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January 10, 2014

Should legal sanctions be used against annoying people?

This week peers voted against the government’s new definition of anti-social behaviour – conduct capable of causing nuisance and annoyance.  With my other hat on (Chair of the Standing Committee for Youth Justice) I have been campaigning against many aspects of this bill for over a year.   We were really worried about the definition, since teenagers are particularly likely to be found annoying.  The bill says an injunction can be imposed on the balance of probabilities if “just and convenient”.  The reasons given for bringing in the new definition and a lower standard of proof were that it would make it easier and quicker to get an injunction.  This implies that the process was too slow in the past, but maybe safeguarding liberty cannot and should not be done quickly.  These new injunctions can impose quite stringent conditions on people as young as ten, including restrictions on where they can go and who they socialise with.  If those restrictions are breached, children as young as 14 can be imprisoned as punishment.  Given these potential restrictions on liberty, no legal process should be so quick that the evidence is not examined properly and reports considered on the background and vulnerability of the allegedly annoying person.  We gained a small victory in the Lords, which may still be overturned in the Commons, but the emphasis in the bill is still on speedy justice rather than on measured but fair justice, and I fear a number of miscarriages will result.