From the Cradle to the Grave: How Law Is All Around Us, All the Time|
About the Author
Samantha Love read Law at Merton College, Oxford, and is currently following the BCL course.
It’s surprisingly common to find application statements for law degrees that declare that ‘law is all around us’ and that its relevance to everyday life is what makes it so fascinating.
You won’t find many admissions tutors who are surprised or impressed by this statement though, because it’s such a common observation and because it is clearly the case that law shapes so many of our day-to-day activities. Obviously the newspapers cover many stories about laws or legal cases, but on a deeper level our whole way of life is governed by the law – even if we don’t often realise it.
This extends far beyond the criminal law; the way in which our life options are set up, or the legal controls on even food imports, shape the decisions we make on a day-to-day basis. It is this way of thinking about how important the law is which is particularly interesting, and which really puts some meaning into the idea of law being all around us. A day in the life of a British school student will demonstrate this, especially by contrast to other countries and alternative approaches to organising public life.
Meet Annabel, who is 16. She lives with her mum and dad, brother and sister in England.
Annabel wakes up when her alarm goes off, and she heads downstairs for breakfast. Her dad is reading the newspaper, which is reporting allegations about a politician committing fraud. Its ability to do this has been increased by the new Defamation Act, which raises the thresholds of harm before someone can sue for libel and will hopefully increase certainty for newspapers that they can report news stories which are of interest to the public. Due to recent scandals in press standards however, new regulation of the press is being hotly debated, with the industry suggesting a Royal Charter which is different to that which was agreed by the government in 2013.
Annabel isn’t a great fan of sitting in silence, so she goes to sit in the living room where the television is on. The BBC newsreaders are currently explaining new government proposals on curriculum policy and why they are being criticised by teachers and employers. The BBC is a publicly-owned broadcaster, which is required by law to be independent of government and is free to criticise it, unlike some state-owned broadcasters in other parts of the world.
The information Annabel gets from the newspapers and television is monitored through a range of methods, including the Advertising Standards Authority, which can prevent the publishing or showing of misleading, harmful or offensive adverts. The ASA is another independent regulator that ensures that consumers aren’t misled by advertisers, or exposed to inappropriate adverts. Between all of this regulation Annabel’s family are more likely to get relatively truthful information from journalists and businesses, which is largely freer of government control than they would be in some other countries.
Annabel’s mum drives the children to school. Annabel won’t be able to learn to drive until she is 17, but when she does turn 17 she plans to learn as quickly as she can so she can buy a car and drive herself around. She’ll need to pass a theory and practical test within a few months of each other, after having taken lessons with the local instructor. She’ll be able to practise at home on the family car if they pay to put her on the insurance, because insurance is a legal requirement for driving a car. It ensures that anyone who is in a car accident that wasn’t their fault will be able to get some compensation for damage to the car and physical injury, rather than depending on the person who ran into them to have any money.
It makes driving so much less risky; and so do all of the laws about traffic lights, road signs and driving on the left of the road. A well-functioning road system obviously also depends on people following the laws which have been set down, and on them being enforced; anybody who has ever been in India can tell you how dangerous a ten-minute drive can be! This is despite numerous laws which follow the same basic structure as UK laws; it’s simply that a lack of enforcement and general culture of not following the official rules makes the roads very different to those in the UK.
Annabel still goes to school because it is compulsory for her to stay in academic study until the end of year 11, which will be in July. She enjoys going to school, but she doesn’t have much choice about whether to go or not – her parents could be fined for not ensuring that she attends classes.
The school leaving age in the UK has just been raised, so that until the July after she turns 18 she has to stay in some form of education or training. She’d like to get an apprenticeship, which will depend on there being enough local businesses that can afford to take someone on. The government offers tax breaks to businesses who train apprentices, which makes younger workers more affordable and therefore more attractive, and sets a lower national minimum wage (£2.68, next to £3.72 for those aged 15-18 and £6.31 for over-21s) to reflect the extra training costs, which will usually include a college qualification. The lower wage means Annabel will need to stay at home during her apprenticeship, but at least she’ll be starting a career.
In contrast to many children round the world, Annabel gets a decent education and support into a career because the law requires she stay in education and tax law gives an incentive for businesses to hire her as an apprentice. Once she is in work, her working hours are automatically limited to 48 hours per week unless she ‘opts out’ of this arrangement, and her wage cannot go below the national minimum. She has certain protections from dismissal and other unfair treatment, which mean that she feels secure enough in her work to commit to it fully – she knows that she shouldn’t be dismissed without a good reason.
Like the traffic example, this depends on good enforcement but the law helps to shape her employer’s attitude because he knows it isn’t worth risking a tribunal claim simply because he didn’t follow the correct procedures. If there is something wrong with her work he will hopefully see that it is easier to go through a proper disciplinary procedure.
Without this framework of support, and the legal requirements for claiming (the relatively low) unemployment allowance such as attending regular meetings and doing regular searches for jobs, Annabel might not consider it so natural that she will get a good education and then enter work. It’s impossible to put a finger on whether social attitudes that people ought to work have shaped the unemployment legislation or if the relationship goes the other way, but it’s certainly the case that the law on education, work and unemployment support is set up so as to encourage her to work as soon as she is ready to.
After school, Annabel helps her mum with the weekly shop. She’s got her own motives because she wants to convince her mum to buy a few treats, some of which are imported. These have had to go through various customs checks and meet various labelling and ingredient requirements (1). Many of these rules come from the European Union legislature, although the rule against ‘bendy bananas’ (whereby bananas which were too bendy couldn’t be sold in the EU) has now been repealed. Still, she picks out some mangoes to put in their fruit salad for dinner. She’d have liked to buy some of the Alphonso mangoes that have just come into season in India from the market at the weekend, but they have been banned from import into the EU until December 2015 due to concerns about fruit flies (they were rarely sold in supermarkets anyway).
She goes to buy a lottery ticket from the kiosk, which has sliding doors over the cigarette display due to changes in the law in 2012. She grew up as the legal age for smoking moved to 18 and health warnings changed from having written warnings to pictures of what smoking can do to you. Between these and the outdoor smoking ban, she doesn’t feel like smoking is worth the effort. Instead she wants a lottery ticket, which is the only form of gambling that is legal for 16-year-olds. It is organised by the state but run by a company, and a good portion of the money goes to charities. Annabel likes to buy a ticket every now and then. As she is so close to the legal age for buying tickets, Annabel has to show some identification. She bought her (£50) provisional driving licence early for this purpose because she doesn’t have a passport.
As Annabel and her mother walk out the shop they pass a man who is asking for money so he can afford to stay in a shelter that night. Obviously they don’t know much about his circumstances, but Matthew’s finding it difficult to get his life started again. He moved out of his family home aged 20 due to problems at home, but as he was not ‘unintentionally’ homeless the local council has no duty to house him. Without an address he lacks a bank account, and without a bank account he cannot get any stable legal employment. Even if there’s no law which says that ‘you need a bank account to start work’, the legal structure of tax law and employers’ obligations means that employers find it easier to require a bank account that they can pay wages into. Matthew’s situation is obviously not the same as everyone who is struggling with their housing situation, but it isn’t an uncommon set of problems to have to deal with.
Annabel’s done all her homework so she decides to watch a film. She takes a look on BBC iPlayer, a free service of catch-up television, to see if there is anything she wants to watch. For now iPlayer is available to anyone, but there are disputes as to whether it should only be used by license-fee payers, as television is. iPlayer is relatively new in fact; even when the technology was available it took the BBC some years to get all the copyright licences organised.
Annabel could look for something illegally online, but whilst she knows that nobody is caught or punished for low-level copyright infringement she is worried about getting a virus on her computer because of the types of sites on which you find uploaded content; they are more likely to have viruses and she doesn’t want to get in trouble with her parents for damaging her laptop.
Instead, Annabel finds a film online and sits down to watch it. She had hoped to watch a new drama which she’d seen advertised, but the BBC has only managed to get agreements with rights-holders to keep the shows online for 7 days after broadcast and she has missed the window. Still, it’s a good film! Annabel goes to bed at 10pm, so she’s ready for the early start tomorrow.
Hopefully this ‘day in the life’ shows you the extent to which law – and the government’s policies as put in place by law – can affect our life and choices. It determines the information and services we can access, the ease with which we can enter the working world and even how easily we can get about. A lot of this is classed as regulation rather than ‘law’ in the sense we would think about it, but government policy is often put into place by laws as well as through setting up programmes, and this law can have just the same impact as criminal law. Legal regulation can in fact have more of an impact than criminal law; most people wouldn’t dream of attacking others even if it were legal, whereas decisions on whether to go to university will be affected by the way in which the government organises payment for tuition.
It is no wonder that we have such different cultural attitudes between countries; even aside from different histories and traditions, when these attitudes are entrenched in laws we find it quite difficult to adopt a new approach. Even on the most basic level, even though we’re increasingly open to trying foods from other countries import restrictions can prevent them from being affordable or even available – haggis couldn’t be imported from the late 1980s until this year!
So next time you think about law being all around you, remember it’s not just the cases in the newspapers which matter. In fact, they’re of much less concern to you than the fact that the law ensures that you get the information at all.
(1) A brief overview can be found here:http://multimedia.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/tradeinfo02.pdf
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