Making criminals of us all?

Plato once opined that,

good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws

Well, to be frank, I'm not sure that I agree with the wise old sage. After all, he lived in a world without things such as space travel, nanotechnology, wearable computers and, er, Dualit 4-slot bread toasters.

Laws are required in a society where 60-odd million of us rub together in incredibly close proximity (at least half of whom seem to be on the Tube most mornings by my intensely unscientific reckoning).

However, in recent years, we have seen a large increase in the amount of laws and particularly criminal offences in those laws.

We are all aware of the more high-profile criminal offences which businesses and directors can be on the line for such as corporate manslaughter or bribery, but what about some of the lesser known ones that businesses might find themselves in the dock for?

Let’s take a few examples in detail.

Perhaps you are in business selling white goods? Well, you’d better make sure that the labels are sticking on properly as under the Energy Information Regulations 2011 it is an offence to sell, say, a dishwasher without a label containing regulated energy information. Many a prison - so I've reliably informed - has a separate section for those evil-doers who have become immersed in the shadowy world of dishwasher-related crime*.

Perhaps you have an alarm at your business premises? It is more likely than not. Do you have a nominated key-holder? Part 7 of the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 makes it an offence, in certain designated neighbourhoods, to fail to nominate a key-holder where an audible intruder alarm is present. You’ve not done this? Then its off to the clink with you!

Take the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. All soft and lovely and fluffy so far: the name of the Act seems so innocuous. However, under this Act it is a criminal offence to sell a grey squirrel. (Well that’s my weekend ruined then.)

OK, I admit that the latter is unlikely to affect businesses much, but the question remains: should the other offences above be criminal offences? Even more, so what if you get a criminal record?

Well, from a personal point of view, that holiday in Florida might suddenly be off the cards (thanks to US visa restrictions); that job which you had your eye might now be out of your reach; even getting a mortgage could be nigh on impossible in many cases. All because a sticker fell off a dishwasher.

Of course, I'm exaggerating for effect. I'm guessing that the authorities will not be rushing to prosecute such minor crimes.

However, the fact remains that they do have this power. If you were to be successfully prosecuted, you'd get a criminal record and in a world of criminal record checks, you can’t escape your past. Not easily anyway.

So the ultimate question remains: is the threat of imprisonment sensible for the offences mentioned above?

Would the prospect of a fine in many cases be a sufficient deterrent?

Should business activities be criminalised to the extent that they are?

As always, your thoughts would be welcome.

PS With many thanks to Professor James Chalmers for his inspiration for this post. He gave a humourous talk at UCL recently on 'frenzied' law making (not always the easiest of tasks). In Comet’s next blog post we will have a look at some of his statistics and what the future may hold.

* actually, they don't, as you can only be fined for contravention of these regulations

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