Archive for April 1st, 2010

It is not all doom and gloom and certainly not down at left leaning Matrix Chambers where, as reported in The Times, the new Silks celebrated in some style; dancing the night away at the Royal Exchange, a glamorous venue surrounded by expensive boutiques and jewellers. The message of that gave, according to one guest, is that at least “human rights work pays”.

Why not?  Hair shirts rarely solve problems and for large swathes of the law as practised in the City…. given  Easter is approaching … “Ye who is without sin…cast the first stone…. or am I mixing up my proverbs and should be talking about glass houses?

Fortunately, there is some rather more important law news today.

Why I opposed Libel costs reform yesterday by Tom Watson MP
Yesterday I wrote about the blocking of the libel reform by Tom Watson and others.  A great deal of anger was vented in the usual way on twitter and in the blogs. It was surprising to find what appeared to be a perfectly reasonable start by Jack Straw in reforming the disgraceful state of libel law in this country being blocked by a small group of MPs. Tom Watson noted that he had been the subject of anger and libelous remarks about being in the pay of Carter-Ruck but was able to ride that particular storm.  As he put it…“A number of people have tweeted and emailed today, libelously suggesting I am on the payroll of Carter Ruck. Luckily for them, irony is something you get used to in my profession. And in politics, you have to take the rough with the smooth.”

The article Tom Watson MP wrote for Liberal Conspiracy where he explained his reasons clearly is worth reading in full .

Briefly, let me make the case for the libel reform I want to see.

  1. End libel tourism.
  2. I want the burden of proof rule to be reversed for big corporations who bully writers, creators and scientists.
  3. I would like to see a change to statute of limitations and the multiple publications rule that’s not fit for purpose in the digital age.
  4. I’d like to see a defence of “responsible journalism” defined in law.
  5. And I’d like the law of “criminal libel” to be junked in Scotland as it was South of the border last year.

I came to these conclusions, having heard evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee for our inquiry ‘Press Standards, Privacy and Libel’.

The reforms listed above will genuinely support free expression, so cherished by the new communities of interest brought together by the Internet age. It is these bold measures that should form the basis of wholesale reform of libel laws in the UK.

Yesterday’s proposals would not achieve any of the above. They would, as Lord Thomas observed, possibly benefit large media companies who are lobbying hard for all political parties to endorse the measures before an election, but would not provide adequate protection to the little guy, who ends up in the libel courts alone against giant corporations with money and clout.

Basically, Watson is saying that that the reduction from 100% to 10% uplift may deter lawyers from taking cases on Conditional Fee Arrangements and more time is needed.  Watson is not, after all,  a latter day Dick Dastardly who is trying to put a spanner in the works.  On the plus side of Twitter et al – at least our politicians, some of whom blog very successfully, are all too aware of the fact that people are watching and are prepared to state their views – sometimes even cogently and persuasively!  We shall just have to wait – but libel law reform is coming and it may have to go further than it has, so waiting for more parliamentary time may, in the end, be not such a bad thing.  Watson said he would respond to the uproar and he did.  He was as good as his word and his reasons are credible even if delay is disappointing.

And so… a little bit of light relief….

Yesterday threw up some marvellous ‘unintended consequences’ pictures grabbed from TV  of David Cameron.  As ever, I found these on twitter (Hat Tip @loveandgarbage)

There were no PMQs yesterday – it being Easter and that…. but here is a ‘blast from the past’… David Cameron at his first ever PMQs when he was thinking about being the ‘Heir to Blair’ (How times have changed).  Remarkably, the Boy Wonder has been with us for nearly five years… and we could be getting another five years of him soon… Cameron that is, not Blair.  Watch the film?

High cost of protection is eroding legal bastion

Frnces Gibb, legal editor of The Times reports: “Jury-less criminal trials have sparked controversy in the legal profession, pitting prosecutors against defence lawyers. The Criminal Justice Act 2003, which made them possible, was introduced amid concerns over jury nobbling. David Blunkett, who was Home Secretary, said that in London alone £9 million was being spent every year on surveillance of jurors. People who tried to intimidate jurors did so for one reason, he said — “because they think that those in front of the judge and jury will be convicted….So the Act allows for trial without jury if there is “evidence of a real and present danger” of tampering. The growth of organised crime has made interference with juries an increasingly serious threat to justice.”

Yesterday saw the first trial with a judge alone – and it was a guilty verdict.  What worries lawyers is that this will encourage the Police and the CPS in these times of the great ‘Cuts’ to cut costs and go for more trials with a judge alone. Practitioners are against the erosion of jury trial.  Germany abolished jury trials in 1924.  In France it is reserved only for the most serious cases and, in fact, many of our criminal trials are conducted by lay magistrates and district judges with no jury. I remember Keir Starmer QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, telling me when I interviewed him for a podcast that the Crown Court was, in effect, a sentencing court these days;  with 75% of cases, or thereabouts, actually being tried without a jury by magistrates.  Do we still need juries?  The criminal law practitioners says we do.  I suspect that we shall, hoever, be seeing  many more trials with a judge alone – the CUTS, the CUTS. … not forgetting the ‘convenience to the State’.


I won’t be commenting at length on the acquittal of Sgt David Smellie, the baton wielding cop at the G20 who mistook a carton of orange juice for an offensive weapon and  because of this and the fact he did not like a member of the public disobeying ‘orders’ (reportedly)  used his baton on an unarmed woman.  He had only 7 seconds, according to the trial judge, to make a decision. He was acquitted.  It did not, perhaps, help that the principal witness for the prosecution, the victim, did not turn up.  It can be rather difficult ( I am advised)  proving cases when witnesses don’t turn up – even with video evidence. Sgt Smellie is NOT GUILTY and that is the end of the matter, save for a possible internal Police investigation.  So be it – but perhaps the Police need better offensive weapons recognition training and anger and crowd control management training?

I’m sorry that I don’t have any April Fool stories for you this year… I really did think that the story of the acquittal of Sgt Smellie was one but had been released a day early in error… but there we are….it wasn’t..and he is definitely NOT GUILTY..that is the law.

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