How many children does he have? For years Boris Johnson couldn’t say. Does he understand the lockdown rules that his government imposed in 2020? He claims not. Did he realise he was at his own birthday party? Nope. But with his much touted knowledge of Latin, Johnson can surely understand the phrase ‘ignorantia legis neminem excusat.’ Ignorance of the law excuses no one.
The principle is ancient, visible in the writing of Aristotle and Cicero, and its influence can be felt in all modern legal systems, for several reasons. First, it encourages public literacy of the law. Second, it places a burden on authorities to make laws publicly accessible. Most important, it closes an obvious loophole that Steve Martin did a comedy bit about on Saturday Night Live in the 1970s:
You’re accused of a ‘foul crime’, you just say two simple words: ‘I forgot.’ And if someone replies: ‘You forgot?’ You say: ‘Well. Excuuuse me!’
It looks as if Boris Johnson has stolen Steve Martin’s lines. And the joke’s on us, because it’s working: at least for Johnson, still clinging to power (for now), or for Priti Patel, who faced no personal penalty for the bullying claims settled by the Home Office. It works for those at the top, who think the rules don’t apply to them for the simple reason that often they don’t.
Take the idea that ignorance of the law excuses no one. At one time upheld as a universal principle, in recent decades it has been relaxed – but only for some crimes, those disproportionately committed by richer individuals, such as tax evasion. (‘You can be a millionaire and never pay taxes!’ Martin’s skit began.) As one legal scholar puts it, for the tax evader ignorance really ‘is bliss’. Forget to pay a hefty tax bill? No problem, as long as you can afford the right lawyers. Forget you had weed in your pocket? The excuse won’t fly – especially if you happen to be a person of colour in Britain, where black and minority ethnic offenders are more likely to be sent to prison for drug offences than other defendants.
The Metropolitan Police announced this morning that they would after all be ‘investigating a number of events that took place at Downing Street and Whitehall in the last two years in relation to potential breaches of Covid-19 regulations’. It was unusual, the Met commissioner said, to investigate ‘retrospectively’, but there was a need to consider whether ‘there was evidence that those involved knew or ought to have known that what they were doing was an offence.’ In other words, ignorance is now, rather conveniently, a possible excuse. If Johnson didn’t ‘know’ he was committing an offence, he could be cleared. Funny how this hasn’t been a valid excuse for others.
A 66-year-old man in Brockley who went to his allotment in January 2021 was fined £100. He told the courts: ‘I am a pensioner struggling to pay my way, and in debt already. I did not wish to break the law.’ Tough shit for him; he’s not the prime minister. Tough shit, too, for those stopped by Warrington police, who boasted on 29 March 2020 that
Overnight 6 people have been summonsed for offences relating to the new corona virus legislation to protect the public: These included;
Out for a drive due to boredom
Returning from parties
Many people at the time raised concerns with the heavy-handed police approach. How do we know someone was ‘bored’ rather than feeling threatened by domestic violence? How do we know a walk to the park didn’t stave off feelings of self-harm?
The police weren’t tasked with considering such ambiguities. The more prosecutions, the more ‘evidence’ of public recklessness, making it easier for the government to shift the blame onto those who could least afford the fines, rather than shouldering any responsibility itself for the failures that have led to more than 150,000 deaths from Covid-19.
Johnson is tough on crime – but only crimes committed by other people. ‘If you are guilty of antisocial behaviour,’ he said last August, ‘and you are sentenced to unpaid work, as many people are, I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t be out there in one of those fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs visibly paying your debt to society.’ Not him though. He’s not a real criminal. He’s rich and in power, and that makes him different.
Getting rid of Johnson will not solve Britain’s problems. The Conservative policies that have seen child poverty, homelessness and reliance on food banks soar since 2010 will not be reversed under a new leader. A defence today of the principle of the rule of law won’t make a fairer society overnight. But it’s a move in the right direction. Accepting flagrant abuses of power because it’s uncertain that anything will really change is the height of nihilism. Ejecting even one corrupt or incompetent leader is worth it as proof that it can be done.