We remove the rebuttable presumption at our own peril

The silly season has been in full swing these last few weeks. That magical time of year when reporters the length and breadth of the country find themselves desperately searching for something to fill column inches.

For example, in July the Daily Express reported a “shock weather forecast” (yes, those are sarcastic quote marks), and suggested that the UK would have the hottest August in 300 years with temperatures set to hit an “unbearable” 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Those of you who have been in the country for the last month, and the bank holiday weekend in particular, will hardly recognise that figure.

But never mind, the season is nearly over for yet another year. However, the season never seems to end for the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. In an article for The Telegraph last weekend, Johnson suggested that there should be a “swift and minor change in the law” to introduce a new “rebuttable presumption” that those who travel to war zones without notifying the authorities have done so for “terrorist purposes”.

In short, Johnson thinks that Britons who go to such countries as Syria and Iraq without informing the authorities should be assumed to be guilty of terrorism until they can prove themselves to be innocent.

Johnson’s comments are just the latest from Conservative politicians who seem to have little or no regard for the rule of law. With Johnson now seeking election as an MP at the next general election these are quite shocking views. Perhaps it is even more worrying as it is the opinion of a man many are tipping to be the next leader of the Tory party and a potential prime minister.

As for this “minor change in the law” that Johnson so casually refers to, it is only one of the cornerstones of English criminal law. The presumption of innocence is a principle common to the legal systems of all civilised states. To remove it, or even bend it for the sake of judicial or political expediency, would start this country down a dark path and away from being referred to as civilised. We remove this fundamental principle at our own peril.


Continuing the theme of ‘politicians say the dumbest things’, I received a rather self-serving press release while on holiday from one of Ukip’s newest MEPs, Louise Bours. In her email, sent to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Britain’s last execution, Bours calls for the re-introduction of the death penalty in the UK.

Though not official Ukip party policy, Bours says: “The death penalty won’t bring back a tortured and murdered child, but it seems natural justice that the family will know the killer has paid the ultimate price and isn’t still breathing when their child is not. An innocent child has more of a right to life than the monster that took their life, so I see no ethical reason why we are obliged to keep him alive.”

Since 2011 I have been a member of Amicus-ALJ, a small legal charity here in the UK which helps provide representation for those facing the death penalty in the US. I have also written frequently on the injustices caused by capital punishment, so when Bours concluded her email by stating that she was available for interview I could not help but allow myself a wry smile. Thanks but no thanks, Louise.

As a member of Ukip you might well expect Bours to hold such outdated and draconian views on the punishment of offenders. You surely wouldn’t expect to find a Conservative minister holding such views…would you? Priti Patel became the Conservatives’ first female Asian MP in 2010. Prime minister, David Cameron recently promoted her to the Treasury during his much reported reshuffle.

Patel has openly stated that she would “support the reintroduction of capital punishment” on the grounds that “murderers and rapists and people who have committed the most abhorrent crimes go into prison but then are released back into the community to do those crimes again and again”.

She continued on a BBC Question Time debate: “Capital punishment [could] serve as a deterrent. I do not think we have enough deterrents in this country for criminals – let’s not forget that murders, rapists and criminals of that nature choose to commit the crimes that they commit.”

Maybe the silly season is not over just yet.

This blog was first published in the Solicitors Journal on 28 August 2014 and is reproduced with kind permission.