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Law and disorder

Charles Dickens's creation Mr Bumble, the beadle, expressed a viewpoint that in light of some recent legal shenanigans seems appropriate. “If the law supposes that”, said Mr Bumble, “. . . the law is a ass – a idiot.”

“An Arkansas court ruled yesterday that an insane prisoner on death row could be executed – as long as he was given enough anti-psychotic drugs beforehand to make him sane enough to qualify for the death penalty” (Times, 12 February). Before anyone assumes that these bizarre judgments are peculiar to the United States let us have a look at what is going on nearer home. Here, for instance, is a recent example of the magnificence of British law.

The High Court's recent recognition that the working class still exists (“Earl becomes working class hero” (Independent, 22 February) is an important revision of an earlier view. Politicians, economists, and social scientists should sit up and take note.

During the case, of course, there was no doubt about who was a member of the owning class. Charles Gerald John, 8th Earl of Cadogan, who had brought the case was the possessor of a fortune estimated to be £1.3 billion and estates covering 90 acres of central London. In his judgment Mr Justice Etherton proclaimed: “I am satisfied that there is a sufficient number of people who in present times would undoubtedly fall within the expression 'the working classes'”.

It took the learned gentleman 43 pages to arrive at the conclusion that we exist. It is always nice to know you exist, especially when a High Court judge tells you so. Presumably the Justice Etherton in his compilation of the 43-page judgment must have used paper and ink, sat at a desk, worn clothes and occasionally had something to eat and drink. Who do you think produced all of those things?.

Fifty years ago the Court of Appeal ruled that the working class had ceased to exist. Lord Justice Denning asserted in a 1955 judgment that people who “in the old days” would have been members of the working class had percolated into other social groups. The recent High Court judgment views economic class as a less amorphous and subjectively matter. Economic class is not governed by how you hold your cutlery, your accent, or being privileged to have an employment contract that gives you the right to a month's notice rather than a week's. Even after the latest court decision, though, one problem remains.

Between 1955 and 2003, quite who, in law, was building all the houses, making all the roads and railways, running the trains, extracting energy from nature, producing and distributing food and drink, driving buses, teaching, policing, putting out fires, and even doing the thousands of David Brent jobs in all the offices? In law it could not have been members of the working class as they did not technically exist. Another legal mystery.

A bit like, when are you sane enough to be executed? Should we set up a judicial committee?

Of course the Law isn't like Bumble imagined it or even as Shakespeare satirised it: “First we kill all the lawyers.” The law is an instrument of the owning class, that pretends to be for everyone, but is only for the rich. Dickens and Shakespeare got it wrong. Anatole France knew better, writing of “the majestic egalitarianism of the law, which forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” The law isn't an ass. It's an instrument of class domination. And a very powerful instrument at that.