The legal blogosphere has been aflame this week with the news, first published on a magistrate’s blog, that the Senior Presiding Judge has sent new guidance to judges banning them from blogging in their judicial capacity. The SPJ has also threatened disciplinary action unless they remove existing content with breaches the new rules.
The key section of the purported guidance is this:
Blogging by members of the judiciary is not prohibited. However, officer holders who blog (or who post comments on other people’s blogs) must not identify themselves as members of the judiciary. They must also avoid expressing opinions which, were it to become known that they hold judicial office, could damage public confidence in their own impartiality or in the judiciary in general.
The guidance applies to those who blog anonymously because “it is impossible for somebody who blogs anonymously to guarantee that his or her identity cannot be discovered“.
The real “democratic deficit” in the courts is about limited public access not “unelected judges“, Adam Wagner argued on the UK Human Rights Blog at the weekend, challenging a recent political and media narrative.
In his view, the internet age necessitates “a completely new understanding of the old adage ‘Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done‘”.
Wagner is one of 14 authors who contributed to a new working publication entitled ‘Justice Wide Open’, produced by the Centre for Law, Justice and Journalism (CLJJ), City University London, following an event on February 29 2012. The individual chapters can be accessed electronically.
Free speech is under attack. Or so it seems. The last few weeks have been abuzz with stories to do with free speech: a Supreme Court ruling on the Reynolds defence to libel; contempt of court proceedings against an MP for comments made in a book and the latest in a growing line of criminal trials for Twitter offences. The diversity of media at the heart of these stories – print news, traditional books and online ‘micro-blogging’ - indicates the difficulty of the task for the legal system.
Flood v Times: how does this affect calls for libel reform?
On 21 March, the Supreme Court affirmed the Times newspaper’s reliance on the Reynolds defence to libel – often referred to as Reynolds privilege or the responsible journalism defence – to a claim by a detective sergeant in the Metropolitan Police.
Do Lord Phillips, Baroness Hale and other members of the judiciary have the right to say what they think? At first glance that seems like a ridiculous question. Firstly, it is their job to express their views on the legal disputes coming before them on an almost daily basis. Secondly, to look at it from an entirely different perspective, they enjoy the same protections granted by article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) as the rest of us. Of course they have the right to say what they think.
But what about when they are acting in a non-judicial capacity – when they are giving speeches or participating in conferences or being interviewed? What about when the topic of discussion is not a narrowly defined legal point but a more politically charged issue of public debate? The answer must be the same. They have the right to express their views, but whether or not they should is a more nuanced question. This was the topic selected by the Lord Neuberger MR in his Presidential Address to the Holdsworth Club on 2 March 2012.
This is the second in a series of posts analysing the UK’s draft “Brighton Declaration” on European Court of Human Rights reform.
Reactions to proposals for reforming the European Court of Human Rights contained the recently leaked Draft Brighton Declaration have been rightly critical. Concerns have been directed at specific features which could impact on the essential role and function of the Court, inhibit access to the court for victims, and which may prejudice the practical impact of the HRA 1998 and the debate on replacing it with a UK Bill of Rights.
It is testament to the eagerness with which these reforms are awaited—and the weaknesses which have been detected—that the Open Society Justice Initiative has launched a petition against the direction these proposals are taking.
Yesterday I spoke at Justice Wide Open, an excellent conference organised by Judith Townend. I mounted my usual open justice hobby horses (to coin a topical phrase) on how to make the justice system more accessible to the public, including a moan about human rights reporting. Someone told me during the break that according to her research, when newspapers put a positive slant on a human rights story, they tend to use the code word “civil liberties”. And, as if to prove the point, on the very same morning the Daily Mail put its considerable weight behind a crucial but until now sub-public-radar “civil liberties” and open justice issue, the Justice and Security Green Paper.
As readers of this blog will be aware, the Government proposes in the Green Paper to introduce “closed material procedures” into civil proceedings. For an explanation of why this amounts to “a departure from the foundational principle of natural justice“, look no further than the Special Advocates’ response to the consultation and my co-editor Angus McCullough QC’s post, A Special Advocate’s comment. But although the proposals have been getting lawyers and The Guardian hot and bothered, the sound of tumbleweed has been the loudest response. Until now, that is.
Sir Stephen Sedley, until last year of the Court of Appeal, has launched a stinging rebuttal to the speech of Lord Sumption (Jonathan Sumption QC as was) in which the soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice rebuked the judiciary for failing to stay out of the political arena.
This blog covered Lord Sumption’s speech here. Sir Stephen’s response in the London Review of Books takes issue with Lord Sumption’s assertion of excessive judicial interference in political matters, with the words:
there is a repeated insinuation that judicial interference in the political process regularly occurs: ‘The judicial resolution of inherently political issues is difficult to defend.’ It is not only difficult to defend; it does not happen.
65 responses to the Justice and Security Green Paper consultation, which proposes introducing “Closed Material Procedures” – secret trials – into civil courts, have been published on the official consultation website. According to the site there are potentially 25 more to come.
Whilst it is a good thing that the responses have been published at all, the low number of responses is a little depressing. In a country of over 60 million people, and given the proposals could amount to a significant erosion of open justice, 90 responses seems a little thin. Granted, many of the responses are from organisations or groups of individuals, such as the 57 Special Advocates who have called the proposals a “departure from the foundational principle of natural justice“. But the low number surely represents the fact that as yet the proposals have failed to capture the public imagination.
The UK Supreme Court began tweeting yesterday as @UKSupremeCourt to deserved international fanfare. Some even speculated that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s extradition fate could now be revealed on Twitter.
The court is already being followed by almost 4,000 Twitter users (for the uninitiated, that is a lot) and has already beaten its own Twitter policy’s prediction of “2-3 tweets a week” with eight on its first day. The eventful debut tweets included seven live updates on the swearing-in ceremony of the court’s newest Justice, Lord Reed, and one relenting to Twitter user @FOImanUK‘s valid point that contrary to the court’s stated policy, it should be possible to put freedom of information requests to the court via Twitter.
This is all excellent news. The UK’s newest and highest appeal court is now setting the international standard for open justice, with its splendid press summaries of judgments, live transmission of hearings online (today’s is a very interesting case about the state’s financial responsibility towards disable people), accessible court facilities and generally public-facing approach. This is also as it should be: the Court has a statutory duty to be “accessible”. But the Supreme Court, which is largely independent from the rest of the court system, is now streaking ahead of it in terms of access to justice. And this open justice gap is becoming a problem.
A child learns early that if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it. Thankfully that principle does not apply to Government consultations and this is aptly demonstrated by a group of responses to the consultation into whether “closed material” (secret evidence) procedures should be extended to civil trials.
Of the responses that I have read, there is very little support for the proposals as they stand and, as journalist Joshua Rozenberg has pointed out, the most damning criticism has come from the very lawyers who are currently involved in “closed” proceedings.
If you are interested in the issue, the Joint Committee on Human Rights is hearing evidence on it today from two special advocates, including my co-editor Angus McCullough QC (see his post on the topic), as well as the current and former independent reviewers of terrorism legislation. The session begins at 2:20pm and can be watched live here.
As I did with the Bill of Rights Commission consultation, I asked people to send me their consultation responses. What follows is a wholly unscientific summary of the ones I received:
Two recent posts on this blog have brought deserved attention to the question of the European Court’s handling of admissibility decisions. In the course of criticising the substantial misrepresentation of the statistics for UK petitions to the European Court, Andrew Tickell’s piece highlighted the significant contribution of “highly discretionary concepts” in the filtering of the Court’s caseload.
Alongside clearer procedural hurdles such as the six month time bar and exhaustion of domestic remedies, the “manifestly ill-founded” criterion may be a clear and meaningful legal term but certainly isn’t manifest exactly what obstacle it sets.
Andrew Tickell in his recent post (Is the European Court of Human Rights obsessively interventionist?) makes a number of important points about the European Court of Human Rights’ approach to admissibility, in particular the application of the manifestly ill-founded criterion. Perhaps understandably, the majority of legal scholars have preferred to focus on the more substantive aspects of the Court’s work and its leading judgments.
However, Tickell’s analysis, and his other efforts to ensure that the less glamorous work of the Court on admissibility are not overlooked, must be welcomed, both as redressing that balance and informing the wider debate on the proper role of the Court. This post seeks to build on his contribution by providing an overview of the Court’s approach to admissibility in applications brought against the United Kingdom.
Government proposals to increase the number of court hearings held in secret, and in which parties can only see minimal evidence relied upon by the court, have been severely criticised by the “Special Advocates” who play the central role in closed hearings.
The group of 57 barristers, including 19 Queen’s Counsel, argue that despite attempts, for example, to give those subject to “Closed Material Procedures” a summary of the evidence against them, they remain “fundamentally unfair” and
represent a departure from the foundational principle of natural justice that all parties are entitled to see and challenge all the evidence relied upon before the court and to combat that evidence by calling evidence of their own.
The document is a response to the Government’s Consultation (see my and Angus McCullough QC’s previous posts) which have to be sent via email or post by tomorrow, Friday 6 January 2012. I will be collating summaries of responses as I did with the Bill of Rights Commission consultation. If you would like your response to be included, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org, with the subject “Consultation response”.
In summary, the special advocates argue:
Top Judge yesterday
A lot of headlines begin with “Top judge…” at the moment. Top Judge has variously attacked MPs who reveal injunctions, expressed fears over cameras in court, warned legal aid in family cases may disappear, protested over legal aid reforms, urged murder law reforms and said Britain can ignore Europe on human rights (he didn’t, but that’s another story).
Aside from lazy sub-editors (one of whom was me), what is causing this proliferation of Top Judges? It may be that senior judges are speaking out more, even on controversial topics which could create problems for them in the future.
Or perhaps Top Judge has always been outspoken, but fewer people were listening. In the internet age judges’ pronouncements are more quickly and widely reported. Speeches are often published instantly (sometimes, even before being made) on websites such as judiciary.gov.uk. Previously obscure Parliamentary committee hearings are broadcast live on the internet. The increased profile of the still-new Supreme Court adds to this dynamic.