Annual Notes 2015: review of the year

Posted on 16th Jan 2016 in Weekly Notes

A survey of themes and variations in the major legal news and developments of the past twelve months, including the anniversaries of Magna Carta and the ICLR, the general election, the legal implications of the war on terror, and some of the year’s more newsworthy cases.

Paris attacks and the “terror dividend”

Paris evenementThe year was bookended by horrific terror attacks in Paris. On 7 January gunmen broke into the offices of the French satirical comic, Charlie Hebdo, and shot dead 12 cartoonists and writers. Soon afterwards, in a hold-up at a Jewish supermarket, another 5 lost their lives. The awful sense of dread these attacks engendered returned to the streets of Paris eleven months later, on Friday 13th November, when an even more devastating burst of attacks occurred, including a mass-shooting at a rock concert at the Bataclan theatre in the district of Saint-Denis, attempted bombing of a sports stadium and shootings in crowded cafes and restaurants, altogether claiming another 130 innocent lives. Responsibility for both series of attacks was claimed by representatives of the self-styled Islamic State (aka ISIL, ISIS, Daesh etc).

These events prompted three strands of legal flavoured discussion over the course of the year.

Limits on freedom of expression

The first, following almost immediately from the Charlie Hebdo attack. related to the freedom of expression. Had the satirical magazine gone too far? Were there actually limits to the offence you could cause? Did freedom of speech, however absolute, not come with responsibilities, one of which might be not to offend minorities to the point of inciting a major outbreak of violence?

We covered the debate in Weekly Notes on 16 January.

Stepping up surveillance

The second discussion was about prevention, and whether the securities services should have more powers to to intercept and scrutinise internet communications. This was a demand, and a debate, that continued to rumble for the rest of the year, feeding into discussions about the Investigatory Powers Bill when that came along (see Weekly Notes 6 November 2015).

In a post on Wired on 23 January (Charlie Hebdo and the Security State), Julia Powles observed that:

“the way that the tragedy has been co-opted by politicians,
securocrats, and organs of the media, particularly in the service of indiscriminate surveillance and discriminate censorship, shows nothing short of rank hypocrisy”.

Not the least part of that hypocrisy was demonstrated by the many foreign heads of state who came to Paris and made sure they were photographed prominently taking part in a show of solidarity with the people of the city, in a mass-rally on 11 January to mourn the departed with the slogan “Je suis Charlie”. Some were heads of states whose record on human rights and the protection of freedom of expression was of very dubious value, and many seemed intent on harnessing the tragedy for political convenience. As the speech-bubble cover of Private Eye on 23 January put it, “Je sui Charlatan” would have been more accurate. (Cover image via In The Dark blog).

As for the need for more security powers, the riposte was well made by Paul Bernal at the time, that France already had most of the powers demanded in the UK, and it hadn’t managed to prevent the Charlie Hebdo attack. Later in the year, Bernal was invited to give evidence to a specially convened Draft Investigatory Powers Bill Select Committee and subsequently sent written submissions essentially arguing that

it is hard to conclude that all of the powers sought are necessary,
uncertain that they are legal, likely that many of them are neither
workable nor carefully defined, and unclear whether they are
sufficiently supervised.

Drones and bombing

The third strain of legal dialogue which the Paris terror attacks spawned came later in the year, with arguments about the legality of military operations within the geographical borders of what technically remains the country of Syria. Here, there were two perhaps related developments.

There was the “elimination” by remotely-operated military drone, of “most wanted” terrorists within a part of Syria occupied by Islamic State which led to a discussion about the legality of the killing, some calling it “extra-judicial killing” or “assassination” and others (including the Attorney General) defending it as a legitimate form of self-defence within the terms of article 51 of the UN Charter. In fact two men were killed, both We covered this discussion in Weekly Notes on 11 September 2015 (coincidentally the 14th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York where all this “war on terror” stuff began).

Then, in December, Parliament debated and took a (free) vote on whether to support a decision to extend airstrikes against ISIS into Syria. (Such airstrikes were already taking place within Iraq in support of Iraqi forces, at their request.) The vote was largely a foregone conclusion, but it was significant because of the speeches given, both in support and against, for the fact that the vote appears to have been largely free and not driven or riven along party lines, and because it reversed a previous parliamentary vote against military action within Syria, albeit against the governing forces of the president, Bashar al-Assad, in 2013.

The Great Magna Carta Sellout Superversary

magnacarta_2633255k

Oh well, it’ll never last.

The year 2015 was, of course, the year of two great anniversaries, the first and biggest of which was the 800th anniversary (or octocentenary) of Magna Carta, the great charter sealed by King John in 1215. There was some debate, even in judicial circles, (including a fabulously sceptical speech by Lord Sumption, along with notable contributions by Lord Judge and Lord Neuberger), as to the actual long term legal effect of whatever remained of the original agreement with the barons, but most people accepted that the spirit of it still inspired the law (particularly the idea of the king not being above the law), even if there were no actual black letter provisions that still mattered much: see, generally, Weekly Notes 12 June 2015.

The government chose to celebrate the Magna Carta anniversary in two ways. First, by holding a Global Law Summit, promoting the United Kingdom as a place to do business because of its excellent legal system (the same legal system currently under attack from legal aid cuts and ramped up court fees). Perhaps because of uncertainty over the result of the general election in May, the government chose to hold the Summit in February, rather than in June, the actual month of the anniversary. “The rank stench of moral hypocrisy will hang over the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre,” Peter Oborne commented in a piece in the Telegraph entitled The hypocrites have jumped aboard the Magna Carta bandwagon, pointing out that:

Mr Cameron’s Government has launched something close to an out-and-out attack on the rule of law. The idea that either he or his ministers give a damn for the principles that underlie Magna Carta is preposterous.

This was largely the message being expressed by the Justice Allianceby way of a counter-event, Not The Global Law Summit, following a march from Runnymede to Westminster timed to coincide with the government’s legal business love-in. (See Weekly Notes 16 January 2015.)

Human rights rethink

The other way the government (particularly the majority conservative element in the coalition) sought to mark the anniversary of Magna Carta was by proposing to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and replace it with something called a British Bill of Rights. The proposals, encouraged by constant criticism in the right wing press, were eventually incorporated in the Conservative party’s manifesto for the General Election (see below). They continued to be discussed for the rest of the year.

Among the many people and organisations rallying to the defence of the HRA, the most elegant and impressive was the launch on 21 April 2015 of Rights Info, the brainchild of Adam Wagner, a public law barrister practising at One Crown Office Row chambers, and already editor of its widely read UK Human Rights Blog. (Reviewed on this blog in Weekly Notes 24 April 2015.)

The determination of the “repealers” was more than demonstrated by Martin Howe QC in a debate hosted by the International Bar Association at Gray’s Inn in September (see Human Rights: Can We Go It Alone?) in which his opponent, Sir Keir Starmer QC, MP, defending the HRA, was forced to concede that, as Howe rather colourfully put it later, “the Human Rights Act is toast”, at least in its present form.

However, the year expired without anyone having seen the long-promised draft Bill intended to replaced the HRA, though the Sunday Times claimed in November to have seen such a draft: see, on this blog, British Bill of Rights (Sunday Times edition.

General election

We published a roundup of all the main parties’ manifestoes before the election, highlighting their proposals for legal aid, human rights and the justice system generally. The only party actually promising to restore the budget already cut for legal aid was the Green Party, but UKIP had some interesting proposals for family justice (to which their only successful MP, Douglas Carswell has subsequently drawn more attention) and the Conservatives made much of their plans (see above) for redrawing the boundaries on human rights, making them essentially a domestic benefit, based on responsible entitlement, rather than something universally enjoyed regardless of race, creed or moral standing.

The Liberal Democrats, who were all but wiped out in the election, had promised by contrast a “Digital Bill of Rights” to protect citizens’ online privacy rights and a stronger version of the Freedom of Information Act – both proposals have been more than countered by current Tory policies.

Labour’s manifesto was overshadowed by discussion of its leader, whose ernest floundering will be regretted by many in a party whose new leader comes from a very different and perhaps more genuinely (pre-Blairite, pre-Kinnockite) socialist tradition, viz Jeremy Corbyn.

The result of the election was perhaps not as surprising as the fact that it was hopelessly wrongly called by the advance polls, and demonstrated facts about the effects of biased media coverage and the extent of voters’ (often unexpressed) inclination to cling to nanny for fear of something worse.

The election also marked the end of a brief era of coalition politics, which had begun rather hopefully in 2010 with the idea of consensual cooperation, but had descended into bickering and in-fighting and by the end of its five-year fixed term had become a Tory government in all but name and a few token bits of policy.

The length of the government’s term and the date of the election were the result of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011, whose wisdom was called into question by Carl Gardner in his book, What a Fix-Up!: The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 which was reviewed on this blog. This came out shortly before the election and would have been more useful and relevant had there been no clear winner and a further wrangling over the formation of a coalition. Nevertheless, it should still be read by all students of constitutional law, not least for its clear explanation of how the system worked before the Act came into force.

A new man at the Ministry

The Prime Minister celebrated his election victory by organising a reshuffle of his cabinet posts, in the course of which the Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling, was replaced by Michael Gove (Weekly Notes 8 May 2015). Lawyers extended a cautious welcome to the new incumbent of the woolsack, but it was not long before their caution gave way to a sort of hope. Though Gove is, like Grayling, a non-lawyer, he soon demonstrated a very different mindset. Less combative, more conciliatory, and apparently much more inclined to proceed on the basis of evidence rather than media pressure and prejudice.

To the delight of many commentators, he soon set about reversing many of Grayling’s cherished policies. These included

  • New approach to prisoner rehabilitation, giving prison governors more autonomy and focusing more on education rather than “earning” privileges to reduce reoffending
  • reversing the ban on sending books to prisoners, for which Grayling had become notorious.
  • shutting down the MOJ’s commercial arm, Just Solutions International (JSI), designed to peddle penal system knowhow to foreign governments
  • eventually even stopping a JSI project to conduct a “training needs analysis” for the Saudi prison service.
  • finally abandoning the Criminal Courts Charge, implemented in the dying days of the Coalition government, under which convicted defendants must pay a fee for their use of the court, which is higher if they pleaded not guilty, thus pressuring them to plead guilty instead.

The one area where Gove has found himself constrained by the policies already implemented by his predecessors (not just Grayling but also Kenneth Clarke) was funding for legal aid and proposals to shakeup the way legally aided criminal work is assigned to solicitors’ firms. This resulted in continued action (or inaction) by groups of lawyers and, following a somewhat fiasco-fuelled tender process, litigation against the Legal Aid Agency over its handling of the award of “duty provider contracts” in respect of police station work.

His suggestion that big City firms of solicitors should “do more” by way of pro bono and top firms should pay a levy to help support legal aid did not go down too well either.

It was perhaps not very surprising that the year ended with a survey showing “Britons lack faith in justice system” – Counsel Mag Jan 16 p 8.

Family law

The big theme this year in Family Law has been transparency, driven in part by the President, Sir James Munby’s agenda to open up the family courts to public scrutiny and avoid the oft-rehearsed complaints of the media about “secretive” courts doing justice (or the opposite) “behind closed doors”.

Not everyone is convinced about the transparency agenda, but those of us who set up the Transparency Project certainly are. This team of family bloggers, practitioners and legal commentators, including the present writer, has consistently championed openness and clarity – not just in the law courts but also in the relationships between parents, social workers, local authorities, experts and the lawyers on all sides. The website was set up in 2014, but this year the organisation acquired charitable status and began to expand its activities.

In February we reported that some of its members had been instrumental in setting up the Family Court Information website for the Bristol, Gloucester and Bath area. The site provides answers to frequently asked questions, such as “What alternatives are there to court?”, “I don’t understand how courts work” and “I need support at court” which bewildered people with no previous experience of the family justice system may need to ask, as well as more sophisticated information about claiming legal aid, using online resources, approaching organisations who help Litigants in Person, and so forth.

In June the Transparency Project hosted a one-day multi-disciplinary conference in London, entitled Is the child protection system fit for purpose? After an introduction by retired family judge Sir Mark Hedley, the day’s sessions covered a variety of topics related to child protection and the relationship between parents, social workers and experts. The delegates included lawyers, academics, social workers, parents and adoptive parents, and care-leavers who shared their knowledge and experiences of the child protection system with a view to discussing how it might be improved from everyone’s perspective. We reported on this in Weekly Notes on 5 June and there is a more detailed write up on the Transparency Project’s own blog.

One of the anxieties that emerged from the conference was over the recording (covert or otherwise) of meetings between parents and social workers. For some parents, this was a way of preventing their views being misrepresented by social workers; but for social workers it felt like evidence of a breakdown of trust. To help all parties understand the implications, the Transparency Project produced a guide, Parents recording social workers: a guidance note for parents and professionals which we discussed in Weekly Notes on 18 December. Since then the Transparency Project has been working on other guides, including one on the use of section 20 of the Children Act 1989 and one on attending and reporting family cases and those involving children.

One case which strongly demonstrated the practical value of transparency this year was that of the so-called “runaway mum”, Rebecca Minnock, which broke in June. After a judge had ordered that her 3-year-old son should reside with his father, she took the boy on the run, helped by family members and friends, after which a more senior judge, HHJ Wildblood QC enlisted the help of the press in tracking her down, publishing a series of judgments and encouraging the media to report them. Eventually Minnock handed herself in and the child was returned to his father. For a fuller report of what happened, plus a discussion on the virtues of transparency, see Weekly Notes 12 June.

The Transparency Project blog has explained and demystified cases like this, as well as taking to task those in the media (such as Christopher Booker in The Telegraph and pieces in the Daily Mail which have benefited from quotations obtained from “campaigner” and former Lib Dem MP John Hemming) who, while complaining about “secret” courts, ignore the judgments which are published and rely instead on the biased views of interested (usually disappointed) or agenda-driven parties. See, for example, this by Lucy Reed on a mis-reading of the Minnock case: When journalists ignore source material it is public debate which pays the price.

Intellectual property

The year was a busy one for the music biz, always among the best customers of legal services.

On 23 January Weekly Notes reported that the Court of Appeal ( Fenty v Arcadia [2015] EWCA Civ 3) had affirmed Birss J’s decision in Rihanna’s passing off action against Top Shop, enabling her to keep her injunction preventing the high street retailer from using an unauthorised image of the singer on their tatty-looking T-shirts, which was (said Kitchin LJ) damaging to the goodwill of her business.

taylor-swift_1862006bIn February we reported that Taylor Swift (right) had filed several applications to register trademarks drawn from lyrics to songs in her top selling album 1989, including phrases like “This sick beat” “Nice to Meet You. Where You Been?,” “Could Show You Incredible Things,” and “Party Like It’s 1989” (the latter, surely, more than a passing tribute to The Artists Formerly Known As, who once urged us to “Party like it’s 1999”). By trademarking these terms TS was not preventing the rest of us from using them in everyday speech, or even as song titles or lyrics – only from using them to exploit a product competing with one that TS herself is promoting under the same mark, explained John Scruton of Trademarkology (see Weekly Notes 20 February).

In March we reported that Miss Swift had applied to purchase a number of URLs based on new generic Top Level Domain names (gTLD) such as .porn and .adult. As with her applications for trade marks, it seems it was as much (if not rather more) to prevent others misusing or exploiting the rights as to exploit them herself. So don’t go looking for raunchy content on websites like TaylorSwift.adult or Swifty.porn. (No, I haven’t even tried.)

In October, a rival musician, Jesse Braham (aka Jesse Graham) had the temerity to file a lawsuit against the divine Miss Swift, suggesting 92% of her song “Shake it Off” on the 1989 album was based on his song “Haters Gonna Hate” and claiming $42 million in compensation. As we reported in Weekly Notes on 13 November the judge, United States District Court Judge Gail Standish, later struck out the claim for want of evidence to substantiate his case. In doing so, she rather betrayed her fandom of the feisty star by quoting some of Swift’s lyrics in her ruling, as many media reports were quick to point out in goofy prose veering from bad to verse.

This year also witnessed another chapter in that remarkable battle of the bands over the names of two rival ukulele orchestras, as reported in Weekly Notes on 3 July. In The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain v Clausen and Another (t/a The United Kingdom Ukulele Orchestra) [2015] EWHC 1772 (IPEC) (02 July 2015), Judge Hacon rejected a claim by the longer established claimants that the more recently formed defendants’ band had infringed a Community Trade Mark based on the name The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, finding in the defendants’ favour that the mark was invalidly registered, largely for want of distinctiveness, acquired or otherwise, and he also rejected a claim for breach of copyright, but he did uphold a claim based on passing off.

Fans of PG Wodehouse would no doubt recommend not just a change of name but of instrumentation. Surely the time has come for a Banjolele Orchestra of Great Britain? (Thank you, Jeeves.) (No, that was a citation.)

Criminal Law

For a full survey of developments in criminal case law, see by Daniel Hoadley on this blog, Criminal Law – 2015 Case Law Review.

One case that prompted public discussion over the course of the year was that of Lord (Greville) Janner, the elderly barrister and Labour peer, and the question of whether he was fit to plead and be tried for historic offences of child sexual abuse. Even his death did not seem to stop calls for a “trial of the facts” to assuage the disappointment of his alleged victims, although it is hard to see how facts can be ascertained in a proceeding in which one side is incapable of mounting a fully-informed and rational challenge.

In April we reported the decision of Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions, that Janner, would not now be prosecuted for historic sex offences, by reason of his mental incapacity to plead. The decision was greeted by howls of protest from some and an almost equal number of commentators supporting her decision (if not always her manner of going about it).

Then, in July, we reported that the Crown Prosecution Service had announced that Lord Janner would now, after all, face criminal proceedings for alleged historic sexual offences.This followed a review of the case by David Perry QC under the recently introduced CPS Victims’ Right to Review scheme, which allows victims to have their cases looked at again, no matter who in the CPS made the original decision not to prosecute. The u-turn predictably prompted yet further salvos of pro and anti commentary, some of which we linked to. But the saga was not over yet.

After a decision by the magistrate in August that Janner was fit enough to attend an initial hearing for the case to be sent for trial in the Crown Court, there was a challenge by way of judicial review, which was rejected by the Divisional Court in R (Janner) v Westminster Magistrates Court [2015] EWHC 2578 (Admin), and the case was duly sent to the Central Criminal Court. There, in December, Mr Justice Openshaw ruled, finally, that Janner was not fit to plead to the indictment or to be tried upon the indictment: see R v Janner (unreported) 7 December 2015, CCC.

Then, on 19 December, it was announced that Lord Janner had died. Despite this, the CPS did not immediately cancel plans for a trial of the facts to proceed in his absence. Arguably, his non-participation was not affected by death as opposed to unfitness to plead, but there seemed to many something rather ghoulish in essentially trying a ghost for crimes alleged to have happened long ago: why not hold such trials in relation to other dead figures, such as Jimmy Savile, Judge Jeffreys or Cecil Rhodes?

The Crown Prosecution Services announced that the matter would be resolved when the case returned to court, which it has since done. On 15 January 2016, Openshaw J accepted the Crown’s statement that the law provided no circumstances whereby a dead defendant could face a trial, even a trial of the facts, and ruled “There is nothing more to be said. That’s the end of the proceedings, that the defendant is dead.” (BBC report)

Further commentary:

See also, generally: the UK Criminal Law blog which was set up to address inaccurate reports of criminal cases in the press, the lack of public understanding of the criminal justice system and the number of unlawful sentences handed out by the courts. Its explanations of high-profile criminal cases, and other information about the criminal justice system.

Foreign news

Most editions of Weekly Notes including a section at the end discussing, in alphabetical order by country, matters of “law (and injustice) around the world”. The country most notably (and notoriously) discussed in 2015 was…

Saudi Arabia

Lots of countries impose the death penalty, but not all of them impose it on children. Lots of countries like to silence their critics, but they don’t resort to flogging them within or beyond an inch of their lives. Lots of countries enjoy a somewhat amoral mutual defence cooperation stance with the UK, but in no case is the deal more questionable than in that of Saudi Arabia, to whom we sell far more arms than we keep for our own military, and on whom we are therefore dependent for hundreds if not thousands of defence industry jobs. And for lots of countries the UK is prepared to turn a bit of a Nelson eye, and pretend not to see things the liberal press might make a bit of a fuss about, but in few cases are the things overlooked quite as egregious as in the case of Saudi Arabia.

At the time of writing, it appears that UK military personnel are in the control rooms of Saudi forces helping to target attacks against rebel forces in Yemen – attacks that have resulted in direct hits against hospitals run by MSF and other civilian/ humanitarian targets. They are supposedly there to provide “best practice” advice – perhaps on how to avoid hitting humanitarian organisations. Perhaps their presence has helped avoid worse tragedies. But it looks bad, all the same. It lends comfort to the wrong party. If UK forces are involved at all, it should be in efforts to broker and keep some sort of peace.

The year began with a somewhat comical suggestion – though the comedy is pretty bleak in view of what it says about the level of prejudice and repression in both the countries involved. The suggestion – rejected without (one hopes) too much serious consideration – was that Saudi Arabia could host the Olympics with neighbouring Bahrain and hold men’s and women’s events in separate countries. “A commitment to ‘non-discrimination’ will be mandatory for all countries hoping to bid for the Olympics in the future,” said Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee.

If only the same steely resolve could have been applied by the United Nations to the question of selecting a suitable nation to head its Panel on Human Rights. But no, with the support of the UK, the nation chosen as most suitable to take a lead among the nations on the question of human rights was none other than Saudi Arabia.

Following the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, and that glorious solidarity march of all the nations (see above), one of the magazine’s surviving cartoonists Renald ‘Luz’ Luzier expressed his sadness at the hypocrisy when

“All of a sudden, Saudi Arabia says, ‘I am Charlie’, but it is not. They are not Charlie when they put a blogger in jail and whip him….It makes me really sad.”

The blogger they put in jail is, of course, Raif Badawi, sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for criticising the country’s clerics through his liberal blog. His fate has been the subject of a tireless campaign by Amnesty International, among others. The case has given rise to diplomatic interventions, with the German vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel saying that it was “unfathomable to us and that it will of course strain bilateral ties”, and Sweden choosing to cancel an arms export deal worth €37m after the Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström was allegedly prevented from making a speech at an Arab League meeting, in which she had planned to stress women’s and human rights. (as reported in Weekly Notes 13 March)

Raif Badawi’s case was by no means the only one to attract attention. In February we also reported (Weekly Notes 20 February) that a Saudi court had upheld the sentencing of Waleed Abu al-Khair, a human rights lawyer, to 15 years’ imprisonment for charges including “inciting public opinion”. (He happens, incidentally, to be Raif Badawi’s lawyer and brother-in-law, which no doubt was not considered a mitigating factor in his sentencing.)

In Weekly Notes on 6 March we reported that the female victim of a violent gang rape had been sentenced by a Saudi Arabian court to 200 lashes and six months in jail for the crimes of “speaking to the press” and “indecency”. This tendency to blame the victim, particularly female victims of sexual offences, is by no means restricted to Saudi Arabia, but while western nations cannot pretend their treatment of sex crime victims is anything like perfect, it does seem to be worse under those professing a Sharia tradition. In this particular case the woman, who was not accompanied by the requisite male guardian when she went to meet her friend, was convicted of violating the Kingdom’s religious diktats on segregation of the sexes and sentenced to 90 lashes. The rapists who took the opportunity to attack her were given lenient custodial sentences.

In Weekly Notes on 22 May we reported that such was the demand for the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom had resorted to advertising for executioners, coyly describing the job as one of “religious functionary”.

In June the Saudi embassy in London was so incensed by all the criticism of its human rights record that it issued a formal statement,reported here on 12 June saying

The Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia wishes to state that it has no
tolerance for foreign entities meddling in the Kingdom’s internal
affairs. The Kingdom will not tolerate such outrageous, ridiculous
interference in its sovereign criminal justice system.

Later the same month, we reported that as a result of pressure by the Saudi embassy in Kuwait City on the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Kuwait, the Kuwaiti courts had prosecuted Saleh al-Saeed, a blogger, for a series of tweets he posted criticising Saudi Arabia, for which he was sentenced to a six-year prison ter. Since December 2014, Kuwaiti authorities have charged at least five other people with insulting Saudi Arabia or its ruling family.

In Weekly Notes on 25 September we reported that the Saudi courts had imposed a death sentence on Ali Mohammed al-Nimr for an offence committed when he was 17 years old, apparently for taking part in an anti-government protest. His sentence was due to be carried out by beheading and crucifixion, a method that involves removing the head of the prisoner and tying their headless body to a cross.

This occurred shortly after Saudi Arabia was welcomed by the US and other nations as the new head of the UN Human Rights Committee.

In October the Saudi Ambassador once again sought to influence public opinion by complaining querulantly of the negative coverage of the kingdom’s human rights record, in a letter to the Daily Telegraph pointing out the risk of jeopardising the existing cooperation between the two kingdoms on intelligence and anti-terror protection. It was a veiled threat. He said “Just as we respect the local traditions, customs, laws and religion of Britain, we expect Britain to grant us this same respect”. But it’s hard to respect a “tradition” that seems, to our eyes, simply barbaric. As more than one commentator has pointed out, it’s actually quite hard to tell the difference between the way ISIS applies Sharia law punishments and the way Saudi Arabia (or for that matter the Republic of Iran) though the latter are recognised national governments: see Weekly Notes 27 November for more on this discussion.

But finally, at the end of the year, there did come a bit of good news. In municipal elections held on 12 December 2015, women were allowed to vote and run for office for the first time, and a number of women were duly elected. See Weekly Notes 11 December.

Raif Badawi remains, however, under sentence of imprisonment and with 950 lashes still to be performed. And the year 2016 began badly with a mass of executions (47 in one day) carried out in Saudi Arabia, including one of a Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, that has caused a rift in diplomatic relations with Iran. At least 157 people were put to death in Saudi Arabia in the course of 2015, which was the highest number since 1995 when 192 people were executed, according toMiddle Eastern Eye.

And finally…

I mentioned there were two big anniversaries. As well as the octocentenary for Magna Carta, there was also ICLR’s sesquicentenary, or 150th anniversary, which we celebrated in style with a talk by Lord Neuberger at Lincoln’s Inn Great Hall, discussing the Top Fifteen casesvoted for by you, the readers of this blog, in the earlier part of the year. The selection was made into a book, prefaced by the Lord Chief Justice and with a collection of essays about law reports and the history of law reporting. For more details, see this page.

It only remains for me to wish everyone a happy and prosperous, and above all legal, 2016.

This post was written by Paul Magrath, Head of Product Development and Online Content at ICLR, who also tweets as @maggotlaw. It does not necessarily represent the opinions of ICLR as an organisation. Comments welcome on Twitter @TheICLR.