Home » Our negligence means that we owe our ‘neighbours’ a duty of care.

Our negligence means that we owe our ‘neighbours’ a duty of care.

The nations from which people seeking asylum have come from are geographically distant.  How then can these people be thought of as our neighbours and why should we be neighbourly towards them?

I discussed elsewhere the Biblical question Who is my neighbour? Although, not everyone looks to the Bible for answers.

English civil (Tort) law addresses the question of who is my neighbour? as it pertains to the notion of negligence and duty of care.

In 1932, the appeal court was asked to rule on a case about negligence:

“The ratio decidendi of the case is not straightforward. Indeed, it could be interpreted as narrow as to establish a duty not to sell opaque bottles of ginger-beer, containing the decomposed remains of a dead snail, to Scottish widows.”

However, the case had broad implications. This case extended the neighbour principle.  In his judgment Lord Atkins wrote:

“The rule that you are to love your neighbour becomes in law, you must not injure your neighbour; and the lawyer’s question, Who is my neighbour? receives a restricted reply. You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour. Who, then, in law is my neighbour? The answer seems to be – persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions which are called in question.”

Applying this interpretation, how then can people seeking asylum and refugees be thought of as our neighbours? How can our acts and omissions have caused any injure to people we have not met?  I suggest many incidents of modern-day turmoil in the Middle East and Africa are latent effects of decisions and actions: racial, economic, social, and political, made by successive British governments both during and since the era of the British Empire.

The people we support in Skelmersdale fled countries such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, and Iran.  All of these nations history is tainted by the harm done to them by the British Empire.

Not many of us were alive during the era of the British Empire.  How then are we negligent and what, if any, duty of care do we owe?  We are still negligent in our relations with poorer nations, many of which are former colonies, or vassal states of the British Empire. A field of academic study investigates neo-colonialism: how corporations and powerful nations, including the UK, use their wealth, military, and political power to subordinate and impoverish weaker nations.

We vote for our governments, we wear clothes made in foreign sweatshops, our jobs in the ‘defence’ industry, rely upon our exports of bombs and bullets to dictators and fiefdoms around the world, our economy relies upon the exploitation of people and resources in the ‘global South’, the origin of many people seeking asylum and refuge in the ‘global North’.  The process of globalisation means that our political and economic decisions and activity have a close and direct impact, good and bad, around the world.  Hence, if we apply the idea of neighbour established in our civil law, our nation has a duty of care to make good any damage.  If people from exploited nations come to our shores seeking shelter, we have a duty of care to look after them.

Further reading: Asylum after Empire: Colonial Legacies in the Politics of Asylum Seeking

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The Skelmersdale Ecumenical Centre is a Charitable Incorporated Organisation.

Charity Number 1184507