The patentability of living things: the latest in the BRCA gene saga

298x232-dna_genetic_test-298x232_dna_genetic_testD’Arcy v Myriad Genetics Inc [2014] FCAFC 115 (5 September 2014) - read judgment The recent ruling from the Full Federal Court of Australia allowing the breast cancer gene isolated in the laboratory to be patented contrasts sharply with the ruling by the US Supreme Court last year that a naturally occurring DNA segment is a “product of nature” and therefore not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated. The implications of this ruling for gene testing and patenting of biological products have been eloquently discussed elsewhere and I will not attempt to cover the same ground – see for example the excellent discussion posted by the Enhanced Genetic Services Project. All I want to point up in this post – apart from the obvious need for intellectual property law to encompass the development of science and technology – is the Australian court’s focus on how easily misled one may be by semantics in this sort of dispute. This ruling upholds an earlier decision that gene patenting is permissible under Australian law, declaring that “the boundaries of the conception of patentability are not dictated only by deductive logic from the linguistic premises formulated in the scientific knowledge of a particular age”. The concept of patentability has been broadening since the first quarter of the 17th century, and there is no reason why it should reach an artificial wall erected by unfathomable and unexplained “laws of nature” (a premise much relied upon by the US Supreme Court). I posted last year on the decision of the US Supreme Court in Association for Molecular Pathology v Myriad Genetics Inc. It will be remembered that that Court held that a sequence of DNA mimicking the BRCA breast cancer mutation could not be patented because DNA’s information sequences and  all the other processes that allow the information to manufacture bodily tissues occur naturally within human cells.  Continue reading

Strasbourg and why you must give reasons on domestic appeals

MO201110701289983ARHansen v. Norway, ECtHR, 2 October, read judgment

In any system of appeals, there is always a tension between giving everyone a fair hearing and concentrating on the appeals which do stand a reasonable prospect of success. The UK, like many countries, has introduced some filters on civil appeals in relatively recent times, enabling unmeritorious appeals to be dismissed at the threshold. In doing so, it gives short (sometimes very short) reasons for refusing permission.

You might have thought that this was a classic area where Strasbourg would be wary about intervening in domestic practice and striking the balance between speed and fairness. Yet the Court was persuaded that the Norwegians got the balance wrong, and found a breach of Article 6(1). We therefore need to read it carefully to see whether the same could be said about our system.

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The Fragility of Human Rights

Holidays_Halloween_Boiling_cauldron_on_Halloween_024660_The announcement this week of a new Conservative Party plan to repeal the Human Rights Act, ‘Protecting Human Rights in the UK’, has brought to a boil a cauldron of incredulity (pictured) about the Government’s attitude towards the law. The response from human rights lawyers and advocacy groups has been swift. Liberty describes the Conservative Party plan as ‘legally illiterate’. The several ways in which that is true have already been the subject of detailed exposition. Indeed, Liberty’s response is even more accurate than it might first appear. If the Conservative Party plan is legally illiterate then it is best read as a political tactic to assure its supporters that it is the party of anti-European sentiment. 

Nevertheless, if the move helps to bring about a Conservative Party government after the general election next May, then there is a great likelihood that steps will be taken to weaken the legal protection of human rights in Britain. The political pressure to do so will be even greater if the government must rely on support from Eurosceptic Members of Parliament for its majority in the House of Commons. Thus, political tactic or not, a Conservative Party-led government will likely take action against human rights law after the General Election.

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Another Strasbourg judgment which Putin may wish to ignore – Scientologists win

scientologyChurch of Scientology v. Russia, ECtHR, 2 October 2014 - read judgment

Amidst all the current posturing about the Strasbourg Court and how we would like to ignore its judgments we don’t like in future, one cannot help thinking about the old rule of behaviour that your enemy’s enemy is your friend. Western interests have been caught out, time and time again, when they intervene/interfere (insert, as appropriate) in the Middle East, and their enemy’s friend often turns out to be far from its friend.

Cue this case. Scientologists may not be widely favoured, in the UK, but then neither is Russia. And Russia would so love to ignore the slew of Strasbourg judgments against it – think Kordokovsky (€1.6bn, here), Chechnya and the environmental claims (here) against the various businesses which had so seamlessly ended up in the oligarchs’ pockets. But do we really want to feed Putin a line to get out of his difficulties in Strasbourg? This week’s back of an envelope announcements from the Conservative party conference about Strasbourg decisions would appear to do so.

The trigger for this claim in Strasbourg by the Church was the Russian courts’ decision that they were unwilling to allow the Scientologists to register their operations as a legal entity. And, as we shall see, Strasbourg thought that was not on.

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Journalists’ safety and the UN – Jessica Allen

steven-sotloffResolution A/HRC/27/L.7 on the Safety of Journalists by the UN Human Rights Council

Another day, another dead journalist; or so seems to be the trend in the media profession following recent news of the brutal beheading of an Israeli-American journalist, Stephen Sotloff, by Islamic State militants in Syria on 2nd September 2014. This Resolution seeks to facilitate the prevention of further fatalities.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 1055 journalists have been killed worldwide in the past 22 years. Gunilla Von Hall, an eminent Swedish foreign correspondent and journalist, opened the Annual Geneva Peace Talks by sharing her experiences as a foreign correspondent to conflict zones such as Iraq and Bosnia. Gunilla commented on her need to ‘write for a visa’, making her withhold certain information from print temporarily so that she could continue to enter certain countries. She has had to openly refuse calls to work in certain areas due to the risks she now faces. Following the birth of her children, Gunilla’s responsibilities have more recently prevented her from risking her safety by travelling to these regions. She observed that, as a result, inexperienced reporters who are based in the countries have to be hired instead. Research undertaken by UNESCO compiled in the report ‘World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development’ suggests that 94% of those targeted have been domestic journalists.

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Will devolution scupper Conservative plans for a “British” Bill of Rights?

Referendum In his speech at yesterday’s Conservative Party conference, the Prime Minister confirmed that the party’s 2015 election manifesto will include a commitment to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) and replace it with a “British Bill of Rights”. Last night, however, The Scotsman newspaper quoted a Scotland Office spokesman as saying that the change would not apply in Scotland. According to the article, the spokesman “confirmed that human rights legislation is devolved to the Scottish Parliament because it was ‘built into the 1998 Scotland Act [and] cannot by removed [by Westminster].’” As reported, this statement is seriously misleading. However, it does highlight genuine difficulties that devolution creates for the implementation of plans to reform human rights law. Continue reading

Council’s decision to close elderly care home not unlawful

ammaoldagehomeKaria, R (on the application of) v Leicester City Council (Sir Stephen Silber, acting as High Court Judge)  [2014] EWHC 3105 (Admin) (30 September 2014)- read judgment

In a robust judgment Sir Stephen Silber has asserted that neither the ordinary laws of judicial review, nor the Equality Act nor the Human Rights Act require the courts to micro-manage the decisions of public authorities. Indeed the latter two statutory powers are not designed as a back door into a merits review of a decision that is restricted to the court’s review of the legality of a public sector decision.

Background facts and law

The claimant, a 101 year old woman of Gujarati descent, challenged the decision to close the care home which she has occupied since 1999. Her grounds of challenge were threefold:

1. that the Council had failed to take account of material issues of fact relating to the present and future levels of demand for residential care one provision

2. that it had reached its decision without due regard to the need under the Equality Act 2010 to avoid unlawful discrimination in the provision of services

3. and it had failed to take into account the impact of the closure on the claimant’s Article 8 rights

She also complained that she had a legitimate expectation of a home for life at Herrick Lodge and that the Council had not considered whether her needs could be met in alternative placements.

Although the judge was at pains to stress that as this was a judicial review application, it was not for him to assess the merits of the Council’s decision, merely its legality. Having done so, he concluded that the Council had not acted irrationally, nor had it  paid due regard to the need to advance equality of opportunity.

It is not for the Court to determine whether proper weight has been given to a factor where as here there has been proper appreciation of the potential impact of the decision on equality issues.

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