Weekly Notes: legal news from ICLR — 19 June 2017

This week’s roundup includes political fixes, fiddles and failures, the legal fallout from the Grenfell Tower fire, the legality of drones, and our old friends, the McKenzies.

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Politics

Deal or no deal: caught between the devil and the DUP

Such a deal is not necessarily all bad. There are pros and cons. Among the pros, as we discovered when examining the DUP’s election manifesto last week, is the fact that the DUP, while supporting Brexit, want an essentially soft version — with a soft or porous border with the South. But Brexit is not like the water: you can’t have hard Brexit in one area and soft Brexit in another.

Among the cons, however, at least from a liberal/humanist point of view, is the DUP’s conservative attitude to abortion and LGBT rights. The DUP is by no means alone among Northern Ireland political parties in adopting a restrictive approach to such matters. Two years ago the SDLP opposed a change in the law to make abortion where women have been raped or are carrying a foetus with a lethal abnormality (source: BBC).

However, Sinn Fein at the time did change their stance on abortion, to a moderate extent, supporting early termination in the case of fatal foetal abnormality (source: BBC). And, interestingly, in a little-noticed paragraph, Labour’s manifesto (PDF: p 109) promised to liberalise the position in Northern Ireland so as to match the rest of the United Kingdom:

Labour will continue to ensure a woman’s right to choose a safe, legal abortion — and we will work with the Assembly to extend that right to women in Northern Ireland.

The social policy aspect was thrown into sharp focus this week with the narrow (3:2) majority judgment of the UK Supreme Court in R (A and B) v Secretary of State for Health [2017] UKSC 41 that the Secretary of State’s failure to exercise his power to require that abortion services be provided through the NHS in England — to women ordinarily resident in Northern Ireland — was NOT unlawful. (Many women travel to the UK to obtain the abortions they cannot have performed in Northern Ireland, though the annual number is said to be declining.) The Secretary of State was entitled to respect the democratic decision of the devolved administration in Northern Ireland and to acknowledge the ability to purchase private abortions, the majority ruled. Lord Kerr and Baroness Hale gave dissenting judgments. (See UK Supreme Court blog for summary and links.)

While the talks continue, it is probably pointless to speculate which policies will matter more in the deal: social policy or the degree of hardness of Brexit. But it’s more likely to be the latter, given the risks to confidence in the minority government in the ensuing talks with Europe. Even when the deal is done, however, there’s no guarantee we’ll get the full story on what was agreed.

Parliament

Two-year session ‘to deliver Brexit and beyond’

Parliament will sit for two years instead of the usual one to give MPs enough time to fully consider the laws required to make Britain ready for Brexit. This includes the Great Repeal Bill, which by converting existing EU law into UK statute will enable the smoothest possible transition at the point of leaving.

The government will deliver this while also addressing deep-rooted inequalities in our society in order to give everyone the opportunities they deserve. Taken together, the EU exit process and the government’s domestic agenda mean the new Parliament faces a substantial legislative programme.

The reference to “addressing deep-rooted inequalities in our society” may be based on manifesto promises, but it also looks like a response to the complaint made by many in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire that both the fire itself and the treatment of the survivors in London’s richest borough has been symptomatic of deep divisions in austerity Britain and what might be seen as a form of structural indifference to the plight of those most affected by cuts in the funding of public services and resources. This is a long-term failing which it will take a lot more than the distraction of Brexit to fix.

See also:

Public inquiry

High rise horror: tears, fears and litigation

Inquest or inquiry?

However, even the recommendations of coroners are not always implemented quickly or at all. An example is the installation of sprinklers in large housing blocks, which was one of the coroner’s recommendation made in 2013 after a previous, also fatal but less extensive fire, at Lakanal House in Camberwell, south London in 2009, in which six people died (see Guardian, Lakanal House tower block fire: deaths ‘could have been prevented’). In 2016, three years later, the then housing minister Gavin Barwell told MPs the government were still “looking into it”.

Solicitor advocate Sophie Khan, director of London firm Sophie Khan & Co who acted for the victims of the Lakanal House fire in 2009, said last week that inquests would be better than an inquiry. She was quoted by the Law Society Gazette as having told BBC Newsnight

‘The coroner is independent of the government. In a public inquiry it is very much government led. There are very limited rules in public inquiries. It is very much government led, government controlled, government outcome.’

With an inquest, by contrast, Khan said the government ‘loses control of what a jury verdict will do. The juries will come out with narrative verdicts which may be very difficult for the government to hear’.

When asked to confirm that there cannot be both public inquiry and inquest, Khan said: ‘You can’t have both. You can only have one or the other.’

However, two human rights barristers, Adam Wagner and Simon McKay, have posted Twitter threads on the difference between inquiries and inquests, and in each case have said that you can have both: the one does not preclude the other. However, any inquests would be postponed until after the conclusion of an inquiry. Between them, they make a number of other points, including the following.

A public inquiry under the Public Inquiry Act 2005, would be chaired by an independent and senior judge, possibly a Lord Justice, and certainly more senior than a coroner. It would be held in public, subject to any issues of national security (unlikely in this case, one would have thought). Victims and other interest groups would be “core participants”, represented by lawyers, who could ask any relevant questions of any of the witnesses, subject to the chair’s control of the proceedings.

A public inquiry would be wider in its terms of reference than an inquest. However, some inquests, if they qualify as an ‘article 2’ (of the European Convention on Human Rights) inquest, looking into the role of the state in relation to the deaths, have a wider frame of reference than other inquests. That said, while advocates and others can ask witnesses questions, the witnesses needn’t answer if it might incriminate them. The inquest may avoid areas likely to be the subject of a criminal investigation. It is not the purpose of an inquest to apportion blame, in terms of civil or criminal liability.

Ultimately, says Adam Wagner, a public inquiry is probably a ‘more suited vehicle to dealing with wider systemic issues. That’s what they are for.’ The charity INQUEST agreed, in a Statement on Grenfell Tower Fire:

We are in no doubt that the interests of the bereaved families, survivors and the public at large are likely to be better served by a wide ranging judicial public inquiry rather than an inquest in a large scale disaster such as Grenfell House

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Legal Aid

Now that their worst fears have been realised, lawyers have offered to help them cope with the legal fallout. The North Kensington Law Centre has been inundated with offers of help, practical and financial, and has set up a JustGiving page to enable people to donate.

In addition, the Good Law Project set up by Jolyon Maugham QC, has set up a trust “to ensure that cash donations are distributed, in a speedy fashion, to the right people and don’t end up in the wrong hands”. This is not just for legal work, it’s to provide relief for victims in the immediate aftermath.

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Criminal investigation

It is notoriously hard to prove corporate manslaughter, which requires proof of a gross breach of a duty of care of equivalent seriousness to the common law standard of ‘gross negligence manslaughter’. However, a change in the law introduced by the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 has made it easier to prove the offence against an organisation without needing to identify a single “controlling mind” whose acts or omissions committed all the elements of the offence. It is enough, now, to show that the relevant acts or omissions arose out of the way in which the organisation’s activities were managed or organised by its senior management.

The 2007 Act also applies to partnerships, most government departments, the police and the armed forces. In the case of the Grenfell Tower fire, the most likely candidates would be the local authority, the building’s management company, and the contractors and sub-contractors involved in the refurbishment in which apparently flammable materials were fitted as external insulation and cladding.

If convicted of corporate manslaughter, an organisation faces unlimited fines (these often run into hundreds of thousands of pounds). A convicted company might also be subjected, under section 9, to a remedial order requiring it to take such steps as may specified by the court to improve its “policies, systems or practices”, failing which it would commit a further offence. Moreover, by section 10 it can be required to name and shame itself by publicising the fact of its conviction, the details of the offence, the amount of any fine and the terms of any remedial order.

For more on this, see:

Media conduct

Complaints to the largest regulator, IPSO, have been made, inter alia, in respect of the allegation that a Sun reporter had impersonated a relative of an injured victim in an attempt to obtain an interview in a hospital, and about a Mail Online article about a man (who just happened to be a migrant) whose faulty fridge allegedly started the fire. A spokesman for the Mail, in response to complaints about the story (which has since been toned down), said: “In common with several other media outlets MailOnline identified where and how the Grenfell Tower fire started,” which will save the police and fire authorities a lot of time and trouble, no doubt.

Most complaints have related to the privacy and harassment clauses of the Editors’ Code, and some have focused on intrusion into grief or shock. For more on these stories, see:

Civil Aviation

Legality of drones

It’s just one of the hundreds of uses to which these remotely controlled airborne vehicles have been put, but some of these are not so positive. We have discussed the legal implications of their military use, eg in targeting enemy commanders or terror group chiefs (see Weekly Notes — 11 September 2015 and Weekly Notes — 16 January 2017)

But there are also legal questions about the use of consumer and commercial drones, and their regulation, which has been the subject of a recent episode of the Australian legal podcast, The Law Report broadcast by the ABC. This is well worth a listen, or you can read the transcript. In one case, a woman was skinny dipping in the swimming pool in her back yard when a drone came and hovered above her, obviously prying in a rather pervy way. In some cases, drones used to photograph plots of land and properties, perhaps for sale or rent, or other surveying purposes, have strayed or misbehaved, intentionally or otherwise. There are also risks associated with collisions with other airborne objects, such as aircraft, or injury to people or animals when the device flies too low. The subject of Drones and the Law was discussed in the context of the UK in BBC Law in Action last year.

Not surprisingly, there are regulations in Australia, which the ABC programme refers to. In the UK, regulation is by the Civil Aviation Authority. The regulations for recreational drone flights are contained within the Air Navigation Order 2016.

Legal professions

McKenzie Friends research published

The key finding was that much of the work done by so-called ‘professional’ McKenzie Friends is ‘advice’ and support out of court, rather than the use or abuse of ‘rights of audience’ (which are not rights but privileges, or even licences, ie entirely at the discretion of the judge). However, that does raise the question whether the giving of legal advice, which is unregulated, should be treated as a ‘reserved occupation’ (like ‘advocacy’) that only a qualified and regulated lawyer can do.

The study has been helpfully reported and summarised in Barrister magazine: New research shows paid McKenzie Friends operating mostly outside the courtroom

The Transparency Project has a useful roundup page with further links: Fee Paid McKenzie Friends Research

Publication of the research may have prompted the search engine inquiries which boosted the hits to an earlier post on this blog, which has been ‘trending’ recently: McKenzie Friends: a litigant’s guide

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SRA fails against Leigh Day

Leigh Day, its co-founder Martyn Day, partner Sapna Malik and associate Anna Crowther were accused of professional misconduct for the manner in which they pursued claims of torture and murder against British soldiers made by Iraqi civilians. The claims resulted in the Al-Sweady public inquiry in 2014 which cost £31 million before it transpired that the allegations were untrue.

The scandal toppled human rights lawyer Phil Shiner, who worked with Leigh Day representing Iraqi clients in parallel legal actions. Shiner was found guilty of 22 misconduct charges in February and struck off.

A spokesman for the SRA confirmed that its three-year investigation and subsequent 7-week prosecution before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) was its most expensive ever, eclipsing the previous record of £1.4m.

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Dates and Deadlines

IPSO lecture

It will take place at Church House, Dean’s Yard, Great Smith St, Westminster, London SW1P 3NZ. For more information, email: vikki.julian@ipso.co.uk

Law (and injustice) from around the world

America

Animal rights

A five-judge panel of the Appellate Division First Department in Manhattan ruled unanimously that the two creatures living in captivity Upstate, Tommy and Kiko, were not entitled to rights enjoyed only by humans.

“The asserted cognitive and linguistic capabilities of chimpanzees do not translate to a chimpanzee’s capacity or ability, like humans, to bear legal duties, or to be held legally accountable for their actions,” Justice Dianne Renwick wrote.

The ruling also noted that nonhumans “lack sufficient responsibility to have any legal standing.”

We reported an earlier hearing in the case in Weekly Notes — 24 April 2015. In Tommy’s case the New York’s Court of Appeals on 4 December 2014 had dismissed an earlier appeal from the ruling by Justice J Sise on 18 December 2013 that he was not in law a person: see Weekly Notes — 15 December 2014.

Turkey

War crimes judge convicted of being terror group member

Writing in the Law Society Gazette, Eduardo Reyes reported that:

The Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals, The Hague, said: ‘The judgment of first instance is subject to potential appeal and review proceedings at national and international levels, and the verdict has therefore yet to acquire legal finality.’

It added: ‘The arrest of Judge Akay in September 2016, his detention and legal proceedings against him are inconsistent with the assertion of his diplomatic immunity by the United Nations, as well as the binding judicial order by the mechanism to the Government of Turkey issued in January 2017.’

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The ICLR publishes The Law Reports, The Weekly Law Reports and other specialist titles. Set up by members of the judiciary and legal profession in 1865.

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