MoJ signals interest in specialist courts – the Round-up

Lady Justice above the Old Bailey in London

Photo credit: The Guardian

In the news

The Ministry of Justice has signalled an interest in the potential of specialist courts for cases of domestic abuse. It has been considering a report published last week by the Centre for Justice Innovation, which recommends an integrated approach whereby criminal, family and civil matters would be heard under a ‘one judge, one family’ model.

The report highlights evidence from the United States, Australia and New Zealand that integrated courts increase convictions and witness participation, lower re-offending, enforce protection orders more effectively and reduce case processing time. Victims would no longer find themselves “jumping from forum to forum” to resolve matters that are “all facets of the same underlying issue.”

Specialist domestic abuse courts could moreover use post-sentence judicial monitoring of perpetrators, and place a greater emphasis on the rehabilitation of offenders. In a speech to the Magistrates’ Association, justice secretary Michael Gove said he had been “impressed” by the potential of problem-solving courts during a recent visit to the US, and was “keen to look more” at what could be done in this area.

However, the proposals under examination are unlikely to allay fears that government cuts are putting women at risk. Under the ECHR, domestic authorities have a duty to “establish and apply effectively a system by which all forms of domestic violence [can] be punished,” and ensure “sufficient safeguards” are provided for the victims [Opuz v Turkey].

Yet current safeguards are under considerable strain, with domestic abuse incidents reported to the police having increased by 34% since 2007/2008. Campaigners warn that austerity measures, which have led to Portsmouth City Council recently announcing a “sizeable reduction” of £180,000 to its domestic abuse service, are likely to put further pressure on authorities already at breaking point.

Other news

  • Daily Telegraph: The Government has announced plans to establish an improved help-line for victims of modern slavery, which will be set up with a £1 million contribution from Google. The service will be modelled on a similar helpline in the US, which provides advice to people who have been subjected to forced labour or servitude, and collates data to combat human trafficking.
  • The Guardian: Health inspectors from the Care Quality Commission have issued a report critical of the wide variations of treatment received by people detained under the Mental Health Act. The inspectors found no evidence of patients’ views being considered in a quarter of the care plans examined, which Deputy Chief Inspector Dr Paul Lelliott said could “hinder their recovery, and lead to potential breaches in meeting their human rights.”
  • BBC: A High Court judge has ruled Lord Janner unfit to plead, with the result that the former politician will not stand trial over allegations of indecent assault and sexual abuse. Mr Justice Openshaw found that the 87-year-old peer had “advanced and disabling dementia that has deteriorated and is irreversible”. A “trial of the facts” is scheduled to take place next April.
  • Civic institutions, laws and practices need to better reflect the UK’s less religious, more diverse society, according to a report by the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life. The Commission, led by former High Court judge, Baroness Butler-Sloss, has suggested that schools should no longer face a legal requirement to provide daily acts of worship of a Christian character, and has pointed to a number of “negative practical consequences” of selection by religion in faith schools. The Guardian reports.

 In the courts

The case concerned the complaints of seven Lithuanian nationals that the conditions of their detention in various correctional facilities had fallen short of standards compatible with article 3 of the Convention. In particular, it was submitted that they were held in overcrowded dormitory-type rooms. Some of the applicants further maintained that they were detained in conditions that violated basic hygiene requirements, and that they lacked access to appropriate sanitary facilities.

The Court found that the compensatory remedies made available by the Lithuanian authorities had been insufficient. It held that there had been a violation of article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment) in respect of four of the applicants, and made awards of pecuniary compensation accordingly.

This case concerned the asylum applications of two Afghan nationals who married in a religious ceremony in Iran when ZH had been 14-years old. The Swiss authorities did not deem the couple to be legally married, and considered their applications separately, resulting in the removal of RH to Italy after the rejection of his appeal. The applicants alleged that the expulsion of RH amounted to a breach of article 8 ECHR (the right to family life).

The Court held that article 8 of the Convention could not be interpreted as imposing on a member state an obligation to recognise a marriage contracted by a child, in view of article 12 (right to marry) which expressly provided for regulation of marriage by national law. At the time of the removal of RH to Italy, the Swiss authorities had been justified in considering that the applicants were not married. The Court therefore found no violation of article 8.


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Couple launch challenge to heterosexual bar on Civil Partnerships


Photo credit:

For some reason, this post originally appeared in the name of Colin Yeo. It is not by Colin Yeo, but by Martin Downs. Apologies for that.

The future of civil partnerships is again in the news. In October, Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan tried to register a Civil Partnership at Chelsea Town Hall but were rebuffed on the grounds that the Civil Partnership Act 2004 reserves that status strictly for same sex couples. Their lawyer, Louise Whitfield of Deighton Pierce Glynn Solicitors has announced their intention to seek a judicial review and the couple have also started a petition.

Steinfeld and Keidan have rightly identified that CPs provide virtually the same rights and responsibilities as marriage that it is within the gift of government to provide. One of the few differences concerns pension rights and even this will be considered by the Court of Appeal in February 2015.

However, the couple are attracted by civil partnership as a social construct that comes without the historical baggage of patriarchal dominance/subjection of women. They also take aim at the sexist customs that surround it such as “giving the bride away,” virginal white dresses and hen and stag do’s.

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Times on the legal naughty step for bizarre ‘right to marry’ headline splash

photoThe debate over the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights is already mired with misunderstanding (see this and this), but amazingly Saturday’s Times (£) managed to up the stupid-quotient by another few notches.

The headline was “Ministers to block ‘right to marry’ in EU backlash“. Apparently the Government has “vowed to block a fresh push to introduce new EU human rights, such as the right to marry and the right to collective bargaining, into Britain“. And as the Times’ political editor Francis Elliot (not to be confused with the generally sound legal correspondent Frances Gibb) reported:

The charter enshrines a host of rights not found in other declarations, including personal, work and family relations. One of them is a proposed “right to marry and found a family”.

The only problem is that… the right to “marry and found a family” already exists in the European Convention on Human Rights. It’s in Article 12. It has been there since the UK signed up to the ECHR in 1953. Here it is:

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US Supreme Court opens door to marriage equality, UK coming next

Kris Perry kisses Sandy StierHollingsworth v Perry – No. 12–144 – Read judgment

United States v Windsor – No. 12–307 – Read judgment

In rulings that have the potential to influence the jurisprudence of courts around the world, the Supreme Court of the United States has handed down two landmark decisions pertaining to the issue of same-sex marriage.

The right of gay and lesbian couples to wed remains one of the most controversial and debated civil rights issues of our time. However, the ground has been shifting with increasing rapidity in recent years and months. The direction of change is clear. There are now fifteen countries which permit or will permit same-sex marriages, including most recently Uruguay, New Zealand and France. With bills steadily progressing through the Parliamentary process, there is a strong possibility that England, Wales and Scotland may soon be added to the list.

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Myths and Realities about Equal Marriage

gay_marriage_cake_300The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill is back before Parliament today for the “Report Stage”. The latest version of the Bill is here, updated explanatory notes here, and the full list of proposed amendments here. Predictably, the amendments are the focus of much controversy.

I have written a new article for the New Statesman on some of the myths and realities surrounding the debate – you can read it here. It’s all a bit complicated, as you might expect.

Our previous coverage is linked to below. Hopefully, party politics won’t end up derailing this important bill. As the New Yorker recently predicted:

One day, not long from now, it will be hard to remember what worried people so much about gay and lesbian couples committing themselves to marriage.

Grand Chamber find Austrian same sex adoption discrimination

gay-rights-rally-in-Los-A-001X AND OTHERS v. AUSTRIA – 19010/07 – HEJUD [2013] ECHR 148 (19 February 2013) – Read judgment

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (by 10 votes to 7) has found that Austrian law discriminated against a same sex couple as it prevented them from adopting jointly the biological child of one of them (what we would call a second-parent adoption). The Court found a violation of Article 14 (anti-discrimination) in conjunction with Article 8 (respect for private and family life) protection because this was less favourable treatment than if they were an unmarried different sex couple who would have been permitted to adopt together.

The narrowness of the majority might have had something to do with the fact that the father of the Child had been a party to the case in the domestic courts and opposed the adoption (although the fact that the child of the lesbian couple in Gas and Dubois v France had been conceived through anonymous donor insemination had not helped that case). In the event, the Grand Chamber decision was based on the fact that the Austrian Supreme Court had referred to the “legal impossibility” of the proposed same sex adoption in this case.

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Equal marriage on the way as Bill published

gaycouple“Marriage of same sex couples is lawful”, begins the Government’s new Equal Marriage Bill, which will, amongst other things, make it legal for gay couples to marry in both civil and religious ceremonies.

Religious communities will not be forced to conduct ceremonies, but will be able to ‘opt-in’ to the new system. However, Church of England communities will not be permitted to opt in even if they want to. The progress Bill can be tracked here – the next reading is in the House of Commons on 5 February. The Bill is summarised as follows:

A Bill to make provision for the marriage of same sex couples in England and Wales, about gender change by married persons and civil partners, about consular functions in relation to marriage, for the marriage of armed forces personnel overseas, and for connected purposes.

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