‘No – not that free speech’ – How ‘free speech!’ advocates can quickly get tied up in knots

16th July 2021

This was a remarkable tweet:

You really would need a heart of stone not to laugh like a drain.

It would appear GB News are in favour of ‘free speech’! – but not that free speech.

It was wrong sort of free speech.

*

How do those who say they are arguing from first principle get into such knots?

It is a problem in constitutional matters too.

Some of those who supported Brexit did so, they say, to ‘return power back to Westminster’.

But such Brexiters generally said nothing (or little) about a Brexit-supporting executive seeking to take power from parliament – for example in ensuring that the article 50 notification was done on the basis of a parliamentary act rather than the prime minister’s discretion.

That was the wrong sort of parliamentary supremacy.

And so on – there are many other examples.

*

The answer is, I think, about how people like to invoke principle in political, policy and legal matters.

Say you like [x] or are opposed to [y].

You can say ‘I like [x]!’ or ‘I oppose [y]!’.

You could, but it may not get you very far.

And so you gild the utterance: ‘[x] is good!’ and ‘[y] is bad!’.

But even that can not be enough, and so you invoke principles.

And you end up saying that liking or disliking [x or y] is matter of ‘free speech!’.

So, take for example that a person may dislike a certain minority [z] and would like to say so.

They could say: ‘I dislike [z]’ – but they not want to say this, at least aloud in polite company

Or: ‘[z] are bad people’ – though again they may be deterred.

And so they resort to ‘disliking [z] is quite frankly a matter for an individual quite frankly, and quite frankly people should have the right to say so, quite frankly, as it is free speech.’

Here, the resort to principle to being used to frame a proposition that the person making the utterance would not want to say in a more direct form.

But.

The problem is that the person making the utterance is invoking principle as a matter of rhetorical convenience.

And this is an error.

For the principle of free speech is, well, a principle.

And as a principle it has application generally, if not absolutely.

And so it applies to utterances with which you will strongly disagree.

This is why those who (say they) believe in free speech as a matter of general or even absolute principle end up so quickly in knots.

How those who want to parade their anti-woke offensiveness are (genuinely) horrified by the taking of the knee, or a white poppy, or inclusive language employed by a third party.

It is because their resort to principle is a cynical rhetorical device.

Their only interest in ‘free speech!’ is that it allows them to make utterances that, for whatever reason, they do not wish to make in more direct ways.

They do not want to say that they like [abhorrent sentiment] or that [abhorrent sentiment] is good.

They instead just want to say it and get away with it, but without any implications.

Last week I even had a tweeter telling me that the England footballers expressing political opinions should not be selected for their clubs or country – and when I looked at their bio, it said ‘supporter of free speech’.

*

This, of course, is not just a problem with those with which you disagree.

Anyone engaged in policy or legal or political discussion can make the same mistake.

And this is because we all seek to gild our utterances, as it is a natural temptation to big up one’s opinions.

The best guard is to only use first principles in circumstances where you know that you would also invoke the same principle when it was something applied to something with which you dislike, or even oppose.

The resort to principle – rightly – can have considerable purchase power in a discussion, but that power also can be devalued quickly.

And in particular: the principle of free speech has no real purchase if it is only to gild sentiments to which you do not object.

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Whatever happened to the concept of ‘maladministration’?

28th June 2021

The recent report from the independent panel on Daniel Morgan used the concept of ‘institutional corruption’ – and on this you can see my Financial Times video here and my post here.

But the deployment of such a term makes one think of other terms that come and go in law and policy – and one such term is ‘maladministration’.

It is an odd term – it does not quite mean ‘illegal’ or ‘unlawful’ and so it does not fit into the neat binary of what is called ‘public law’ – the law that regulates what public bodies can and cannot do.

In principle, it would appear that a thing is capable of being maladministration without it also necessarily being unlawful – either as a matter of public law or as an instance of misconduct/misfeasance in public office.

The notion is that maladministration goes to the thing being complained of having an administrative remedy – rather than a judicial remedy.

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The term ‘maladministration’ is used in English law, see section 5(1)(a) of the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 that established the office known as the ‘ombudsman’ (emphasis added):

‘[the ombudsman] may investigate any action […] to which this Act applies, being action taken in the exercise of administrative functions of that department or authority, in any case where […] a member of the public […] claims to have sustained injustice in consequence of maladministration in connection with the action so taken […].’

The act, however, does not define ‘maladministration’ – and all one can glean from the provision quoted is that the term is something to do with the performance of an administrative function.

In R v Local Commissioner for Administration for the North and East Area of England, ex p Bradford Metropolitan City Council (1979), the court of appeal averred that maladministration’ had an open-ended meaning, covering ‘bias, neglect, inattention, delay, incompetence, ineptitude, perversity, turpitude, arbitrariness and so on’.

This is a broad definition.

In 1993 the ombudsman said that maladministration’ included an ‘unwillingness to treat the complainant as a person with rights; refusal to answer reasonable questions; knowingly giving advice which is misleading or inadequate; offering no redress or manifestly disproportionate redress; and partiality’.

These are serious things  – indeed these can even constitute criminal offences.

*

Given the breadth of the definition of maladministration’, and the seriousness of what it can cover, it is strange that we do not have more use of the word in the public discussion of failures in the public sector.

For example, the Guardian and the Financial Times each seem to have used the word only twice in respect of United Kingdom matters in 2021.

And this is despite maladministration’ being a term recognised at law and for which parliament has provided a scheme for administrative remedies.

*

Why do we hear so little of the term maladministration’?

The reason cannot be that there is no maladministration – from the post office scandal and the Daniel Morgan report to the problems to do with Covid procurements and the exams fiasco, maladministration, like love and Christmas, is all around.

At least the failures that are covered by the word ‘maladministration’ are all around.

*

So these leaves two possibilities.

Either: the system of administrative remedies is working so well that that the maladministration that does take place is quickly remedied and the complaints resolved.

Or: the system of administrative remedies is not working, and so complainants are having to resort to public law and other means for their complaints to be addressed.

If the latter, this could mean that the reason we hear so little of the word ‘maladministration’ is that is not a practically useful term.

And if that is the case – that the reason we hear so little of the term ‘maladministration’ is that it is not practically useful – then why would that be the case, when parliament has set up an elaborate (and expensive) ombudsman scheme to deal with ‘maladministration’?

Given the ombudsman scheme – formally known as the the parliamentary commissioner for administration – and given the sheer amount of public sector failings, one would expect that the term ‘maladministration’ would be a commonplace in law and policy discussions.

But it hardly features.

So: is the real reason we hear so little of the term ‘maladministration’ in United Kingdom law and policy that the scheme of  (to use the ombudsman’s full title) is not working?

Some posts coming up on this blog are going to find out.

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The meaning of ‘institutional corruption’ – how the Daniel Morgan independent panel set about defining the term

26th June 2021

The independent panel report on Daniel Morgan found that the Metropolitan police was – and is – institutionally corrupt.

To dispute this finding – let alone to attempt to repudiate or refute it – requires you to do one (or both) of two things.

Either you have to challenge the facts on which the finding is based – and this is difficult in respect of the Daniel Morgan report, which is comprehensively sourced and footnoted (and all the report’s critical findings would also have been put to those criticised for their response as part of the preparation of the report).

Or you have to challenge the definition itself.

And so this blogpost sets out the definition adopted and then applied by the panel in the compilation of the report.

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The relevant part for the definition is deep inside the report, on pages 1022 to 1025 of this pdf (page numbers 1017 to 1021 of the document itself).

The starting point is the terms of reference for the panel, which included:

‘The purpose and remit of the Independent Panel is to shine a light on the circumstances of Daniel Morgan’s murder, its background and the handling of the case over the whole period since March 1987.

‘In doing so, the Panel will seek to address the questions arising, including those relating to:

‘[…] the role played by police corruption in protecting those responsible for the murder from being brought to justice and the failure to confront that corruption […].’

(Please note that in this post I break the paragraphs of the report out into sentences for flow and sense.)

*

The panel, however, did not just proceed from the terms of reference, but sought to understand what ‘corruption’ meant in this context:

‘The Terms of Reference give a vague formulation of […] the role played by police corruption in protecting those responsible.

‘There are two possible interpretations of this.

‘It could mean that,

‘i. one or more police officers became aware after the murder of who was responsible and protected them; or

‘ii. one or more police officers who were not aware of who was responsible for the murder committed corrupt acts for their own reasons, and in so doing compromised the investigation with the result that there was no evidence capable of proving who was responsible for the murder and of bringing them to justice.’

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The panel then said that it was taking its term of reference,

‘[…] the role played by police corruption in protecting those responsible for the murder from being brought to justice and the failure to confront that corruption […]’

to mean,

‘whether there was any police corruption affecting the investigation of the murder and making it impossible to bring whoever was responsible to justice’.

Here the panel had regard to the metropolitan police’s own admission that there had been a ‘failure to confront the role played by police corruption in protecting those responsible for the murder from being brought to justice’.

*

So that it how the panel was to interpret its term of reference.

But this does itself not tell us what the ‘corruption’ word means.

As the panel noted:

‘The Panel’s Terms of Reference do not include a definition of corruption.’

As the terms was not defined in there terms of reference, the panel had to work out its own definition.

In doing so, the panel looked at other definitions and uses of the word:

‘The Panel has therefore developed its own definition, drawing upon the definitions of corruption and corrupt behaviour used by relevant bodies.

‘Such bodies include the Independent Police Complaints Commission and its successor organisation, the Independent Office for Police Conduct, the National Police Chiefs Council, the College of Policing and the Metropolitan Police.

[…]

‘To inform its analysis, the Panel has drawn upon the report of the mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust Public Inquiry, the report by Mark Ellison QC on his review concerning the Stephen Lawrence investigation, the report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel and the subsequent report by the Right Reverend James Jones KCB, the report of the Gosport Independent Panel, and the work of the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire.

‘These inquiries and reports provide important insights into serious failures of a variety of public services, including but not limited to the police, and address the complex issues of accountability and corruption.’

*

Having had regard to how other inquires and reports have defined and used the word ‘corruption’, the panel also considered the common definitions and uses of the word:

‘The generic definition of corruption is ‘dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power, typically involving bribery’.

‘This definition suggests that for dishonest conduct to amount to corruption the person acting corruptly must be someone in power or exercising powers.

‘This definition would apply to police forces, prison, probation and healthcare services, or other organisations serving the public.

‘In these settings, ‘corruption’ may denote the misuse of authority in terms of deviance from the law, professional norms, ethical standards or public expectations.

‘In common parlance ‘corruption’ is also used to refer to the venal behaviour of persons who do not hold positions of power, but who do have something to sell, or who act as corrupters in that they bribe persons exercising powers to commit corrupt acts: it follows that people within and outside the police may be involved in ‘corrupt behaviour’.’

*

Having had regard to these other definitions and uses, the panel then went back to its own terms of references:

‘The Panel’s Terms of Reference require it to consider, primarily, wider questions relating to corruption.

‘It is asked to address:

‘i. ‘police involvement in the murder’.

‘By any reasonable person’s definition, if police officers commit or assist in planning a murder, it is not only the most serious crime of taking a person’s life, but it is also the gravest breach of the duties of a police officer.

‘ii. ‘the role played by police corruption in protecting those responsible for the murder from being brought to justice and the failure to confront that corruption’.

‘The ‘corruption’ is not explained further, but the Terms of Reference refer to the fact that ‘in March 2011 the Metropolitan Police acknowledged “the repeated failure of the MPS [Metropolitan Police Service] to confront the role played by police corruption in protecting those responsible for the murder from being brought to justice”.

‘iii. ‘the incidence of connections between private investigators, police officers and […] the media and alleged corruption involved in the linkages between them’.

‘To do this, the Panel has adopted an expansive approach to ‘corruption’, including the conduct of the police and the behaviour of other individuals linked to the police or involved in corrupt activity with them.’

*

So having considered how the term ‘corruption’ is or had been used elsewhere – from similar reports to common parlance, and having also considered what the word must mean in the context of the terms of reference, the panel then set out the definition of ‘corruption’ for the report.

It was a broad and deliberately flexible definition:

‘The Panel has adopted a broad definition of corruption for the purposes of its work.

‘The definition below is based on the key elements of dishonesty and benefit, and allows for the involvement of a variety of actors and a variety of forms of benefit:

‘The improper behaviour by action or omission:

‘i. by a person or persons in a position of power or exercising powers, such as police officers;

‘ii. acting individually or collectively;

‘iii. with or without the involvement of other actors who are not in a position of power or exercising powers; for direct or indirect benefit :

‘iv. of the individual(s) involved; or

‘v. for a cause or organisation valued by them; or

‘vi. for the benefit or detriment of others; such that a reasonable person would not expect the powers to be exercised for the purpose of achieving that benefit or detriment.

‘The Panel has used this definition to consider the conduct of the police officers involved in the investigations of the murder of Daniel Morgan.

‘The Panel includes in its wider definition of corruption some instances of failures on the part of senior officers/managers, acting as representatives of their organisations.

‘The documentation reveals the following wide range of actions and omissions by senior postholders on behalf of their organisations; many of these actions and omissions have been identified in the reports of other independent panels and inquiries:

‘i. failing to identify corruption;

‘ii. failing to confront corruption;

‘iii. failing to manage investigations and ensure proper oversight; 

‘iv. failing to take a fresh look at past mistakes and failures; 

‘v. failing to learn from past mistakes and failures;

‘vi. failing to admit past mistakes and failures promptly and specifically;

‘vii. giving unjustified assurances;

‘viii. failing to make a voluntarily commitment to candour; and ix. failing to be open and transparent.’

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The panel were also aware that important in understanding any practical definition is an understanding of what is not included:

‘[…] failings do not all automatically fall within the definition of corruption. Some may result from professional incompetence or poor management.’

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And now the panel comes to what it meant by ‘institutional corruption’:

‘However, when the failures cannot reasonably be explained as genuine error and indicate dishonesty for the benefit of the organisation, in the Panel’s view they amount to institutional corruption.

‘A lack of candour on the part of the Metropolitan Police in respect of its failings is shown by a lack of transparency, as well as prevarication and obfuscation.’

*

The panel then amplifies or illustrates this ‘institutional corruption” term elsewhere in the report:

‘The family of Daniel Morgan suffered grievously as a consequence of the failure to bring his murderer(s) to justice, the unwarranted assurances which they were given, the misinformation which was put into the public domain, and the denial of the failings in investigation, including failing to acknowledge professional incompetence, individuals’ venal behaviour, and managerial and organisational failures.

‘The Metropolitan Police also repeatedly failed to take a fresh, thorough and critical look at past failings.

‘Concealing or denying failings, for the sake of the organisation’s public image, is dishonesty on the part of the organisation for reputational benefit and constitutes a form of institutional corruption.’

[…]

‘When failings in police investigations are combined with unjustified reassurances rather than candour on the part of the Metropolitan Police, this may constitute institutional corruption.

‘The Metropolitan Police’s culture of obfuscation and a lack of candour is unhealthy in any public service.

‘Concealing or denying failings, for the sake of the organisation’s public image, is dishonesty on the part of the organisation for reputational benefit.

‘In the Panel’s view, this constitutes a form of institutional corruption.’

[…]

‘Unwarranted assurances were given to the family, and the Metropolitan Police placed the reputation of the organisation above the need for accountability and transparency.

‘The lack of candour and the repeated failure to take a fresh, thorough and critical look at past failings are all symptoms of institutional corruption, which prioritises institutional reputation over public accountability.’

The report also provides explicit illustrative examples of institutional (as opposed to non-institutional) corruption on pages 1073-1075 of the pdf (page numbers 1069-1071).

*

The report describes the careful consideration that went into defining both ‘corruption’ and ‘institutional corruption’.

The challenge, therefore, for those who wish to dismiss the finding of the independent panel that there was (and is) institutional corruption at the metropolitan police is either to deny the examples or to fault its definition and application.

It may be that some of those defending the metropolitan police see nothing (that) wrong in the internal solidarity and reputational protection that the panel describes as ‘institutional corruption’.

That it is not denied that bad things happened, but that they cannot be described as ‘institutional corruption’.

They may just not like such a term being used of such things.

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Given the care with which the panel considered and then defined (and then applied) the word ‘corruption’ that was expressly part of its terms of reference, any casual knee-jerk dismissal will not be sufficient.

A critic has to do better than to shake their head.

As I have set out in this Financial Times video, the panel have made out a substantial charge of ‘institutional corruption’ – and so this now requires an equally substantial response from the metropolitan police.

**

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How to show that the Metropolitan Police is institutionally corrupt

25th June 2021

In this Financial Times video out today – no paywall! – I have sought to set out how the 1,200 page, three volume independent panel report on Daniel Morgan substantiates the core charge of ‘institutional corruption’ at the metropolitan police.

Please click through and watch it – and leave any comments below.

(The more clicks and views, the more likely I will be able to do more law and policy videos at the FT – so if you value my law and policy commentary, please do have a look.)

 

The Yorke-Talbot Opinion – and why Hardwicke Chambers are changing their name

24th June 2021

Last June, after the death of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston, I did a thread on Twitter pointing to the historic complicity of the legal profession in slavery.

The second tweet in that thread mentioned a legal document of which few had heard: the Yorke-Talbot opinion of 1729.

The Yorke-Talbot opinion was an important and consequential legal document.

The opinion had the effect of legitimising slavery in Great Britain for decades.

Yet, it was not a judgment or an act of parliament or a royal charter or indeed any text usually regarded as having the force of law.

It was, as its name tells us, an opinion.

But it was the opinion of the government’s two most senior law officers for England and Wales: the attorney general and the solicitor general.

And although in those days such figures could also do private client work, the offices of the two lawyers meant that this opinion had the highest authority.

To modern eyes, however, the striking feature of the opinion is just how flimsy it is.

The relevant text in its entirety is:

‘In Order to rectify a Mistake, that Slaves become free, by their being in England, or Ireland or being baptized, it has been thought proper to consult the King’s Attorney and Solicitor General in England thereupon, who have given the following Opinion, subscribed with their own Hands.

‘We are of opinion, that a slave coming from the West-Indies to Great-Britain or Ireland, with or without his master, doth not become free, and that his master’s property or right in him is not thereby determined or varied; and that baptism doth not bestow freedom on him, or make any alteration in his temporal condition in these kingdoms. We are also of opinion, that his master may legally compel him to return again to the plantations.’ 

You will see there is no authority cited, nor the application of any legal principle, nor the setting out of any jurisprudential reasoning.

A bare assertion of the law that would embarrass a law student in their first-term

Here is a facsimile of an early published version:

The purpose of this opinion was to counter the flow of increasingly liberal judgments on the slavery issue associated with Chief Justice Holt.

(A judge incidentally also associated with practically ending witchcraft trials.)

The consequence of the Yorke-Talbot opinion was to provide a legal device which all those involved in slavery and the slave trade – lawyers, traders, insurers, owners and so on – could rely on in the case of any doubts as the legality of slavery and the slave trade.

A piece of paper to wave in the face of any moral scruples or legal doubt.

A piece of paper with the high authority of the attorney general and the solicitor general.

It was the comfort and security needed for hardened men of business who made their fortunes and earned their professional fees out of this trade in human misery.

The great extension of British involvement in the slave trade was a feature of the period after 1729 – all under the legal cover of this Yorke-Talbot opinion.

It was not until Somerset’s case of 1772 that the courts began to decide otherwise.

Yorke and Talbot themselves did well out of their legal careers – both became lord chancellor, with Yorke taking the title of Lord Hardwicke.

(On this more generally, see my post here.)

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Hardwicke is a famous name in English legal history, and so things are named after him.

When I was called to the Bar by Lincoln’s Inn, one of the scholarships that I was awarded was a Hardwicke scholarship (though they have recently been renamed entrance scholarships) and this paid for certain administrative fees attendant on becoming barrister.

Another thing named after Hardwicke is a set of barristers chambers in Lincoln’s Inn (where I once did a mini-pupillage).

There are other things too – it is just one of those great legal names, like Halsbury or Denning.

I did not think anything concrete would come of my thread, other than to generate interest in the often unpleasant history of the legal profession.

*

But something did come of it, one year later.

I understand I am one of the legal bloggers referred to in that statement.

Hardwicke chambers, who were already changing location, had decided to use the move as an opportunity to change their name at the same time.

What happened was that, prompted by the thread and the interest it generated, I am told senior members of that chambers went off to research the subject for themselves:

And the barrister Nicholas Leah has now provided a thread on the opinion far more erudite than mine:

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And so – in the great traditions of the Bar – an independent chambers had been gently persuaded of a change of name and had done so on the basis of research and evidence.

Unfortunately one government minister, a senior barrister, decided that this smacked of woke-ism:

This was a silly intervention from someone who knows (or should know) better.

It indicates that the minister does not know (or does not care) about the exceptional nature of the Yorke-Talbot opinion and of its dire consequences.

One would have hoped that a minister in the department of justice would have congratulated a chambers for showing independence and making a decision based on persuasion and evidence.

Anyway, he was gently put right:

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The curious thing is that (similar to Edward Colston) the sheer number of things named after Hardwicke obscured rather than revealed his role in history.

What had been ‘erased’ from history was the York-Talbot opinion – and it is a document that should be better known to lawyers, historians and the general public.

Changing the name of a chambers (or of a scholarship) certainly does not erase Hardwicke – indeed, he is now more widely known about (again, like Edward Colston).

And a better understanding of how the legal system and lawyers facilitated slavery provides us with a fuller understanding of our own history.

**

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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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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:

*

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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Clause 59 and ‘TwitterJokeTrial’ – a warning from history

Spring Equinox, 2021

 

Some of those defending clause 59 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing, Courts and Anything Else the Government Can Get Away With Bill point out that one purpose of the provision is to set out in statute the old common law offence of public nuisance.

The view is that the enactment is merely an exercise in modernisation and simplification – that there is nothing for us to worry our heads about.

And as this blog has already explained, part of the origin of the proposal is a Law Commission report from 2015.

But.

There is a law more powerful than any statute or common law right, more powerful even than any great charter.

And that is the law of unintended consequences.

*

Here is a story.

There was once an obscure provision in the Post Office (Amendment Act) 1935 that, in turn, amended the Post Office Act 1908:

And for seventy years the offence was hardly noticed, though it was reenacted from time to time as telecommunications legislation was, ahem, modernised and simplified.

Then in 2003 it was reenacted yet again, but in terms that (without any proper consideration) ended up covering the entire internet:

But it was still not really noticed.

Until one day some bright spark at the crown prosecution service realised the provision’s broad terms were a prosecutorial gift in the age of social media.

This resulted in the once-famous TwitterJokeTrial case and its various appeals, which ended with a hearing before the lord chief justice.

In allowing the appeal against conviction, the lord chief justice said:

In other words: the intention of the 2003 reenactment had not been to widen the scope of the offence in respect of fundamental freedoms.

(Declaration of interest: I was the appeal solicitor before the high court in that case.)

*

Coming back to clause 59, it may well be that the intended effect of clause 59 is to merely restate the existing law.

Some are convinced by this view: 

But.

What we will have, once enacted, will be an offence – that is, an arrestable and chargeable offence – which, on the face of it is in extraordinary broad terms, using such everyday language as ‘annoyance’.

It may be that the higher courts will, as any appeals come in, apply the technical meaning in property law of ‘annoyance’.

The law in practice is not that (only) of the judgments of the high court and above: it is what police officers and crown prosecution service case workers believe the law to be and see the law as it is set out.

It is also can be what zealous complainants to the police say it to be.

And none of these people will – understandable and perhaps rightly – be well versed in the case law of ‘annoyance’ in respect of the old law of public nuisance.

They will just see an arresting and charging power – and a power to set conditions.

So it should not be left to the courts ‘to apply the old caselaw’.

*

Criminal offences – and their limits – need to be clear and precise to everyone involved: citizen, complainant, arresting officer, crown prosecution service case worker, busy junior legal aid solicitor giving advice on plea – as well as to erudite barristers and even more erudite judges.

And so: even taking the point about this being a mere modernisation and simplification at its highest, clause 59 currently contains worryingly wide drafting.

Most people reading clause 59 by itself will believe there is a criminal offence – with a sentence of up to ten years – for causing mere annoyance.

Even if that it not the government’s intention, that is how the current provision can be read.

And because of this, people may suffer the life-changing events of being arrested and being charged – and may even plead guilty.

Unless, of course, that is the government’s real intention.

***

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

 19th March 2021

*

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

– Moulin Rouge

*

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:

*

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.

*

‘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.

*

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.

**

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

***

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The European Commission launches legal proceedings against the United Kingdom – a guided tour

 16th March 2021

The European Commission announced yesterday that it had ‘launched legal proceedings’ against the United Kingdom.

What has happened is that a formal legal notice has been sent by the European Commission to the United Kingdom.

To say this is ‘launch[ing] legal proceedings’ is a little dramatic: no claim or action has been filed – yet – at any court or tribunal.

But it is a legally significant move,  and it is the first step of processes that, as we will see below, can end up before both a court and a tribunal.

This blogpost sets out the relevant information in the public domain about this legal move – a guided tour of the relevant law and procedure.

*

Let us start with the ‘legal letter’ setting out the legal obligations that the European Commission aver the United Kingdom has breached and the particular evidence for those breaches.

This is an ‘infraction’ notice.

As the European Commission is making some very serious allegations – for example, that the United Kingdom is in breach of the Northern Ireland protocol – then it is important to see exactly what these averred breaches are.

This information would be set out precisely in the infraction letter – informing the ministers and officials of the United Kingdom government of the case that they had to meet in their response.

But.

We are not allowed to see this letter.

Even though the European Commission is making serious public allegations about the United Kingdom being in breach of the politically sensitive Northern Ireland Protocol, it will not tell us the particulars of the alleged breaches.

This is because, I am told, the European Commission does not publish such formal infraction notices.

There is, of course, no good reason for this lack of transparency – especially given what is at stake.

The European Commission should not be able to have the ‘cake’ of making serious infraction allegations without the ‘eating it’ of publishing them.

*

And so to work out what the alleged breaches are, we have to look at other, less formal (and thereby less exact) sources.

Here the European Commission have published two things.

First, there is this press release.

Second there is this ‘political letter’ – as distinct from the non-disclosed ‘legal letter’.

What now follows in this blogpost is based primarily on a close reading of these two public documents.

*

We start with the heady international law of the Vienna Convention on the law of treaties.

Article 26 of the Vienna Convention regards the delightful Latin phrase Pacta sunt servanda.

In other words: if you have signed it, you do it.

Agreements must be kept.

You will also see in Article 26 express mention of ‘good faith’.

*

We now go to the withdrawal agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

There at Article 5 you will see that the United Kingdom and the European Union expressly set out their obligation of good faith to each other in respect of this particular agreement:

So whatever ‘good faith’ may or not mean in a given fact situation, there is no doubt that under both Article 26 of the Vienna Convention generally and under Article 5 of the withdrawal agreement in particular that the United Kingdom and the European Union have a duty of good faith to each other in respect of their obligations under the withdrawal agreement.

*

The European Commission not only allege that the United Kingdom is in breach of its obligation of good faith but also that the United Kingdom is in breach of specific obligations under the Northern Ireland protocol (which is part of the withdrawal agreement).

The press release says there are ‘breaches of substantive provisions of EU law concerning the movement of goods and pet travel made applicable by virtue of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland’.

The ‘political letter’ says:

So it would appear that the relevant provisions of the withdrawal agreement are Articles 5(3) and (4) of the Northern Ireland and Annex 2 to that protocol.

Here we go first to Annex 2.

This annex lists many provisions of European Union law that continue to have effect in Northern Ireland notwithstanding the departure of the United Kingdom.

Article 5(4) of the protocol incorporates the annex as follows:

‘The provisions of Union law listed in Annex 2 to this Protocol shall also apply, under the conditions set out in that Annex, to and in the United Kingdom in respect of Northern Ireland.’

As such a breach of Article 5(4) is a breach of the European Union laws set out in that annex.

Article 5(3) of the protocol is a more complicated provision and it is less clear (at least to me) what the European Commission is saying would be the breach:

My best guess is that the European Commission is here averring that the United Kingdom is in breach of the European Union customs code (which is contained in Regulation 952/2013.)

As regards the specific European Union laws set out in Annex 2 that the European Commission also says that the United Kingdom is in breach of, we do not know for certain because of the refusal of the commission to publish the formal infraction notice.

On the basis of information in the press release and the ‘political letter’ it would appear that the problems are set out in these three paragraphs:

Certain keyword searches of Annex 2 indicate which actual laws the European Commission is saying being breached, but in the absence of sight of the formal infraction notice, one could not know for certain.

The reason the detail of what laws are at stake matters is because each instrument of European Union law may have its own provisions in respect of applicability, enforceability and proportionality that could be relevant in the current circumstances.

*

So: what next.

Two things – the European Commission is adopting a twin-track, home-and-away approach.

One process will deal with the substantive provisions of European Union law – and the other process will deal with the matter of good faith.

*

In respect of the alleged substantive breaches of European Union law, the European Commission has commenced infraction proceedings – as it would do in respect of any member of the European Union.

As the ‘political letter’ pointedly reminds the United Kingdom:

The United Kingdom is still subject to the supervisory and enforcement powers of the European Union in respect of breaches of European Union law in Northern Ireland.

You thought Brexit meant Brexit?

No: the government of Boris Johnson agreed a withdrawal agreement that kept in place the supervisory and enforcement powers of the European Union – including infraction proceedings of the European Commission and determinations by the Court of Justice of the European Union.

And so in 2021 – five years after the Brexit referendum – the European Commission is launching infraction proceedings against the United Kingdom under Article 258 of the Treaty of Rome:

This means there could well be a hearing before the Court of Justice of the European Union.

One does not know whether this would be more wanted or not wanted by our current hyper-partisan post-Brexit government.

One even half-suspects that they wanted this all along.

*

The other track – with the European Commission playing ‘away’ – is in respect of the general ‘good faith’ obligation – as opposed to the substantive European Union law obligations under Annex 2.

Here we are at an early stage.

In particular, we are are at the fluffy ‘cooperation’ stage of Article 167:

If this fails, then the next stage would be a notice under Article 169(1):

Article 169(1) provides that such a formal notice shall ‘commence consultations’.

And if these Article 169 consultations do not succeed, then we go to Article 170:

The arbitration panel – and not the European Commission nor the European Court of Justice – would then determine whether the United Kingdom is in breach of its general obligation of good faith.

*

We could therefore end up with two sets of highly controversial proceedings.

The European Commission has intimated the processes for both to take place in due course.

From a legalistic perspective, the European Commission may have a point – depending on what the alleged breaches actually are.

A legal process is there for dealing with legal breaches – that is what a legal process is for.

But.

When something is legally possible, it does not also make it politically sensible.

A wise person chooses their battles.

And if the European Commission presses their cases clumsily, then the legitimacy and durability of the withdrawal framework may be put at risk.

Brace, brace.

***

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The proposed new clause 59 offence of ‘intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance’

15th March 2021

There is currently a bill before parliament that will, among other things, create a new statutory offence of ‘public nuisance’.

This new offence – as currently set out in the bill – is itself causing annoyance and distress.

Why is it being proposed?

And what should parliament do about it?

*

Like a lamp in Aladdin – it is a new offence for an old one.

If the new offence is enacted then the current ‘common law’ (that is, non-statutory) offence of public nuisance will be abolished.

The current offence is ill-defined and rarely used – and it has been the subject of 2015 reform proposals from the Law Commission – see here.

(Of course, the fact that the Law Commission proposed reform in 2015 is not the reason why the home office have chosen to propose changes in 2021.)

*

On the face of it, reform and simplification are good things.

Who could possibly oppose something as laudable as reform and simplification?

And the Law Commission does have a point – the current law is somewhat vague and archaic.

The current law is usually stated as:

‘A person is guilty of a public nuisance (also known as common nuisance), who (a) does an act not warranted by law, or (b) omits to discharge a legal duty, if the effect of the act or omission is to endanger the life, health, property or comfort of the public, or to obstruct the public in the exercise or enjoyment of rights common to all Her Majesty’s subjects.’

The bill before parliament proposes that old offence to be replaced by this:

As you will see there are elements of the current offence copied over to the new offence – and that although this is an exercise in ‘simplification’ it also happens to be rather longer.

Words like ‘annoyance’ are added.

But the new offence has not plucked the word ‘annoyance’ out of the air: annoyance can be a component of the current offence, and it has featured in case law.

The word ‘annoy’ (and its variants) is mentioned thirty-seven times in the Law Commission report.

The Law Commission summarises their view as (at paragraph 3.12):

‘One question is the nature of the right or interest which public nuisance seeks to protect.  In our view, its proper use is to protect the rights of members of the public to enjoy public spaces and use public rights (such as rights of way) without danger, interference or annoyance.’

Whatever ills can be blamed on the home secretary and the home office, the content of this proposed provision is not entirely of their creation.

*

But.

Each and every piece of legislation needs to be scrutinised on its own terms – and neither parliamentarians nor the public should just nod-along because the magic words ‘reform’ and ‘simplification’ are invoked.

Never trust the home office.

And if one looks through clause 59 carefully and trace through how it works, it is potentially a chilling and illiberal provision.

For example (with emphasis added):

A person commits an offence if— (a) the person— (i) does an act […]  [which](b) the person’s act or omission […] (ii) obstructs the public or a section of the public in the exercise or enjoyment of a right that may be exercised or enjoyed by the public at large, and (c) the person  […]  is reckless as to whether it will have such a consequence. […]  (2) For the purposes of subsection (1) an act or omission causes serious harm to a person if, as a result, the person […] (c) suffers serious distress, serious annoyance, serious inconvenience or serious loss of amenity, or (d) is put at risk of suffering anything mentioned […].

The offence is thereby made out not if a person is caused ‘serious annoyance’ but only if there is a ‘risk’ of them suffering it.

And there does not need need to be any directed intention – mere recklessness will suffice.

The maximum sentence for simply putting someone ‘at risk of suffering’ serious annoyance is imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years.

Of course, maximum sentences are maximum sentences, and in practice the penalties will be lower.

Yet, the creation of such an offence in these terms will have a knock-on effects on the powers of police to arrest and to set conditions.

And it is in the day-to-day exercises of such powers by the police that the real chill of any offence is most keenly felt – and not the ultimate sentencing power of a court.

*

This provision and other provisions in the bill before parliament have the potential to greatly restrict the rights of individuals to protest – or even go about their everyday activities.

As such, such provisions should receive the anxious scrutiny of parliamentarians. 

Despite the Law Commission origins of the proposed reform – there may be plenty here that the home office have added – and for various illiberal reasons.

Members of parliament are not there to nod-along – and this particular proposal should not just be nodded-through.

***

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