The ‘Law of Unintended Consequences’ scored another ‘success’ recently, though only for women in N Ireland.
The Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) Act 1967 was copied word for word from the equivalent legislation in Great Britain. The Act was a revision of the law, a tidying-up, eliminating the previous classification of misdemeanour and felony, and introducing the concept of an ‘arrestable offence’.
The NI Act has a completely different Section 5, introduced specifically as anti-terrorist legislation. In this, it’s clear that if a person believes an offence has been committed, that person is required to notify the police (a ‘constable’); and failure to notify the police is a criminal offence. And it need only be a belief, no hard proof of wrong doing is required.
You might well think that this is a bit, well, esoteric. However, a section of women in N Ireland are now potentially affected by this. If a woman has a third (or subsequent) child, she may no longer claim Child Benefit for that child. However, there is an exception where the pregnancy was the result of rape.
Again, you might think that this is a noble aim, not to disadvantage the woman. It’s not necessary for there to be a trial and a conviction; it’s enough if an ‘advisor’ believes that the woman has been raped, and provides certification to this effect. And this is where the problems start.
Clearly, the woman believes she was raped and made pregnant, and her ‘advisor’ will accept and believe this, and the officials in the Benefit office will accept and believe the certification and make payment. But if the ‘advisor’ and the Benefits officer do not report this to the police, they become criminals under Section 5 of the NI Act.
And the woman, if she does not report her belief that she was raped, may also be a criminal. And if the police come to know that there is a belief in a rape, it’s very likely that they will begin an investigation, potentially further criminalising the woman who, however inadvertently, has ‘perverted the course of justice’.
Here we have an example of a legal change producing a perverse effect, something I’m quite sure wasn’t at all intended or even envisaged; but what, if anything, can and will now be done?
Robert Campbell is a retired surgeon.