When the London riots began on Saturday, few were overly troubled. The violence was, after all, in Tottenham, a poor neighbourhood up on the north edge of town which most middle-class people avoid.
But when it spread over the last couple of days to partially gentrified areas like Brixton and Hackney, we began to take notice. These places are our Lower East Sides and Williamsburgs, populated by young professionals who spend their weeks in Biglaw and other similar jobs, and weekends flouncing around in hipster uniform.
As you’d expect, the relationship between the young professionals and the Brixton/Hackney natives has never been great. But amid the current craziness — which has partly been generated by Britain’s awful record on social mobility — there’s been genuine fear that years of pent up anger could turn into blood-letting.
So it must have been with mixed feelings that Freshfields lawyers greeted the firm’s edict yesterday to leave work (and the relative safety of London’s financial district) early and go back to their riot-enveloped homes….
As it turned out, last night was pretty quiet in London, with the 16,000 police out on the streets managing to prevent further disturbances. Most of the action took place in cities outside the capital, led by groups of youths apparently intent on replicating what they’d seen on the previous night’s TV.
With a sense of calm being restored, thoughts are turning to dealing with the aftermath of the riots. Already groups of volunteers have been out on the streets of London cleaning up the mess. But the real work will start with the analysis of reams of CCTV footage to identify as many of the rioters of possible. Last night, our tanned Prime Minister David Cameron — who cut short his vacation in Tuscany to attend to the riots — warned that those convicted would “feel the full force of the law.”
Lawyers specialising in government-funded defence and prosecution work are anticipating a mini-boom once these cases reach court, with civil liberties law firm Bindmans stealing a march on its rivals yesterday when a left wing blog advised anyone “nicked” near the scene of the riots to contact the firm. There is concern, however, about how our cash-strapped legal system — which is about to have a third of its funding cut as part of the government’s austerity regime — will cope with the spike in work.
Another worry is our out-of-date riot legislation, which remains unchanged since Victorian times. Under the Riot (Damages) Act 1886, the police, not insurance companies, bear ultimate responsibility for compensating people who have had their property damaged by rioters. The problem is that the police are broke, having been hit, like the publicly-funded branch of the legal profession, by government spending cuts.
Yesterday Rob Garnham, the chairman of the Association of Police Authorities, outlined the situation to The Times: “The potential implications of the Riot Damages Act have been of considerable concern for police authorities for a number of years. It is crucial that riot damage is quickly repaired and communities restored, but in a context of cuts the public will see little sense in a shrinking police fund being diverted to pay for criminal damage.”
Many expect the law to be changed. Stuart White, a lawyer with corporate law firm Reynolds Porter Chamberlain, told The Telegraph: “Given the scale of these riots and the current pressure on police budgeting there will doubtless be calls to reform a law that compels police forces to compensate businesses and individuals for riot damage.
Meanwhile, our European neighbours — and biggest trading partners — continue to teeter on the brink of a financial Armageddon that would surely drag us into a recession worse than the one from which we’ve been tentatively emerging. As Mark Stephens, a London-based lawyer for WikiLeaks, put it on Twitter the other day, “If this is the summer of discontent what will the winter be like?”
Alex Aldridge is a London-based freelance journalist specialising in law and education. He writes a weekly column for The Guardian and contributes regularly to specialist legal publications. Previously Alex was Associate Editor at Legal Week, having begun his career with The Times. Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexAldridgeUK or email him at [email protected].