According to The Phrase Finderthe phrase “The Law Is An Ass” is of English origin and the ass being referred to here is the English colloquial name for a donkey. Donkeys have a, somewhat unjustified, reputation for obstinance and stupidity that has given us the adjective ‘asinine’. It is the stupidly rigid application of the law that this phrase calls into question. Websites that attribute the phrase to Charles Dickens, who put it into print in Oliver Twist, 1838. When Mr. Bumble, the unhappy spouse of a domineering wife, is told in court that “…the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction”, replies:“If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, “the law is an ass – an idiot”.In fact, ‘the law is an ass’ is from a play published by the English dramatist George Chapman in 1654 – Revenge for Honour:
Ere he shall lose an eye for such a trifle… For doing deeds of nature! I’m ashamed. The law is such an ass.
Whatever the origins may be I am more and more inclined to believe the phrase to be true. I am speaking from the point of view of a British citizen but I suspect the points I will make are pretty universal. I feel that “The Law” has become too big, too complicated and too out of touch with reality and what people actually want from it. Moreover it often seems to lack any sense of natural justice.
How many times have we heard about convicted rapists being sentenced to less than six years in prison? How many times have we heard of convicted child molesters or murderers being released on parole after ten years or less? How often do we feel perpetrators of violent crime seem to get sentences that are far milder and shorter than the severity their crime would seem to indicate?
Theft is strange too. Imagine a small time thief who habitually steals from a shops. Now imagine a sophisticated and rich banker who illegally siphons millions into a private account. Chances are that if both are caught and convicted, the small time thief will serve as much time in jail, if not more than the rich banker who can afford the best lawyers.
On the other hand if you are caught driving a few miles an hour over the limit, if you make a genuine mistake on your tax declaration, if you are caught smoking a joint, if you sun-bathe topless on the wrong beach, if you demonstrate in the wrong way or place, or find yourself innocently caught up in a demonstration, you are likely to be treated like absolute scum by the authorities involved.
So yes, the law is an ass. And that is bad because I think most of us like the idea of the law. Most of us have a natural sense of justice and most of us try to lead good lives. Most of us don’t go out and rape or murder, most of us hate violence and try not to hurt anybody. Most of us want the law to be on our side and reflect our values. Now of course values vary considerably from person to person, but I’d be willing to bet that whether they consider themselves left wing or right wing, religious or non religious, most people would have at least 85% agreement that murder, rape and violent crimes should be punished much more severely than they often are. And I think those same people would probably agree that the police and the courts would be much more gainfully employed catching serious criminals and keeping them locked away than hounding the rest of us for minor infringements, mistakes or lifestyle choices.
The law should be simple, fair and just. It should be something the vast majority of us can respect and understand. It should be there to protect the good and punish the bad. Criminals should go to bed having nightmares about it. The rest of us should not.
Thank you for reading my little rant. Normal service will be resumed in my next post. 🙂