Tag Archives: law

Justice, though the heavens fall

I was lucky, or unlucky depending on your perspective, to begin my legal training when it was considered Quite The Thing for everyone involved to know a little Latin. Quoting the correct words at the judge at the correct time would demonstrate that you knew your stuff and were one of the gang. Latin maxims and terms were scattered through the language of law degrees like Roman coins in the English countryside.

Thankfully saner counsel prevailed and, by the time I started venturing into courtrooms, Latin had been put to one side in favour of a legal process where the non-lawyers might stand a chance of understanding what the heck was going on. Most of the maxims I had learned gradually slipped out of my head through lack of use. But there is one phrase that stuck, although I doubt I could give you the correct pronunciation. It is this:

Fiat justitia ruat caelum

and it means, ‘let justice be done, though the heavens fall’, neatly summing up that right must prevail and damn the consequences. In a battle between procedural correctness and what is morally right, the latter should always win. Throughout history, commonly during the anti-slavery and civil rights movements in the UK and US, judges have invoked these words to give legitimacy to their actions when doing something the rulebook forbids, but which can be universally accepted as right.

These words apply perfectly to the Hillsborough inquests and the families’ long fight for justice.

The inquests relating to the deaths of the Hillsborough victims (at the time numbering 95 people, as 22-year-old Anthony Bland was still on life-support) were initially delayed while the Taylor Inquiry was ongoing and there was a possibility of criminal proceedings. Once LJ Taylor’s Interim Report was published, the inquests resumed. However, because the Director of Public Prosecutions was still determining whether criminal charges would be brought, certain of the usual inquest procedures were changed.

The Coroner decided to hold a general inquest into the circumstances leading to the disaster, followed by ‘mini-inquests’ dealing with the specific facts relating to particular victims, with a small group being considered in each session. Perhaps most unusually for an incident of this nature, the evidence would not be challenged under cross-examination, instead being presented as fact to the families. The opportunity to ask further questions was denied as the evidence could not be examined further.

An additional controversy was the Coroner’s decision not to hear evidence from after 3:15pm on the day of the disaster, as he reasoned that by that time ‘the real damage was done’ and death was inevitable. Crushing was given as the sole cause of death for all 95 victims. The 3:15pm cut-off time – chosen because the first ambulance arrived in the stadium then – meant that medical personnel did not give evidence at the inquests. A verdict of ‘accidental death’ was returned by the jury.

The families have, understandably, always found that impossible to accept, yet an application for Judicial Review failed and the Stuart-Smith Scrutiny of evidence did not recommend that the inquests be reopened. Anne Williams in particular, the mother of 15-year-old Kevin, faced with inconsistencies in the witness statements of those who last saw her son alive and the expert pathology evidence, has repeatedly sought via applications to the Attorney General to have his inquest reheard and death certificate amended. All applications were denied, citing a lack of new evidence.

Liverpool fans knew that the release of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report meant that the journey was only part of the way over. The truth is now finally revealed, but the unravelling and overturning of the many contentious decisions made after the disaster has hardly begun. And a stunning blow was to follow, as Anne Williams – having been so much a part of the fight to expose the Hillsborough cover up – announced she has terminal bowel cancer.

In a recent article for Well Red magazine, I wrote that:

for many of us, the steps that follow [the publication of the Report] will take place in locations where we have little influence, as inquiries and inquests are reopened, criminal investigations and legal processes resume.

Yet perhaps that isn’t completely the case. Anne Williams’ supporters are petitioning the Attorney General to bring forward the date of the reopened inquest into her son’s death because of her illness. At the time of writing, it has over 35,000 signatures – enough for a response from the Attorney General’s Office. So far, that response has not been favourable.

Please, if you are eligible to do so, do not let that response dissuade you from signing the petition. 100,000 signatures are needed to force a debate in the House of Commons, which could be vital in speeding up the process so that Anne may live to see its outcome. Fair and balanced Hillsborough inquests are already 23 years overdue and further delays are inexcusable. While the procedures may say one thing, the right thing to do lies in the opposite direction and so – as it seems unlikely that the heavens will fall – Anne Williams deserves justice. She and the other families have deserved nothing less since April 1989.

If you are able to, please sign the petition today. Confirmation will be sent to you by email, with a link you must click for your name to be added. Thank you for your support.

Photo from the Liverpool Daily Post

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Computer love

The internet has taken an awful lot of flak lately, accused of all sorts from murder to drug dealing via rampant piracy.  It is little wonder that our brave Government feels the need to rush in and DO SOMETHING before the evil being emitted by our Netbooks and iPads swamps the earth.

As even casual observers will know, passing legislation on the hoof is rarely a good idea and unfortunately ‘doing something’ in this case has meant using end-of-Parliament rules called the ‘wash up’ to pass a draconian Digital Economy Bill without proper debate in the House of Commons.  Instead, party whips will negotiate between themselves to get the law onto the statute books before Parliament dissolves for the election.

The main causes for concern are:

  • A proposal to remove internet access from persistant file-sharers on a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ policy;
  • Making website owners responsible for all content, even if posted by users;
  • Forcing internet service providers to pass details of persistant offenders to copyright holders such as music or film companies

Each of these clauses has been amended and altered a couple of times, with the result that it is no longer clear exactly what will be outlawed by the law if it is passed.  This is an absurd situation.

So what can you do?

Campaigning organisation 38 degrees have set up a simple website for you to email your MP.  You just need to go here, fill in your postcode and the site will do the rest.  As they get ready for the election, let’s remind them that we are here, that we have a voice to be heard and that we want our internet to remain free.

Take the time to show your computer some love.

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Roll up, roll up…

… we haven’t had a good drug panic for a few years*, so it was obviously slightly overdue. Hearing the calls for a ban on mephedrone instantly recalled the Simpson’s Maude Flanders:

There is also a delicious irony, which you should join me in enjoying immensely, as the report from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs into the banning of legal highs such as mephedrone has been delayed by the resignation of an advisor, Dr Les King, in support of Prof David Nutt, forced out of his job by imbeciles for the crime of saying something sensible about drugs for a change.

Calls for a ban seem to be mounting and it will be a brave government that manages to resist the temptation to be seen to be doing something about such a tabloid front-page-friendly story this close to an election.  Once again, it seems we will miss an opportunity to sensibly consider our drugs policy and its effects, intended and otherwise, on our safety and security.

Banning mephedrone, as with other substances, will do anything but make it safer.  Production will then pass into the hands of unscrupulous people, outside of any regulatory framework and with no control over potency or contamination.  There is a suspicion that the batch of the drug taken by those who died in the Scunthorpe case was contaminated.  Instead, we would be better to focus our attention on education for users and the treatment of addicts.

If we are mature enough to accept that human beings will always seek out ways to escape reality, be it by heroin, khat or a caramel macchiato, then we can try to lessen the harm.  Leah Betts’ name will always be connected to ecstasy, but she arguably might be alive today if she had known about water intoxication.  It is too early to say, but it could be that drinking heavily in combination with the stimulant mephedrone puts the heart under excess strain.  Regardless, deaths this year from miaow miaow, and from E, will be dwarfed by the numbers of us dying because of over-indulging in our favourite tipples.  Yet we won’t be seeing too many calls for the banning of gin and tonics across the front pages.

* Of course, we did drug panics much better when I were a young ‘un.  I think we will be waiting a long time until mephedrone spawns something as amazing as the ‘Inspector Morse ecstasy episode‘:

[the doctor offers first Morse and then Lewis an ecstasy tablet]
Dr. Hallett: Lewis?
Detective Sergeant Lewis: No thanks, Sir. Not in front of the Chief Inspector.

Well quite.

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Suffer, little children

If you should find yourself musing on the immigration question this election-tide and wondering if we are, in fact, in danger of being swamped, seen as a soft touch or provider of free swan burgers to all the world’s poor and huddled masses, reassure yourself with this story:

M was arrested, and locked up in Cardiff Bay Police Cells, in extreme distress, dwarfed in man-sized padded clothing to protect him from self-harm. His seat was booked on a flight bound for Afghanistan…

In the dark early hours of Tuesday 2nd March, M was taken with an adult detainee by caged van on the 109 mile journey from Cardiff to Oxfordshire and Campsfield House, an adult detention facility run by the government’s commercial partner Serco. He shared a dormitory with seven men.

M is 14.  Except the authorities think he is lying and he is actually an adult.  See what you think of the picture accompanying the story.

You could argue that we can’t take in everyone that wishes to come here.  You could mention that harsh treatment is an essential deterrent.  But if you try to argue that terrified children should be taken from their beds in the early hours, caged and told they are being sent back to the war zone they have fled, I would think that you had lost all touch with what it is to be human.  May you be lucky enough never to be in need of compassion from strangers!

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Some animals are more equal

Just when I thought all the residual anger I could muster had been squeezed from the MPs expenses scandal, along came some of our ever-so-unHonourable Members to remind me that I am still angry enough to head down to Westminster with some self-assembly stocks and a few tonnes of mouldy tomatoes.

First, we have the Member for Romsey, Sandra Gidley, quoted in a delicious little story about the joys of first class rail travel:

As a woman travelling alone late at night I feel safer in first, particularly on the later trains when there are often a number of people who have been drinking

This is too laughable.  I have only been lucky enough to grace a first class seat once, yet I am completely comfortable extrapolating this to all long-distance first-class carriages since they do carry a FREE BAR: the levels of drunkenness on display were Hurculean.  Maybe they do things differently in Romsey.  In any event, no-one is surely begrudging Ms Gidley the opportunity to breathe the rarified air of first class, we are just slightly approaching the end of our tethers in having to pay for it.  Especially when, as she may remember, our economy’s… [is 'on its arse' a polite enough term?  Must check.]

What headline writers must surely be tempted to call ‘The Westminster Four’ was on show at Horseferry Road magistrates yesterday, winning no favours with the beak by refusing to stand in the dock until ordered to.  You have to love the court drawing here, as it has really captured their criminal sides well.  It will be interesting to see where this argument that parliamentary privilege overrides the court’s jurisdiction goes in future hearings – on that reasoning I wonder if it is possible to kill another Member on the floor of the House and get away with it?  I can’t wait to see the fun the judiciary has with that one…
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Questions

Questions that MUST be answered regarding the return to jail of Jon Venables, co-murderer of 2-year-old James Bulger:

1. Does the public’s the tabloid editor’s right to know supercede the importance of not prejudice a pending hearing?

2. Does this right to know also include an element of a right to turn up outside the prison gates brandishing flaming torches?

3. Are we prepared to admit the possibility exists for the rehabilitation of dangerous prisoners anymore?

Perhaps I am slow on the uptake, but these are the questions that I want answered before finding out what Jon Venables has been recalled for.

UPDATE: To note this link to the first Chapter of Blake Morrison’s ‘As If’, his account of the original trial.

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Press Freedom 1, Pampered Millionaires 0

All publicity is... what now?It is possible that you are reaching the stage of having no further interest in any of the details of just how appallingly John Terry can behave towards the women daft enough to sleep with him. You may be struggling to see how such knowledge can be considered ‘in the public interest’ rather than ‘stuff I’d rather not know about, cheers’.

However, it is important not to be overly distracted by the finer points of ‘he say, she say’ in this sad case and to recognise that putting tougher conditions on the ‘super-injunctions’, used to spare celebrities’ blushes as well as to point attention away from scandals we really ought to hear about, is something to be applauded.

The same laws that keep us from knowing about the damage caused by the illegal dumping of toxic waste are then called into play by the great and the good to protect their liberty to behave as complete sex-pests. If Judge Tugendhat is rolling back some of the Eady craziness (and that’s by no means assured, he has out-eadied Judge Eady in other judgments) this should be roundly perceived as a 24-carat good thing.

Tabloids being tabloids, they will always care more about the salubrious than the sublime. The News of the Screws didn’t earn that nickname from Private Eye by carrying out numerous investigations into corruption in local government, after all.

So, if you need to, hold your noses over Terry’s sad and tawdry affairs. What matters less is him being caught out: instead it is the lifting of a particularly onerous legal measure, that he was pushing his luck to try and hide behind, which is the important factor.

Even if you won’t see that splashed across the NotW’s front page.
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Justice League

I wrote earlier that Amir Choudhary was ‘wrong, plain wrong’ and was rightly called up on it by this bloke over here in the comments. Rightly because, in one important aspect, Mr Choudhary is right, for reminding us of the non-British war dead, albeit for some very wrong reasons: getting his name in the papers. We lost count as the Afghani and Iraqi body counts increased far in advance of our own, widely mourned, totals. Except that is too kind an analysis, because we didn’t lose count, we decided not to count. Partly out of embarrassment and partly because we found it more convenient to turn the dead into terrorists:

The problem is: in Afghanistan the peasants do suspicious things, too. Some then die because they are indeed Taliban, while others become Taliban for being dead

There is a road safety ad on TV at the moment which shows a man haunted by the mangled body of the dead child he hit with his car. Everywhere he looks he sees the broken, twisted limbs. You have to wonder if that’s what Tony Blair’s dreams are like. Except there’s not just one child, there are hundreds, all eyeballing him through the dark nights, silently demanding to know why they couldn’t be allowed to live.

Over Christmas I watched the film Frost/Nixon, the showbiz and glitz world of the interviewer warily treading onto the unfamiliar territory of dead Vietnamese and Laotians. We all want a Frost/Nixon moment, where the wrongdoer looks at the camera and it hits him, that there is so much blood on his hands he is looking at about 200 billion years in Purgatory. That he caused all this pain because he couldn’t admit to being wrong. It is probably too much to hope for that we get such a moment on Friday afternoon. As Blair realises that he, like Nixon, is now tainted unto death and probably in his obituary too, as a man who waged an illegal, doomed war when all sensible advice counselled against it. Then he looks straight to camera as a single, unwiped tear drifts down his cheek and finally, we have our absolution.

I don’t expect it to end so neatly. Real life has a tendency to be, of course, less dramatic than dramatists would hope. However, the Iraq Inquiry has gone about its work with a calm dedication that, although I almost hate to admit it, has done more good than throwing Blair, Campbell and Straw into the Coliseum and releasing the lions.

Banning dissent, ignoring international law, disregarding Parliament. For a bunch of lawyers, New Labour has shown a strange disrespect for all things legal. Speaking truth to power is never a comfortable job, but good counsel has rarely been at such a low premium, at stages ignored, disregarded and, a final humiliation, ‘encouraged’ to provide more favourable advice. The Guardian’s legal affairs correspondence, Afua Hirsch:

What also came across with fresh clarity was the government’s dismissiveness of the legal expertise in its own departments… In his evidence, Wood said Straw’s dismissal of his advice was ‘probably the first and only occasion’ that a minister rejected his legal advice in this way

So it is all the more heartening to see the forces of justice fight back, not like the superheroes Blair and Bush imagine themselves to be, but via calm reasoning and careful sifting of the facts, the Supreme Court and the Iraq Inquiry have, this week, given a small glimmer of hope that the rule of law still prevails.

Picture from the Hollywood News, with thanks!


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The offence of being cocky

I suspect that some Police Community Support Officers (PSCOs) might need retraining if, as demonstrated in this Guardian video, they believe that being “cocky” is now an offence and  justification for arrest.

Italian student Simona Bonomo was stopped under anti-terrorism legislation for filming buildings in London. She was later arrested by other officers, held in a police cell and fined for the offence of causing ‘harassment, alarm and distress in a public place’.

It is interesting that although Bonomo was stopped under anti-terrorism legislation, she was charged under the rather more everyday Public Order Act 1986, under s.5, which reads:

5. Harassment, alarm or distress

(1) A person is guilty of an offence if he—

(a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or

(b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,

within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.

(2) An offence under this section may be committed in a public or a private place, except that no offence is committed where the words or behaviour are used, or the writing, sign or other visible representation is displayed, by a person inside a dwelling and the other person is also inside that or another dwelling.

(3) It is a defence for the accused to prove—

(a) that he had no reason to believe that there was any person within hearing or sight who was likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress, or

(b) that he was inside a dwelling and had no reason to believe that the words or behaviour used, or the writing, sign or other visible representation displayed, would be heard or seen by a person outside that or any other dwelling, or

(c) that his conduct was reasonable.

(4) A constable may arrest a person without warrant if—

(a) he engages in offensive conduct which [F1a] constable warns him to stop, and

(b) he engages in further offensive conduct immediately or shortly after the warning.

(5) In subsection (4) “offensive conduct” means conduct the constable reasonably suspects to constitute an offence under this section, and the conduct mentioned in paragraph (a) and the further conduct need not be of the same nature.

(6) A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale

Annotations:

Amendments (Textual)
F1S. 5(4)(a): by 1996 c. 59, s. 1 it is provided in s. 5(4)(a) the word “the” shall be amended by being left out the word “a” inserted

Interesting because I believe she might have had a defence under s.3, either (a) or (c), that there wasn’t anyone else around, or that she wasn’t being unreasonable.  Unless there is additional footage where she rants and raves at the PCSO, and despite his assertion that she is being ‘cocky’, she seems calm, measured and polite throughout.

I would be grateful if any readers with a less rusty legal knowledge would care to comment!

If it seems harsh to censure the individual PCSO, with the UK threat level now showing that something bad is ‘highly likely’ to happen somewhere soon, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he thought he was dealing with a real threat.  Although, it is telling that his colleague seems more reluctant to get involved!  That said, I think some urgent training on the law is required, not least because the blanket targeting of anyone with a camera will allow the real threats to slip the net.

People not being allowed to take medicines on planes, elderly relatives being asked to remove belts and shoes at airports, photographers being treated as terrorists, we all have tales of officialdom getting it wrong.  We would also be the first to howl when they didn’t stop the real terrorist, so it is important to acknowledge that there are no easy answers.  But to give up too much freedom in the name of safety, is to be left with neither.  To become suspicious of people going about normal activities is to lose any hope in humanity.  And if being cocky is indeed now an offence, then it is only a matter of time before they come for us all.  Simon Cowell should be very, very worried.
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Ross Kemp: Middle East

If you were disturbed last night by a noise you couldn’t identify, it was probably the wailing and gnashing of teeth of those who would consider themselves proper, serious journalists, having just watched the Ross Kemp documentary on Israel. The programme was screened over two weeks, with last week’s showing the situation in Gaza and last night’s that in Israel. Like those journalists, I confess, I was prepared to be cynical.

Within minutes of the start of the first programme, Kemp was having his bag searched by a member of Hamas at the border, before embarking on a trip to watch terrorists set roadside bombs, which the voiceover assured us were later removed without causing injury. So far, this ticked all the adrenaline-junkie boxes. However, his savoir-faire was further ruffled, and the journalistic corps given additional cause for heart failure, when he interviewed a young lawyer who had decided to become a suicide bomber. Complete with crudely-made face mask and explosive belt, he was a picture out of any bus traveller’s worst nightmare. Even the normally gung-ho Kemp looked stunned. Resolute of stare and sure of voice, the young man set out his reasons for choosing this terrible destiny.

This, for me, was where the documentary jumped light years ahead of Kemp’s usual bullets and glory soirees into dangerous territory.

War brings war

the terrorist told him, taking Israel’s strikes on Gaza in early 2009 as his justification for action. This tied in with a comment from the UN Director of Operations for Gaza, who warned:

if you treat people as hostile, they will become hostile

I was once a 24-year-old lawyer and I knew plenty of others, from all faiths and classes. None, I am certain, had ever contemplated suicide attacks on civilians, unless perhaps on a specific group of recruitment specialists keeping us out of the Magic Circle firms and away from the six-figure salaries therein. When you are young and idealistic, the urge to be a lawyer usually stems from, according to my own unscientific straw-polling anyway, a desire to change a bad situation for the better, to seek to help your fellow humans order their affairs, as well as to bring resolution and be an arbitrator of disputes. The lust for money and terrible taste in ties comes later, while deciding to blow yourself and others up shouldn’t feature at all. If even the lawyers are now militants, we have a serious problem.

It seemed as if Kemp agreed. However, he didn’t go to Israel for the second part of the programme looking to tag them as the perpetrators. Instead, he spoke to people who had lost family at the hands of terrorists and also elicited opinion across a spectrum of Israelis, from those who want to ‘seize every hill’ to others who prefer hanging out in Tel Aviv and shopping. Kemp did an excellent job in resisting the temptation to glamorise or ignore the futility inherent in the conflict. As Palestinian teenagers rained down rocks on Israeli troops and they slung back tear gas, unfortunately our brave lad caught downwind of it, he turned to camera without any of the drama common to news stories on similar confrontations, to ask: ‘what’s the point?’ It was difficult to disagree with the man as his eyes streamed. It was also difficult to disagree with his conclusion to the programme, that:

the majority on both sides must speak with one voice to negotiate a lasting peace

However, it was near impossible to think other than well, nice one, but how does that get us anywhere? In Israel, as in many other conflicts, a refrain has been: it’s a minority causing the problems; ordinary people are the key to peace. How helpful is it? Viewers hoping for an easy checklist of actions to bring peace were surely disappointed. However, Northern Ireland offers one example of two opposing peoples facing down the crazies to bring peace, with a new shopping centre and ‘Titanic Quarter’ where once was bombs and savagery. The inhabitants of Tel Aviv would no doubt approve. So it appears that in Israel, as in Northern Ireland, all that Western governments can do is get out of the way and not do anything to make peace less inevitable. Atrocities must be condemned evenly. Projects like these supported. Hopefully one day Ross Kemp will have to seek out alternative locations in which to get an eye and lungful of tear gas.
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