Recent Law Articles

The Secret Courts Bill is now even more of a threat to British justice

by Guest     February 8, 2013 at 8:50 am

by Donald Campbell

The Government’s plans for secret courts yesterday finished the latest stage in their process through Parliament in an even more dangerous form than before.

Ministers successfully used committee stage to strip out the – already somewhat feeble – safeguards which had been inserted into the Bill by the House of Lords.

What is left is a piece of legislation which gives the government more freedom than ever before to put itself above the law, excluding its opponents from the courtroom altogether by claiming ‘national security’ is involved.

What seems to have often been forgotten in the debate surrounding this Bill is its origins in our own government’s complicity in torture and rendition.

These are not mere allegations. Just under three years ago, one of the most senior judges in the country was warning that MI5 had a “dubious record” on human rights and torture and “an interest in the suppression” of information about the mistreatment of detainees in the so-called War on Terror.

Lord Neuberger, who made these comments then, is now head of the UK Supreme Court. More recently, in a speech coinciding with the passage of the secret courts bill through the Lords, he emphasised that “our commitment to open justice…underpins the rule of law,” and warned that judgements in which reasons are not given – a situation which would result from secret courts – “are certainly not justice at all.

Yet it seems Lord Neuberger’s comments both then and now have either been ignored or forgotten by those in Westminster who support the Secret Courts Bill.

Rather than a real attempt to get to the bottom of our own agencies’ involvement in some of the worse human rights abuses in the ‘War on Terror’ – such as the torture of Gaddafi opponents and the kidnapping and ‘rendition’ of their wives and young children – the Government has brought forward a Bill to help ensure such abuses are unlikely to see the light of day in future.

The Inquiry the Government set up to look into these matters was so toothless and lacking in independence that it had to be shelved due to a lack of support.

Parliament – including the Intelligence and Security Committee – has had the wool pulled over its eyes on rendition and torture before, and there is no reason to assume the future will be any different. This is why accountability of Government through the courts is so indispensable.

Yet with a system weighted in the Government’s favour, where anyone opposing the state will never hear the evidence used against them, this will become near impossible.

This is what will happen if proposals for secret courts make it through the Commons. Ken Clarke and James Brokenshire, the ministers responsible, have shown that they have no interest in compromise by their successful wrecking of the Lords amendments at committee stage.

The only way forward for any MP interested in preserving the rule of law and Britain’s reputation for a fair system of justice is therefore to vote to remove secret courts – or ‘Closed Material Procedures’ – from the Bill altogether.

Donald Campbell is the Communications Officer at Reprieve.

UK’s libel laws mean this book on Scientology won’t be published here

by Robert Sharp     January 16, 2013 at 9:20 am

Here’s a perfect example of the libel laws preventing literature and public interest debate: Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright’s book Going Clear will not be published in the UK. His British publiser Transworld have said that some of the content was “not robust enough for the UK market.”

This is not a euphemism for saying the book is fabricated. It means that although the author is confident of what he has written, neither he nor his publishers can afford the time or the money to defend the claims against the (famously litigious) Church of Scientology.

I spoke to the Guardian about Transworld’s decision:

“It’s a classic example of the chill that is cast over free speech by these laws, where people choose to self-censor,” says Robert Sharp, head of campaigns and communications at the human rights organisation English PEN. “Something like religion is in the public interest. We should be allowed to scrutinise and criticise it. The cover-up of abuses by the Catholic church is a prime example of what happens when you don’t.”

The House of Lords are debating the Defamation Bill today. The hope is that reforms would firm up definitions of comment, raise the ‘harm’ threshold before a case is brought, and deliver a better ‘public interest’ defence.

Once the Bill is enacted, it should be possible for a book like Going Clear to be published in Britain. One might say that if a book like this is still subjected to this kind of self-censorship, then it cannot be said that the libel laws have been truly ‘reformed’.

Elsewhere, BBC Journalist John Sweeney has written about Scientology. His book, the Church of Fear, was not picked up by the major publishers.

The cult-like practices of the Church of Scientology are outlined in this 1984 High Court custody judgement.

Could the privatisation of probation services bring down Chris Grayling?

by Septicisle     January 10, 2013 at 9:36 am

If you thought the government’s Monday’s mid-term review was pointless and self-indulgent, yesterday’s “audit” was effectively a re-hash of the review except with a little more often completely irrelevant detail.

For a start it doesn’t keep a tally of which pledges have broken, as this would apparently have been “too simplistic“; translated that means would have given hacks an easy negative headline. The Telegraph claimed 70 pledges hadn’t been kept, while Andrew Sparrow has calculated it at around 33.

Either way it’s meaningless as there is again no mention of the double-dip recession or the lack of growth, while it brushes over the failure to meet the “supplementary element” of the fiscal mandate, that debt as a proportion of GDP should be falling by 2015-16.

More to the point is that pledges are worthless when they’re pledges to introduce bad policy, something the coalition has done to abundance.

Much the same can be said of the announcement from Chris Grayling on the privatisation of the probation service.

Anyone who isn’t Grayling looking at the problems this is bound to throw up would think a major pilot scheme would be in order, not least because of the failures both of the Pathways to Work scheme under Labour and Grayling’s own Work programme, neither of which bode well for the success of further payment by results schemes.

Not for Grayling though. There are times when you simply have to do something, and this apparently is one of those. It’s certainly true that re-offending rates are far too high, yet there isn’t the slightest indication that private firms will be any better at stopping those out after serving a short sentence from re-offending than the state is currently.

Indeed, that the probation service will continue to look after the most serious and high risk offenders is hardly a vote of confidence in the capabilities of those that will shortly be submitting bids, and you can guarantee it’ll be the same old companies that have cocked it up so marvellously in the past: G4S, Serco and Capita will almost certainly be first in the queue.

As Harry Fletcher argues, it’s difficult not to see this both as purely ideological and to cut costs to the bone. If it wasn’t the former, then Grayling would have expanded the pilot scheme; if it isn’t the latter, then there’s no reason whatsoever why the probation service can’t also take control of the new requirement to monitor those out after serving less than 12 months.

Regardless of the motive, the responsibility will still lie with the secretary of state, and anything with the potential to bring Grayling down can’t be all bad.

I had to acquire a gun to protect myself

by Guest     January 3, 2013 at 10:05 am

by Paramjot Kaur Gill

“Beauty is power, the same way money is power, the same way a gun is also power,” said Chuck Palahunik in his book Invisible Monsters. I never believed it until I made an effort to join NCC – the National Cadet Corps in India when I lived there. I was fifteen years old.

My main aim was self-defence. I never imagined myself being a part of the army until I saw some of my school friends being targets of abuse and even rape. No woman wants a life like that.

It didn’t matter if some people thought women were not strong enough to take up guns, the camp commandant didn’t stand for any of it. “If a man can pick up a gun to protect his country, so can a woman,” he used to tell us.

This week it was reported in the Guardian that hundreds of women in Delhi have applied for gun licences, reflecting the widespread feeling of insecurity.

Abhijeet Singh of Guns For India told the newspaper: “Lots of women have been contacting us asking for information about how to obtain licences. Any woman has a threat against her. It’s not surprising. There are fearless predators out there.”

This is true – there are a lot of predators there. But the rise in gun use will not overcome a larger problem. When we hear of ‘defensive gun use’, we are invited to think of a law-abiding citizen confronting a criminal aggressor. Yet crime does not always present itself so neatly. The vast majority of rapes and assaults on women are from an acquaintance or someone they know closely.

Delhi police sources told the The Times of India that hundreds had turned up at their office demanding guns. “We had to patiently tell them that one needs to have a clear danger to one’s life to be given a licence. However, some of the parents were not happy with our replies. They said that with even public transport no longer safe in the city, they just cannot take chances. When we told them this could not be reason enough, we were told to give in writing that their daughters were indeed safe on Delhi’s roads.”

Of course, we didn’t feel safe at all. The Indian police exists only in name, not action. They make women feel more uncomfortable and unsafe if anyone reported an assault or even rape. They treat women as a piece of meat and are perhaps the most unreliable people on earth. They tell women to wear ‘appropriate’ dresses so that men do not rape us.

I felt like I needed to take my safety in my own hands. My first rifle was a 3 knot 3 rifle and the second an automatic Mauser pistol. I felt safe when I carried it along with me. I recommended it to other women too – telling them to learn how to shoot. I told them to carry it with them at all times — even in the house.

I never used the gun, and the one time I felt the need it was not with me. I understand that the focus should be on telling men to stop attacking women, but in the meantime I would still ask any woman in India, “If someone was about to rape you, would you not want to have a gun to protect yourself?”

Paramjot Kaur Gill is a journalism student at Kingston University.

The wreckage of pay-day loan companies

by Guest     November 23, 2012 at 8:02 pm

by Nathaniel Mathews

Kenny is only twenty. After two years looking he has managed to get a job. He works 60 hours a week in a bar. They are keeping him on and he is getting a raise. In an economy where kids just can’t find work he is someone who deserves all the support we can give, yet when I see him as Duty Solicitor he is in rent arrears and risks losing his home.

It turns out that when he finally got the job he took a small pay day loan to celebrate and thank his parents for supporting him. Then, when he had to repay the loan, which had an apr of 200% he had no money left from his wages, and had to take another loan. Soon all his money was going to shady companies whose dodgy representatives door-stepped him and even his parents. He looks haunted.

Kevin is a pensioner, living with his adult son. Because his son works in a shop and earns reasonable wages Kevin gets little in Housing Benefit – the son is expected to contribute the rest in a part of the regulations known as a non dependant deduction.

Yet Kenny is in rent arrears that climb steadily. He too may be evicted. His son too has taken out pay day loans, and finds his income being hoovered up by the lender. The son is terrified of taking time off work to get debt advice in case he is fired. In any event the queues at the local CAB are round the block.

Kyle is a postman separated from the mother of his six year old daughter. Over the summer his kid started to visit more regularly and he took out a small pay day loan so he could give her a few treats. It looks to me as if he is trying to make sure his relationship with his daughter does not suffer because of differences with her mother, he’s trying to do the right thing as a responsible dad.

You guessed it. He’s in rent arrears too.

Perhaps 1/50 or 1/60 of the clients that I now see as a duty solicitor are in thrall to brutal lending companies which may be called Wronger, or Conga or what have you. These are working class people in social housing with modest salaries who literally can’t put food on their table because of punitive rates of interest on pay day loans. These are far more deadly than crack; a small taster is enough to hook you for life.

Back in Law School they taught us that there were rules about usury, and the legislation then in place was enough to crack down on most of the unlicensed loan sharks that we saw in the 60’s and 70’s. Today, if you look around your high street, you will see that pay day loan companies are a growth industry, popping up like barnacles alongside betting shops- that other modern mecca to despair. They will tell you that what they are doing is selling services specifically designed for very short periods- yet perhaps half of their income comes from repeat borrowers.

Far from being curbed by the existing legal machinery, we see that Newcastle football club has looked at putting a pay day loan company on their shirts. The dodgy criminal with a cosh in his pocket of old has undergone an alchemical change, and acquired a glossy corporate face and sugared words that hide pure poison.

Standing up in court I tell the District Judge the plain facts. How wages meant for rent and other essentials evaporate the moment they arrive. In every case we get an adjournment so that the tenant can get debt advice.

Yet if I have managed to achieve something today, tomorrow paints a bleaker picture.

Firstly, although Legal Aid presently funds debt advice, from April 2013 this will be so scarce as to be non- existent. For every 100 housing cases funded by Legal Aid, the government is awarding 4 debt cases. We will be hamstrung before we even start.

Secondly, alternative sources of credit for people on benefits or low incomes will become almost non-existent. The Government Social Fund which used to provide cheap loans and grants will soon disappear, and Credit Unions are shutting up shop all over the country.

While the Bank of England’s interest rates are as low as at any time since its foundation, corporate sharks are trawling the economy, and we see no sign that Government is prepared to use any of the levers available to it to stop this from happening.

As a child I was raised a Catholic, and I remember well the story of Jesus scourging the money lenders from the temple for the sin of usury. If I had been raised a Moslem the concept of any interest rate would have been anathema- far more so these new vampire squids that feed and feed and make corporate merchant bankers models of restraint and probity by comparison.

The truth is that anyone with a moral compass will recognise these greedy pay day loan companies as deeply wrong. Why can’t we do something to stop them.

Nathaniel blogs more regularly at Frontline Hackney. He tweets from here

Sadiq Khan: Why Labour opposes votes for prisoners

by Newswire     November 22, 2012 at 2:30 pm

Commenting on today’s publication by the Government of a draft Bill on prisoner voting, Labour’s Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan MP sent out this statement.

We thought it may merit a discussion.

“Labour’s policy is, and always has been, that prisoners shouldn’t be given the vote. Committing a crime so serious that a judge has deprived you of your liberty means you should also lose the ability to vote in elections. We opposed the Tory-led Government’s previous plans to give all prisoners serving less than four years a vote because many serious and violent criminals would have been allowed to take part in elections.

“But we’re also mindful of our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, and the way it has protected human rights across Europe for over six decades. However, the Government wasted the chance to reform the Court during its recent Chairmanship of the Council of Europe. It failed to secure changes that would have led to the Court respecting the unique circumstances of each individual member country, and would have prevented the Court adjudicating on domestic social policy such as this.

“It is important that elected MPs have their say and that there is proper pre-legislative scrutiny of any Government proposals and so we will examine the details of the draft Bill published today. In order for MPs to come to a fully informed decision about prisoner voting, the Government should make public its legal advice so that all MPs are clear what the Court judgement actually wants us to do and what are the consequences of any actions we may take.”

Pro-Choice protests after Savita Halappanavar’s death

by Sarah McAlpine     November 14, 2012 at 3:39 pm


Feminist groups are organising pro-choice protests demanding a change in Irish abortion law following the death of Savita Halappanavar who died of septecimia after being denied an abortion that could have saved her life.

Although Doctors assessed that 17-week pregnant Savita was miscarrying, they were unable to remove the foetus for three days due to the presence of a heartbeat. Abortion is legal in Ireland if the mothers’ life is at risk due ruling in 2010 from the European Court of Human Rights. However, the Irish Government has so far failed to implement any legislation to reflect the court’s ruling.

The ordeal left Savita in agonising pain, and opened her cervix up to infection. When she and her husband begged doctors to terminate the pregnancy they were told “this is a Catholic country”. Although Savita eventually had the foetus removed from her womb, it was too late and she died from infection a few days later.

The Pro-choice Campaign (Ireland) is organising a protest in Savita’s name outside the Dail at 6pm this evening, demanding that the Government cease in delaying a change to the law. The group released a statement on their facebook page accusing the Irish government of being “content to kick the problem down the road or pretend it doesn’t exist.”

“We will no longer tolerate their delaying tactics. Women’s lives are in danger until we have this legislation.”

British feminists are also planning a protest in solidarity outside the Irish Embassy in London at 6pm.


This is why BBC contracts need to be scrutinised before a resignation

by Robert Sharp     November 11, 2012 at 11:17 pm

The BBC’s Director General has resigned after only 54 days in post. Now there is concern that his £450,000 ‘Golden Handshake’ is disproportionate.

These controversies are not new. The payouts to bankers like Sir Fred Goodwin are well known, as is the money paid to Amnesty International’s outgoing Secretary General Irene Khan.

Complaints at these payouts comes from both the Right and the Left, depending on the recipient. The outrage is usually met with calls for the institution in question to take measures to recover the money somehow.

I have never had much sympathy with such demands, which seek to shut the door after the horse has bolted. We live by the rule of law in this country, and contracts must be adhered to. Top executives tend to be quite adept at securing the right assurances and insurances in their contracts, should they be asked to leave early.

The time to be outraged about Golden Handshakes is before the contract is signed. Whenever a high profile appointment is made at a Ministry or Quango, conscientious citizens and civic minded members of the Fourth Estate should scrutinise the terms of the contract.

In particular, they should ask “what is the potential payout if this person is forced to resign due to mismanagement?” and “what is the payout if this person resigns after only 50 days in post?”

A routine public spotlight at this stage would serve to inhibit egregious terms in such contracts. It may also serve to explain the circumstances where a large payout would be appropriate.

As luck would have it, we’ll have the perfect opportunity to do this soon, when a new BBC Director General is appointed.

The police want a word about the names you call me

by Septicisle     October 12, 2012 at 9:30 am

Here’s something that really hasn’t been stressed enough: as deserved as the worldwide outcry was against the 2-year jail sentences for three members of Pussy Riot, that’s nothing compared to the 4-year stretches handed down to two young men in another authoritarian nation – namely our own.

These two men didn’t supposedly offend Orthodox sensibilities by performing their anti-Putin song in a church; all they did was set up pages on Facebook for events that didn’t take place. This was enough for the judge to describe what they did as an “evil act”.

Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan will now be over a quarter of the way through their sentences, and will hopefully be released before too much longer. As acts of stupidity go, theirs was fairly spectacular: setting up pages on Facebook advertising meeting places for riots during the hysteria of last year clearly was asking for trouble.

Nonetheless, no one turned up at either, and in Sutcliffe-Keenan’s case he always maintained it had been a joke that had badly backfired. For the two to be sentenced to terms far in excess of what others who actually took part in the riots received was an overreaction of quite staggering proportions. That their appeal against the length of their sentences was also rejected is a stain on the justice system.

Yet this week has seen two more such cases prosecuted, neither of which should have ever reached a court. Azhar Ahmed was more fortunate than Matthew Woods, although not by much. Earlier in the year Ahmed was moved in the aftermath of the deaths of four servicemen in Afghanistan to post an angry Facebook status update in which he said that “all soldiers should die and go to hell”.

Ahmed did not say that soldiers should be killed; and as the court presumably accepted, Ahmed afterwards apologised to those who responded to his update, saying that he hadn’t meant for anyone to be upset by it.

Despite all of this, Ahmed was convicted of sending a “grossly offensive” message, and was told by district judge Jane Goodwin that he had gone beyond the bounds of freedom of speech. He was ordered to perform 240 hours of community service over two years; by comparison, the TV presenter Justin Lee Collins was ordered this week to perform 140 hours of community service after he was found guilty of a prolonged campaign of harassment against his ex-girlfriend.

Undoubtedly worthy of less sympathy is Matthew Woods. Woods pleaded guilty earlier this week to sending a grossly offensive message after he was arrested “for his own safety”. Woods’ crime was to post jokes on his Facebook page about both April Jones and Madeleine McCann, one of which was described by magistrate Bill Hudson as “abhorrent”. This seems to be a reference to Woods’ show-stopping gag:

What’s the difference between Mark Bridger and Santa Claus? Mark Bridger comes in April.

If delivered on a stage, it would have been worthy of boos. Posted online during a search for a child, with all the emotions surrounding such a disappearance, Hudson decided it was worthy of three months in prison.

Only Woods’ early guilty plea prevented it from being for the full six months available under the law. Earlier the same day the court fined a man £100 and ordered him to pay £100 in compensation after he called a woman who had pulled up alongside him in her car a “fucking black cunt”.

No amount of seminars between Keir Starmer, lawyers and the social networks are going to make a difference when the law was drafted at a time when the closest thing to Facebook and Twitter were Friendster and Friends Reunited. It’s also ridiculous that the onus should be placed on the social networks themselves to police what is and isn’t “grossly offensive” or “menacing” when it should be down to users to not outrage themselves.

Judges now seem to believe that prison sentences are an appropriate punishment for saying or writing things that clearly do not incite hatred of any variety but which do hurt feelings is a sad indictment of what a petty, pathetic bunch many of us appear to have become.

Govt scales back protections against sexual harassment

by Sarah McAlpine     October 10, 2012 at 10:46 pm

The Government will be scaling back harassment protection in the workplace in a move women’s rights groups have said could “turn back time.”

In a bid to cut ‘red-tape’, employers will no longer be obliged to take steps to protect employees from harassment from third parties-such as customers. Under current legislation, reasonable steps are expected to be taken if an employee is repeatedly harassed in the work place.

The plans come during a week dominated by discussion of sexual harassment in the workplace- Janet Street-Porter, DJ Liz Kershaw and broadcaster Sandi Toksvig have all come forward with accounts of harassment and sexual assault whilst working for the BBC.

A 2012 survey of 3,400 women found that half of women had experienced ‘gendered harassment’ in the workplace.

Speaking to Liberal Conspiracy, Preethi Sundaram, Policy and Campaigns Manager for The Fawcett Society said “At a time when women’s workplace rights are already precarious, we cannot afford any risk of regression.”

“Employment regulation and protections against discrimination have been key drivers in giving women greater access to work and an independent income over the years – to put this on the bonfire would be to turn back time.”

The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill will also scrap what the Government is calling “needless beauracracy and out-of-date rules,” including a complete overhaul of the employment tribunal system.

Business Minister Jo Swinson said “clearing away barriers to help businesses grow and invest is an essential part of the Government’s plan for growth.”

“The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill will help strengthen the business environment and boost confidence.”

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