The troubling rise of ‘apostrophe laws’

The problem with ‘apostrophe laws’

16 July 2022

9:00 AM

16 July 2022

9:00 AM

Two new measures, aimed at toughening the justice system, came into force last month. The first, known as Tony’s Law, enables the courts to impose a life sentence on anyone who causes or allows the death of a child or vulnerable adult in their care, while the maximum term for cruelty that leads to serious physical harm has been raised from ten to 14 years. The law’s title is a tribute to Tony Hudgell, a remarkably determined eight-year-old boy who, when he was a baby, was so badly abused by his parents, Jody Simpson and Tony Smith, that both his legs had to be amputated. Angry that these torturers were only sentenced to ten years each, the family who adopted Tony led the campaign for longer punishments and, partly due to Tony’s heroism, they achieved their goal.

Tony’s Law was accompanied by Harper’s Law, which imposes mandatory life sentences on the killers of frontline emergency workers. Named after PC Andrew Harper, who was killed by three thugs while he investigated a burglary in August 2019, the measure was the result of a powerful campaign by his widow Lissie and much of the tabloid press. ‘I know without hesitation that my husband would have been immensely proud of this achievement in his name,’ she said on the enactment of the law last week.

There can be little dispute about the worthiness of these causes, but the measures reflect a growing fashion for new laws to be named after high-profile victims. Increasingly, legislation is treated as a personalised form of commemoration, where the instinctive response to many tragic or emotive cases is not just to express sympathy but to press for statutory change. This practice started in the USA, where it is sometimes known as ‘apostrophe law’, and is now becoming ever more common here.

After the killing of the much-loved Southend MP Sir David Amess last October there were calls to commemorate his life of service by the introduction of legislation to tackle online abuse of public figures. This proposed measure, known as David’s Law, would end anonymity for users of social media and the internet, making it easier to identify the peddlers of vitriol.

David’s Law has yet to make any progress, and many campaigners have expressed alarm at its implications for free speech and the role of whistle-blowers. But others are only too keen on this kind of online policing. So a crackdown against trolling is proposed by supporters of Zach’s Law, led by the mother of Zach Eagling, a boy with cerebral palsy, after he endured serial online abuse as he undertook a fundraising walk for the Epilepsy Society in his garden. Already on the statute book is Max and Keira’s Law, under which consent for organ donations is presumed unless people have specifically opted-out. The joint title is in honour of Max Johnson, a nine-year-old who in 2017 was saved by the heart of Keira Ball, also nine, after she died in a car crash.

While admiring the sincerity and energy of campaigners, it is legitimate to feel concern about this pattern. After all, justice is meant to be rational and objective, yet the enthusiasm for heart-tugging nomenclature introduces a huge element of sentimentality into the legal system. It smacks of using the statute book as a type of grief counselling and trauma therapy. However honourable the motives behind them, many of these new laws are not necessary but are a kind of gesture politics designed to send a message. Without new apostrophe laws, the courts can already give whole-life terms to police or child killers. Nor do judges need a Scott’s Law or Damian’s Law – both measures advocated by the bereaved relatives of victims – to deal with knife offenders.

The impulse to memorialise a loved one by legislative change often involves an extension of state bureaucracy and regulation. With its proposed limits on working hours and requirement to publish accident data, that spirit lies behind the calls for Rowan’s Law, named after seven-year-old Rowan Fitzgerald from Coventry who was killed in a bus crash in 2015. The family of Martyn Hett, a victim of the 2017 Manchester bombing, is seeking the implementation of Martyn’s Law to impose a raft of new statutory duties in the provision of security at large venues, including training, risk assessments, checks and planning. Meanwhile, the parents of Charlotte Brown, killed in 2015 in the crash of a speedboat driven recklessly by its owner, are campaigning for Charlotte’s Law to improve safety on waterways, with drink-drive limits, compulsory wearing of life-jackets and speed restrictions.

The emotions behind apostrophe laws might be understandable, but what makes this eagerness for legislative memorials so extraordinary is its naivety. It seems to be infused with the belief that more laws are the answer to society’s ills. But legislation is no panacea. We are already drowning in laws, regulations, statutory instruments, guidelines and executive orders, overseen by a sprawling network of agencies and authorities. In the field of crime, the real problem is not the absence of legislation but the lack of moral confidence from the state to uphold existing laws and punish offenders. According to official figures, almost half of repeat knife offenders avoided jail last year despite the introduction of supposedly mandatory prison sentences for those caught in possession of a blade for a second time. Indeed, just 7 per cent of all crimes in England end up being prosecuted, making a nonsense of the law.

The same is true of the misguided theory that changes in the law will improve the performance of public institutions, when it is a change in the culture that is needed. Legislation will not make any difference to outdated working practices, low productivity, poor management and the dominance of producer-led vested interests across the public sector.

The vanity of parliamentarians is stoked by this resort to personalised laws, when they can appear as allies of the bereaved and champions of compassion. One study in the USA found half of bills previously rejected by Congress were passed if the name of a victim was attached to them. Britain now appears to be heading down the same road.

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