable convention and compromise. The RoL is not free but you can expect, most of the time, it will work and it will work to preserve property and thus preserve the social order.

But what if it stops working? Let me posit the following scenario. You own a second home, a vacation home. You own it free and clear, no cloud on your title, no mortgage, no adverse claims to possession. You can do with it as you please, assuming no wet lands or town ordinances restricting you. It is walled completely by a 10 foot high brick wall. One weekend, going out to the place for a little relaxation, you discover that your house has been broken into to and taken over by a group of squatters who proclaim their intention to live there.

What do you do and what do you expect to be done?

* * * *

Didn't have to think for long, did you?

You'd invoke the basic protections of the RoL and call the police and tell them to get out here and expel the intruders, right? Of course you would.

And you'd expect the police to go ahead and do just that, right? Again, basically yes. It might be more complicated than that but somebody would get arrested and rehoused in jail and someone else might be handed off to social services and rehoused in a shelter, but you'd probably get your house back. The RoL would have been vindicated.

Anything shocking about this scenario to anyone?

Yes? Well, then, my guess is that you must live in England where a person's home is no longer a person's castle.

I just read a little piece in the property section of the Telegraph that impels the conclusion that England has withdrawn the forces of the Government from supporting the RoL. Apparently, in a factual situation practically identical to the one I posited, a family has been forced to rent the vacation house to the squatters at a rent of £1 a week and an agreement to vacate the premises on three months notice. No word on how or who can enforce the agreement to vacate.

But what prompted my little tirade here was the statement put out by the police, and it is no exaggeration to say I found it shocking (“travellers”, below, are basically squatters):

Inspector Martin Elliott, chairman of Thames Valley Police Federation, (0845 8505 505), comments: "The whole subject of travellers and the law in the UK is a complete mess. Legally, trespass is not a criminal offence but a civil tort. All of the public signs that herald that 'trespassers will be prosecuted' are therefore inaccurate, and should read 'trespassers may be subject to civil litigation'. Obviously, this does not carry the same punch and would probably deter no one.

"The Government attempted to strengthen the law in relation to invasions of land a number of years ago, and created legislation that basically required there to be more than 12 vehicles and the land-owner to demand that they quit within a reasonable time.

"Then, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister intervened and issued guidance to police forces and councils, which laid the grounds for a 'holistic' approach. This guidance suggests that a problem-solving approach is taken, with councils, police and land-owners working together to encourage travellers to either settle in a locality, or act more responsibly when moving around the UK.

"This is fine for large invasions of land, but what about when three or four vehicles turn up, as in this story? I would suggest that, in these circumstances, there is very little that the police can do."

Did you get that? Very little the police can do to enforce your right to occupy your property without interference.

As I started this post, I end it: The Rule of Law in England appears to be dead.

And by the way, I would think, as an aside, that this kind of thing should well and truly kill the secondary property market in England. After all, would you go to the trouble of buying a second house only to house some stranger? Not me, mate.

Posted by Random Penseur at April 13, 2005 09:26 AM

Small clarification-"travellers" are often indeed squatting on land, but that term itself refers specifically to an ethnic group of Eastern Europeans, also called gypsies. A 90-year-old white Englishman camping out on Prince Charles' estate might be a squatter, but he's not a traveller.

Posted by: Helen at April 13, 2005 11:42 AM

I'm not buying a summer home in England now, that's for sure!!!

(nyuk! like I could anyways)

Posted by: Oorgo at April 13, 2005 03:19 PM

Wow. That is simply unbelievable.

Are the laws different for nobility and royalty? Could I, like Helen mentioned, camp out on Charley's lawn with impunity? Something tells me that if I tried that I would end up either on my arse in the road or in a jail cell.

Posted by: Jim at April 15, 2005 12:19 PM
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