Category Archives: Uncategorized

Access to Law Anyone?

Everyone should have the ability to understand and to access the law. The legal system of England and Wales takes pride the quality of its judiciary and seeks to ensure that everyone is equal before the courts.

In a recent public lecture, lawyers and law professors explained how law can be used as a tool by anyone. It can be applied in ways that can empower people and help them to solve complex problems, it can also be used to prevent disputes getting out of hand or to apply pressure for social change or to obtain justice. This doesn’t seem entirely realistic: ‘Anyone’ can research the law if they are equipped with access to a case law database for a small fee, ‘anyone’ can decipher statute if they have the right education and familiarity with legalese. ‘Anyone’ could use the law as a tool provided they know how to access the law and have the time and expertise to do so.

Although the law does not necessarily ensure fair and just outcomes, it can be used as a tool to challenge unfair circumstances. Decisions are not always black and white, and in some areas, law simply provides a starting point for relationships and transactions between people. The law is more of a scaffolding for our interactions, it helps us to lay down rules on how we behave and how we do business in society. If the general public aren’t able to understand the law, we limit its use as a structural tool for society.

Appointing a lawyer to decipher decisions or statute should not be prerequisite, it should be a choice. Of course looking up legal issues is very time-consuming, however it shouldn’t be written and recorded in a way that intimidates and confuses those who have neither studied nor worked in a legal environment. Most important decisions are only available to read in full on legal databases for which you must pay and subscribe. Not only lay-people, but also foreign legal professionals are often on the wrong side of the paywall: a French law professor, writing an article on comparitive criminal law, was recently reduced to asking me to look up a legal decision in the database for her.

It is not only the subscription based databases or the structure of the legal profession that are a barrier, but also the language in which the law is written and the lack of support for the average person to help them to understand the law. Legal aid cuts are going to make this an even bigger problem, lawyer’s fees being too high for many people seeking legal advice. Many are put off by the high fees and the unapproachable image of the stereotypical lawyer.

The changes to legal aid which seem increasingly inevitable, will put pressure on the already overflowing law centres and citizens advice bureaus. Providing low-cost advice and guidance to the law could be hugely helpful in coming to terms with the changing legal climate – making the law more accessible.

Will England and Wales become a two-tier society where those who can afford legal advice are able to intimidate those who cannot? The upcoming cuts to legal aid must not lead to a legal system that fails those who cannot pay.

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London Legal Walk 2012

I’m taking part in the London Legal Walk today, in aid of London Legal Support Trust which raises money for law centres and legal advice agencies. I’m walking for the Inner Temple team and we’re still trying to reach our target.  The 10km walk will lead us through some of London’s most notable legal landmarks and is one of the largest gatherings of legal professionals in the world.

CCDP: Privacy Law and Monitoring the Public

The Communications Capabilities Development Programme (CCDP) seeks to monitor the communications the public in the UK. The government is implementing it’s policy under he guise of combatting terrorism and crime, however human and civil rights groups are concerned this will lead to a severe invasion of privacy for UK citizens.

This could mean that internet service providers will be encouraged to to install so-called ‘black boxes’ at key points in their network. These boxes would use the technology of deep packet inspection which can track and investigate virtually every communication stream in the UK. They can also detect who is visiting the site, who is chatting with whom, on the phone or writing e-mails, Privacy International explains.

David Cameron claims that this proposal sets out to keep our country safe from serious organised crime and also from terrorist threats that we are still faced with in this country. But as Privacy International (PI) explained: “In a terrorism investigation, the police will already have access to all the data they could want. This is about other investigations.” With CCTV cameras on every corner, this seems like another unwelcome addition to something resembling a police state in the UK. Private conversations between individuals should remain private, using this technology to scrutinise the general public is both invasive and unnecessary. Emma Draper of PI goes on to say  that the information gathered in this new programme would be “available to local law enforcement for use in any investigation and would be available without any judicial oversight.”

The government states that these concessions are needed to prevent the anonymous communication between terrorists online. How will this apply to the average law abiding citizen and what repercussions will this have on our basic freedoms?

The state has already got the necessary tools to implement various surveillance measures in relation to suspected terrorist and criminals. The governments plan would lead to the gathering and storing of vast amounts of information relating to each individual regardless of suspicion or guilt. It remains unclear whether this would even be technically possible to monitor and scrutinize the public on such a large scale particularly when the such communications are encrypted.

The implementation of CCDP would also come at a great cost which would amount to billions of pounds and would be a new attack on the privacy of the population by the state. The majority of the public appear share these concerns and the media coverage has been largely negative.  Over 150.000 people have signed various petitions to stop the proposed legislation. However the government is intending to stick to their original plans. Despite the fact that before the previous general election both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives pledged that they would move away from the police state mentality. Nick Pickles from Big Brother Watch  has stated that they must be reminded to keep their word, to prevent that this large amount of information relating to innocent people isn’t collected.

In order to halt the bill, different NGOs such as Privacy International, the Open Rights Group, the Foundation for Information Policy Research and Big Brother Watch have organised a conference on the 19th of April at the London School of Economics in order to discuss the possible effects of the bill. These groups are seeking to spread awareness about the negative consequences the bill could have. On the conference website it states that  “the goal is to bring together a variety of stakeholders interested in surveillance policy for an open exchange of views.”

In a democracy such an invasion of privacy is unacceptable, the CCPD would place the UK at the same level as authoritarian states such as Kazakhstan or Iran. In countries such as Germany the approach to privacy is vastly different and privacy laws are much more stringent such actions by the state are much more restricted. This bill could have dire effects on both the human rights and freedoms of individuals who have no reason to be monitored by the state.

Legal Aid Cuts

On Friday I’m off to interview the staff at the Hackney Law Centre on how the Legal Aid cuts and the Legal Aid Bill are going to affect people. Here is a link to an excerpt of yesterday’s BBC’s Today programme on legal aid

http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9696000/9696477.stm

Unpaid Work Experience at Tesco

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) scheme (which has been going since last summer) allows companies to take on unemployed young people without paying them. Under the scheme young people do not qualify for the minimum wage and are subject to the Sector Based Work Academies (SBWA) run by the DWP. These jobs are advertised on the job centre plus website paying job seekers allowance + expenses.

While I find the average unpaid work placement quite unethical, having done about 8 of them myself. It seems even more frustrating if the skills taken from that experience are so basic that they should have really given you the job in a matter of hours. I’m not saying those skills are not necessary or not valuable, but having done a trial shift in a pub or a shop I would expect to be fit for the job in the first few hours. Several weeks of working at ASDA, Tesco, Poundland or Sainsbury’s for free seems excessive in terms of ‘training’ people. The most offensive part of the DWP scheme is that these placements are paid for by the tax payer at no cost to the employer. The Job Centre pays for any expenses and the participants remain on Job Seekers allowance throughout the placement, so no cost to the employer at all.

“Participants will remain on benefit throughout the period of the sector-based work academy and Jobcentre Plus will pay any travel and childcare costs whilst they are on the work experience placement. There is no direct cost to an employer for sector-based work academies as the costs are covered by government funding.”

This could be valuable, if the skills the participants were learning were equal to that on a vocational or academic course. However the scheme seems to simply allow big companies to take advantage of a saturated job market (as they are anyway) and profit from free labour. Essentially the government is funding large companies to not pay their employees. How does this affect the permanent employees? How does this affect the self worth of those receiving 53 pounds to work 30 hours a week between 9am and 10pm? How does this make any sense at all?

“A work experience placement in your business will enable participants to develop their skills and have the opportunity to work in a real environment… it provides invaluable benefits for both businesses and individuals participating…The key principle to supporting participants during the placement should be to treat them as regular employees as far as possible whilst they remain on benefits”

If these were apprenticeships I would understand the value of learning new skills, however it just appears to be exploiting unemployed young people, who are already in a difficult position. Tax payers money could be used to help young people start up their own businesses and create more jobs, not to subsidise multinationals who are clearly taking advantage of the scheme.

Police for Hire!

The Metropolitan Police has come under fire after it emerged Richard Branson’s Virgin company paid the Met  police £5,060 towards carrying out an investigation involving Virgin’s TV boxes.

Richard Branson founder of Virgin

After the convictions of 3 defendants in a recent fraud case, it became apparent that Virgin Media paid the police for overtime to conduct raids in east London. The police raids aimed to prove that viewers were using Virgin television boxes without paying for the channels they were watching. The scam would have potentially allowed thousands of viewers to avoid paying fees, costing Virgin millions of pounds.

The issue here, is not whether fraud was being committed by these individuals, but whether it is correct for investigations conducted by the Metropolitan police to be funded by private corporations, who have a direct interest in the operation. The raids were clearly not a priority in terms of the gravity of the crime, therefore the attention given to the case appears to have been induced by money rather than importance. The police raids, which were carried out in east London in 2008, netted 5,000 set-top boxes and £90,000 in cash. Three men were convicted and imprisoned as a result. However, one of the men is now seeking to quash his conviction on the grounds that the police only investigated him because of the money offered by Virgin.

The private work of public services, at a time when public services are already stretched, is alarming. How common are such practices in the Met police?  This information has come to light at a difficult time for the Met police, which has been facing widespread criticism for its handling of the riots and its role in the recent bribery scandal involving Sun journalists. The cuts to the police force are most likely going to stretch their capacity further, and these practices could be harmful by taking away from the high demand for policing across London. Jenny Jones, Green Party mayoral candidate and member in the London Assembly, voiced her concerns on the issue:

“It’s like private policing and I am really shocked that somebody thought this was OK. The police should not accept huge payments from wealthy companies to investigate crimes on their behalf.”

Jenny Jones

She added that this kind of practice could have a detrimental effect on the role taken by the Met Police in tackling serious crime.

“It means such paid work could take priority over murder, rape or child abuse cases, which would distort the Met’s priorities for London.”

Ms Jones stated that she will raise the issue with the Met Commissioner and the deputy mayor for policing.

A Virgin Media spokeswoman said that the joint operation between Virgin Media and the Metropolitan Police, was in accordance with the Police Act 1996. She also claimed that details of the arrangement were fully disclosed in court. The written agreement Between the police authority and Virgin, also guaranteed the Met a ‘cash donation.’ This would amount to 25 per cent of any compensation awarded to Virgin, following a successful conviction over the fraud.

Civil rights groups have accused the police of being selective in their treatment of victims of crime. Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said:

“Times may be tough but that’s no excuse for turning the police into hired guns for those wealthy enough to pursue crimes against them.”

She added that being motivated by money could affect the way that police prioritise their actions in terms of payment and neglect those in need.

“Taking a percentage of a victim’s remuneration is bad enough but even worse is the thought of those in greatest need of protection being turned away in favour of those who can afford to pay.”

As a public service, should it be possible to hire the police for carrying out investigations on behalf of large companies? These practises open the door for murky behaviour by a service that should serve the public interest and uphold the law. It seems to go against the principles of transparency if you can hire the police, in the same way that companies hire mercenaries in failed states, to act on your behalf provided you can pay them. The police must be entirely independent from the influence of private enterprise, in order to sufficiently uphold the law. The police work to protect the public and keep a degree of order, they are not to be used as cheap labour that carry out specific assignments in the interest of and funded by private corporations. 

The Met declined to comment for legal reasons.

Purdah and Cornelia Sorabji: First Female Barrister in India

Another very impressive female legal pioneer is Cornelia Sorabji, who took her law exams in India as early as 1899. She became involved in legal advisory work on behalf of the purdahnashins (see below), these were women who, under Hindu law, were forbidden to communicate with the outside male world and were exempt from appearing in court.  The cases often involved women who owned considerable property, but did not have access to the necessary legal expertise to defend it.

Despite being given special permission to enter pleas on behalf of the purdahnashins before British agents in several principalities, but being a woman, she was unable to defend them in court. Even after gaining her legal qualifications in 1899, Sorabji was not recognized as a barrister until the law, which barred women from practising, was changed in 1924.

After the legal profession was opened to women in India, she began practising in Calcutta. However, she was confined to preparing opinions on cases, rather than pleading them before the court due to discrimination and male bias.  For over 20 years Sorabji helped an estimated 600 women and orphans fight legal battles, sometimes at no cost. She wrote about many of these cases in her books Between the Twilights and her two autobiographies.

The Purdahnashins – The woman with a veil

“Purdah is a curtain which covers the head and neck of a woman, between the community as a whole and the family which is its heart, between the street and the home, the public and the private, just as it sharply separates society and the individual”

The purdah system traditionally seeks to segregate men and women and is more prevalent today in rural areas. The system requires Muslim women to have no contact with men and be covered from head to toe by cloth and often a burkha. While Hindu women traditionally wear a ghoonghat, which covers the head and face and is more prevalent today in smaller towns & villages. Some women only cover their heads as a mark of respect to elders.

A purdahnashin woman

Some critics see purdah as depriving women of economic independence and forces these women to be governed by their male relatives. Originally purdah was intended to be a positive and respectful practice that was supposed to liberate women by providing an aura of respect. By covering themselves, women are looked at as individuals who are judged by their intellect and personality rather than by their physical appearance. However, since the rise of the women’s movement and greater economic and social independence of women, the role of purdah in many cultures has become more controversial. The practice of purdah has almost disappeared in the Hindu culture and is practised to greater and lesser degrees in Muslim areas.