Thursday, 15 July 2010

Ignorance is no defence

Just because you don’t know that something is illegal, that doesn’t mean you can use your ignorance as an excuse. Of course many laws are perfectly obvious, they’re just common sense. You don’t need to be told that you’re not allowed to murder, rape and steal, I think we all know instinctively that we aren’t permitted these things. Hopefully none of us even want to do these things because that common morality is so deeply engrained in our minds.

Actually there is even some evidence now that an innate sense of morality might actually be something that evolved within apes along with speech, intelligence and contempt for combi drivers.

But not all of the law is that obvious. The details of the laws our government has passed are often things we know nothing about. Did you know, for instance, that the Public Health Regulations of 1983 forbid a waiter in a restaurant from touching anything other than the handles of the cutlery? That “waiters fingers shall not come into contact with food when it is served”? That “waiters shall not touch the rim of a glass”?

Obviously we can be forgiven for not knowing these exact details of these regulations because nobody has ever told us about them. Well, until now that is. Now Consumer Watchdog and Mmegi have illuminated us all! Now we all know.

But WHY didn’t we know? Why did none of us know about these and all the other hygiene and public health rules that are there to protect us from infection, illness and death? Why don’t most of us know the details of the Consumer Protection Regulations or of the Penal Code?

Because nobody ever told us, that’s why. But I hear you asking whose job is it to tell us these things? For once I’m going to say that this is something Government is meant to do. Along with providing policing, national security, roads, sanitation, healthcare and schools I think public education is one of the few things that a Government is best placed to fund. Note that I didn’t actually say that I think Government need do the work themselves, but they just need to cough up the cash to pay for it. Let them employ experts to do the actual public education but the least the Government can do is sign the cheque,

But they don’t, despite it being their job. I don’t know why, I honestly don’t, but the effect is to keep the public in ignorance of our rights, responsibilities and the actions we can take to protect ourselves.

So here’s my new motto. If the Public Service won’t serve the public then the public must learn to serve itself.

Firstly I think we can start serving ourselves by visiting the Laws of Botswana web site at Having the laws online is a remarkably useful thing and the Attorney General’s people deserve a huge pat on the back for giving us all access to OUR laws. Visit the web site and you can get copies of the various Laws and Regulations for yourself. You can read them online or download them, print them, store them on your smartphone and read them at your leisure. Start by taking a look at the Penal Code, the Public Health Act and Regulations, the Food Control Act and Regulations, the Consumer Protection Act and Regulations, they’re all a very good start.

Best of all they are all very easy to read. All you need is a moderate command of English and you’ll understand every word, they’ve been extremely well written.

Then start browsing the web. Look at our web site, visit Google and start doing some searches for other sources of useful information. If you find any please let us know and we’ll tell everyone else about them for you.

Then revisit Consumer Watchdog. We’ve decided to practice what we preach and will be much more active in informing consumers about what’s going on, what to look out for and what to avoid. To begin with we’ve launched a new Facebook group, imaginatively called “Consumer Watchdog Botswana”. Please come and join the group and you’ll automatically receive links to this column as it’s published, news articles and comments. We’ll also use it to warn consumers of all the frauds and scams we uncover. Then, if you have told Facebook to do so, you will get an email every time something is posted to the group.

This isn’t the solution to every consumer problem but I genuinely feel that the more information people have at their disposal, the more confident they are likely to be when they encounter problems and the more assertive they’ll be when things go wrong. Also I really like the idea of the alert mechanism that a Facebook group offers. It will enable us to get messages out to members remarkably quickly.

If you do join the group please give us ideas for new things we can do, you can post details of scams and frauds yourself. Together we can all make this a useful resource for all the consumers of Botswana.

Please also use the discussion forum that the Facebook group offers to post your own suggestions, warnings and, let’s not forget, celebrations.

Ignorance really IS no defence so let’s start educating ourselves, because knowledge is the most powerful self-defence weapon we can carry.

1 comment:

dwilliamsbw said...

The principle, ignorantia juris non excusat is expressly legislated in Botswana (Sections 6 and 9 of the Penal Code Cap:08:01]). In South Africa during the early 70s the lack of such legislation allowed the flurry of excitement surround S v d Blom where the then Chief Justice, Rumpff, found that ignorance of the law could be an excuse. Sometimes.
To find case law to back up your study of the statutes, try the Southern African Legal Information Institute's side