Caveat, caveat

A long time ago, a really long time ago, back when George Michael was straight and Jimmy Saville was still a much loved family entertainer, I studied for a law degree. I know this seems unlikely but nevertheless it is undoubtedly true. Not only do I remember it, really pretty clearly, I also have clear documentary proof in a drawer somewhere, filed between some old receipts for a nice pastel batwing sweater from Richard Shops and a signed photo of Marc Bolan saying ‘Keep a little Marc in your heart!”.

Now the reasons why I decided to study for a law degree are a little lost in the mists of time, but I am guessing they were something to with something I’d seen on the telly. It must have been really, because when I made that choice I had been nowhere and seen nothing of the world.

In fact I had only the vaguest idea of what a lawyer did except what I had seen on Rumpole of the Bailey. But it did look quite cool, and I liked the look of the wig, and also women seemed to do it. Women with nice cars and FLATS in LONDON. And although I had only ever been to London twice (once to Harrods, once to the Natural History Museum) I was pretty sure it wasn’t all fancy hats and dinosaur bones. It was where I wanted to be.

(Also, there was a 1970s programme I loved from the US called Paper Chase about law students at Harvard Law School, lolling about in the sunshine and chatting about precedent, with their long flicky hair and extra wide flares flapping lightly in the breeze. And that was just the men – well this was the 1970s after all. In fact, on reflection I was mainly just interested in being a law STUDENT and having a flat. I hadn’t got much further than that. Still a girl has to dream.)

The story of my escapades as law student, frolicking gaily through the stacks of heavy bound law reports clutching my fluffy Baby Lawyer Wig – that is for another time. But I warn you there are many hilarious anecdotes about that time we got confused between consensus ad idem and consensus facit legem – you’d better hold onto your sides!

But I even though I haven’t practised law for ten years or so, I still use my legal training every day. My law degree, and the practice of law that came after it, tidied up my mind and straightened out my synapses in ways I didn’t recognise at the time but for which I am hugely grateful. The ability to see situations in a logical way, to see patterns between the ways people behave, to always take a rational perspective while never losing sight of the human, emotional side of every situation – these are things that I see, more and more as the years go by – are incredibly useful skills and surprisingly rare.

So this week when I read about the death of Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse at the Duchess of Cambridge’s hospital who was tricked by the Australian radio DJ pranksters, I thought of a legal principle I had not brought to mind for many years. I first heard of her death – as I hear about almost everything these days – on Facebook and Twitter, and almost immediately there followed the justification and defence of those responsible for the ‘prank’ – that the nurse must already have been unhappy, that there must have been underlying issues there.

Well, I thought, so what? In the criminal and civil law, I was taught the eggshell skull principle. You take your victim as you find them. If you donk someone on the head and their skull shatters, because it’s unusually fragile, well don’t come whining to me about how you couldn’t have foreseen it. That’ll teach you to not go around donking people on the head.

Life is, says the law, a game of consequences. If you behave like a dick, whether it’s donking people on the head, or bullying some weaker kid at school, or ringing up people just trying to do their job on the other side of the world to lie to them for a ‘joke’ knowing that your actions will get them into deep trouble – well, if the victim of your dickishness gets very upset, and does something that YOU wouldn’t have done, something YOU consider extreme, well you had better just suck up the fact that you are responsible. Morally responsible. Because you can’t go around expecting everyone you meet to be in robust mental health. Life isn’t like that. Come now, everyone knows this. The world is in fact full of miserable, lonely people, some of whom are feeling very very low indeed at any given moment, and you never know what’s behind the façade that many of us wear to get through the day.

This was hugely relevant as a lawyer, and it’s every bit as relevant in the classroom. You just never know who is sitting in front of you. What they saw before they left home this morning, what their girlfriend has just told them, what they woke up crying about in the middle of the night.

It might seem a little daunting, to think of the misery that might be lurking behind the smiling faces. To imagine what people are really thinking, really feeling. But actually the solution is in fact quite simple. In the words of Plato (back to the Latin again) – be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

Be gentle, life is hard. Don’t donk anyone on the head, even if you’re having a very bad day.

And cheap pranks at the expense of other people, even in Australia, are never never funny.

About number6

I am not a number, I am a free woman. More or less.
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6 Responses to Caveat, caveat

  1. Macleod. says:

    I really don’t buy this Laney. There was no malice in anything the Aussies did, there was no deliberate attempt to injure Jacintha Saldanha or any other. It was a prank with a deeply tragic outcome that could not reasonably have been foreseen – and the donking people on the head analogy just doesn’t cut it.

    You were probably sniggering yourself when you heard about the spoof call. It was funny, the sort of nonsense us Brits like. It was Basil Faulty, Morcambe & Wise and Benny Hill. You seem to regard the act and the tragic outcome as a single event. It was not. It’s easy and lazy thinking to suggest otherwise – and the ‘solution’ isn’t simple or obvious. There really isn’t one.

  2. lucy says:

    Many years ago a friend of mine gave his friend a playful shove whilst waiting in line to a night club. His friend fell and cracked his head on the pavement and subsequently died. He was given a prison sentence for manslaughter. He was wracked with guilt and devastated but it didn’t sway the court. I don’t see any difference in this case. Their stupid behaviour ended in someone’s death. Sorry just doesn’t cut it.

  3. Steve says:

    Jokes, pranks and mean words are not the same as physical assault. You can’t make taking the piss illegal. Sarcasm is not a crime. Wind-ups are part of everyday social interaction. Are we to assume that everyone we encounter is mentally unstable and must on no account be made to feel bad – under penalty of law? That’s not a society I want to live in. And as for the final comment – “Cheap pranks at the expense of other people … are never never funny.” That’s just factually incorrect, because they are often HILARIOUS.

  4. Hornist says:

    You have to consider the fact that, while the consequence in this case were more extreme than perhaps expected (if any thought was even given to that to begin with), there would have nonetheless been consequences which should have been thought about and considered, before broadcasting the call. She may have lost her job, had to have a disciplinary hearing, lost her reputation, or any number of other things. These are all consequences that, regardless of whether the Australians viewed it as a cheap prank or not, would have affected her quality of life and ability to bring up two children, as well as making it much more difficult to get a job in her profession, in spite of the fact that, by all accounts, she was good at her job. There may not have been malice in what the Australians did, but it doesn’t change the fact that they were thoughtless; every action has a reaction, which needs to be considered. You don’t just have to have trained to be a lawyer, or experienced the consequences through friends – it’s basic common sense. Jokes, pranks and mean words are not the same as physical assault, but they can have the same consequences. It’s like the difference between verbal and physical bullying – at the end of the day, there is no difference. It’s impacting someone’s life, far too often in a thoroughly negative way. The DJ’s need to accept responsibility for what they’ve done; saying that you’re “gutted” about her death is just inexcusable.

    • Macleod. says:

      “It’s like the difference between verbal and physical bullying – at the end of the day, there is no difference.”

      You’re kidding right? Someone verbally abuses you, versus someone who breaks your nose. Of course there’s a difference – in intent, magnitude and consequence. You must surely see this.

      The Australian DJs didn’t kill Jancintha Saldahna, she killed herself. Her suicide was an extreme reaction to the telephone event by any reasonable measure. You write as though it was Jancintha herself who was the intended target. All she did was answer a telephone and forward the call.

      If you made a complaint call to your bank or any other institution and the person who took your call subsequently committed suicide – you’d be astonished. You’d think it a colossal overreaction and not anything you could have reasonably anticipated and certainly not your responsibility. My guess is that contrary to what you suggest the DJs should have done, you yourself would never for a moment have ‘considered the consequences’ before or after your call. It would be completely unforseeable, so I don’t believe that your position really holds any cogency.

      The elephant in the room is Jancintha’s mental condition. Commentators are too afraid to state categorically that it may have some bearing on her actions because that would be ‘cruel or thoughtless’, ‘insult upon injury’ and ‘think of her family.’ It nevertheless needs to be considered.

      Jacintha was a trained and experienced front line nurse. She would have had to deal with issues immeasurably more stressful in her daily professional life than the telephone incident. Ask any medical professional whether they felt Jancitha’s minimal involvement in the event would drive her or any other trained and rational professional to suicide and they’d say highly unlikely if ever. I asked. I’m married to a nurse with over 25 years experience and she and her nursing colleagues find it difficult to believe that Jacintha wasn’t in some way mentally disturbed in the first instance.

      We’ve sensationalised and wrung our hands over the whole tragic event because we seem unable or unwilling to accept that this is how the world works. Dreadful things happen to people every day. We want to rationalise these random events but when we cannot, we replace logic and simple resignation with a cynical need to apportion blame.

      • Hornist says:

        Physically there’s a difference, but it still impacts mentally in a very similar way.

        It’s true that it was an extreme reaction, but it doesn’t sound as if the DJ’s considered any of the possible impacts their actions may have had. “If you made a complaint call to your bank or any other institution and the person who took your call subsequently committed suicide – you’d be astonished”. Yes, you probably would be, but then again, it’s extremely unlikely it’s going to end up as headline news around the world. Although the hospital said they weren’t going to take actions, what Jancintha did was newsworthy in almost every country in the world, which must have contributed to the pressure and inadequacy that she may have felt. Everything is magnified when it’s in the public eye.

        I wouldn’t call this a “cynical need to apportion blame” more that the DJ’s (whom I’m sure feel awful, and understandably so, they didn’t expect this), but so that they can accept some responsibility, because, intentionally or not, they did contribute to her death.

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