The Round-Up: constitutional concerns and the Queen’s Speech

26 December 2019 by

In the News

A year of disruption, disappointment, contention and uncertainty is finally drawing to a close. On 19 December, with Christmas around the corner, the country got a hint of what 2020 might bring. The Queen’s Speech, in which the new Conservative government laid out its legislative priorities for the year to come, included more than 30 bills the government hopes to turn into law. 

Unsurprisingly, Brexit is given top billing, with the government announcing that it will pass a series of bills in policy areas directly affected by the UK’s departure from the EU on 31 January. These include agriculture, fisheries, immigration, social security, trade, financial services and cross-border disputes. Civil servants will be hard pressed to to implement the legislation before the end of the post-Brexit transition period in just over a year’s time. 

The government’s next area of focus is the NHS. This is understandable given its prominence as an issue in the run-up to the election, and background murmurs from ministers and advisors that an improvement in health services is essential if the government is to keep voters on side. The government has promised legislation, including fast-track visas and support for overseas job applicants, to make it easier to recruit healthcare professionals from abroad. In response, Jeremy Corbyn stated that there was a huge gap between the government’s rhetoric and the reality. 

Environmentalists have welcomed commitments made by the government on climate change and the environment for the next Parliament. The government has voiced a commitment to a £640 million climate fund and the installation of electric vehicle infrastructure, and made  reference to zero carbon emissions as a key aim. Despite there being some grounds for optimism, it is too early to tell whether the government is serious about tackling the crisis, or if this is mere lip service. A clearer picture will begin to emerge with the budget in early 2020. 

Boris Johnson’s stated commitment to law and order took the form of proposals to strengthen the justice system. A number of measures relating to domestic abuse, victims, policing and sentencing are outlined. Most significantly, the government has announced the first Royal Commission on the criminal justice system since 1991. While many will welcome an attempt to address the problems of a system under extreme stress, some many see the commission as a way of kicking problems into the long grass. 

A pledge for a new constitution, democracy and rights commission to examine “how our democracy operates” has raised concern among the legal profession. The pledge follows the supreme court’s historic and controversial decision to rule Johnson’s suspension of parliament unlawful in September. Simon Davis, president of the Law Society of England and Wales, has warned that the commission might threaten the “delicate balance that underpins our unwritten constitution”. Apprehension is mounting that Boris Johnson may attempt to interfere with the independence of the judiciary and thereby undermine the rule of law. 

In Other News 

  • China has denied using forced prison labour after a six-year-old girl in England discovered a note inside a Tesco card allegedly written by inmates. Tesco has withdrawn the card from shelves and suspended the related factory while the incident is investigated. A spokesperson for Amnesty International stated: “Companies have a responsibility to ensure that their supply chains are ethical and that they’re not profiting for human rights abuse.”
  • The Turkish constitutional court has ruled 10-6 that the Turkish government’s two-year-old block on Wikipedia is a violation of freedom of expression. The court has ordered the ban to be lifted with immediate effect. Media freedoms in Turkey have steadily deteriorated over the last decade under President Erdoğan, with Turkey now second only to China as the word’s leading jailer of journalists. 
  • Janaid Hafeez, a lecturer at the Bahauddin Zakariya University (BZU) and a US Fulbright scholar, has been sentenced to death for blasphemy. Human rights activists have called the verdict “brutal and unjust,” while a spokesperson for Amnesty International described it as “a vile and gross miscarriage of justice.”

In the Courts 

  • PS v R. [2019] EWCA Crim 2286 (20 December 2019): The Court of Appeal ruled on three cases, otherwise unconnected, which raised issues about the proper approach to sentencing offenders who suffer from autism or other mental health conditions. The court began by making general observations on the relevance of mental health conditions and disorders to sentencing; for example, in assessing culpability, harm and dangerousness. Turning to the individual cases, the court held in each case that the defendant’s mental health had not been given sufficient consideration, allowed the appeals, and quashed the original sentence. 
  • Oxfordshire County Council v AD & Ors [2019] EWFC B66 (17 December 2019): The Family Court heard an application to discharge orders imposed in 2017 on three girls who were found to be at risk of female genital mutilation should they return to their home country. The court decided to discharge a care order in light of the girls’ mother’s excellent care, but not the travel restrictions on the two younger girls, since these order had a relatively short period left to run. Notably, the court praised several agencies, the local authority, the girls’ family and the girls themselves for the way in which the case was handled. 
  • C (A Child) (Special Guardianship Order) [2019] EWCA Civ 2281 (20 December 2019): The Court of Appeal considered the ambit of the principle that the courts “must be willing to tolerate very diverse standards of parenting,” from Hedley J’s judgment in Re L (Care: Threshold Criteria) [2006] EWCC 2 (Fam). The court dismissed the appeal. Although the judge had referred to the mother’s belief system as “very strange” in imposing a special guardianship order, this was in relation to the mother’s suggestion that she and her daughter ought to be able to live as “breatharians,” without food or water, and her rejection of Western medicine and formal education on the grounds that they were harmful. 

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