The dust has settled since the government released its draft Online Safety Bill. Now is therefore a good time to evaluate its aims, methods, and potential impacts, which we will do so in this two-part post. The first post will have a look at the overall architecture of the bill, discussing what it is trying to do and how it is trying to do it. The second post will survey responses to the bill from academics and civil society campaigners, discussing whether the bill does too much or not enough.
The general strategy of the Online Harms Bill is to place duties on “regulated services”, requiring them to identify and mitigate system level risks of harm to their users. This post will focus on the meaning of “regulated services”, and the various duties that the Online Harms Bill places them under. As things stand, the bill would give significant powers to Ofcom, which would act as a regulator and enforcer of the various duties created under the bill. This first post will conclude with a look at the new powers that would be given to OFCOM under the bill.
The bill would apply to “regulated services”. The definition of regulated services is found in section 3: regulated services are either “user-to-user services” or “search services” which “have links to the United Kingdom” and which are not exempt.
The first important thing to note is the broadness in the drafting of all these definitions. A service has links to the UK if it has a significant number of users in the UK, if UK users are a target market, or if there are “reasonable grounds to believe that there is a material risk of significant harm to individuals in the UK” using the service. Thus, territorially, a very wide number of online services could be caught.
A “user-to-user service” (since publication of the draft bill generally called a ‘U2U’ service in commentary), defined in section 2, is a service which allows users to share user generated content with other users. The definition excludes content generated by the site itself, and content shared by those employed by the service.
This is a widely defined provision. Obviously intended to catch large social media organisations like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok, it is nonetheless drafted broadly enough to also include smaller blogs, websites for shopping, online gaming sites and other categories of online platform which hosts user generated content.
However, the exact nature of how those sites will be regulated will be dependent on their classification by OFCOM as category 1 or 2A/2B services. Category 1 is reserved for services with greater functionality and larger user bases, and services classified as such are subject to stricter duties, which will be explained in the duties section; machinery for classification is currently found in Schedule 4 of the bill.
Some exceptions apply, but these are tightly drafted. Functions such as email and SMS/MMS services, limited functionality services (such as services where users can only comment on site generated content), internal services such as intranets, and public bodies in the exercise of a public function are exempt. Exemptions can be found in Schedule 1; per s.3(8), the Secretary of State can amend the exempt services found there.
“Search services” are defined as services providing an internet search engine that are not U2U services. Much of the same duties apply to search and U2U services, so these will be largely dealt with together.
The Federal Court of Justice in Germany (the Bundesgerichtshof, or BGH) has ruled against the social network provider that deleted posts and suspended accounts amid allegations of “hate speech”.
The ruling was handed down on the 29th of July (Bundesgerichtshof, Urteile vom 29. Juli 2021 – III ZR 179/20 und III ZR 192/20) and at the time of writing this post, the full judgment had not been published. The following summary is based upon the Bundesgerichtshof’s press release. NB the quotes from the plaintiff’s Facebook entries are in the judgment, i.e. the public domain, in other words no offence is intended by repeating them here.
Judgments of July 29, 2021 – III ZR 179/20 and III ZR 192/20
The III Civil Senate of the German Federal Court of Justice has ruled that Facebook’s terms and conditions of April 19, 2018 for the deletion of user posts and account blocking in the event of violations of the communication standards set out in the terms and conditions are invalid. This was because the defendant provider had not undertaken to inform the user about the removal of his post at least subsequently and about an intended blocking of his user account in advance, had not informed them of the reason for this and had not given them an opportunity to respond with a subsequent new decision. If, due to the invalid terms and conditions of the provider’s contract, a user’s contribution was deleted and their account temporarily subject to a partial blocking, the user should be able to claim the activation of the deleted contribution and, an undertaking that there would be no further account blocking or deletion of the contribution upon its renewed posting.
The parties disputed the legality of a temporary partial blocking of the plaintiffs’ Facebook user accounts and the deletion of their comments by the defendant.
The plaintiffs each maintained a user account for a worldwide social network operated by the defendant’s parent company, whose provider and contractual partner for users based in Germany was the defendant. They claimed against the defendant – to the extent still relevant for the appeal proceedings – in respect of activation of the posts published by them on the network and deleted by the defendant, for an injunction against renewed blocking of their user accounts and deletion of their posts, and – in one of the appeal proceedings – for information about a company commissioned to implement the account blocking.
The ability to make interim care orders under s.38 Children Act 1989 is one of the family court’s most significant powers. With newborn babies, prompt action is not only desirable, it’s essential. But not so easy to achieve in practice, as you will hear from our lively and comprehensive conversation.
This episode will be the last before we take our August break, but plans for Law Pod UK from September are already being hatched so remember to tune in!
In R (NB & Others) v Secretary of State for the Home Department  EWHC 1489 (Admin), the High Court ruled that the treatment of asylum seekers at Napier military barracks did not meet minimum legal standards, that the process for allocating asylum seekers to accommodation centres was flawed and unlawful and that the six claimants had been falsely imprisoned during the “inevitable” Covid-19 outbreak. David Manknell of 1 COR was junior counsel to the SSHD.
In September 2020, Napier military barracks was converted into a medium-term accommodation centre for asylum seekers. By the end of January 2021, the centre had witnessed a major outbreak of Covid-19, protests by residents against poor conditions inside the facility and a fire.
NB and the other five claimants had been kept at the barracks for months. This was despite evidence that that they had all experienced “people trafficking and/or torture prior to their arrival in the United Kingdom” and that several of them were suffering from pre-existing mental health issues as a result of their experiences. At issue in this case was the Defendant’s decision in each of the Claimants’ cases that they should be accommodated at the Barracks.
Monday was England’s so-called ‘Freedom Day’, with the final coronavirus restrictions lifted. This means nightclubs can reopen; bars are no longer table service only; there are no more limits on attendee numbers at large events; and it is no longer mandatory to wear face coverings in public spaces, although the recommendation to do so remains. It also remains a legal obligation to self-isolate if contacted to do so by NHS Test and Trace, although it is not mandatory to download the NHS Covid-19 app, or to self-isolated if ‘pinged’ by it (i.e. alerted by the app to self-isolate). NHS Test and Trace contacts people who have been named by a positive-testing person as a close contact and are legally obliged to self-isolate or face fines from £1000 for failing to comply. By contrast, the Covid-19 app works by using Bluetooth to ‘ping’ people who may have come into close contact with a covid-positive person. A resulting ‘pingdimic’ has led to concerns about keyworker staff shortages leading to a hospital understaffing and potential supermarket food shortages. Frontline health workers can be exempt from self-isolation in exceptional circumstances, as can other keyworkers if their employers apply for and receive government authorisation specific to a named worker. From August 16th anyone who has had both vaccination doses will not need to self-isolate as a close contact.
Civil liberties organisation Liberty has expressed concerns that so-called “Freedom Day” is in fact “a moment of fear and division”. The organisation has criticised the Government for its “divisive, coercive strategies”, among which it includes “vaccine passports and mandatory vaccinations”. Vaccine passports in particular are condemned as “a step towards a two-tier society”. Despite these concerns, the organisation also expresses a worry that lifting restrictions has “serious implications” for the rights of frontline workers and the clinically vulnerable”.
In other news:
On Wednesday, the government published its Judicial Review and Courts Bill following an Independent Review of Administrative Law and a government consultation. The Bill seeks to “reform the rules around Judicial Review and facilitate a number of procedural improvements across the court system”. One of the reforms proposed is to remove Cart Judicial Reviews, which are High Court reviews of an Upper Tribunal’s refusal to grant permission to appeal. An “unprecedented” coalition of over 220 organisations, including Amnesty International UK, Greenpeace, Refugee Action and Stonewall, has criticised the Bill and proposed changes to the Human Rights Act.
On Friday the 2020 Summer Olympics began with an opening ceremony of dancers and acrobats performing to a near-empty stadium. Outside, protesters clashed with Tokyo police as Japanese citizens showed their anger at the games continuing to be held amidst the fourth declaration of an official state of emergency in Japan due to the coronavirus pandemic. In nine prefectures including Tokyo and Osaka, residents have been asked to go out for essential reasons only. In the week the Games began Japan saw numbers of Covid-19 cases not seen since January.
On Saturday the first ever “Reclaim Pride” march took place in London, with thousands taking to the streets to demand inclusive LGBTI+ rights. The event was organised amidst concerns that traditional Pride events (like London Pride, this year postponed to 11 September) are becoming less like protests and more like “over-commercialised parties”.
In the Courts:
Royal Mail Group Ltd v Efobi  UKSC 33 – the Supreme Court unanimously dismissed an appeal from Mr Efobi, a postman for the Respondent, Royal Mail. The Appellant’s claim in the employment tribunal for direct or indirect racial discrimination was dismissed but the decision was overturned on appeal to the EAT. The Court of Appeal then reversed the decision in favour of Royal Mail and Mr Efobi was granted permission to appeal to the Supreme Court. Efobi argued (i) that a change in the wording of equality legislation from “where … the complainant proves facts” to “if there are facts from which the court could decide” removed the burden on the claimant to prove anything at the first stage of employment discrimination cases, and (ii) that the EAT should have drawn adverse inferences from the absence of a potential witnesses for the Respondent Royal Mail. The appeal was dismissed on the grounds that (i) the new wording simply clarifies that evidence from both parties must be considered, not only that of the claimant and (ii) tribunals are free to draw or decline to draw inferences using common sense. Furthermore, even if adverse inferences were drawn, the recruiter’s knowledge of Mr Efobi’s race was by itself insufficient evidence of racial discrimination.
Secretary of State for the Home Department v GA & Ors  EWCA Civ 1131 –the Respondent had applied for British passports for three of her children (British citizens living in Country X) from Her Majesty’s Passport Office (HMPO), for which the Appellant is responsible. HMPO refused the applications for lack of evidence of the consent of a person with parental responsibility under the law of Country X. HMPO considered that person to be the children’s father alone. It was unsafe or impossible for the mother to obtain the father’s consent, as he had been arrested following “months of extremely serious physical and psychological abuse including torture of me.” A declaration signed by the father that he had no objection to his children travelling abroad with their mother was not accepted by HMPO as permission to grant British passports. HMPO’s passport refusal was quashed in a judicial review claim because: (i) there was no evidence to conclude that the father had to consent under the law of Country X; (ii) HMPO failed to consider the application of Article 22 of the 1996 Hague Convention; and (iii) Article 22 did apply and HMPO was entitled to refuse to apply the law of Country X. Article 22 allows the dis-application of an applicable law provision if it would be contrary to public policy, considering the best interests of the child. The Court of Appeal upheld the quashing order and refused the Appellant’s argument that HMPO was not obliged to consider, and should not have considered, Article 22. It also rejected the argument that HMPO should have asked the father alone for his consent, on the basis that the Country Profile for Country X suggested it allocates sole parental responsibility to the father. The Country Profile was insufficient evidence to conclude in this specific case that the mother had no authority to apply for British passports. Furthermore, upholding this law of Country X would be contrary to ECHR Articles 14 and 8, as it discriminates based on sex. Accordingly, the appeal was dismissed and permission to appeal was refused.
The High Court has ruled in McNally v Saunders that a retired solicitor’s ‘abrasive’ and ‘frequently puerile’ blog posts are entitled to the same level of protection as mainstream journalism. Chamberlain J struck out a harassment claim brought by a local government officer as having no reasonable prospect of success and has granted summary judgment for the defendant under CPR rule 24.2. The claim was brought under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 by Dr Lisa McNally, MBC Sandwell’s director of public health and a mental health campaigner. McNally was the subject of five blog posts, criticising her decision to post a two-minute video about her own struggle with mental health and questioning her qualifications. She said the posts had caused her ‘crippling’ anxiety about attending meetings and made her worry about her ability to do her job. Given that Saunder’s posts’ were ’frequently puerile tone and style, a casual reader… might be surprised to discover that they are the work of a semi-retired former solicitor,’ the judge said. However ’none of these features disentitles them to the protections afforded by the law to journalistic expression.’ The public interest in McNally being able to continue in her role was outweighed by Saunders’ Article 10 right to free expression.
The Employment Appeal Tribunal has ruled that the belief that biological sex is immutable is a protected philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010.
Maya Forstater (the “Claimant“) holds gender-critical beliefs: that biological sex is real, important, immutable and not to be conflated with gender identity. She expressed such views on Twitter when the Government introduced proposals to reform the Gender Recognition Act 2004 to allow people to self-identify their gender (in one instance referring to someone who identifies as gender fluid as a “part-time cross dresser”).
These tweets were the subject of an employment dispute after several members of staff complained about them and the Claimant’s employer did not renew her consultancy contract. The Claimant later brought complaints of belief and sex discrimination against her employer in the Employment Tribunal.
The Tribunal ruled that the Claimant’s gender-critical beliefs were “absolutist in nature” and not worthy of respect in a democratic society. As such, they did not qualify for protection as a philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010 (for a full analysis of the Tribunal’s decision, see earlier blog posts here and here).
The Claimant subsequently appealed the decision to the Employment Appeal Tribunal (the “EAT“). Last month, it allowed the appeal, ultimately ruling that the Tribunal had erred in law. The reasoning behind this will be explored below.
This blog post only provides a summary of the legal analysis contained in the EAT’s judgment. It does not seek to comment on its merits, or indeed the correctness of it.
The Supreme Court has unanimously dismissed an appeal which considered whether treatment throughout a 55 day period in solitary confinement of a then 15-year-old appellant in Feltham Young Offenders’ Institution constituted a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The case concerned the treatment of the Claimant, AB, whilst he was detained at Feltham Young Offenders’ Institution (FYOI) at the age of 15, between the period of 10th December 2017 and 2nd February 2017. AB had been remanded in custody at FYOI whilst awaiting sentence for indecent exposure and sexual assault. The pre-sentence report concluded that his risk of dangerousness was high, as was his risk of causing serious harm.
Throughout the above period at FYOI, AB had been placed under a “single-unlock” system, whereby he could not leave his cell when any other detainees were out of their cells, apart from some time in “three-officer unlock” which involved three officers being present whenever he left his cell. It was undisputed that he was placed under this regime for his own safety, as well as for the protection of others.
AB appealed to the Supreme Court to decide two questions. The first: whether the solitary confinement of persons under 18 automatically constitutes a violation of article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“the Convention”). The second: if not, whether there is a universal test for the compatibility of solitary confinement of children, namely that “exceptional” circumstances must determine the treatment as “strictly necessary”.
Immigration and migrant rights have been at the forefront of the news this week. An investigation has revealed that many undocumented migrants in the UK are being denied access to a vaccine, even though NHS England policy states that ID is not required to register with a GP (needed to book a jab). The vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, confirmed that the vaccine was available to everyone, regardless of immigration status, but the report suggests that in reality, the majority of GPs are refusing registration, and are providing inaccurate information about the necessity of identity documents. The report highlights the danger this practice poses to the health of migrants and the general population in aiding the spread of the virus.
The Home Office has been forced to pay out £9.3 million in compensation this year in response to over 300 cases of unlawful detention. This amounts to a 35% rise in a year. Bella Sankey, Charity Detention Action’s director, has warned that these figures are likely to increase considerably with the Home Secretary’s proposed Nationality and Borders Bill, which aims to process asylum seekers in offshore centres. However, the Home Office stated that it was ‘committed to learning lessons from any case where we concede or the courts deem unlawful’ to reduce the number of unlawful detentions in the future.
The Covid pandemic has brought the mental health of those within the legal profession into sharp relief. For some people, the past 18 months will have been the first time they have discussed their mental health with clients, colleagues, and supervisors.
To celebrate reaching 500,000 listens on the podcast, I wanted to do something a little different. In this episode I speak to Rachel Francis and Joanna Fleck, two extraordinary women, about their new book: Vicarious Trauma in the Legal Profession: a practical guide to trauma, burnout and collective care, which comes highly recommended to anyone dealing with trauma in their work.
Baroness Helena Kennedy QC has described the book as “a wake-up call about what is happening to law and access to justice – but it is also a clarion as to what is happening to lawyers.”
The book is published by Legal Action Group and is available to buy here (from Lag) and here (from Waterstones).
If you are interested in bulk buys of the book, please contact Esther Pilger at EPilger@lag.org.uk
The Supreme Court has rejected a challenge against the two-child limit on the individual element of child tax credit payments. In a unanimous judgment delivered by Lord Reed, the Court held that the provision imposing the limit was not contrary to the appellants’ Convention rights.
The Court found that the rule was potentially indirectly discriminatory against women, as well as children living in households with more than two children. However, any such discrimination could be validly justified and was considered to be proportionate on the basis of ‘protecting the economic well-being of the country’.
Child tax credit is a welfare benefit scheme designed to provide financial support to families with children. The individual element of child tax credit, which is the subject of this case, entitles an individual to £2,830 per annum in respect of each child they are responsible for.
In 2015, the Conservative Party announced as part of that year’s General Election manifesto that they intended to limit a person’s entitlement to child tax credit to just two children, unless one of a narrow range of prescribed exceptions applied. This was part of a wider policy pledge to substantially reduce the amount spent on welfare benefits.
In March 2016, a bill was passed to that effect, and the limit came into force in April 2017.
On Thursday, the Crown Prosecution Service announced that they would no longer prosecute migrants uninvolved in any criminal activity other than illegal entry to the UK. The development, supported by the notion that these cases can be better dealt with by administrative deportation than by prison overcrowding, is being widely reported as a blow to the Home Secretary’s Tuesday announcement of the Nationality and Borders Bill. The Bill seeks to further differentiate between migrants who enter the UK illegally and those who do not. Significant changes introduced by the new legislation are the increase of the maximum sentence for illegal entry from six months to twelve, introduced at clause 37, and the removal of protections for migrants who are escorted to the UK by the Border Force, who currently technically enter the country legally. The Bill will require that migrants have prior authorisation to enter the country to avoid entering illegally. How the CPS guidance, apparently adopted after ‘close consultation with the Home Office’ will interact with the new law, if passed, remains to be seen.
The United Kingdom has been ordered by the European Court of Human Rights to pay damages and legal costs to a social worker who was unfairly accused of professional misconduct by a Family Court judge.
The applicant was a social worker who was called to give evidence in childcare proceedings concerning the alleged sexual abuse of a number of siblings.
The Family Court rejected the allegations of sexual abuse. The judge also found that the applicant was the principal instigator in a “joint enterprise to obtain evidence to prove the sexual abuse allegations, irrespective of the underlying truth and relevant professional guidelines”; that she had lied to the court about important aspects of the investigation; and that she had subjected one of the children involved to emotional abuse.
The applicant first became aware of these adverse findings at the end of the hearing when the judge gave a summary oral judgment. Prior to finalising the judgment, she was able to make some submissions, including in respect of the decision not to grant her anonymity. However, the adverse findings and the decision not to grant her anonymity were maintained. The judge also directed that the judgment be sent to the authority to which the applicant had since been re-assigned, and advised that his findings should be shared with other local authorities where she had worked and with the relevant professional bodies.
Her local authority assignment was then terminated without notice.
The local authority and the applicant sought to appeal against the Family Court judgment. Before the Court of Appeal, the case was argued as a procedural violation, namely that the highly adverse findings “came out of the blue” and had the potential to impact adversely on her employment prospects and personal life, yet she had not been given any opportunity to know of or meet the allegations during the course of the trial process. The Court of Appeal found that the criticism would breach her rights under Art. 8 of the Convention if the judgment were allowed to stand. The process by which the judge arrived at the criticisms was “manifestly unfair to a degree which wholly failed to meet the basic requirements of fairness established under Art.8.” His findings were set aside, in the sense that “they no longer stood and had no validity”. The effect was to be “as if those findings, or potential findings, had never been made in any form by the judge” (§§ 16 – 20).
The focus of this judgment was on the jurisdiction, if any, that the High Court Family Division has to maintain a Reporting Restriction Order (‘RRO’) prohibiting the naming of any medical clinicians as being involved in the care and treatment of a child who had been the subject of “end of life” proceedings before the High Court prior to their death, and where an RRO had been made at that time preventing the identification of any of the treating clinicians and staff until further order.
Each of the children, Zainab Abbasi and Isaiah Haastrup, had been the subject of end of life proceedings under the inherent jurisdiction of the High Court, in which the issue was whether life-support should be withdrawn from them. Each of the two children died; Zainab Abbasi dying after the issue of proceedings but before the court could conduct a substantive adjudication, and Isaiah Haastrup dying following the removal of life-sustaining ventilation at the conclusion of a full legal process including an application to the Court of Appeal. In both cases, widely drawn RROs were made during the proceedings.
Johnson’s promise to support the LGBTQ+ community also came after the first meeting of the Ban Conversion Therapy Legal Forum, a group of lawyers, academics, cross-party MPs and campaigners, chaired by Baroness Helena Kennedy. The group released a statement advising the government that the “best way of banning conversion therapy is by using a combination of both civil and criminal remedies” and that the legislation “must be human rights compliant”, prioritising the rights of victims and potential victims. The Forum acknowledged a ban might impact certain other rights including freedom of religion and belief and freedom of expression, but said the harm caused to LGBTQ+ people, which “amounts to degrading and inhuman treatment”, justified a proportionate restriction of those rights.
In other news:
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democracy and the Constitution released a report on its independent inquiry into whether the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly were respected in the policing of the Clapham Common vigil for Sarah Everard on 13 March and the “Kill the Bill” protests in Bristol from 26-29 March. The report, published 1 July, found that the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) and the Avon and Somerset Constabulary (A&SC) “failed to understand the nature of the right to protest and how it must be applied in practice” and that their use of power “exacerbated tensions and increased the risk of violence”. The APPG recommended a new statutory code for the right to protest and policing of protests; removing clauses 55-61 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill; and a consultation on the creation of an Independent Protest Commission.
The offence of “Rechtsbeugung” in German law is not easy to translate. The best match we have for it in English is the offence of “misconduct in public office”. Misfeasance in public office, according to Archibold, is committed by
(a) a public officer acting as such who
(b) wilfully neglects to perform his duty and/or wilfully misconducts himself
(c) to such a degree as to amount to an abuse of the public’s trust in the office holder,
(d) without reasonable justification.
I have not been able to find any examples of judges being prosecuted for misconduct in public office in this country. However, this past fortnight in Germany, no less than eight searches have been carried out in the homes of judges, their expert witnesses, a guardian ad litem and others associated with a controversial ruling regarding Covid-19 restrictions. I posted on Judge Christian Dettmar’s ruling in early April and subsequent investigation here. Reminder: Judge Dettmar issued an injunction against two schools in Weimar to stop them imposing masking, social distancing and testing. This was in his view necessary in order to avert (further) compromising of children’s welfare.
This blog is maintained for information purposes only. It is not intended to be a source of legal advice and must not be relied upon as such. Blog posts reflect the views and opinions of their individual authors, not of chambers as a whole.