English Law, Legal System, Scots Law, UK Constitution

Coronavirus and the law: divergence between Scotland and England

I have written before on the problems that have arisen in policing the coronavirus “lockdown” from the conflation of law with government guidance. Those issues became relevant again at the weekend when the Prime Minister announced some changes to the lockdown guidance as it applies to England. There have been disagreements about the guidance and which guidance people should follow: the UK Government’s guidance or the guidance from the devolved administrations. In a purely Scottish context, following the new guidance from the UK Government would not be advisable as following some aspects of it may lead to you committing a criminal offence in Scotland.

As the policy positions of the devolved administrations and the UK Government have diverged, the Scottish Government has been encouraging people from England not to travel to Scotland.

The new regulations that apply in England (from today) were made yesterday. I have spent some time considering how the new English regulations interact with the Scottish regulations. Just how can authorities in Scotland deal with people who have travelled from England to Scotland? I foresee some very real problems here.

The starting point is Regulation 5 of the Scottish regulations. Regulation 5 sets out the restriction on movement. In terms of Regultion 5, a person is not permitted to leave the place where they are living, except to the extent that a defence is available; that defence is contained in Regulation 8(4). Reading the two together, it essentially means that a person may not leave the place where they are living without having a reasonable excuse. It is a criminal offence to fail to comply with Regulation 5.

The offence in Scotland relates to the act of leaving the place where you live. If you had a reasonable excuse when you left where you live then you have not committed an offence. On a literal reading of the regulations if you leave for a reasonable excuse and then stay out once you have completed whatever it was then no offence has been committed. Equally, if a person leaves where the live for a reasonable excuse together with a number of reasons that are not themselves be a reasonable excuse, no offence is committed.

The English regulations mirrored this position until 11am on 22nd April 2020, when their equivalent of Regulation 5 was amended to include the words “or be outside of”. Therefore, in England it became the position that if you stayed away from the place that you were living after your reasonable excuse for leaving had come to an end, you committed a criminal offence.

This issue is important when dealing with people who have traveled to Scotland from England. The Scottish regulations on movement of persons are entirely directed towards the act of leaving the place where a person lives. If a person left home with a reasonable excuse, they can theoretically stay outside for as long as they wish. If a person left home to buy food and then decided on their way home to sunbathe, then it appears that the act of staying out to sunbathe would not be a criminal offence.

It should be noted at this stage that things may not be as straightforward as that. It is likely that the courts will apply an objective test in respect of the reasonable excuse. A prosecutor may argue, and a court may accept, that there is a dominant purpose test (or similar) to be applied. If the trip to the shop was merely a ploy to facilitate the act of engaging in sunbathing, a court may well decide that no reasonable excuse existed at the point the person left home; and consequently, an offence was comitted.

If the Scottish regulations are entirely directed at having a reasonable excuse at the point a person leaves home; it is hard to see how the authorities in Scotland can adequately deal with people who have come from England to Scotland to do something that, had the place they live been in Scotland, would have constituted a criminal offence in Scotland. The offence is committed at the point the person leaves the place that they are living. In such a case, the act in question occurred in England and outside of the jurisdiction of the Scottish courts. I struggle to see how the Scottish courts could apply the law of Scotland to conduct which happened entirely in England.

Literal interpretations of legislation, whether primary or secondary legislation, is not the only way in which legislation may be interpreted. The courts could also seek to read into the regulations that Regulation 5 also covers being away from the place that a person is living by applying a purposive approach to the interpretation of the regulations. If the purpose of the regulations is to keep people at home as much as possible to help reduce and slow down the spread of the virus, then it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for the courts to hold that staying away from home once the reasonable excuse has ended is also prohibited.

I don’t want to get into all the intricacies of statutory interpretation; as interesting as that may be, it would be far too long. Bennion on Statutory Interpretation (a book frequently consulted and cited when it comes to statutory interpretation issues) is in excess of 1,500 pages in length. However, although it is possible for the courts to read things into legislation; they can’t just go about reading words into legislation because they think there is a gap in the legislation that ought not to be there. It is not the job of the courts to legislate, only to interpret and apply the legislation. If the meaning of the provision is clear then that’s generally the end of the matter, even if the court does not think that’s what was intended by the provision. There is a distinction between inferring omissions and correcting a faultiness of expression where the literal reading produced an unintelligible result.

When it comes to absurdity, it is not so much concerned with whether the result itself is absurd, but rather it is concerned with whether applying the grammatical and ordinary sense of the words would lead to some absurdity, or some inconsistency with the rest of the instrument or would be repugnant to it. It’s this rule of statutory interpretation that, in my view, allows the inference that a person leaving the place that they live in order to visit a business that’s not required to be closed is a reasonable excuse; even if it doesn’t neatly fall within the non-exhaustive list. The contrary position would be absurd and inconsistent with reference to the rest of the statutory instrument.

If it is the position that being away from the place that a person lives does fall within the ambit of Regulation 5, then there is no difficulty in dealing with people who have traveled from England to Scotland and who are engaged in conduct which would, had they lived in Scotland rather than England, amounted to an offence. They are away from where they live and, in terms of the law of Scotland, they are so without a reasonable excuse. It would be irrelevant that had they been found in England in the same circumstances, they wouldn’t be committing an offence. Their presence in Scotland is all that would matter

However, if Regulation 5 does not include a person being away from the place that they live in addition to leaving that place, then there is a real problem for the Scottish authorities. The view which I have reached is that it is unlikely that Regulation 5 could be read so as to include being away from home as well as leaving home. That is a problem for the police in Scotland (although, a high degree of compliance with the Scottish Government’s “stay at home” message has undoubtedly helped) when dealing with people who do live in Scotland as well as when dealing with people who have come into Scotland from England. A change in Regulation 5 is probably advisable, even if neither of these problems are of a scale which would necessitate a change.

It goes without saying (or at least it should) that the above does not constitute formal legal advice; it’s merely an explanation as to how I formed the view that I have. No lawyer is correct all of the time and so I may, of course, be wrong.

Note: Post updated at 15:36 on 14th May 2020 to correct language that was unintelligible. The substance of the post has not changed.
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.

Data Protection, English Law, Information Law, Information Rights, Scots Law

Litigation, Privilege and Subject Access

The English Court of Appeal has issued a judgment in relation to subject access rights under the Data Protection Act 1998 (“the DPA”).  The Court’s decision centres on three main issues in relation to subject access requests:  (1) the extent of the exemption for legal professional privilege; (2) when the effort to comply with a subject access request is disproportionate; and (3) the discretion of the court when considering an application pursuant to Section 7(9) of the DPA .

The right of subject access is one of the fundamental rights afforded to data subjects.  It allows individuals to discover what information a data controller is processing about them, in what way they are processing it (including who it has been or may be disclosed to) and to check the accuracy of the personal data being processed.  The importance of the data subject’s right is marked by the right of a data subject to apply to the courts in order to secure compliance where a data controller has failed to comply.  It is not an absolute right; there are circumstances in which a data controller does not need to comply with a subject access request.

The Extent of the Legal Professional Privilege Exemption

Paragraph 10 of Schedule 7 to the DPA makes provision for exempting information from the subject access provisions in Section 7 where “the data consist of information in respect of which a claim to legal professional privilege or, in Scotland, to confidentiality of communications could be maintained in legal proceedings.”

In Dawson-Damer there were two interpretations of this exemption put forwarded, described in the judgment as the “narrow” and “wide” interpretations.  The Court preferred the narrower of the two holding that the exemption “relieves the data controller from complying with a subject access request (“SAR”) only if there is relevant privilege according to the law of any part of the UK.” [45] The Court also held that “the DPA does not contain an exception for documents not disclosable to a beneficiary under trust law principles.” [54]  The Court held that the Legal Professional Privilege exemption does not extend to such information. [54].

Disproportionate Effort

The Court held that whether complying with the SAR, or taking certain steps as part of the process of complying with the SAR, “will be a question for evaluation in each particular case [77].  The court noted that “it is clear from the recitals to the Directive that there are substantial public policy reasons for giving people control over data maintained about them through the system of rights and remedies contained in the Directive, which must mean that where and so far as possible, SARS should be enforced.” [79].

Court’s discretion

The discretion afforded to the Court under section 7(9) of the DPA is a “general discretion” [105].  The Court held that Durant v Financial Services Authority did not create a position whereby a data subject cannot exercise DPA rights for purposes outside the DPA.  Durant was concerned with the scope of the term ‘personal data’ and as such the Court’s comments in Durant were in that context.  They did not mean that where individuals had another purpose (for example, with a view to using the material in litigation) that they could not exercise their subject access rights.  The Court noted that “it would be odd if the verification of data was always in practice a complete aim in itself which excluded all others…neither the Directive nor the DPA compels that interpretation.  Nor has Parliament expressly required a data subject to show that he has no other purpose.” [108]  The court did not that there might be a different outcome where an application under section 7(9) of the DPA “was an abuse of the court’s process…or if the claimant was a representative party who had some purpose which might give rise to a conflict of interest with that of the group or body he represents.”

Comment

This is an important case concerning the right of subject access under Section 7 of the DPA and is one that all data protection practitioners ought to be familiar with.  Although it is not directly binding on the courts in Scotland (it being a decision of the English Court of Appeal), it is quite likely that a Scottish court faced with similar issues will arrive at the same conclusions as the Court of Appeal has done here.

The exemption for legal professional privilege is a narrow one; it does not cover information that might be the subject of such claims in jurisdictions other than one of the three UK jurisdictions, nor does it extend to claims of confidentiality that fall outside of the scope of legal professional privilege.

When it comes to disproportionate effort in dealing with a SAR, it is a balance between the effort to comply and the data subject’s right.  It is clear from both the statutory provisions themselves and the comments of Arden LJ in this case that the data subject’s right is a fundamental one.  As a consequence the barrier is a high one when trying to argue that complying would cause a disproportionate effect.  The Court did not consider that the Taylor Wessing LLP had even begun the process, let alone be able to demonstrate that complying would be disproportionate.  It would appear that data controllers will not simply be able to look at a SAR and dismiss it out of hand as resulting in a disproportionate effort; the fundamental nature of the right of subject access will trump the effort it is necessary to go to in to comply in most cases.

Finally, if you’ve ever been under the belief that law firms are data processors for client information then this case is clear that this is wrong:  law firms are data controllers.  If a law firm receives a subject access request from a third party then the personal data must be assessed carefully to establish whether privilege exists and where it does, it must be claimed.

Data Protection, Direct Marketing, English Law, Information Law, Information Rights, Legal System, Politics, Privacy, Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations, Scots Law, UK Constitution

Data Protection and the #EUref

Data Protection is not an area that people generally get especially excited about, but the rights contained in the Data Protection Act 1998 (“the DPA”) are important.  They enable individuals to find out (mostly) what information companies and organisations hold about them, where they got it from, what they do with it, who they give it to and what it says.  It also enables people to take a degree of control over what companies and organisations do with that information; including the ability to prevent a company from using their information for marketing purposes, forcing them to correct inaccurate information and forcing them to stop “processing” their information where the processing causes substantial damage or distress that is unwarranted.

The DPA implements an EU Directive into domestic law.  Data Protection law in the UK has its roots in European law.  However, it’s not just the DPA that has its roots in European law; the connected Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003 (the full name of which is actually the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003) also implement European law into domestic law.  These Regulations relate to the use of personal data and are the regulatory regime that governs the use of electronic communications (such as E-mail, phone and text) to market directly to individuals.  These are the regulations which help deal with those annoying and unsolicited PPI and accident claims telephone calls.

In 2018 the Directive that underpins the DPA is being replaced with a new EU Regulation on Data Protection and the Directive underpinning the 2003 Regulations is currently being reviewed in light of the new EU Data Protection Regulation (the European Commission is consulting on this issue until 5 July 2016).

The DPA replaced the Data Protection Act 1984.  The 1984 Act was introduced to give protection to individuals in relation to the automatic processing of their personal data and was based upon the Council of Europe’s (the same Council of Europe behind the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms) 1981 Convention for the protection of individuals with regard to automatic processing of personal data.

Now that there has been a brief account in respect of the history of Data Protection law in the United Kingdom, it is possible to thrust into the main purpose of this article; that is to consider Data Protection in the context of the EU Referendum.

If the UK votes to remain in the European Union then in May 2018 the United Kingdom will have to comply with the General Data Protection Regulation (which, being a Regulation, will have direct effect regardless as to whether the UK Parliament enacts a new Data Protection Act or not) together with the associated Directives; including whatever eventually replaces the 2002 e-Privacy Directive.  The associated Directives, together with some of the fudges in the new Regulation, will likely mean that there will be a new Data Protection Act to replace the current Act (probably towards the end of 2017).

If the UK votes to leave the European Union what happens is a bit more uncertain.  A vote to leave the EU will not mean that there is a complete end to the UK’s relationship with the EU, and that will have an impact on Data Protection.

The first thing to note is that a vote to leave will not mean an instantaneous split.  There currently isn’t really a process for an EU Member State to leave the Union so some time will be spent working out how that happens and there will inevitably be a time spent negotiating a new relationship with the EU; whether that is inside of or outside of the EEA.  It seems quite likely that we will still be in the EU come May 2018, which might mean that the GDPR will automatically apply – but that is entirely dependent upon what happens in terms of negotiations between the vote to leave and May 2018.

If the United Kingdom simply becomes part of the EEA then the result, insofar as Data Protection is concerned, will be identical to a vote to remain; the GDPR applies to the EEA countries (presently being Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway) as well as to EU Member States.

If the United Kingdom leaves the EU and doesn’t join the EEA there will be bit more freedom in respect of Data Protection.  However, the requirement for Data Controllers within EU Member States not to transfer personal data to a country outside of the EU/EEA, unless there is an adequate level of protection for personal data, will mean that we will continue to have some form of Data Protection law.

It is possible that the UK could meet the adequate level of protection requirement with rights that are substantially lower than those afforded by the DGPR (when it enters into force) and so the UK’s Data Protection law will not necessarily be all that similar to the GDPR – especially if the government of the day is one that favours light-touch regulation and a lack of “red tape”.  That means that even if the UK is forced to comply with the GDPR initially, Data Protection law in the UK could change dramatically to something that affords much less protection than the GDPR.  What the law will look like though will not only depend upon the ideals of the government of the day, but what they think would be politically acceptable; over the last 30 or so years people have become much more wary about what governments, public agencies and businesses do with their personal data; so while the political will might be to substantially lower the level of protection afforded to individual’s personal data, the public will might not let them go quite as far as they wish!

In short, the future of Data Protection law in the UK will be very much influenced by the result of the Referendum and the eventual relationship with the EU in the event of a vote to leave.

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.

Criminal Justice, Criminal Law, English Law, Legal System

The law and historic cases: sensible or bizarre?

It has been reported by the BBC today that president of the ‘Association of Child Abuse Lawyers’ has said the way in which Rolf Harris was sentenced was ‘bizarre’. He is referring to the fact that in historic cases the judge passing sentence is limited to the maximum sentence that was available at the time of the offence. In the Harris case this was 2 years (or 5 years in the cases where the victim was under the age of 13).

There are a lot of historic sexual assault and abuse cases trundling their way through the justice system. It is right that, no matter how many years later, the perpetrators of these crimes face justice. However, there is a significant issue in such cases; whether it is a sexual offence or not. As time progresses and as Government’s change, the law too goes through change. If you’re prosecuting an individual 20 or 30 years after the offence was committed it is highly likely that the law has undergone several significant changes: that is true with the law surrounding sexual offences. In all cases historic offences will be prosecuted according to the law at the time the offence was committed. The other alternative is to prosecute them under the law at the time they are prosecuted.

Why do we prosecute historic cases at the time they were committed? Well, it’s about what is fair and just. Justice is not just about the victim, but it must equally be about the offender. It would be oppressive if the law were to treat offences committed decades ago as if they were committed today. It is a general principle of law in democratic countries around the world, especially in the realm of criminal law, that the law is not retrospective. That means that current changes in the law should not affect future consequences of past conduct. In other words, if you did something that was a particular criminal offence which attracted a particular maximum penalty, but by the time you are prosecuted the law has changed, you should be treated (as far as is reasonably practicable) as you would have been when you committed the crime. The same would be true if you committed a crime today, but the law changed substantially tomorrow: you would be dealt with as the law was today and not as the law changed tomorrow – even if there was no substantial delay in arresting, charging and prosecuting you.

In the Rolf Harris case he was prosecuted for the offences that he committed at the time. As such, the maximum penalty that was available to the court was that which would have been available at the time the offence was committed (2 years, or 5 in the case of offences relating to children under the age of 13). Specifically, in the case of Rolf Harris his sentence of 5 years and 9 months was made up of a mixture of concurrent and consecutive sentences for the various charges that he was convicted of. The sentencing remarks of Mr Justice Sweeny are available online and detail what the charges were and what the sentence was for each charge (and whether it was to be served concurrently or consecutively). You can read the sentencing remarks here.

When it comes to sentencing cases like this one where there has been such a delay in bringing the offender to justice, it is not the job of the court to try and fix the sentence that would have been given at the time. The judge must have regard to the sentencing guidelines that are currently in place; however, they cannot pass a sentence which would exceed the maximum available at the time the offence was committed. I blogged in this issue last year looking specifically at the law of England and Wales, you can read that blog here.

Sentencing is always a complex matter, but it is even more complex in these cases. While there will, quite understandably, be no sympathy for people like Rolf Harris; the law must be fair and it must be just. That applies to victim and offender and so the law must not be oppressive by prosecuting people for more serious offences than what they committed (while under the current law they may well have committed the more serious offence, they did not actually commit that offence because they offended at a time when the law was quite different) or by giving them a sentence that is in excess of the maximum that was available at the time they committed the offence.

I won’t make any comment on whether I think the sentence Rolf Harris received was too harsh, too lenient or about right. I understand that the sentence has been referred by someone to the Attorney General and it is now for him to decide whether he thinks that it is unduly lenient and whether it ought to be referred to the Court of Appeal. When he is doing so he will have regard to the sentences passed, the law as it was at the time the offences were committed the present sentencing guidelines and no doubt the totality of the sentence passed. My understanding of the law is that the Attorney General has 28 days to decide whether he is going to refer it to the Court of Appeal. Even if the Attorney General decides to refer it to the Court of Appeal they may refuse to hear the case or decide that the sentence should remain the same: a referral does not mean that the sentence will increase or that it was unduly lenient.

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.