Risks, rights, statistics and compulsory measures

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Preventive coercive measures are an increasingly common feature of the legal landscape. Such measures are based on the probability, not the certainty, of future harmful conduct and they therefore carry the danger that some people who are not dangerous will be mistakenly subjected to them. Such people are called ‘false positives’. This article explores the moral and legal complexities which surround the problem of false positives. It investigates two lines of reasoning which attempt to minimise the severity of the problem. Explaining why we should reject these approaches, the article argues that, as a matter of political morality, it is more important to avoid mistaken decisions to restrict liberty than mistaken decisions not to restrict liberty. It also explains the nature of the legal protections which are needed to give effect to this weighting of the competing values at stake. Finally, it sheds light on provisions prohibiting arbitrary detention and arbitrary invasions of privacy in recent human rights legislation, explaining how the view adopted in this article can be used to give meaning to the notion of ‘arbitrariness’.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)507-535
Number of pages29
JournalSydney Law Review
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2009


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