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A Confusion of Tongues

Theodore Dalrymple

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Acting recently as an expert witness in a murder trial, I became aware of a small legal problem caused by the increasingly multicultural nature of our society. According to English law, a man is guilty of murder if he kills someone with the intention either to kill or to injure seriously. But he is guilty of the lesser crime of manslaughter if he has been sufficiently provoked or if his state of mind at the time was abnormal enough to reduce his responsibility. The legal test here is a comparison with the supposedly ordinary man— the man on the Clapham omnibus, as the legal cliché has it. Would that ordinary person feel provoked under similar circumstances? Was the accused’s state of mind at the time of the killing very different from that of an average man?

But who is that ordinary man nowadays, now that he might come from any of a hundred countries? The accused in this instance was a foreign-born Sikh who had married, and killed, a native-born woman of the same minority. The defense argued— unsuccessfully— that an ordinary man of the defendant’s traditional culture would have found the wife’s repeated infidelity particularly wounding and would therefore have acted in the same way.

For now, the courts have rejected this line of argument: though, by coincidence, the case took place the same week that the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, suggested that adopting part of Islamic sharia as the law of the land “seemed unavoidable” and that people in a multicultural society like Britain should be able to choose the legal jurisdiction under which they lived. In contradistinction to such views, it was encouraging to see in the jury a man from a different minority group, one traditionally hostile to that of the accused. The right to challenge jurors without giving a reason, which in the past would have removed this man, has been curtailed in recent years because of a juror shortage. This is just as well, since the right undermines the jury system’s whole justification: that ordinary men, of whatever background, can suspend their prejudices and judge their peers by the evidence alone.

Read the entire article on the City Journal website (new window will open).

Posted: 06-Jul-08



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