Am I a legal commentator or not?

I had to face a quandary today — am I a legal com­ment­ator or not? I write a blog, which has been known to dis­cuss legal mat­ters in the pub­lic aware­ness, or indeed com­ment on indi­vidual cases, from time to time. But is that enough? And does it even mat­ter?

The reason for this thought is that the Lord Chief Justice has today issued a new prac­tice guideline, cov­er­ing who may tweet, or use other forms of text-based com­mu­nic­a­tion, from inside the courtroom. A “journ­al­ist or legal com­ment­ator” is not required to ask per­mis­sion before doing so, every­one else is required to ask per­mis­sion of the presid­ing judge.

There is a prob­lem in this guid­ance though. There is no test to identify who is a legal com­ment­ator. Journ­al­ists are usu­ally able to rel­at­ively eas­ily identify them­selves as such if chal­lenged. How­ever, there is no single identi­fy­ing fea­ture for the dis­par­ate group of us who from time to time com­ment on the law. Should we carry a prin­tout of our blog, per­haps?

So is the cat­egory of legal com­ment­ator of any use to indi­vidu­als? I sus­pect not. If I tweet from court without ask­ing on the basis that I am a legal com­ment­ator, I doubt assert­ing that I am would aid me if the judge notices that I haven’t asked and hauls me up to explain myself under threat of the pro­vi­sions in the Con­tempt of Court Act.

There­fore, even if I con­sider myself a legal com­ment­ator, I would sub­mit that, for other than accred­ited journ­al­ists, the best course of action is always to ask per­mis­sion of the presid­ing judge, via the court staff. The prac­tice guid­ance, by its lack of defin­i­tion of who are mem­bers of its per­mit­ted cat­egor­ies of tweeters, leaves too much room for mis­un­der­stand­ing. As in indi­vidual, I wouldn’t want to run the risk of any such mis­un­der­stand­ing caus­ing me grief.

To some, court dress is important.

Get­ting up and talk­ing in front of people is one of these activ­it­ies that does not often come nat­ur­ally. I have been doing in dif­fer­ent ways from around the age of 13 — the thick end of thirty years, now. I have done it in a wide range of forms — on stage in plays and pub­lic speak­ing com­pet­i­tions at school and uni­ver­sity. Present­a­tions to cli­ents and to audi­ences of peers at work–related con­fer­ences and events. I have pitched for work, I have spoken at fam­ily cel­eb­ra­tions. I have toasted friends and col­leagues, I have been the anonym­ous voice telling audi­ences what to do on leav­ing the theatre. You think I’d be used to it by now.

Not really. It’s true that skills become more finely–honed by prac­tice. It’s easier for me to flow whilst speak­ing now — the words come easier, take a shape and a struc­ture, hit the points I wish to make and leave the audi­ence (I hope!) con­tent with what I have expressed and the way in which I have expressed it.

But I’m not a nat­ural pub­lic speaker. The thought of stand­ing up and say­ing things to other people used to scare the liv­ing day­lights out of me. Actu­ally doing it was not much bet­ter — and the win­dow just before start­ing was par­tic­u­larly hor­rible. It took an effort of will for me to stand out there and speak. Some people can do this without appar­ent effort. Most people can­not.

But one of the things that made it easier was the pre­par­a­tion. On the stage, I’m in cos­tume and makeup, per­form­ing the rôle. On a stage at a tech­nical con­fer­ence, I (now) have my own little rituals of pre­par­a­tion[1]. Even toast­ing my Dad’s birth­day, I still draw myself together, neaten the shirt, smooth the tie, pre­pare to be watched as much as listened to.

I read today that in the Supreme Court, that (if all advoc­ates agree) the wear­ing of formal court dress — wig and gown — can be dis­pensed with. I fer­vently hope that this prac­tice is seen to be an excep­tion, and does not become exten­ded to the lower courts. There are sev­eral reas­ons for me think­ing this.

Firstly, the fact that the justices of the Supreme Court do not wear robes or wigs is a his­tor­ical acci­dent. The beha­viour was impor­ted to the Supreme Court from its pre­de­cessor body, the Judi­cial Com­mit­tee of the House of Lords, which main­tained the fic­tion that it was not actu­ally a court and there­fore its mem­bers dressed in day dress, not court robes.

Secondly, there is no sci­en­tific­ally reli­able evid­ence on whether any­one thinks how advoc­ates or judges dress (with one excep­tion) mat­ters. The excep­tion is the Fam­ily Court, where the require­ment to put vul­ner­able or young wit­nesses in as famil­iar an envir­on­ment as a court can be made to be, should (rightly, I believe) be para­mount. Apart from that though, there is no ser­i­ous stat­ist­ic­ally rig­or­ous research done on the ques­tion. And simplistic ques­tion­ing will get the simplistic answer. But the level of answer is only lim­ited by the ques­tioner — I could frame a ques­tion that would get crim­inal cases at the Crown Court heard by someone wear­ing a black trackie, with lilac and red pip­ing, no prob­lem!

So now that change for his­tor­ical reas­ons and for per­cep­tion reas­ons are elim­in­ated, I want to set out my stand. As a very junior poten­tial future advoc­ate, I like the wig and robe. Even though I have never worn one.

I believe it allows people to step bey­ond them­selves, and assume the rôle.

We are asked to take whatever case we are given, whether we believe in it or not. We are asked to pro­sec­ute the poten­tially inno­cent and decent the poten­tially guilty, without fear or favour. The cab rank rule applies — we have no say in the cases that are given to us. And those are good and neces­sary things for the admin­is­tra­tion of justice. One of the coun­ter­bal­ances to this in my view, how­ever, is that it is import­ant, espe­cially for those new to advocacy, is to phys­ic­ally have the act of being the advoc­ate, and the act of becom­ing the indi­vidual again. The dis­tinc­tion between indi­vidual and job per­formed. And, for a lot of people (and I hope to be one of them) this is sig­ni­fied by the put­ting on of the wig and gown.

It’s the assump­tion of the rôle, the pre­par­at­ory step that takes you bey­ond your­self as an indi­vidual. The don­ning of the wig and gown is the phys­ical act that turns the per­son into the rôle. Game on, as it were.

At the levels of the Supreme Court, at which only the most com­pet­ent, the most in com­mand, the most skilled are ever likely to prac­tise — I can see that there is not neces­sar­ily any need for the advoc­ates and bar­ris­ters there to be in court dress. How­ever, in the lower courts, there are many people who take some com­fort in the wig and gown. I know I will. It may seem to be a trivial thing, an ana­chron­ism in this day and age. But to those who wear it and those who aspire to wear it, it can rep­res­ent some­thing that is the rep­res­ent­a­tion of some­thing more import­ant than them­selves as a per­son.

I real­ise this is an entirely emo­tional argu­ment, and one that can be eas­ily countered. Is it there­fore a just a cypher that I look up to? Maybe I need to find another less phys­ical man­tra that allows me to go “game on”. But given that there is no stat­ist­ic­ally rig­or­ous evid­ence that any­one finds the wig and gown to be an issue (let alone com­par­at­ively how import­ant an issue), and given that I like its abil­ity to step me out of “me” and into what I need to do — let’s ignore this for a bit. I’ll keep the wig and gown I hope to wear, if that’s all right. I’ll ditch them in an instant if if any­one can prove that people think that mat­ters.

Take your change and keys out your pocket. You won’t nervously play with them in your pocket. For the love of god, think how it looks…”

Calculate your Open University Law Degree classification

Some­time ago I pos­ted a link to another blog con­tain­ing a link to a degree clas­si­fic­a­tion cal­cu­lator for Open Uni­ver­sity degrees. How­ever, the way the clas­si­fic­a­tion is cal­cu­lated for OU law degrees is slightly dif­fer­ent. Luck­ily, it’s pretty simple to work out.

The OU law degree con­sists of 4 man­dat­ory courses: W200, W201, W300 and W301. For W200 and W201, mul­tiply your grade (1−−4) for each course by 60. For W300 and W301, mul­tiply it by 120 (to reflect the degree of sig­ni­fic­ance for these courses). Take those four num­bers and add them together. Their sum will give your class of degree:

  • 630 or fewer — First class hon­ours
  • 631−−900 — Upper second class hon­ours
  • 901−−1170 — Lower second class hon­ours
  • 1171 or more — Third class hon­ours

There is one trick to this. If you have a poor res­ult in either W200 or W201, you can replace half of it with a bet­ter res­ult in one of the law short courses: W221, W222, W223 or W224. For example:

Grade 3 pass of W200: 3 × 60 = 180 points.
Grade 3 pass of W200 and a Grade 1 pass of W223: 3 × 30 plus 1 × 30 = 120 points

That can be enough to pull you up a grade!

Just for com­plete­ness — while you need to sit 360 points’ worth of courses, it is (with the excep­tion noted above) only the 240 points of the man­dat­ory law courses that count to your law degree clas­si­fic­a­tion.

Source: (and a really use­ful read for all OU law stu­dents) Choos­ing your path to an Open Uni­ver­sity Law degree: a guide

Royal and Sun Alliance Insurance — where does this ultimately lead?

My gut instinct regard­ing my last post on Royal and Sun Alli­ance Insurance’s busi­ness struc­ture increas­ing the costs of acci­dent repair was that it was unlikely to be the end of the mat­ter. Per­mis­sion had been gran­ted to appeal; I fully expec­ted to see the mat­ter be resolved there. But that would only determ­ine the law as it applied to the fac­tual mat­rix of the case in ques­tion. That approach would be unlikely to help other cases much — it would be open to argue that the fac­tual mat­rix was suf­fi­ciently dif­fer­ent that the appeal judg­ment did not apply. This clearly would not address the core ques­tion.

Provid­ent Insur­ance has decided though to take a dif­fer­ent approach: to seek determ­in­a­tion from the Com­mer­cial Court — a spe­cial­ist branch of the Queen’s Bench Divi­sion of the High Court — as to whether RSAI’s com­mer­cial model is leg­ally cor­rect. In the case I last wrote about, it was held (at County Court level) that it was not, but clearly there has been a dif­fer­ence of opin­ion between County Courts. RSAI has agreed that it’s desir­able that its busi­ness prac­tice in ques­tion be tested for leg­al­ity.

So in Coles & Ors v Heth­er­ton & Ors [2011] EWCH 2405 (Comm) Provid­ent and RSAI have both brought claims between them­selves in the High Court itself (nor­mally they are pre­cluded from doing so because of the likely size of award), and trans­ferred in cases from the County Courts. The next step will be the selec­tion of lead cases in this mat­ter.

This is all at a very early stage, but it has poten­tially far–reaching effects. The lead cases will determ­ine the shape of the case as it will be heard, but there are more situ­ations than just vehicle repair paid by an insurer where a corporation’s internal group struc­ture can lead to addi­tional costs being passed to the per­son who ulti­mately pays. In the case pre­vi­ously men­tioned it was entirely unclear why addi­tional costs were levied by the inter­me­di­ate insurer–owned com­pany, and this is why some County Courts have rejec­ted such addi­tional costs.

How­ever, there could be poten­tial situ­ations where such addi­tional char­ging was trans­par­ent, and also neces­sit­ated by a busi­ness struc­ture chosen for legit­im­ate other reas­ons, for example tax min­im­isa­tion. Whether increas­ing the cost to the end con­sumer in order to achieve an unre­lated advant­age­ous fin­an­cial out­come for the com­pany as a whole is the ulti­mate ques­tion here, and one that is very inter­est­ing indeed.

Case Comment: Fallows v Harkers Transport (Royal and Sun Alliance, vehicle insurance)

Mr Fal­lows’ car was dam­aged by a vehicle owned by the defend­ants. Liab­il­ity was not an issue. Mr. Fal­lows’ vehicle was insured by Royal and Sun Alli­ance, who sought to recover their costs from the defendant’s insurers. The costs were £1825.53. Not a large sum. How­ever, the defend­ants objec­ted.

The reason for the objec­tion was that Royal and Sun Alli­ance arranged repair via a wholly-owned sub­si­di­ary, which then con­trac­ted with a sub­con­tractor, who actu­ally repaired the vehicle. The sub­con­tractor billed the sub­si­di­ary the sum of £1542.78. The sub­si­di­ary added on fur­ther costs, and billed Royal and Sun Alli­ance.

In Rom­ford County Court, the defend­ants ques­tioned the sum claimed. It was held that, given the duty to mit­ig­ate, the best evid­ence of reas­on­able cost of repairs was that which RSA’s sub­si­di­ary nego­ti­ated with the sub­con­tractor. There was no evid­ence that RSA itself could only nego­ti­ate a higher price. While admin­is­tra­tion costs have been allowed by the courts in the past, there are no decisions allow­ing them to a sub­rog­ated insurer, let alone a sub­rog­ated insurer’s sub­sid­ary. And in coun­ter­bal­ance, there are decisions where admin­is­tra­tion costs have been dis­al­lowed.

The Judge (Platt J) said:

Since RSAARL is wholly owned by RSA the effect of these extra charges if they are paid by defend­ants is simply to boost RSA Group’s profits bey­ond the actual cost of repair by the mar­gins inser­ted by RSAARL. I can find no basis in law for say­ing that this is a course of action which a claimant insurer is entitled to take [..]. On the evid­ence the defend­ant has clearly estab­lished a fail­ure to mit­ig­ate on the part of the claimant.

Now that this judg­ment is pub­lic, the util­ity of this busi­ness arrange­ment to RSA is prob­ably moot. Other insurers could use the same model. This how­ever was found to be likely to lead to an increase in costs to the insured mem­bers of the pub­lic of some 25%.

RSA were held liable in costs to the defend­ant — exceed­ingly unusual in a small claim. Even though they were the claimant, they almost com­pletely failed to com­ply with pre–action pro­tocol and with the court–ordered dis­cov­ery pro­cess. For example, the exist­ence of a formal invoice from the repairer to RSA’s sub­si­di­ary was not dis­closed, even once its exist­ence had become appar­ent dur­ing the trial.

Per­mis­sion was given to appeal.

Judg­ment in the case can be found on BAILII at Fal­lows v. Hark­ers Trans­port (A Firm) [2011] EW Misc 16.

Your data in the Cloud is not secure from the US Government

Data stor­age in the cloud is clearly the where things are mov­ing just now. Given the pleth­ora of devices people have — com­puters at home, laptops and tab­lets on the move, smart­phones in the pocket, it makes per­fect sense for all of a person’s devices to use a single, com­mon repos­it­ory for shared inform­a­tion. Ser­vices such as Apple’s forth­com­ing iCloud at the domestic level, and commonly–used ser­vices such as Google’s Google Apps, and Microsoft’s Office 365 all store your data in their own clouds.

You’d think that this would be done with respect to Data Pro­tec­tion laws. Wrong. If the USA wants your data, the USA gets it. My friends Simon Bis­son and Mary Branscombe have the details: regard­less of European pri­vacy dir­ect­ives and the UK Data pro­tec­tion act, the US see the PATRIOT act over­rid­ing these for US com­pan­ies and EU sub­si­di­ar­ies of US com­pan­ies:

That means that US gov­ern­ment can (under the aus­pices of the act) request the data of any indi­vidual or com­pany that’s using US-owned or hos­ted ser­vices, no mat­ter where that data is actu­ally being held. It doesn’t mat­ter if you’ve geo-locked your data, and it only resides in European data centres, it can still be requisi­tioned and taken to the US. Yes, it’s an issue of national secur­ity, but when res­ults can be found by machine learn­ing and trawl­ing massive data sets (the lar­ger the bet­ter), there’s a tempta­tion for gov­ern­ments to take all they can and more.

Undoubtedly this will lead to much hand–wringing in the EU Par­lia­ment. How­ever, what can be done? It is unlikely that the USA will give up their powers.

There­fore, the only solu­tion is in the hands of indi­vidu­als and com­pan­ies wish­ing to use cloud ser­vices — only use cloud ser­vices from wholly–EU–owned com­pan­ies host­ing your data inside the EU. While the legal pro­tec­tions you will have in those cir­cum­stances are not huge, they are bet­ter than none at all.

Oh — an after­thought. How happy do you now feel, if per­haps you have just given a whole heap of your per­sonal inform­a­tion to Google, dur­ing the Google Plus sign–up pro­cess?

Hookway — I was there

Back in the middle of may, I had just fin­ished study­ing my judi­cial review mod­ules on my law course, and I thought it would be a good use of a free day to head to court to see judi­cial review in prac­tice. As luck would have it, there was a case lis­ted that day, the 16th May, at Manchester Civil Justice Centre:

R (Chief Con­stable of Manchester Police) v Salford City Magis­trates, case CO/3649/2011

Inter­est­ing, thought I. There had been a few cases in my notes where a decision of a Magis­trates Court had been judi­cially reviewed, but not any on the behest of the police. I decided to attend.

Of course, this case is now known as Hook­way. I really couldn’t have chosen a bet­ter case to sit in upon, in terms of its reper­cus­sions.

The prob­lem high­lighted by the case can be sum­mar­ised pretty quickly. Once the police arrest someone, they only have a cer­tain num­ber of hours to ques­tion them before they must be released. That time can be exten­ded, but only to a point. The ques­tion is, when a per­son is released on bail, is the “clock” still run­ning, or has it been paused?
It has been police prac­tice to assume the lat­ter as long as the cur­rent régime, intro­duced in the Police and Crim­inal Evid­ence Act 1984, has been in force; but the sec­tions in ques­tion — 41 to 47 — are remark­ably unclear, and in fact make no men­tion of the clock stop­ping.

In the court itself, there were eight people. Mr Justice McCombe, the court clerk, one usher, two police­men, one police soli­citor, Ms. A Whyte QC, and me. Salford Magis­trates and Paul Hook­way were not rep­res­en­ted.

Every­one in the courtroom that day knew this applic­a­tion was dif­fi­cult, and that it had con­sequences. Every­one was fully aware that the reper­cus­sions of uphold­ing the lower court’s rul­ing would be far–reaching. Ms. Whyte QC ably led the court through the com­plex­it­ies of the legis­la­tion, point­ing out, entirely fairly given that the defend­ants did not appear, the per­spect­ive from both sides of the argu­ment. There was abso­lutely no pre­vi­ous author­ity on the ques­tion, and only one aca­demic work (which was not on point to the ques­tion at hand). The Judge and Ms Whyte slowly and care­fully picked their way through the six rel­ev­ant sec­tions of the act, tak­ing over two hours to do so.

It was hugely inter­est­ing to watch these people dis­sect­ing the sec­tions of the act in vari­ous ways, try­ing to tease out the pre­cise mean­ing of the words of the act. Ser­i­ous people, at a ser­i­ous task.

Sadly, I was unable to attend the handing–down of the judg­ment, which happened on Thursday the 19th May. The judg­ment wasn’t made pub­lic until the middle of June — and then, of course, there has been the usual raft of pub­li­city. While there has been some reas­on­able cov­er­age in the press, it’s sad to see that cov­er­age des­cen­ded rap­idly in the BBC and the Guard­ian.

Today, two devel­op­ments have occurred. The Supreme Court have turned down a request for a stay of the rul­ing, prior to their hear­ing an appeal from it on the 25th of July. And on Thursday, the Gov­ern­ment are intro­du­cing legis­la­tion to over­turn the rul­ing.

While the details of the legis­la­tion are yet to be pub­lished, it is very likely that they will change the law to how it was believed to be prior to the rul­ing in Hook­way. This may be a missed oppor­tun­ity. Let­ters in the Guard­ian sug­gest police bail can be abused, by the impos­i­tion of restric­tions dur­ing bail. Rather than enact in law a patch to re-estab­lish the status quo, might it be time to take a long look at the legis­la­tion sur­round­ing arrest, deten­tion and bail, and re–enact it to get rid of its incon­sist­en­cies, lack of clar­ity, and exploits?

Back up your information in Google — Google Takeout

Wor­ried about the amount of inform­a­tion you have stored in Google ser­vices? Fear not. Just launched today is Google Takeout — which allows you to take a local backup of (so far, some of) the inform­a­tion stored in sev­eral of the Google ser­vices.

It’s not yet full–featured: it only allows backup from Google Buzz, Con­tact and Circles, Picasa Web Albums and from your Google pro­file. But the Data Lib­er­a­tion Front prom­ise to add the abil­ity to back up other Google ser­vices over time.

This is their blog post announ­cing the ser­vice. Remem­ber: backup early, backup often.

More on media responsibility and injunctions

A month or so ago I wrote an art­icle on here about how the rise in injunc­tions gran­ted pro­tect­ing the iden­tity of the parties was the fault of the tabloids, and it’s good to see that in writ­ing that, I was agree­ing with the views of Stephen Sed­ley, the recently–retired judge of the Court of Appeal.

In an art­icle in the Lon­don Review of Books: The Good­win and Giggs Show (which I found via Roy Greenslade’s blog entry about it in the Guard­ian) he says: 

The nam­ing of Good­win and Giggs is on a dif­fer­ent plane from min­is­terial brief­ings against judges, inap­pro­pri­ate as these are, because it dis­rupts the his­toric equi­lib­rium between the judi­ciary and the legis­lature. The media may present them­selves as amused spec­tat­ors, but it is they who have pro­voked and exploited the break­down of an ele­ment in the demo­cracy they them­selves inhabit.

A sen­ti­ment with which I whole­heartedly agree. And rather than sort out this per­fectly obvi­ous ele­phant in the room, senior politi­cians spend their time attack­ing the judges, rather than the media:

This is why the issues are large. It can be cred­ibly said that the fourth estate is close to being a state within the state, unreg­u­lated except to the mod­est extent that it chooses to reg­u­late itself and altern­ately feared and pandered to by pub­lic fig­ures.

Formal reg­u­la­tion, I’d sug­gest, is over­due.

Mind you, in the UK at least we have the back­ground of some pro­tec­tion via the right to pri­vacy enshrined via Art­icle 8 of the European Con­ven­tion on Human Rights. A per­son whom I fol­low on twit­ter re–tweeted this link to an blog post by pop­star and new mum Pink, com­plain­ing about paparazzi try­ing to grab pho­tos of her new daugh­ter. At least in the UK and Europe that (fol­low­ing the case brought by JK Rowl­ing for breach of her son’s pri­vacy) is not allowed.

And in related news to do with the media: jury dis­charged before con­sid­er­ing whether Levi Belfield abduc­ted Rachel Cowles because of adverse pub­li­city over his con­vic­tion of the murder of Milly Dowler. They couldn’t even wait until ver­dicts were brought in on all charges. The media simply don’t care about justice, or you — it’s all about the story.

W223: Company Law — got a distinction!

That was unex­pec­ted! I got noti­fic­a­tion yes­ter­day that I’d been awar­ded a dis­tinc­tion on the Open Uni­ver­sity law course I did last winter: W223: Com­pany law and prac­tice.

The dis­tinc­tion was an unex­pec­ted pleas­ure as I thought I was only in 2:1 ter­rit­ory — I didn’t think I had quite the grade aver­age neces­sary across the marked assign­ments — the Open Uni­ver­sity gen­er­ally requires that your clas­si­fic­a­tion for a course will be the lower of your achieve­ment in the final exam / end–of–course assign­ment, and of the aver­age of your marked assign­ments through­out the course — though I knew I was only a per­cent­age point or two short.

So, les­sons learned from this course:

  • Don’t overly con­cern your­self if you think you’re one or two per­cent­age points short. Don’t use it as an excuse to drop your stand­ards.
  • Take time on end–of–course assign­ments. Everything you need, fac­tu­ally, is there. What can get you the bonus marks is a mat­ter of look­ing a little fur­ther — research the cur­rent state of the law and aca­demic com­ment about the ques­tions at hand. Incor­por­ate these into your answer, and cite every asser­tion you make.
  • Make sure your bib­li­o­graphy and ref­er­ences are full and accur­ate: include every paper you read and found to be rel­ev­ant, even if you didn’t use it. You never know when some­thing has uncon­sciously slipped through.
  • And finally, again, take time. Whilst mak­ing sure you can sub­mit on time, use the last day for a re-read. Out loud. It’s amaz­ing how many little gram­mat­ical slips you can find that way.

I enjoyed this course, and didn’t find it a slog at any point. But have to admit I’m very happy with the res­ult.