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.

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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.)

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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’.

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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

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

– Moulin Rouge

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

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

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

But.

It is sometimes strange how things turn out.

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

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

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

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

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

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‘We want to keep this conversation going.’

We can bet they do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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The 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.

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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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Under the hood: how the United Kingdom state authorises people to commit criminal offences and then protects them from prosecution

12th March 2021

A recent court of appeal case has provided an insight into how the United Kingdom state both authorises people to commit criminal offences and then protects them from prosecution.

To show how this is done is not necessarily to condemn – or endorse – such governmental practices.

You may well believe that it is right that in certain covert operations those acting on behalf of the state should be able – as part of their cover – be able to break both the criminal and civil law for the greater good.

Or you may believe it should not be legally possible and that such things have the effect of placing state agents above the law.

In either case there is value in understanding just how it is done.

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The starting point is to know – in general terms – about the two-stage ‘code’ test for bringing criminal prosecutions.

The first stage is to determine whether there is sufficient evidence against a defendant – this is called the evidential test.

The second test – treated as a routine formality in most every-day cases – is whether, distinct from the evidential test, there is a public interest in a prosecution – this is called the public interest test.

The notion is that there is a presumption that a prosecution is in the public interest unless there is a reason why such a prosecution was not in the public interest.

And it is at this second stage that state-authorised criminals are protected from prosecution.

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But it is important to note that this protection is not a legal immunity.

Oh no, not at all, definitely not, how could you think such a thing?

The contention is that because in theory a prosecution can still occur then state agents are not technically above the law.

And placing state agents above the law would be a bad thing, and such a bad thing would never happen.

An authorisation for a state agent to break the law does not confer immunity from prosecution – it instead provides a factor which a prosecutor takes into account when making the decision whether a prosecution is in the public interest or not.

In this elaborate – and for some, artificial – form the state has both its cake and a file inside it.

State agents are protected from prosecutions for their criminal acts – but are not given immunity.

It is just that the prosecutions will not happen.

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The court of appeal case is the latest (and perhaps last) stage in an important public interest case which, among other public benefits, has led to the disclosure of hitherto secret guidance on authorising state agents to commit criminal effects.

The judgment at paragraph 14 even published a redacted version of the guidance.

One paragraph of that guidance describes the legal effect and consequences of an authorisation (which I break up into smaller paragraphs for flow):

‘9. An authorisation of the use of a participating agent has no legal effect and does not confer on either the agent or those involved in the authorisation process any immunity from prosecution.

‘Rather, the authorisation will be the Service’s explanation and justification of its decisions should the criminal activity of the agent come under scrutiny by an external body, e.g. the police or prosecuting authorities.

‘In particular, the authorisation process and associated records may form the basis of representations by the Service to the prosecuting authorities that prosecution is not in the public interest.

‘Accordingly, any such authorisation should, on its face, clearly establish that the criteria for authorisation are met, in terms which will be readily understood by a prosecutor.

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To a certain extent the court of appeal case is of historic interest, because the government has now legislated to place part of this system on a statutory basis.

In the grand tradition of giving important legislation complicated and forgettable names, this is the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act 2021.

This inserts the glamorous-sounding ‘section 29B – Covert human intelligence sources – criminal conduct authorisations’ into the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, including this definition:

‘A “criminal conduct authorisation” is an authorisation for criminal conduct in the course of, or otherwise in connection with, the conduct of a covert human intelligence source.’

You will note – perhaps worryingly – that there is no limit on what criminal actions may be authorised.

And here on should bear in mind the circumstances of the murder of Pat Finucane.

(And those circumstances explain why the Pat Finucane Centre were one of the groups bringing the legal challenge.)

 

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On the face of it: murder and other serious criminal offences can be authorised by the state: there is no express limit.

But, of course, such things would never happen.

Ahem.

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Paragraph 113 of the judgment also reveals something interesting:

‘The undisputed evidence generally was that the Security Service works closely with the police in counter-terrorism operations. The evidence also reveals that there is, for example, a Memorandum of Understanding between the Security Service, the police and the Counter Terrorism Division of the Crown Prosecution Service.’

This memorandum of understanding, of course, does not seem to be in the public domain.

As a ‘memorandum of understanding’ this would be a formal, legal-looking document – complete with pompous earnest language and paragraph numbers – but it is as much an imposter as any covert agent.

The purpose of a memorandum of understanding between government entities is to have the effect of a binding agreement – but without any of the inconveniences of it actually being a legal instrument, such as transparency.

There are memorandums of understanding all over the state (and between the United Kingdom and other states) – many of which are secret – but all of which are crucial in the conduct of government and public affairs.

The court of appeal’s helpful mention of the existence of this memorandum of understanding tells us how – as a matter of process – the authorisations are in practice converted into decisions not to prosecute.

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Again: you may take the view that all this is not something to worry about and that government is doing what it has to do so as to keep us all safe.

Nothing in this post should be taken to gainsay such an entirely valid view.

The purpose of this post is to use information in the public domain so as to show how the state goes about doing what it does.

And there is even a reason to welcome the 2021 act even if one is a liberal or progressive.

The more of what the state does that is placed on a public statutory basis the better in any democratic society that values the rule of law.

So although the various public interest groups failed in their appeal, their dogged-determined litigation has led to certain things becoming public knowledge and perhaps being placed on a statutory footing that were not public knowledge before.

Just because some things should be covert it does not mean all things have to be covert.

And there is not a good reason why the ways and means by which the state authorises criminal conduct and then protects its agents from prosecution should not be in public domain – and in a democratic society that values the rule of law there is a good reason why it should be.

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EDIT

The first version of this post had a mention of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme – but the point I made now appears to be incorrect – so I have deleted that section so I can consider it again.

Apologies.

***

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A government department or minister has been found to have acted unlawfully or illegally – but what does this mean? And what does it not mean?

21st February 2021

The news item is dramatic.

The high court in London has decided that a government department – or a specific secretary of state – has acted illegally or unlawfully.

The department or minister has, as the saying goes, broken the law!

There will then be a flurry of tweets, retweets and likes – and then demands for resignations, or prosecutions, or whatnot – followed by complaints that the news media (usually the BBC) have not adopted a similarly breathless approach.

And then there will be a sense of anti-climax or disappointment as the news fades and nothing significant seems to happen.

Nobody resigns, nobody is sacked, nobody is prosecuted, nobody has any personal legal liability.

Why is this?

Surely breaking the law has consequences?

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Well.

Part of the problem is that the words ‘illegal’ and ‘unlawful’ are wide in their meaning.

(For convenience, the terms ‘illegal’ and ‘unlawful’ will be used as synonyms n this post – though some lawyers will have very strong opinions as their distinction in certain contexts.)

Their core meaning of being ‘illegal’ and ‘unlawful’, of course, is that there has not been compliance with a law – or that a thing has been done without a lawful basis.

That core meaning, by itself, does not tell you what laws have been broken, how they were broken, and what the consequences (if any) are for that breach.

And in the case of there not being a lawful basis for a thing, it may even mean no specific law has been broken as such.

There are many ways in which a thing may be ‘illegal’ or ‘unlawful’.

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Yet for many the phrase ‘broken the law’ will mean a person has done something criminally wrong.

That such a person has breached a prohibition for which the criminal law provides a sanction for that breach.

But that is only one way the law can be breached.

This is because criminal law is only a sub-set of the law.

And so the illegality that gives rise to criminal liability is just a sub-set of illegality.

There are other ways a thing can be ‘illegal’ or ‘unlawful’ without any criminal offence being committed.

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Another way a thing can be ‘illegal’ or ‘unlawful’ is when a person does not comply with the conditions of a contract, or with the terms of a licence, or commits a wrong such as trespass or negligence.

Such an action or inaction will be to ‘break the law‘ – but these will not usually result in any criminal sanction.

Such wrongs are usually enforced, if at all, by a wronged party suing in a court.

This is what the law regards as ‘civil’ law as opposed to ‘criminal’ law.

Some people can commit dozens – if not hundreds – of such breaches – and nothing happens, because nobody is able or willing to sue for the wrong.

People act unlawfully and illegally every day.

People just like you.

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Another way a thing can be ‘illegal’ or ‘unlawful’ is when a public body does not comply with the provisions of the law or its relevant legal duties.

Here the relevant law is called ‘public law’ – a general term for the special laws that regulate what public bodies can and cannot do.

As a general rule, a public body can only do what the law provides for that body to do, and when doing so that body also has to comply with certain duties.

And if that public body does not do so, then it will be acting ‘illegally’ or ‘unlawfully’.

This means the public body, as a matter of law, has not done what it should have done.

The common way for such bodies to be held legally to account for the lawfulness of what they do is called ‘judicial review’ – though the question of legality can also sometimes be raised other legal proceedings.

Judicial review is, in England and Wales, usually before the high court.

When the question of legality is raised, the high court will ascertain the relevant laws and legal duties of the public body, and the court will then determine whether the public body has acted in accordance with those laws and duties or not.

If not, the court can decide whether the public body (or minister in charge of a government department in their official capacity) has acted illegally/unlawfully.

And that…

…is it.

At least that is it, in respect of the substance of the case.

If necessary, the court can then make a ‘quashing order’ that will render the act – a decision, or measure, or policy – as unlawful.

The quashing order will then, by legal magic, remove any legal meaning from what was done (or not done).

In practice, this usually means the public body (or minister) can make the quashed decision (or measure or policy) again, but this time lawfully.

A court may sometimes think a quashing order is not necessary, and may make what is called a ‘declaration’ instead – where the high court declares what the relevant legal position is (or is not).

And sometimes a court can even view that neither a quashing order nor a declaration as having any practical use, and regard the breach as moot or academic.

So a finding by the high court of illegality by a public body may mean there is a remedy, on not, depending on the circumstances.

*

The role of the court in judicial review is to, literally, review a thing judicially – to see if a thing done or not done by a public body was lawful or not. 

And if so, to see if anything practically needs to be done as a consequence.

Nothing more.

No automatic orders to pay damages, still less impositions of criminal convictions.

And sometimes not even a quashing order or other order, or a declaration, as not even that remedy is required to put right the wrong.

This is because the job of public law is not to deal with civil or criminal wrongs directly but to ensure lawful actions by those with public power – and to issue what corrective orders are necessary to ensure that public bodies keep within their powers and fulfil their duties.

Telling the swimmers to stay in their lanes, and blowing a whistle if required.

*

There is a public interest in this discrete question of legality of public bodies being examined by courts.

Of course, there will always be a clamour for greater sanctions for those individually responsible for such unlawful conduct.

And both the civil law and criminal law do provide the means for civil claims and criminal prosecutions to also be brought in certain circumstances.

Judicial review is not the only legal redress.

Such claims and prosecutions can, however, be complex and time-consuming, involving extensive witness and other evidence, and the need for witness evidence to be examined and cross-examined.

It is harder to impose individual culpability than to review generally whether a public body has acted lawfully or not – especially if intention has to be proved or causation of damage to be shown.

This is not to say there should be no role for civil and criminal liability when things go wrong in the public sphere – but to aver instead that the allocations and inflictions of such liabilities on individuals raise wider legal issues than the narrow question of whether a public body acted within or without its legal powers and duties.

*

So when the news is that the high court has found that a public body (including a secretary of state) has acted unlawfully or illegally then this means the court has reviewed what has happened and found it legally wanting.

A ‘cross’ rather than a ‘tick’ against the public body’s action or inaction.

The swimmer is in the wrong lane.

And, if required, an order or declaration so as to correct what has gone wrong.

That this does not carry any personal legal consequences for the ministers or officials involved will disappoint some of those following the news.

But to insist that there also has to be personal legal consequences for the ministers or officials whenever there are unlawful or illegal actions by a public body would be to make judicial review ineffective as a useful tool.

And there would be no public interest in that.

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An introduction to Article 16 of the Northern Irish Protocol

16th February 2021

Article 16 of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland seems to be fated to become one of those legal provisions known by their number alone, like Article 50 or Section 28.

The provision has already been the feature of a political controversy, when the European Commission made the horrible mistake of invoking Article 16 in respect of proposed regulations about the coronavirus regulations – a proposal that was promptly, and correctly, withdrawn.

The prime minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson has also been reported as saying that he would be minded to trigger Article 16 in certain circumstances.

In these circumstances, a working knowledge of what Article 16 says, and does not say, may be useful for those who follow public affairs.

This post provides a basic introduction to the provision, and it complements a video that I recently narrated for the Financial Times.

*

As a preliminary point, just as one does not simply walk into Mordor, one should never go straight to a clause or other provision within a wider legal instrument without an understanding of the purpose of that wider legal instrument.

By analogy: one can perhaps make sense of a line of computer code, but one also needs to understand how that line of code fits in the wider program to elicit its full meaning.

Similarly, an undue focus on the wording and contents of a single provision in any legal instrument can be misleading.

Every article, clause, section – or whatever word used for a discrete portion of legal text – has a context.

And so with Article 16 we have to understand something about the purpose of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.

*

The protocol, in turn, does not exist in isolation.

The protocol is attached to the Brexit withdrawal agreement – one of the two vast and complex international agreements between the European Union and the United Kingdom that provide the legal framework for Brexit.

The recitals to the withdrawal agreement – which (literally) recite the background and shared understandings of the parties to that agreement – describe the purpose of the the protocol:

Not just specific, but ‘very specific’.

You will also note the word ‘durable’ – and this indicates that it was the shared understanding of the European Union and the United Kingdom that the protocol would not be a temporary arrangements.

Article 125 of the withdrawal agreement then provides for how and when the protocol takes effect:

You will see Article 16 is not included in the provisions that had immediate effect on the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union – and so Article 16 has only had legal force since 1 January 2021.

The other main mention of the protocol in the main withdrawal agreement is that there shall be a specialised committee dealing with the protocol as part of the ‘Joint Committee’ that oversees the agreement:

*

Now we can turn to the protocol itself.

Confusingly – and welcome to European Union legal instruments! – the protocol itself has its own recitals and articles.

And the protocol has a lot of recitals – twenty-three recitals (as opposed to nineteen operative articles).

Each one of these recitals sets out expressly a shared understanding of the European Union and the United Kingdom.

In particular, the government of the United Kingdom has put its name to each one of the recitals as a statement of its own understanding.

The recitals are not agreements in themselves, and they are not legally enforceable by themselves, but they do set out the common understandings of the European Union and the United Kingdom that are relevant to the articles that follow.

And these recitals, in particular, are significant:

And:

Note the word ‘guarantee’.

And:

And:

A common response from those unhappy with the protocol is to insist something about what the Good Friday Agreement does and does not provide in respect of a ‘hard’ border.

These recitals, however, do explicitly set in firm and emphatic language the shared understandings of the European Union (including Ireland) and the United Kingdom in respect of there not being a hard border.

And this is in the very ‘oven-ready’ withdrawal agreement for which Johnson and the Conservative Party won a mandate at the December 2019 general election and that was then endorsed by the Westminster parliament.

*

Now the articles – the substantive operative provisions that are entitled to have legal effect as between the parties.

You will see that the articles provide for substantive obligations in respect of the free movement of persons and goods (and Article 5 in turn incorporates an annex listing hundreds of European Union regulations and directives).

There are also provisions for State aid and VAT.

The protocol is, in effect, the legal mechanics for Northern Ireland remaining, in effect, part of the European Union single market and customs arrangements whilst still being part of the United Kingdom single market.

It is a complex and – regardless of one’s political views – remarkable piece of legal drafting, especially given the rush of the exit negotiations.

But as with any legal instrument – especially ones devised at speed and in respect of sensitive issues – there will be problems and disputes and unintended effects.

And this brings us to Article 16.

*

Article 16 comprises just three paragraphs:

The article is entitled ‘Safeguards’ – and not, for example, ‘Sanctions’ or ‘Retaliatory measures’.

The first paragraph then provides the triggers for the safeguards.

There are two triggers.

First: ‘if the application of this Protocol leads to serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist’.

Here note the requirements that the difficulties need to be ‘serious’ and ‘liable to persist’ – that it, not trivial or temporary.

Second: ‘if the application of this Protocol leads to…diversion of trade’.

Again, ‘diversion’ indicates something significant and lasting.

*

If either of these triggers are met then either the European Union or the United Kingdom ‘may unilaterally take appropriate safeguard measures’.

Note the requirement that the measures be ‘appropriate’ – and also (deftly) the measures have to be ‘safeguard’ measures, and not any old measures.

Paragraph 1 of the article then also adds further requirements in respect of the scope and duration of the safeguard measures, and subjects the measures to a test of strict necessity.

And – and! – priority should be given to ‘such measures as will least disturb the functioning’ of the protocol.

Paragraph 2 of the article then provides for similar tests for any ‘balancing’ measures of the other party.

These are all onerous substantive tests – and each one must be met for a safeguard measure to be adopted.

And these are just the substantive tests – for Annex 7 to the protocol also provides for the procedure that also has to be followed.

*

Annex 7 contains six ‘points’:

You will see point 1 provides a duty of notification at the stage the safeguard measure is being considered.

Point 2 then provides that the next stage is consultations.

Point 3 then imposes a general one month delay, unless the consultations have ended quickly or there are ‘exceptional circumstances’ and the measures are ‘strictly necessary’.

Point 5 then provides that, in addition to the requirement that the safeguard measures not endure longer than necessary, there is a three month review period.

*

All of these substantive and procedural provisions are consistent with the measures being of the nature as described on the tin: ‘safeguard measures’.

The measures are to be protective – and what is to be protected is the operation of the protocol and the shared understandings on which the protocol rests.

This means any attempt to use the safeguard measures to, say, alter the operation of the protocol, or to disturb the shared understandings on which the protocol rests, is outside the purpose of the safeguard measures.

In simple terms: that is not what the safeguard measures are safeguarding.

*

Of course, politicians being politicians, there will be a temptation to use the Article 16 safeguard measures for other purposes – as leverage in trade discussions, or as retaliatory weapons, or as an attempt to re-write or even discard the protocol.

But even if the intention is to misuse the safeguard measures, the measures are – at least in theory – subject always to the substantive requirements of Article 16 and the procedural requirements of Annex 7.

Of course: all legal instruments are only ever as powerful as the human will to enforce their terms.

For Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?the eternal question of who watches the watchmen – applies here, as elsewhere.

What – or who – shall safeguard the safeguards?

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What is Article 16 of the Northern Irish Protocol – and what on Earth was the European Commission thinking? (Includes a copy of the now deleted proposed regulation.)

30th January 20211

After four years or so of chronicling the various self-inflicted unforced errors of the United Kingdom, and the better decisions at each stage of Brexit by the European Union, it is kind of refreshing to see the European Commission commit a pratfall.

Of course, this is a grave situation, and we should be terribly earnest, but still: it is salutary to be reminded that no entity is perfect.

That said, some partisans – this time for the European Union – will maintain that there was no error and that the European Commission was entitled yesterday to invoke article 16 of the Irish protocol.

Unfortunately for such partisans, the European Commission did a quick reverse-ermine last night to un-invoke article 16.

This was quite the spectacle for onlookers at the end of what was, on any view, not a good week for the European Commission.

But what is article 16?

And what on Earth was the European Commission thinking?

And how can the European Commission explain (away) recital 17 of the (now deleted) proposed regulation in question?

*

One of the blessings of Brexit is dealing with ‘articles’ of international legal instruments – most famously article 50 of the treaty on European Union.

The word ‘article’ is somehow grander than the more mundane ‘section’ and the plebeian ‘clause’.

And indeed articles tend to more self-contained as legal provisions – sometimes like micro legal instruments within macro legal instruments.

Article 16 is within the Irish protocol, which in turn is a protocol to the withdrawal agreement.

Instruments within instruments within instruments.

The article provides in its entirety:

The article is entitled ‘Safeguards’ – but straight away you will see that the provision is itself subject to its own safeguards.

In paragraph 1, the trigger for the safeguards has to be a serious situation that is likely to persist.

And – it then provides that any safeguards will be ‘restricted’ to what is ‘strictly necessary’ for the purpose of remedying that particular serious situation.

And – ‘priority’ shall be given to what measures that cause the least disturbance.

And – in paragraph 2, any imbalances caused by the uses of the safeguards can be addressed.

And – in paragraph 3, there is a further process to be followed, as set out in an annex.

Annex 7 then in turn supplements the substantive limits to the use of Article 16 safeguards with procedural protections:

Even in the event of ‘exceptional circumstances’ under point 3 of this annex, there is still a procedure to be followed.

Safeguards within safeguards within safeguards, and so on.

In summary: invoking article 16 is not to be done casually or by mere oversight.

It is not a red button that can be pressed by accident.

There are substantive and procedural conditions to be fulfilled before it can be invoked.

And the European Commission will know this – for two reasons.

First, article 16 is a provision which the European Union recently agreed.

And second, the European Union is a creature of law itself and is thereby bound by the letter of the law in what it can and cannot do.

The essence of the European Union is process, or it is nothing.

*

Given the careful substantive and procedural protections of article 16 it came as a bit of a surprise when reports emerged yesterday that the European Commission was invoking the provision – and was doing so in a highly charged political situation.

As the Guardian reported:

Even the archbishop of Canterbury.

Imagine that.

*

Although the invocation of article 16 was widely reported by major news sites – and was not denied by the commission – there appears to have been no formal announcement by the commission.

Indeed, there appears to be no ‘on the record’ confirmation that it was invoked.

But.

What happened is that a proposed European Union regulation appears to have been published.

The regulation (in draft form) appears to be at the internet archive.

And, while I was writing this post, a reliable source has provided me with this ‘final’ copy that was deftly downloaded before the European Commission deleted the regulation.

tradoc_159398 (1)

*

Recital 16 – a formal recital! – of this regulation has the European Commission asserting that the quantitive restriction on exports was ‘justified’ under article 16, and that the justification was because it was ‘in order to avert serious societal difficulties due to a lack of supply threatening to disturb the orderly implementation of the vaccination campaigns in the Member States’.

This is significant, as the recital indicates that the justification exercise has already been conducted – that the recital describes a thing that has already taken place.

But asserting the safeguard is justified is not the same as showing that the substantive requirements of article 16 have been met: was it ‘restricted’ to what is ‘strictly necessary’ for the purpose of remedying that particular situation, and was ‘priority’ given to what measures that cause the least disturbance?

Was the measure even within the scope of the Irish protocol in the first place?

And was the annex 7 procedure followed – or even considered?

What we do know, however, is that formal recitals to legal instruments do not come about by accident – even when those regulations are in draft form, let alone ‘final’ form.

Somebody somewhere in the European Commission had to have made a decision for that recital to be part of the regulation.

And that can be most plausibly explained by someone at the European Commission having decided to invoke article 16.

*

The invocation did not last long.

The European Commission issued a late-night press release stating that it was not triggering article 16:

The key sentence is unqualified (and is curiously in the present tense): ‘The Commission is not triggering the safeguard clause.’

*

The known facts point to article 16 having been triggered – that is the most plausible explantation for recital 16 to the proposed regulation – but also point to the commission not having followed annex 7.

In the immediate political context of concerns about ‘vaccine nationalism’ and in the broader context of the border in Ireland after Brexit, it was an unwise move by the European commission.

(Though, as averred at the head of this post, it was also good to see that the European Union can blunder as horribly as the United Kingdom.)

Perhaps the European Commission now hopes that this mistake will fade and disappear.

Perhaps both sides will now take more care before even considering article 16 safeguards.

Or perhaps all this is, in effect, a dress rehearsal for the political crisis when either side does go through with invoking article 16.

Brace, brace.

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What can be worked out about the ‘best efforts’ clause in the AstraZeneca vaccine supply agreement?

28th January 2021

Over at the Financial Times I have done a brief summary post on the ‘best efforts’ clause that features in the current public row between the European Commission and AstraZeneca – please click and read here.

This post sets out the ‘workings out’ for that summary, based on the information available to me this morning.

*

First, what is the public row?

The inkling of the row was on (Friday) 22nd January 2021: EU hit by delay to Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine delivery.

The European Commissioner responsible in respect of the vaccine tweeted:

Here, note two things.

First, the information comes from AstraZeneca – in effect, the European Commission is being formally notified of a delay.

Second, the delays are against a ‘forecast’.

As we will see below, both of those things may be significant.

*

We now move to (Monday) 25th January 2021, and to the published remarks of the commissioner.

In particular, this passage:

‘Last Friday, the company AstraZeneca surprisingly informed the Commission and the European Union Member States that it intends to supply considerably fewer doses in the coming weeks than agreed and announced.

‘This new schedule is not acceptable to the European Union.’

Here note the following.

First, the ‘forecast’ is now a thing which was ‘agreed and announced’.

Second, the information coming from AstraZeneca is described as ‘surprising’.

Third, the reference to a ‘new schedule’.

We will come back to these details.

*

Now the interview with the CEO of AstroZeneca at la Repubblica dated (Tuesday) 26th January 2021 (and I rely on that site’s English translation).

The CEO is quoted as saying in part of his response to a question as to whether there is a feasible basis for a potential legal action against AstraZeneca:

“I can only tell you what’s in their contract. And the contract is very clear. Our commitment is, I am quoting, “our best effort”.’

*

Now back to the European commissioner, on (Wednesday) 27th January 2021 and further published remarks:

‘The view that the company is not obliged to deliver because we signed a ‘best effort’ agreement is neither correct nor is it acceptable.

‘We signed an Advance Purchase Agreement for a product which at the time did not exist, and which still today is not yet authorised. And we signed it precisely to ensure that the company builds the manufacturing capacity to produce the vaccine early, so that they can deliver a certain volume of doses the day that it is authorised.’

Note here the ambiguous sentence about what was signed.

Did the commission not sign an agreement with a ‘best effort clause’?

(Which was my first impression.)

Or did the commission sign a ‘best effort’ agreement but this does not remove the obligation of AstraZeneca to deliver the vaccine?

(Which is also a possible meaning of the statement, but not a meaning that would be immediately obvious to most people.) 

Also note the express reference to this being an ‘Advance Purchase Agreement’.

*

The advance purchase agreements are part of the European Commission’s vaccine policy announced last June.

In a detailed paper, both the nature and structure of these agreements are set out:

‘These agreements will be negotiated with individual companies according to their specific needs and with the aim of supporting and securing an adequate supply of vaccines. They will de-risk the necessary investments related to both vaccine development and clinical trials, and the preparation of the at-scale production capacity along the entire vaccine production chain which is required for a rapid deployment of sufficient doses of an eventual vaccine in the EU and globally. The conditions of the contract will reflect the balance between the prospect of the producer providing a safe and effective vaccine quickly and the investment needed to deploy the vaccine on the European market.’

The agreements were therefore (and were intended to be) balanced allocations of risk between the commission and the supplier.

These agreement would thereby not be bog-standard standard-form supply contracts, but agreements alert to and mindful of the particular risks in respect of the manufacture and the supply of the vaccine.

*

The agreement between the commission and Astra Zeneca is not in the public domain.

But what is in the public domain – helpfully – is a redacted version of an advance purchase agreement between the commission and another supplier.

The link to this agreement was (I am told by the commission press office) published on 19th January 2021 and so was published before this row.

This means that the redactions would not be informed by the subsequent row.

The agreement is here.

Of course, this is not the agreement between the commission and AstraZeneca, and it would only be sight of that contract that would mean you could say what was agreed with absolute confidence.

But, that said, a careful reading of this published contract is revealing.

*

Before we look at the contract, an assumption: the advance purchase agreement with AstraZeneca will be substantially similar to the published contract.

The contracts will not be absolutely identical, because there will be negotiated commercial and other terms (which are probably the redacted parts of the published contact).

And I think it is safe to assume that the agreement will not be on AstraZeneca’s own terms, given the importance the commission placed on the advance purchase agreements being a careful balance for all concerned.

Therefore I am assuming that the the advance purchase agreement with AstraZeneca and the published contract will have many identical and similar terms, even if not absolutely the same.

*

If we look at the published contract, and search, you will quickly find that ‘reasonable best efforts’ is a defined term.

(Some commentators, who have also seen the agreement, start and then sadly finish with just this definition – but as you will see, a defined term is only one step in understanding what is going on.)

The definition of the term is detailed, and indeed rather elaborate:

The size and scope of the definition tells us two things.

First, the parties did not want to leave it to the court (which in this case is the Belgian court) to construe what is a ‘reasonable best effort’ – the parties have defined it for themselves.

And second, such a detailed and elaborate definition in respect of a key component of the contract is likely to have been used in all the advance purchase agreements, not just the published one.

The fact it is not redacted in the published contract also indicates it is not a bespoke definition for just that particular contract.

*

But.

Any defined term is only as important as the operative provision in which it is used.

(This is where some other commentators have not taken the further step.)

A defined term does not exist in a vacuum.

‘Reasonable best efforts’ is not a free-floating term, to be produced like a joker in a card game.

It will be used, and its effect limited, in particular provisions.

And a search of the published contract shows that this detailed and elaborate definition is used only once (at least in the not-redacted text).

This is article 1.3 of the published agreement:

Here we will see that ‘reasonable best efforts’ is used for two things:

‘(i) to obtain EU marketing authorisation for the Product and (ii) to establish sufficient manufacturing capacities to enable the manufacturing and supply of the contractually agreed volumes of the Product to the participating Member States in accordance with the estimated delivery schedule set out below in Article I.11 once at least a conditional EU marketing authorisation has been granted.’

This means that ‘reasonable best efforts’ is only relevant for two specific purposes.

If the published contract is similar to the AstraZeneca contract, then it would be the second limb of this provision which would be relevant.

AstraZeneca would have an obligation to use ‘reasonable best efforts’ to ‘establish sufficient manufacturing capacities’ for the manufacture and supply of the vaccines ‘in accordance with the estimated delivery schedule‘.

Note the mention of the schedule, which ties in with the commissioner’s published remarks.

And note also the mention of ‘to establish sufficient manufacturing capacities’ – which would not mean, say, a diversion of what is manufactured once there are capacities.

*

And there is more.

If we now look at what happens with delays to the ‘estimated delivery schedule’ we go down to article 1.12 of the published agreement:

Here – significantly – both parties explicitly agree in article 1.12.1 that there is a risk of delays in production.

And in the event of such a delay there is an obligation under article 1.12.2 on the supplier to notify the commission and to provide a revised schedule.

Going back to what has happened in the last week, and assuming the contract with AstraZeneca is on similar terms to the published contract, we can see this is exactly what happened.

AstraZeneca informed the commission that it could not keep to the estimated delivery schedule on Friday 22nd January 2021 – and this accords with the mentions of ‘forecast’ and ‘schedule’ by the commissioner.

There was then push-back (to say the least) from the commission, and AstraZeneca – as described by the CEO – sought to rely on the estimated delivery schedule being subject to the ‘best efforts’ provision.

And the commission responded by denying that that ‘best efforts’ provision covers the delay – presumably because AstraZeneca has the capacity but is diverting it from the EU.

*

Of course, without the actual contract entered into with AstraZeneca we cannot be certain.

But it is telling how neatly the details provided in the public row fit with the steps of the terms of the published contract.

Unless there is something significant about which we do not know, it is more likely than not that the details provided in the public row mean that the contract with AstraZeneca are materially the same as that in the public contract.

If the reasoning in this post is correct then the following two things can be contended.

First, the remark of the commissioner that ‘[t]he view that the company is not obliged to deliver because we signed a ‘best effort’ agreement is neither correct nor is it acceptable” is capable of giving a misleading impression – for the agreement did have a ‘best efforts’ provision.

And second, the existence of that ‘best efforts’ provision may not be that helpful to AstraZeneca, if the correct construction of the contract is that it does not cover diverted capacity as opposed to lack of capacity – and so citing the ‘best efforts’ provision will not be enough to meet the commission’s complaint.

*

The moral of the story, of course, is that such public supply contracts should be published as a matter of course – and there is no good reason for such contracts not to be published.

The benefit of access to public money should be the burden of transparency.

But that is a far wider issue to which this blog may return.

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Legal words v everyday words – how can the killing of six prisoners between the presidential election and inauguration not be a ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment?

27th January 2021

Over at Prospect my column this month is on the grim topic of capital punishment and how former President Trump revived federal executions in the last seven months of his presidency – for my article click and look here.

In this post today I want to expand on the issue I touch on in the introductory paragraphs of that article: what is a ‘cruel and unusual punishment’?

*

The reason this matters, of course, is the eighth amendment to the constitution of the United States, the relevant text of which provides: 

‘nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.’  

So if a punishment is cruel and unusual (and note it is ‘and’ and not ‘or’) then it is not only prohibited but also unconstitutional.

Some would contend (in my view rightly) that any use of the death sentence is, at least in modern times, a ‘cruel and unusual punishment’.

But here another part of the constitution is engaged.

The fifth amendment provides, among other things:

‘nor shall any person…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law’.

This means that the constitution envisages that a person can be deprived of their life by process of law.

And as United States prosecutors, and supporters of the death penalty often point out, the fifth and the eighth amendments were adopted at the same time (as part of the bill of rights) and thereby should be read together.

Of course, there is a certain irony – cruel perhaps – that the fifth amendment was intended to have a generally liberal effect now has, in respect of capital punishment, an illiberal effect.

So the constitutional position is that capital punishment is permitted (fifth amendment) as long as it is not ‘cruel and unusual’ (eighth amendment).

*

In my Prospect column I argue, by the modern everyday meaning of the words ‘cruel’ and ‘unusual’, that the six executions after Trump was defeated and before the new President Joseph Biden was inaugurated were indeed unusual and cruel.

This argument has three bases.

First, once Trump was defeated it was plain that there would be a new president within weeks who was pledged to end federal executions.

And so if the executions did not take place by 20th January 2021 then the prisoner would not be killed.

They would still be alive today.

Second, federal executions are not usual

Indeed, before Trump there had not been any federal executions for seventeen years and, before then, only three executions since 1966.

Click and have a look at this table.

Of course, executions take place in individual states – though twenty-two states have abolished the death penalty and in a further thirteen states there is either a formal or an informal moratorium.

But at a federal level executions were not, between 1966 and 2020, usual.

And by definition, what is not usual is unusual. 

Third, these final six executions were (especially) cruel.

The prisoner – and those charged with killing the prisoner – knew that there was now a race against time.

This deliberate putting to death of a human being had to be done within days, if it was to be done at all.

The circumstances of the six executions after the election but before inauguration indeed amounted to the application of mental torture as part of the punishment.

*

But.

Although words have everyday meanings when those words are in a formal legal instrument, those words also have special legal meanings.

And the words ‘cruel’ and ‘unusual’ have been considered by the United States courts again and again.

Caselaw accumulates like barnacles on a shipwreck, so that little or nothing can now be seen of the original vessel.

The general position now is that whether a punishment is ‘cruel’ goes to the technique used at the point of death (and not the period leading to the execution), and if the punishment is still in use then it cannot be ‘unusual’ (which is fairly circular argument).

(The latest significant case in this grisly caselaw is here.)

What it is plain is that the wording of the constitutional prohibition is not autonomous – that it cannot be used in any given situation, free from the weight of caselaw.

A thing is only ‘cruel’ and/or ‘unusual’ if it accords with what these words mean as a matter of 230 years of caselaw, and not what those words mean in everyday discourse.

And this is both a merit and a flaw of placing rights in formal written instruments, such a a bill of rights.

On one hand, a person can point to the right and say with certainty that they have these fundamental protections; but on the other hand, formality can quickly become rigidity.

There is no easy solution to this problem of how one protects rights with a living, evolving legal instrument.

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None of this is to aver that the executions between the election and the inauguration were unlawful and unconstitutional – the fact that the United States supreme court did not prevent those killings indicates that the punishments were lawful and constitutional.

Nor does this post contend that the constitutional law of the United States can easily be recast so as to render such executions as unlawful and unconstitutional.

The purpose of this post is to illustrate the gap between everyday language and precise legal terminology: that, in these instances, things that are plainly cruel and usual are not ‘cruel and unusual’.

This leads to the wider point about using the law to guarantee rights and freedoms: a general legal instrument quickly attracts caselaw, and that caselaw scopes and often limits the meaning of that instrument.

And so one can end up with the vile spectacle of six human beings being deliberately slaughtered before 20th January 2021 because they would be safe from slaughter if they managed to live beyond that date, and that this horrific episode was, as a matter of law, neither cruel nor unusual.

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