"intelligent and useful posts on many of the key legal issues"

- Adam Wagner, UK Human Rights Blog

Friday, 9 December 2011

The fugitive: Roman Polanski

I have been published in this week's New Law Journal (Vol 161, 9 December 2011, p1714) on the libel action of Roman Polanski from earlier this century. 

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Riot sentences - a response

Published in Criminal Law & Justice Weekly, Vol. 175, December 3 2011, p 721

Recently in CL&J (p.596, ante), Caron Thatcher and Emmanouela Mylonaki of London South Bank University considered the sentences handed out following the August riots in London and elsewhere. The theme of their article was that some of the sentences were disproportionately high, at least in the case of offences not involving violence. It seems to me, however, that there are indeed reasons particular to riots which do justify higher sentences than ordinary incidents of public disorder or theft.

Continue reading here.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Fair trials and the freedom of the press: when fundamental principles conflict

Published on Halsbury's Law Exchange here.

Two principles fundamental to English law are open justice and freedom of the press. The right of the public to know via the press who has been charged with what is one of the key features that distinguishes a free society from the sort of tyrannies where those deemed not to be on message politically disappear and are never heard from again.

Equally fundamental, however, is the right to a fair trial, which requires among other things that an accused is judged solely according to the evidence before the court, not the fevered imaginings of the more populist elements of the press.

One very recent manifestation of that inherent conflict concerned a blog by a well-known political commentator about the Stephen Lawrence murder trial. The blog has been referred to the Attorney-General for consideration for prosecution for contempt of court. As the trial is still in progress nothing more will be said about it.

A recent occasion on which the courts had to consider the same issue, however, was the case of HM Attorney-General v MGN Ltd and another [2011] All ER (D) 06 (Aug), which arose out of the murder of Joanna Yeats at the end of 2010.

Police attention was initiallyfocused on Miss Yeats’ landlord, who was arrested but released without charge. Before suspicion had been lifted however, some elements of the press printed all manner of lurid allegations about him. In the event those mattered not, since the real murderer did not dispute the fact of having killed Miss Yeats. It was held however that if the landlord had faced prosecution, he would have been able to raise a serious argument that he could not receive a fair trial because of this adverse publicity. Even though the argument would probably have failed, it would have been properly made and therefore would have incurred tangible costs and delays to the trial process, and a possible ground of appeal.

Accordingly, even the most robust defenders of freedom of speech would have to concede some limitations on the right of the press to influence an extant trial.

The Yeats decision raised some important points about the present state of the law, and points for reform. What it did not consider, however, was the possible influence – not for the good – of the internet. As I wrote in an article on the case for Criminal Law & Justice Weekly, one of the central planks of the publishers’ defence was that the articles would have faded from the jurors’ memories by the time of the trial. But articles would still have been readily obtainable online.

Moreover, no prosecution for contempt of court will be possible in the case of articles published overseas, although they may be readily accessible to British citizens. For the same reason I have always suspected that superinjunctions for privacy would be a flash in the pan, since anyone minded to do so could expose material which is the subject of an injunction with impunity if they were based outside the jurisdiction.

It can only be hoped that the fair trial process is not destroyed in that fashion. For all of the arguments in favour of free speech, one can find many instances of tabloid journalism grossly interfering with justice. One thinks of Hollywood circuses from the Fatty Arbuckle scandal of the 1920s (see New Law Journal [2011], vol 161, p 1150) to the OJ Simpson fiasco of more recent times: few would wish to see justice conducted – and corrupted – in the same manner in this country.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Impossible to employ

Published on Halsbury's Law Exchange here.

Last week Stephen Levinson wrote about the law making process, and in particular the problems which bedevil the creation of employment law.

Mr Levinson identified four structural reasons behind the problems with employment law making: (i) responsibility for employment law is spread between four separate departments; (ii) civil servants continuously move between departments, denuding them of knowledge and experience; (iii) new statutes are almost invariably followed by statutory instrument after statutory instrument; and (iv) there is often inadequate consultation.

These are all valid points, and no doubt applicable to many other areas of law. I would venture to add two further points. The first is that much employment law is now made in Europe. Complex directives have to be transposed into national law. The last say on their interpretation is not that of the domestic courts but rather the European Courts. Whether they make good or bad decisions, the fact remains that the process by which employment laws are made, and by which answers to employment questions are reached, is rendered more complex, slow and expensive by an extra layer of regulation emanating from the European Union. For large companies able to retain expensive advice this may be manageable, if inefficient; for smaller firms it may be unmanageable and a disincentive to hire more staff. For both employers and employees it will make knowing their rights all the more difficult.

The second point is the most fundamental as well as the most obvious: it is policy that produces complexity. Employment law is overly complex because lawmakers are always tempted to try and micromanage employment relations. No doubt this is (usually) done with good intentions. One often hears employment rights being described as “fundamental”. In many instances I would not disagree – it is not as though anyone would or should advocate returning to a Victorianesque world of chimney sweep wages and conditions set entirely by the free market. I would however make three observations.

First, all employment rights, fundamental or otherwise, are wholly irrelevant to a substantial portion of workers, namely the self-employed. The likes of public holidays, sickness and maternity leave, the minimum wage, working time regulations and so forth mean nothing to the self-employed. Of course that does not undermine the need for protection of those who are employed from being exploited. But the more complex and costly it becomes to hire someone will, as mentioned, make employers more reluctant to hire new staff.

Secondly, complex provisions harm, not help, vulnerable workers. They will not be able to afford the increasingly expensive advice about their rights, nor will any employment litigation be resolved as quickly or efficiently as it might be otherwise. They will find it harder to obtain work because many employers cannot face the red tape and uncertainty that complex employment law brings and will decide against expansion accordingly.

Thirdly, it is not as simple for the state to play Robin Hood as some recent employment decisions seem to assume. For example, the European Courts ruled recently that employees who are sick during their holidays should be able to claim the time as sick leave, thus preserving their holidays. One can see the superficial attraction: if a certain amount of paid leave (holiday) is considered a “fundamental right”, then ensuring that employees retain the benefit that leave irrespective of the misfortune of illness is a logical step. However, a right can only exist if someone else assumes a corresponding duty, and in this case obviously the duty has to be that of the employer. The employer must therefore assume a greater duty.

The problem is of course that employment relations are not static. Employers can be expected to respond to the increased (but uncertain) costs that they will face by any or all of the following measures: negotiating lower wages, paying shareholders lower dividends, or raising prices. At least two of those will affect employees directly (with their own wages, plus the fact that, as consumers, they will have to pay higher prices that other companies impose in response to the ruling) and all three will as well in the case of employees who are also shareholders. It also gives dishonest employees an incentive to claim sickness at opportune moments in order to extend their holiday entitlement, which of course will be at the expense of the honest employees who will be left sharing the increased costs and also covering for the unscrupulous. Arguably, therefore, it would have been better for the state not to have intervened at all in that case.

As Mr Levinson concludes there is no silver bullet. But one does hope that his suggestion for greater thought to be given to the law making process is taken on board by the Cabinet Office. Improving employment law is a difficult task, but that makes it more, not less important.

End of the beginning

I have recently changed roles at LNUK and am now Managing Editor of the Journals & Magazines department.  The handover period rather got in the way of any articles and blogs, but something close to normal service should now resume.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

The ties that bind us

Published on Halsbury's Law Exchange here

Prime Minister David Cameron made quite a few headlines with a passage in his recent speech to the Conservative Party Conference. Having stated that he was “consulting on gay marriage”, he went on to say:

"Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other. So I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.”

Adam Wagner has a helpful post on the UK Human Rights Blog here. It is also a subject I have written on previously for HLE.

Mr Wagner’s post sets out the background. It seems to me that we have reached the point where Mr Cameron poses the question by having proceeded through three primary issues. The first issue was that the legal rights that marriage has long conferred, in the form of property, inheritance and so forth, were seen to discriminate against those who could not legally marry. The concept of civil partnerships was therefore created in order to provide same-sex couples with the same legal rights.

The second issue concerned the right of registrars to refuse to conduct civil partnerships on religious grounds. They were not permitted to refuse, though there may be more litigation to come on that point.

The third issue was whether religious premises should be permitted to host civil ceremonies. The law giving effect to this (s 202 of the Equality Act 2010) has not yet come into force.

We have therefore now reached, or are about to reach, the stage where civil partnerships have the same legal status of marriage; that no registrar can refuse to conduct them on religious grounds; and that religious groups may choose to host civil partnership ceremonies (but may not be forced to do so).

Two side issues arise. One is why civil partnerships have to be restricted to same-sex relationships akin to marriage: some siblings may choose to live together in a chase relationship all their lives, but they will not be permitted to enter into either a civil partnership or a marriage. The second concerns whether religious groups will always be able to refuse to conduct civil ceremonies on their premises. As enacted s 202 of the 2010 Act specifically provides that

“For the avoidance of doubt, nothing in this Act places an obligation on religious organisations to host civil partnerships if they do not wish to do so.”

but obviously enough there will remain the possibility of change in the future as some religious groups fear.

Leaving those issues aside, however, brings us to Mr Cameron’s urging of the final step, with the end of the ban on same-sex marriages.

The fact that civil partnerships have the same legal status in domestic law is not a complete answer. The word “marriage” carries a deeply and sincerely held meaning for many, and has an ancient pedigree. We should not lightly dismiss those who object to changing it.

On the other hand, the very fact that the word carries powerful connotations gives weight to the argument that it should not be denied to those who want it. Pink News makes both of those points:

Religious gay people want religious ceremonies – something the law does not currently allow. Others, who may be religious or secular, crave the gravity and recognition the word marriage offers.

There may be no difference in the rights and benefits received by those in civil partnerships, but to be married is to make a statement – to your partner, to your loved ones, to the world.

Additionally, some straight couples ... want their relationships recognised in law without what they see as the patriarchal, traditional overtones of marriage. There is discrimination here too, as legally, they cannot have a civil partnership.

Mr Wagner in the article linked aove quotes one of the opposing viewpoints:

The Scottish Catholic Church has said it will fight the proposal in Scotland, arguing that the government did not have a mandate to “reconstruct society on ideological grounds”.

Aside from the emotional, religious and sentimental implications of the word “marriage” (which as mentioned should not be underestimated), there is the question of overseas recognition of marriages. The British concept of civil partnerships will not necessarily be recognised by foreign states should a couple emigrate. Then again, simply giving homosexual couples the right to use the word “marriage” will not necessarily mean that their marriage would be recognised abroad, at least not universally.

Personally I would not object to the term being extended to allow same-sex marriages. In the past there have been taboos – primarily social but in certain countries at certain times also legal – on mixed race or mixed religious marriages. We in Britain in the present day rightly disdain such discrimination. Further liberalizing the term to allow same-sex marriages is not, in the present context, illogical or unfair: if anything it would be the opposite.

One objection always raised is that of the “slippery slope”; if we allow x then y and z will follow. That is never a sufficient argument of itself, however. Unless we ban everything or nothing we are always on a slippery slope of sorts. No doubt some will argue that allowing gay marriage axiomatically should allow any other form of relationship – siblings, polygamy, bestiality – to marry as well; but that no more follows than to say that if homosexual marriages are prohibited so should secular marriages.

But it is fair to say that the issue is far from straightforward. In turn that means that Mr Wagner is correct that this is a matter for Parliament, not the courts (whether in this country or in Strasbourg).

I would finally reiterate the suggestion I made in the article linked above, namely:

“… a more radical development might be considered, along the lines of France (if anything a more religious country than the UK), to separate church and state completely with regard to marriage. The legal contract of marriage should be signed in a registry office only. Thereafter, at any time(s) and place(s) of their choosing, couples could perform any ceremony they wish at any religious or non religious venue. No legal requirements or restrictions would be involved. Then since the ceremony would be akin to a private party or religious observance: no-one would suggest the state has any right to superintend the guest list for, or any other aspect of, such occasions. Moreover, the service being offered by a religious institution would not be that of any celebration of any union; it would offer to give its own blessing in accordance with its own tenets. No-one should be entitled to compel a religion to alter its tenets."

Such a solution would mean that religious groups would not consider marriage to be valid, other than as a legal nicety, unless their own blessing had been bestowed in accordance with their own tenets. Non-religious people would be happy as they would have the legal right to the word “marriage” without any religious connotation.

It is never possible to please everyone, but it seems to me that the solution proffered would come the closest to doing so.

Friday, 7 October 2011

When the press oppress

I will be published in next week's Criminal Law & Justice Weekly on the case of HM Attorney-General v MGN Ltd and another [2011] All ER (D) 06 (Aug).  The citation for the article is Criminal Law & Justice Weekly, vol 175, 17 September 2011, p 591.

The opening two paragraphs are reproduced below, and the article will be accessible in due course on the CL&J website (link on the left hand side of the page):

Two principles fundamental to English law are open justice and freedom of the press. The right of the public to know via the press who has been charged with what is one of the key features that distinguishes a free society from the sort of tyrannies where those deemed not to be on message politically disappear and are never heard from again.

Equally fundamental, however, is the right to a fair trial, which requires among other things that an accused is judged solely according to the evidence before the court, not the fevered imaginings of the more populist elements of the press. Balancing the competing principles formed the basis of the recent case of HM Attorney-General v MGN Ltd and another [2011] All ER (D) 06 (Aug).

Monday, 26 September 2011

English riots - appropriate sentences

A short comment on sentencing the rioters, published on Halsbury's Law Exchange 

Sentencing rioters will take place against a backdrop of public anger and media outrage. In any such instance it is important that the rule of law applies and the court is not swayed simply by the unpopularity of the offender or offenders before it. 

That said, two factors come into play as part of the application of the law. First, it is a normal part of the sentencing process to weigh aggravating and mitigating factors. In the case of the rioters, taking advantage of the police being overstretched will not tell in an offender's favour, though it might be a mitigating factor if one could argue that an offender was normally a law abiding person who acted spontaneously, rather than a career criminal. 

Secondly, deterrence is a legitimate sentencing objective, and discouraging the public from starting civil unrest or taking advantage of it for criminal purposes is a factor not present in ordinary theft cases. On that basis, rather than the more crude goal of retribution, longer sentences for rioters can arguably be justified. (Not that retribution is wholly irrelevant to sentencing.)

One other aspect that the rioters give rise to is the cost and other resources associated with a large increase in offenders.  It will be tempting for more lenient sentences to be passed, and a greater proportion to be non-custodial, simply on the basis that the country is struggling to accommodate prisoners as it is.  Of course in theory this should have no impact.  One wonders if it will be the same in practice.  

Friday, 23 September 2011

The delight of everyone

I have been published in the current issue of the New Law Journal, on Lord Denning's most perfectly crafted judgment.  It can be found online in the NLJ blog under The delight of everyone

Sunday, 18 September 2011

No freedom of speech

Published in Criminal Law & Justice Weekly, Vol 175, September 10, 2011, p 527

When discussing religion and the law in this journal and elsewhere, I have consistently argued for free speech and for a complete separation of church and state. The counterpoint that others have expressed is that religion has been subordinated to other rights such as gender and sexual orientation.

I would maintain that the approach I have advocated is equally applicable to defending religion. I have been asked for some examples in support of that proposition. One obvious one concerns the sad tale of Harry Hammond’s street protest in Bournemouth in October 2001. It also provides a classic illustration of freedom of speech in the context of religion.

Continue reading here

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Court on Camera

Published on Halsbury's Law Exchange here.

The ban on filming in courts is to be overturned in part, according to an announcement by Justice Secretary Ken Clarke. (Mr Clarke is also Lord Chancellor, though in the modern watered-down version of that office he does not call himself Lord Clarke and does not sit in the House of Lords. The resultant incongruity should be a lesson to those who attempt constitutional reform in haste, or even at leisure.)

At present filming is only allowed in the Supreme Court. Under the new measures broadcasting will initially be confined to the Court of Appeal, with the Crown Court to follow. The changes will require modification of the relevant statutory provisions, namely s 41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925 and s 9 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981.

Filming of the Crown Court will be restricted to judges’ summary remarks, with victims, witnesses, offenders and jurors excluded (who do not feature in the Court of Appeal anyway).

I have long been in favour of allowing television in court, for the simple but compelling reason that justice has to be seen to be done. It is one of the cornerstones of English justice that any member of the public can attend court and observe proceedings, subject to only a few narrow exceptions where the interests of justice require the public’s exclusion (sex abuse or child cases being the obvious examples, though the family courts have become more open of late, to some controversy in both directions). There is no difference in principle between sitting in the public gallery watching proceedings and watching them on television. If one is a fundamental right then it is an uphill battle to justify the prohibition of the other.

On the UK Human Rights Blog Adam Wagner observes:

The success of Supreme Court Live has made it difficult to argue that Court of Appeal hearings, which are similar in that they do not generally involve live witness evidence, should not also be broadcast. Given that there are many more hearings than in the Supreme Court, which tends to hear 1 or at most 2 cases at a time, it is to be hoped that the Ministry of Justice will consider allowing hearings to be watched after the event as is the case on the Parliament Live TV website.

I would respectfully agree. I am no technical expert but it does not seem to me that with modern technology it ought to be overly expensive or otherwise difficult for hearings to be recorded and archived, and indeed to be made available online free of charge thereafter.

Of more substance are the concerns which Mr Wagner has about criminal trials:

There are other arguments against broadcasting criminal trials which I have dealt with in a previous post. They are, in summary,

1. Televised justice leads to soundbites and sensationalism, and edited highlights of a case lose the subtlety of legal argument

2. Television fosters disrespect for the court

3. Cameras pervert the trial process as juries become star struck and lawyers grandstand

4. Victims and witnesses are intimidated and can be less safe as a result

These are serious points deserving of a much greater response, but my initial thoughts are as follows:

1. This is true, but no more so than any other form of case reporting. Extracts from written judgments are often taken out of context, and reports of witness or other aspects of court proceedings are often written in a sensationalist fashion. If there was a central record of the full proceedings on an accessible website then anyone concerned about a news report could watch the whole proceedings and decide for themselves.

2. Potentially, but not certainly, if editors behave themselves and there is a full-length unadorned archive version for anyone serious about forming an opinion. Moreover, once again there is no real difference from other forms of media reporting of courts and proceedings.

3. This is a proper concern. OJ Simpson is the obvious example of television perverting a trial, but as the Fatty Arbuckle scandal shows, “yellow journalism” has been perverting court proceedings for as long as there has been such a thing as the media (even if the right result was eventually reached in Arbuckle’s case).

More recently, the tabloids were sharply brought to book for their antics with the initial suspect in the Joanna Yeates murder, as I have written about for a forthcoming issue of Criminal Law & Justice Weekly. But there is no question that judges will have a serious task in trying to ensure that neither lawyers nor jurors are influenced by the fact of the proceedings being broadcast on television, especially in high profile cases.

4. This is also a proper concern, hence Mr Clarke’s announcement that filming in the Crown Court will be restricted, at least initially, to judges’ summary remarks. If it is made clear that witnesses will not be broadcast, or perhaps not without anonymisation by pixellation and voice-altering, then the concerns should mostly be met.

With the caveat that each of the four issues will require further consideration, I remain of the view that none of them are insurmountable and that the principle of open justice should prevail. Mr Clarke’s announcement is therefore an important step in the right direction.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Herpes: Don't pass it on ...

Published in Halsbury's Law Exchange here.  I have not managed to find an appropriate picture.

Two things of perennial interest to the tabloids are crime and sex, jointly or separately. It is therefore no surprise to find a story involving both in the Daily Mail. One David Goulding pleaded guilty to grievous bodily harm after knowingly giving a former girlfriend, Cara Scott, genital herpes. He had known he was infected but did not tell Miss Scott until just before the relationship ended, by which time she had already contracted the disease. He was sentenced to 14 months’ imprisonment.

In legal terms the matter was straightforward and uncontroversial: by Mr Goulding’s conscious action Miss Scott was exposed to the disease without her knowledge, and the eminently foreseeable consequence came to pass; hence the guilty plea. It is however worth responding to reported comments by spokespeople for what is called the Herpes Viruses Association. According to the Mail article:

Nigel Scott, spokesman for the Herpes Viruses Association, said Golding’s sentence was ‘outrageous’ and compared the case to prosecuting children for ‘giving their friends chicken pox’.

He added: ‘It is such a trivial infection that most people don’t notice it. It has exactly the same medical implications and consequences as an ordinary facial cold sore.’

Marian Nicholson, director of the HVA, added: ‘Many of those who are diagnosed are reluctant to disclose their status but this is because of the unnecessary stigma, not because it is serious ... emphatically it is not.’

There are two points. First, the intentional – or reckless – transmission of an infectious disease by the very specific act of sexual intercourse is not of a piece with the accidental transmission of chicken pox by virtue only of being in proximity to someone else. The former is eminently avoidable and properly described as intentional or knowingly reckless; the latter rather less so, unless I suppose one’s imagination contrived a situation where a person deliberately initiated as much contact as possible so as to render the transmission of something like chicken pox almost inevitable.

Secondly, there would or should be no stigma attached to the victim in the circumstances of Miss Scott, any more than any other innocent victim of a crime, but that has nothing to do with prosecuting the offender. No-one should look down on someone with a broken leg but they should certainly prosecute the person who inflicted it. In Mr Goulding’s case, however, any concern he might have had about his stigma ought to have been less important than his obligation to inform Miss Scott of his condition. The aforementioned association might think the condition trivial but I rather suspect most people would prefer not to contract it, and to be warned of any risk accordingly.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Law and Libya again

Published on Halsbury's Law Exchange here and reproduced on Legal Week here

Now that the Libyan conflict seems to be drawing to the end, or at least the end of its present phase, it might be appropriate to consider the legal aspect of NATO’s involvement.

The first question involves the nature of the Western intervention. In this respect, imagine that a Predator drone, controlled by a foreign state, circles above the White House looking for President Obama. It fires a hellfire missile but misses the President and kills a couple of innocent civilians instead. The foreign state then issues a statement saying it is sorry about the civilians but Obama’s position is untenable and the drones will keep coming until he leaves office.

It is not difficult to imagine the response from the White House. President Obama would make a speech evoking the stirring rhetoric of President Roosevelt’s post-Pearl Harbour address, and the television news would soon be flooded with images of American forces setting off to unleash retribution.

Suppose further that the responsible state was not acting alone, but was receiving technical, material and intelligence assistance from another state. If so, that state would also find itself on the Pentagon’s target list.

The ensuing clash of arms might be called many things, but no-one could argue that it would appropriately be called a “war”.

I make that rather laboured point because of the startling position the White House took on Libya. In a detailed document prepared in June, the White House asserted that because the US forces involved were only playing a “supporting role”, they were not engaged in “hostilities”.

Accordingly, the argument ran, the definition of “hostilities” as described under the War Powers Resolution of 1973 had not been met. That resolution, part of the fallout over the Vietnam War, requires Congressional approval for any deployment of US forces in hostilities for more than 60 days. The White House said that its forces in Libya are not engaged in sustained fighting or “active exchanges of fire with hostile forces”.

With the caveat that I am not an American lawyer, that argument seems entirely fallacious. The governments responsible for the intervention made clear early on that Gaddafi’s regime could not continue.

NATO’s operations began after UN Resolution 1973, which was passed when it was thought a slaughter of citizens by Gaddafi’s troops was imminent, the sanctions and other measures brought in by Resolution 1970 having failed to prevent the civil war. Initially the intention was to establish a no-fly zone, then to use “all necessary measures” to defend civilians. In turn the coalition took it to mean that Gaddafi’s regime had to be removed.

We therefore went from attempting to prevent a massacre in a particular time and place to attempting to overthrow a sovereign government by the use of military force. The latter in anyone’s language is a war. The fact that our involvement has been limited to naval blockading and acting as the rebels’ air force is not relevant: we have been deploying armed forces in active operations. Rumour has it that we or our coalition partners have supplied weapons to the rebels as well and it seems a shade implausible that there have been no special forces operations in the area.

The only distinction that the White House offered was that there was no danger to American servicemen. That was a matter of good fortune for them, but to suggest that their operations were not thereby a “war” strains logic beyond breaking point. As I tried to show above it is an argument that would cut no ice in the other direction.

We have therefore been, pace President Obama, and continue to be, at war with the sovereign government of Libya. A number of serious questions then arise. For a start, even if the war is legal, what was the legal imperative for the UK’s involvement? What of all the other states who supported the resolution?

The second question concerns the moral justification. If on the balance of probabilities military intervention would save more lives than it would cost then it might well be justified. Needless to say that is difficult to judge, to say the least.

It is true that the fact that we are selective in our use of force by not intervening in, say, Syria, is not an argument against intervening in Libya: if I fail to save ten drowning people it would still be morally correct to save the eleventh, even though I am being inconsistent by doing so.

Apparently we intervened to stop a massacre of civilians by Gaddafi’s forces in Benghazi. Apparently we succeeded. But it also seems that we have little clue as to what happens next. There was no doubt a hope that Gaddafi would flee once Western air power was deployed against him. That faded quickly, to no-one’s surprise: air power tends not to do that.

However, it now seems that Gaddafi is indeed about to fall. What then are our obligations in international law, having toppled him? What plan is in place for a substitute government? What if an Iraqi-style internecine civil war erupts? I have yet to read reassuring answers to any of those questions.

One can easily understand why our leaders support the notion of “liberal intervention”. It is their best chance of being remembered as a statesman rather than a jobbing politician. It is no doubt more professionally rewarding flying to Washington on a private jet and making speeches at the White House than trying to deal with more mundane matters such as the NHS budget, another bank failure or a school closure. But the executive should also consider that if international law is fraught with uncertainty, military action is too, and inevitably risks the most severe consequences in terms of blood and treasure. And if there is one lesson from Iraq, it is surely that removing dictators is only the very beginning of what might be a long and difficult story. Perhaps there will be a smooth transition from Gaddafi to a democratic government supporting human rights and the rule of law. Or perhaps there won’t be.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Template for the pitfalls of fame: the Fatty Arbuckle scandal

I have been published in the New Law Journal Vol 161, 12 August 2011, p 1150 on the trials of Fatty Arbuckle.  It can be found here.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Andrew Turner MP and the death penalty

For Halsbury's Law Exchange, published here

According to the BBC, Conservative MP Andrew Turner is attempting to resurrect the death penalty, if that is not a contradiction in terms. The BBC reports that Mr Turner has said that a full Parliamentary debate should take place about whether the death penalty should apply to those who kill children or police officers. He is endorsing an e-petition to that effect started by maverick blogger Guido Fawkes aka Paul Staines.

It is no great surprise to see something controversial from Staines, who takes pride in stirring up Westminster. It is however surprising to see a sitting MP run with something as tired and improbable as the death penalty, which I had assumed existed in Britain nowadays only as an Aunt Sally for jurisprudence tutorials.

Staines’s petition seeks a “review of all treaties and international commitments which may inhibit the ability of Parliament to restore capital punishment”. These alone would be a formidable obstacle given that in 2003 the UK acceded to the 13th Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits the death penalty under all circumstances.

There is always a certain level of public support for capital punishment, usually on the ground of retribution – as indeed seems to be Mr Turner’s motivation. Some even think a murderer should be killed by precisely the same means as they inflicted on their victim (raising two interesting questions: (i) who gets the job of carrying it out on behalf of the state; and (ii) what of serial killers?).

But I doubt a majority of the population remains in favour. Even if they were, I would hope that Parliament stands firm and resists reintroducing the death penalty. The whole concept of human rights is to provide a constraint on the power of the legislature; the majority rarely vote for their own oppression.

I say this because the arguments against the death penalty are legion and compelling. The first is the possibility of an innocent person being executed. Timothy Evans is the obvious example and indeed was an important factor in the abolition of the penalty. Mr Turner counters:

"Like many people I have concerns about the possibility of wrongful convictions, so perhaps we should consider whether before a death sentence could be passed, a higher standard of evidence would be needed than 'beyond reasonable doubt' which is used to secure a criminal conviction.

"Some people have suggested that there should be proof 'beyond the shadow of a doubt' before a death sentence ..."

Defining what would constitute “beyond the shadow of a doubt” as opposed to “beyond reasonable doubt” would be an interesting challenge for the most talented legislative drafters. It might simply mean that no-one would ever end up being executed anyway. Historically cases have shown that not even explicit confessions by the supposed killer guarantee certainty (they may have been forcibly extracted, or the confessor might be mentally disturbed in a way that is not immediately apparent). DNA evidence was thought to be the holy grail of criminal evidence when it was first developed, but it whether it would or would necessarily amount to removing the last “shadow” of doubt is questionable.

The second argument is that the death penalty is little deterrent to crimes that are committed in the heat of the moment, and in all cases is less important to any prospective murderer than the chances of getting caught. I am dubious about the various statistics that get bandied about supposedly in support of the argument that the death penalty leads to a reduction in the number of murders; there are so many factors involved in the commission of crimes rate that one has to say at least that the statistics are not compelling. They certainly would not meet Turner’s “beyond a shadow of doubt” standard.

The third and most important argument is that retribution as blunt as the death penalty does not really belong in a civilised society. There is no “humane” method of execution for a start. Moreover, it is highly questionable whether the death penalty is a greater punishment than life imprisonment (some might prefer death to squatting in a cell forever). For the sort of crimes Mr Turner has in mind whole life orders are a real possibility; indeed murderers generally receive much higher tariffs nowadays than two decades ago.

I was not a fan of rewriting history to overturn the verdict against Derek Bentley, for example, or the soldiers executed in the Great War (the former had his conviction posthumously quashed – though he would potentially have faced a retrial if still alive; and the latter received a sort of watered down pardon, with convictions intact, by Parliament in 2006). They were tried and punished in accordance with the standards of their time, and it seems wrong for any number of reasons for later generations to be expending public resources declaring that they know better.

But the point is that standards, attitudes and values have changed. We do not now clamour to attend public executions. We rightly deplore the standards of punishment in some extremist theocracies, as well as the standards of prisons in many countries. Hopefully therefore we can exact punishment without stooping to a murderer’s level.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

"... the greatest piece of judicial law reform in my time ..."

Published in the New Law Journal, Vol 161, 17 June 2011, p 854  lawbites
Lord Denning is perhaps the most famous twentieth century English judge. His fame derives from several sources: partly from the number of high profile cases on which he sat; partly from his preference for justice as he saw it over precedent; and partly due to his inquiry into the Profumo affair, which, he later recalled, produced his one and only best seller. (It was also known as the "raciest Blue Book ever", though presumably not in the face of much competition.)

Perhaps uniquely amongst common law judges, Denning is also famous because of his judgment-writing style. It certainly endeared him to generations of law students, though not all law teachers: a curmudgeonly sort at my alma mater used to sneer at Denning's "short sentences and simplistic reasoning".

Still, Denning's judgments could never be accused of lacking clarity, and his unarguably short sentences could be crafted with such skill that his judgments on occasion attained the status of works of literature, as any reader of Miller v Jackson [1977] 3 All ER 338 will attest.

Born in 1899, and a veteran of the Great War, Denning displayed the values of his generation more than once, but he could also be forward-looking, perhaps most notably when ruling on the right of a deserted wife to remain in the matrimonial home. His judgments in the fields of property and contract were less well known publicly, but equally controversial in the legal profession: another professor of mine once suggested Denning “never met a plaintiff he didn’t like” (presumably Mrs Miller excepted).

Somewhat surprisingly, however, what Denning called "the greatest piece of judicial law reform in my time" did not arise from casting aside the patriarchal shackles of outdated social mores. It did not even concern substantive law. Instead, it was the creation of the pre-trial remedy of the Mareva injunction, by which assets in the jurisdiction can be frozen before trial in order to prevent unscrupulous defendants from removing them and thereby rendering any litigation fruitless.

The origins of the remedy are found in Nippon Yusen Kaisha v Karageorgis and anor [1975] 3 All ER 282, a case heard a month before Mareva.

Recently Lord Neuberger complained, with some justification, about the length of modern judgments. He would certainly have had a point in comparison with the Nippon Yusen Kaisha case – the lead judgment was all of four paragraphs long. Denning observed that it “has never been the practice of the English courts to seize assets of a defendant in advance of judgment, or to restrain the disposal of them. ... We know, of course, that the practice on the continent of Europe is different.” He then opined that it was time to revise that practice, and went on to grant the order, pointing out that if the defendants had grounds to object they could always apply to discharge it.

It was considered afterwards that the judgment might be defective, since the court had not been referred to Lister v Stubbs [1886–90] All ER Rep 797, where it had been stated that there was no jurisdiction to grant such an injunction. Thus, on 23 June 1975, Mareva Compania Naviera SA applied for similar relief to Nippon Yusen Kaisha, and addressed the Lister v Stubbs point directly.

On that occasion the judgment ran to all of three pages. Denning dealt with the Lister point breezily. He referred to s 45 of the Supreme Court of Judicature (Consolidation) Act 1925, which provided that an injunction could be granted “in all cases in which it shall appear to the Court to be just or convenient …”, and pointed out that its predecessor section had been given a very wide interpretation in Beddow v Beddow (1878) 9 Ch D 89. As it was just and reasonable to grant the injunction, Denning did so.

Roskill LJ agreed that the remedy was justified. As to the legal novelty, he pointed out that the charterers could always apply to the court to discharge the injunction, and referred almost sheepishly to the terms of the charter as providing a means of distinguishing Lister v Stubbs “if necessary”. Ormrod LJ concurred but declined to write a separate judgment as the application was ex parte.

It has to be said that the grounds for distinguishing Lister seem rather shaky. But the commercial justifications were unanswerable, and the point was never appealed further. Instead Mareva injunctions became standard practice, and a few years later Parliament codified the practice in the Supreme Court Act 1981 (see Paul Lowenstein QC “As if by a side-wind ...” in Cases that Changed Our Lives, Lexisnexis 2010). The jurisdiction was subsequently extended to include orders of worldwide application, and even cases where there is no substantive claim in England. Renamed “freezing order” in CPR newspeak, the remedy continues to form a substantial part of the business of the Commercial Court.

Denning, aged 75 at the time, took advantage of the absence of any mandatory retirement date and continued to sit until the early 1980s. He died in March 1999 aged 100.

Counsel for Mareva, Bernard Rix, is now Rix LJ and a resident of Denning’s old haunt of the Court of Appeal. One imagines that the number of times he has had occasion to recall that day in June 1975 over the course of a long and distinguished career in commercial litigation must be very considerable indeed.

Friday, 15 July 2011

R (on the application of Bashir) v Independent Adjudicator: religion in prison

Co-written with Anne-Marie Forker, and published in Criminal Law & Justice Weekly, Vol 175, 18 June 2011, p 373

The relationship between religion and the law seems now to be a permanent feature of public life in the United Kingdom – to the point where it reminds one of the children’s story about the magic pudding which, no matter how often it is eaten, always reforms in order to be eaten again.

One recent serving of the pudding concerns the right to practice religion in prison, which was the subject of R (Bashir) v Independent Adjudicator [2011] EWHC 1108 (Admin).

The facts

The claimant was required to provide a urine sample for testing for the use of controlled drugs in accordance with the policy in relation to mandatory drug testing contained in Prison Service Order 3601. The basis for the test was a suspicion that he had taken controlled substances. He was offered water before providing the sample, but refused on the ground that he was a devout Muslim who was fasting prior to a court hearing, as part of his religious preparation for the event. As a result of refusing water he was unable to provide a sufficient sample. He was charged with failing to obey a lawful rule contrary to r 51(22) of the Prison Rules 1999. He was convicted by a prison adjudicator and a penalty of 14 days’ additional detention was imposed. The adjudicator held that the claimant was not fasting as part of either Ramadan or any other religious festival, and therefore requiring him to provide a sample had been “appropriate”. The claimant applied by way of judicial review to quash the adjudicator’s decision, contending that it breached his right to practice his religion under art 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The High Court

Judge Pelling found that the adjudicator’s approach to art 9 had been wrong; the correct approach required three questions: (i) whether the claimant’s rights under art 9 were engaged; (ii) if so, whether there had been an interference with those rights; and (iii) if so, whether the interference was one that was both prescribed by law or necessary in the interests of public order, health or morals, and proportionate to the end pursued.

There was no real dispute both that art 9 was engaged and that there had been an interference with those rights. Accordingly question (iii) formed the nub of the substantive challenge. Moreover, since the drug testing was prescribed by law and at least one of the other aspects of art 9, the only aspect of (iii) that was in issue was whether it was proportionate to the end pursued.

Judge Pelling concluded that there had been no evidence before the adjudicator to suggest that it was proportionate to require all Muslim prisoners engaged in personal fasting to break that fast as and when required for the purposes of providing a sample regardless of the circumstances. The decision therefore had to be quashed.


We have no dispute with the judge’s approach to art 9. Rather, our difference is with the conclusion that the drug policy could potentially be a disproportionate interference with the claimant’s rights. While the state is obliged to allow religious beliefs and practices, it is not obliged to make exceptions to the general law based on someone's religious beliefs – provided, of course, that the general law is not aimed at discriminating against or suppressing particular religions.

If it could have made no difference either to the state or to any private individual (including other prisoners), then we would have no objection to the state accommodating religious practices for prisoners. But making exceptions to the disciplinary regime – of which drug testing is at the core – is as unworkable as it is unfair. If one has an exception due to a fast, then why not some other activity? And, to ensure non-discrimination, non-religious beliefs of any particular prisoner would also have to be accommodated.

Religious exemptions are found elsewhere in the criminal law, such as s 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 and ss 3 and 4 of the Offensive Weapons Act 1996, which allow Sikhs to carry the Kirpan on religious grounds. Is permitting this not increasing the likelihood of harm to others, something the criminal law aims to reduce? We are not suggesting for a moment that Sikhs are more likely than other groups to use knives in a criminal fashion, but rather that increasing the quantity of knives being carried by any section of society in the general public increases the risk of harm to others. Practicing religion should be subject to the same standards as non-religious activities (see also p 124 ante).

Contrary to the tabloid view that equality is somehow harmful to religion, we believe that excluding religion from public life is actually the best protection for religion, because it ensures all religions are treated equally.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Free Speech: American and British perspectives

For Halsbury's Law Exchange

This Thursday Politeia is hosting an evening on the different approaches to Freedom of Speech in the United Kingdom and United States. It is a particularly topical subject, needless to say, in the year of the superinjunction. Here are a few thoughts on the differences between legal approaches in the two countries, on which I freely stand to be corrected if my knowledge of American law proves as deficient as I suspect.

Both the UK and the US have a strong – and interwoven – history of free speech. As a concept in political philosophy, arguments for free speech that are strikingly modern in content can be found in Milton’s Areopagitica, and later in the famous harm principle of Mill’s On Liberty. As a legal concept, however, free speech developed primarily in the United States in the twentieth century, pursuant to the explicit protection of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Nowadays, an equivalent jurisprudence is being developed by the European Court of Human Rights and the domestic courts of member states under art 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the Convention). There is, however, a significant difference in the wording of the American and European constitutional documents. The First Amendment is in these apparently unqualified terms:

Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech ...

Even the Ten Commandments would struggle to compete with that lack of ambiguity. A moment’s reflection, however, shows that it would be impossible to comply with the First Amendment literally: “no law” abridging freedom of speech would mean no law preserving state secrets, no copyright protection and no confidentiality for medical records, for a start. Equally it would mean allowing the most outlandish libel and slander, wildly misleading advertising, and so on and so forth – to the point where no law abridging freedom of speech would effectively mean no law at all.

The American courts have therefore had to permit many an abridgement to free speech over the years. In doing so, they have attempted to fashion principled exceptions, whilst at least paying lip service to the uncompromising nature of the First Amendment. Often this involves reclassifying something as “not speech”, or conversely permitting something controversial such as pornography on the ground that it is “speech” even though for the most part no-one might be saying anything.

By contrast, art 10 of the Convention starts with a declaration of the right to free expression, but then adds that the exercise of that right may be subject to such restrictions as are:

prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society ...

Thus, while any form of speech automatically engages the protection of art 10, the protection might be withdrawn if the infringement under question meets the qualifying criteria – but only to the extent that it does.

In the UK additional weight is given by s 12 of the Human Rights Act 1998, which provides that special regard is to be had to the right of freedom of expression in any case where it is in issue, and the public interest in disclosure of material which has journalistic, literary or artistic merit is to be considered.

The different wording of the First Amendment and the Constitution is accordingly more apparent than real: the Convention effectively codifies the same approach that the US courts are compelled to take by the impossibility of literal First Amendment compliance: allowing restrictions, but only where lawful, necessary and proportionate.

Nevertheless, it is fair to say that protection of speech has tended to be been stronger in the United States.

There are at least three interrelated reasons. First, since the American courts are effectively compelled to undertake a form of rhetorical trickery - or even intellectual dishonesty - to proscribe speech given the bluntness of the First Amendment, they tend to be very reluctant to do so.

Secondly, and much more importantly, the First Amendment has long been central to American political debate and American culture generally, in a fashion that does not really find any equivalent in Europe (save arguably for the Dutch culture of tolerance). Knowledge and indeed reverence of the First Amendment is far greater in the US than knowledge of art 10 in Europe.

Thirdly, under the Convention, European courts are required to balance art 10 with other Convention rights, such as the right to privacy. The Convention does not give priority to art 10 over those other rights; the courts are required to afford them equal weight. In America that argument would be much harder to advance.

One can see any number of recent manifestations of the different approaches, such as the respective cases on soldier’s funeral protests; Tiger Woods’ unremitting media coverage versus the British footballing superinjunctors; and the fortunes of Pastor Terry Jones.

It is difficult to summarise, let alone add to the daunting volume of philosophical works by American jurists who have considered the concept of free speech, from robust proponents such as Ronald Dworkin to the more sceptical such as Stanley Fish.

For my money one of the most compelling arguments in favour of the American approach is the analogy advanced by Judge Richard Posner with America’s cold war strategy. The front line against the USSR, he observes, was not the Potomac but the borders of Western and Eastern Europe. It was hoped that any conflict would be safely away from American soil, meaning ground could be ceded here and there without threatening their core interests.

Similarly, advocates of free speech argue for a wider protection than that strictly necessary to preserve values such as open and free political discussion, artistic freedom and personal fulfillment. They spend their time defending often violent, sadistic, sordid or nonsensical manifestations of speech, as with Hustler’s article or the funeral protests. By doing so they calculate that speech that is merely offensive, or indeed simply not finding favour with the political agenda of the government of the day, is never threatened.

When deciding what is or what is not a proportionate interference with art 10, the European Courts might consider a similar perspective.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Rights in schools: getting out of pupils’ hair

For Halsbury's Law Exchange, published here

When the magazine Punch was still extant, and still funny (not the same thing in its case), it used to have a column for amusing newspaper headlines or bylines, of the sort that were later found in endless round-robin emails. My personal favourite was an apparently genuine advertisement offering “a free set of bass guitar strings with every trumpet purchased”.

Another I remember told of a schoolboy who had been “suspended by his head because of his long hair”. Nowadays the unfortunate schoolboy would have a legal remedy against the school, whichever way one interprets the headline (double pun acknowledged). If he was caught with his hair somewhere, doubtless someone would fashion a personal injury action against the school for negligently failing to remove the hazard. If on the other hand he was excluded from the school for a time because of the length of his hair, then he might have an action along the lines of the recent decision in SG v St Gregory’s Catholic Science College [2011] All ER (D) 113 (Jun).

The case concerned a pupil, SG, who wore his hair in a style known as "cornrows". Although not explicitly contrary to the school's written policy, it had been made clear at the start of the year (at a meeting at which SG and his parents were not present) that the style would be banned.

SG brought judicial review proceedings to challenge the ban, contending, inter alia, that the policy constituted indirect discrimination on the ground of his race, pursuant to s 19 of the Race Relations Act 1976 and s 85 of the Equality Act 2010.

The question thrown up by the case essentially concerns the scope of the freedom of a school to set a uniform policy. One might have thought the limits should be very broad, but not so broad as to include discriminatory aspects: a child should not be forced to act contrary to his or her own culture. General rules may well inadvertently have that effect: a ruling requiring no hats might clash with some religions, for a start.

Even if the UK were to adopt the French concept of laïcité and ban all religious symbols in schools, the issue would still arise in cases such as SG’s, where the ground of objection was one of race or culture rather than religion.

It certainly was not the intent of the policy in SG’s case to discriminate against anyone; hence the action was for indirect discrimination. This required SG to show that the school had a policy which applied equally to all but which placed one group at a particular disadvantage, and that the policy could not be shown to be a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

Collins J held that:

It is only if there is a genuine cultural and family practice of not cutting males’ hair and wearing cornrows that an exception could be made. It would be made clear that the grounds for such an exception would have to be established and that conformity must occur unless to conform was regarded as impossible. There is no reason why hairstyles which might be indicative of gang culture should be permitted.”

As a starting point, no-one would suggest that a school should discriminate, knowingly or otherwise, against a particular culture. But there remains room for disquiet. It is almost inevitable that some symbols of importance to some pupils will be excluded by any uniform policy. Collins J said that only "genuine" cultural symbols or practices could form a ground of challenge. But how is the school to judge what is genuine? What of kilts and tartans, both of which can be said to be an important symbol of Scottish culture now, but neither of which have anything like the ancestry television and films would have us believe?

It seems to me that requiring schools to adjudicate on the genuineness of a particular cultural symbol is akin to the decision in Nicholson v Grainger to elevate non-religious belief systems to the status of religions for employment purposes. For an employer to try and determine the status of a belief system is an unwieldy and unnecessary exercise, it will be the same for schools. Adam Wagner writes that

schools will be frantically reexamining their hair and clothing policies for potential discrimination and students dreaming of their day winning against their teachers in court

Which may or may not be the best use of the ever-stretched school resources.

Many pupils (and adults for that matter) change their cultural, religious and other identity as they go along. Is each new identity to be assessed according to its age, how deeply held it is by the particular pupil and some other criterion or criteria?

Moreover, some practices - cultural or whatever - are contrary to principles of liberty, equality and other values, and will end up being banned, causing accusations of inconsistency concerning what is permitted. This was in fact something the school had in mind in SG’s case since it associated cornrows with the gang culture it was trying hard to eradicate (comments below other articles on the case indicate that that was a controversial association to say the least). Collins J dismissed the idea of a would-be skinhead using the decision as a precedent, but not all traditions of shaving heads belong to far-right lunatics, so we might expect problems of consistency at least.

Perhaps the simplest solution would be for schools all to loosen their policies to the point where almost nothing is prohibited – but immediately some pupils will start wearing and displaying things others find offensive, leading to more governors’ meetings and litigation anyway.

Perhaps instead, then, schools should be given freedom to determine policies and adjudicate exceptions themselves, within a very broad framework indeed, and anyone who disagrees with a particular policy can either (i) choose a new school, or (ii) perhaps consider that it is not always a matter for regret that pupils have restrictions that adults do not.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Religion and the law once more: the circumcision debate

Published in Halsbury's Law Exchange here

In San Francisco an attempt is presently being made to ban the practice of male circumcision. The movement has sparked a debate in this country, with Neil Howard and Rebecca Steinfeld arguing that it should be banned and Adam Wagner countering that a ban would amount to a disproportionate interference with freedom of religion.

In my view the key lies in the correct analysis of the issue.

Howard and Steinfeld make the point that female genital mutilation is banned and therefore, as an act of equality, male circumcision should be as well. The point is not so straightforward, because male and female genitalia, to state the extremely obvious, are not the same thing. Some more analysis is required.

Wagner approaches the question on the basis of the religious rights of the parents, which in legal terms are governed by art 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. As set out in R (on the application of Bashir) v Independent Adjudicator and others [2011] NLJ 812, the application of art 9 involves three questions:

(i) whether the claimant’s rights under art 9 are engaged;

(ii) if so, whether there has been an interference with those rights;

(iii) if so, whether the interference is one that is both prescribed by law or necessary in the interests of public order, health or morals, and proportionate to the end pursued.

There is little doubt that a ban on circumcision would produce an affirmative answer to the first two questions. Assuming that the ban derived from an Act of Parliament it would obviously be prescribed by law. The question would then be whether it was necessary in the interest of public health or morals, and proportionate to that end.

Wagner argues that the answer is no: he does not accept that the medical evidence conclusively establishes that a ban is justified on health grounds. That being so, there would also be scope for disagreement as to whether the ban was proportionate, because circumcision is a firmly established tradition in several religions and a large number of adherents to those religions could be expected to react strongly to a ban.

Thus, on art 9 grounds, it is certainly arguable that parents should have the right to carry out the procedure.

In response I would argue that the art 9 analysis is inappropriate. This is because the religious rights of the parents are one thing, but of overriding importance are the rights of the child. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child makes clear that the best interests of the children should be the overriding principle whenever children’s lives intersect with the law, and in my view that principle is indisputable.

The blunt fact is that circumcision not done on compelling medical grounds constitutes an assault. The onus is therefore on those wishing to carry out the procedure to show that it is nevertheless somehow in the child’s interest.

It is not possible to justify assaulting a child on the ground that the parents’ religion requires it – any more than the state should permit parents to withdraw female children from school on the ground that their culture or religion objects to girls becoming educated.

Imagine a strange cult that required children to be branded a la cattle farming with a red hot poker, or some other bizarre practice. No art 9 grounds would permit this. That circumcision might be seen as less extreme (or not) does not change the principle. Here is where the gender equality argument becomes relevant: the only difference between male and female circumcision is that the latter is banned because the harm is greater, but that is not a sufficient distinction – there is no “acceptable level of harm”.

One red herring needs to be dealt with. Smacking a child (controversial enough in itself) is an assault. But the argument in favour of doing so is that it is in the child’s interest to learn discipline. No comparable argument for circumcision exists other than medical grounds. It is not enough to say that it does not harm the child, it has to have a tangible positive benefit. If it does, then circumcision is indeed justifiable and I would abandon any objection.

The fact that male circumcision is a deeply held tradition that has lasted for thousands of years is relevant but not compelling. Slavery, sexism, blood sports and any number of other now banned and thoroughly discredited practices, cultures and beliefs could have been (and often were) defended on the same grounds.

Ultimately, practicing religion should be subject to the same standards as non-religious activities. There would be no acceptable justification for assaulting a child on secular grounds; religious practices should be held to the same standard.

One final point. See here for a superb judicial response to sexism in religion in the present context.

Monday, 13 June 2011

The need for diversity on the Supreme Court

Shortened version published on Halsbury's Law Exchange here


The question of appointments to the Supreme Court continues to generate controversy across the legal blogsophere, and now the House of Lords Constitutional Committee has decided to launch an inquiry into judicial appointments generally.

In a previous post, I have argued that a final vetting stage of candidates for the Supreme Court should be carried out by a cross-party Parliamentary committee, as a way of a more open process with some democratic imprimatur and an affirmation of the status of Parliament as supreme in our constitutional arrangements. It should, however, be no more than a final vetting.

I have also argued that the court should continue as a general appeal court, rather than refashioning itself as some sort of constitutional court or local version of Strasbourg. I would add that I do not see how the court has the power to do so. There is nothing in the Court’s founding statute (the Constitutional Reform Act 2005) limiting the right of appeal and any suggestion that the court should only hear certain cases would amount to an unlawful fetter on its discretion.

Of course, the court could do so de facto simply by refusing permission to appeal for anything other than public law cases, but to exclude valid appeals simply because of their subject matter would deprive litigants of access to justice. The Court of Appeal deservedly has an outstanding international reputation, but the sheer volume of cases it hears means that inevitably there will be some cases where further review by the Supreme Court will be justified.

The issue on which I have not yet commented concerns the controversial question of diversity on the bench.

Three caveats

It is often said that the judiciary is unrepresentative of society, and its legitimacy suffers as a result, hence the composition should be changed whatever the appointments process.

I would agree with that proposition, with three caveats. The first is that, despite the large number of public law cases heard nowadays, it is not the role of the judiciary to "represent" the community, or a particular constituency thereof. The role of the court is to resolve disputes before it according to the law.

Of course the judges are involved in making law, but they do so subject to Parliament, which remains supreme in our constitutional arrangements.

They are also involved in evaluating questions of policy, but in doing so they are not in the position of a political party attempting to implement a manifesto. Rather, their role is limited to assessing the particular policy against the legal parameters of Wednesbury review and the European Convention, taking account of domestic case law and that of Strasbourg.

Secondly, however representative the bench becomes, it is inevitable that each individual judge will spend most of his or her time hearing cases the facts of which are largely outwith his or her personal experience. Even if it were otherwise, it would lead to accusations of bias if judges were always assigned to particular cases because they happened to share the background of one of the parties. There would be no point in multiple judges hearing appeals if they were always expected to defer to the one who was the expert on the particular subject matter or who was thought to have particular awareness of the litigants’ social group however defined.

Thirdly, resolving cases always involves a great deal of technical legal knowledge. This necessarily narrows the field for judicial selection to suitably qualified and experienced lawyers.

In other words, judges are not equivalent to politicians and therefore should not be appointed on the same basis.

The case for diversity

Those caveats aside, the justification for a more representative bench may be stated fairly simply. British society is far more diverse culturally than historically, and old notions about deference and class distinctions have long been discredited. If the judiciary remains as homogenous as it has been in the past - that is, dominated by elderly white middle-and-upper class, public school and Oxbridge males – it will have the appearance of a self-serving elite, however radical the actual decisions judges make. It will suffer the objection that the members are "out of touch"; and wider issues about social mobility will be (as indeed they presently are) engaged.

An homogenous bench will also suggest bias or discrimination in the selection process. Even if the judges are appointed purely on merit – defined as the best legal ability – if the pool of experienced lawyers from which they are drawn is itself unrepresentative, then the question arises of barriers to entry to (and promotion within) the profession, and prior to that university selection and the education system generally. (Needless to say those are much wider questions than simply the appointment process to the Supreme Court or the bench as a whole, and I won’t attempt any exposition here.)

Statistically it would be implausible to say the least for all the best lawyers to be from one small demographic, so it may be seen as advancing – not retarding – the search for the best judges to look to a more diverse pool.

Moreover, on appellate courts the virtue of having more than one judge may be partially vitiated if all are drawn from identical backgrounds. Alexander Horne’s important recent study expands upon this point (at Pt 5.2). In corporate newspeak this is known as the danger of "groupthink". (See Rackley, E. What a difference difference makes: gendered harms and judicial diversity, International Journal of the Legal Profession, Volume 15, Issue 1 & 2 March 2008, and generally Horne Pts 5.3 and 5.4).

This extends beyond the demographics of the bench, to include their professional experience. Lord Pannick QC said of a well-known public law case (YL v Birmingham City Council [2007] UKHL 2):

With three Chancery judges (Lord Scott, Lord Mance and Lord Neuberger) outvoting Lord Bingham and Baroness Hale, the House of Lords decided on the meaning and application of s.6(3)(b) of the Human Rights 1998 ([2009] Judical Review 109)

Mr Horne responds: “This somewhat sneering reference to the former Chancery judges reflected the view of many in the human rights community that they should have deferred to the views of their public law orientated brethren.”

(I would interpolate that Lord Pannick, with the greatest respect, hasn't done his homework on that particular case: Lord Mance was a judge of the Commercial Court, as was Lord Bingham.) True one might expect a judge whose practice concerned exclusively commercial cases might take a different view of public law cases than, say, a former tax lawyer, or human rights lawyer, or indeed family lawyer, but then again two of the leading human rights judges of recent years have been Lords Hoffmann and Bingham, formerly of the Chancery Division and Commercial Court respectively. This shows again that judges do not necessarily conform to expectations or stereotypes once appointed, and it reinforces the futility of trying to elicit judges’ political views before appointing them.

In other words, one should have a diverse bench, and expect a diversity of views accordingly, but predicting how that diversity will play out in practice is not really possible.


The need for a more representative judiciary is manifest. I would caution, however, that it still needs to be confined to meritorious candidates, meaning those with the appropriate skills (including black letter law, which is a technical expertise) and experience. “Political” appointees would be a disaster for the reputation of the judiciary: it would set back the cause of equality no end if someone was appointed and thought simply to be a beneficiary of tokenism. Commercial confidence in the judiciary would drop and overseas litigants and businesspeople would look elsewhere.

It follows that the lack of diversity cannot be remedied overnight. In the case of the Supreme Court, however, as I have argued elsewhere, a wider pool might be appropriate given that the judges do not need expertise in fact finding (and hence cross-examination) or procedural law, both of which are central parts of the lower courts' role. A precedent has already been set with Jonathan Sumption QC who, whilst not of any recognisable minority himself, was appointed straight from the bar (albeit not without some controversy, it has to be said). Senior lawyers from academia, business, the civil service and elsewhere might also be considered.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Injunctions: almost time for a dry martini

Published in Halsbury's Law Exchange here

Fred Goodwin has been back in court (Goodwin v NGN Ltd [2011] All ER (D) 45 (Jun)). The injunction concerning a relationship he had with a former colleague has been varied to permit disclosure of the job description of the lady in question, but not disclosure of her name.

Mr Justice Tugenhadt had this to say about the publicity which the case has received in the past three months:

"On many occasions since 1 March people have commented publicly on the case, criticising the injunction in the pages of newspapers and elsewhere. Much of this reporting contained many factual errors about the case, as I have noted above. Judges read newspapers, but judges cannot vary court orders on the basis of what the public are told by the media. If persons affected by a court order want it to be varied, they must make an application to the court. As appears from the events of 19 May, they can do this quickly and informally, if it is urgent.

English law develops in two ways. First, it is made by Parliament. The Prevention from Harassment Act 1998 and the Human Rights Act 1997 are two privacy statutes referred to in this judgment. Second it is developed by case law, as judges apply the statute to particular cases. At the second stage it is essential that the parties to litigation put their evidence and submissions before the court. It is by weighing up arguments and counter arguments that judges are best able to interpret the law. The circumstances of injunctions applied for out of hours on the telephone are not favourable to a considered development of the law. That is one reason why judges order cases to come back before the court for full consideration on the evidence. That happened on 4 March. But there was no argument then because NGN chose not to argue its case. And other media organisation notified of the injunction chose not to argue the case in court. To the extent that media defendants choose not to submit evidence and argument to the courts, judges will find it difficult to develop the law of privacy to meet the needs of society."

I think that constitutes at least a short stint on the legal naughty step for a few of the media organisations involved.

No doubt the case will be read with interest by all who attended the excellent privacy conference held by Weber Shandwick at Gray’s Inn on 8 June. During the discussion the point was again raised that privacy law may well end up being a castle built on sand, given that the internet may simply render injunctions unenforceable.

I have made this point before and it seems from comments on the UKHR blog that some people see it as a triumphant act of civil disobedience. While I agree that the privacy laws take too little account of freedom of expression – indeed significantly too little – I am not so sure that there are not other options available to those who wish to have them changed which do not involve breaking the law. Also, if it becomes the norm for injunctions to be obliterated by the determined twitterati then it will not be long before real harm is done to a deserving claimant rather than an indulgent miscreant footballer or z-list celebrity; if so the civil disobeyers might remember the old adage about being careful what you wish for.

Having said that, of course, it only takes a few to breach every injunction to render them all futile. If so there is no point in judges, politicians or anyone else arguing about the rule of law; they will have to throw the towel in, rather as American legislators felt compelled to do when ending prohibition.

Legend has it that FDR just happened to have the ingredients for a martini to hand when he signed the 21st amendment, having enjoyed a beer shortly after the Cullen-Harrison Act came into force. I wonder what equivalent might be available to a judge who feels compelled in the future to run up the white flag on judicially-developed privacy laws.

Friday, 3 June 2011

"We don't do God": religion in the public domain

Published in Halsbury's Law Exchange here

In Tom Wolfe's classic novel The Bonfire of the Vanities there is a very funny passage that will chime with anyone who has seen one of the more colourful litigants in person in action. In Manhattan, a most unfortunate character named Herbert Cantrell is on trial for manslaughter. Herbert has renamed himself "Herbert 92X" pursuant to his religious beliefs, although the sincerity of those beliefs is open to question. He is represented but his lawyer is so hapless, and Herbert so vociferous, that Herbert spends most of the time addressing the court in person. He insists on beginning each day in court with a reading from the Koran, and the judge, an irascible sort named Mike Kovitsky, allows this to happen to let the volatile Herbert let off steam and thus save time in the long run.

One day Herbert feels that he has been short-changed by the time allotted to his reading, and demands the right to continue. Kovitsky snarls that “We happen to live in a republic, and in this republic there is a separation of church and state”. In response Herbert triumphantly tells the judge to look behind himself, where emblazoned on the wall of the court are the words "In God We Trust". The court dissolves into fits of ill-restrained giggles; with the exception of Kovitsky, who explodes into rage, although he finds time to compliment Herbert for being so observant.

Such occasional religious references appear in various places in American public life in reality too, and according to this report from the UK Supreme Court blog the US Supreme Court has just refused to consider a challenge to the use of the words “So help me God” in the Presidential inauguration ceremony.

The case was brought by one Michael Newdow, a private individual. A few years previously Newdow had brought proceedings seeking to exclude the words “under God” during the Pledge of Allegiance in his daughter’s classroom each morning. That case ultimately failed on the ground that Newdow lacked standing to raise the issue on behalf of his daughter.

His later action initially sought an injunction to prevent the Chief Justice, John Roberts, from reciting the optional religious wording during President Obama’s ceremony in January 2009. He alleged that the wording violated the Constitution and infringed his freedom of religion (referring to the First Amendment’s establishment clause). The relief sought was later amended to include future inaugurations as well.

The case failed on the ground that the plaintiffs lacked appropriate legal standing to bring the case. Further, according to this website,

Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal wrote in his brief: “Because the content of the inaugural ceremony is entirely dependent on the president or president-elect’s wishes, only a judicial order running against the president or president-elect would result in the relief that [the atheists] seek. But [they] have not filed suit against the president or president-elect.”

Mr. Katyal added that the appeals court had emphasized that “a court would not have the authority to enter an injunction directly against the president in the exercise of his executive functions or against the president-elect (a private citizen) in the exercise of his personal religious beliefs.”

Leaving aside the technical legal and procedural points about standing, the case throws up an interesting question: is the President, or any other public official, merely expressing a personal view – protected by the right to freedom of speech and freedom of religion – or bringing religion into the public sphere where it should not be permitted because of the separation of church and state?

Other questions immediately present themselves too: what if the official has campaigned during the election partly on his or her religious faith? Is there a difference if she is appointed rather than elected, so that no democratic imprimatur can be claimed for her beliefs? Does it matter if the role is a narrow, technical one in respect of which religious beliefs can be seen to be irrelevant, as opposed to one with a broad scope such as that of president?

It seems to me that Mr Katyal’s reasoning is sound: the candidate should be entitled to make religious references in his or her speech, but only as an expression of personal faith.

Any public role should be required by law to be conducted without fear or favour towards all citizens, including all religious groups, which should effectively preclude any favouritism or other improper action, religiously motivated or otherwise.

That being so, expressions of private belief in public ceremonies should be unobjectionable. Indeed, it would be more honest for a public figure to be open about his or her beliefs if there is any suspicion that they have a role in his or her decision-making, as was inferred in relation to Tony Blair, for example.

On the other hand, it also follows that there should not be a compulsory religious element in public events, for that would be contrary to a separation of church and state and the requirement for the state to be neutral as between competing religions (and non-religious belief systems). In America this is easy to enforce legally because of the establishment clause. In Britain, however, it runs directly counter to the status of the Church of England. One suspects that if Mr Clegg’s constitutional reform effort gains the sort of momentum that it has so far lacked, that status may soon be within his sights.