Asbos (anti-social behaviour orders) have been an important tool in this government's fight against anti-social behaviour. As with many new legislative initiatives in this area there have been mixed results. Whilst some asbos have no doubt been found to give citizens of a given area much relief (although arguably this is at the expense of the next area where those subject to an asbo then turn their attention), there are also reports of young people being proud to have an asbo and merely gaining esteem from being 'awarded' one. There are also arguments that some asbos are too extensive or draconian or even oppressive as the person subject cannot work out what they can and cannot do whilst staying within the terms of the asbo. A problem of this kind came before the Divisional Court recently.
Plymouth County Council obtained an asbo against Mr Heron. Subsequently Mr Heron committed a number of thefts from shops in Plymouth city centre. The matter came before the magistrates again who this time ordered that Mr Heron was required:
- not to enter the city centre or any part of a particular area, defined on a map
- not to behave in a way causing or likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to any person
- not to have with him or carry any packaged, wrapped, bagged, new or unused goods or objects not belonging to him, except food, in any public place without a valid receipt or the consent of the owner of the packaged, wrapped, bagged, new or unused goods or objects in Plymouth.
The case went on appeal from Mr Heron. Condition 1 was upheld as both necessary and proportionate; it being a sensible condition to remove the defendant from the temptation of shop-lifting. However condition 2 was removed as being too imprecise and not designed to address Mr Heron's actual behaviour. Condition 3, unsurprisingly in my view, was quashed as unintelligible.
One has to question anyway what the magistrates thought they were doing with this condition. So it was ok to steal food? Why except food and not drink? If goods in his possession did not belong to him then one cannot see how he could have a valid receipt for them in any circumstances. The case emphasises the need for the law to be clear and precise and certainly not contradictory. In an effort to deal with a real mischief they had over strained themselves (probably on representations from the lawyer for the council) and ended up with something unclear and unworkable which was no good for the shopkeepers of Plymouth any more than for Mr Heron. Asbos are rife for this kind of problem.