It has been a quiet week in the courts from a human rights perspective. The Supreme Court gave judgment on a divorce case and a social security fraud, and whilst the Court of Appeal and High Court were more forthcoming in terms of the number of decisions made, family law and commercial cases dominated. Legal buffs may however be interested to note Scales v Motor Insurers’ Bureau  EWHC 1747 (QB), in which the High Court applied Spanish law in a road traffic accident case, whilst celebrity watchers and students revising for their civil litigation exams may appreciate seeing how the court applied the test from Denton to grant Johnny Christopher Depp II relief from sanctions (who knew there was a Johnny Christopher Depp I?) – Depp v News Group Newspapers Ltd & Ors  EWHC 1734 (QB).
A quiet week in the courts did not however extend to a quiet week in the news…
China imposed its new security law on Hong Kong. The law was approved by legislators despite the fact it was not made available for them to read in advance. The exact provisions of the law are covered in some detail by the BBC here, but amount to a full frontal assault on established legal protections in the territory. In response to the prospect of trials without a jury conducted by politically appointed judges, the UK took steps to afford citizenship rights to 3 million holders of British National Overseas passports.
Whilst protesting the loss of jury trials in Hong Kong, the Government took steps to restrict the right to trial by jury in the UK. The measures, which the Government assures are to be temporary, aim to help clear the developing backlog of criminal cases caused by a long-standing lack of court capacity. The situation has been further exacerbated by the closure of courts during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Commercial Court ruled against Nicolas Maduro’s attempt to have the Bank of England release stores of Venezuelan gold held in the bank’s Threadneedle Street vault – Deutsche Bank AG London Branch v Receivers Appointed By the Court & Ors  EWHC 1721 (Comm). The United Kingdom recognises the opposition of Juan Guaido, however Mr Maduro had claimed that circumstances on the ground, including the UK’s ongoing diplomatic presence in Caracas, made him the countries de facto leader.
In response to a rise in the number of coronavirus cases in Leicester, the Government introduced a local “lockdown” in the city. Ministers appeared to concede that restrictions were for the time being effectively voluntary, and suggested they would seek to bring forward secondary legislation giving the lockdown legal effect in the next few weeks.
A former professional cricketer failed to have his conviction for rape overturned – Hepburn v R.  EWCA Crim 820 (30 June 2020). Alex Hepburn mounted his appeal on the basis that text messages he had sent prior to the offence in which he discussed participating in a game with his friends to collect as many sexual encounters as possible should not have been placed before the court as evidence against him. His counsel argued that they were unfairly prejudicial as they did not show he was willing to have sex without consent. The Court of Appeal held that their inclusion did not make his conviction unsafe.
Rosalind English considers how the courts approach the concept of “best interests” when an adult making a proposed medical donation with the potential to cause lasting harm to the donor lacks capacity (here), and the case of University Hospital and Warwickshire NHS Trust v K and another  EWCOP 31 (here).
Protesters in Los Angeles on Saturday. Credit: The Guardian.
The usual purpose of these round ups is to try and avoid repeating the headline news of the previous week whilst instead summarising the key legal developments. There are some weeks, however, in which events tend to put the judgments of the Court of Appeal into the shade.
The death of George Floyd on May 25th not only placed concerns about policing attitudes and deaths in custody onto the front pages, but also shone a light on to wider systemic racism. Protests in response were ongoing as of Sunday, both in the USA and around the world. The use of force by police in the aftermath of demonstrations has been widely reported upon, particularly in the United States, where the extent of force deployed against the British media led to a formal raising of the matter by the British embassy in Washington. Continue reading →
The bandstand on Clapham Common, fenced off while people use the area for daily exercise. Photograph: Guy Bell/REX/Shutterstock. Credit: The Guardian.
Needless to say, the impact of Covid-19 dominated all aspects of life over the past seven days. Given that the week saw the Prime Minister admitted to intensive care with the virus before ultimately being discharged home, this is unlikely to be much of a revelation. The UK Human Rights Blog has published many articles looking in detail at some of the legal challenges posed by Covid-19 and the Government’s response to the pandemic. Of note this week:
Rosalind English reviews a paper published by the Society of Conservative Lawyers on the consequences of coronavirus for the traditional principle of rule of law – here;
The Royal College of Nurses issued guidance to its members advising them that they could “as a last resort” refuse to treat patients suffering from Covid-19 if they are not given adequate personal protective equipment; and
Police came under increased scrutiny with regards to the exercise of their powers to enforce social distancing measures. The Chief Constable of Northamptonshire had to clarify statements that suggested officers may resort to checking the trolleys of grocery shoppers to determine if items purchased were “essential” or not.
Thomas Hayes is a specialist registrar in vascular surgery and forthcoming pupil at 1 Crown Office Row
As teased earlier, the Covid-19 pandemic gives rise to such a volume of material as to justify a slightly more detailed examination of its consequences. In time, the response of governments across the globe to the disease will no doubt be the subject of detailed study by academics across the fields of biology, history and law. For the time being, however, blog readers will have to tolerate the following words of speculation, much of which will probably suffer the cruel fate of being shown to be out of date and/or inaccurate within hours of publication…
The government has announced its intention to bring before Parliament this week emergency laws to help control the outbreak. Whilst at the time of writing, such draft legislation had not been published, press reports suggested it would include new powers to allow the police to detain those breaking quarantine measures. Where the police might take such recalcitrant citizens is not known, however the prospect of detaining in close proximity those suspected of carrying the highly infectious airborne disease presumably fills neither the police nor public health officials with much joy…
The worsening of the Covid-19 pandemic seemed to relegate all other business to a position of relative insignificance this week. Undoubtedly the human, economic and social cost of the outbreak is already severe, with its impact increasingly felt across the globe. However, perhaps more than any other conceivable event, the progression of the disease casts a spotlight on numerous areas of legal controversy. It is hard to recall a post-war phenomenon which so frequently pits the rights and interests of individuals against those of broader society (more here). Indeed, the potential material for upcoming pupillage interview questions seems virtually inexhaustible, assuming that they too don’t fall victim to social distancing measures.
I will be posting a longer article on Covid-19 later today.
Demonstrators protest government deportation flights outside Downing Street. Credit: The Guardian.
The last week provided no shortage of legal controversy, and posed the author of this blog considerable difficulty when trying to identify which developments deserved the most prominence. In analysing this avalanche of legal news, however, certain key themes started to develop.
Protestors demonstrate outside the Famagusta district court in Paralimni, Cyprus, at the trial of a 19-year old girl convicted of public mischief after withdrawing a rape allegation in contested circumstances. Credit: The Guardian.
A quick look at the “recent decisions” page of the British and Irish Legal Information Institute’s (BAILII) website did not, at first glance, give this author much cause for optimism in the preparation of this blog. However, a more careful reflection on the week’s events provided a plethora of material to consider, notwithstanding the absence of any recent decisions from the Supreme Court or civil Court of Appeal.
When the domestic courts go on leave, it falls to their European counterparts to pick up the slack and churn out judgments to help keep us occupied. It was with surprise however, that a hopeful scroll through the week’s European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) decisions revealed not only the familiar names paying a visit to Strasbourg (ahem, Russia), but also that our own United Kingdom had put in an appearance at Europe’s legal naughty corner. Some further creative searching on BAILII revealed that the UK paid nine visits to the ECtHR last year, compared to Russia’s one-hundred and seventy-three.
In Yam v United Kingdom  ECHR 41, a former MI6 informant and Chinese dissident failed in his attempt to have the ECtHR rule that his 2009 murder trial had been prejudiced by virtue of parts of it being held in camera, rather than in public. The applicant had relied upon the provisions of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, specifically 6(1) and 6(3)(d):
“1. In the determination of … any criminal charge against him, everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing … [T]he press and public may be excluded from all or part of the trial in the interests of morals, public order or national security in a democratic society, where the interests of juveniles or the protection of the private life of the parties so require, or to the extent strictly necessary in the opinion of the court in special circumstances where publicity would prejudice the interests of justice.
3. Everyone charged with a criminal offence has the following minimum rights:
(d) to examine or have examined witnesses against him and to obtain the attendance and examination of witnesses on his behalf under the same conditions as witnesses against him;”
The court held however that these provisions did not prohibit domestic courts from derogating from public hearings where special circumstances justified it. The measures adopted during his trial had met the requirement of necessity. Furthermore, the ECtHR considered itself poorly equipped to challenge national authorities’ judgement when assessing national security concerns. The court held that the trial judge had carefully balanced the need for openness against the national security interests at stake, and in so doing, had limited the private aspects of the trial to the minimum possible. Through such an analysis, he had satisfied himself that a fair trial was still possible. Consequently, there was no thus disadvantage to the applicant, who had suffered no breach of his Article 6 rights.
In other international developments, lawyers acting for a British 19-year-old in Cyprus filed an appeal against her suspended sentence for public mischief and fabricating an “imaginary crime”. The woman involved had initially made accusations of gang-rape against 12 Israeli youths before retracting her accusation in circumstances now disputed. Her defence have suggested that not only was she suffering from PTSD at the time her claims were withdrawn, but also that she was in fear for her life. The signed confession was in Greek rather than English and made after several hours of unrecorded questioning by detectives in the absence of a lawyer. Her legal team seek to have her conviction overturned.
Returning to purely domestic considerations, the week also saw the announcement that judicial sentencing remarks in high profile cases will in future be broadcast on television from Crown Courts. The move was lauded by broadcasters and the Lord Chief Justice as promoting transparency and as an aid to public understanding of the criminal justice system.
The move was not however uncontroversial. Concerns were raised by the Bar Council of England and Wales that the broadcast of sentencing remarks in the absence of fuller details of the trial could lead to a failure on behalf of viewers to appreciate why a particular sentence has been passed. They expressed anxiety that the audience will be deprived of relevant context, such as mitigation. Further fears included that increased disclosure of judges to the public eye could expose them to undue attack and criticism in circumstances where a given sentence proves unpopular. However regardless of the merits, the development was successful in affording current BBC radio 4 listeners one of the funnier moments so far of 2020, when Evan Davis introduced American lawyer Robert Shapiro to debate the topic with Lord Sumption, only to find that they had inadvertently invited an American political adviser with the same name to the PM show instead (listen here).
The week also saw:
The Mail of Sunday file its defence at the High Court on Tuesday in response to a claim brought by the Duchess of Sussex for breach of copyright, invasion of privacy and misuse of personal data. The case concerns excerpts of correspondence between the Duchess and her father published by the newspaper.
The ECHR deliver judgment in favour of nine Russians detained pending trial for as long as 7 years, some of whom remain incarcerated, in circumstances characterised by fragile reasoning of the courts and an absence of due process – DIGAY AND OTHERS v. RUSSIA  ECHR 54.
The entire Russian government resign in a move thought likely to pave the way for amendments to the country’s constitution favourable to current leader Vladimir Putin. The proposed reforms would strengthen the role of the Prime Minister and weaken that of the President. Mr Putin is constitutionally barred from standing again for the presidency but could transition into one of the roles in which the proposed constitutional changes are likely to vest more power. The reforms would also restrict the applicability of international law in Russia to circumstances where it did not contradict the constitution or restrict people’s rights and freedoms, a measure framed as one to increase national sovereignty.
The High Court refuse permission to appeal in a case brought by a soldier, who contracted Q-fever whilst serving in Afghanistan, against the Ministry of Defence (MOD). The claimant soldier had alleged failings on behalf of the MOD in not providing him with adequate chemoprophylaxis to protect him from the disease – Bass v Ministry of Defence  EWHC 36 (QB).
This week sees Baroness Hale sitting for the final time as President of the Supreme Court. Photo credit: The Guardian.
A brief delay to the publication of this article has helpfully afforded this blogger the opportunity to move beyond the political events of last Thursday and instead focus on much more interesting legal matters (more on those later).
However, it would be remiss not to recognise the consequences of last week’s election, which saw the Prime Minister return newly empowered by a sizeable Conservative majority. At the time of writing, proposals were being made to put the legislation required to withdraw from the European Union back to MPs as early as this Friday.
Sneaking in at page 17 of the Conservative manifesto (one page after a commitment to extend the water rebate in the South West) came the party’s offering on law and order. This included commitments to increase the number of police, enhance the use of “fair and proportionate” stop and search, as well as promote longer sentences and the greater use of electronic tags. The manifesto was however silent on some matters which have drawn attention of late, including court closures, legal aid cuts, and previous suggestions from ministers that the Human Rights Act might be amended to protect soldiers from prosecution for acts performed during their time in service. With such a significant majority however, the Government will be in a position to pursue its chosen agenda with enthusiasm, and so these and other mooted at policies, such as reform of the judicial review process, may not be as fanciful as previously thought.
Moving gratefully on from politics, today saw the first day in the case of XX v Whittington Hospital NHS Trust (appealing  EWCA Civ 2832), which also serves as Baroness Hale’s final case as President of the Supreme Court before her replacement on January 11thby Lord Reed. The case provides an interesting example of a scenario in which factual matters combined with absent or inadequate law require the court to consider matters of a deeply public policy nature. Continue reading →
An Extinction Rebellion protester is removed by police in central London. Credit: The Guardian.
As the general election campaign accelerated this week, the political fall out from the publication of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry contributed to some awkward headlines for both politicians and lawmakers. However, this was by no means the only legal news of the week…
The case turned on the lawfulness of the exercise of powers by the police under section 14(1) of the Public Order Act 1986 to ban XR’s protests earlier this month.
The court ruled that in exercising section 14 powers, the police were required to identify a location to be covered by the powers conferred by the Act. Separate gatherings, separated both in time and by many miles, even if co-ordinated under the umbrella of one body, were not held to be one public assembly within the meaning of section 14(1). Consequently, the decision of the police to impose the condition across a wide area of London for several days was unlawful, being outwith the powers conferred by section 14(1).
Harry Dunn’s family after meeting with the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, last week. Photograph: Credit: The Guardian, Peter Summers/Getty Images.
The usually obscure concept of diplomatic immunity came to the fore this week after it emerged that the wife of an American diplomat was wanted for questioning in connection with the death of a motorcyclist in Northamptonshire. Anne Sacoolas was spoken to by police after a collision with Harry Dunn in which he was killed whilst riding his motorbike, prior to her return to the United States.
Article 31 of the 1961 Vienna Convention grants immunity from the criminal jurisdiction of the receiving state to diplomats, a feature extended to their family members by article 37. However, both the United Kingdom and the United States were this weekend reported as having agreed that diplomatic immunity was no longer “pertinent” in the case of Mrs Sacoolas. This raised the possibility of the UK seeking her extradition, despite President Trump being photographed this week with a briefing card stating that she would not be returning to Britain.
Meanwhile, the country’s attention turned back towards Brexit, with the week ahead promising to, in the Prime Minister’s words, be “do or die” for the prospects of a negotiated deal. At the beginning of the week it was widely reported that talks had faltered, with Downing St leaks suggesting a deal was “essentially impossible”. However, the mood surrounding negotiations changed significantly on Thursday, with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar describing the emergence of a “pathway” to a deal following his meeting with Boris Johnson. Continue reading →
Flags flutter outside Parliament. Credit: The Guardian.
Very few weeks have given the function of the legal system and the role of the courts as much prominence, nor exposed them to as much scrutiny, as the last week. The decision of the Prime Minster to prorogue Parliament, followed by the granting of royal assent to legislation which would require him to seek an extension to the Article 50 process for exiting the European Union, has launched into the public consciousness areas of constitutional law previously the domain only of law students cramming for exams, public law lawyers and academics in tweed blazers. In what at times made Newsnight look like an hour-long revision seminar for Graduate Diploma in Law students, unfashionable concepts such as justiciability, judicial review and the rule of law took centre stage, framed by the context of Brexit.
New President of the Supreme Court Lord Reed: Credit The Guardian.
In the week after the appointment of Lord Reed as the new President of the Supreme Court, the final week of July brought with it the end of the legal term and a flurry of judgements in the senior courts.
In the Supreme Court, the case of Cape Intermediate Holdings Ltd v Dring (Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK)  UKSC 38 (29 July 2019) gave the court the opportunity to examine the principle of open justice, in particular how much of the written material made available to the court ought to be accessible by those not directly party to proceedings. The case came about after an asbestos victim support group, not party to the initial proceedings, made an application to have access to all the documents from a settled personal injury asbestos case. The defendant from the initial trial appealed against the granting of such an order under the common law and the provisions of CPR rule 5.4C. The Media Lawyers Association intervened, advancing arguments based on the importance of media reporting to maintaining open justice, and the reliance such reporters have on access to documents subsequent to the conclusion of proceedings. In deciding to remit the matter back to the High Court, the court provided a good summary of the principles concerning open justice laid down in R (Guardian News and Media Ltd) v City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court (Article 19 intervening) EWCA Civ 420;  QB 618.
Outgoing Secretary of State for Justice David Gauke. Credit: The Guardian.
The week ahead will, barring some extreme political drama, give us a new Prime Minister, and with it, the inevitable cabinet reshuffle. Some ministers have already made clear they believe they are unlikely to remain in post after the new PM’s appointment on Wednesday, in particular the Chancellor Phillip Hammond, and the Secretary of State for Justice David Gauke.
Whoever takes over at the Ministry of Justice will have a significant inbox. Cuts to legal aid were brought to the fore this week after it emerged a relative of those killed in the 2017 terrorist attacks at London Bridge was represented pro-bono by lawyers from international corporate law firm Hogan Lovells (see The Independent here). Mr Gauke used his forthcoming departure from post to propose scrapping short custodial sentences in a bid to reduce re-offending rates. However, the incoming Lord Chancellor will still be considerably better off than their new boss, for whom the “to do” list includes getting an oil tanker back from Iran and concluding Brexit.
Theresa May resigns during a speech in Downing Street, May 24th 2019. Credit: The Guardian
It would be virtually impossible for readers of this blog, unless they have recently returned from the International Space Station, awoken from a coma or been rescued after two weeks in the Hawaiian jungle, to have failed to notice this week’s political developments. Dispensing with them briefly, this week saw the Prime Minister announce her departure, and the subsequent commencement of a Conservative leadership campaign to appoint a new PM. Into this mix was thrown Sunday’s European Parliament elections, which saw Nigel Farage’s World Trade Organisation terms advocating Brexit Party finish first, albeit in a poll that saw advocates of a “no-deal” Brexit obtain fewer votes than those committed to preventing Brexit, if you take the combined Brexit Party and UKIP vote compared to combined Liberal Democrat, Green Party and Change UK vote.
More on Britain’s political machinations can be found courtesy of wall-to-wall coverage available pretty much everywhere. Continue reading →
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