Civil Liberties, Constitutional Law, Coronavirus, Criminal Justice, Criminal Law, Human Rights, Politics, Scots Law

The lockdown and public protest

On 25th May 2020 the world was shown a video of a 46-year-old black man, George Floyd, being restrained on the ground by a number of police officers in Minneapolis. That video showed one police officer kneeling on the back of his neck for almost nine minutes. Mr Floyd died and the police officers involved have been charged with a range of offences, including one officer being charged with murder. The footage has rightly caused anger around the world. This anger has resulted in riots happening in various places around the United States of America and protests have been held around the world in support of the Black Lives Matter campaign. Protests have been planned for the forthcoming weekend in Scotland.

The first half of 2020 has seen governments across the world try to deal with COVID-19, a novel coronavirus first seen in the Wuhan province of China in late 2019. Figures available at the current time place COVID-19 as the leading cause of death globally in 2020 so far. Governments throughout the world have been responding to the virus by placing varying degrees of restrictions on those who live within their jurisdiction in an effort to try and contain the virus. Whether these restrictions are the best way to go about achieving this aim is something that has been debated since the restrictions started to come in, but this post is not going to consider that question. What this blog post aims to do is consider how the right of assembly in Article 11 of the ECHR interacts with the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Restrictions) (Scotland) Regulations 2020 (“the lockdown regulations”).

The lockdown regulations were made by Scottish Ministers on 26th March 2020 under powers conferred upon them by the Coronavirus Act 2020; they came into effect immediately. The Scottish Government has also published guidance on the lockdown and I have considered the interaction between the law and the guidance before (mainly in the context of the powers of the police and the approach to policing adopted in some parts of the United Kingdom). The lockdown regulations are what is known in law as “subordinate legislation”; that is, they are laws that have been made not by Parliament itself, but by government ministers exercising powers delegated to them by Parliament; in this case, it is power delegated to Scottish Ministers by the United Kingdom Parliament. When ministers are making subordinate legislation they cannot exceed the authority given to them by parliament. That is to say, if subordinate legislation made by Ministers includes something which Parliament has not given them the power to do then the courts can strike down the subordinate legislation to the extent that it exceeds Ministers powers (i.e. it is outside the Minister’s competence)

In Scotland, under section 57(2) of the Scotland Act 1998, Scottish Ministers do not have the power to make any subordinate legislation where it is incompatible with the rights under the European Convention on Human Rights (i.e. those rights listed in Schedule 1 to the Human Rights Act 1998). That includes both the right to freedom of expression (Article 10) and the right to freedom of assembly (Article 11). The lockdown regulations therefore always have to be read in a way that is compatible with the convention rights and where they cannot be read in compatibly with them, they will be outwith the competence of Scottish Minisers and “not law”.

Regulation 6 of the lockdown Regulations prohibits all gatherings in a public place of more than two people except in a list of specific circumstances. None of which would reasonably apply to a public protest. It is an offence to fail to comply with Regulation 6; however, Regulation 8(4) of the lockdown regulations provides a defence to an infringement of a Regulation 6 where the person has a “reasonable excuse”. Most will, by now, be familiar with the “reasonable excuse” provisions, but mainly in connection with Regulation 5, which provides that no person may leave the place that they are living except with a reasonable excuse. In respect of a public protest there are two parts of the lockdown regulations in play: there is Regulation 5, which comes into play when a participant leaves the place that they are living and then there is Regulation 6, when the arrive at the place where the protest is to take place.

In this post, I am only going to focus on the relationship between Regulation 6 and Article 11. That is because, if the protest would be lawful under Regulation 6 then it would follow that a person leaving the place where they live to attend the protest would be a reasonable excuse. To say otherwise, would be an absurd reading of Regulation 5 in the context of the lockdown regulations as a whole.

Article 11

This Article provides that everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others. However, as with nearly all of the convention rights it is not an absolute right and can be subject to restrictions which are “prescribed by law” (for example Regulation 6 of the lockdown regulations) and which are “necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”.

The European Court of Human Rights has held that the exceptions in Article 11 are to be construed strictly and that only convincing and compelling reasons can justify restrictions. The restrictions must be in the pursuance of a legitimate aim and must be proportionate to that aim. The government has to be able to show a rational connection between the restrictions and the legitimate aim being pursued.

The lockdown regulations have been made for a specific purpose, which is set out in the preamble to the lockdown regulations which states that they have been “made in response to the serious and imminent threat to public health which is posed by the incidence and spread of coronavirus in Scotland.”

The Government has been clear throughout that large public gatherings of people pose a particular risk in respect of the spread of coronavirus. However, there are a number of things that need to be consider. Is the complete ban on public gatherings as included in Regulation 6 proportionate to the legitimate aim being pursued? Is there a less severe restriction that could be placed upon people? Also, there is, I would suggest, a difference between indoor and outdoor gatherings (indeed, the Government’s own guidance draws that distinction on meeting family members). Another relevant factor, I would suggest, is that a public protest is different in nature to a gathering for a football match or a music concert.

I have previously expressed concern that the apparent complete ban on public protest is something that is unlikely to be compatible with the convention rights, even in the current circumstances. For example, a protest which takes place in a large open space where everyone is staying at least 2m away from people who are not members of their own household and where appropriate face coverings and other protective clothing (such as gloves) are being worn may well present a difficulty for the Government. That is not to say that it would be impossible for the Government not to show that banning such a protest is a proportionate means of meeting their legitimate aim; only, that it will be considerably more difficult than, say, defending the ban as it relates to sports fixtures. However, on balance, there is, I think, a strong basis for suggesting that the Government would ultimately be successful in defending the current position if it was forced to, but in doing so it would be facing a reasonably strong argument that its actions were unlawful.

The subject-matter of the protest also has, I think, to play a part in the balancing exercise as well. Is it a protest that could reasonably be delayed to a point where the restrictions are less stringent than they are now or would the effectiveness of the protest be undermined if it were to be delayed? Clearly, the black lives matter campaign is front and centre in the global news cycle at the moment and that is, I think, a factor which would need to be weighed into the consideration. However, equally, the campaign is one that has (sadly) been going on for a very long time and is almost certainly going to need to continue beyond now. It is a depressing reality that there continues to exist in our world a significant degree of racism and racial prejudice. On balance, I’m not convinced that an urgency argument would necessarily tilt the balance against the government.

It may also be worth noting that the High Court in England and Wales refused interim injunctive relief in a judicial review in a challenge brought to the English equivalent provisions and brought with the aim of enabling a mosque to open for Friday prayers at the end of Ramadan. That case was concerned with Article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion), but it is worth of note. In that case Mr Justice Swift did not think that “there [was] any realistic likelihood that the Claimant’s case on Article 9 will succeed at trial”. There are, of course, important difference between the cases: (1) the concern different convention rights; and (2) the circumstances are quite different – one concerns indoor gatherings while the present context is concerned with outdoor gatherings. Furthermore, it deals with different (albeit substantially similar) statutory provisions, but with the same underlying reasoning. Despite his findings, the judge granted permission for the judicial review to proceed. There are a number of challenges in England and Wales to the lawfulness of the lockdown generally, or to particular sets of circumstances. Some, on a first appearance, are stronger than others.

Reasonable Excuse

One other matter that should be mentioned is the “reasonable excuse” defence to a charge of breaching Regulation 6. Regulation 8(5) provides the non-exhaustive list of reasonable excuses that we have all become very familiar with over the past weeks. None of the examples listed would cover a public protest; however, it is not a complete list. It would be open to argue that a public demonstration on a matter of public interest is something that falls within a “reasonable excuse”. Whether the court would accept that it was a reasonable excuse standing the reasons behind it is another question altogether. I’m not convinced that a court would find the protest as a reasonable excuse to be in a gathering of more than two people outside of the circumstances provided for in Regulation 6.

Conclusion

I am not going to say that the protests definitely are legal or illegal; that is not something that can be said with complete certainty and would, ultimately, be a matter for the courts to determine. However, while I have some concerns that a complete blanket ban on all public protests might not be convention compliant, the court is only going to be concerned with whether restricting the protest concerned was or was not a breach of convention rights. On balance, however, I think it likely that the protest would be a breach of Regulation 6 and that the interference with the Article 11 rights would be considered a proportionate means of pursuing the legitimate aim of reducing the spread of COVID-19 and that it is rationally connected to that aim. It is not the job of the courts to decide on policy, only whether the policy is lawful. There may be alternative ways of achieving that aim and the court may, if it were the decision maker, have favoured one of those other ways; however, that is not the test. If the policy decision is lawful, then the existence of another decision that the court would have preferred is irrelevant. I may, of course, be wrong on both of these matters. The issues are complex: the right to freedom of assembly is a vitally important right in a democracy, but the circumstances in which we find ourselves are truly extraordinary.

I am not going to say whether people should or should not participate in a protest this weekend. That is a matter for them. If people do attend a protest in Scotland this weekend they need to consider that doing in doing so it is likely that the will be committing a criminal offence. Equally there may be a defence to that offence or grounds to challenge the lawfulness of the regulations in terms of their compatibility with convention rights. There are processes for dealing with such arguments should anyone ultimately be prosecuted and wish to take the argument. However, they should also consider that there is no guarantee, or even a strong prospect, of those defences or challenges succeeding. I cannot, as a solicitor, encourage people to break the law.

The Scottish police have, generally speaking, handled the policing of the lockdown far better than their colleagues in other parts of the United Kingdom. What action they will take is, of course, something for them to consider. Whether they would try to breakup a protest that was peaceful, socially distanced and in which the participants were taking all reasonable precautions not to spread the virus is something that I wouldn’t like to express a view on, but I would hope that they would approach the situation proportionally taking into account that the issues are very different to, for example, the gatherings that were seen last weekend around Scotland. The Chief Constable indicated today at the Scottish Governments briefing that Police Scotland had been working with some of those involved in the protests this weekend; I would encourage (for what it is worth) anyone organising a protest to engage constructively with Police Scotland. I would also encourage anyone who attends a protest to approach any engagement that they have with the police (whether that be Police Scotland or the British Transport Police) in a courteous and constructive manner.

It is not just the protest itself that needs to be considered, but how people are getting there. The use of public transport and people travelling from some distance away to attend the protest is all something that needs to be factored in. An increased number of people using public transport to get to the protest is likely to increase the risk to those who work on the transport system and also to those who are using the transport system to get to work that they cannot do from home (in particular, NHS staff). People travelling from far and wide also, one would assume, comes with risk of them becoming carriers of the virus which could result in increased numbers of infections throughout the country. These are considerations that should not, in my view, simply be dismissed or minimised. They are very real concerns. The basis of the government’s restrictions on gatherings is to limit as much as possible contact which is likely to enable the virus to spread within the community.

Finally, none of the above should be taken as formal legal advice. It is not intended as such; it is merely a consideration of some of the issues that arise. If I were to write a full appraisal of the matter, fully referenced with authority, this post would be far longer than it already is. This blog post has gone through several iterations and when I started to write it I did so with no clear idea where it would end up; such are the complexity of the issues at hand.

Civil Liberties, Constitutional Law, Criminal Justice, Criminal Law, English Law, Human Rights, Legal System, Public Law

Coronavirus, guidance and the law

The United Kingdom, like the rest of the world, is in the midst of a public health emergency. COVID-19 is spreading through the world with devastating consequences for individuals, families and communities. Ministers in each of the four governments within the United Kingdom have made Regulations, either under the Public Health Act 1984 (England and Wales) or the Coronavirus Act 2020 (Northern Ireland and Scotland). Those Regulations can be found here:

England
Northern Ireland
Scotland (and the Scottish Amendment Regulations)
Wales (and the Welsh Amendment Regulations)

There is some difference in the form that the Regulations take, but there is very little difference in the substance of the Regulations applicable in each of the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom. I don’t intend on dealing in this post with the differences in substance that do exist between the Regulations in each of the four nations. Instead, my focus in this blog will be on something different. It will be on the difference between the guidance issued by the governments and the Regulations made by Ministers.

On social media there has been a large amount of concern expressed at the way in which the public health emergency is being policed. We’ve already seen examples of one police force arrest, detain and charge someone with an offence that didn’t even exist (the judge presiding over the case didn’t come out of it smelling of roses either) and of overly-restrictive interpretations of the law (such as only being permitted to buy “necessary” items when in the shops or only being permitted to make necessary journeys) and other examples of the law seemingly being made up on the spot (such as the South Yorkshire Police officer filmed telling people, contrary to the express words of the English Regulations, that they couldn’t be in their front garden).

I will say this before I go any further: of course there will be plenty of police officers applying the law diligently and fairly, having sensible and proportionate conversations with people in their communities; however, their good work is being over-shadowed by the poorly worded and inaccurate communications coming out from official police sources (such as social media accounts and websites). It won’t be the good work that determines the way in which the police will be viewed in light of this pandemic. What people will ultimately look at is the poor decisions, the unlawful actions and how wide-spread they were. Every poor decision, every unlawful action (no matter how well intentioned) will reflect badly on the police.

The Chief Constable of Northamptonshire Police was in the press this week declaring that the public had now had enough time to get used to the Regulations. Well, the same is true for the police. If police officers are unfamiliar with the Regulations then they should spend more time reading them and less time listening to press conferences by politicians.

There has been a considerable conflation between the guidance and the law. That doesn’t just extend to the Police, the Government has been equally unhelpful in this regard. I am not objecting to the police publicising the guidance nor am I objecting to the Police having conversations with people in their communities about the guidance. What I am objecting to is the conflation of the two. They are not interchangeable. The guidance contradicts the law in a number of areas; the guidance is far more restrictive than the law actually is. This has been known for some weeks and the law has gone uncorrected, we can therefore deduce that these difference were probably not a mistake and that the “gaps” in the law are not mistakes; instead, we must work on the basis that they were as a result of deliberate policy decisions taken by Ministers. It is not for the police, nor is it for the courts to attempt to fill perceived gaps in statutory provisions.

An example that keeps being used when the difference between guidance and law is brought up is the Highway Code. That, however, is a fundamentally misconceived comparison. The Highway Code was originally made under section 45 of The Road Traffic Act 1930. Section 38(1) of the Road Traffic Act 1988 expressly retains the Highway Code. The remainder of Section 38 makes provision for the updating of the Highway Code, including for scrutiny by Parliament of proposed amendments which are not made in consequences of the enactment, amendment or repeal of statutory provisions. Finally, the legislation expressly permits the Highway Code to be used to help prove or disprove liability in both civil and criminal cases. It is therefore a statutory code and is not an appropriate comparator for non-statutory guidance.

The guidance issued by Ministers in relation to coronavirus is non-statutory, indeed Ministers could have sought powers from Parliament when passing what is now the Coronavirus Act 2020 in order to issue statutory guidance or codes and made provision for how they should be treated. However, they did not. Where the guidance contradicts the express words of the Regulations, it will be entirely ignored by the Courts and it should also be entirely ignored by the Police when they are working out what powers the Regulations do and do not give to them.

While there are no cases from the appellate courts interpreting these Regulations we do not start from scratch when it comes to interpretation. There are clear rules, built up over a very long time, as to how statutory provisions are to be interpreted. These rules are well known to lawyers; Parliament will be deemed by the courts to have known them when passing the primary legislation and Ministers will also be deemed to have known them when making the Regulations. The phraseology used in the Regulations is clearly intended to be flexible rather then prescriptive. The lists of “reasonable excuses” expressly provided for in the Regulations is non-exhaustive and the list that appears in the Regulations is very different to the list that is repeated every day at ministerial press conferences. There is, for example, no prohibition in the Regulations on buying non-essential items (including luxury food items). Neither is there a prohibition on making “unnecessary journeys”.

Also, the UK Government has recently updated parts of its guidance in response to pre-action correspondence challenging the lawfulness of aspects of its guidance. That is a clear reminder that although the Government can issue non-statutory guidance it is constrained by the law as to what that guidance contains. It is therefore necessary to not simply look and see what the guidance says, but also to consider whether it is lawful (e.g. does it discriminate on the grounds of a protected characteristic). The courts will also, rightly, reject any part of the guidance which, while not contradictory to the coronavirus regulations, is otherwise unlawful.

The Human Rights Act 1998 still applies, it has not been amended or modified by any of the Coronavirus legislation. The Act does permit flexibility; however, legislation will always be sought to be read compatibly with it. Indeed, Secondary legislation (such as the Regulations linked to at the start of this post) is even more vulnerable to it than Acts made by the UK Parliament. It is almost certain that the appellate courts will seek to interpret the coronavirus laws as narrowly as possible given their considerable infringement upon our rights and liberties. It is unlikely to interpret it in a way that is wider than what is absolutely essential for the purpose that it was made for. Proportionality in the interpretation will be key; the courts will certainly not accept the more extreme interpretations given to them by some police officers.

I’m not just going to criticise the police in this post. I hope to provide some possible solutions to these problems; my ego doesn’t stretch to me assuming that anyone will pay the blindest bit of notice to them, but nevertheless it is important that I seek to balance the criticism with some suggestions of what the police could start doing.

The Police could help by starting to clearly differentiate between the guidance and the law in their public communications. Where they taking action in respect of criminal offences then they should leave out all mentions of the guidance and instead only refer to the law. Where they are encouraging compliance with the guidance they should leave out all references to enforcement.

Those mostly responsible within the police for public communications are not police officers, but the senior leadership of the police forces should get involved. They should be taking steps to establish protocols to ensure that confusing and inaccurate things are not published. Perhaps a senior officer with a good understanding of the Regulations could be appointed to work with the corporate communications team within the force? They could be a point of contact for the PR team so that they can run things past them before they’re published, someone who can field enquiries by the press and be the face of the local response to the policing of these Regulations. That would help to ensure clear, accurate and consistent messaging. If there isn’t a senior officer with a good understanding of the Regulations the Chief Constable could perhaps task one to spend time getting up to speed with what the Regulations say, how they differ from the guidance and where the guidance contradicts the law.

The conflation between the guidance and the law will not be helping the police logistically either. No doubt the police are being inundated with reports of conduct which, while not in compliance with the guidance, is not actually an offence. The police could probably do without unnecessary contact from the public. However, their current strategy is most likely going to be encouraging that contact by not adequately differentiating between things that they have powers to deal with and things that they are powerless to deal with. As police resources become stretched they will require to direct those resources towards people actually breaking the law (whether that be the coronavirus laws or other offences such as assaults, sexual offences, thefts etc.). So, changing their communications strategy is also in their interests from a resources perspective.

Finally, there is no contradiction at all in saying that people should seek to follow the governments’ guidance and apply common sense while at the same time the police should not be confusing the law with the guidance and should only seek to enforce the law. As an asthmatic who is entitled to the flu vaccination on the NHS each year I am in the “high risk group” (although I don’t fall into the very high risk category as my Asthma is generally well controlled). I’ve been following the government’s guidance. I’ve not left my property since Monday (when I went to buy food from the shops). I’ve been engaging in social distancing since before the laws were made. Indeed, by the time the Scottish Regulations were made (which are the ones that directly apply to me and to my life) I had already been in “lockdown” for over a week. Personally, I would quite like it if everyone just stayed at home so as to reduce the risk to me of contracting this virus. However, as a lawyer I am a firm believer in and supporter of the rule of law. It is sacrosanct; especially in emergencies. The rule of law is what makes us a democratic society rather than a totalitarian one.

Constitutional Law, Devolution, Public Law, UK Constitution

The Scottish Parliament and #indyref2

With Nicola Sturgeon announcing today at the Scottish National Party’s conference that the Scottish Government would be beginning a consultation on an Independence Referendum Bill next week, the inevitable discussion as to whether the Scottish Parliament has the power to legislate for a referendum on the question of Scottish Independence has arisen once again.  On one side there are (largely) independence supporting individuals who state categorically that the Scottish Parliament does have the power to legislate; meanwhile, on the other there are (largely) union supporting individuals who state categorically that the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to legislate.  In my view, both groups are wrong to be so sure in their view:  the situation is not altogether clear.

The Scottish Parliament is not equivalent to the UK Parliament.  It is not sovereign nor is it supreme.  The Scottish Parliament is a creature of statute; it was established by virtue of Section 1(1) of the Scotland Act 1998.  Its powers are set out within that Act, as amended by the two subsequent Scotland Acts of 2012 and 2016.  The supreme and sovereign UK Parliament has established a body with the power to make legislation applicable to Scotland.  The Scotland Act 1998 did not spell out specifically what the Scottish Parliament was able to legislate on, rather it stipulates what the Scottish Parliament cannot legislate on – these areas are set out in Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998 and are known as “reserved matters”.  In respect of these matters the UK Parliament has the sole right to legislate.  On all other areas, the Scottish Parliament may legislate; however the UK Parliament retains the right to legislate on these devolved areas (but will not normally do so without the consent of the Scottish Parliament).

In assessing this question, it is important to look at the language adopted by the UK Parliament within the Scotland Act 1998.  Section 29 of the Scotland Act 1998 makes provision for the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament.  It begins, in subsection (1), by providing that “an Act of the Scottish Parliament is not law so far as any provision of the Act is outside the legislative competence of the Parliament.”  This is quite clear: where the Scottish Parliament legislates beyond its competence the Act (or the parts thereof that are outside of the Scottish Parliament’s legislative competence) have no legal effect.  Subsection (2) then goes on to list the circumstances in which legislation enacted by the Scottish Parliament would be outside of its legislative competence, the second of which is where “it relates to a reserved matter.”

That all seems pretty clear, any legislation that relates to a reserved matter is outside of the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament.  As mentioned earlier in this post, the reserved matters are set out in Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998.  Right at the beginning of Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998, under the heading “The Constitution”, there appears the words “the Union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England”.  Again, this all seems fairly clear: the Scottish Parliament cannot make legislation that relates to the Union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England.  The Scottish Parliament could not, for example, pass a “Great Repeal Act” of its own with the effect of dissolving the Union between Scotland and England.  So, surely that’s an end of matter?  A Bill to hold a referendum on Scottish independence clearly relates to the reserved matter of the Union of Scotland and England?  Well, it’s not quite that simple.

Section 29 doesn’t just contain two subsections; it contains a total of 5.  The third subsection is one of importance here.  Subsection (3) provides that, subject to subsection (4), when determining whether an Act of the Scottish Parliament relates to a reserved matter, consideration should be given “to the purpose of the provision, having regard (among other things) to its effect in all the circumstances.”  It is this subsection that makes things a little more interesting.  Whether a referendum bill was beyond the scope of the Scottish Parliament’s legislative competence would depend, inter alia, upon (i) the purpose of the Bill and (ii) its “effect in all of the circumstances”.

At this juncture we need to consider referendums and their place within the UK’s constitutional framework.  This is an issue upon which the current Judicial Reviews before the High Court in London on the triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty following the EU Referendum partly revolve.

The UK has long been recognised as a representative democracy.  The doctrine of Parliamentary supremacy means that Parliament is supreme – nothing and nobody can bind Parliament; one Parliament cannot even bind another.  What one Parliament legislates for today can be repealed by a future Parliament if that is what is within the will of the Parliament that acts to repeal a piece of legislation.  What some argue, therefore, is that referendums do not bind Parliament – indeed, they cannot bind Parliament.  This is where the argument that referendums are merely advisory come from.  This argument essentially reduces referendums to glorified national opinion polls.  They have no effect beyond telling Parliament (and the Government) what the view of the electorate is on the specific question posed at the specific date on which the referendum was held.  You may argue that this not very democratic, but that is beyond the scope of this post.

If the argument that Referendums were merely advisory and were for all intents and purposes glorified national opinion polls is correct, then it can be argued (with some force) that a Bill to enable a referendum on the question of Scottish independence is not beyond the scope of the Scottish Parliament’s legislative competence.  All that Bill would do is enable a national opinion poll to take place – it would not bind the anybody to do anything.  It would certainly not bring about the end of the union between Scotland and England.  Applying section 29(3), it could be argued that the purpose of the Bill is not to bring about the end of the Union, but rather to find out – on a national scale – what the view of the people of Scotland is on the question of Scottish independence (and only on the date upon which the referendum is held).

However, politics comes into play and this could have an impact upon what effect of the Referendum Bill has “in all the circumstances”.  Let us imagine, for a moment, that the Bill is passed and not challenged before the Courts.  The vote happens and there is a majority vote in favour of Scottish independence with a substantial turnout of the eligible electorate.  This would, in practical terms, be something that could not realistically (or politically) be ignored.  The United Kingdom is a union of four separate and distinct countries:  England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.  It would be hard for the United Kingdom, internationally, to ignore a vote by one of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom to leave that union.  A failure to give effect to it might well lead to international condemnation, pressure and sanction upon and against the United Kingdom.  In short, even if Referendums are merely advisory, the effect of a “yes” vote to independence, at a political level, would mean that Scotland would have to leave the Union and become independent.  The effect “in all the circumstances” here would be to bring about the end of the union between Scotland and England.  This argument, like the first, has some force to it.

The two arguments are quite finely balanced.  The courts could take the view that constitutionally, whatever the political ramifications, referendums are merely advisory and therefore a referendum result in favour of Scottish independence would be binding upon nobody.  Equally, the court could take a look at the words “in all the circumstances” and conclude that the political ramifications are relevant in determining what the effect of a Scottish Referendum Act would be.

As noted above, the EU Referendum Judicial Reviews could be important in determining the question of the Scottish Parliament’s legislative competence to hold a referendum.  If the High Court (and subsequently the Supreme Court) was to determine that the referendum decision on 23 June 2016 did not amount to a “decision” at all because it was effectively nothing more than an opinion poll, then that would lend significant weight to the view that the Scottish Parliament does have the competence to legislate for a second independence referendum.  However, if the High Court were to determine that the EU referendum did amount to more than a glorified opinion poll, then that would lend significant weight to the view that the Scottish Parliament does not have the competence to legislate for a second independence referendum.

This post has, I accept, vastly oversimplified issues that would inevitably take days to argue before the Courts; however, it is quite long enough.  There is absolutely no way that it would be possible to get into the fine details of the issue on a blog – indeed, there are probably several PhD theses in this seemingly simple question.  However, it does (I believe) result in the conclusion that, at this stage, it is impossible to be wholly certain one way or the other, as to whether the Scottish Parliament does (or does not) have the power to legislate for a second independence referendum.  However, one thing can be certain: a referendum bill passed by the Scottish Parliament without there being a further Section 30 Order will be challenged in the courts.

Constitutional Law, Devolution, EU Law, International Law, Legal System, Politics, Public Law, Scots Law

Can the Scottish Parliament block ‘Brexit’?

There has been some suggestion in the days since the EU Referendum, in which a sizable majority of Scottish voters voted to stay while a smaller majority of voters across the UK as a whole voted to leave, that the Scottish Parliament can in some way block the UK’s exit from the European Union.  That suggestion is, in my view, wrong; the Scottish Parliament cannot block the UK’s exit from the European Union.

Since Devolution there has been a convention operating whereby it has been understood that Westminster would not exercise its power as the sovereign and supreme legislative body for the United Kingdom to legislate in an area for which competence over has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament, without first obtaining the consent of the Scottish Parliament.  This convention is known as the Sewel convention.

Following the 2014 referendum on whether Scotland should become an independent country, a Commission was established by the UK Government to look at the Scottish devolution settlement.  That Commission, the Smith Commission, recommended that the Sewel convention was given legislative force.  Section 2 of the Scotland Act 2016 amends Section 28 of the Scotland Act 1998, which confirms in subsection (7) that Westminster can still legislate on areas of devolved competence, to add a subsection (8) which gives effect to that recommendation.  Section 28(8) provides that “it is recognised that the Parliament of the United Kingdom will not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters without the consent of the Scottish Parliament.”

What this means is that Westminster will not normally legislate on a devolved area without first obtaining the consent of the Scottish Parliament.  However, it can still legislate on an area of devolved competence without the consent of the Scottish Parliament (for example, in a time of emergency and where it wouldn’t be practical to obtain the Scottish Parliament’s consent).

What relevance does this have to blocking the UK’s exit from the European Union?  It would appear to me to be of no relevance whatsoever.  Firstly, we are not in a situation where the UK Parliament is going to be legislating.  The UK’s withdrawal from the EU is an exercise by the Executive of the prerogative power to conduct foreign affairs.  The Executive might well seek a vote in the UK Parliament on exercising the prerogative power (in the same way that appears to be becoming convention with the prerogative power to declare war), but that is not a legislative act by the UK Parliament.  Secondly, the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union is a specifically reserved matter in Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998.  We are not, therefore, dealing with a devolved matter; we are dealing with a reserved matter.  Section 28(8) of the Scotland Act 1998 only relates to devolved matters.

It might be the case that, when the UK Parliament comes to give legislative effect to whatever relationship the UK is to have with the EU in the future, the Scottish Parliament may be able to invoke Section 28(8) of the Scotland Act 1998.  If that legislation were to affect a devolved area the Scottish Parliament could very well refuse to consent to the legislation; however, that would not necessarily equate to it being blocked.  The UK Parliament might have to rely on the word “normally in section 28(8) to legislate anyway so as to give effect to, what will be by then, the UK’s international law obligations.

The Scottish Parliament is still free to debate and vote on any issues that it chooses to do so.  We could therefore see in the coming days or weeks a debate and vote in the Scottish Parliament on whether the Parliament agrees with the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.  However, it cannot invoke what is now Section 28(8) of the Scotland Act 1998 in relation to this issue.  Moreover, even it if it could invoke Section 28(8) of the Scotland Act 1998, that would not necessarily have the effect of blocking the action it refused to give consent to.

Constitutional Law, Criminal Justice, Criminal Law, Human Rights, Legal System, Politics, Public Law, Scots Law

Statutory Judicial Directions in Sexual Offences Cases

In all democratic countries there is a very clear separation of powers between the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary.  This is important so as to ensure that there are proper checks and balances on power and is really quite fundamental so as to ensure an effective democracy.  It is so fundamental that when the Scottish Parliament embarked upon a programme of restructuring the judiciary, it set out in section 1 of the Judiciary and Courts (Scotland) Act 2008 that the judiciary are to continue to be independent of the First Minister, the Lord Advocate, the Scottish Ministers, Members of the Scottish Parliament and others.

Judicial independence and impartiality flows from the doctrine of the separation of powers which is so fundamental to democracy.  It is important that the judiciary is totally independent from the Executive and the legislature.  Although judges in Scotland are appointed by Her Majesty the Queen, they are done so after having been selected by a body independent of the State, the Judicial Appointments Board for Scotland.  Neither the legislature nor the Executive play any role in the appointment process, other than by setting out the qualifications required to be a judge (see Chapter 3 of the Judiciary and Courts (Scotland) Act 2008).

This independence means that neither the Scottish Ministers nor the Scottish Parliament should seek to interfere with the independence of the Judiciary.  Parliament serves two primary functions: to make laws and to hold the Executive to account.  The Judiciary interprets and applies the laws made by Parliament and also holds Ministers to account.  Finally, Parliament holds the judiciary to account by having the power to change laws when the Judiciary interpret either the common law or statutory provisions in a way that Parliament considers is wrong.  It is rightly difficult to remove judges from post, their independence would be threatened if it was far too easy to remove them; it might make judges less able to perform their important function of holding the Executive to account, for example.  These three parts of the State work together (not always harmoniously, but that is to be expected) to ensure that the State does not over exert its powers and that no part of the State becomes too powerful.

The impartiality is also of huge importance and two-fold.  Firstly, the judiciary must be politically impartial.  It is for this reason that when lawyers become judges they must sever ties with any political parties that they may well have had connections to.  They should not be seen to make political comments, whether in the press, in speeches or in their judgments; especially if such comments align themselves with a particular political position or party.  Their impartiality also extends to the parties before them.  They must be careful not to be seen to be supporting one side or the other in any way.  That is not an easy task.

There is currently a proposal before the Scottish Parliament that may impact, in a negative way, both the impartiality and independence of the judiciary.  Section 6 of the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Bill seeks to insert a section into the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995 that would require judges to give specific directions in certain sexual offences cases.  Those directions are undoubtedly well-meaning and seek to address common misconceptions about complainers in sexual offences cases, especially around any perceived delay in making the allegation to the police and how they react during the alleged offence.  However, simply because they are well-meaning and seek to serve a wholly commendable purpose does not mean that they should not be enacted or questioned.  In my view the potential constitutional difficulties that they present far outweigh the benefits, especially when there are other ways to achieve the same aim that do not impugn upon fundamental constitutional principles.

Independence

These statutory provisions would require Judges to include specific information in their charges to juries in sexual offences cases.  This is something that clearly crosses the line in the separation between Parliament and the Judiciary.  This is wholly different to Parliament telling judges that they have come to the wrong conclusion as to what the law is by passing substantive statutory provisions.  It is Parliament expressly dictating to judges how they should do their job.  We should always prevent Parliament from taking such steps.

Impartiality

The Directions which Parliament proposes judges should make in their charges are well founded in evidence.  However, what they seek to do is bolster the credibility of the principal crown witness in a sexual offences claim (i.e. the complainer).  It is entirely appropriate that we seek to remove any myths about complainers in sexual offences cases; only when we do so can we move towards a position where those who have suffered at the hands of a sex offender can get a proper shot at receiving justice.  When a judge is giving their charge to the jury they set out plainly what the law is in respect of the offence(s) contained in the Complaint/Indictment, explain to the jury the three possible verdicts open to them, the concept of reasonable doubt and finally that a majority of the jurors must be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt of the accused’s guilt before they can convict the accused.  In a jury trial the judge is there to deal only with matters of law and procedure; they are there to ensure that both the prosecution and the defence act and are treated in a fair manner, as well as making rulings on issues of law and procedure and setting out the law to the jury that they need to apply to the evidence they have heard in court.

One of the factors that jurors need to weigh up in reaching their verdict is the credibility of not just the complainer, but every other person who has given evidence before them.  Only once they have assessed the credibility of a witness can they decide whether to believe them and how much weight to accord their evidence.  It is clear therefore that the credibility of the complainer in any case, including a sexual offences case, is of central importance to the jury.  In my view it therefore follows that any comment by a judge that seeks to bolster the credibility of a witness (regardless as to whether they are the complainer or the accused) impugns upon their impartiality from the parties to the case (in this situation, from the Crown).

How else can this issue be addressed?

As I have already stated, there are many myths around the conduct of sexual offences complainers – including around how quickly they make the allegation official and issues about their actions and reactions while the alleged offender is committing the alleged offence.  A complainer who makes their allegation quickly should not automatically be presumed to be more honest that one who waits weeks, months or even years to make their allegation.  It should not be relevant whether or not a complainer made attempts to fight the alleged offender off.  These are the issues that these proposed jury directions seek to address.

In my view, these can be addressed in ways other than by requiring judges to set out a case bolstering the credibility of the complainer in their charge to the jury.  The issue of the credibility of the complainer, or rather the task of presenting the complainer as a credible witness, lies with the Procurator Fiscal Depute or Advocate Depute who is prosecuting the case.  Therefore, we ought to be looking at ways to put this evidence before a jury; whether that is by obtaining it through a witness such as a specially trained police officer or an expert such as a psychologist.   It wouldn’t necessarily be essential to require a complainer to explain why they didn’t make an attempt to fight of the alleged offender or why they delayed in making the report; although, these matters may well be explored during the complainer’s evidence in either examination-in-chief or cross-examination.

Addressing this issue in the way I have described would ensure that what is essentially a question of fact for the jury (that being, the assessment of the credibility of the witness) is treated as such and is not dressed up as being a matter of law being dealt with by the presiding judge.  It would also ensure that points of view that might well be held by the jury, which are not supported by evidence are properly addressed.  Finally, it would ensure that the independence and impartiality of the judiciary is properly and rightly preserved.

It is therefore my view that the Scottish Parliament should remove section 6 from the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Bill.

Constitutional Law, Devolution, EIRs, Environmental Information, EU Law, FOISA, Freedom of Information, Information Law, Information Rights, Scots Law

A problem with the Scottish EIRs

The Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 (“Scottish EIRs”) give individuals the right to request and obtain, subject to certain well defined exceptions, information in relation to the environment from Scottish public authorities.  They implement into the law of Scotland Directive 2003/4/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council on public access to environmental information (“the Directive”).  The Directive in turn implements the Convention on Access to Information, public participation in decision-making and access to justice in Environmental Matters done at Aarhus, Denmark on 25 June 1998 (“the Aarhus Convention”) into EU law.

In Scotland, like the rest of the UK, the Scottish EIRs are an adjunct to Freedom of Information.  The Scottish EIRs sit alongside the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (“FOISA”) and the Scottish Information Commissioner has the same powers of enforcement in respect of the Scottish EIRs as she does in respect of FOISA.  By virtue of Regulation 17 of the Scottish EIRs, Part 4 of FOISA applies to the Scottish EIRs.  The Regulations make certain amendments to Part 4 of FOISA for when it is being read in respect of the Scottish EIRs.

Section 48 of FOISA provides that no application can be made to the Scottish Information Commissioner in respect of three scottish public authorities: (1) the Commissioner herself; (2) a Procurator Fiscal; and (3) the Lord Advocate, where the information relates to his role as head of the systems of prosecution and the investigation of deaths in Scotland.  Essentially, this means that the Scottish Information Commissioner is prohibited from accepting any application for a decision by anyone that relates to the handling of a request for information under FOISA and the Scottish EIRs made to the Commissioner’s Office and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (“the COPFS”).  I’m not a fan of this section and think it ought to be repealed in its entirety, but that is a subject for another time.  As far as the Scottish EIRs are concerned this section is a problem.  Essentially, once the Commissioner’s Office and the COPFS have conducted an internal review there is nowhere else for the requester to go if they remain dissatisfied with the response.

Article 6(2) of the Directive provides that:

In addition to the review procedure referred to in paragraph 1, Member States shall ensure that an applicant has access to a review procedure before a court of law or another independent and impartial body established by law, in which the acts or omissions of the public authority concerned can be reviewed and whose decisions may become final. Member States may furthermore provide that third parties incriminated by the disclosure of information may also have access to legal recourse.

The review procedure under paragraph 1 is essentially the internal review procedure provided for by Regulation 16 of the Scottish EIRs.  In respect of every other scottish public authority covered by the Scottish EIRs there exists a right to make an application to the Scottish Information Commissioner and have a decision notice issued by her office together with the ability to appeal (on a point of law only) that decision notice to the Inner House of the Court of Session, and then on to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.  There is a decision of a third party that is capable of becoming final.  Therefore, Article 6(2) of the Directive is complied with.  However, these appeal rights do not apply in respect of requests made to the Commissioner’s Office and the COPFS.

It should be theoretically possible to judicially review the internal review response of both the Commissioner and the COPFS.  At a first glance that might be thought to satisfy the requirements of Article 6(2) of the Directive; however, the wording of the Directive suggests that Judicial Review may not be sufficient.  Judicial Review is not an appellate procedure; it is a review procedure.  The Court of Session cannot substitute its own decision for that taken by the public authority.  The Court of Session could, in a judicial review, determine that irrelevant factors had been taking into consideration in respect of assessing the public interest where a qualified exception has been applied; it could not determine that the public interest does or does not support the maintaining of an exception.   Essentially, all the Court can do is uphold the decision of the Commissioner’s Office or the COPFS, or it can quash the decision – it cannot re-take the decision (something that the Commissioner effectively has the power to do when considering an application under section 47(1) of FOISA).  Therefore, judicial review cannot be a “review procedure… in which the acts or omissions of the public authority concerned can be reviewed” because it can only do so to a limited extent.  Therefore, for all practical purposes the decision of the public authority is final, not the decision of a court or another independent and impartial body established by law.

Furthermore, judicial review is expensive and comes with considerable risk in relation to expenses.  While it is theoretically possible for an applicant to represent themselves in the Court of Session, in all likelihood it will necessitate the instruction of a solicitor and at least junior counsel (if not junior and senior counsel); that is expensive.  Even if an applicant manages to represent themselves in the Court of Session; the court fees will be prohibitively expensive to many people.  These fees, payable at various stages throughout the process, will total hundreds of pounds.  The public authority in question will be represented by Counsel and if a requester loses, they may find themselves responsible for paying the public authority’s expenses (although, the Court does retain an inherent discretion in whether to make an award of expenses and to what extent the losing party shall pay the winner’s expenses).  This is relevant because the Aarhus Convention, upon which both the Directive and the Scottish EIRs are based, requires the review processes to be free of charge or inexpensive or not prohibitively expensive (Article 9).  The Court of Justice of the European Union found that the UK had failed to properly implement the Directive when looking at the costs under the English judicial system (see European Commission v United Kingdom).

The problem for the Scottish EIRs gets bigger once consideration is given to the Scotland Act 1998Section 57(2) of the Scotland Act provides that the Scottish Ministers have “no power to make any subordinate legislation, or to do any other act, so far as the legislation or act is incompatible with any of the Convention rights or with EU law.”  The Scottish EIRs are regulations and are therefore subordinate legislation.  By applying section 48 of FOISA to the Scottish EIRs the Scottish Ministers have made subordinate legislation that is ultra vires – it is outside of their competence.  For the Scottish EIRs to be compatible with EU law, section 48 of FOISA cannot apply to them; while it does, the Scottish EIRs do not fully implement Article 6 of the Directive.

This problem is easily resolved.  The Scottish Ministers simply need to amend the Scottish EIRs so as to disapply section 48 of FOISA in respect of the Scottish EIRs.  This would enable the Commissioner to consider applications made to her under section 47(1) of FOISA concerning requests for information made to either her office, or the COPFS that engage the Scottish EIRs.  Of course, the Scottish Ministers could introduce legislation into the Scottish Parliament to repeal section 48 of FOISA altogether (and that would kill two birds with one stone).

If the Scottish Ministers do not choose to make the relevant amendments they could be forced to.  All it would take is for someone to go through the process of making a request for environmental information to either the Commissioner or the COPFS, getting a refusal notice which is then upheld at internal review, and making an application to the Scottish Information Commissioner so as to get a notice from the Commissioner stating that no decision falls to be made.  This can then be appealed to the Court of Session for them to make what appears to be an inevitable decision: the Scottish Ministers acted ultra vires when applying section 48 of FOISA to the Scottish EIRs – an expensive process, but one that someone will eventually go down some day.

Constitutional Law, Devolution, English Law, Environmental Information, FOIA, FOISA, Freedom of Information, Human Rights, Information Law, Information Rights, Legal System, Public Law, Scots Law, UK Constitution

The Black Spider Letters – Part IV

This is the final in a series of four blog posts looking at the Supreme Court’s decision in R (Evans) v HM Attorney General.  The first post went through the background to the case, the second post focused on the Court’s decision in respect of section 53 of the FOIA and the third post looked at the Court’s decision in respect of Regulation 18(6) of the EIRs.

This was a significant decision for a number of reasons.  It significantly restricts section 53 of the FOIA and in essence makes it virtually impossible for the Executive to make use of it.  While this might seem, on the face of it, really good for transparency; it comes with a serious warning.  In 6 weeks time the UK will have a new Government and undoubtedly one of the first things that this new Government will want to do is address the decision of the Supreme Court in this case.  The current Government, which may be in its final hours, has previously hinted at making changes to the FOIA that would have a devastating effect on the effectiveness of FOI in the UK.  While addressing this issue the Government might be tempted to make other changes to FOI at the time.

While I fundamentally disagree with the principal that the Executive should be able to veto a decision made by the judiciary in respect of a cause in which it was a party, we do live in a system where Parliament has supremacy.  It is clear that Parliament intended that the Executive should be able to, in certain cases, veto a decision by the Tribunal that information should be disclosed.  For that reason, I disagree with the interpretation given to section 53 by Lords Neuberger, Kerr and Reed.  I find the position of Lord Mance and Lady Hale more in keeping with the intentions of Parliament.  It is my opinion that they struck the right balance between the intention of Parliament and the Rule of Law given the system in the UK and the wording of the statute.

The Regulation 18(6) issue is more problematic for the Government, and here I do think that the 6 Justices of the Supreme Court who held that Regulation 18(6) was incompatible with EU law got it correct.  The wording in Article 6 of the Directive clearly does not envisage the situation where the Executive, who will be the public body holding the information in question, is able to veto the decision of the Court.  It also seems clear from the wording of the Directive that it being open to a requester to judicially review the decision of the Executive to issue a certificate is not sufficient to comply with the review requirements therein.  Part of being a member of the European Union is to accept that EU law has supremacy, in passing the European Communities Act the UK Parliament agreed to have EU law take precedence over Acts passed by it.  Ultimately the UK Parliament is still supreme and would only need to repeal the European Communities Act (which would also necessitate the UK leaving the European Union, but that’s a whole other blog) in order to deal with the Supreme Court’s decision in respect of Regulation 18(6).

What is the impact for Scotland?  The decision in R (Evans) v HM Attorney General is technically not binding upon the Scottish Courts.  Section 41(2) of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 makes it clear that decisions of the Supreme Court on appeal form Courts in one part of the United Kingdom are “to be regarded as the decision of a court of that part of the United Kingdom”; there is an exemption to this which is not relevant here. Therefore, only decisions issued by the Supreme Court in Scottish cases are considered binding in Scotland (although in cases from other parts of the UK will be highly persuasive on the Scottish Courts).  As this was a case on appeal from England in respect of FOIA and the EIRs, it is only binding on the Courts in England and Wales.

Section 52 of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOISA) provides the First Minister a similar power to that contained in section 53 of the FOIA in respect of decision notices served on the Scottish Administration.  The wording in section 52 is almost identical to that in section 53.  The main difference is around timescales, in that the First Minister has longer than the accountable person under FOIA to issue a certificate.  So, section 52 of FOISA is probably in a precarious position following the decision of the Supreme Court.

The Scottish legislation could face further hurdles that the UK legislation did not due to the constitutional position of the Scottish Parliament.  The Scottish Parliament is a creature of Statute, it has only those powers which are given to it by the UK Parliament and cannot do anything which exceeds those powers.  Section 29(2)(d) of the Scotland Act 1998 provides that no Act of the Scottish Parliament may be incompatible with the rights in the European Convention on Human Rights as given effect to by the Human Rights Act 1998.  There could be a viable challenge to section 52 under Articles 6 (the right to a fair trial) and 10 (freedom of expression).  If it were to be found that the Scottish Administration being able to veto the decision of the Commissioner and/or the Courts was incompatible with either or both of those Rights then section 52 would have no effect as it would be outside of the Scottish Parliament’s legislative competence.  It would be much harder for the Scottish Parliament to get round that, and it would probably require the UK Parliament to legislate on its behalf.

Regulation 17(2)(e) of the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 (the Scottish EIRs) has the same effect as Regulation 18(6) of the EIRs in that it applies section 52 of FOISA to the Scottish EIRs.  However, like the EIRs, the Scottish EIRs are designed to implement the 2002 Directive into domestic law.  The supremacy of EU law is further underlined by the Scotland Act 1998, which provides in section 57(2) that the Scottish Ministers have no power to make subordinate legislation (which the Scottish Regulations are) which is incompatible with EU law.  I don’t think that the Scottish Courts would find differently from the Supreme Court in respect of section 52 being incompatable with EU law when related to requests under the Scottish EIRs.  In the event that the Scottish Ministers appealed to the Supreme Court it seems unlikely that it would conclude differently (although it should be noted that at least one Justice would have found that Regulation 18(6) did not violate EU law).

Because of the timing of the Supreme Court’s decision, it means that there is little that can be done to prevent disclosure of the information that the Upper Tribunal decided should be disclosed.  The UK Parliament has now prorogued and dealing with the Supreme Court’s decision will require primary legislation. Parliament will be dissolved as soon as we hit 30 March; that means all of he seats will become vacant and there will be no MPs to pass legislation.  The deadline for the Government to comply with the Supreme Court’s decision expires before the election. Therefore, it seems almost inevitable that we will get to see the contents of these letters.

It should be noted that FOIA has been amended to make the correspondence from the Prince of Wales subject to an absolute exemption.  However, that does not affect the position under the EIRs.  The exceptions under the EIRs are different from the exemptions under the FOIA, although they broadly enable the same types of information to be withheld.  What this means though is that it is possible that further letters written by the Prince of Wales which relate to environmental matters may be disclosed in the future.

It is also worth noting that FOISA has not been amended to make the equivalent exemption in respect of correspondence with the Monarch, the heir to the throne or the next in line (i.e. The Queen, Prince Charles and Prince William) an absolute one.  It had been proposed by the Scottish Government, but was dropped.  Therefore, the full range of correspondence between the Prince of Wales and the Scottish Ministers is theoretically obtainable under FOISA and the Scottish EIRs, subject to the public interest test.

Civil Law, Civil Liberties, Constitutional Law, Criminal Justice, Criminal Law, English Law, Human Rights, Legal System, Scots Law

A quick defence of legal aid

The debates around legal aid in Scotland earlier this year and in England over the last year have been characterised by a number of clear misconceptions by the public at large.  There is a view that legal aid exists only to make ‘lawyers rich’ and that the vast majority of those receiving legal aid are in some way ‘undeserving’.  These views are of considerable concern as the simply enable Governments in Edinburgh and London to press ahead with legal aid ‘reforms’ that will substantially damage the country.

Legal aid seems to get lumped in with job-seekers allowance, housing benefit, council tax benefit and such like (I have even, on more than one occasion, seen comparisons drawn between legal aid and the NHS); these comparisons are illogical and ignore fundamental aspects of legal aid which set it apart from any other government spending.

Equality before the law is fundamental to ensuring access to justice.  The ability of all (and not just the rich) to access the legal system is of fundamental constitutional importance.  The ability of individuals to defend themselves against the power of the state (whether in civil or criminal proceedings) and to challenge the state through Judicial Review are essential to our constitution.  Without this ability we are not a liberal democracy.  The issue of access to the law isn’t only confined to making it possible to bring or defend a claim, but it has to create a realistic ability to access the law.  That means providing good quality representation (and importantly permitting those bringing or defending a claim to select their own law agent).  Without client choice you are left in a situation where the State is selecting the representatives of those who it is brining a claim against or whom it is defending a claim against.  If you were suing your mobile phone provider and had to use the solicitor that they selected for you, you would instantly see a conflict of interest.  However, that same conflict does not seem to be as apparent when the State is involved (although it is there and just as important).  There has to be equality between the parties in the legal system and for those who cannot afford to pay their own legal fees it is left to the State to ensure fair access to legal representation.

In criminal cases, it is about defending yourself against serious accusations made by the State.  The consequences of conviction are, quite rightly, serious.  Conviction can lead to a loss of employment and a loss of liberty.  Not everyone who gets legal aid in criminal cases is guilty, a great many people are innocent and it is important that they are able to robustly challenge the State who has to prove their allegation.  It’s about ensuring fairness in the system; an individual against the might of the State (with the police and a professional prosecution service for back-up) is not a fair fight.  Legal representation is essential to ensure fairness (whether they are guilty or not).  It might be unpopular to see guilty people get vast sums of public money to defend themselves, but isn’t that a price worth paying to ensure that we have a fair and balanced system ensuring that, as far as is possible, only the guilty are convicted?

Judicial Review is very much disliked by the Government, as should be expected.  Judicial Review is the citizen challenging a decision made by the Government; it’s about ensuring that the Government only takes decisions which are legal.  It is an area under attack by the Government and it is vitally important.  Without effective access to judicial review, the State can go unchecked and be able to take decisions which are illegal.

The need for access to legal aid does not just extend to cases which involve the State.  Individuals seeking to enforce their contractual rights against a company or gain compensation when a company is at fault and they have lost out as a result or to enforce their consumer rights need to have the ability to seek recourse in the courts when pre-litigation action fails to achieve a result.  Without the ability to go to Court and seek a legally enforceable court order to enforce their rights, the rights that they have are effectively meaningless.  The threat of litigation can prevent litigation.  The knowing that an individual can seek recourse to the Court in order to give effect to their rights can be enough to make people comply with their obligations.  Without that effective recourse, people will be free to ignore their obligations with impunity.

Legal aid and access to justice go to the very heart of our constitution and democracy.  It’s not a benefit; it’s a constitutional right  Legal aid is much more important and serious that housing benefit or job seekers allowance (as important as those are); it’s fundamental to our society.

Constitutional Law, English Law, Human Rights, Legal System, Politics, Scots Law

Abu Qatada and the Rule of Law

The latest episode in the saga that is the case of Othman (Abu Qatada) v the Secretary of State for the Home Department occurred today when the Court of Appeal refused the Home Secretary leave to appeal against the Court of Appeal’s earlier judgment to the Supreme Court.

The facts of this case are well rehearsed so I feel that I don’t need to go over them again.  As one would have expected, the Court of Appeal’s refusal to grant leave to appeal caused an uproar on the internet (and this was probably no doubt replicated in homes, pubs and offices around the country).  Let me be clear, I am no fan of Abu Qatada.  He is alleged to have committed some very serious crimes and it is right and proper than he faces trial in Jordan for those crimes.  However, it is equally right and proper that the United Kingdom upholds the law of the land, international law and its other international responsibilities.

Predictably, a lot of the comments were directed towards the judiciary and their apparent failings.  However, I would suggest that this is the wrong place to direct criticism towards.  The law is clear and it is for the judges to apply the law and to uphold the law.  Judges are not there to make or to change the law; that power lies with the Government and Parliament.  If courts are consistently finding against the Government on the same point of law, it would suggest that any problem that exists does so either with the law or the legal position of the Government.  In both scenarios only the Government, not the judiciary, can change the situation.

The Court is there to apply the law as enacted by Parliament and to uphold the rule of law.  They don’t take sides in any legal debate; they are not on the public’s side, the Government’s side or the side of any other party.  They are an independent tribunal charged with applying the law to a particular set of facts and to determine who, in law, is right and who is not.  The Appeal Courts are there solely to interpret the law which is then to be applied to the facts of each case by the lower courts.  They’re not there to look at whether a Court or tribunal below was right to conclude that a particular fact is indeed a fact or whether it is not; they are there simply to ensure that the lower courts and tribunals are applying the law correctly and to resolve any ambiguities in the law.

The Supreme Court only considers what are termed ‘points of law of general public importance’; those are legal questions and conundrums that affect a wide number of people in society.  They will look at serious legal questions and determine the law so that it is clear for all in our society and so that the lower courts are applying it consistently to all.

The Government is, like each one of us, subject to the law.  It does have a slightly more empowered position than the ordinary citizen has, in that should it lose a case in court it can (with the consent of Parliament) pass legislation to reverse the decision.  In this increasingly global world though, the Government (and Parliament) is somewhat restrained in what changes to the law it can make.  The United Kingdom has signed up to various international treaties, including many human rights ones (although we only ever really hear about the European Convention on Human Rights it’s not the only one we are signatory to) and then there are other principles of international law that the United Kingdom has to comply with as well (see my post on the ECHR, Abu Qatada and international law).

It is quite right that the Government is subject to the law in the same way that ordinary citizens are subject to the law.  If it were not, the Government would be extremely powerful with no real check or balance on its power and it would be impossible to effectively hold the Government to account.  There are countries where the Government is outside of the law (either constitutionally or because of the political situation is effectively outside of the law because the judiciary turn a blind eye).  When you look to those countries you soon realise that such a situation is not one which you want in this country.

Abu Qatada (and people like him) wants to destroy democracy and bring tyranny to the ‘West’; the Rule of law is fundamental to democracy.  If we suspend the Rule of law and start to allow the Government to ignore the law and judges to turn a blind eye to the Government ignoring the law the terrorists have effectively won.  Is that what you really want?

Constitutional Law, Freedom of Information, Politics

I’m sorry, we can’t confirm or deny that (Part 2)

In November I wrote a short blog post about an application to the Scottish Information Commissioner that had caught my eye.  As far as I can determine that application is still being considered by the Office of the Scottish Information Commissioner.

My curiosity got the better of me and I wrote to the Scottish Government requesting the content of: (a) the initial request (b) the Scottish Government’s substantive response (c) the applicant’s request for a review and (d) the content of the Government’s response to that request for review.

What has come back is quite astonishing really.  The paper that the initial request was made on is that of what appears to be the office of a Scottish Labour Member of the European Parliament.  The request asks simply whether the advice was given to the Scottish Government and, if so, is the advice publically available.  No mention of FOISA in the request and does seem to me to be part of the normal communications between elected representatives and the Scottish Government, but such is life.

The Scottish Government then wrote back in August (the request having been received by them in  early June) refusing to confirm or deny whether the information exists in accordance with Section 18(1) of FOISA.  So, if the Government had considered this a request for information, which they did, there was already a significant technical breach as they had failed to comply with Section 10(1) of FOISA.  The Scottish Government used Section 18(1) on the grounds that to confirm or deny that the information exists would be contrary to the public interest and if it did exist, or was held, then it would be exempt from disclosure under sections 29(1)(a) or 30(c) of FOISA.

Unsurprisingly the MEP in question wrote back to the Scottish Government asking them to review this decision.  The MEP referred to the decision not to confirm or deny in their request for review as “perverse” in the “determination of where the public interest lies”.  A conclusion that I happen to agree with based on the correspondence I have seen.

The Scottish Government responded to the MEP in question upholding their original decision, but appear not to have even considered whether the decision to apply Section 18(1) was correct.  In any event, as we know, this has triggered an application to the Scottish Information Commissioner.

Having viewed the correspondence between the MEP and the Scottish Government I find it odd that the Scottish Government would find that it would not be in the public interest to even confirm or deny whether legal advice on the position of an independent Scotland in the EU.  I can understand why they would withhold the information if it did exist, but to not even confirm that it exists o not is perplexing in the extreme.

The First Minister and his colleagues on the SNP benches appear to have been quite vocal about the position of an independent Scotland in the EU.  I seem to recall that some have even said they have received legal advice on that very topic.  Now, that advice might have been sought by and paid for by the SNP as a political party and not the Scottish Government.  That would obviously result in the information not being held by the Scottish Government.  Although, that still doesn’t explain the use of Section 18(1) of FOISA.  There are conflicting messages coming from the Scottish Government and as we are heading towards the most significant decision we have ever had to take we cannot have politicians acting in this way.

I do not have the name of the MEP that made the request.  That is because having assumed that it was made by a member of the public excluded information as to the identity of the applicant from the scope of the request.  I had not for a moment considered that it might have been an elected representative who had made the request.

Obviously the Commissioner’s office is yet to determine this application, but I cannot see how the use of Section 18(1) can be upheld here.   It all seems just a little bit odd.  I’m sure we now all await this decision from OSIC with great interest.