Are we ready for gangbos?
1 February 2011
Police and local councils gained new powers yesterday to deal with gang-related violence and crime.
The new ‘gang injunctions’, or “gangbos”, which can be sought in the county courts against adults suspected of gang involvement, function in a similar way to ASBOs (anti-social behaviour orders), although they aim to target people involved in shootings, knife crime and other serious violence rather than low-level anti-social behaviour. But will they be a helpful measure to curb gang violence, or an unnecessary restriction on liberty?
The injunctions are tailored to individuals and can involve being banned from entering certain areas, owning certain animals (such as dangerous dogs), wearing gang ‘colours’, or even using the internet. But the injunctions are not all about prohibitions; they might also impose requirements to take part in activities designed to break the individual away from gang culture, such as mentoring schemes.
The new powers were brought in by the previous government following Birmingham City Council’s failed attempt to get injunctions against suspected gang members (the Court of Appeal held that they needed to apply for an ASBO instead).
Like ASBOs, the gang injunctions are civil penalties, but breaching them is a criminal offence punishable by a fine or up to two years in prison. To apply for a gang injunction the police or local council must have evidence that the person concerned has engaged in, encouraged or assisted gang-related violence, and will need to be able to prove this on the balance of probabilities at court. They will also need to convince the court that the gang injunction is necessary to prevent the person from being involved in gang-related violence or to protect the person from such violence. The relevant legislation (the Police and Crime Act 2009, part 4) is here and the statutory guidance can be found here.
At present the gang injunctions are available only against people aged 18 or over, but a pilot scheme allowing their use against 14 to 17-year-olds is due to start later in the year.
Another attack on civil liberties or a useful new tool?
Like ASBOs before them, gang injunction powers have immediately proved controversial. Home Office minister James Brokenshire is quotedas saying that the government was “not expecting huge numbers” of gang injunctions to be issued. But the same was said of ASBOs, and in fact local councils rushed to use them. The result has been that more than half of all ASBOs issued have been breached, and they have arguably proved largely ineffective.
Liberty has raised concerns that the gang injunctions will be similarly ineffective and will actually lead to negative results:
[E]xperience with such injunctions in America suggests that they have not been effective and worse still, that they are counter-productive and have led to discrimination and stigmatisation of many innocent, minority ethnic, young people.
As with ASBOs, groups such as Liberty have also expressed reservations about the blurring of the civil and criminal law. An application for a gang injunction is dealt with on evidence of broader suspicion of involvement with gangs, rather than a specific offence, and the civil standard of proof applies. Yet a person who is under a gang injunction may face criminal penalties, including a prison sentence, if he or she breaches it.
This is a particular problem if the injunctions are applied to children. Although it seems at first preferable to deal with teenage gang members through the civil justice system, and use gang injunctions to protect them from gangs and attempt to break any ties with them, there is a danger that in fact young people will end up being pushed into the criminal justice system (through breach of an injunction) even if they have not been convicted of any specific crime.
The injunctions potentially involve quite serious infringements on people’s rights to liberty, private life and free association and assembly. Articles 8 and 11 are qualified rights, and can be infringed or restricted in a fairly wide range of circumstances. For example, the police have wide-ranging general powers to deal with public assemblies of any kind in the Public Order Act 1986 (the details of which are covered in a previous post on student protests). However, in order to be justified restrictions of the right must be carefully considered.
The government’s position is that although the use of gang injunctions might infringe the rights of the individual subject to the injunction, the rights of the broader community are enhanced. But this is arguably far too broad an attempted justification for such a sweeping set of new powers (reminiscent of the justification for control orders, many examples of which have of course been struck down by the courts). Liberty attacks this position, arguing that:
While many rights are limited and are required to be balanced against the rights of others, this does not give a green light for imposing manifestly unfair proposals with such clumsy justifications. Followed to its logical conclusion, this type of oversimplification would allow any type of policy if the Government perceives that there is a benefit to be had.
This may be overly critical. Gangs are a blight on many of Britain’s towns and cities, and in many individual cases the gang injunctions may be useful tools and a justifiable restriction on gang members’ rights. Several youth workers and mentors have expressed cautious support for the new powers.
But to be effective and justifiable the injunctions must be used carefully and sparingly. If the experience of ASBOs is anything to go by, that will not the case in practice. There is a real danger, therefore, that gang injunctions may be another example of the Coalition undermining civil liberties, despite its aim to restore them. It might be better to focus more on prosecuting gang members and gang violence, rather than looking to new powers as a cure-all.
Sign up to free human rights updates by email, Facebook, Twitter or RSS