IV.3: JUST LAW

The law, like science, is vital, and should be a great force for good. In theory it encapsulates formally what society thinks is right. Many lawyers, like many scientists, are among the world’s most intelligent, most honest, and most benign of us all. To some extent, like science, the law does live up to its ideals. To a regrettable extent, however, as with science, it does not.

There are problems at every turn, of a kind that can never ultimately be resolved. The law should ensure justice – but what is just? To each according to their needs? From each according to their means? Or unlimited rewards for those who compete most successfully, with short change for those who do not?

Who has the right to make the law? “The government” is the obvious answer, and in a truly democratic society the government should represent us all. But all governments are composed of human beings with their own predilections and prejudices; all are subject to lobbying (which tends to be passed off as “listening to the public”); and all in practice favour some of us at the expense of others.

How can the law be enforced? Plenty of law in Britain and the world at large is truly on the side of good sense and fair play yet is more or less impossible to enforce. Sometimes the measures that are supposed to prevent crime are more disruptive than the crime itself. Sometimes there just aren’t the time or resources to deal with miscreancy. Many misdemeanours are just too small and numerous to deal with. Many – not least in agriculture — are perpetrated by international organized crime, and then they may be too big and complicated to take on.

In practice, in the fields of food and agriculture, we see room for concern (though sometimes, also, good things happening) on all relevant fronts. Obvious areas include ownership and use of land; planning laws; control of corporates; food safety; workers’ safety and rights in general – including the rights of immigrants; animal welfare; laws to protect particular wild species and the biosphere at large; and so on. Our College cannot explore all the issues but we do intend to keep a weather eye, and sometimes help to push things forward.

One final point. A QC pointed out to us that the law is often on our side even when we don’t realise this. He also pointed out the importance of “nerdish law”: bits of legislation tucked away, perhaps in EU rather than national law, that only specialists know about. Always the law has unexpected consequences and sometimes these odd and esoteric bits of law can be invoked to prevent bad things happening in quite different fields. Thus, said the QC, he once drew on European human rights legislation to forestall destructive engineering works on a British river. It’s good to have lawyers on side, of the enlightened kind.