David Mead: “Don’t Think Of An Elephant”: How Conceptualising Is Able To Skew The Outcome In Human Rights Cases

davidmeadIn his 2004 book “Don’t think of an elephant” cognitive linguist George Lakoff offered his view on the recent US political landscape. I’m very grateful that Daithí Mac Síthigh made me aware of it. Specifically, Lakoff tried to set out what he thought accounted for the success of the Republican right in winning the battle for the public’s hearts and minds during the 1990s. He analysed the debates surrounding several contentious issues, and the manner in which those debates, literally, were constructed. For example, on the issue of tax, instead of campaigning for “tax cuts” for the rich, Republicans framed the debate as one in which they were arguing for tax relief. As Lakoff wrote, “When the word tax is added to relief, the result is a metaphor: taxation is an affliction. And the person who takes it away is a hero, and anyone who tries to stop him is a bad guy. This is a frame. It is made up of ideas, like affliction and hero. And if people try to stop the hero, those people are villains for trying to prevent relief.”

This short post summarises some of my own “work in progress” which applies Lakoff’s idea of framing, or “conceptualising”, to the law specifically when human rights issues come to the fore. My primary aim in doing so is to seek views on whether it offers anything new and coherent. I vacillate between thinking that the argument it presents seems rather like the emperor’s new clothes and thinking there might somewhere be a relatively rich seam to be mined.

Not being much of a legal theorist or legal reasoner, it has dawned on me several times that I may be barking not up the wrong tree, but up a non-existent tree. That said, the decision – by either counsel or judge – about how to “conceptualise” the case in hand, or more precisely, the facts of the case in hand, doesn’t seem to be given much attention in legal literature. Yet, the way in which any legal scenario is conceptualised, that is to which area of law the factual matrix is best or most appropriately linked, can go a long way to determining the outcome or ultimate disposition, exactly as it can with framing contentious political questions. This happens in most cases at an almost subliminal level and for the most part is unlikely to be disputed, and unlikely to affect the outcome. That’s not always the case. For a plaintiff wrongly to decide – or to be wrongly advised – that a case raises a public law issue, rather than being simply a private law dispute – public sector employment contracts for example – can have serious consequences, as it did in, say, Evans v University of Cambridge.

In the human rights field, how the matter has been framed or conceptualised has the potential to affect how the case is resolved, if not the actual outcome in every instance. The remainder of this blog outlines some of the ways in which this might occur. The fuller article will plot a formal typography. Issues and concerns surrounding the conceptualisation of a case is neither new nor unique to human rights cases – or even public law. This much, I hope, is obvious. We might think of arguments over administrative vs. judicial hearings, in the days of Nakkuda Ali and Ridge v Baldwin, or categorising civil wrongs as actions on the case or damages as pure economic loss. The point is more that it has the potential to have greater effect, simply because of the issues in play and the public nature of the rights at stake.

First and most obviously, a case may not be framed as raising a rights-issue at all. The pre-HRA case of Sultan Khan in 1996 exemplifies this well. There, the House of Lords did not see the placing of a bug on a suspect drug dealer’s house as being about privacy at all. It was, in their eyes, simply a case about the admissibility of evidence. Secondly, there are cases where the courts do not see the facts as engaging a right at all. A good example would be the employment law case Pay where the EAT did not consider that being dismissed by the probation service for engaging in sado-masochistic sexual activity outside of and unconnected to work, raised Article 8 issues at all. Another would be Gillan. There, a half-hour stop and search under s.44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 was held by the House of Lords not to be a deprivation of liberty (within Article 5) and they doubted if it engaged the right of privacy in Article 8. In both, the European Court held (Gillan v UK) or in Pay v UK assumed otherwise – though Mr Pay lost on the facts. It’s crucial, of course, that the engagement issue is “correctly” disposed of, if for no other reason than that – in the case of qualified rights – the burden of showing the proportionality of the measure then falls on the state. Whether the facts are framed as to prefer one right over another is the third way in which conceptualisation rears its head. Was Mendoza really a case about equality and non-discrimination – or is it possible to see it as raising questions about the allocation and regulation of that scarce socio-economic resource, housing supply – albeit in the private market? The extent to which a court is prepared to defer to the primary decision-maker may depend on such categorisations. Last, whether we – and judges – view a case as being about private rights or about public rights, and values, is important too – and will clearly affect the outcome. Of course, the Occupy cases like Samede are about how private landowners can use their own land – but are they not also about how groups of citizens, perhaps disenfranchised, are able to utilise their public rights of free speech and protest? In an area I have written about recently – police searches by consent ([2012] Crim LR 97) – seeing the only issue as one of giving the police licence to do that which would otherwise be trespass and not as raising public law issues of accountability, transparency and power does not fully convey the position when the police come knocking.

Framing is not new – nor confined to law. We see it every day in newspapers – fitting an item into our pre-existing world view or sensitivities, or even expectations. Was Hilary Mantel’s LRB piece, really an attack on royalty – and on Kate Middleton – or was it a comment on the workings of the press, something concealed in the press reports themselves? The press of course “frame” the human rights debate too – by selective inclusion and language, and even perhaps deliberate conflation of that two-headed European beast, the EU and the ECHR. Framing and conceptualisation in the law though is qualitatively different. By its nature, litigation has the potential to juridify social relations and scenarios – they exist no longer on the street or at work but are legally enshrined and given legal form  – and not, of course, simply for that one case. Deciding, to take another example, whether a claim for misusing private information is a bastardised equitable claim or a new type of tort will dictate whether damages are can be refused for future claimants on a discretionary basis. It’s important we work at seeing the law through the right lenses.

David Mead is Professor of Public Law & UK Human Rights at the University of Essex

Suggested citation: D. Mead, ‘”Don’t Think Of An Elephant”: How Conceptualising Is Able To Skew The Outcome In Human Rights Cases’ UK Const. L. Blog (26th February 2013)(available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org).

1 Comment

Filed under Human rights, Judicial review

One response to “David Mead: “Don’t Think Of An Elephant”: How Conceptualising Is Able To Skew The Outcome In Human Rights Cases

  1. Hi David
    Are there different stages at which framing happens? There is pre-litigation framing, which is about identifying a cause of action and issues such as justiciability. There is framing within the case itself, which is essentially about the discourse (rhetoric?) used by the legal teams and the judges, and there is post-litigation framing which is about the manner in which the media and academic commentators read the case. Each stage might turn on different factors and objectives.
    There’s also an issue about the weight which particular frames attach, a framing in terms of rights carrying greater legal, moral and political potency than one which does not.
    Keith

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