Published: November 2005
Publisher: Willan Publishing
Price: GBP£ 35.00
The law and lawyers are usually reluctant to focus on alcohol problems as a legal subject in its own right. The potential of the law (and not just the criminal law) as an means of helping to solve those problems tends to be ignored or dismissed. So I welcome the publication of this book.
The author, Gavin Dingwall, is a lecturer in law at the University of Wales, Aberystwith. He has worked and published research in the field of alcohol and crime over a considerable period. This includes a contribution to ‘Alcohol, Society and the Law’ edited by O’Donnell and Kilcommins (2003).
‘Alcohol and Crime’ is aimed at introducing “readers to the debate about the relationship between alcohol and crime and the way in which the criminal justice system responds to those who offend after consuming alcohol”. In a sense it is partly a sociological study and partly a legal paper. There are well researched chapters on ‘alcohol and society’ and ‘alcohol use and crime’. I found the historical and international material particularly interesting.
The chapter ‘explaining the frequent co-existence’ is an admirable introduction to the complex relationship (often best not explained in terms of simple causation) between the commission of a crime and the fact that the offender had been drinking. The next chapter discusses prevention and policing initiatives.
The author moves to legal analysis in the chapter ‘intoxication and criminal responsibility’. There has been much criticism of the case law which has developed in this context. The Law Commission of England and Wales initially suggested creating a separate offence for those cases (e.g. murder) where intoxication may sometimes prevent the defendant from having the criminal intent to sustain a conviction. Following its consultation this proposal was dropped, but Dingwall is attracted by the idea, arguing that it would “reflect the degree of culpability of the defendant more honestly, whilst at the same time ensuring that the law does not fall into disrepute”.
In ‘sentencing issues’ Dingwall is strongly critical of current legislative initiatives which he considers have “unravelled the coherence” of the Criminal Justice Act 1991. One of his more loaded comments is “Immediately after taking office, Tony Blair’s government fulfilled … its promise by introducing a number of reactionary criminal justice reforms.” He also seems to share many of the Institute of Alcohol Studies’ misgivings about the Licensing Act 2003.
The last chapter is a conclusion which ends with a plea for the use of measures which are “justified and proportionate”.
This is a brave effort to tackle a new and difficult subject. There are many interesting insights and much that is useful for reference purposes. On the other hand the overall focus is perhaps a little narrow.
In my view, in order to help readers (many of whom will be lawyers or law students) to understand how alcohol feeds into criminal behaviour, introductory material is needed not only on ‘alcohol and society’, ‘alcohol use and crime’ and ‘explaining the frequent coexistence’, but also on how alcohol problems are solved. There also, surely, needs to be some discussion of different theoretical approaches to alcohol problems, if for no other reason than to prepare the young lawyer for the many fundamental disagreements which exist between experts in this field. This discussion could include some mention of the International Classification of Diseases distinction between alcohol dependence and misuse, recent work on the relationship between dependence and problems, the disease concept and the controversy over abstinence and controlled drinking.
Despite Dingwall’s criticisms of the posturing of politicians he follows them to some extent in focusing on the most obvious manifestation of ‘alcohol related crime’ (an expression which he uses with some reluctance and no doubt for want of anything better) with very little coverage of drunken driving and other offences which may be related to alcohol dependence, such as theft, fraud and other ‘middle class’ crime.
It seems to me that Dingwall’s concept of ‘alcohol related crime’ is in any event too narrow. It is confined to cases where the offender commits a crime when he has alcohol in his system. My own experience, among other things, in helping lawyers with drinking problems (www.articles.jgoodliffe.co.uk), suggests that people’s behaviour often fails to match up with legal norms (both criminal and civil) because of the problems which arise from past as well as (or rather than) present drinking. These problems include, for instance, depression, cognitive impairment, and denial. Denial includes the enhanced ability to persuade oneself that one is justified in doing whatever one wants to do.
In studying alcohol related crime, one can use the commission of the crime as a starting point and work back to analyse its causes. An alternative or complementary approach is to use the people who have the problems arising from, or related to, alcohol as the starting point. The criminal behaviour of those people will usually be only one of their problems, but the solution may be a general one. Dingwall might not, perhaps, disagree with this proposition, but there is, in my view, a disproportionate focus in his book on working back from the crime.
A socio-legal approach to alcohol and crime (or indeed any area of the law) should also, in my view, focus not only on sentencing but on what happens before offenders get to that stage. In particular how much help do they and should they get from alcohol counsellors, AA volunteers, probation officers, lawyers and judges? Should lawyer training cover this subject as it does in some US states? Should a lawyer representing an alcoholic client not understand as much about alcohol problems as a personal injuries lawyer does about the medical problems of his client? If he wants to acquire that understanding there is not much in the way of reading material currently available to him. Mention of alcohol and drugs is often not to be found even in the indices of leading legal textbooks.
Dingwall’s work, despite its shortcomings, is a worthy starting point. The profession also urgently requires introductory material on subjects such as ‘alcohol and family law’, ‘alcohol and employment law’, ‘alcohol and housing law’, ‘alcohol and medical law’ and, of course, in more general terms, on ‘alcohol and the law’ itself.
Jonathan Goodliffe is a solicitor who writes from time to time on alcohol problems and the law.