Mary-Ann Leneghan – The Blaming Game

Lurid headlines about a crack-fuelled murder have obscured the real question of who is to blame for the tragic death of teenager Mary-Ann Leneghan. 

As a qualified probation officer, no stranger to managing high risk offenders in the community, I have watched closely as the service has come under massive scrutiny in the wake of a series of recent murders committed by individuals under its supervision. The news commentary has failed to address the real question of state accountability for private acts of extreme violence. The suspension of a few probation officers doesn’t begin to address the important issues this throws up.

Offering the officers up in sacrifice threatens to conceal the fact that society hasn’t come to terms with the idea that, in every walk of life, we carry substantial risks into our everyday lives. Is it preferable to pursue a path which aims to minimise every risk we face?

While the probation officers in the Leneghan case are awaiting their fate, others have been punished for their perceived errors over the death of city banker John Monckton.  A spate of murders recently (Leneghan, Monckton, and Symons) have exposed the dangers which some individuals pose in society. 

Let’s back up a moment for the facts.  Mary-Ann Leneghan was repeatedly raped and stabbed to death by a drug gang that alleged she had set them up against a rival dealer. John Monckton was the city banker who met his end in his own home, under the eyes of his children. Finally, headmaster Robert Symons also met his end at home, killed with a kitchen knife by a mentally ill crack addict who bragged about his burgling skills. 

How should the state deal with such offenders?  The fundamental tasks of the state lie in the services it provides, and it is surely not controversial to state that these tasks are broadly to ensure the health, safety and security of its citizens. This is right and proper and is bound up in the social contract to which we are all subject. In exchange for renouncing some of our key freedoms (for example the freedom to act as we wish), we expect the state to protect us from those whose actions impinge on our lives adversely.

The debate over the extent to which this contract should be drawn in favour of high- or low-level intervention into our lives forms the basis of political discourse, and the advent of recent initiatives such as ASBOs indicate that we are living in a time of increasingly draconian and low-level state intervention.

If we take it for granted that the ailing probation service deserves the criticism levelled at it for its failure in these cases, wider questions remain about the implications of all this mess for the social contract described above. For what, exactly, is the probation service being held to account? In what task has it failed, and for what consequences is it being blamed? Surely not the deaths of the victims, since it would be patently unreasonable to expect probation officers to prevent all the unpleasant acts committed by individuals under their supervision.

'Even if the risk management procedures had been applied appropriately, the harm could still have occurred'

Doctors treating cancer are not held accountable for the tumours reappearing unless they are shown to have been deficient in the duty of care towards the patient. It will always be possible that the cancer will resurface whether or not the doctors provide the best possible treatment. Likewise we expect probation officers to assess risk as accurately as possible and to apply resources to the management of that risk as far as possible. In doing so there are organisational tools and procedures available to officers which are designed to ensure that minimum standards are applied, and defensible decisions taken.

In this, the officers suspended in the wake of the murder of Monckton can be said to have failed, since routine procedures which should have identified Damian Hanson and Elliot White as high risk, thereby engaging a series of subsequent risk management processes which did not occur. It is fundamental to the understanding of the implications of these sorry tales that we, the public, recognise that even if the risk management procedures had been applied appropriately, the harm could still have occurred.

All organisations incur risks in their course of their activities, and it is in the nature of the work carried out by the probation service that these risks include horrific acts committed by their ‘clientele’. This is the key to understanding the extent of the accountability which applies to such organisations and their relationship to the government and the public.

We only ask that such organisations do everything possible within the limitations of their resources and remit. These limitations are the very reason why it is possible to conceive of a scenario in which the harm occurs despite the organisation operating to maximum effectiveness. Such practice is described by probation staff as defensible and protects the organisation from criticism in the event of adverse results arising out of its work with offenders.

And herein lies the twist to the condemnation which has rained down from the tabloid upon the beleaguered probation service. It incurred criticism (or harm to the organisation) because of the poor practice of the officers involved. Therefore the probation service failed to protect itself from the risks to which it is vulnerable as well as the public at large. As we have seen it is the former failure that is considered unacceptable. We condemn the officers, not for failing to prevent Monckton’s murder, but for failing to follow established procedure in managing the perpetrators.

'We are living in a high watermark period of state intervention in our lives'

This has interesting implications for the social contract described in brief above. If extrapolated, it indicates that the role of the state is to do nothing more than to protect itself from criticism, and that it does this by performing the functions we ask of it by virtue of the contract to the minimum degree necessary to fulfil its part of the bargain. Therefore, it is in the state’s interests to frame its obligations in the most limited terms possible.

But in practice this does not occur and the reason is simple; we are living in a high watermark period of state intervention in our lives. Terror legislation and a new wave of civil/criminal legislation tacked on to the ‘respect’ agenda have brought areas of our lives into the ambit of the criminal law which were previously in the private sphere. Under the terms of the social contract any increase in the state’s responsibility and accountability can only be accompanied by a corresponding decline in our personal freedoms (c.f.  ID cards). If the state is to justify its incursions into our lives, it must assume ever greater responsibility for the failures of its protective role. On this basis, we can read between the lines of the suspension of probation officers in the wake of Monckton’s death and see the state taking actual responsibility for its failure to prevent the murder.

Whether this is an acceptable state of affairs, and whether we can tolerate the erosion of personal freedom which is the inevitable corollary of increased state accountability is not a question with much relevance to the daily lives of the majority. But for the minorities, living on the eroded margins of ASBO land, these questions ring true and with increasing urgency.

Does society need easy scapegoats?