Tag Archives: law

Legal Spoken Word Poetry

Michael Bossone performing ‘PUSH – A Spoken Word Poem about Law, Technology, and Fear’ first shown at Law Tech Camp London 2012 last week.

The conference was dominated by the theme of embracing technology in the legal profession.

German Agency Wants to Snoop Social Networks to Analyse Creditworthiness

A German credit agency in is planning to analyse the creditworthiness of individuals by using information gathered from online sources such as Facebook and other social networking sites.

Schufa, Germany’s  largest credit agency intends to assess peoples ability to make repayments by using “crawling techniques,”  such as those used by Google, for the purpose of “identifying and assessing the prospects and threats.” A spokesman for Schufa told Spiegel Online that “everything is happening within the legal frameworks in Germany.”

Nevertheless, the proposal raises serious concerns over assessing a person’s reputation from information found on the web. Schufa is planning to analyse automatically recorded information on the Internet such as on social networks, and this can then be linked to the stored data gathered by the credit agency. Although Facebook pointed out that according to its terms and conditions, automatic registration of members was actually not permissible.

For a country with some of the strictest privacy laws in Europe, it is no surprise that the proposal has come under a strong criticism. Analysing data related to personal relationships which can be found on Facebook and Twitter in order to judge a persons creditworthiness is a severe invasion of privacy.

Since the German broadcaster NDR reported on the research project last  Thursday there has been a public outcry. Numerous privacy advocates and politicians have strongly criticised the proposal.

Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger,  the German Justice Minister, was quick to condemn the credit agency’s plans. She told the Spiegel that Facebook “friends and preferences” should not prevent an individual from, for example, being able to obtain a mobile phone contract. Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger stated “Schufa and other credit agencies should disclose their full intentions of using Facebook data to check creditworthiness.” She said that the data used to determine someone’s credit report is already controversial and called for the process to be made “fully transparent.”

On Thursday, the Justice Minister was joined by Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner in warning Schufa and HPI about tracing individuals on social networks, and requested further information on the research plans. Rainer Brüderle a parliamentary member of the Free Democrats (FDP) stated that “Schufa’s plans go too far…social networks, like a circle of friends, are part of a person’s private life, and should therefore not be tapped.”

However, the Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI) which was to be commissioned by Schufa to develop a proposal for the project, has now pulled out due to mounting criticism from politicians and privacy advocates. The privately-funded information technology institute was going to explore the extent to which information from the Internet can help in evaluating the creditworthiness of individuals. HPI  announced that it has withdrawn from the contract with Schufa.

In a statement, the institute claimed there had been some “misconceptions” by the general public about their research approach. HPI Director Christoph Meinel stated that the project could no longer be carried out with the ease and in the “unburdened” conditions necessary.

The move by HPI, a clear blow for Schufa, has been welcomed by critics of the proposal, but it is unclear whether the credit agency intends to pursue the project regardless. The proposal could be hugely damaging to the privacy of individuals, linking their private relationships and their online reputation to their creditworthiness seems hugely invasive. Schufa’s plans could have detrimental effects on a person’s everyday life and further highlight the dangers of disclosing personal information on the internet. It is unclear whether Germany, a country with some of the most sophisticated privacy laws in the world would be able to justify such actions in accordance with its legal framework.

US Supreme Court Rejects Blackwater Appeal – What does this mean for the accountability of Private Military Firms?

There are serious legal and human rights concerns about private military companies providing “security services” in conflict areas. Where the strict hierarchical discipline of the military is avoided, you may wonder who these companies are accountable to.

The recent Supreme Court decision regarding Blackwater Worldwide the US private security firm that operated in Iraq has left the door open to the possibility of holding these private firms accountable for unlawful violence in war zones.

On September 16, 2007 heavy gunfire erupted at the busy Nisour Square junction, killing at least 14 civilians including a 9 year old boy and leaving dozens injured. The shots were fired from a convoy of four armoured vehicles manned by Blackwater guards, who maintain that they were acting in self-defence after being shot at by insurgents.

Witnesses claim that the contractors were never in any danger and shot at civilians mercilessly and unprovoked. The chief prosecutor Kenneth Kohl disclosed that other Blackwater guards who had been on the convoy involved in the Nisour Square shootings reported the incident to Blackwater management, one guard describing it as “murder in cold blood“. However it appears that the  management failed to report these statements to the State Department.

The case had previously been thrown out by federal judge Ricardo Urbina on December 31, 2009 who cited misuse of statements made by the defendants by investigators.  The state department had ordered the guards to explain the details of the incident to investigators under the threat of losing their jobs. Their lawyer argued that using these statements to charge the four men amounted to a violation of their  constitutional right against self-incrimination and were made under duress.

However the charges were reinstated in April 2011 when a federal appeals court reopened the case and ordered the review of evidence against each individual defendant. The US Supreme Court refused to dismiss the manslaughter and weapons charges against the four defendants Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, Dustin Heard and Donald Ball and has declined to comment.

This is a small victory in holding private firms accountable for their actions in war zones. The privatisation of war and the use of private military firms is becoming increasingly prevalent and raises serious concerns over accountability. While this is not an isolated incident and it is likely that many unlawful actions by such contractors can go unnoticed due to the nature of their work, it provides a step towards creating a framework in which these companies could be held responsible for their actions.

Due to the transnational nature of many private military firms it is increasingly difficult to hold these companies responsible for the actions of their employees. The fact that these firms work in states in which the government has collapsed or is unable to enforce the necessary laws due to the condition of the state the operations of these firms often go unnoticed even if they are largely acting outside of the law.

Blackwater later changed their name to Xe Services, and after being unable to shake their bad reputation decided on a further name change now calling themselves Academi.

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.

Children In A Legal Vacuum: International Child Abduction

Many of us take on work or studies in a foreign country, and some of us end up having a family with someone of a different nationality. All great for international understanding? Well usually. But if the relationship breaks down, this type of globally mobile lifestyle brings new challenges for the family courts. Where do you file for a divorce? What about custody and visitation? What if the custody battle turns acrimonious?

With the increase in transnational marriages, international parental child abduction has become a serious problem that affects both individual states and the international community.  Parents who feel unfairly treated by the family courts may  “forum shop” taking the kids into a new legal jurisdiction that will be more likely to rule in their favour, thus sparking a re-run of their custody case. The Hague Convention on International Child Abduction is designed specifically to prevent this border-hopping between nations; signatory countries agree to accept decisions already made in another jurisdiction and to promptly return abducted children to their place of habitual residence.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child also obliges states to ensure that national borders are not used to prevent children from having contact with their family. Signatory states commit to ensuring the continuity of a child’s life when a substantial part of it resides in another country.

Yet it is one thing to accept that is in the child’s best interests to maintain contact with their family and promptly return home; it is another to actually carry this out.

While international legal conventions are designed to regulate cross-border disputes and harmonise legal proceedings, these are not always enforced with appropriate urgency and are frequently evaded or blatantly disregarded. Although parental abduction has been defined as amounting to child abuse, the rights of the child are sadly often ignored in international abduction cases, with nationalistic posturing taking precedence.

Families living abroad are away from the steadying influences of friends and extended family, and may also slip through society’s safety nets of schools, doctors, social workers and counsellors. Who is going to follow up on a family that has moved abroad? Who will bother to find out the background of a family newly arrived in a country? If you don’t speak the language, how can you seek advice and counselling? National laws governing family issues must be adapted to the changing international culture and to reflect the ease of international travel and the transnational nature of many modern families.

US-Italy-Russia

The recent case of the Grin/McIlwrath children highlights the numerous failings of the Russian authorities to work together with their Italian counterparts to protect the children involved. Grin, a Russian-born US citizen who was living in Italy, abducted her four children from their American custodial father in Florence. She travelled to Russia with the children despite Italian court rulings which removed her custody rights and indicated that the children were at risk if they remained with her. Her children have since been placed in Chabad-Lubavitch institutes/orphanages in St Petersburg at her request “for their own safety”.

The plight of the children, who are fluent in both English and Italian, has not even been acknowledged by the Russian authorities. It appears that the obligation of the state to ensure their safety and well being, and contact with their family and friends in Italy in the US, has been completely overlooked since they have been moved into a new jurisdiction, despite the fact that Italy, the US and Russia are all signatories to the Hague Convention.

Russian authorities have similarly done nothing to end the children’s isolation from family and friends, nor ensured they are safe from the risks identified in the Italian court proceedings.

Canada-Poland

In a parallel case two Canadian boys, Alexander and Christopher Watkins, were abducted by their Polish mother after her custody was revoked due to child-neglect. The boys were taken via the US and into Germany where the trail went cold. The Canadian authorities voiced serious concerns about the safety of the children and the ability of the mother to care for them, an Interpol red notice was issued and the mother was put on Canada’s most wanted list. When the children were finally located in Poland, the father immediately applied to have the boys returned home. At the December hearing in Poland the judge ruled that the children are now settled in Poland and should not be returned to Canada. This is despite the boys’ school in Poland independently suing the mother for child neglect. The appeal will be heard on May 16th 2012.

Leaving the children in the care of a demonstrably neglectful and potentially abusive parent is a clear breach of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Refusing to return the children to the custodial parent is a violation of the Hague Convention. That Poland as an EU member state is not being held accountable for the misapplication of these laws and agreements as well as blatantly ignoring Interpol red and yellow notices raises concerns for the quality of European law.

Although both cases have a non European element they both involve EU borders. The issues of cross-border problems arising from divorce or family problems should be tackled more effectively within the EU. While there is often talk of the unification of laws in the EU there is a clear lack of co-operation when it comes to family law. In a region in which members of EU states can move freely between and within numerous jurisdictions the legal tools must exist to deal with the resulting problems of this freedom of movement.

It’s not clear why the Hague Convention is largely ignored in many states, possibly it is percieved by the national judiciary as meddling from outside, maybe it’s just a sign of the general distrust of and reluctance to co-operate with another country’s legal systems, or it could just be plain nationalism: siding with the parent of the same nationality.

If the unification of laws in the corporate sector is moving ahead, why are the laws governing our private lives being left behind? The creation of networks such as Interpol, Europol and various UN initiatives have offered little assistance in addressing problems arising from transnational familial relationships, especially those involving children. While numerous national and international legal measures have been created to uphold the rights of the child, their application has been limited. The enforcement of existing laws and international agreements has not been enough to protect children from the dangers of international child abduction.

Immediate action is essential in cases of child abduction because of the age and vulnerability of the children compounded by the volatility of a parent who is putting their own child through the trauma of abduction. Yet both Poland and Russia have failed to act on these cases, posing a serious risk to the children involved. The person posing the greatest danger to an abducted child is the abductor.

This article is also available on the Huffington Post.

Baltasar Garzon Cleared – What does this mean for the Spanish Justice System?

Baltasar Garzon was cleared by the Spanish Supreme Court of overstepping his authority on Monday. He was accused of abusing his judicial powers by opening an investigation into the disappearance of 114,000 individuals during the Franco era. Mr Garzon argued that these were crimes against humanity and therefore could not be subject to a 1977 Amnesty legislation, which prevented the perpetrators from being tried.

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Only one judge on the seven judge panel was in favour of a guilty verdict. However it seems his acquittal was based on a technicality rather than a changing view of the law regarding the issue. Mr Garzon had committed an error when he opened the investigation but it did not constitute a crime. The ruling stated:

“He misinterpreted Spanish law but did not knowingly and arbitrarily violate the limits of his jurisdiction … as would be required for a conviction” 

He was recently found guilty of illegal wiretapping in a separate case, which in Spanish law seems to constitute a rather grey area. This guilty verdict caused him to be suspended from acting as a judge for 11 years, effectively ending the career of the 56 year of judge. He was also accused of corruption in another case which has been thrown out by the Supreme Court.

His supporters and a number of human rights groups have argued that these cases against him were primarily politically motivated. The prominent judge had made many enemies due to his activism, especially launching an investigation into Spain’s recent bloody history. His opponents have argued that writing history should be left to the historians while his supporters want accountability and answers for the crimes committed. The outcome of this case appears to have done little in terms of clarifying the legal issues surrounding Mr Garzon’s conduct and his aims, it has arguably just raised concerns over the legal and political implications of addressing Spain’s past.

A Legal Debate in a Public Space: An Evening at St Paul’s

On Monday I went to a law debate at tent city in Occupy London Stock Exchange (LSX) camp outside St Paul’s cathedral. I had been there more frequently in the autumn, when the weather was milder and I had more time to go to free lectures and engage with people. When I arrived on my bicycle, I encountered a large number of Mercedes and scarily underweight individuals, I was starting to wonder what had happened to the camp. I soon realised that these were the remnants of a London Fashion Week event taking place a couple of yards from the camp. To my relief ‘tent city’ the small tent reserved for debates and lectures was still standing outside St Paul’s cathedral.

After a poem about the law and various disagreements among the occupiers being  about neither “left wing” nor a “political movement”, the debate proceeded. Tom Wolfe (barrister at Matrix Chambers), Sarah Sackman (barrister at Francis Taylor Building)  and Conor Gearty (Professor of human rights at LSE)  stressed the importance of civil action in changing/progressing the law.  The speakers stressed the importance of engaging people in a discussion about social change. Conor Gearty stated that without public spaces it’s impossible to form a protest movement such as Occupy.

Injunction notice outside Paternoster Square stating that the piazza is "private land"

The St Paul’s camp was served with an eviction notice on Thursday, but the protesters claim the  movement is far from over. Occupy London has opened a wider debate on issues of equality, transparency and particularly property. Paternoster Square next to St Paul’s Cathedral, was the original destination of the protesters as it houses the London Stock Exchange. The piazza was off limits for the protesters as it is privately owned. It had been formerly described as a public space, but as soon as the protesters attempted to move in a sign was put up saying ‘private property’. As public spaces become increasingly privately owned, the owners of these areas can be more selective about which members of the public they allow to use the land.

The ownership of property is so fundmentally important in our culture that it is key to the way we save and spend money. Conor Gearty stated that the right to property was the single most valued right in our culture. Renting property makes little financial sense especially in London, but the high prices of property and proportionately low incomes prevent many people from buying property. Professional landlords who own numerous properties often exploit the situation, and limited tenants rights largely favour the landlords position.

Canary Wharf London

Sarah Sackman stressed the problems of privatisation of public spaces and policing in places such as Canary Wharf. These privately owned areas often exclude members of the public and are run by their own rules, making the use of these spaces subject to their discretion and approval. Public spaces are one of the few areas that allow people to congregate and express themselves freely,  they are essential for communities in densely populated areas such as London. Their decline is particularly worrying at a time where community centres and youth clubs have closed down and when for many people there are not many places to go. Young people need spaces they can use for recreational purposes, without being asked to move elsewhere because they may not fit the profile, or because their presence is unnerving for the landowners.

Occupy London barrister Michael Paget and defendants George Barda and Tammy Samede from the Occupy St Paul's camp outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London on February 22, 2012.

The  eviction of St Paul’s protesters raises issues regarding the accountability of the City of London Corporation as well as the ethical implications of privatising public spaces. It also raises issues relating to segregation and selective use of this space. Gated communities, areas such as Broadgate and Canary Wharf and private parks are features that add to the equality issues in London. Such inequality and exclusive land use is damaging for all sections of society. Public spaces are there to be enjoyed by all members of society, without public spaces it would be impossible to effectively exercise basic rights such as freedom of expression and assembly. It is key to recognise that it is the right of individuals to voice their opinions, it is their right to create a civil rights movement and to attempt to induce progressive changes in the law. Without public pressure, the law would have difficulty in moving forward and embracing reform. It appears that the most valuable thing that Occupy London has created is  a platform for debate and engaging in dialogue. Waking up public interest in politics and social issues and giving people a voice is hugely significant and reflective of our society.

The First Female Barristers

When I was thinking about which women to write about in this article, I realised that there are a huge number of women I wanted to include for their role in breaking down boundaries in the legal world. I thought about the first female barristers, the first female QC’s, the first female judges all of them remarkable individuals. However while almost wanting to write a list of women who inspired me to study law, and writing a small caption on who they were and why, I decided to focus on 3 women in particular. Dr Ivy Williams, the first woman to be admitted to the bar; Rose Heilbron, one of the first 2 female QCs; and Dame Elizabeth Lane, the first female judge and first female High Court judge in England and Wales.

A cartoon of a woman wearing a large barrister's wig, before women were allowed to practise law

The most prestigious positions in law are still dominated by men even today, a QC I once worked for said ‘there are more women in law, but the men are still at the top’ those positions may only come available once the male elite has retired. Undoubtedly this will happen eventually, however women are still being prevented in gaining their fair share of the jobs at the top of the hierarchy. In an article in the Guardian, Lady Justice Hallett expressed her own disappointment at the failure of the judiciary to reflect the society they serve:

“A number of women may have made it to the very top of the profession but, as in other sections of society, there is still a long way to go. For reasons I cannot fathom, I remain the only woman to have been elected chairman of the bar (back in 1998).”

I am not trying to blame the unemployment rate among law students on old fashioned misogyny of course, but when you look at the number of female law graduates for the last few decades and compare it to the sex of judges and high profile lawyers in England and Wales, there are huge inconsistencies. This indicates that the close knit boys club that houses the wealthy white male barrister still exists, at the top at least.

Dr Ivy Williams

One of the first true pioneers of women at the bar is Dr Ivy Williams. She had taken all her law exams by 1903, but university regulations at the time prevented her receiving her qualifications. However, when the regulations in the UK on female students were changed in 1920, she was finally able to graduate along with many other women.

Dr Ivy Williams: The first woman to be called to the bar

She was determined to join the bar now that the laws had changed and she ultimately sought to provide free legal advice to the poor. In 1921 she wrote an article for Woman’s World magazine, stating that she would petition parliament if she was prevented from joining the bar.

However, luckily she secured the support of some influential members of the Inner Temple – the Inn where she was a member and she was called to the bar in 1922. Although she never actually practised as a barrister she paved the way for women to take up the legal profession which was inaccessible and one of the last professions to accept women. She was the first woman to be awarded a Doctorate of Civil Laws and the first woman to teach law at an English university, by teaching law she also inspired other women to go to the bar.

Rose Heilbron

Before writing this article I spoke to my grandma about women in law, she told me about her legal idol Rose Heilbron, who had attended the same primary school in the years preceding my grandmother. I later realised what an important figure she had been in law, especially regarding her law report on the reform of rape laws. Heilbron recommended anonymity was to be given to complainants to encourage them to come forward. In the 1975 law report she also urged for the defence to be limited in their capacity to cross examine the complainant about their sexual history to intimidate them and paint them in bad character.

First female QCs: Helena Normanton left and Rose Heilbron on the right

She was of Jewish descent, from Liverpool and was the prominent leader of the Northern circuit. She was called to the bar in 1939 and she was one of the two first female QCs (then still King’s Counsel) along with Helena Normanton. A calm and collected advocate, she charmed juries and was hugely admired in court for her thoroughness and her style.

Dame Elizabeth Kathleen Lane

Being a member of the Inner Temple myself, I was quite excited to find so many impressive women have been members of that Inn. Like Dr Ivy Williams, Dame Elizabeth Lane, the first female judge and the first woman to sit in the High Court, was also a member. In her biography she writes about finding her way to the bar ‘by accident’, while helping her husband with his legal studies. Her stories of her childhood and her dislike for schoolwork remind me of my own schooldays. Cramming late at night with a torch under the bedclothes, training her memory for the quick absorption of facts, ideal for reading a barrister’s brief that will soon be forgotten again after the case.

Dame Elizabeth Kathleen Lane: First female judge in the UK

Although she only started her pupillage later in life in 1941 at the age of 36 and she soon began a fast paced and successful career in the late 1940s. After obtaining Silk, she was appointed as the first woman commissioner of Manchester Crown Court, where she was addressed as ‘My Lord’, and referred to in the official calendar as ‘Mr Commissioner, Elizabeth Kathleen Lane QC’ in defiance of rationality and common sense. She became the first appointed female county court judge in 1962 and the first woman to be appointed to the High Court in 1965. She was an intelligent, compassionate and hardworking woman who is credited with finally introducing ‘Your Ladyship’ to the legal vocabulary.

Women who entered the legal profession were undoubtedly faced with a huge number of obstacles and hostility during a time when law was such a male dominated area. They must have been remarkable people of exceptionally strong character. Their determination paved the way for great women that followed in their footsteps to pursue a successful career in law.  It’s funny to think that over half a century later, it is women who dominate law studies at university. If the judiciary is to truly reflect the society it regulates women should also gain more respect and status in the legal profession.