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Monroe v Hopkins libel case: a retrograde judgment

Is it possible that Britain’s populist polemicist Katie Hopkins may be right? Perhaps, just on this one thing: the outcome of the Jack Monroe libel trial. She says the High Court judge who found against her for her inaccurate and rude tweets against Monroe was wrong and she intends to appeal.

Monroe was awarded £24,000 in damages in the High Court in a row over a tweet implying the food writer and activist approved of defacing a war memorial during an anti-austerity demonstration in Whitehall. Hopkins had simply confused Monroe with left-wing polemicist Laurie Penny. She deleted the tweet but then sent one out  suggesting that, nonetheless, Monroe was a pretty awful person (“social anthrax” was the term used).

In the case Mr Justice Warby noted that:

“Libel consists of the publication by the defendant to one or more third parties of a statement about the claimant which has a tendency to defame the claimant, and causes or is likely to cause serious harm to the claimant’s reputation.”

Serious harm to reputation is crucial, particularly since the Defamation Act of 2013, which enshrined the concept in legislation – with the clear intention of curbing defamation actions seen as wasteful of court time and (one suspects) irritating to the Conservative Government’s friends among newspaper owners. It says at Section 1:

“(1) A statement is not defamatory unless its publication has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant.”

The intention was to focus on real harm and deter trivial cases. But reading the Monroe judgment, one can’t help thinking that Warby underplayed “serious harm” and somewhat overplayed Monroe’s hurt feelings once Hopkins’s loyal fans got to work on Twitter. This apparently skewed judgment might be the grounds for an appeal.

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The celebrity threesome and a judicial foursome

Has the UK Supreme Court attempted to put the frighteners on the British press in the “celebrity threesome” sex case of PJS v News Group? The matter has not yet come to full trial, yet Lord Mance, who gave the lead judgment from the interim injunction hearing, has already accepted there is no public interest in the issue of who is PJS, the celebrity in the threesome.

Does this mean the Sun on Sunday, seeking to overturn an injunction against naming the alleged adulterer and his spouse, known as YMA, has been declared the loser before the case is heard?

Lord Mance has also suggested the Supreme Court might be amenable to establishing that damages for publishing such stories could be exemplary (a notion rejected in Mosley v News Group at a lower court level); or perhaps there could be innovative use of an “account of profits” – in effect handing over profit gained from use of private material. In Douglas v Hello regarding Hello’s unauthorised coverage of the Douglas/Zeta-Jones wedding, Lord Phillips said: “Such an approach may also serve to discourage any wrongful publication, at least where it is motivated by money.”

Arguably the court has also favoured the extension of the right to privacy beyond the limits set in the Human Rights Act and (at least until recent years) by Common Law – to the way a story is told rather than the mere confidential facts – thus embedding the so-called judge-made privacy law.

Lord Mance, in introducing his judgment to the press, said this (according to the Guardian):

“There is no public interest, however much it may be of interest to some members of the public, in publishing kiss-and-tell stories or criticisms of private sexual conduct, simply because the persons involved are well-known; and so there is no right to invade privacy by publishing them. It is different if the story has some bearing on the performance of a public office or the correction of a misleading public impression cultivated by the person involved. But … that does not apply here.” 

 This is subtly different from the rather more circumspect phraseology of Mance’s actual judgment, on behalf of himself and three other justices:

There is on present evidence no public interest in any legal sense in the story, however much the respondents may hope that one may emerge on further investigation and/or in evidence at trial, and it [lifting the injunction] would involve significant additional intrusion into the privacy of the appellant, his partner and their children.” (para 44; emphasis added)

The judgment is, quite correctly, hedged around with qualifications whereas the press statement is boldly assertive – and arguably misleading, suggesting that the highest court in the land has established a legal principle and found the Sun on Sunday outside it in seeking to run the PJS story. Why the difference? Continue reading

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Human Rights Act: Are these cases trivial?

It may be worth while looking at a few recent cases under the UK Human Rights Act 1998 – now under threat from the new Conservative Government. They aren’t leading cases but they raise the question of what counts as “trivial” in the mind of the Government (which wants to “Limit the use of Human Rights laws to the most serious cases. They will no longer apply in trivial cases”) and what principles the Government is seeking to abolish with the HRA. In particular why they wish to abolish the principle that:

“Everyone whose rights and freedoms as set forth in [The European Convention on Human Rights] are violated shall have an effective remedy before a national authority notwithstanding that the violation has been committed by persons acting in an official capacity.” (ECHR Art 13)

For that is what abolition of the HRA means: that individuals will receive only those human rights Parliament (in effect the Government) says they should receive; and legal barriers will be put in their way of those seeking human rights justice against the State and its offshoots. Section 6(1) of the Human Rights Act makes it illegal for a public authority, which includes a court, to act in a way which is incompatible with Convention rights. That will no longer necessarily be the case.
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Neuberger, Charles’s black spider memos – and the coming constitutional crisis

Judges in Britain are not supposed to strike down primary legislation that has passed through a sovereign Parliament. Yet that, on the face of it, is what seems to have happened in the UK Supreme Court’s judgment on Prince Charles’s “black spider memos”. And it is deeply paradoxical that it is Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court, who has committed this apparently unconstitutional act, striking at a core “democratic” principle – that Members of Parliament (albeit a chunk of them unelected) pass laws, not judges.

For Neuberger has in the past expressed fears about the UK Supreme Court becoming a “constitutional court” with a dangerous potential for defying Parliament. In a 2009 BBC interview when he was Master of the Rolls (having refused to continue his role as a House of Lords judge into the new Supreme Court) he talked of the danger of “mucking around” with the British Constitution saying there was a risk  “of judges arrogating to themselves greater powers than they have at the moment”.   Continue reading

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‘Work for your benefits’ scheme and retrospective legislation

The UK Court of Appeal judges are to consider a claim that legislation passed in 2013 after a legal challenge to unemployment benefit rules is unlawful. Two judges have ruled that the retrospective nature of the legislation regarding the Work Programme’s “Work for your benefits” scheme falls foul of standard judicial interpretation under English law and of the European Convention on Human Rights.

There are thousands of claimants who had challenged the rules before the retrospective change. The judges in the Administrative Appeals Chamber of the Upper Tribunal have allowed the Department of Work and Pensions to appeal against their judgment as a test case.

The Timeline
The litigation arises from the case of Caitlin Reilly and Jamieson Wilson, sanctioned by removal of jobseeker’s allowance for failing to take part in the Work Programme assigned to them. Miss Reilly, a University of Birmingham geology graduate, had argued that making her work unpaid at a Poundland store for two weeks or risk losing her benefits was a breach of human rights. She had to give up arguably more relevant voluntary work at a museum to do the Poundland job. She attended her work programme job but challenged the legality of the requirement on her.

While the Court of Appeal in February 2013 (EWCA 2013 Civ 66) rejected a claim by Ms Reilly that the workfare-style programme was illegal forced labour under Article 4 of the ECHR, it found that the Secretary of State, Iain Duncan Smith, acted beyond his powers by failing to provide important detail about the Back to Work Schemes such as a description of the scheme. The judgment meant those people who had been similarly sanctioned for non-compliance with the scheme could have been entitled to claim back their benefit for those periods. However, legislation was rushed through Parliament to deny them the money.

 

The 2009 changes that brought in the workfare scheme in section 1 of the Welfare Reform Act 2009 (as a new Section 17A of the Jobseeker’s Act 1995) allowed the Secretary of State to make regulations requiring claimants to do work “designed to assist them to obtain employment”. Subsection 2 says: 

“Regulations under this section may, in particular, require participants to undertake work, or work-related activity, during any prescribed period with a view to improving their prospects of obtaining employment.”

Regulations were then passed in a 2011 statutory instrument (2011 No. 917) that could require jobseekers to “to participate in support provided by the Employment, Skills and Enterprise Scheme”. It is these regulations that in February 2013 the Court of Appeal in Reilly quashed, finding them to be ultra vires – beyond the powers of the provision in the parent Act (Section 17A of the amended Jobseeker’s Act). The Court said Ms Reilly and Mr Wilson had not been provided with “adequate, accurate information about the schemes in relation to themselves before they were informed that their participation was required”.

The failings were fixed prospectively by a further statutory instrument on the day the judgment was issued (2013 No. 276 – made at 2.19pm, laid before Parliament at 6.15pm and in force from 6.45pm). The Government then sought to stymie earlier claims by rushing through the retrospective provisions of the March 2013 Jobseekers (Back to Work Schemes) Act. When the Reilly case came to the Supreme Court  in July 2013, Lords Neuberger and Toulson said the 2013 Act was “plainly intended to ‘undo’ the decision of the Court of Appeal, in that … it retrospectively validates (i) the 2011 Regulations, (ii) the programmes listed in regulation 3(2) of the 2013 Regulations, (iii) notices issued under regulation 4 of the 2011 Regulations, and (iv) the benefit sanctions imposed under those Regulations in relation to the schemes”.

Since, by this time, the retrospectivity of the 2013 Act was under challenge in the Administrative Court (a claim was issued in June), the Supreme Court gave its judgment (October 2013 – in part against the Secretary of State including on the ultra vires point: failure to provide a “prescribed description” of any scheme) even though the issue had been “fixed” by the Act.

– but the court nevertheless found against the Secretary of State, leaving open the possibility of many further cases from before the February 2013 amendments.

The Administrative Court hearing
The Upper Tribunal in DB v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (plus SSWP v TJ and SSWP v TG) in February 2013 heard a different set of cases – appeals from November and December 2012 judgments by the First Tier Tribunal. The judges approach the 2013 Act firstly as a matter of judicial construction ie “the ascertainment of Parliament’s intention in passing the Act, having regard to its language, its context (including the mischief which the Act was seeking to address) and such background materials as are admissible”.

There is already legislation to ensure claimants who have not appealed against a benefits decision do not benefit when the law is interpreted in court in a way that would favour them (S.27 of the Social Security Act 1998). The implication is that those who had appealed before a favourable judgment (in what would amount to a test case) should be able to successfully pursue their action. The Upper Tribunal judges had to decide whether there was anything about the words in the 2013 Act that showed Parliament’s intention was to “affect the rights of those claimants who had already appealed”. Although the words “for all purposes” appear in the 2013 Act, the majority of the judges (2-1) decided this was not enough to show an intention to exclude people who had already challenged their sanctioning before 2013 on the successful grounds in Reilly. The judges cited the explanatory notes to the Act which considered whether it was compliant with Article 6 on non-retrospectivity. They said: 

“45. If no legal claim has been brought on the grounds that the [2011] Regulations are ultra vires and/or that the notice issued under them is non-compliant prior to the enactment of the proposed legislation, the Government considers that Article 6 is not engaged at all since the claim to entitlement to benefit, and any dispute regarding a benefit decision thereon which would require access to the courts, remains hypothetical.” 

This implies that if a legal claim has been instituted before the favourable judgments it should proceed.  The judges said: “We do not see how that section of the Explanatory Notes could properly have been written as it was had the Government intended that those who had already appealed against sanctions should be caught by the Bill.” In other words “we are quite satisfied that there was no positive intention to include them”. The judges conclude: “Given the disposition not to read legislation to be more retrospective than clearly intended, we are satisfied that, notwithstanding the literal meaning of the words “for all purposes” in section 1(1), the 2013 Act should be read so as not to affect those who had already appealed against sanctions.” 

Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights
Article 6 requires “a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal”. (The Article 6 “unfairness” complained of may be interpreted as that the Government intervened in a legal process by passing the 2013 legislation – purporting to deny Reilly and others a “win” that the Supreme Court was preparing to give them.)

The Human Rights Act 1998 Section 3 requires judges to interpret legislation in compatibility with the ECHR. This, the judges asserted, means not merely where there is ambiguity but on the basis that the Secretary of State intended compatibility (as he is required to declare). Putative wording may therefore be added by judges to ensure conformity.  

The judges argued: “The effect [compatibility with the ECHR] can be achieved, for example, by reading in the words at the start of section 1(1) of the 2013 Act “Save where an appeal had already been made or had already been decided under section 12 of the Social Security Act 1998 before this Act came into force.” The Government argued this would actually run counter to the purpose of the Act but the judges said: “the mischief to which the Act was addressed was persons who had not already appealed adverse decisions and who would otherwise benefit from Reilly and Wilson because of section 27 of the SSA 1998 having no application’. The Act, on the construction set out above, was not directed against those who had already appealed against sanctions.

Materials

• Supreme Court judgment October 2013 R (Reilly and another) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions UKSC 2013
• See also Reilly No 2 and Hewstone v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the Article 6 point and incompatibility with Article 1 Protocol 1 of the ECHR – right to respect for property. The claimants argued that “it is contrary to the rule of law, protected by Art. 6, for a State to legislate in the course of ongoing legal proceedings to decide the issues before the court, when it does so to its own advantage, as a party to the dispute. Such an interference with Art. 6 rights can only be justified by ‘compelling grounds in the public interest’. They submit that no such compelling grounds exist in this case.”
Zielinski v France ECHR: “The Court reaffirms that while in principle the legislature is not precluded in civil matters from adopting new retrospective provisions to regulate rights arising under existing laws, the principle of the rule of law and the notion of a fair trial contained in Article 6 preclude any interference by the legislature–other than on compelling grounds of the general interest – with the administration of justice designed to influence the judicial determination of a dispute”.
• Government Statement on SI 2011/917)
• There is an interesting piece by Carol Harlow on the UK Constitutional law blog on the 2013 Act retrospectivity issue here.

 

 

The claims and outcome at the Supreme Court in Reilly
They argued that:
(i) the 2011 Regulations are unlawful, since they did not fulfil the requirements of section 17A of the 1995 Act in “prescribing” the programmes, the circumstances by which individuals are selected, or the period of participation (“lawfulness”)
(ii) the Respondents did not receive the information required by Regulation 4 of the 2011 Regulations (“notification”)
(iii) the Government was required to have a published policy setting out the details of the relevant schemes (“publication”)
(iv) that the scheme constituted forced or compulsory labour contrary to Article 4 ECHR (“forced labour”).

Outcomes:
i) That the 2011 Regulations are ultra vires section 17A because they fail to prescribe

i) a description of the SBWA scheme or the PAC [Accepted];
(ii) the circumstances in which a person can be required to participate in those schemes [Rejected: the “prescribed circumstances” were sufficiently set out given the need for some flexibility];
(iii) the period during which participants are required to undertake work on those schemes [Rejected: An open-ended period was legitimate].

ii) That the requirement that Miss Reilly and Mr Wilson participate in a scheme was unlawful, because the notice provisions contained in regulation 4 were not complied with [Accepted re Reilly; rejected re Wilson].

iii) That it is unlawful for the Government to enforce the 2011 Regulations in the absence of a published policy as to the nature of the relevant scheme and the circumstances in which individuals could be required to undertake unpaid work [Accepted but no declaratory relief ordered: “The Secretary of State owed a duty as a matter of fairness to see that Miss Reilly and Mr Wilson were respectively provided with sufficient information about the SBWA [sector-based work academy] scheme and the CAP [Community Action Programme], in order for them to be able to make informed and meaningful representations to the decision-maker before a notice requiring their participation was served on them. However, it would be wrong to be prescriptive as to how that information should be given”].

iv) That Miss Reilly had been subjected to forced or compulsory labour contrary to article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“the Convention”) and/or that the Regulations were contrary to article 4 [Rejected].

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Gender Recognition Act and an issue of privacy

A transgender woman has failed in her claim that the Gender Recognition Act 2004 breaches the privacy of those who have had surgery or other medical procedures towards gender reassignment. Section 3(3) of the Act requires that individuals reveal details of such medical procedures to a Gender Recognition Panel to back up an application for a Gender Recognition Certificate. Yet the Panel is empowered to issue the certificates to people who have had no such procedures as long as they can provide evidence of gender dysphoria and show they intend to live according to their chosen gender for the rest of their life.

A UK High Court judge rejected the claim by Helen Carpenter, who has transitioned from male to female, that the extra burden on those who had had or were contemplating medical procedures was a breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights on privacy.

Section 3(3) of the GRA 2014 says that if the applicant for a certificate “has undergone or is undergoing treatment for the purpose of modifying sexual characteristics” or plans such treatment or has had it prescribed then it is required that a doctor’s report on her position “provides details of it”. Mrs Justice Thirlwall said: “Given that this information is necessary to the decision to be taken, that its dissemination beyond the Panel is prohibited, I am satisfied that the provision of the information required in paragraph 3(3) is necessary and proportionate to the legitimate aim. There is no incompatibility with Article 8.”

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Victor Nealon miscarriage of justice: the case against Chris Grayling

In the case of Victor Nealon, seeking compensation for a miscarriage of justice, UK Justice Secretary Chris Grayling seems to have flown in the face several tenets of the British legal tradition. He has overturned the principle that a person is innocent until proved guilty; reversed the burden of proof (that the prosecution must prove guilt, not the defence prove innocence); defied the standard of proof – guilt (not innocence) beyond reasonable doubt; and created himself as a quasi-judicial figure who is judge and jury in his own court. That’s some going as we celebrate Magna Carta, the foundation document for the rule of law.

On the face of it, it all seems perfectly legal, since his treatment of miscarriages of justice is enshrined in legislation passed last year. In reality, though, there is a strong case against Grayling – and a strong argument that his legislation is fatally flawed.

Nealon had been locked up for 17 years of a life sentence for attempted rape. When released in 2013 thanks to new DNA evidence he was denied compensation. His conviction in 1997 was ruled unsafe and he was released 10 years after his 7-year minimum tariff. Parole had throughout that time been rejected in part because he had continued to deny his guilt.

Grayling has refused to order compensation because his innocence has not been proved “beyond reasonable doubt”. This is quite contrary to the principle in criminal law cases that guilt must be proved beyond reasonable doubt – innocence need not be. But the new standard of proof specifically for miscarriage of justice compensation claims was rushed into law last year as an amendment to Section 133 of the 1988 Criminal Justice Act. The decision looks justifiable in law – which is probably why leave for a judicial review was turned down in December 2014.

This piece nevertheless argues that Grayling’s decision is challengeable in law and that the new legislation is unworkable – creating as it does a new legal concept (innocence beyond reasonable doubt) with no forum or expertise to establish innocence to such a level of certainty. This means that any decisions to reject claims based on the new law (rather than the perfectly functional law as it stood before 2014) will be open to challenge because they will all have been arrived at unreasonably – without the necessary evidence being made available to the Secretary of State nor any possibility of its being made available. There is also a strong arguable case that the Ministry of Justice and the new law itself is in breach of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights: “In the determination of his civil rights and obligations or of any criminal charge against him, everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law.” Continue reading

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