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Freemen of the dangerous nonsense

Author: Adam Wagner |

16 Nov 2011 | 10:53

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Today (15 Novemeber), guardian.co.uk's Comment is Free (CIF) was "taken over" by the Occupy London movement. This has led to two particularly worrying articles being published. Both purport to offer legal advice which, if followed, could lead you straight to prison.

For that reason, Guardian CIF goes straight to the legal naughty step, where it can share a tent with the Occupy London movement. I understand that the Guardian's online legal editors had nothing to do with the commissioning of the articles, and I also realise that "comment is free". But there has to be a limit, and there is a huge difference between a controversial but plausible point of view and quackery. As CP Scott's phrase continues "... comment is free but facts are sacred".

The two articles are Yes, defaulting on debts is an option and We are the change: welfare, education and law at the Occupy camp. The first offers an alluring way to escape the debt collectors by, it would seem, asking the company's representatives some silly questions to confuse them, and then claiming that all money is illusory anyway (except, of course, the creditor's money which you have spent). I will not attempt to deconstruct the arguments here but will refer you to this excellent post by blogger Legal Bizzle.

The second article, co-authored by "commonly known as dom", propagates the dangerous myths of the Freeman of the Land Movement, described here by legal blogger Carl Gardner. In short, the Freemen believe that if you change your name and deny the jurisdiction of the courts, you will be able to escape (you guessed it) debt collectors, council tax and even criminal charges. As "commonly known as dom" puts it, "if you don't consent to be that "person", you step outside the system".

No you don't. This movement is not just silly, it is also dangerous, and seemingly gaining popularity through numerous internet sites. I can provide two recent examples where it definitely did not help, and probably did harm to, people in the justice system.

The first is the case of Elizabeth Watson and Victoria Haigh, the former of which was sentenced to nine months in prison (later suspended) for publishing details online about sex abuse allegations made by Ms Haigh against her child's father. Haigh's case was taken up by John Hemming MP, and was one of the super-injunctions he revealed using Parliamentary privilege. She was ultimately found by the most senior family judge to be a fabricator who had coached her daughter to lie about being abused by her ex-partner.

Both Haigh and Watson considered themselves Freemen of the Land, who attempted to step outside of the system. It seems likely that at least in Watson's case, her belief that she had "stepped outside of the system" led to her brazenly to flout contempt laws for as long as she did.

My second example arose when I did jury service last month (a generally positive experience - see my comment on it here). One of the trials involved a defendant who was accused of stealing sports cars. When we entered the court, the judge told us that the defendant had released his legal team and was denying the court's jurisdiction. He refused to cross-examine witnesses - rather, he used the opportunity to ask the judge whether his jurisdiction arose from maritime law - and his closing statement involved the reading of a latin phrase and stating that he was the "official representative of the legal fiction known as..."

We found the defendant guilty on seven of eight counts, and I will not say anything about our reasoning. I do suspect that the car stealing defendant's bizarre and misguided defence influenced the judge's sentencing, and I also imagine that if he had retained his representation he may have pleaded guilty in any event. Either way, he probably went to prison for longer as a result of his attempt to trying to "step outside of the system".

Occupy London's takeover of CIF was a cute idea which seems to have gone badly wrong. The only two possible upsides are that, first, through the comments, the views set out in the articles can be given the public shaming which they deserve. Secondly, and somewhat sadly, the fact that this is the best the intellectual members of the Occupy LSX movement can muster exposes the strong possibility that it is being run, in part, by people who should not be allowed anywhere near this country's economy.

I say sadly because I, along with many others, have sympathy for some of the criticisms of government and the economy which the movement has advanced. It should be noted that Occupy is a decentralised movement with no public leaders, and it is therefore possible that everyone who wanted to be in CIF was given the chance. However, it is notable that "occupylsx3" who been responding to many of the comments on the debt article seemingly on behalf of the camp, has responded to mine in this way:
Occupy London does not speak with one voice - within the movement there is much plurality and diversity... getoutofdebtfree.org has helped many people deal with crippling and overwhelming debts... This stuff actually works. It is not ‘dangerous' for those in debt, but perhaps ‘dangerous' for those who created the spurious debt in the first place.

I disagree. "This stuff" is dangerous and it does people harm. The common link between the get out of debt and Freemen articles is that both promote the idea that if you believe hard enough that the financial or legal system does not exist, or is a gigantic fraud, then your problems will disappear along with the system.

These ideas are most attractive to desperate, vulnerable people who are going through terrible times in their lives. They are also classic conspiracy theories which should be consigned to the same category as the "9/11 was an inside job" T-Shirt which one of the debt advice website's representatives is wearing in this YouTube video. The articles' publication on CIF gives the ideas a veneer of respectability they do not deserve.

I very much doubt that the articles represent the views of the many of the thoughtful people who currently occupy the forecourt of St Paul's Cathedral. But if those people are interested in justice and fairness, they should denounce such irresponsible advice. And CIF should not have given a platform to conspiracy theories.

Adam Wagner is a barrister and editor of UK Human Rights Blog, which is written by members of 1 Crown Office Row. Click here to follow Adam on Twitter.

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