x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

No need to punish rudeness as a crime

A recent case of an alleged offensive gesture while driving raises a question: is criminal court the best place to resolve these disputes?

In hindsight, Joseph Mensah should have kept his hands on the steering wheel. Charged with making an offensive gesture to a government official in April, the British surgeon returned to England after making bail and, as The National reported yesterday, has said he will not return to face trial.

There is no excuse for skipping bail. Dr Mensah lived and worked in the UAE and was obliged to follow the law.

But it is nonetheless worth asking if the potential punishment fits the allegations. In these recent proceedings, months of court time, lawyer fees and lost wages have been incurred by both the state and the defendant in a case that is essentially about public civility.

There is a significant public interest in deterring rude behaviour, whether offensive gestures or profanity. But are criminal proceedings, and a quick recourse to the courts, the best way to encourage civil behaviour?

In many countries, insults are handled as infractions or misdemeanors with a warning, a ticket or a fine. Of course, there needs to be a clear distinction between behaviour that is simply rude - and behaviour that is threatening, abusive or constitutes harassment. Personal insults are not the same thing as physical harm.

An avenue could be to treat these cases as civil matters. That would enable parties to settle out of court; in most circumstances, a simple apology should suffice. Restitution might accomplish more than a trial.

Civil cases would also transfer the burden of proof to the plaintiff rather than the defendant. As it stands now, those who file charges first are often given the benefit of the doubt in proceedings, encouraging frivolous complaints.

And because the burden of proof often comes down to one person's word against another, convictions are rarely watertight and often overturned after an appeal to the higher courts. Unless there is an objective witness or physical evidence, a criminal prosecution relies on personal testimony. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable in any case, much more so when the parties are personally involved in the case.

A misdemeanor penalty or civil court provide the appropriate recourse against offensive behaviour without weighing down the judicial system. In the end, we need to police our own behaviour; if the authorities have to be involved, there has already been a breakdown in civil relations.