Age of Irresponsibility

Much has been made in recent years of the problems of the “Compensation Culture” and many politicians have expended great gusts of hot air about how they propose to end it. However, in reality this is merely a symptom of a far wider problem.

Historically in the UK, when a government department got something seriously wrong the Minister for that department would give an “honourable resignation”, leaving his position on the basis (as a US President1 famously said) “the buck stops here”. Now we have government Ministers who when something goes wrong send a junior member of staff to face the wrath of the press and carry on regardless. But it is not just politicians, this type of behaviour is endemic across society.  Bankers mess up in catastrophic ways, even breaking the law, and walk away with large bonuses in their pockets. Security contractors accept lucrative jobs, then ask the government to bail them out when they can not do what is needed.

But these are the well publicised cases where everyone is quick to blame the culprits for their faults. More insidious are the day to day examples. Public bodies and Local Authorities who do all their work strictly “by the book” concentrating on complying with their procedure rather than giving a good service to the public. Bus Drivers who leave a stop exactly on the dot regardless of the person patently running to catch the bus. Companies who respond to complaints with “we have complied with all relevant legal provisions”.2

These are all down to “blame” and “liability”. What we are lacking is “responsibility”. As a good lawyer should, I will define these terms.

“Blame” is where someone is held at fault for what they have done.

“Liability” is where the law states there are legal consequences to a specified person for their acts.

“Responsibility” is about taking decisions or actions and being accountable for those.

Blame and liability are passive. Someone is given blame; the law imposes liability. Responsibility is active. You take responsibility for things.

We are living in a Blame Culture. Much of society is concentrating on avoiding blame and liability. As a result, there is an avoidance of responsibility – we live in an age of irresponsibility. Like little children, squabbling, “it wasnae me, a big boy did it and ran away”.

It has even reached into the legal profession. A firm who sacked a trainee for sending funds to the wrong individual; a senior partner of a large prestigious firm who in correspondence stated the law to be precisely the reverse of what it is, then blamed it on the secretary.

But legal liability for the acts of staff or trainees rests with the partners of the firm, who have a duty to supervise. More importantly the partners should take professional responsibility for everything coming out of their legal firm regardless of any legal liability. In the same way every lawyer (partner or not) should take professional responsibility for whatever services they are providing to clients, their actings with other lawyers, and their services & duties to court & society in general. This is a tradition that can be traced back to the mediaeval period and further yet to the jurisconsults of the Roman Empire, literally thousands of years of history. Surely this is a tradition worth preserving? If anyone should be taking reponsibility for things, it should be the lawyers.

Taking responsibility need not mean taking on legal liability. It is a practical expression of a moral value. It is a form of leadership. It is saying “this is my will, my decision and I take the consequences for good or for ill”. It can also be good economic sense: if you tell your clients “I am responsible; if anything goes wrong in our service, I will fix it” you are nailing your colours of customer service to the mast. So long as you follow through your reputation, and customer loyalty, will just keep growing even when something goes wrong. Specifying your responsibility can even restrict your legal liability, by distinguishing between what you are and are not responsible for.

Taking responsibility is not about letting other people off the hook. In the case of the old fashioned government minister or business director resigning because of a mistake by their underlings, it gave them an opportunity to clear out the problems, reprimand or remove staff who were not up to the job, without worrying about any ill-will or ambivalent feelings accruing to them in the department, allowing their replacement to be a “new broom” with the worst of the mess tidied away already.  Likewise in a business, if you are responsible, you may still hold your staff liable for any wrongdoings, but not put blame on them. There is a difference between someone being wrong which calls for education or training, and doing wrong which calls for the relevant legal (or contractual) consequence. But if the right thing to do is unpleasant, taking responsibility means you will do that however much you would prefer not to.

But responsibility is not just about business; it is about life. Not happy with what the politicians or bankers are up to? Take responsibility for it! Believe your representative body isn’t doing its job? Take responsibility! Think the pavement outside your front door isn’t cleaned enough? Take responsibility! Complaining “why doesn’t someone do something about…”, or “why don’t they…” is trying to put blame on someone. Taking responsibility is about asserting control over your own life, exercising your liberties, and affecting the world around you where it affects you (directly or indirectly). How you choose to do it is up to you.

By refusing to take responsibility you are surrendering your own moral compass and personal independence. Your actions are dictated by whoever is assigning blame, and you fall into the moral bankruptcy of “I was only following orders”.

Remember the slogan “Think Globally, Act Locally”. You have your own sphere of influence: direct action, things you can directly do yourself; indirect action, things you can get other people to do;  and communications, things you only pass on information or lobby about. If you are not happy about something, decide how important it is to you, then exercise your power according to how important it is to you.

You can go out every week and sweep that pavement outside your front door, or you can send a letter to the Council. You can take you money out of the irresponsible bank and put it somewhere else. You can complain to your representative, or stand for their position yourself. If a business rule doesn’t help your customers, take it up with the management.

In some cases each act you take may only make a tiny tiny impact on the thing you want to change, but given long enough raindrops can erode rock; if enough people agree with you, even without co-operating the cumulative effect will build up. Perhaps though what you do may be enough to single handedly change things; history is full of people who decided to take responsibilty for something that they had no legal liability for, and in doing so made part of the world a better place.

So reject the blame culture, lead by example: take responsibility for what is important to you, and encourage or demand that others take responsibility too. If you aren’t going to, who will?

1. Harry S Truman, who apparently was given it by Fred M. Canfil, United States Marshal for the Western District of Missouri.
2.A perfect example of the phrase “law is the last refuge of the scoundrel”.

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