Exclusion from the Lugano convention – is this the legal cost of political toxicity?

28th July 2021

I am currently putting together a piece on the United Kingdom’s exclusion from the Lugano Convention, following Brexit.

The convention provides for the enforcement of judgments in European Union and (all but one) EFTA states – in essence, a judgment of a court in the United Kingdom can be enforced in Italy or Denmark and so on.

Without the convention, enforcement of a domestic judgment is less easy – and far more expensive and time-consuming.

The United Kingdom is seeking to re-join the convention from outside the European Union – but the European Union is effectively vetoing the application.

See this CNN thread here:

One thread in this sequence struck me – and my upcoming piece will be an assessment as to whether such a serious charge is valid:

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If there is validity in this charge then this is indeed a concrete – and consequential – example of the ‘moral hazard’ of which this blog has previously warned.

Such infantile politics must have seemed very clever at the time – with claps and cheers from political and media supporters – but now the effects could be manifesting.

What is less clear is whether this is a serious legal problem as well as a political failure – will it make much difference in legal practice?

Or is its legal significance overblown – event if it is a political embarrassment?

I will post a link to my piece in a day or two when it is published.

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What has happened to the government’s fundamental attack on judicial review?

21st July 2021

I was going to use today’s post to criticise the United Kingdom government’s assault on judicial review in the Judicial Review and Courts Bill published today.

But I cannot, because they have not.

At least not in the bill as originally published.

The bill only seems to have two provisions in respect of judicial review – neither of which are exceptional nor objectionable.

One deals with a particular issue in respect of immigration judicial reviews, the other in making an additional remedy available to judges.

The latter has the strange quality in a government proposal of actually being a good idea.

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For a sense check I looked at the comments of other legal commentators (I always try to form my own view on legal instruments and judgments before seeing what else others have said).

But they too saw the proposals as mild and uncontroversial.

Lord Anderson QC, an independent peer:

Lord Pannick QC, via my near namesake the president of the law society:

And via Joshua Rozenburg:

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We can be quite sure that the (laughably) named Judicial Power Project – a group with the strange view that the primary problem in the constitution of the United Kingdom is unchecked judicial rather than unchecked executive or legislative power – will be disappointed.

And there is a serious question to be asked about whether the government will seek to introduce amendments during the passage of the bill – though the usual trajectory is for bills to start off illiberal and to become less so during their legislative passage.

There is also the detail about fettering judges’ discretion in respect of the new quashing orders.

But all this said: this is a significant (and welcome) law and policy anti-climax.

This government went from boasting and blustering about fundamental judicial review reform – with a wide-ranging consultation – to, well, this.

Front covers of right-wing magazines carried caricatures of stern out-of-touch judges, while the tabloids called them ‘enemies of the people’.

But as this blog previously described, the government did not get the consultation response it was looking for.

Perhaps there was never really any problem to begin with – other than in the extreme political imaginations of the government’s political and media supporters.

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Are there again things stronger than parliamentary majorities? Bogdanor and the question of Unionist civil disobedience or even rebellion

In today’s Sunday Telegraph there is a short, 750-word opinion piece by Vernon Bogdanor, the eminent professor of government.

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Previously I have criticised Bogdanor for not appreciating the constitutional significance of the Good Friday Agreement – see here and here – to which he responded here.

My view is that he has a vision of the constitution that holds that the position before the Good Friday Agreement is the norm from which politics and law have since deviated.

If you look at that exchange, you can form your own opinion on the merit or otherwise of my view.

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Bogdanor’s latest opinion piece is about the Northern Irish high court decision last week in respect of the challenge by unionists of the Northern Irish protocol – a case which this blog touched upon here.

The judgment is some 68-pages but is readable and is worth reading.

Bogdanor spends the first part of his article setting out a general account of the submissions made by the applicants and he then briefly summarises the court’s decision.

His summaries are not the ones that I would write – but they are unexceptional even if not balanced.

And then.

The article takes a turn.

We get to the final three paragraphs, and something happens.

Let’s take these paragraphs in order – and sentence-by-sentence.

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‘The uncodified British constitution allows Parliament to decide that Northern Ireland should be subject to different goods regulations and trading rules from the rest of the UK.’

The second part of that sentence is generally correct – though it is hardly the fault of our uncodified constitution.

Such a decision could easily have taken place under a codified constitution.

It was, of course, a decision for which the government had a mandate in the December 2019 general election as part of the ‘oven-ready deal’.

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‘But Unionists hold a different view of the constitution.

‘They hold that loyalty to Westminster is not unconditional, but dependent upon respect for the Union.’

This is a rather significant thing to say – and it contends that the legitimacy of the United Kingdom state is ultimately contractual – even transactional – as that loyalty is dependent on ‘respect’.

The implication of this would appear to be that if the United Kingdom state is in breach of this contract then the unionists no longer should abide by the law of parliament.

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‘That is why in 1974, a power workers strike by Unionists brought down the Sunningdale Agreement, which had provided for a cross-border Council for Ireland giving the Republic what Unionists believed was excessive influence over Northern Ireland.

This refers to this exercise in civil disobedience.

Is Bogdanor suggesting there could, as a matter of fact, be similar civil disobedience now?

Or is Bogdanor even averring that such civil disobedience would be justified under our uncodified constitution?

It is not easy to tell.

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‘The Unionists are Queen’s rebels.’

I am not sure what Bogdanor means by this.

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‘Where then stands the Protocol?

‘The EU Commission has agreed to the Government’s request to extend the grace period for chilled meat for three months.

‘But that merely kicks the can down the road.

‘In any case, the argument is not about sausages but about whether Northern Ireland is to be cut off from the rest of the UK.’

Here we perhaps go from the salami to the ridiculous.

The dispute is, of course, more than about sausages – but to escalate it to it being about the very union does not necessarily follow.

There are a range of resolutions to this dispute – either through the mechanisms of protocol or by amending it – all of which are consistent with the continued existence of the union.

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‘The court in Belfast is, however, right to this extent.

‘The question of whether the Protocol is constitutional is one not for the courts but for politicians.’

Here the contentions of the opinion piece appear to become confused.

A couple of sentences ago, Bogdaonor was saying that there could (and even perhaps should) be civil disobedience.

Civil disobedience means direct action outwith the processes of political institutions – that is out of the hands of politicians and the formal political process.

Unless, of course, what he means by ‘politicians’ are the leaders of the envisaged civil disobedience.

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‘The case for the Unionists is based on the Enlightenment principle of consent of the governed.’

Is this proposition correct?

The basis of unionism is the positive belief in membership of the United Kingdom, a belief that would still have force even if (or when) it becomes a minority view in Northern Ireland.

If (or when) that does come to pass, would a united Ireland (as endorsed in a border poll) be an imposition on the unionists?

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‘Sadly, the Unionists of Northern Ireland, together with Kurds and Israelis, are deemed not to be entitled to the benefits of this principle by progressive theologians.’

No, I am not sure what this means either.

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‘But it is, nevertheless, a principle which should be enthusiastically championed by the Conservative and Unionist party of the United Kingdom.’

This is the last sentence of the article, and its import is unclear.

The Conservative Party is currently the governing party of the United Kingdom and it stood on an explicit manifesto commitment to get Brexit done by means of the withdrawal agreement – which contained the Northern Irish protocol.

For them to now switch would mean negating a manifesto commitment on which they won an emphatic victory in a general election dominated by the issue of Brexit – a general election that treated the whole of the United Kingdom as a single political unit.

This treatment of the United Kingdom as a single political unit was also, of course, adopted at the time of the 2016 referendum, where a majority the voters of Northern Ireland (like Scotland) voted to stay in the European Union.

Presumably the decision of the parliament of the United Kingdom to take Northern Ireland out of the European Union against the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland was also a breach of some enlightenment principle or other.

And when the Conservative Party do not ‘enthusiastically champion’ what Bogdanor wants them to champion, what then?

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Another constitutional principle – also in part from the Enlightenment, as it happens – is that of the rule of law.

The ‘rule of law’ is not mentioned in Bogdanor’s 750-word piece, which still found room for mention of both the ‘Queen’s rebels’ and ‘progressive theologians’, and is a shorter phrase than either.

The contention that unionist loyalty is ultimately conditional despite the law of parliament is reminiscent of “there are things stronger than parliamentary majorities” – a phrase with an unfortunate history in the context of Ireland.

A general strike – such as in 1974 – was not the only way that unionists in Northern Ireland have taken it upon themselves to prevent a perceived breach of the perceived contract between the government and the governed.

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To the extent that Bogdanor is warning in a positive way that peace and stability in Northern Ireland requires sincere and proper regard to the unionists then no sensible person can gainsay him.

But to the extent (if any) that Bogdanor is contending that the uncodified constitution and the principle of the consent of the governed justify a resort to resistance and rebellion (queenly or otherwise, and unarmed or otherwise) and discard for the rule of law then I fear he has fallen into error.

Bogdanor is right to say that political questions should be dealt with politically and not by the courts, but such questions also should be dealt with in accordance with the law.

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Judicial review, Dominic Cummings and ‘Potemkin paper trails’ – and why courts require reasons for certain decisions

11th June 2021

In three tweets in a thread posted this week, Dominic Cummings, the former assistant to the prime minister, refers to ‘Potemkin’ paper trails and meetings.

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What does he mean?

And does he have a point?

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What he is alluding to, of course, are the ‘Potemkin’ villages, where things in bad conditions were dressed up to be in good conditions so as to mislead others.

In the context of judicial review, Cummings presumably does not mean that bad reasons would be dressed up as good reasons.

What he instead intends to mean is that there could be artificial reasons and contrived meetings the purpose of which was to make a decision judge-proof.

To a certain extent, he has a point.

In the judicial review case in question, had there been evidence of officials conducting any form of evaluation exercise then the tender award may have been harder to attack legally.

And such an exercise could, in reality, have been nothing other than going through the motions rather than anything that could have actually led to another agency actually getting this valuable contract.

But this is not the reason the courts require reasons for certain decisions – and it may not have changed the judgment in this case either.

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Judges and courts are not stupid and naive.

Judges and courts know full well reasons can be artificial and contrived.

The judges were once barristers and solicitors and, as such, they would have had considerable experience of advising clients on providing reasons for certain decisions. 

The purpose of requiring reasons for decisions – and for ministers and officials to say they are true reasons – is to make it more difficult for bad and false decisions to be made.

For example – take the decision by the government to seek a prorogation of parliament in 2019.

No minister or official – or adviser – was willing to sign a witness statement (under pain of perjury) as to the true reason for advising the Queen to prorogue parliament.

And without such a sworn (or affirmed) reason, the government lost the case.

Reasons also provide a reviewing court with a basis of assessing whether a decision was so unreasonable that no reasonable decision could have made it, and also of assessing whether relevant considerations had been included and irrelevant considerations were excluded.

Providing reasons does not provide an escape route for cynical and irrelevant and unreasonable decision-making.

But it is an impediment, and one that makes it harder for ministers and officials to get away with bad decision-making. 

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And in the recent judicial review, it is not clear to me (as a former central government procurement lawyer) that even an artificial ‘Potemkin’ exercise would have necessarily saved the decision from legal attack.

Awarding a high-value contract to cronies where a nominal (though documented)  exercise of discretion had not shown any actual objective advantage over other possible suppliers would still have been open to legal attack.

So this is not necessarily a case where the failure to provide a ‘Potemkin’ paper trail is to blame for the loss of a legal case.

The pram may well have fallen down the stairs anyway.

*****

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Why is it so difficult to prosecute for the sale and purchase of peerages?

7th June 2021

A person is in the news because they donated £500,000 to a political party days after taking a seat in the house of lords.

This post is not about that person.

I have no idea about the circumstances of that appointment. and so I do not make any allegations in respect of those circumstances – and this is not just safe libel-speak, I genuinely do not know, and nor (I suspect) do you.

(And anyone commenting below who makes an allegation of criminality in respect of that appointment – or anyone else – will not have their comments published – this is not Twitter, you know.)

This post is instead about the legislation that is usually mentioned when such appointments are made: the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925.

It is a curious statute – not least because the offences it creates appear hardly to have ever been successfully prosecuted.

(The one early exception appears to be Maundy Gregory.)

 

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The legislation has one substantive clause that in turn creates two offences.

The first offence is (and in language itself as cumbersome as the name, title and style of any obscure peerage):

‘If any person accepts or obtains or agrees to accept or attempts to obtain from any person, for himself or for any other person, or for any purpose, any gift, money or valuable consideration as an inducement or reward for procuring or assisting or endeavouring to procure the grant of a dignity or title of honour to any person, or otherwise in connection with such a grant, he shall be guilty of a misdemeanour.’

Let’s try to make sense of this word-soup.

This first offence relates to the person who is (in effect) on the supply-side of a relevant transaction – the person ‘accepting or obtaining’ the ‘inducement or reward’.

This supplier has to be shown to (a) accept, (b) obtain, (c) agree to accept, or (d) attempt to obtain [x] in return for [y].

The [x], in turn comprises two things: (a) any gift, money or valuable consideration which also has the quality (b) of being an inducement or reward for procuring or assisting or endeavouring to procure the grant of [y].

This means proof of a ‘gift, money or valuable consideration’ is not enough: there also needs to be proof of its purpose.

The [y] is the most straightforward: ‘the grant of a dignity or title of honour to any person, or otherwise in connection with such a grant’.

What all this means is that showing there is cash and an appointment is not enough: there has to be proof of intention to the criminal standard of proof – that is (in general terms) beyond reasonable doubt.

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The second offence deals with (in effect) the demand-side:

‘If any person gives, or agrees or proposes to give, or offers to any person any gift, money or valuable consideration as an inducement or reward for procuring or assisting or endeavouring to procure the grant of a dignity or title of honour to any person, or otherwise in connection with such a grant, he shall be guilty of a misdemeanour.’

There is no need to unpack this like the first offence – but you will notice that again there is the need to prove that the ‘gift, money or valuable consideration’ is for the purpose of bing an inducement or a reward.

So, as before, showing there is cash and an appointment is not enough – there needs to be proof of intention.

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Those with good political memories will recall the ‘cash for honours’ investigation of 2006-2007.

This investigation included the extraordinary moment of a dawn-raid on the home of a government official and the questioning by the police of the then prime minister.

All very dramatic.

But nothing came of it.

No charges were brought.

The Crown Prosecution Service provided detailed, legalistic reasons for their decision not to prosecute.

The CPS averred that not only did it need to prove intention (on both sides) but also that it also had to prove that there was an agreement:

‘If one person makes an offer, etc, in the hope or expectation of being granted an honour, or in the belief that it might put him/her in a more favourable position when nominations are subsequently being considered, that does not of itself constitute an offence. Conversely, if one person grants, etc, an honour to another in recognition of (in effect, as a reward for) the fact that that other has made a gift, etc, that does not of itself constitute an offence. For a case to proceed, the prosecution must have a realistic prospect of being able to prove that the two people agreed that the gift, etc, was in exchange for an honour.’

These CPS reasons were compiled and endorsed by some very clever criminal lawyers – though the rest of us may struggle to see the absolute need for proving an agreement under the 1925 Act.

Nonetheless the CPS insisted:

‘In essence, the conduct which the 1925 Act makes criminal is the agreement, or the offer, to buy and sell dignities or titles of honour. Section 1(1) is drafted in wide terms and captures any agreement in which a seller agrees to procure a peerage in return for money or other valuable consideration. Section 1(2) is also drafted in wide terms and captures any agreement in which a buyer agrees to provide money or other valuable consideration, in order to induce a seller to procure a peerage.’

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If the CPS are correct in this interpretation and construction of the statutory offences, then this makes it hard, if not impossible, for the offence ever to be prosecuted successfully.

And, even without the CPS gloss, the requirement to show intention made the offence hard to prosecute in the first place.

There may be other laws which may apply – for example, fraud legislation – but not the one piece of legislation that actually has the sale of honours as its dedicated purpose.

For, as long as those involved make sure there is no paper-trail and that the choreography of nods-and-winks are done in the right order, there is no real danger of any prosecution under the 1925 Act.

What the 1925 Act prevents is the blatant Lloyd-George style of an open market for the sale and purchase of honours.

For a statute to only regulate (in effect) the seemliness of the trade in peerages and other titles is a very, well, British (or English) thing to do.

Otherwise, the 1925 Act is an ornament, not an instrument – and so it is as much a mere constitutional decoration as any ermine robe, and is just as much use.

*****

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Computer says ‘guilty’ – the scandals contained within the Post Office miscarriage of justice scandal

 4th June 2021

One of the successful appeal barristers in the Post Office miscarriage of justice scandal has given a powerful and important speech, which you should click on and read here.

Almost every paragraph contains devastating stuff – mistake and abuse, after mistake and abuse.

So immense a miscarriage of justice was the whole affair that it is difficult to get one’s mind around the scale of what went wrong.

I think there were three particular scandals that comprise the wider scandal – though this is not an exhaustive list.

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One scandal is the extent of what went wrong and how long it took for anything to be put right – the number of people involved and affected, and the length of time it has taken for there to be any justice.

Here it should also be noted that had it not been for exemplary judging in the civil case by Mr Justice Fraser, there may still not be anything approximating any justice in this case.

A huge, horrible system failure of the English legal system.

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A second scandal is just how many managers and lawyers in the Post Office knew that there were injustices – or did not care that there were injustices – but pressed on with the prosecutions and resisting the civil claims anyway.

Here the failure is not so much of a system but of individual professional decisions made by many who could and did know better.

The aggregate effect of all these bad decisions was immense – but each decision could and should have been different.

It is not good enough for those who made those bad decisions to hide behind any system failures – each should be held accountable for their individual decisions.

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A third scandal is the most basic of all – and is more fundamental than the failure of the legal system and the failures of managers and lawyers.

This scandal is about human credulity.

This scandal is about how mere shortfalls on a computer system were capable of being sufficient evidence in-and-of-itself for postmasters and postmistresses to be criminalised.

Computer says: guilty.

Here the scandal is not about systems or decisions – but about the nature of evidence and proof itself.

A problem of general gullibility.

As the appeal barrister Paul Marshall says in his speech:

‘One of the features of these miscarriages of justice is that, in almost all cases, the only evidence against the defendant in question was a shortfall shown in the Horizon computer system.   If you remember only one thing from this talk, bear in mind that writing on a bit of paper in evidence is only marks on a piece of paper until first, someone explains what it means and, second, if it is a statement of fact, someone proves the truth of that fact.  

‘The simplest explanation for the Post Office scandal is that documents generated by the Horizon computer system were routinely treated by lawyers and judges as though statements of fact that were true, without bothering to consider how their truth should be established.  It was taken as given that what a computer record showed was correct. The shallowness of this approach is reprehensible.’

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Even if the legal system had worked better, and even if Post Office managers and lawyers had made better decisions, there was always going to be a problem if such uncritical deference was given to computer records.

A computer should never be the one to, in effect, pronounce guilt.

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Did the Home Office blink? – the significance of today’s announcement of a date for the Daniel Morgan report

28th May 2021

Today came the news that the publication of the report on the Daniel Morgan independent panel should be on 15 June 2021.

This is the report into the 1987 death of Daniel Morgan, the collapse of the many subsequent investigations and prosecutions, and the existence of (and the relevance of) any corrupt relationships between the police, the private investigation industry and the press.

The statement of the panel is here and should be read in full

This is, of course, welcome news.

It ends the stand-off between the panel and the home office – and, on balance, the home office has given way more than the panel.

The late intervention of the home office – to demand a last-minute ‘review’ of the report – is now unlikely to frustrate the publication of the report.

Delay and blocking

This statement means that, unless something happens to prevent it, there is now a fixed, imminent date for publication.

This should prevent the report being delayed indefinitely by the home office sitting on it during this (supposed) review.

If the objective of the home office was to provide room for delay (or even prevent) the publication of the report, then that objective looks like it has been defeated.

There is a little wriggle-room for potential further delay – but not as much as if there was no date set at all.

Redactions

The statement also deals with the issue of any home office redactions.

Any redactions that the home office insist upon will be identifiable – and so, it would seem, contestable in court.

Each redaction would be an action by the home secretary that could – at law – be looked at by the high court for its reasonableness and relevance.

Any redaction would thereby not necessarily be the end of the matter – but just the prelude for litigation.

The redactions cannot just be silently made, with no one to know.

Again this is a set-back if the objective of the home office was to have room to make such silent redactions.

Forewarnings and leaks

If, however, the home office had as its objective that it would be forewarned of the content of the report, this objective has been achieved.

This means that if – and it is only an ‘if’ – there is anything politically significant in the report then the home office will not have a shock and so will not be bounced.

It also means there is the possibility of leaks from the home office – perhaps to the media – in the days before 15 June 2021.

This is notwithstanding the controlled conditions for the review of the report – which will remind those with longer memories of Robin Cook and the Scott report.

Making sense of the Home Office intervention

As this blog has already averred, there appears to be no good reason for the late home office intervention.

The purported reasons do not add up – and they appear to be improvised and cynical.

As I set out in detail here, the choice of ‘national security’ and ‘the human rights act’ as grounds appear to have been for providing the maximum litigation cover for any home office delay, and not because of any genuine concerns.

I am not a conspiracy theorist by inclination – conspiracies do, of course exist, but usually to hide cock-ups, as only then will a number of people have the motivation and focus to act in concert.

As such I do not think there is any conspiracy between the home secretary and others to try and block or delay or gut the report.

The home secretary may well be (as a lawyer would say) on a frolic of her own in all this, without contact with anyone else with an interest.

It may well be that the home secretary simply did not like the idea of something being published by an independent panel beyond her control or involvement.

But whatever the true motive for the home office’s late bullying intervention, the statement today means that it is more likely than not that we will see the report published in two weeks, and possibly with few if any redactions.

The panel and its lawyers should be commended for facing off this illiberal and misconceived intervention.

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The extraordinary intervention of Priti Patel in delaying publication of the Daniel Morgan report

19th May 2021

This is not a conspiracy theory blog.

Conspiracies do, of course, exist – often to cover up cock-ups, for that is usually the only time when any given group of people have the focus and motivation to act in concert.

But a conspiracy is rarely the first notion that comes to my mind to explain any odd state of affairs.

And so, in respect of the 1987 murder of Daniel Morgan, I do not know why he was killed and who killed him.

This is just not safe legal-libel speak: I genuinely have no idea, and I offer no theory.

But what is odd about this murder was the aftermath: a remarkable succession of failed investigations and prosecutions.

Here, again, there may be explanations short of a conspiracy.

Court cases and so on fail all the time, and for various reasons.

And even if those reasons point to systemic failures, often those system failures are not conspiracies but just, well, system failures.

But.

The succession of failed investigations and prosecutions in the case of Daniel Morgan also indicate that there may be concerted wrongful conduct.

And nobody who knows anything about the metropolitan police and their relationship with the tabloid media at the relevant time would be surprised if there had been undue pressure and corruption.

Still: we do not know for certain.

And this is why an independent panel inquiry was set up in 2013 to, as far as possible, get to the bottom of what happened and what, if anything, went wrong.

(My 2012 piece calling for a formal inquiry is here.)

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The panel spent eight years putting together a detailed report.

The eight year period indicates the complexity and perhaps the seriousness of the matters being investigated.

And this long-awaited report was about to be published…

…when in an extraordinary intervention Priti Patel, the home secretary, has delayed its publication.

 

We even have the remarkable sight of Patel relying on the Human Rights Act as part of the excuse for the delay.

As the panel has pointed out – in an impressively robust statement (which you should read) – there is no good reason for this intervention.

None of the supposed reasons add up, and it appears to me that the home secretary’s stated reasons are mere pretexts.

This is an extraordinary intervention by a politician in an independent inquiry.

And it also may be counter-productive – as it is drawing attention to a report that – even if it were critical – may have had little press or public attention.

After all – as I aver above – few would be surprised that bad things were happening at the time with the police and the media.

So, even if there is something in there which Patel, for political reasons, did not want in the public domain, her delay may be bringing attention to a thing others may have preferred were left not emphasised.

Some commenters believe that the report will be an exposure of the corrupt relationships between the media and the police of the time.

I have no idea.

But many will be even more interested in the report now after Patel’s extraordinary and perhaps clumsy intervention.

And we should hope that the report when published finally brings some justice for the family of Daniel Morgan who have campaigned tirelessly since his death for the truth to be revealed.

*****

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What is Force Majeure? And why is it now being mentioned in the context of Brexit?

18th May 2021

A historian of ideas – probably Isaiah Berlin – once averred that most philosophical systems were ultimately simple affairs.

What made them complicated, it was said, were the elaborate defences and anticipations of objections so as to make the arguments advanced harder to attack or dismiss.

I have no idea if this is true, as I have no head for philosophy, but I have often thought the same can be said for contracts.

Most agreements are also relatively simple – and most of us, every day, enter into oral contracts which are nothing more than ‘I give you [x] in return for [y]’.

Written out, such contracts would not need to be longer than one sentence – a single clause.

What makes a legal agreement complicated – and what can make a written contract go on for hundreds of pages of clauses and schedules – are the provisions dealing with what will happen if one party does not do [x] or the other party does not do [y].

This is because most written contracts are not there for when things go well: they are there for when things go badly.

The more provisions that are in a contract, the more allocations of risk and protections for the parties if there are problems.

For high-value or significant agreements, teams of lawyers will painstakingly (and often expensively) go through every possible and foreseeable eventuality, and will then allocate risk accordingly as between the parties.

There will also be detailed provisions setting out the processes for resolving and remedying problems.

In most circumstances, those provisions will not ever be used.

(As a general though not universal rule, the more effort that goes into putting a contract together, the less scope for genuine disputes later.)

But sometimes a thing can happen to disrupt an agreement that has not been addressed in the agreement.

This disruptive event can have three qualities: (1) it will be outside the control of the parties (else all you would have is a potential breach); (2) it will be outside of the allocations of risk in the agreement (else the agreement already deals with what will then happen); and (3) it will affect the performance of obligations under the agreement (else it would not matter).

In legal language, such a disruptive event is said to ‘frustrate’ the agreement.

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In English contract law, such frustrations often lead to unfair and uncertain results – and every law student will know of the so-called ‘coronation cases’.

Lawyers elsewhere, however, approached this sort of predicament differently and developed the doctrine of ‘force majeure’.

A force majeure event is a thing that (1) is outside the control of the parties; (2) is outside of the allocations of risk in the agreement; and (3) affects the performance of obligations under the agreement.

If the doctrine applies there is then some certainty of what will then happen in the event of a force majeure event – sometimes the consequences can be agreed between the parties, or the consequences may be provided for under the general law.

Force majeure, however, is a residual thing – if the parties have foreseen the particular risk and allocated that risk then the terms of the agreement should take priority.

This means (generally) the more detailed the agreement, the more limited the scope for force majeure.

The analysis set out by me above is from the perspective of an English commercial lawyer but the doctrine also exists in what is called ‘public international law’ – that is the law that regulates relations between countries (and also international organisations):

You will see the public international law document quoted provides that a thing cannot be a force majeure event if (a) it is because of the conduct of the state seeking to rely on it and (b) the risk of it happening has not been allocated.

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What all this means is that it is often difficult in practice to rely on force majeure when there is in place a detailed and specially negotiated agreement.

This is because the parties will have foreseen and addressed most practical problems.

And even if there is a force majeure event, that also does not mean it is a ‘get out of an agreement free’ card – as all that may result is a temporary relief from fulfilling an obligation until the force majeure event is over.

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The reason why force majeure is in the news is because David Frost, the United Kingdom minister responsible for Brexit negotiations, appears to think that force majeure can be relied on to relieve the United Kingdom from its obligations under the Brexit withdrawal agreement and its Northern Ireland protocol.

The news report says:

‘Force majeure is a legal concept through which a party can demand to be relieved of its contractual obligations because of circumstances beyond its control or which were unforeseen.

‘The suggestion is contained in a 20-page letter the UK has sent to the European Commission.’

To which the response should be: good luck with that.

*

In practice, any reliance on the doctrine of force majeure by the United Kingdom will come down to two particulars: (1) what is the (supposed) particular force majeure event, and (2) what is the particular obligation that is (supposedly) affected by that event.

Until this is known, one cannot be completely dismissive.

But.

It is difficult to believe that there is any event that (1) affects the performance of a particular obligation under the Northern Ireland Protocol which (2) is not within the control of one of the parties and (3) is not addressed in the protocol.

*

 

And in response to the thread on Twitter on which this blogpost was based, this scepticism was endorsed by Jonathan Jones, who was the United Kingdom’s chief legal official during the Brexit negotiations:

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That the United Kingdom government had not thought through or cared about the detail of the withdrawal agreement was not unforeseeable.

It was, to use another technical legal term, bleedingly obvious.

It is difficult to conceive of anything that could be a force majeure event that is not already subject to the provisions and processes of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

On the face of it, therefore, the resorting to ‘force majeure’ by the United Kingdom looks desperate – a makeweight argument deployed for want of anything more compelling.

There is, however, the delicious legal irony in the circumstances of the United Kingdom seeking to rely on a French legal doctrine used to cure the inadequacies of English law-making.

*****

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That was the County Court Judgment that was – and why everyone is entitled to a civil justice system that works at the speed it worked for Boris Johnson

13th May 2021

This time yesterday Boris Johnson had a County Court Judgment (CCJ) against him that had been entered back in October 2020.

Like anyone with a contested CCJ he faced the irksome process of applying to the court to set the judgment aside and, if the claim was ill-made, striking out the claim.

The application process can take weeks or months for normal defendants in this predicament – and Johnson faced having to also explain his delay in contesting the case.

And now: it is reported that the CCJ is no more.

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That is extraordinarily fast for the civil justice system.

It would seem that it may be that an application was not even needed – and the courts set aside the claim and struck out the claim by their own motion.

The claimant has wrongly made, it seems, a defamation claim in the wrong court and in the wrong manner.

As such, the court can act without reference to the parties and end the claim there and then.

But.

For the rest of us the civil justice system is nowhere near as prompt.

Claimants and defendants can wait years for a hearing date.

Those with wrongful CCJs can suffer for months until the court gets round to hearing an application for the CCJ to be set aside.

There is nothing wrong whatsoever with the courts acting so swiftly to set aside the CCJ entered against Johnson.

What is wrong is that the rest of us do not get the benefit of civil justice at this same commendable speed.