Ancient and modern

Ched Evans: law vs people power

By Athenian standards, our justice system has a democratic deficit. But public opinion has ways of closing the gap

17 January 2015

9:00 AM

17 January 2015

9:00 AM

‘This was the rule for men that Zeus established: whereas fish, beasts and birds eat each other, since there is no law among them, to men he gave law, which is by far the best thing’ (the Greek farmer-poet Hesiod, 7th century bc). Given the hostile reaction to the convicted rapist Ched Evans’s desire to return to his job as a footballer after serving his sentence, one wonders whether the fish, beasts and birds might not be on to something.

The 4th century bc statesman and orator Demosthenes pursued Hesiod’s line of thought when he said, ‘If laws are abolished and each individual is given powers to do what he likes, not only does our communal organisation vanish but our very life would be in no way different from that of animals.’ That was what he feared. The Athenian ‘judiciary’ consisted of the very Athenians who both made the laws in the democratic Assembly and then as jurors in the courts passed judgement on defendants, without guidance from judges, barristers or clerks. That was real people-power, but it meant they could make it up as they went along, if they wanted to.

This relative insouciance about legal process emerges in a number of court cases, where it is clear that the speeches on both sides often seemed to be answering not the question ‘What wrong, if any, has been done, and by and to whom?’ but ‘What do we want to do about this person, whatever (s)he has or has not done?’

By Athenian standards, then, our system suffers from a serious democratic deficit that no Athenian would have accepted: we believe in an independent judiciary which respects the law, not public opinion. But as the Ched Evans case demonstrates, that deficit is made up when the law has had its say, and the twittocracy in all its self-righteous fury is unleashed. The result is that Evans, having committed a rape for which he was duly punished, is being yet further punished, as if we were living under an Athenian, not English, system. Well, we are a free country. So be it. One idly wonders what will happen if he wins his appeal.

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