The American way is not for the UK
21 January 1997
Americanisation. Why do we have to have it thrust down our throats? Especially Americanisation of the law.
The UK government attacked the French for trying to protect the European film industry and European culture - yet our children are so exposed to US television and films they are more familiar with the topography of North America than of the UK, certainly of our European neighbours. To be sure, they know more about the US justice system than our own.
This US cultural imperialism is not so much the result of the fulfilment of specific governmental policy objectives but the consequence of the market economy which the Americans have done so much to help us to love. What is so much more distressing is the tireless advocacy of North American solutions to British problems.
State education, a political football for years, is to have US methods foist upon it (although our "public" schools will escape them). Errant youngsters are to be sent to US-style "boot camps". Tagging, privately owned prisons, and a vast array of US punishments are being incorporated into our criminal justice system. This, in spite of the fact as far as crime and punishment go the US is a disaster area. Only yesterday I read that London last year had 144 murders compared with more than 1,000 in New York. Why are we bringing their system here?
We do not get the other parts of the American justice system, though. No written constitution. No protection against entrapment. No more right to silence. No Freedom of Information Act.
Instead we get the Police Bill which authorises the police to bug premises across the UK in a way which would not be tolerated in the US.
UK lawyers (and UK citizens) now face the dismantlement of legal aid. In its place, straight from the US, are contingency fees which compromise barristers' independence and give them a financial interest in settlement. But we do not get the US quantum of damages to offset the burden of the extra fees to the winning client.
It is not just the Conservative party that advocates American imports. Much is now supported by New Labour, such as "zero tolerance". New Labour is committed to one legal import of its own: balloting for trade union recognition by employers in the workplace.
There's nothing wrong with recognition - derecognition is a blight on British industrial relations - but recognition litigation has done more for lawyers in the US than it ever has for workers. Every issue from bargaining constituency to entitlement to vote is canvassed in every court from the National Labour Relations Board to the Supreme Court - with consequential costs and delay.
Wouldn't a simpler solution be to allow every employee the right to representation by the union of his or her choice - or by no union? Or look to some of our European neighbours where recognition disputes are as rare as hen's teeth.
It is not just specialist lawyers who are affected by the wave of US imports. Judicial assistants are to be appointed for the UK's Court of Appeal judges to weed out unmeritorious appeals. Unlike our Lords Justices, they will not be judicially trained or practised but instead will be young lawyers with next to no experience of the law or advocacy. Does anyone seriously think this is a good idea?
In the Court of Appeal, written US-style "briefs" are to be substituted for the advocacy for which our courts are famed and which is central to the culture of our judicial system. Oral submissions will be strictly limited in time - half an hour has been mooted. Justice will no longer be seen to be done - it will move to the privacy of the judge's reading room.
No system of justice in the world is perfect. The British system has deep flaws. But destroying the best bits of it and substituting the worst of an alien and failed system mocked and scorned by the very films which proselytise it across the globe, is madness.
Let's find UK solutions to UK problems within our European civilisation - our European Court of Justice and our European Court of Human Rights.