Weekly Notes: legal news from ICLR – 17 July

Posted on 20th Jul 2015 in Weekly Notes

This week’s roundup of legal news and events is brought to you from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where ICLR is showing at the annual conference of the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL). It sees both a President and a Lord Chancellor in jail; a parliamentary look at the latter’s role; and a barristerial vote for direct action that could scupper some of his plans. And we ask what has become of the rule of law in China, among other issues from overseas.

 

Gove in jail

Quotes Winston Churchill and urges reform

No government serious about building one nation, no minister concerned with greater social justice, can be anything other than horrified by our persistent failure to reduce re-offending.

In a speech entitled “The treasure in the heart of man – making prisons work” Lord Chancellor Michael Gove set out his plans for what he described as carrying on the good work on prison reform and prisoner rehabilitation already begun by his predecessors, Ken Clarke and Chris Grayling, but in reality seemed like quite a bit of fresh thinking.

He identified overcrowding and poor conditions as major evils and vowed to build new, better prisons out of town (where land is cheaper) and raising money from selling valuable in-town sites for redevelopment to help pay for it. So somewhere like Pentonville could soon become a luxury apartment block or office complex.

He also identified education as a key factor in both the reasons why people end up in prison (bad education and upbringing) and how to stop them returning through reoffending.

And he said he would like to give the governors of prisons more autonomy to manage the work of rehabilitation. This seems to mark a stepping away from the intensely hands-on top-down management of the Grayling years.

Our streets will not be safer, our children will not be properly protected and our future will not be more secure unless we change the way we treat offenders and offenders then change their lives for the better. There is a treasure, if only you can find it, in the heart of every man, said Churchill. It is in that spirit we will work.

Office of Lord Chancellor under scrutiny

House of Lords hearing

In a motion by Lord Lang of Monkton, the House was urged to take note of Report of the Constitution Committee on The Office of Lord Chancellor (6th Report, Session 2014–15, HL Paper 75). You can read the debate in Hansard here.

Lord Lang (who is chair of the Constitution Committee) pointed out that the rule of law is “perhaps the single most important characteristic of a democratic nation”. The recent statement by the current holder of the post, Michael Gove, that it was the “most important thing I need to defend in this job—at all costs” was welcomed as

“a most encouraging departure from the disappointing response we had on this point from the coalition Government, and I hope that it augurs well for the future.”

For coalition government, read Gove’s predecessor, Chris Grayling, whose respect for the rule of law was, on more than one occasion, questioned in court.

CBA votes for action

Criminal barristers support protest against legal aid cuts

The Criminal Bar Association issued the following statement on 16 July:

  1. The members of the CBA have voted to take action against the latest cut in legal aid fees by adopting no returns and not taking instructions in cases in which representation orders were granted on or after 01/07/2015.
  1. The Executive Committee recognises that the vote represents the will of the CBA’s members, and it has therefore decided to put in place a protocolto ensure that those taking action comply with their professional obligations. It is recommended that the action starts on 27/07/15 to give time for full compliance with this protocol. However, those individuals or chambers that have already complied with the protocol are free to begin on any earlier date.
  1. Each member of the executive committee has independently agreed to abide by this protocol. It is of course a matter for individuals to decide whether they wish to take part in this action.
  1. The executive committee expects that members will respect those not taking part, and likewise those not taking part will not seek to take unfair advantage of those who are.
  1. At the same time as the action, discussions will continue with the MOJ and the relevant solicitors’ bodies.

For background to this story, see Weekly Notes for the last couple of weeks, eg here.

 

New: Family Solutions Court

Jude Altman launches new initiative for early resolution

A new initiative by His Honour Judge John Altman, Senior Designated Family Judge for London at the Central Family Court, was launched on 16 July. Called the Solutions Court (FSC), is is aimed at

“[reducing] the number of contested hearings necessary in many private law applications to the court, and to create a structure for those families who need help in managing their disputes around the living arrangements for their children.”

Grouped together on the same floor, the components of the FSC in Holborn, London, are:

  • The new ‘Time Together’Contact Centre.
  • The ‘pro bono’scheme.
  • Mediation and MIAMS (Mediation Information and Assessment Meetings)
  • The Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) itself.
  • The Personal Support Unit (PSU).
  • The Separated Parents Information Programme (SPIPS).

Judge Altman has written about the initiative in the latest issue of Family Law, due out in August.

 

Gone but not forgotten

Carol Ellis QC CBE who worked for ICLR from 1951 to 1995, and was Editor of the Law Reports from 1970 to 1995, has died.

She was responsible for setting a high standard of professionalism in law reporting, and for a policy of selectivity in choosing to report only those cases which fell clearly within the strict criteria of “reportability” – essentially only those cases which changed or clarified the law.

Cutting a somewhat formidable figure, more respected than liked, she was generally known as “Miss Ellis”. Under her management, the reporters who worked for her were encouraged to regard their task as a profession in its own right, and were paid accordingly. In earlier times it had been common for many reporters to work on a freelance and ad hoc basis, often while establishing themselves as barristers. She preferred to have full time reporters who were wholly dedicated to the task, and thus fostered a professionalism that may have been lacking in earlier times. Her approach did alienate some reporters, and was seen by others as unnecessarily stringent. However, her contribution to the world of law reporting was undeniable. She also took in hand and vastly improved the management of the Consolidated Index (the “Red Index”), which remains a popular print product notwithstanding the drift to online ease and utility.

 

Law (and injustice) around the world

 

Bahrain

Freedom of expression under threat

Insulting the King, the country’s flag and institutions or even a foreign country can lead to seven years’ imprisonment in Bahrain. One activist, Zainab Al-Khawaja, faces three years in prison for tearing apart a picture of the King. Another, Nabeel Rajab was sentenced in January to six months for ‘insulting public institutions (Ministries of Interior and Defense)’ on Twitter and is currently arrested on a separate investigation. Student and son of a POC Ahmad Mshaima is now serving a one year prison sentence for reading a poem considered offensive to the King. The list goes on, with tens of prisoners of conscience continuing to be held behind bars since 2011 for peacefully expressing dissent.

Amnesty International point to these and other cases and urge readers to sign a petition to Protect Freedom of Expression in Bahrain.

 

China

If lawyers in China have no human rights, is there a rule of law?

This is the question asked in a guest post on the Fair Trials website. It explains how a system of annual registration, designed to maintain standards, is abused to hinder the activities of lawyers who take on cases sensitive to the authorities, whose registration may be suspended, or who may be disbarred. Moreover, law firms may be pressurised to terminate (unlawfully) the employment of troublemaking lawyers. The number of lawyers whose careers have been interfered with in these ways has apparently tripled in the last year. And it has the knock-on effect of suppressing access to genuine justice for anyone who might have sought help from such lawyers, others (more compliant to the authorities) being less likely to take up their cases.

The China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group has a list of lawyers who are unable to practice.

In the last week, both the Law Society and and the Bar Human Rights Committee have written to China to express their concern about the treatment of lawyers, especially human rights lawyers, including mass arrests, in the latest crackdown.

Crackdown fuelled by terror fears

China’s crackdown seems to be driven by a fear of instability – both in relation to the financial markets, following a turbulent correction in values (prompting temporary legislative intervention to prevent market forces operating freely); and in relation to the threat of unrest, classified as “terrorism”, in the mainly muslim western provinces.

In the case of the latter, there have been terrorist incidents, which helps account for the nervousness of the authorities and their attempt to reassert control by means of a crackdown on all forms of protest or criticism, including complaints by legal representatives on behalf of victims of oppression.

In Xinjiang province, residents were ordered to surrender their passports or have them cancelled, in a policy of restricting movement of members of ethnic minorities, ostensibly to prevent terrorist incidents and unrest. According to the New York Times, Chinese officials expressed the fear that some Uighurs, who are mostly Moslem, are adopting and fostering a jihadist ideology.

In Inner Mongolia, 20 tourists from Britain, India and South Africa were recently detained at an airport after being arrested on charges of watching a terrorist video – in fact they had been watching a historical film about Genghis Khan, the 13th century warrior, as part of their sight-seeing tour. An “unfortunate misunderstandings” was said to have been the cause of the problem, but this is not the first time local officials have found themselves out of their depth when attempting to crack down on genuine terror issues.

A new criminal law submitted last month to China’s rubber-stamp parliament widens the list of activities which can be defined as “terrorism”, state media said, according to a report in ABC news.

 

India

Woman “set on fire by police”

In Uttar Pradesh a woman, who claimed in a dying declaration that she had been set on fire by two policeman, has died. She further attested that the reason for them setting her on fire was her refusal to pay them a bribe to release her spouse.

According to a report in The Independent, The two officers in question have since been suspended, although both policemen insist that, in a state of anger, the woman set fire to herself. There will now be an official inquiry. But for many commentators this was yet another example of how women’s lives and safety are simply not valued by officialdom, especially the police.

This incident has come barely a month after a journalist, Jagendra Singh, was reportedly burned alive after publishing allegations of corruption and land grabs online against a local politician, added the Independent.

 

USA

President in jail

Just like the British Lord Chancellor, the American President, Barack Obama, could not resist a trip to jail to see the inside of cell life for himself. In fact, with his visit this week, he became the first occupant of his high office to visit a federal correctional facility. Speaking afterwards, he echoed some observations he made a few days earlier at the annual conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) in Pennsylvania Convention Center, Philadelphia on 16 July (ie a few days before the AALL conference which we are currently attending). He said:

The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.  Think about that.  Our incarceration rate is four times higher than China’s.  We keep more people behind bars than the top 35 European countries combined.

The main cause of this was the massive increase in incarceration of nonviolent offenders for minor drug crimes in response to political pressure for mandatory and minimum sentencing. There was also prejudice towards black and Latino offenders. He called instead for better use of taxpayers’ money, to improve education and prevention of crime. In other words, a lot like the sort of things Michael Gove was saying (see above). You can read the full text of the President’s NAACP remarks here.

Obama in jail

 

That’s it for now. Enjoy the week ahead, and check for any updates in the next day or two.

 

This post was written by Paul Magrath, Head of Product Development and Online Content at ICLR. It does not necessarily represent any views of ICLR as an organisation.