Colin the Caterpillar and the Art of War – why it is sometimes sensible not to enforce your legal rights

17th April 2021

Marks and Spencer has decided to add to the gaiety of the nation by issuing a legal claim in respect of Colin the Caterpillar, a chocolate cake.

The actual legal claim does not appear to be publicly available, but the news reports are that the action was launched in the last week at the high court.

Marks and Spencer is quoted as saying:

“Love and care goes into every product on our shelves. So we want to protect Colin, Connie and our reputation for freshness, quality, innovation and value”. 

It must have seemed a good idea at the time.

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Hilarity has ensued.

The respondent to the claim, Aldi appears not to be taking the legal threat seriously.

And nor are many people on Twitter and other social media.

This mash-up of our old friends at Handforth parish council stood out in particular:

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This has all the signs of a publicity disaster for Marks and Spencer.

So why did Marks and Spencer issue the claim?

And what should the company have thought about before bringing the action?

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There is no doubt that Colin the Caterpillar is valuable to Marks and Spencer.

The product has recently celebrated its thirtieth birthday.

And Marks and Spencer have been long aware of competitors’ selling similar products, with the store itself telling us this on its dedicated Colin the Caterpillar page:

“We were the first to retailer to sell a caterpillar, with many supermarkets since trying to emulate this crowd-pleasing cake”.

Colin also has his own Wikipedia page.

And not only does he have these pages, he also has registrations on the trade mark registry.

(Trade mark has two words, by the way – we are not Americans, thank you.)

From a quick (no-exhaustive) search, it would appear that the term ‘Colin the Caterpillar’ was registered in 2009 – though given it had been on sale previously it may have had other intellectual property protection beforehand.

 

This search also showed that last year in 2020 there was a further registration for Colin’s packaging:

The happy news can also be revealed that Marks and Spencer has also registered the term Connie the Caterpillar – though not her packaging.

All three registrations are in respect of class 30:

These registrations in practice and in principle confer a commercial monopoly in products within that class.

(Please note: although I have general knowledge of trade mark law, I am not a trade mark specialist, and there will be things I will have missed – and I am happy to hear from any trade mark specialists in the comments below.)

Here it is important to note that what is protected with these registrations is the name and the packaging of the cakes – and not the cakes and their ingredients themselves.

Colin the Caterpillar and his box are protected, not the concept of a chocolate roll with a happy face on it.

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One of the problems with trade mark law and practice is, in very general terms, that if a protected thing becomes too generic, you can lose the legal protection.

That is why trade mark holders often seem over-vigilant in asserting their legal rights.

Disney for example will assert their rights fearlessly, despite the ridicule and opprobrium.

Readers of a certain age will also remember letters to the press from Portakabin.

No doubt Aldi itself has its own trade mark lawyers who will send out stiff letters to infringing competitors.

(Indeed there are marks registered to various Aldi entities that presumably they would want respected.)

And as Marks and Spencer itself admits on its own website, there are other stores seeking to ’emulate’ the Colin cake.

One tweeter helpfully provides us with examples:

As does another:

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So: the commercial predicament of Marks and Spencer was as follows.

The company had a popular, valuable and distinctive well-established product.

This was a product that took expense to make and also to promote.

The product was protected with registered trade marks for both its name and its packaging (as well as, no doubt, other intellectual property protections such as ‘passing-off’.)

The company faced competition from other stores with similar products.

Some of these rival chocolate caterpillars had similar names and packaging.

What was a company in that position do?

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Here we come to the old distinction between having a legal claim and asserting it.

In essence: just because you have a legal right, it does not necessarily follow that it should be asserted or enforced.

And if a decision is made to assert and enforce a legal right, you have to think through the implications and reactions.

Some companies like Disney will know there is a negative reaction to their enforcement of legal rights – but in such cases the cost-benefit analysis is that the rights are too valuable to lose to the public domain.

And such a robust approach is common in industries where the commercial value is largely in intellectual property.

A cartoon mouse and a portable cabin are not especially complicated things – so what is bought, sold and licensed is often the intellectual property of thing, rather than the thing itself.

And much the same can be said of a long chocolate roll decorated with sweets and icing.

One can imagine how the commercial and legal teams at Marks and Spencer knew that competitors with products with similar names and packaging was creating a commercial and legal risk.

It may well be Cuthbert today, but tomorrow it could be Colvin, and before they knew it there would be Colin the Caterpillars everywhere in every store.

And Colin the Caterpillar’s registration renewal was coming up in 2028. 

What else could they do?

#SaveColin

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But.

They should have thought it through.

Presumably there had already been pre-action correspondence between the parties – it is rare for a company to issue a claim in the high court without setting out the case first in correspondence, and there are costs implications if a party does.

And presumably Aldi had denied the claim in correspondence.

Aldi thereby knew what was coming – and not only its commercial and legal departments, but also its media teams and external PR advisers.

Marks and Spencer do not appear to have issued a press release about the claim, but somehow, some way the media soon knew about the claim.

Perhaps this was because of a vigilant court watcher, or a tip-off from somebody, or even part of a media strategy: who knows.

But once the claim was issued at the high court, the dispute went from one set out in private and confidential correspondence between the parties – and into the public domain.

In essence: you lose control of the story.

And when the story is as media-friendly as about chocolate caterpillars called Colin and Cuthbert then there is a high probability that the media will become aware.

But from the news reporting it seems that Marks and Spencer have been caught unawares – while the Aldi press office is having a party with social media generally.

So the question has to be asked: was/is protecting the Colin the Caterpillar name and packaging worth it?

Unlike a cartoon mouse or a portable cabin, Colin the Caterpillar does not go to the heart of Marks and Spencer.

Had Aldi promoted an own-brand range of goods called, say, St Michelle then that would have been different.

And – and I defer here to trade mark lawyers – it may have been perfectly possible to renew the trade mark in 2028 even taking the (current) challenge of Cuthbert at its highest.

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A view had to be taken on the risk of litigation against the risk of not litigating.

As the Art of War showed (and that is still the best practical guide to civil litigation) being able to attack is not the same as it being a good idea to attack.

Here one can ask McDonalds about McLibel – or the British Chiropractic Association and its illiberal and misconceived claim against Simon Singh.

And if the decision is made to litigate then a claimant must be prepared for what can happen next – in terms of commercial and media matters, as well as at law.

This is not to say that people and companies should not assert and enforce their legal rights – indeed, that is what legal rights (and lawyers) exist for – but that the decision to do so is always distinct and separate from being able to do so.

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Declaration: as the blogger ‘Jack of Kent’ I helped co-ordinate the defence campaign in British Chiropractic Association v Singh and I practice in media law as a solicitor, although not in respect of chocolate caterpillars or supermarket stores.

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Access to decision and policy-making is a right but not a privilege: David Cameron, lobbying, and regulation

13th April 2021

Let us start with one proposition, so as to see if it is sound or not.

The proposition is: that in a liberal democracy there should be no closed class of those who can seek to influence public policy.

Just as – in theory – any person can go to the lobby of the house of commons or write a letter to a member of parliament, any person can also attempt to speak to a minister or protest outside a ministerial office.

If this proposition is sound, then there is nothing, in principle, wrong with any person seeking to lobby any parliamentarian or minister.

And if that is a correct statement of principle, then it follows that the principle can be asserted by persons one disagrees with or disapproves of – including finance companies and former prime ministers.

Framed in this way there is a certain superficial plausibility to the contention that the former prime minister did nothing wrong in seeking to influence ministers about a company in which he had a personal interest.

Any wrongdoing would, it can be contended, be at the ‘supply-side’ of ministers and officials who wrongly were influenced by such lobbying, not the ‘demand side’ of the person seeking to obtain influence.

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Let us now look at rules.

As the estimable Dr Hannah White explains in this informative and helpful article, it would appear that the issue of Cameron’s lobbying is not about whether rules have been broken but that there appear to be no rules to be broken.

And so we have a gap.

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But.

There is something wrong.

It may be that there are no rules that have been engaged, still less broken.

And it may well be that one can (just about) aver that the general principle of openness means that any person from you to Cameron can seek to lobby a minister.

But it still seems wrong.

Yet a general sense of wrongness is not the same as effective regulation.

What can be done, if anything can be done?

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Part of the problem is indeed with the ‘supply side’ – any approaches by any person, former prime ministers or otherwise, should be reported and logged, and those approaches must be spurned unless there is absolute transparency.

It is not enough that we have the ‘good chaps’ theory that, of course, no minister or official would be (wrongly) influenced.

The general principle that any person in a liberal democracy should be able to seek to influence a minister does not mean such approaches should be cloaked – the quality of openness that attends the former carries over to the latter.

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Switching to the ‘demand side’ of seeking political or policy influence, the general principle that any person in a liberal democracy should be able to seek to influence a minister does not mean that there has to be an ‘anything goes’ approach.

Just as everyone has the ‘right’ to dine at the Ritz – but it an empty right when one cannot afford it – a right to lobby those with power is an empty right if one does not have connections or the know-how about making such access effective.

Unless lobbying is regulated then there will be a natural tendency for those with money – such as a finance company – and those with the best connections – such as a former prime minister – to have far more effective access and influence than others.

This then undermines if not negates the rights of others, as influencing decision-making, rule-making and policy-making becomes the preserve of those with better connections.

It is the right of the privileged, but one masquerading as a a general right of openness.

Any company should have the right to make representations to the government – but only on the same terms as as any other company.

This would mean that it is the merits of the representation that makes a difference, rather than the extent of the access.

And any lobbyist – of whatever background –  should not have a greater right of access than any other lobbyist.

This means by implication that there are certain individuals – such as former ministers and former senior officials – who if they are to be permitted to approach their former colleagues, should only do so under the full glare provided by absolute openness and transparency, and in accordance with published procedures.

And if such absolute openness and transparency and procedural certainty is not feasible, then they should not be able to directly approach ministers and officials at all – even if it is in respect of their personal interest (as opposed to on behalf of a paying client, which is a gap Cameron was able to exploit).

They can write a letter to a member of parliament, or wave a placard on Whitehall, like anyone else.

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Do ‘Appeals for Calm’ work?

8th April 2021

Another evening of disturbances in Northern Ireland.

And so another round of ‘appeals for calm’.

Of course: such a call is the responsible thing to do – and nothing in this post should be taken to gainsay this.

But do such appeals actually work?

Does this – almost ritualistic – reflexive speech act ever have the intended effect?

And if so, how?

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A cynic may contest that one function of ‘appealing for calm’ is to just give something ‘community leaders’ something to say and do – a gesture as empty and meaningless as ‘thoughts and prayers’.

As such there could almost be a circular definition – a ‘community leader’ is the person who ‘appeals for calm’, and ‘appealing for calm’, is what a ‘community leader’ does – thereby a ‘community leader appealing for calm’ is almost a tautology.

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But such cynicism may be misplaced, for there appear to be many examples of appeals for calm that have had efficacy:

And from my home city of Birmingham:

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So there are historical instances where the ‘appeal for calm’ seems to have had the intended political and social effect – though of course there may be other features present.

But the ‘appeal for calm’ has another important function.

And this is that it will be significant when the expected speech act is not made by a particular individual.

Here we have an example from just three months ago:

Silence as a signal.

As so often with language and politics, it can be more important when certain words and phrases are not used than when they are.

This is true not only for formal texts such as laws, but also for rhetorical acts in certain situations.

An ‘appeal for calm’ thereby might or might not work – but a failure or obvious refusal to ‘appeal for calm’ can have unwelcome consequences.

Appealing for calm is therefore an important piece of political behaviour – both for what it can achieve and also for what may happen if the appeal is not made.

Words matter, but so does silence.

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Government communications – another departure from the notion of serving the public?

1st April 2021

There is controversy in the news today about central government communications

In particular, there is – correct – criticism that government press offices are generally unhelpful to those from the outside making the enquiries and too motivated by serving the political interests of the ministers of the day.

This, sadly, is nothing new – though it does appear to be getting worse.

This is, of course, a subjective and personal perspective – other commentators and journalists may have less frustrating – indeed happier – experiences.

But if the current criticisms – as affirmed by my own experience – are valid then the most likely explanation is akin to the view adopted by that police officer the other day.

You will recall the officer who insisted that the police were crown servants as distinct from public servants.

Press offices, ditto.

(Also freedom of information offices – but that is for another post.)

Government press officers seem to see their role as actively not providing information to the public and the press, but instead seeking to withhold information and misdirect media attention.

Unless a journalist has an already good relationship with a press officer, there is little or no point asking for anything useful from a press office.

This is why, for example, I prefer to work with public domain and open source information – and to spot connections and identify discrepancies.

Harder, slower work – but worthwhile.

This means I usually only go to government press offices in two situations.

First, if there is genuinely no other way I can obtain the information from public domain or open source material.

Second, if I need some specific thing verified (or rebutted) before publication – where I have worked that thing out by other means.

This approach means that there is little scope for a government press office to shape my writing and commentary – only to influence it, if at all, at the margins.

My approach here is not unique – and it is because government press offices are so adept at being (ahem) gatekeepers that they sometimes pay the price by not being involved in reports and commentary, other than perhaps to provide a statement or not.

Tight media management can only achieve so much.

This is not the only way government press officers are being avoided – as ministers and ministerial special advisers build up their own direct trusted relationships with political journalists.

And so government press offices – although they seem to be expanding in size – are also being squeezed in substance.

Employing more and more people to say less and less.

Government comms disappearing into a hole of its own creation.

And in the meantime, the notion of a government press office being there to serve and inform the public becomes a smaller and smaller speck in the law and policy sky.

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The performative nastiness of the Home Secretary

24th March 2021

The office of home secretary is one that often does not bring the best out of its occupants.

Indeed, for a while the phrase ‘former Labour home secretary’ was one of the most illiberal phrases in the political lexicon.

Once could think of exceptions – Roy Jenkins, of course, and to a limited extent William Whitelaw and Douglas Hurd (though the latter two only seem more ‘liberal’ by comparison).

On the whole, however, just as certain experiences bring out the worst in human nature, being home secretary can bring out the worst in any politician.

But.

At least former home secretaries had the grace to pretend otherwise.

Remember the grave sorrowful face of, say, Jack Straw as he solemnly warned of the need of some ‘tough new measures’ – enticing you to nod-along with his sense of national emergency.

And Theresa May as home secretary even once stunned the police federation with a full-on speech about police reform.

In essence: the home office was a tough-old job, but some politician had to do it.

But what home secretaries did not do – at least not in public – is revel in the capacity of the office to cause harm and upset.

And so we come to the current home secretary.

Today’s news is typical of their approach:

Before May was home secretary there was a famous conference speech – framed in cautionary terms – about the Conservative Party becoming the ‘Nasty Party’.

For the current home secretary that speech has instead become a manifesto.

And as someone has averred on Twitter, this is not exceptional to the United Kingdom:

The Cruelty Is The Point.

(See here.)

What an unpleasant vista this is on our current politics.

The important thing to note, however, is not so much (yet) that the powers and objectives of the home office have profoundly changed.

These are just about the sort of policies that other home secretaries may have adopted – and not only Conservative politicians.

What seems novel (at least to me) is the sheer glee which accompanies the announcement and promotion of each policy announcement.

One shudders to think what the current home secretary would do publicly if the office still have the power to (not) commute a death penalty.

And rhetorical change can have substantial consequences: each great office of state is subject to and can shape public expectations – that the chancellor, for example, can and will do things in respect of the economy generally, and with taxation and spending in particular.

The more the home office is loudly deployed as a vehicle for nasty policies, presumably the more the demand for more such policies.

And so the approach of the current home secretary cannot be written-off as just vile verbiage: it may and perhaps will lead to more repressive policies.

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All this is an example of a more general problem with the current political arrangements of the United Kingdom.

The lack of political and constitutional self-restraint – and the removal of the gate-keepers.

There has never really been anything before – other than custom and decency – that has prevented a home secretary exploiting their office in this way.

Just as there was nothing which stopped the prime minister from using the prerogative powers in various unfortunate and unwise ways.

What the home secretary and some other ministers are now doing is showing openly what the constitution of the United Kingdom has long been capable of permitting.

And so what is demonstrated by this exercise of performative politics is not just the politics of the current home secretary – but that there is nothing in place that can prevent such things.

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Time for a peer review – why focusing on just fixing the problem of hereditary peers would not be enough

22nd June 2021

The Sunday Times this weekend did a good piece of journalism on the hereditary peers in the house of lords.

Who could possibly disagree?

Well – certainly not this blog, in principle.

Removal of the hereditary element in the house of lords is one of many ‘micro’ reforms of the constitution of the United Kingdom which should be done – regardless of the interminable ‘debate’ on the merits of a codified constitution.

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Yet.

Here are some things to think about as you nod-along.

There are other (perhaps even worse) problems with the composition of the house of lords: the power of patronage of party leaders – especially the prime minister, the rights of bishops of just one denomination of one church to have twenty-six votes, the number of life peers who do not take any active role but can be summoned to vote, and so on.

And contrary to the impression given by the headline of that piece: ninety of the ninety-two hereditary peers sitting in the house of lords do not have automatic seats – they are elected by the hereditary peers generally.

This means, somewhat paradoxically, they are the only members of the house of lords that are there by means of any sort of electoral process.

They are also free from any allegiance to any party manager or any debt arising from an act of patronage.

In other words: they are part of the legislature outside the control of the government or party leaders.

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But.

Whatever the case that can be made for hereditary peers in the house of lords, they still need to go – and sooner rather than later.

Some constitutional abominations are too awful to be tolerated.

And removing the hereditary peers would also make the house of lords more, shall we say, ‘legitimate’ in its constitutional role.

(And can we please get rid of all the mock-chivalric-pseudo-feudal-medieval titles while we are at it – if you really want to be a lord or lady of something, join a historical enactment society.)

All that said: there should not be the removal of one of the genuinely independent features of the house of lords without regard to the overall balance.

There is little to be gained from clapping and cheering the removal of the hereditary peers if the effect would be to tilt the balance of the house of the lords towards more governmental control.

For, as the constitution of the United Kingdom currently stands, the house of lords is the most effective check and balance to a house of commons dominated by the government.

The house of lords cannot block any legislation – and nor should it, as it does not have any democratic basis – but it can force the house of commons to think again and more carefully about its legislative proposals.

And often the reasoned amendments of the house of lords are accepted by the house of commons – and, indeed, often the house of lords amendments can provide convenient cover to ministers who eventually realise that the initial proposals were unsound.

Given that the most important constitutional function of the house of lords is that of a check and a balance – rather than to be a chamber with a rival democratic basis – then the most important quality is that it should be independent.

Stripping out one feature that provides any independence in the upper chamber should thereby be matched by other measures to maintain that independence.

That is why there should be a more general (ahem) peer review.

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And luckily, there has actually been a useful review.

The Burns report of 2017 puts forward sensible and persuasive proposals for reforming the composition of the house of lords while keeping its independent constitutional role.

The key proposals are to limit the size of the upper chamber and to convert lifetime membership (of the life peers) to a single term of fifteen years.

That report, however, did not make direct proposals for the hereditary peers and bishops.

But, in principle, there is no reason why such a reform could not also mean the removal of the hereditary and spiritual peers – as the overriding objective of a balanced upper chamber outside the domination of any government of the day would be retained.

So – yes, nod-along with the attack on the hereditary elements and, also yes, let’s get rid of them – but when the nodding-along ends, let us also make sure we have not ended up with a less independent upper house in our current constitutional arrangements.

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Whoopsie: the government did not get the commission report on judicial review that it was hoping for

 19th March 2021

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‘Toulouse’s suggestion was not what Audrey wanted to hear.’

– Moulin Rouge

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Sometimes – just sometimes – in the world of law and policy there are moments when welcome things do happen.

Back in August 2020 this blog covered the government’s announcement of an ‘independent panel to look at judicial review’.

It did not seem a promising move: just an attempt by the government to find cover for an assault on judicial review by means of a hand-picked commission.

But.

It is sometimes strange how things turn out.

The commission has now reported – and just a skim of the report shows that the government did not get the report it was hoping for.

In large part, the report appears to be an affirmation of the current position of judicial review – with minor changes that it is hard to feel strongly about.

(A close read of the report may dislodge this happy impression – but that is this blog’s preliminary view.)

The concluding observations of the report could have even be a post on this very blog:

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In receipt of the report, the Ministry of Justice decided that it would try harder to find people to tell them what they wanted to hear.

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‘We want to keep this conversation going.’

We can bet they do.

Like a frustrated news show producer who cannot find any talking-head expert to say the desired things, the Ministry of Justice is now resorting to a Vox Pox.

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At bottom, the problem here is a mismatch, a dislocation – such as those recently discussed on this blog.

The discrepancy is between the heady rhetoric of ‘activist judges’ – a rhetoric that has a life of its own – and the mundane reality of what actually happens in courts.

The commission, to their credit, looked hard and reported on what they saw.

Yet those Ministry of Justice, to their discredit, want to keep on until they are told what they want to hear.

Perhaps the Ministry of Justice will get what they want – and then move to limit judicial review.

One can never be optimistic about law and policy for very long, and the illiberals and authoritarians are relentless.

But this report is a welcome break from the push towards populist authoritarianism in our political and legal affairs.

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For a more detailed account of the just-published report, see Paul Daly’s blogpost here.

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The problem of the dislocation between political language and policy substance

17th March 2021

The problem of political language not being tied firmly to particular meanings is not a new one:

‘From where Winston stood it was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party:

WAR IS PEACE

FREEDOM IS SLAVERY

IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH’

Indeed, it is no doubt a problem as old as political discourse itself.

But the fact that it is not a novelty does not make it any less irksome.

And nor does it mean that its instances should be left unremarked.

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Currently there is a severe dislocation between political words and things.

Those ‘free speech warriors’ who decry ‘cancel culture’ often seem at ease with a government putting forward legislation that is capable of prohibiting any form of effective protest.

There are also the ‘classical liberals’ who commend ‘free trade’ who are in support of Brexit, which is the biggest imposition of trade barriers on the United Kingdom in modern history – and has even led to a trade barrier down the Irish Sea.

And there are the champions of the liberties under Magna Carta and of ‘common law rights’ who also somehow support restrictions on access to the court for judicial review applications and sneer at imaginary activist judges.

Like a gear stick that has come loose, there seems no connection between the political phrases and the policy substance.

But the phrases are not meaningless – they still have purchase (else they would not be used).

The phrases are enough to get people to nod-along and to clap and cheer.

It is just that they are nodding-along and clapping and cheering when the actual policies then being adopted and implemented have the opposite effect.

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Can anything be done?

An optimist will aver that mankind can only bear so much unreality – and that people will realise they have been taken in by follies and lies.

That, for example, Americans will realise that politicians who seek support to ‘make American great again’ have made America anything but.

Or that those who said they would ‘get Brexit done’ have instead placed the United Kingdom in a structure where Brexit will be a negotiation without end.

Or there will be a realisation that a government is seeking greater legal protections for statues than for actual human beings.

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A pessimist will see the opposite – that the breakdown of traditional media and political structures (with traditional political parties and newspapers seeming quaint survivors from another age) – means that it will be harder to align words with meanings.

Meaning the dismal prospect of liberals and progressives having to also adopt such insincere approaches so as to counter and defeat the illiberals and authoritarians.

Whatever the solution, it needs to come rather quickly – at least in the United Kingdom – as the current illiberal and authoritarian government is in possession of a large parliamentary majority and is showing itself willing and able to push through illiberal and authoritarian laws and policies.

While pretending to itself and others that it has ‘libertarian instincts’.

And so it may not just be the gear stick which has come loose but also the brakes as well.

Brace, brace.

***

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Why a production company was not allowed to pre-record and broadcast the coronavirus procurement case – a guided tour of the court’s reasoning

20th February 2021

Physician, heal thyself – proverb.

Yesterday the high court handed down its decision in the challenge to the government’s lack of transparency in respect of coronavirus-related procurement.

The court held that the government should have been more transparent.

This blog will examine that judgment once it can be properly digested – but in the meantime, there are some paragraphs of the judgment are interesting in and of themselves.

These paragraphs set out why the court – in a case about transparency and the public interest during the pandemic – refused an application for a production company to pre-record the hearing for broadcast under the very legislation that allows the courts to be more transparent during the pandemic.

Which is a little bit ironic.

Don’t you think?

The court’s reasoning on why the hearing could not be pre-recorded for broadcast is set out at the end of the judgment in a section with the title “Postscript: recording and broadcasting”.

The reasoning is worth going through step-by-step so one can understand the limits of public transparency of the courts when dealing with cases about the public transparency of the government.

(Please note that some of the mild teasing of the court below should not be taken too earnestly.)

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We start at paragraph 161 of the judgment:

‘161. Prior to the hearing, the Administrative Court Office indicated to the parties that, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the hearing of this claim would take place remotely using a video-conferencing platform. The Claimants invited me to give permission for a television production company to record and re-broadcast the proceedings in the interests of open justice. They made written submissions in support of that application. The Secretary of State resisted it, on jurisdictional grounds. I refused the application, indicating that I would give my reasons in writing at the same time as the judgment, unless the application was renewed orally at the hearing. The application was not renewed orally. These are my reasons for refusing it on paper.’

This is a useful reminder that judicial reasoning does not exist in a vacuum: judicial reasoning is about whether a court should do or not do a particular thing – usually whether to make an order.

Here, the reasoning is set out not because Mr Justice Chamberlain is going on some frolic of his own, volunteering his opinions on behalf of the judiciary of England and Wales on whether high court proceedings ought to be recorded and broadcast, but in response to a particular application by the claimants.

The government resisted that application – but not on its merits (though no doubt the government would not relish such proceedings being freely available). 

The application was instead resisted on ‘jurisdictional grounds’ – that is that such an order would not be open to any high court judge regardless of the merits.

You will also note that the judge mentions the application was ‘in the interests of open justice’ – and you will see that in nothing that follows does the judge deny that proposition.

The judge refused the application, and so what follows in this post tells why the judge made that decision – and why he did not (or could not) make any other decision on that application.

And the post ends by averring that this was an opportunity missed by the high court and such an application could have been granted on terms.

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Next is paragraph 162:

‘Section 41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925 imposes a general prohibition on the taking of photographs in court and on the publication of such photographs. This prohibition extends to video recordings: R v Loveridge [2001] EWCA Crim 973, [2001] 2 Cr App R 29. Exceptions have been provided by and under statute. None applies to proceedings in the Administrative Court. Section 41 therefore constrains the inherent jurisdiction of the court: R (Spurrier) v Secretary of State for Transport [2019] EWHC 528 (Admin), [2019] EMLR 16.’

The judge starts at, well, the starting point.

Taking photographs in court and publishing the photographs is generally prohibited – which means it is generally a criminal offence to breach the prohibition.

The prohibition is set out in a statute that is nearly one hundred years old, the Criminal Justice Act 1925, section 41(1) of which provides:

‘No person shall—

‘(a) take or attempt to take in any court any photograph, or with a view to publication make or attempt to make in any court any portrait or sketch, of any person, being a judge of the court or a juror or a witness in or a party to any proceedings before the court, whether civil or criminal; or

‘(b) publish any photograph, portrait or sketch taken or made in contravention of the foregoing provisions of this section or any reproduction thereof [… ]’

*

But wait: the proposal is not to photograph inside the court – indeed the hearing is not even taking place inside a physical court room – so how is this prohibition relevant?

The judge explains that section 41(1) has been extended to also mean video recordings, even though such things did not exist as such in 1925 and the section does not expressly mention video recordings.

Unfortunately, the 2001 decision which the judge cites as being authority for section 41(1) extending to video recording – and thereby extending the scope of a criminal offence – is not itself easily found in the public domain.

The nearest one will find in a reasonable internet search is this brief case note – which tells us, unrevealingly, that the court of appeal decided an ‘appellant’s convictions were safe despite the police having unlawfully videotaped them at court and adduced the evidence of a facial mapping expert to compare that video with CCTV footage’.

How a member of the public could join that dot to what the court here is saying about section 41(1) applying to video recording is not plain – and so we have to take the judge’s word for section 41(1) prohibiting video broadcasts and recordings even though section 41(1) does not explicitly say so.

(Yes, I know one can access the 2001 judgment through subscription services – but this blog and and what it describes is an exercise in the public understanding of law using public domain materials.)

The judge then notes there are general exceptions to this general prohibition – see here – but tells us none of those exceptions apply.

As such he concludes section 41(1) binds the court’s ‘inherent jurisdiction’ – that regardless that the power of the high court is very mighty indeed, statute is even mightier.

And of course, the judgment he cites for this very important principle is also not (easily) found in the public domain either.

So again we have to take the judge’s word for it.

Welcome to open justice.

*

We now come to paragraph 163, which deals with how the courts have been specially allowed to conduct video proceedings during the current pandemic:

163. The Coronavirus Act 2020 inserted provisions into the Courts Act 2003 about “proceedings conducted wholly as video proceedings”. The first provision inserted was s. 85A(1), headed “Enabling the public to see and hear proceedings”. It empowers the court to direct that such proceedings may be broadcast (i.e. live-streamed). It also empowers the court to direct that the proceedings be recorded, but only “for the purpose of enabling the court to keep an audio-visual record of the proceedings”. Parliament could have authorised recording for broadcast, but did not.

Here the judge is describing what the law says – but also, by implication, what the law is not saying.

The law is set out in a section inserted into the 2003 Act by coronavirus legislation, which provides:

‘Section 85

‘If the court directs that proceedings are to be conducted wholly as video proceedings, the court—

‘(a) may direct that the proceedings are to be broadcast (in the manner specified in the direction) for the purpose of enabling members of the public to see and hear the proceedings;

”(b) may direct that a recording of the proceedings is to be made (in the manner specified in the direction) for the purpose of enabling the court to keep an audio-visual record of the proceedings […]’

*

Section 85 looks promising for the applicants – and the exception under sub-section (a) looks as if it could cover the envisaged broadcast.

On the face of it sub-section 85(a) could be read so to permit the pre-recording and broadcast as envisaged in the application – subject to any specifications of the court

(In my view, had parliament intended that such broadcasts could only ever be done simultaneously with the hearing then parliament would have said so, but it did not.)

But the judge dismisses this possible reading with a deft gloss in parentheses that the broadcast exception only means ‘live-streaming’ – but note, the relevant law does not explicitly mention live-streaming – just broadcasting.

And, of course, many things that are broadcast go through a pre-recorded stage.

There is not a rigid broadcast/record distinction in media production.

The judge decides the envisaged project would fall instead within sub-section 85(b), and he avers that any such recording can only be for the purpose of judicial record keeping.

(It would seem to me to be at least arguable that a direction would have been possible under sub-section 85(a) containing specifications as to the manner of how the proceedings should be broadcast – otherwise, it would ignore the fact that most broadcasts necessarily go through a pre-recording stage.)

As the court decides neither of the coronavirus-related exceptions apply under section 85, then the general prohibition stands.

*

The judge then, in paragraph 164, sets out the criminal offence that parliament created in the coronavirus legislation in respect of certain unauthorised broadcasts and recordings:

‘164. The second provision inserted was s. 85B, headed “Offences of recording or transmission in relation to broadcasting”. This makes it an offence for a person to make an unauthorised recording or unauthorised transmission of an image or sound which is being broadcast in accordance with a direction under s. 85A. Section 86B(6) provides that a recording or transmission is “unauthorised” unless it is (a) authorised by a direction under section 85A, (b) otherwise authorised (generally or specifically) by the court in which the proceedings concerned are being conducted, or (c) authorised (generally or specifically) by the Lord Chancellor.”

This means that if a hearing is live-streamed in accordance with an order, it will be an offence for anyone to record and re-broadcast such footage.

*

The judge then deals with what appears to be an ingenious attempt by the Claimants to get around the statutory regime using the wording of the criminal offence:

‘165. The Claimants relied on s. 86B(6)(b). They argued that it would make no sense unless the court had power to authorise recording or transmission other than under s. 85A. This is topsy turvy statutory construction. Both the heading and operative language of s. 86B make plain that it is concerned with the creation of an offence and with the delineation of its scope. The function of s. 86B(6)(b) is to make clear that no offence would be committed by a person who records or transmits footage pursuant to an authorisation by the court. That is not surprising. One would not expect something authorised by a court to give rise to criminal liability.’

Topsy turvy.

*

Of course, the language of ‘make plain’ and ‘made clear’ in law (as in politics) usually means that the thing being described is not actually plain nor clear.

And it would seem that the applicants do have a point here (if a weak one) as the relevant section does appear to acknowledge orders being made other than under the coronavirus legislation.

But such an acknowledgment does not, by itself, create jurisdiction to make an order – the applicants still need to show the legal basis for their application, and they did not convince the court that they had one.

Ingenious legal submissions almost always fail.

*

Having asserted that the relevant law is ‘plain’ and ‘clear’ the judge, of course, has to explain the law yet further, and he does so in paragraph 166:

‘166. Nothing in s. 86B purports to define or expand the scope of the court’s powers to authorise broadcast and recording. Those powers are set out in s. 86A. That provision would not have been drafted as it is if the intention were to empower the court to permit recording other than for the purposes of record-keeping.’

Of course, if the law was actually ‘plain’ and ‘clear” then the judge would not need to keep on explaining it, as the law would, well, be plain and clear.

And again the court overlooks the fact that most broadcasting requires a pre-recording stage, and parliament did not expressly limit broadcasting to simultaneous live-streaming.

*

Paragraph 167 then sets out that there is a general prohibition on pre-recording for the purposes of broadcast and that this prohibition stands in this particular case:

‘167. There is accordingly no power to permit proceedings in the Administrative Court to be recorded for the purposes of broadcast, even when the proceedings are conducted wholly as video proceedings.’

In other words: the court would not be able to make such an order even if it wanted to do so.

It is a question of jurisdiction, not the merits of the application.

The judge has therefore not decided against making the order as such, but has decided that he does not have the power to do so.

*

But what about open justice?

For just as the roles of judges, lawyers and parties are now performed online during the pandemic, what about those who would sit in the public gallery?

In the last paragraph of the judgment, the judge explains how this important issue is addressed:

‘168. This does not generally, and did not in this case, prevent the public from having access to proceedings conducted wholly by video in the Administrative Court. In line with the Court’s usual practice, the cause list published on the day before the hearing included an email address through which any member of the public could apply for access to the online platform. All 19 who applied were able to access and watch and listen to the proceedings in this way. The proceedings were therefore at least as accessible as they would have been if held in court.’

This is a good point, well made by the judge.

Anyone who wanted to see the proceedings was able to do so, in the same way a person can go along and sit in a court if they want to do so.

*

But.

‘Open justice’ does not mean openness only to the very limited extent of the time, effort and commitment of a determined stranger to sit in a far-away public gallery.

The high court should seize the opportunity provided by the coronavirus legislation to make its work more visible to the public generally – especially in public interest cases arising out of the government’s response to the pandemic.

The public gallery is just one manifestation of the principle of open justice, but it is not its only standard nor its only template.

That is, to invoke a phrase, topsy turvy.

*

The mild teasing of the court above does have a serious point.

In public interest cases where the hearing comprises lawyer-on-lawyer action (and not any witness evidence) there is no good reason for the proceedings not to be more widely available.

This is not to suggest a free-for-all – such broadcasts can be done subject to the specifications of the court.

But a properly produced and professionally edited version of a public interest court case would be a boon for the public understanding of the law.

It is possible to read section 85A as permitting such a broadcast and, if so, the high court did have the jurisdiction.

Another judge may have taken a more robust approach to the opportunity provided by the coronavirus legislation for such a broadcast to be permitted.

It was a pity that such a production was not possible here.

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The ‘war on woke’ and law and policy commentary – and the importance of responding to illiberals but not on their terms

19th February 2021

There are various ways of seeing the current ‘war on woke’ being promoted by certain politicians and their media supporters.

One is to see it as a growing threat: that certain divisive issues are being ‘weaponised’ by those seeking and holding political and media power as a means of mobilising and consolidating sufficient support so as to obtain and maintain political and media power.

Another way is to see it is as the signals of declining political and media power: certain divisive issues are being ‘weaponised’ with increasing frequency as a means of holding off falls in political and media support, with each promotion of illiberalism illustrating the law of diminishing returns.

Either – or neither – of these things may be true.

One hopes for the latter, but one fears the former.

And perhaps which one is (or will be) true is down to what liberal and progressive people do now, as few things in human affairs are inevitable in any direction.

But there is the question of how, if at all, a law and policy blog should engage with each of these blows of the trumpet.

Should each blast be taken with anxious earnest solemnity – and risk being ‘owned’ like a ‘lib’?

Should one point and laugh and jeer – and risk being portrayed as having some metropolitan sneer?

Both of these responses are, of course, factored into the provocations – they are the desired results of the pulls on the chain.

Yet a third response, of ignoring the provocations – not ‘feeding the trolls’ or ‘giving oxygen’ – carries the risk of something significant being ignored that can then grow and manifest itself into a thing unwanted: such as the lack of engagement with Ukip ended up with a Brexit with the United Kingdom outside the European Union single market and customs union.

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So what, if any, is the best chess move to make?

The approach of this blog – for what it is worth – is to acknowledge that there is an attempt to start a culture war, but to not participate on the terms of the aggressor.

As a previous post asked: what happens if they started a culture war and nobody turned up?

Instead – perhaps too boring and unconfrontational for the tastes of some – the claims of illiberals will be patiently set out and the merits of those claims examined.

Invariably those claims will be found wanting.

And that will be because the claims are not intended to be serious contributions to law and policy but instead political – indeed, populist – speech acts.

Such claims need – somewhere – to be pointed out as such.

But this approach itself is problematic.

As I have previously averred, pointing out lies and disinformation does not make any difference if people want to be lied to – or do not care.

But it is a public good anyway, and it still should be done even if there are no obvious benefits.

And at least it will be a resource for those who do want to know the facts of matters before making media and political choices.

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The reason for setting this out is that have some have critically responded to recent posts – for example setting out how a government minister was getting the law about statues wrong or how a pro-Brexit politician was misrepresenting the Human Rights Act and what, if any, was the significance of such misinformation.

It was contended that these very acts of engagement were wrong – that it, to use that most dire of hackney phrases, ‘played into their hands’.

I think, however, what ‘plays into their hands’ is to allow your response to be defined by the provocation.

Dull, plodding, matter-of-fact posts setting out the false law and policy premises and incorrect facts about various provocative claims do not seem to me to be ‘knock-on’ effects that are desired by the provocateur.

Indeed, it may well be the most irksome of all possible responses – for it removes credibility without adding any drama or excitement.

Of course: such responses do little or nothing directly to politically counter the provocateur.

For that, one must look to opposition politicians for leadership.

And that is certainly not a job for a non-partisan blog – for partisanship is the enemy of useful commentary.

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