"Equality before the law", all lawyers would agree, is a cardinal principle of the Rule of Law, traceable to Magna Carta, and reflected in constitutions down the ages and modern international treaties. But where does it stand in the hearts and minds of ordinary people, with no legal training or expertise or much interest in the law?
The extraordinary events of the last few weeks have shown the enduring appeal of the simple idea of equality before the law in the popular imagination. When the public in the UK reacted with fury to the suggestion that the Prime Minister's adviser had disregarded lockdown rules that applied to everyone, it was because of an intuitive sense that the burdens laws impose should apply equally to everyone, regardless of their status.
The worldwide fury unleashed by the sickening killing of George Floyd under the knee of a policeman in Minnesota shows the power of the idea that everyone is entitled to the equal protection of the law. Equality before the law requires that the protections the law provides, against killing, brutality, deprivation of liberty, stop and search, must be guaranteed to all, regardless of race, class or creed.
Our legal systems profess this, but the reality is different. The televised execution of George Floyd by a State official shocked the world into understanding what the data and the experiences of minorities have been telling us for years: that even in democracies that pride themselves on their civility and maturity, black lives matter less. That is the effect of being denied the equal protection of the law. Systemic racism turns "equality before the law" into empty rhetoric.
The challenge for us all is what to do to change this in a way that goes beyond tokenistic statements of solidarity and addresses the long term, structural causes of systemic racism. As the statues literally start to topple around us, this overdue public reckoning with the UK's colonial past presents a rare moment of opportunity to understand those causes and to take practical action to address them.
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