Unofficial Courts in Britain

I was all ready to join the debate on Rowan Williams' words at the Temple2008 lecture the other day, but so much hot air seems to have been generated I thought that I'd take a different direction. It really is very easy to stir up a witless half-informed debate in Britain, and always has been.

It isn't the case that the controversy isn't enjoyable. I love watching a spot of wrestling. However, as I pointed out yesterday, the idea of the massive threat to 'British' legal identity formed by revolutionary shariah courts everywhere seems to have been formed from almost total paranoia mixed in with what I suspect are ready sharpened swords and quills.

Nobody is looking properly at the basket of civil remedies that English people have available to them. 'Civil Law' as a term in this country plays into the hands of academics who want to pretend either that everything is all coherent and French, and halfwits who want to pretend that we are all bound together by a uniform system of Law like Americans. Both ideas are bunk, frankly.

It is also the case, of course (as is pointed out at the Volokh Conspiracy here), that Sharia arbitration is available in that heartland of appeasement, the state of Texas. I'm tempted to note that Jesus in Gethsamanae wept at the prospect of the sort of vicious half informed silliness that has characterised some people's behaviour in this controversy.

It is also interesting to hear the abuse being visited upon the head of the Anglican Church. I write as a Catholic, but Rowan Williams is one of the more intellectually respectable and impressive of the ecclesiasts thrown up by that communion in recent years (along with John Sentamu and Michael Nazir-Ali) and the students of his I knew at Oxford just loved him. A complicated and ruminating speech is being condemned by people who normally condemn Anglicans for splitting the difference and being muddled and mushy, or for not facing things in the eye and saying what they think.

One wonders whether the point of the Anglican church in this country in the minds of journalists is either to be some etiolated setting for Richard Curtis movies, the backdrop for the purchase of country homes, a vehicle for Dawn French roles, or the subject of an easy kicking on a slow news day.

The whole thing has the quality of the GM food debate that the people going mental at the moment used last year to attack the Greens. Dick Taverne, for instance, wrote a great article in prospect on how silly, irrational, ill-informed and hysterical opposition to Genetically modified food in Britain was. I agree.

I object to huge agribusinesses and dependence on them, which was why I was keen on generally cheaper organic meat and vegetables, but I didn't see an objection to GM per se. I also don't see an objection to clauses in contracts or oral understandings that property matters should be arbitrated by religious figures.

For the record, I would object very strongly to Islamic punishments, unequal treatment of women, the extension of Shariah from financial and property matters to other areas of law, and all the things the European Court of Human Rights has drawn attention to since 2001, not least in the Turkish Welfare Party cases. But nobody is interested in that.

So I found myself thinking about the long tradition of unofficial court-style proceedings in the Atlantic world, some of which is detailed in Sadaat Kadri's great history book, The Trial, which came out a few years ago.

There is a long tradition in these islands of illicit courts. They speak to a certain desire for ritual and community justice in those groups that were not or are not broken up into atomised groups of individuals as is now the norm.

The tradition is evident in both the legal or 'daytime' world and the criminal underworld. It's a testament to Hobbes and Grotius and all those others who thought anarchy unnatural; humans need rules and rituals.

For example, when the Richardson gang held sway in South London, they employed pretend tribunals as a way of connecting their insanity with the legal world they knew and possibly feared at some well-buried level. Their courts were almost always a prelude to torture, and involved Frankie Fraser, Charlie Richardson and Eddie Richardson, whose niece is the famous agony aunt Clare Rayner.

Such were the effects of war and national service on the London working class in the mid twentieth century that Charlie Richardson always felt obligated to give a victim a clean shirt when they un-nailed them from the wall or such in the morning. In their somewhat Roman taste for crucifixion, I suppose they share something with some Persian, Saudi and North African devotees of shariah.

Kangaroo courts, of course, speak to the older tradition of psuedo-legality and were present both in England and (the name being the clue) in the colonies. However, there is a dispute over the name; it may derive from the informal courts set up to punish 'claim jumping' in the California Gold Rush, where such institutions were also called mustang courts on account of the eponymous horse's springiness.

Of course, heresy and security threats have also always led to clandestine trials, as have revolutions, resistance movements and the presence of alien immigrant communities, such as the Irish in New York. The Irish, in the mid-nineteenth century, or at least the more violent of my forbears who made it to America, even developed a contractual system for violence. Herbert Ashbury's classic Gangs of New York, for instance, contains a note on the prices of a variety of badnesses going from a kick to a killing with attached sanctions for breach of contract.

I thought of all of this because of the firestorm of shock and somewhat awesome misrepresentations of the press as I was going home yesterday. It seems that whole communities, if one were to read the Daily Mail or the London Evening Standard, are now subject to the sway of revolutionary Islamic tribunals, with the Somali Gar courts often cited as an example.

The gar courts are clandestine family meetings that operate a system of compensation for violence or injury drawn upon families of the accused with sanctions ranging up to community exclusion and exile. They happen in Somali communities concentrated in South East London. They are not legal entities and their codes of punishment are based on the ethnic heritage of a people used to very violent conditions; but one interesting point to note is that they are not explicitly shariah courts. They are not Islamic.

Th Chinese had similar ways of dealing with things when they first set up in London as a large group in the wake of the Opium Wars. The Ching Yee trade Union in Limehouse, which underwent massive expansion in the nineteenth century, functioned as a forum of dispute resolution according to some accounts.

My historian side forces me to note that I could not provide footnoted and detailed evidence of that proposition for you, reader. These things are part of the messy, bloody tapestry that is woven by the displacement of peoples though. There is a long tradition dating from Victorian and Edwardian literature of pretending that Victorian immigrant communities were lawless, though, which is not wholly true. They were extralegal, and that without lynching as well.

The pre-Fu-Manchu fictional villain of San Francisco, Quon Loung, was in fact limned by a London author in 1897,and so evil that he was made a member of the Inner Temple, like Gandhi. I should declare my Inn is Middle Temple. have a look at the link, which is to the 'Fantastic Victoriana' website.

Unoffical courts and arbitration agreements have always been around. They always will. Just calm down.

There follows an instructional video on the British seventies version of saturday afternoon wrestling. They used to involve highly overweight and beery men in leotards and/or masks with names like 'Giant Haystacks', 'Big Daddy (no Burl Ives he)', 'Kid Dynamite' and 'Kendo Nagasaki', amongst others. The clip comes from an anarchic seventies childrens' show called Tiswas, and is funny in itself as Sally James, the kids, and the off camera laughing are very much echoes of a faraway time.

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