Gibraltar’s Justice Minister, Daniel Feetham, recently published the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Bill 2011. Whilst it is a document for the legal purists my attention was captured by the minister’s intention to introduce Asbos – antisocial behaviour orders - to the Rock.
I asked a Gibraltar lawyer what he thought of the proposals in the bill and received a glazed eye look in reply. The inference was there is more to life than reading such documents. This left me shocked as I naively believed that is what lawyers do. As a mere hack I presumed Daniel Feetham had waved around some A4 sheets which were “the bill”. It was only when I accessed the lengthy Criminal Procedure and Evidence Bill 2011 for myself that I realised what the lawyer had meant. However not to be outdone I did wade through its various headings and provisions which means that apart from the minister I could be the only other person to have read it – a frightening thought indeed.
My interest in Asbos is not only because they have received a worse press than the yobs they were meant to protect people from but also there seem to be two main objections to them. The first is on civil liberty grounds and the second is more fundamental, they apparently don’t work.
There are those who are concerned enough about civil liberties in Gibraltar to suggest that a new law that compromises those freedoms still further is not what is called for. In England there are a number of civil orders such as Asbos that can be imposed on a person who has never been found guilty of any offence but if the order is breached it becomes a criminal offence. Civil liberty lawyers argue this trend dangerously blurs the divide between the criminal and civil law.
When Theresa May became Home Secretary after last May’s General Election she signalled the death knell of the Asbo. In a speech shortly after taking office she reported that the breaches of these orders had risen by over 50 per cent and their use was at the lowest level ever.
She added: “These sanctions were too complex and bureaucratic. There were too many of them, they were too time consuming and expensive, and they too often criminalised young people unnecessarily, acting as a conveyor belt to serious crime and prison.”
Now May is doing away with the Asbos and bringing in a new system insisting the new streamlined proposals would provide faster and more visible justice for victims and communities without unnecessarily criminalising teenagers.
Not so say children’s charities. Bob Reitemeier is chief executive of the Children’s Society - he said of the Home Office’s proposals: “This appears to be more of a rebranding exercise than anything else and is a missed opportunity to adopt a more effective approach for dealing with children and young people who are deemed to be antisocial. There is no doubt that sometimes difficult behaviour, particularly by teenagers, remains an issue of great concern in many neighbourhoods. But rather than continue to demonise children and punish them without addressing their behaviour, there is an urgent need to develop real solutions that make a genuine difference to children, families and communities.”
Which brings us back to Gibraltar. I am curious why the Minister for Justice is introducing a measure which the Home Secretary in the UK is in the process of rejecting. Daniel Feetham is a lawyer which Theresa May is not hence he may feel that Asbos or perhaps the Rock’s own variant of them, G-Asbos, will serve a useful purpose in a small closely knit community.
One also has to be cautious over May’s seeming rejection of the Asbo system. Nineteen different powers including Asbos were introduced by Tony Blair’s Labour government to deal with antisocial behaviour. Their rejection and rebranding by a Conservative Home Secretary may have more to do with politics than justice. Daniel Feetham was a member of New Labour in England so it may well be he feels more secure following in Blair’s legal footsteps than May’s. I am sure once his bill comes before Gibraltar’s parliament he will tell us.