Monthly News Archives: February 2016
29 February 2016
In the news
The UK government is letting companies “off the hook” for human rights abuses, according to Amnesty International. In an 80-page report, Obstacle course: How the UK’s National Contact Point handles human rights complaints under the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, Amnesty claims that the National Contact Point (NCP) within the Department for Business Innovation and Skills – who is charged with handling complaints that private contracts may conflict with human rights commitments – is “unqualified to make complex human rights judgments”. The NCP is a non-judicial mechanism tasked with holding companies to account over breaches of the international standards set by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – but has, it seems, rejected 60% of human rights complaints in the past five years without full investigation.
Amnesty describes the NCP as “totally failing in numerous ways”, with its complaint handling procedure being “inconsistent, unreliable and biased towards businesses” resulting in companies being let “off the hook”. The failures to investigate include allegations of serious abuse, such as claims that Vodafone, BT and others allowed GCHQ to access its networks for the mass interception of phone calls, emails and Facebook posts, which it shared with the US authorities under the Tempora program.
The all-party foreign affairs select committee is currently investigating whether the Foreign Office has downgraded its commitment to defending human rights in favour of trade. MPs on the committee decided to hold an enquiry after the permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, Sir Simon McDonald, commented that human rights no longer had the same profile within his department that they had in the past.
A BIS spokesperson has said in response that their review process meets all the obligations under the OECD guidelines for trading and that there should be no suggestion the government is not committed to human rights.
Last week also saw David Cameron describe UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia as “brilliant” – on the same day that the European Parliament voted for an arms embargo on the country for its aerial bombings on Yemen.
- Last week a seven-judge Supreme Court heard a case on whether the minimum-income visa requirements for UK nationals to bring over a non-EU spouse are in contravention of the right to respect for private and family life under Article 8, the Guardian reports. Under the Family Migration Rules, which changed in July 2012, UK nationals must have available funds equivalent to a minimum gross income of £18,600 to bring over a non-EU spouse, rising to £22,400 if they have a child of non-British citizenship. Two of the appellants, Abdul Majid and Shabana Javed, are British and married to Pakistani nationals; another, MM, is a Lebanese refugee; and the fourth, AF (also MM’s nephew) is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The appellant counsel described the threshold as “completely unachievable” for many. Judgment is expected within six months.
- Proposals to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights have been “put on ice”. Though it is claimed that the legislation is finished and “sitting on a desk inside No.10”, Downing Street is refusing to publish it, allegedly due to Gove’s decision to “defect to the Out camp” in the referendum. An unsurprised David Allen Green comments that the Human Rights Act is not likely to be repealed in this Parliament, saying that the hurdles to doing so still remain (such as the Good Friday Agreement), and suggests that the Conservatives may have begun to realise that its repeal and replacement “is not worth the time and effort”.
In the Courts
- Civek v Turkey – The Court held unanimously that the Turkish authorities had violated Article 2 (right to life) by failing to protect the life of a woman who had been seriously threatened by her husband, HC. Ms Civek had made continued complaints of harassment to the Turkish authorities yet they had failed to take measures reasonably available to them to avoid her murder. Ms Civek had been subjected to sustained abuse from her husband culminating in 2010 in his remand in custody and a court order to refrain from being violent towards his wife. After his release in November 2010 (under judicial supervision), Ms Civek had complained that he was threatening to kill her. Again in December 2010 Ms Civek lodged a complaint, which led to HC being charged with threatening to kill her – but the State Prosecutor took no practical action, even though the husband could have been legitimately arrested for non-compliance with court orders. The Court found the authorities should have acted to protect Ms Civek’s life, and through their failure, her husband had been able to murder her on a street in January 2011, stabbing her 22 times.
- Société de Conception de Presse et d’Édition v. France – An order by the French domestic courts that an unauthorised photograph published by Choc magazine be blacked out was not a violation of freedom of expression under article 10. Choc magazine, published by the applicant company, had published photos of a young man, IH, taken whilst he was in captivity, wearing shackles, and showing visible signs of torture. He had later died from his injuries. The Court found that the photograph had never been intended for public viewing, permission had not been obtained from IH’s relatives, and that its publication showed a grave disregard for the grief of his family. It was therefore a serious interference with the private life of IH’s relatives. The Paris Court of Appeal had ordered that the photograph in question be blacked out in all magazines put on sale, rather than withdrawn completely. The European Court of Human Rights found that such a restriction on freedom of expression was proportionate, as the text of the report remained unchanged, and that in the circumstances the penalty imposed would not have a “chilling effect” on freedom of expression.
- Nasr and Ghali v Italy – This case concerned the CIA abduction and extraordinary rendition (the transfer of a person without legal process to another country for interrogation where there is a risk they might be tortured) with the cooperation of the Italian authorities, of the Egyptian imam Abu Omar (also known as Osama Nasr), who had been granted political asylum in Italy. He was held in secret in Egypt for several months in cramped and unhygienic cells where he was periodically interrogated and tortured. An investigation into Mr Nasr’s disappearance had been carried out by the national authorities but this had been ineffective due to the executive’s invocation of ‘State secrecy’ – which resulted in those responsible being granted impunity.
- The Court found in respect of Mr Nasr violations of Article 3 prohibition on torture (in previous cases the Court had already held that the treatment of detainees under the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme amounted to torture), Article 5 (right to liberty and security) – due to the unlawful nature of the detention; Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life) and Article 13 (right to effective remedy) read together with Articles 3, 5 and 8. The Court also found in respect of Ms Ghali, Mr Nasr’s wife, violations of Article 3 (because she had suffered significant non-pecuniary damage as a result of her husband’s sudden disappearance), Article 8 and Article 13.
26 February 2016
An NHS Trust v CS (By Her Litigation Friend, the Official Solicitor) ] EWCOP Read the judgement.
The Court of Protection does the work of Solomon on a daily basis. Matters of life and death are brought before it, and with them come a mass of conflicting rights, overlapping statutes, and an array of case law from which arguments can be drawn. At the end of it, an individual judge must make a stark decision, which may have the most profound impact on another human being. One of those charged with making such decisions once divided the advocates who appeared before him into those who complicate and those who clarify. There is no surprise as to which he preferred.
Baker J’s judgment in this disturbing case will boost the cause of the clarifiers. CS has two children and, before Christmas, became pregnant by her then partner. It was a relationship that, it is alleged, became “characterised by domestic violence” (a phrase that it somehow more chilling for its judicial restraint). CS told friends and families that, in the circumstances, she intended to terminate the pregnancy. Days later she was, allegedly, assaulted by her partner. She was hospitalised with serious head injuries comprising fractures, intracranial bleeding and brain damage. She has post-traumatic amnesia and her behaviour has become extremely unsettled, marked by agitation, restlessness and disruptive acts. Her prognosis is uncertain.
The Trust treating her brought an application to the Court, seeking an urgent order to allow them to perform a surgical abortion. The urgency arose because the window of time during which such a procedure could be performed was closing. With the urgency came a plethora of issues. CS’s condition may improve in the future, but by then it could be too late to terminate the pregnancy. In those circumstances, what weight should be given to the evidence from CS family and friends of her prior intention to have a termination? How should that be balanced against her current wishes, insofar as they can be ascertained? What significance should be attached to the fact that she had previously had a termination? And what, if any, attention should be paid to the views of her partner, now arrested and remanded in custody?
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25 February 2016
Ben Smith, Legal Research Intern at the Equal Rights Trust
I expected competition for jobs in human rights to be tough but it was only when I graduated that I realised quite how difficult it was to break into the sector. I had gained a lot academically – I had an undergraduate degree in Law from Oxford University and a Master of Laws from University College London – but this didn’t seem to be enough when applying for jobs with human rights NGOs. I tried to stay positive and kept putting in applications but the feedback I got again and again was that while I was well qualified, there was always someone with more experience. Though I had lots of pro bono experience and legal experience in other sectors, the organisations I was applying to wanted direct experience in the field.
The only options I saw to gain that experience were internships, which were generally unpaid. It was frustrating to devote so much time academically to human rights only to find that a career is out of reach unless you have the financial means to work in unpaid lengthy internships. Like many other graduates, and particularly as I didn’t have roots in London, this wasn’t an option for me.
In August 2015 I saw the position advertised for Legal Research Interns with the Equal Rights Trust which offered a needs-based grant for applicants. The Trust is an international organisation which focuses on advancing equality and non-discrimination worldwide – an area I had looked at extensively during my studies and a keen interest of mine. I jumped at the chance to apply as the internship seemed like the perfect next step – and one that was accessible to me. I was offered the post in August, after which I submitted an application for the grant (which was accepted) and I started working with the Trust in September.
What sets this internship apart from others is that the tasks I’ve carried out have been incredibly varied and I’ve had the opportunity to work across the full range of work the Trust does, including advocacy, litigation and fundraising. I’ve lost track of the number of countries I’ve been involved with, I think it must be over 20 already, which is testament to the breadth of work the Trust does. It has been an incredible chance to broaden my horizons and expand my knowledge of equality and non-discrimination law.
I’ve had the opportunity to take on genuine responsibility in my position and develop important skills – you’re not just making tea and doing photocopying, but carrying out work that has a real impact. Recently, I researched and prepared a first draft of the Trust’s submissions in a case we are intervening in before the European Court of Human Rights. This was a huge task and it was a privilege to be trusted with it.
I think the level of responsibility we are given is due in part to the Trust’s paid internship scheme – a lot of NGOs are keen to take on interns who will work for free but who aren’t always best placed to take on a high level of responsibility or work on technical outputs. This can also be problematic as interns will often leave before their placement ends. In this sense I think the scheme is a “win-win” for the Trust and for the interns.
It will be sad to leave the Trust in spring as my internship comes to an end, but I know that if my legal career takes me away from human rights work, I will be able to put the skills I’ve developed as an intern to good use.
On 23 February the Trust launched a campaign – the Bob Hepple Memorial Fund – to help others like me who would be struggling to enter the sector were it not for paid internship and fellowship placements. Through the campaign the Trust has set itself a minimum target to raise of £1,000 which could support a needs based grant for an intern for approximately six weeks. If it meets its desired target of £10,000 it could support four interns and a fellow for three months.
I’ve learned an enormous amount as an intern and it has given me a real career boost, so I hope the campaign is not only a great success but that it will be replicated elsewhere in the sector to help more people pursue their ambition.
22 February 2016
Ross v Lord Advocate  CSIH 12, 19th February 2016 – read judgment
The Inner House of the Court of Session has rejected a reclaiming motion (appeal) from a decision of the Outer House in which it was held that the Lord Advocate’s refusal to publish specific guidance on the circumstances in which individuals would be prosecuted for assisted suicide did not violate Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
Factual and Legal Background
The petitioner, Gordon Ross, suffers from Parkinson’s disease. He anticipates that there will come a time when he will not wish to continue living but, because of his physical state, he would require assistance to end his own life. Mr Ross was apprehensive that anyone who assisted him would be liable to criminal prosecution and therefore sought clarification from the Lord Advocate (the head of the prosecution service in Scotland) as to the factors that would be taken into account in deciding whether or not to prosecute.
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18 February 2016
WF, Petitioner  CSOH 27 – read judgment
The Outer House of the Court of Session has ruled that the right to privacy and medical confidentiality under Article 8 of the Convention entitles complainers to be heard and have legal representation before any orders are made for recovery of their medical records.
Factual circumstances and legal background
The petitioner, (‘WF’) was a complainer in domestic abuse proceedings against the accused. The accused sought to recover all medical, psychiatric and psychological records relating to WF from 2007 to 2014. WF sought legal aid to allow her to be represented at the hearing concerning the recovery of these documents, arguing that her rights under Article 8 of the Convention entitled her to participate. The application to the Scottish Legal Aid Board was refused as there was no provision in the relevant legislation or regulations for legal aid to be granted for such proceedings. A further application was then made to the Scottish Ministers, under s.4(2)(c) of the Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 1986, which allows legal aid to be granted in circumstances not covered by the rules. This application was also refused on the grounds that WF did not have the right to appear or be represented at the relevant hearing. The key issue which came before the Sheriff was therefore whether Article 8 gave the complainer the right to appear and be represented at the hearing concerning disclosure of her medical records.
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18 February 2016
It is important to note that the draft judgment of the Supreme Court was embargoed from all apart from solicitors and counsel until today so our client, Ameen Jogee, and his family only found out about our success this morning. There are also no facilities for Ameen to attend court so his family have authorised us to release this statement:
- We are glad our arguments on the law were accepted by the court and very pleased that the court took this opportunity to correct a grossly erroneous tangent of law and remove “parasitic accessorial liability” (often referred to as “joint enterprise”) from our law.
- The law had incorrectly and unfairly developed to convict secondary parties on the basis of mere “foresight or contemplation” of what someone else might do. This over-criminalised secondary parties, particularly young people like Ameen Jogee.
- The consequence was that people were convicted of serious offences, committed by others, and imprisoned for lengthy periods. Primarily, we suggested to the Court that there should be a return to the foundational law encapsulated in cases before the tangent created by joint enterprise. Our primary submission at the hearing in October 2015 was that the true test for accessorial liability is knowledge of the essential matters of that offence or that type of offence and acts which demonstrate an intention to assist or encourage that offence or that type of offence. Such a formulation can adapt to individuals assisting each other or cases where there is evidence of a common plan. The Supreme Court judgment appears to adopt our submissions.
- We are delighted for Ameen and his family and the many other families of those affected by joint enterprise who have been waiting on this judgment.
- This judgment does not refer in detail to all the material placed before the court so future cases and appeals must take care to ensure that the errors are not repeated.
- Internationally it is vital that the errors created by joint enterprise are also corrected.
- We would like to thank our excellent staff, our team of counsel Felicity Gerry QC and Catarina Sjölin of 36, Bedford Row and Adam Wagner and Diarmuid Laffan of 1 Crown Office Row. We would also like to thank the teams for Mr Ruddock and the interveners (Just for Kids Law and JengBA). Many of the lawyers involved have worked pro bono for all or some of the time on this difficult case.
- A special thank you to Dr Matt Dyson of Trinity College Cambridge whose meticulous research over 500 years of law enabled us to prove what the law was and how it went wrong. Also thank you to Beatrice Krebs from the University of Reading for her comparative work on authorisation which enabled us to place alternative options before the court, and to Professor Luke McNamara from the University of Wollongong whose 2014 paper identified the probability issues from an Australian perspective, which was an important part of this appeal.
- We must now focus on the final orders which are not due for some weeks. The Court is yet to decide what effect its conclusions on the principles of joint enterprise will have on our client’s specific case.
- If you want an easy read on the case, see these 2 blogs by Catarina Sjölin and Felicity Gerry QC for Nottingham Law School: http://blogs.ntu.ac.uk/nlsblog/tag/joint-enterprise/
- In the words of Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG “To hold an accused liable for murder merely on the foresight of a possibility is fundamentally unjust. It may not be truly a fictitious or ‘constructive liability’. But it countenances what is ‘undoubtedly a lesser form of mens rea’. It is a form that is an exception to the normal requirements of criminal liability. And it introduces a serious disharmony in the law, particularly as that law affects the liability of secondary offenders to conviction for murder upon this basis”.
- We started this case looking for an alternative probability test for those who were not accused of direct participation with shared intention, along the way we identified the legal errors which had been perpetuated over many years.
We are glad to have played a role in correcting this unjust law.
18 February 2016
Adam Wagner and Diarmuid Laffan acted for the appellant Ameen Jogee in this case
Today the Supreme Court handed down its judgment in the conjoined appeals of R v Jogee and Ruddock v R  UKSC 8, having heard the latter sitting as the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. Both cases were appeals against murder convictions founded on a discrete principle of secondary liability, sometimes referred to as ‘joint enterprise’, sometimes as ‘parasitic accessorial liability’ (‘PAL’). The Supreme Court’s judgment:
- Conducts a comprehensive review of the principles applicable to secondary liability for crime, and murder in particular -;
- Analyses the leading Privy Council and House of Lords authorities on PAL -; and hence
- Overturns them, restating the law in the area -.
PAL originated in the Privy Council’s judgment Chan Wing-Siu v R  AC 168, and was approved by the House of Lords in R v Powell; R v English  1 AC 1. Those authorities were cited over 25 times at the highest level before today’s judgment, and abundantly in the Court of Appeal where appeals against convictions based on PAL have been a regular fixture. The PAL principle states that where someone (D2) jointly participates with another (D1) in committing Crime A, and in doing so foresees a possibility that D1 might commit Crime B, D2 can be tried jointly as principal for Crime B if D1 goes on to commit it.
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17 February 2016
C-601/15 JN (in French only) offers important insights into the detention of asylum seekers. It also somewhat of a double bill, involving not one but two sets of European Human Rights.
In this post I will set out the facts, give a quick refresher of the relationship between the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (Charter). I will conclude with an overview of the decision itself.
The decision contains a number of important elements, but the one I would like to focus on is the “fit” between the ECHR and the Charter. This manifests itself on two levels. The first is the abstract relationship between the ECHR and the Charter (see Marina Wheeler’s recent post on this: A Charter too Far). This is quite straightforward (see below). The more interesting part is the relation between the different ways the ECHR and the Charter protect from unlawful detention. As shall be seen, the former lists narrow criteria for the lawfulness of detention, whereas the second effectively provides a broad protection against unlawful detention. Reconciling the two was at the heart of JN.
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17 February 2016
DPP v McConnell  NIMag (5 January 2016)
Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation.
(Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī , 13th Century Persian Islamic scholar and poet)
These words were the last in the ruling by DJ McNally in the Belfast county court, acquitting Pastor McConnell of grossly offending Muslims in a sermon that had been delivered in church but also transmitted over the internet. The Pastor had declared from the pulpit the there were more and more Muslims “putting the Koran’s hatred of Christians and Jews alike into practice”, and the sermon had continued in a similar vein.
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16 February 2016
The opening of the Strasbourg Court’s judicial year every January always provides an opportunity for reflection on the themes and challenges which will define the Court’s jurisprudence for the coming year. This year, the theme of the seminar held at the Court to mark that opening was “International and national courts confronting large-scale violations of human rights””. I should like to offer eight predictions as to the other themes which will define the work of the Strasbourg Court this year. Given the Court’s pending caseload is still over 64,000 cases, these predictions are necessarily impressionistic. It will be for readers to judge whether, by this time next year, they have proven accurate.
The Court will continue to grapple with the security situation in Eastern Europe. Foremost on its docket are the inter-state cases involving Russia and Ukraine, but the Grand Chamber will also return to the issue of jurisdiction in Transdniestria in Mozer v. Moldova and Russia, in which it held a hearing on 4 February 2015.
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15 February 2016
Curiosity is not a sin…But we should exercise caution with our curiosity… yes, indeed.
Dumbledore, Harry Potter and Goblet of Fire
Like the 179,000 or so people selected at random from the electoral register each year in England and Wales, in July 2011 Ms. Theodora Dallas was summoned to attend jury service. Along with other jurors summoned that day, she was shown a video about their service, and told by the court’s jury officer that internet research about anyone involved in the trial was not permitted. For good measure, the jury waiting room contained notices stating “You may also be in contempt of court if you use the internet to research details about any cases you hear along with any cases listed for trial at the Court…”. The notices made it clear that contempt of court was punishable by a fine or by imprisonment.
Ms. Dallas was selected to serve as a juror in a trial involving a defendant charged with grievous bodily harm with intent. On being sworn in, each juror made an oath or affirmation that they would faithfully try the defendant and give a true verdict according to the evidence. Amongst his introductory directions, the judge reiterated the importance of avoiding the internet and specifically mentioned the cautionary tale of a juror who had been in trouble recently for going on Facebook during his jury service. During the course of the trial, the judge discovered from another juror that Ms. Dallas had been on the Internet and had informed her fellow jurors that the defendant had previously been charged with rape. The defendant had been acquitted of this charge at the time.
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15 February 2016
Samia Wasif and another v Secretary of State for the Home Department  EWCA Civ 82
Read judgment here
What is the difference between a case that is “totally without merit” and one that is “not arguable”? Are either of those more or less hopeless than a case that is “bound to fail”?
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15 February 2016
Photo credit: The Telegraph
In the news
The Prime Minister has this week set out his “agenda for a revolution in the prison system”. His speech outlines plans for governors to be given greater autonomy, prisoners to be provided with better opportunities for work and education, and the making of “alternative provision” for people struggling with severe mental health problems.
Commentators have reacted with cautious optimism. David Cameron is “absolutely right to point to the waste of money, time and lives that characterises today’s prison system,” writes Frances Crook of the Howard League for Penal Reform. His speech could herald “a seismic shift in policy.”
Christopher Stacey in the Justice Gap welcomes in particular the Prime Minister’s expression of support for the ‘Ban the Box’ campaign, which calls on employers to remove the tick box from application forms and ask about criminal convictions later in the recruitment process. The policy would give people with convictions “a chance to enter work – significantly reducing their likelihood of re-offending”.
Sentencing reform was, however, “notably absent” from the speech. Ellie Butt in the Huffington Post contends that this seriously undermines Cameron’s policy proposals. With the current prison population standing at 85,634, it is “a nonsense to believe we can really make prisons places of education, hard work and rehabilitation without tackling the sheer number of people inside them.”
Legal blogger Jack of Kent is in agreement that “the most significant thing about the speech was that the Prime Minister was giving it”. Yet he suggests that a move in right wing thought against custodial sentences as the default punishment for crime “may be having an influence on Michael Gove.” If such a speech is indeed “the political price Michael Gove has extracted from David Cameron for support on the EU referendum issue”, then it is “a good bargain”.
In other news
A police regulator has found that UK police forces continue to disobey rules to prevent the abuse of stop and search powers. Home Secretary Teresa May has described the failings as ‘unacceptable’, and has taken action to suspend 13 of the worst offending forces from the scheme. The Guardian reports.
Law Society Gazette: The Attorney General has suggested that in disputes over freedom of information, politicians may sometimes be better placed than the courts to make decisions on matters of public interest. The speech can be read in full here.
The Guardian: Police should no longer operate on a presumption that alleged victims of sexual assault are to be believed, according to Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe. Investigators should instead test the evidence “with an open mind, supporting the complainant through the process”.
The death of Justice Antonin Scalia at the weekend marks the end of an era for the United States Supreme Court. It also creates the potential for something of a constitutional crisis in America, coming only eleven months before the end of the Obama presidency and prompting calls from some Republicans for his replacement to be selected by the next Commander-in-Chief. Scalia’s visit to the UK last summer featured plenty of the examples of the acerbic turns of phrase the world had come to expect from the Court’s most divisive figure. You can read Jim Duffy’s account of Justice Scalia’s appearance at the Federalist Society here.
In the courts
Dallas v UK
The applicant in this case had been found guilty of contempt of court for conducting Internet research while serving on a jury. A complaint was brought under article 7 ECHR (no punishment without law) that the common law offence of contempt of court had not been sufficiently clear.
The Court held that the judgment rendered in the applicant’s case could be considered, at most, a step in the gradual clarification of the rules of criminal liability for contempt of court through judicial interpretation. The law was both accessible and foreseeable. There had accordingly been no violation of article 7 of the Convention.
UK HRB Posts
Cavalier with our Constitution: a Charter too far – Marina Wheeler
Watery rights and wrongs – and causation too – David Hart QC
Press restrictions may continue after trial in the interests of national security – HH Keith Hollis
It’s time to overhaul the Investigatory Powers Bill – Cian C. Murphy and Natasha Simonsen
If you would like your event to be mentioned on the Blog, please email Jim Duffy at firstname.lastname@example.org
15 February 2016
Libby McVeigh is Legal and Policy Director for Fair Trials, a London and Brussels based nongovernmental organization campaigning for the right to a fair trial globally. It is currently campaigning for better defence rights standards in Europe and is also leading research into the use (and abuse) of plea bargaining across the globe.
New guidelines incentivising people accused of criminal offences in England and Wales to plead guilty as early as possible were proposed last week. While existing rules allow for a maximum one-third reduction in the sentence to those who plead guilty at the ‘first reasonable opportunity’, this benefit is now only available to those who plead guilty at their very first court hearing, with the available reduction falling on a steeper sliding scale thereafter.
The Sentencing Council responsible for such matters has emphasised the efficiency gains and cost savings resulting from the swift disposal of cases, and the development has been welcomed by organisations which provide support to victims of criminal offences who will be “spared the stress and anxiety of a trial”. Little attention has been paid, however, to the impact on the rights of criminal defendants who are being encouraged to waive their right to the full trial process which undoubtedly remains the best method for preventing injustice.
Numerous cases illustrate the miscarriages of justice which can result when individuals are incentivised to plead guilty without adequate safeguards. The US case of Phillip Bivens, Bobby Ray Dixon and Larry Ruffin shows how innocent people can be persuaded to confess to a crime they did not commit – in this case the rape and murder of a young mother in front of her 4-year old son – if the stakes are high enough and fair trial rights protection absent. And while a guilty plea may be quick and easy to make, the process of reversing the injustice is far more complex and lengthy. Larry Ruffin died of a heart attack after 23 years in prison before his name was cleared, and Bobby Ray lost his battle against cancer only weeks before his full exoneration. Phillip Bivens regained his freedom 30 years after his arrest and still awaits the conclusion of his civil lawsuit for compensation.
The challenges which ‘plea bargaining’ presents to fair trials protections were highlighted at a recent meeting of criminal justice experts in the US, where 95% of all criminal cases are now resolved through guilty pleas. With an estimated 20,000 factually innocent people in prison for crimes to which they pleaded guilty but did not commit, the drivers of injustice were identified as including:
- the excessive trial penalty and the unaccountable power of prosecutors, who are rewarded for volumes of convictions rather than quality of investigations and routinely over-charge to obtain guilty pleas;
- overworked and underpaid public defenders who are financially incentivised to dispose of cases quickly by encouraging clients to plead guilty;
- income inequality leading defendants who cannot afford to pay bail to plead guilty to avoid pre-trial detention; and
- the erosion of fair trial rights protection in the context of guilty pleas, including the right against self-incrimination, access to evidence, judicial oversight and the right to appeal.
The concerns raised in the US will hopefully be taken into account during the consultation launched by the Sentencing Council last week. Consideration should be given not only to the impact of legal aid cuts on the advice given to those considering a guilty plea, but also the inter-relationship between the proposed guidelines and the Better Case Management scheme (BCM) rolled out across UK courts in January 2016. With changes made by the BCM to the timing and extent of disclosure by the prosecution, defendants will now be required to enter their plea at the first hearing on the basis of the limited evidence included in the Initial Details of the Prosecution Case rather than the full case papers which be provided only after the opportunity to obtain the maximum reduction in sentence has passed.
As experiences in the US and current developments in England and Wales demonstrate, questions about the fairness of plea bargaining systems need to be pushed further up the global human rights agenda. Plea bargaining is on the rise worldwide, sometimes under the influence of US funding for global rule of law reform, and countries that introduce such practices tend to rely on them to resolve a larger percentage of their criminal cases over time.
Fair Trials and its pro bono partner, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, are currently conducting a scoping study that aims to establish the global reach of the practice, examining criminal procedure in approximately 70 national jurisdictions globally to see whether plea bargaining exists and to identify its defining features. A more detailed study in a select number of jurisdictions will involve analysis of the operation of plea bargaining and the extent to which key human rights safeguards are enjoyed in practice.
The results of the research will be published in later 2016, including recommendations for a human rights based approach to plea bargaining which we hope will inform the development of such practices, not only in England and Wales, but in jurisdictions across the globe. The human rights implications of an inefficient criminal justice system demand that solutions to lengthy procedures are found. But the failure to analyse the impact of guilty plea regimes on fair trial rights protection is resulting in the introduction of practices which already do result in injustice and will gradually erode trust in the rule of law. We hope that a global commitment to reform plea bargaining processes to ensure respect for fair trial rights will enable efficiency to be enhanced without fair criminal justice being undermined.
11 February 2016
By Cian C. Murphy and Natasha Simonsen
This morning, the Joint Committee on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill issued a 200-page report on the draft new law. It’s the next step in the scrutiny of a foundational piece of UK national security law – capabilities and safeguards on internet surveillance. The Report is remarkable and comprehensive work – not least because it was done in a few short months. The Committee has made no fewer than 86 recommendations for how the Bill can be improved.
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