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Civil disobedience and the law

The role of civil disobedience in a democracy was discussed in a House of Lords appeal case in 2006 (relating to damage to military installations at the time of the Iraq War). An opinion was given by Lord Hoffman:
Civil disobedience on conscientious grounds has a long and honourable history in this country. People who break the law to affirm their belief in the injustice of a law or government action are sometimes vindicated by history. The suffragettes are an example - Lord Hoffmann (2006)


Other examples of civil disobedience being vindicated by history are
  • the Latrigg and Kinder Scout trespasses
  • campaign for Indian independence
  • civil rights campaigners in South Africa and the USA
  • gay rights campaigns
  • the Stop the Child Murder campaign for safer Dutch streets.

Many people now feel that history will vindicate civil disobedience in response to government inaction over climate change.


A fuller quote from Lord Hoffmann is:
Civil disobedience on conscientious grounds has a long and honourable history in this country. People who break the law to affirm their belief in the injustice of a law or government action are sometimes vindicated by history. The suffragettes are an example which comes immediately to mind. It is the mark of a civilised community that it can accommodate protests and demonstrations of this kind. But there are conventions which are generally accepted by the law-breakers on one side and the law-enforcers on the other. The protesters behave with a sense of proportion and do not cause excessive damage or inconvenience. And they vouch the sincerity of their beliefs by accepting the penalties imposed by the law. The police and prosecutors, on the other hand, behave with restraint and the magistrates impose sentences which take the conscientious motives of the protesters into account. (Lord Hoffmann, Lord of Appeal, in R v Jones and others, House of Lords, 2006 https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200506/ldjudgmt/jd060329/jones-4.htm



First published: Nov 2018
Last updated: 15 Jul 2019