The Freemen, law blogging, and the public understanding of law

David Allen Green, media correspondent of The Lawyer, on what the legal blogging about the Freemen of the Land really tells us.

Many leading legal bloggers have had brutal fun recently with the “Freemen of the Land”.  And rightly so, as this phenomenon is, of course, quite barmy and potentially dangerous. We had such outstanding bloggers as Adam Wagner , Legal Bizzle andCarl Gardner all take aim and shoot the Freemen cod-fish in their cod-legal barrel.

There is perhaps little which can be added to this impressive show of legal blogging fire power.  The Freemen of the Land may as well not be talking about the law for all their mumbo-jumbo.  They are to the good understanding of law as homeopaths are to medicine or zodiac-mongers are to astronomy.  

The superficial plausibility of the Freemen jargon is simply disconnected from any actual knowledge or useful insight.  Insofar as they seek to make others rely to their detriment on such woo-woo, and to the extent that they seek to disrupt legal proceedings, it is right and proper for the supposed “Freemen” to be exposed, ridiculed, and condemned.

However, there are a couple of wider points which also need to be made.  First, it is not really fair for the Freemen to be depicted lazily as the legal wing of the “Occupy LSX” protest.  Indeed, the Freemen are just one of many groups drawn to this extraordinary demonstration of general disdain at the ways of the world.  A better insight into the legal issues triggered by the protest is the barrister and protester Scrapper Duncan, who has himself written a devastating critique of the Freemen.

Indeed, it could be fairly said that in respect of “Occupy LSX” it is others, such as the clergy at St Paul’s Cathedral over “health and safety”, that have shown a weaker grasp of the law than the protesters as a whole.

Second, as with alternative medicine and astrology, a belief in woo-woo often serves as an index of the failure of the relevant discipline or profession to explain things well to members of the public.  That any intelligent and open-minded person can even be attracted to the “Freemen” is a sad indication that the way the law works is not as widely understood as it should be.  Knaves and fools are always with us; it is only what they are allowed to get away with which can vary from time to time, and that is the responsibility of others.

One of the reasons why there is so much injustice and abuse of power in this country is that people in weaker positions than those they face invariably have limited or no grasp of their legal rights and remedies, and – increasingly– limited or no access to any professional person who will help them assert their rights and obtain their remedies.

And none of this is the direct fault of various legal woo-woos, or of the other charlatans who hawk spurious“legal advisory” services, as dreadful as such individuals are.  It is more the responsibility of the civil and criminal justice systems, the structure of the legal profession, and the allocation of public funds.  Ultimately, it is the fault of the law itself: what should be a straightforward matter for any citizen is cloaked in obscurity and riddled with menace.  If the law of England and Wales was a creature, only a brave person would prod it with a stick.

This is why the selfless work by legal bloggers on the Freemen and many other things is always so valuable. As Ben Goldacre recently said: “pulling bad science apart is the best teaching gimmick I know for explaining how good science works”.

 The same can be claimed for pulling “bad law” apart. It is not open to many to change or subvert the legal system, but legal bloggers – and podcasters and tweeters – can help promote the public understanding of law, to make it less scary and more approachable. And with a better public understanding of“good law”, then amongst other things the quacks and the witch-doctors on the margins of the legal world will – at a stroke – become less of a public danger.

By David Allen Green, Media Correspondent of The Lawyer