The Grateful Review: a 2015 post round-up.

Hello all,

Well, there we have it. Today marks the final day of 2015, and before long we shall be welcoming in the New Year of 2016. Personally, I cannot believe that it is New Year’s Eve already; I am still convinced I am tucked away somewhere mid-semester. However, regardless of my living in denial regarding the rapidly approaching New Year, I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a wonderful and Happy New Year. I hope that 2016 is filled with every happiness, friendship and success for you all.

I would like also to take the opportunity to thank everyone who has visited this blog, who has ‘liked’ and shared posts, who has commented and subscribed. I really do appreciate how people have taken time out to visit this blog, and scroll through my posts. When I started this blog back in July of this year, I had imagined it to be of mostly small circulation, and more of a way for me to articulate and publish my thoughts on politics, legal developments etc. I did not imagine that many would actively click on the links to my posts, let alone read them! So you can imagine that I am really so very amazed and grateful that this blog has had over 700 visitors and over 1,200 views in only a couple of months. I cannot thank you enough, and I so very grateful that there are those who are willing to read my musings. I can only hope that you are willing to continue to do so into the New Year!

I started this blog in the summer of 2015 prior to commencing final year law, thinking it only to be an online journal of sorts. Now I realise it has grown to be more than this: it has given me a voice on topics I love and care passionately about. I do not write for money or other rewards; I write because it is interesting, challenging and always fun. I can see how theory taught in my degree gains practical application, and in turn can share this knowledge with others. I have been able to share my experiences as a law student, final year student and study abroad survivor, sharing tips along the way. I have been able to help promote causes, such as student societies, charity appeals, volunteer opportunities and student activism. Writing this blog brings me such enjoyment, and I often look forward to reading the news/researching topics of interest to write about as a means to relax during my studies and other student commitments.

So, it has been a great couple of months writing and working on this blog. It has also been a great year as a whole, from studying abroad in the US to commencing my final year as an undergraduate law student. As I sit here swamped with research and notes listening to the wonderful Serial podcast (season one; the Adnan Syed case is becoming very interesting) I was thinking that I should jump on the current bandwagon, and provide a review of sorts of my year in this post. To do so, I will provide a list of my most-read posts and provide a brief summary of each. I will work through on a month-by-month basis, selecting the two posts which recorded the highest hits from each month.

You will see that quite a lot happened in both the political and legal spheres in 2015. Case in point: how can we forget the General Election in May? I was jetlagged, having only arrived in Dublin that morning. I insisted on being driven North to vote, and proceeded to stay up all night to watch the results come in. What a shake-up of the political landscape unfolded. Alas, that I did not have my blog at the time. Or perhaps that is something to be relieved about, given my jetlagged state.

Anyway. Without further ado, let’s begin.

 

July

Whose Water Cannon is it Anyway? 
This post examined the announcement of the Home Secretary, Theresa May, of her decision to refuse to allow the use of water cannon in England and Wales a year after three of them were bought by the Metropolitan Police at the behest of the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. Ms May’s three reasons behind her decisions were the basis of operational use, concerns about police legitimacy and medical/technical reasons. The application to request her permission to use water cannon and her subsequent rejection  ‘does not apply to Northern Ireland where the use of water cannon is already authorised’, meaning Northern Ireland remains the only part of the UK where water cannon is used.

Under the Wheels of the EU.
This post covered the ongoing (as it then was) drama around Greece and negotiations around bailout terms. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras spoke out against austerity and harsh bailout terms, and called for a referendum to be held for the Greek people to decide whether to accept the EMU bailout terms. This referendum was criticised by several EU member states as being political-motivated and they warned it would not be considered during negotiations. Whilst the referendum results were in favour of rejecting the harsh bailout terms, Tsipras ultimately had to accept said terms.

August

Study USA: One Year (and many memories) On
This post discussed my study abroad year in America. I was accepted onto the British Council NI’s ‘Study USA’ scholarship programme, and was placed at the wonderful Coe College, a private liberal-arts college in Cedar Rapids, IA. I explain the programme, noting the requirements scholarship students must fulfil whilst studying abroad, and share my experiences and memories. (I am a law student who was in a sorority and interned at a local law firm. Am I Elle Woods yet?)

When in doubt, seek the Northern Irish out.
This post centred around a letter that then-Labour leadership hopeful Andy Burnham wrote in The Belfast Telegraph. In his letter, Burnham essentially stated that he was the one who will ensure the people of Northern Ireland have a voice, and are listened to. In my post, I analyse the promises/statements made in the letter, and in sum find it reads more as a reiteration to Labour supporters in the UK mainland of what Burnham stands for, rather than what he would actually do re NI if he should he win the leadership contest. Given the assessment of English parties in Northern Ireland as evidenced by the previous analysis of recent voting outcomes in both 2010 and 2015, the main conclusion I drew overall from the PR exercise was that Burnham must be have been desperate in his bid to become Labour leader and see off the threat of Jeremy Corbyn if he sought to woo Northern Irish voters.

September

How do you solve a problem like Stormont?
This post discussed the crisis that struck Stormont, dragged out from August until the end of September. Kevin McGuigan, was murdered in Belfast, and then the news took a turn when it was revealed he was an ex-IRA man. His murder was an apparent revenge killing, as allegedly he had been involved in the revenge murder of Gerard ‘Jock’ Davison. Moreover, the murder of McGuigan was apparently ordered and carried out by none other than the IRA. The Chief Constable of the PSNI then publicly stated that the Provisional IRA ‘still exists’, further commenting that some Provisional IRA members were involved in the murder. As Sinn Fein and the DUP bickered, the UUP announced the party’s decision to move into opposition via the resignation of their sole representative minister in the Executive. Then the DUP announced there would be no more Executive meetings, and FM Peter Robinson would ‘step aside’, as all DUP ministers bar one resigned. I offer my thoughts on the above, and ultimately conclude that Stormont’s current operation needs to be rectified.

Crown him Corbyn, King of an unstable Labour.
This post covered the successful election of Jeremy Corbyn, as he became the new Leader of the UK Labour party. The veteran left winger, who had only been included on the ballot list at the last minute after several MPs ‘lent’ him their nominations in an effort to kick-start actual discussion and scrutiny, was only ever expected to scrape last place. But after putting in unexpectedly strong performances in leadership hustings, he began to win over large numbers of activists. I wrote about the dire post-General Election summer endured by Labour, and the events which led towards Corbyn’s victory. I also wrote about the controversial Shadow Cabinet appointments made by Corbyn in the aftermath of his win, and the events such as his decision not to sing the National Anthem which marked the end to his honeymoon period. My conclusion? Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

Honorary mention: ‘Of Women, words and the status quo‘ -this post was just beaten out of contention, but given that it involves one Lord Sumption, a member of the UK Supreme Court, making controversial remarks about gender representation and equality in the judiciary, I simply have to include it.

October

As you move through the (careers) fair
This post was essentially my guide of preparing for and making the most of careers fairs at university. Careers fairs provide students with a unique opportunity to come face-to-face with firms and companies in a relaxing and informal setting, and therefore can help with future career planning. As in a nutshell, attending these fairs is an essential step in planning your future career, I wrote this survival guide of sorts to help students understand why they should attend such events, and then how to prep for their attendance and make the most of their time when there.

Uni’s back for the new term: the adaptability guide.
This post was my write-up of commencing final year Law, and how it felt to be going back to university and entering final year. I discuss how I feel about my modules for the semester, and then offer my tips/survival guide to adapting back into a routine, be it for work, university like myself and so on. This includes understanding the importance of project/time management, task prioritisation.and the wonders of timetables and drawing of schedules. But it also reiterates that you have to remember to set aside time for yourself, too.

November

Solidarité
This post was written in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. I discuss how it had been a typical day for me on Friday the 13th November, attending a workshop and undertaking research for a coursework assignment for my Legal Theory module that was due for the following Monday. Then I happened to scroll through my Twitter feed, and turned to Sky News to watch horrific scenes. I state the importance of unity using the example of Northern Ireland during The Troubles. I conclude that we must live our lives and insist on our freedoms and civil liberties. We must not blame or be violent towards our fellow citizens. Islam is not what ISIS represents, and we should not be asking our Muslim friends and neighbours to prove they are not terrorists.

A political tale in exploitation and and opportunism.
This post covered the US political response to the Paris attacks. Opening with the news that the vote on the proposed bill, American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act, had passed the House, I note that the events and statements made by US politicians following the Paris attacks were a showing of political expediency, political exploitation of the attacks and ultimately a display of political opportunism. I examine the response of President Obama and compare it to the statements made and positions taken by 2016 hopefuls Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul.

Honorary mention: ‘Pro Bono – the important art of helping others for free‘ – again, this was just beaten out of the top two spots, but for any law students interested in pro bono, this one is for you, focusing as it does on National Pro Bono Week, why pro bono is important and how you can get involved.

December

Sexism Strikes Again
This post examines (using a lot of Smiths references to be sure) sexism in the form of messages sent on networking websites, case in point being a message I received on LinkedIn. It also examines the case of Charlotte Proudman, the barrister who received what she considered a sexist and offensive message from a law firm partner, also on LinkedIn. I conclude that it is a regrettable fact that women are subject to receiving unwanted messages regarding their appearance on social media, but oh, how I thought I would be safe on LinkedIn, an apparent professional platform.

Charged no more: the end of the Criminal Courts Charge.
This post covered the news that the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, announced his intent to repeal the criminal courts charge. I examined the criminal courts charge, what it stood for and the arguments both for and against it. I also examine the controversy it created in its short lifespan, and the criticism it faced from magistrates and judges. I concluded that the announcement to repeal this charge was perhaps proof that sometimes widespread criticism and unpopularity can have an effect on the government, resulting in its scrapping of an unpopular measure, or policy.

We need to talk about Syria.
This post focused on discussing the House of Commons debate on the government motion for the UK to intervene in Syria (I was watching it live on television at the time of writing), and I share my thoughts on the subject. I note the political opportunism and expediency being revealed for both the Conservative government and for the divided Labour Opposition.

 

Happy reading, and a very Happy New Year to you all.

 

 

To debate, or not to debate?: Corbyn challenges Cameron.

One of my closest friends tagged me in a post on Facebook, particularly one pertaining to current affairs, as we are wont to do to each other. This one however was particularly interesting, as it reads like the proverbial gauntlet throw-down by Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn to Prime Minister David Cameron. Corbyn has openly called on Cameron to take part in an annual ‘state of the nation’ televised debate. My first thoughts were: a) oh please, not another televised debates row, and b) since when did we decided to emulate US politics, and adopt essentially the State of the Union address? To address both of these, allow me to harken back to a few months ago.

During my second semester studying in America, I was fortunate to study Public Relations with an inspirational and experienced professor. In between writing weekly response papers to develop our understanding of the theory and development of PR, our professor also tasked us with practical assignments, such as speech-writing and drafting our own press releases. My favourite task however was writing and recording a podcast on a topic of our choosing, providing it had something to do with PR. Myself being myself, I opted to cover something political, and eventually selected the debacle that was the row over the televised debates in the UK in the lead-up to the May 2015 General Election. (Should you be so inclined, you can access the transcript of the finished product here.)

I may have been several thousand miles away at the time, but thanks to the internet and social media, I was regularly kept informed about the heated battle between David Cameron, Ed Miliband and the major broadcasters. Cameron proposed in strict terms that there would be one single debate involving leaders from seven political parties. (Seven egos arguing for ninety minutes? Now that was a clever political move, skilfully preventing any real opposing message to the Conservative Party’s manifesto from being heard.) Unsurprisingly, Cameron’s terms were rejected by the parties and broadcasters alike, who insisted on three debates. Cameron, quelle surprise, refused. The result was a ‘war of words’ gleefully covered by the Press.  I remember being rather amazed that the Tory PR machine was allowing the debate to make the headlines everyday. Perhaps the Conservatives were hoping this presented Cameron as steadfast in his refusal to change his strict proposal for televised debates, the heir of Thatcher’s infamous ‘this lady’s not for turning’ slogan. Perhaps. But I also thought it ran the risk of tarnishing his image in the minds of floating voters, making him appear weak and unwilling to compromise or engage with the electorate on the eve of the closest election in recent years.

The general gist of my podcast was that Cameron had made a mistake in allowing the row to drag out, not to mention actually picking a fight with major broadcasters. By insisting on only one major televised debate, and with all the major party leaders in tow (and yes, I was also kept fully informed about the angry stance taken by the DUP at being excluded from the debate), Cameron ran the risk of being branded cowardly, of shielding himself and his party’s record in government behind other parties and restricted airtime. He shot himself in the foot somewhat, as he was open to accusations of dismissing accountability and scrutiny – which Miliband hounded him with during PMQs. Moreover,  Cameron shot himself in the other foot with his behaviour in refusing to accept the media’s terms – this alienated the four major broadcasters in the UK. As I said in my podcast at the time:

Cameron as the incumbent PM could seek solace in the sympathy of the media, who do traditionally tend to gloss over any cracks for PMs during election time. But his behaviour in refusing to accept the media’s terms has alienated the four major broadcasters in the UK. Torie Clarke has commented on the need to work with the media to ensure successful communications and Cameron should have listened to her. Instead of softening the blows for Cameron, the broadcasters are increasing them by reporting on the debate crisis with each news cycle, meaning the public has increased exposure to negative comments about Cameron, which will influence their thoughts… And potentially their voting behaviour.

As we know, Cameron eventually got his away. The broadcasters eventually agreed to his proposals, and the debate proceeded as planned. The pollsters, who had spent months predicting a hung Parliament were left redfaced as the Conservatives wound up the victors. Cameron remained in No. 10, now the Prime Minister of a Conservative majority government. We can therefore suggest that the row over the televised debates seemingly did not harm Cameron or his party.

In fact, evidence suggests that the televised debate (when it finally went ahead) was a success with the electorate. Leeds University conducted research which found that the televised debates, far from alienating the electorate, actually had an overwhelmingly positive effect on voter engagement.

The debates increased viewers’ interest in politics by 30 percent with almost half viewers saying prior to watching, they were “not very interested” in politics. In addition, 70 percent of viewers said they now knew ‘more about what the party leaders were like’, whilst three-fifths said they now knew ‘more about some of the policies that were being put forward’. Consequently, the research concluded that televised election debates have a significant impact on voters’ decision making, and thus ‘should become part of the fabric of major political events’. And so Corbyn has taken his cue.

By challenging Cameron to take part in an annual, televised debate between national party leaders (which suggests the DUP will be excluded once more. Thought c) oh please, not another DUP exclusion tantrum) Corbyn is hoping to tap into the newly-found support for televised debates amongst the electorate. He believes that ‘no political leader should shrink from the chance to engage more fully with the public’ and they should be prepared to test their arguments and de facto defend their decisions in live, public debates.

In scenes eerily reminiscent of the May 2015 row, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and Lib Dem leader Tim Farron have stated they would endorse Corbyn’s plan and take part in such a debate, should Cameron agree. Perhaps foreseeing a repeat of the headache suffered months ago, Downing Street said it would ‘look at the formal details of any proposal’.

Corbyn’s Facebook account posted:

I am challenging the Prime Minister to an annual televised ‘state of the nation’ debate of the party leaders.

People are entitled to know more about their political leaders and to have their government held to account by the elected opposition in every way possible.

It is crucial that the Prime Minister and Government are held to account, both inside and outside Parliament, throughout their period in office – not just at election time.

Bringing politics to the people.

Corbyn chose his words carefully, emphasising how this challenge was his way of representing the people’s wishes. But there can be no doubt that this challenge benefits himself, too. Proposing this televised debate enables him to build upon the wave of popular support during his election campaign. He would be able to gain more screen-time for himself and his views, without the looming threat of bickering Labour backbenchers, or his divided shadow cabinet. He and he alone of his party will be able to engage more directly with the electorate, knowing that his personal appeal was what stood out during the dragged-out Labour leadership election. He has a track record of performing well during televised debates, and hopes to use this to both his personal and political advantage.

What about the Prime Minister’s position? As I mentioned previously, the danger of rejecting taking part in such a debate is that you are perceived to be rejecting accountability, and democracy too to some extent. Should Cameron reject these proposals, knowing that Corbyn and to some extent the other leaders stand to gain more than himself from participating, he runs the risk of criticism. His track record happens to be of attempting to evade televised debates. He will have to tread carefully on this challenge, but as Prime Minister he has more power at his disposal. And he did eventually win the fight regarding the sole televised debate.

Personally, I am divided on the proposal. For all the appeal of Corbyn’s words – ‘bringing politics to the people’ and so on – the fact is we already do witness televised debates on a weekly basis, where politicians are held to account. I am of course talking about PMQs.

Now, I am not saying that PMQs is perfect, seeing how planted questions are rampant, government praise inevitable and there is restricted time for follow-up questions. But it is something, and it is available for the public to watch every Wednesday. What happened to Corbyn’s plan to reform PMQs? Does he feel that this is not working? Perhaps he wants to propose something bolder. My perception is of a leader who starts multiple projects at once and has so far completed none. Moreover, it feels as though he is trying to appease the public, or rather the newly-emboldened Labour grassroots activists who elected him in the first place.

I cannot help but feel that we may run the risk of political apathy should we insist on adopting events more associated with, and indeed suitable for, American politics. Yes, the public watched the General Election debates and the evidence shows political engagement increased as a result. But should we not consider the possibility that people watched because it was a novelty, and something new? Should we therefore not consider that maybe with regular televised debates, the novelty will wear off?

Politics is already too much about the personality of politicians. Just look at how quickly other party leaders endorsed the proposal of a televised debate, aka screen-time for themselves. Do we really wish to increase it further yet? I cannot speak for anyone but myself, so I will say that whilst this sounds like a bold and exciting proposal, I fear it will only serve to place politicians and their personalities before the very people they should serve.

 

The sad myth of student holidays.

Disclaimer: this was originally intended to be posted on Sunday 20th December. However, proving that I persist in being the living embodiment of Murphy’s Law, my laptop decided it wanted a new battery for Christmas. So, have a flashback to last week instead.

Today is the first weekend of my Christmas holidays. I finished my first semester of final year Law this Thursday (which was also the so-called ‘Trash Day’ in relation to government announcements; is there a connection, I wonder?) after what feels to have been a long twelve weeks. Thus my first semester is concluded, and only one final semester now lies between myself and graduation in summer 2016. A sobering realisation indeed, but I have a veritable mountain of work to get through between now and then. In actual fact, I have a veritable mountain of work to complete between now and February.

I have three coursework assignments to research for and complete, one per module studied this semester. Each will be several thousand words long, and all are due in rapid succession in January: the 11th, the 12th and the 13th. The New Year may feel far away at this point, but I know too well from experience as a student that Christmas comes and goes quickly, and January deadlines raise their gloomy heads in the blink of a weary eye. Even as you happily wrap presents for family and friends, even as you write Christmas cards and decorate the family Christmas tree, you are always aware of the ominous countdown in the back of your mind.

Essentially, these Christmas holidays of mine are a myth. I will be celebrating Christmas in name only, as I resign myself to sticking my head into books and articles throughout the next few weeks. I will be told by family and friends to relax, to unwind and enjoy the time off. But how can I really, when I am constantly aware of coursework deadlines? How can I relax, when I know I have research to undertake, notes to take, and typing to make a start on?

Oh, I know the retort: we students have an easy life, attending a few lectures and seminars during the week. It is not as thought we work a nine-to-five office job. If we have to work over the holidays, then that it the price we must pay for the easier ride during the year. This goes hand in hand with the argument that we are essentially paid to go to university thanks to the Student Loans Company, and do not realise how fortunate we are.

You know, whilst I can understand where these arguments come from, I still have to respectfully disagree with them.

We students may appear to have an ‘easy life’ in comparison to graduates and those in full-time employment. But that is in appearances only. For my Law degree, I may only have around eight to nine hours scheduled teaching time a week. However, I am expected to spend approximately 36 hours reading a week, cue multiple library adventures and late nights researching journal articles and reading additional material to boot.

When I am not reading or undertaking prep for seminars and lectures, I am preparing for tutorials. When I am not doing that, I am most likely in the library, planning for coursework questions.

Outside of my degree, I am involved in student organisations and volunteering. As I hold a committee role for one of the student organisations I participate in, that requires me to attend committee meetings, and society meetings. In addition, as Secretary for this organisation, I have to take meeting minutes, disseminate information around the committee and the society at large plus remain on top of all communications.

I am also involved in student programmes such as InnovateHer for female students interested in entrepreneurship and business, and also Campaign SU, a platform for student activism. Both of these require weekly meetings and workshops. I also recently completed a Leadership programme, which required me to attend a day-long course on a Saturday as well as attend a subsequent careers workshop.

Whilst these are not compulsory programmes, nor is it mandatory to be engaged with student life, I am not going to limit myself at university. That has never been the case with me; I truly believe in making the most of what is on offer and seizing every opportunity available. Moreover, arguably I must participate in different events and programmes for my CV. Yes, it can all be tied in to employability, whereby I can demonstrate to potential employers I possess a variety of transferable skills enhanced through my voluntary work, my student societal roles and so on.

I thoroughly enjoy the student life, and I love being able to work with other students on issues I feel strongly about, and work towards a common objective together. But I cannot deny that it can be tiring, and goodness knows it can be stressful. So, I often look towards the holidays as a time to unwind and recharge myself, in preparation for the next term. Alas, this rarely happens now – not since coursework and application deadlines instigate fresh stress and tiredness.

A few months ago I came across an article on The Guardian’s website, entitled ‘Are young people working too hard?‘ This article covered the results of a survey which found that contrary to popular stereotypes of lazy and uncommitted , young people aged between 16-24 today actually put in more hours at work than expected, and more hours than any other working age group. Questioning over 1,000 (mainland) UK office workers on how much overtime they do, the survey discovered that on average 16-to 24-year-olds clock up an extra seven hours and 22 minutes each week; this is two hours more than office staff aged over 55. Furthermore,the results also show that 11% of 16- to 24-year-olds work more than 20 hours overtime each week.

Yes, this survey was designed for use in the workplace, and not university campus. But upon reading The Guardian article, it is evident that there may not be that much of a difference, given the general motivation behind this age group’s desire to work more. Essentially, it comes down to not just wanting to succeed, but wanting to impress – the graduate market is over-saturated, and given the recent economic downturn, competition for jobs is at an all-time high for young people. This age group of 16-24 know that in order to stand out, they must work hard at their studies, participate in extra-curricular activities, perhaps work at a part-time job and also gain relevant work experience. Then, for those lucky few who are fortunate to be hired, they transfer this mindset to the workplace: they will work additional hours, ask to participate on different projects, enquire if anyone requires assistance, join social clubs etc. We know that in order to stand out, we must impress. And to do that, we must learn how to balance our time, and the importance of task prioritisation.

However, the survey also noted that ‘these findings are perhaps reflective of a more worrying situation.’ It makes for grim reading, and highlights what I have been saying about how this age group must be prepared to sacrifice time in order to stand out and impress:

This age group is facing high unemployment rates, increased tuition fees, and arguably taking the brunt of a rising costs of living.  And, with increasing numbers of highly-qualified young people having to take part-time or low-paid work, the situation does seem dire. So, people aged 16-24 may be working harder than any other age group, the question remains: Are they simply having to in order to get work?

But Leah, I hear you ask. What relevance does this have with the title and main topic of this post, i.e. the myth of student holidays? I am glad you asked.

Student holidays are never holidays, because when we are not inundated with coursework and examination revision, we will be inundated with applications, part-time jobs, seeking out work experience and volunteering instead.

I leave you with this thought: how often have you heard a graduate recruiter, a careers adviser or a relative in the profession you hanker to join say that you are entitled to chill out during your holidays? Exactly. You are more likely to hear the phrase, ‘make the most of your time off!’ instead. I do not know about you, but I have already lost count of the amount of emails from different law student advice websites this Christmas, urging me to spend an afternoon researching or a week filling out applications. (Consequently, I have a list of targeted firms, deadlines and key points about each scribbled down on my desk.)

On that note, I am away to wrap some presents for my family, but with my mind filled about the difference between the classic legalism approach versus the legal realism approach in jurisprudence. The sad myth about student holidays indeed.

A costly ‘Take out the Trash Day’.

Once again, this is a current affairs story of the kind that law students need to keep track off. Fellow law students, consider the following post a legal awareness story, and an important example of how politics and the legal sphere interact.

Recently, I wrote a post relating to Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary Michael Gove’s announcement that he would be repealing the criminal courts charge. The criminal courts charge, which had been a brainwave from the former Justice Secretary Chris Grayling and introduced this year, had attracted much criticism and was considered both unpopular and controversial.

In my post, I weighed the pros and cons of the charge, and highlighted the stories pertaining to the charge which had made the news, such as the case of Magistrate Nigel Allcoat, who was suspended and later resigned due to assisting in the payment of the mandatory charge on behalf of an asylum seeker. I concluded that the announcement to repeal the charge was evidence that just sometimes, criticism of a governmental policy can bring about change.

A pity then that, despite the unpopularity of the criminal courts charge and its apparent repeal, there was the news this Thursday 17th December that there would be a steep rise in court fees. Apparently we are being subject to a case of reduce fees in one area to merely increase fees in another.

The announcement from the Ministry of Justice (hereafter MOJ) was rather skilfully dropped during a day of multiple announcements, as many departments sought to quickly dump bad news on the last day of the Parliamentary term. This move, which wonderful US political drama The West Wing neatly referred to as ‘Take out the Trash Day’, is not unheard of. It is rather the governmental tradition to deliberately release multiple inconvenient reports and statements, in the hope they will escape scrutiny from media and political quarters.

This was the case on Thursday, given that there were many stories to keep the media’s attention away from the deluge of announcements. We had Prime Minister David Cameron attending an EU summit in Brussels, commencing his renegotiation talks in relation to Britain’s EU membership referendum. The focus was on the ongoing debate over the Prime Minister’s demand to restrict benefit payments to EU migrant workers, as many of his European peers argued it was discriminatory and contrary to the free movement and non-discrimination principles of the EU. We also had the breaking story that a government-commissioned report on the House of Lords recommended that the House of Lords be stripped of its veto power.

Yet on Thursday, ministers released some 36 written statements which would have been headline news in their own right, save that Parliament was on the cusp of closing for the Christmas holidays. One such statement was from the MOJ, pertaining to court fees.

The MOJ announced a fresh round of court fee increases, which are apparently essential to plug a £1 billion funding gap in the UK justice system.

MoJ announcements December
Summary courtesy of Politics.co.uk 

Following on from a summer consultation, court fees will rise by 10% across a range of civil proceedings, including enforcement proceedings, determination of costs proceedings and civil business in magistrates’ courts.

In addition, court fees will be introduced  in the general regulatory chamber and tax chamber of the first-tier tribunal, and in the upper tribunal tax and Chancery chamber for the first time.

The government did however decide against doubling the maximum court fee cap to £20,000; the maximum fee cap for money claims will remain at £10,000. Yet it will still press ahead with its planned 10% increase in court fees across the range of civil proceedings.

With FOI being topical, it is no surprise that it was also mentioned during the statement. The MOJ opted to defer any decision on whether to introduce a fee for bringing an appeal against a decision of the Information Commissioner until the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information submits its completed report next year.

Justice minister Shailesh Vara stated on Thursday that:

“There remains a need to ensure the courts are not placing too great a burden on the taxpayer. Courts and tribunals in England and Wales cost £1.7bn in 2014-15, but we only recovered £700m in income. That is a net cost to the taxpayer of around £1bn.

“It is therefore right that we ask for a greater contribution from court users who can afford to pay more…”

It is interesting to note that the Law Society condemned the court fee increases, with Law Society President Jonathan Smithers saying:

“The court service must not be treated as a profit centre, used to subsidise other public services.”

Personally, I read of the MOJ’s statement with despair, simply because it feels eerily like a case of one step forward, two steps back.

I thought the government sought to end the establishment of a two-tier justice system whereby the wealthier may be more able to bring forward cases with the Gove announcement to repeal the criminal courts charge. Yet with the statement on Thursday, it would appear that the government is continuing to seek to fund the justice system through the public, still sticking to its argument that the public must contribute their fair share to the justice system which serves them.

Why can the government not see that by increasing court fees, they may be creating artificial and pricey barriers to accessing the courts and attempting to access justice for those on lower incomes? Increasing court fees, and thereby deterring those from less privileged backgrounds from seeking redress via the courts system, essentially establishes a justice system which can only be relied upon by those who can afford it. The government is basically charging for justice and redress, and personally speaking, I find there to be something rather abhorrent about that.

Moreover, the fact that such an important and costly statement was released the day before the end of the Parliamentary term, and deliberately released as part of a deluge of announcements, emphasises how the government was aware this would be unpopular. Unpopular, and yet they decided to persist with the move anyway, after barely several weeks since the announcement to repeal the widely-criticised criminal courts charge.

Everyone has the right to a fair trial, everyone should be entitled to seek redress and access justice in the courts – in theory. In practical application however, we see now that it really comes down to whether you can afford to pay.

I don’t know about you, but I would rather not live in a society where the justice system is more accessible for the rich, and a mere tantalising, but unobtainable prospect for everyone else.

Justice should not come with a price tag, twinned with a blank chequebook. The sooner the government realises this, the better.

Sexism Strikes Again.

As many of friends will exasperatedly testify, I am a devotee of The Smiths. I know many people dismiss Morrissey’s lyrics as ‘depressing’, but in doing so they miss the sharp wit, caustic cynicism and biting satire to be found in his writing. I tend to remark upon how relevant his lyrics continue to be, and this can be confirmed through the tale I shall share with you today.

This tale involves a man, LinkedIn, a message and a liberal dashing of sexism. It is a case of not only a bigmouth, but sexism striking again on social media, with myself being the recipient.

As a frequent social media user, I know well how the granting of an online platform and promise of relative anonymity can inspire some to hurt, and offend. Social media can be a powerful tool for empowerment, education and activism; it can also be a means to boost confidence and facilitate socialisation.

As someone who believes strongly in freedom of expression, I believe that this is something which is impliedly extended to the internet. I often say that I respect everyone’s opinion and their right to articulate and express their thoughts. I often follow this statement with a sigh, and ‘but how I wish people didn’t abuse this to deliberately hurt others for fun.’ But it is at this point I must state that what constitutes ‘offence’ differs from one to another. Moreover, sometimes offence is not always intentional, and may in fact be caused accidentally. This may be the case when it comes to my tale. But as a woman, I wonder how else I was supposed to react in all fairness.

Like many students, soon-to-be graduates and aspiring professionals, I have an account on LinkedIn. Yes, my CV, work experience, details of my student organisation participation, volunteering, and all those other titbits which help fill out application forms may be found on this website, which is is informally referred to as the ‘professional Facebook’. (Thankfully, it does not care about relationship statuses, nor does it send frequent reminders about ‘memories’ and encouragement to post at certain times of the day. I’m looking at you, Facebook.)

Networking is provided for on LinkedIn via a messaging service, and the option to ‘connect’ with others. Whilst I have yet to be headhunted for my dream Constitutional legal advisory position via the messaging service -hint hint -I do receive the odd message about seminars and training, or invitations to connect. It was one such message in late October which I shall now discuss.

My university email informed me that I had a new message in my LinkedIn inbox. Could this be my equivalent to a ‘tap on the shoulder’, I wondered, half jokingly. (Spoiler alert: it was not). I went to my inbox, and was rather surprised, shocked and more than a little exasperated to receive this:

LinkedIn message

Ah, where do I even start. Perhaps with another paraphrasing of The Smiths: now I know how Charlotte Proudman felt.

The Curious Incident of the Sexist Message in the Inbox first emerged with Ms Proudman in September of this year. Ms Proudman, a barrister, received an email on LinkedIn from one Alexander Carter-Silk, a senior partner at a London firm. In this email, he commented on her profile photograph, saying:

“I appreciate that this is probably horrendously politically incorrect but that is a stunning picture. You definitely win the prize for the best LinkedIn picture I have ever seen.”

Suffice to say, Ms Proudman was not impressed. She replied by informing Mr Carter-Silk she found his message offensive, adding that she was using LinkedIn for professional purposes, not to be approached about her physical appearance ‘or to be objectified by sexist men’. Mr Carter-Silk later commented that he was referring to the professional quality of the photograph and ‘presentation’ of her account.

Ms Proudman took to Twitter to share her experience and to enquire whether other women had similar stories. Soon after, various newspapers carried the story, and it was deemed to be ‘controversial’, in the sense that it was centred around modern-day Feminism. And as we know, mention Feminism and suddenly there is a furore as people argue about how feminists apparently hate all men, and how we must remember that ‘not all men’ act the same. In Ms Proudman’s case, newspapers tried to argue that she should have expected this/been flattered/realise she was being hypocritical, because there is apparently evidence she commented on the physical appearance of male professionals. Simply read the Daily Mail’s take to see what I mean.

What the Daily Mail fail to grasp however, is that this was never a case of double standards. Ms Proudman made comments regarding the physical appearance of men on their personal Facebook pages. She knows, and is friends, with these men. Who has never posted a positive message to compliment a friend’s appearance on Facebook? There is, however, a difference between posting such messages on Facebook, and to a personal friend at that, compared to messaging a professional on LinkedIn.

Which brings me to my tale.

This man messaged me, after seeing my account and my profile photograph. I do not know him. I am not a connection of his; in actual fact I subsequently blocked him. Yet he thought it was acceptable to message me in the way he did. My reaction? From being perplexed and a little amused, I soon switched to frustration – and a touch of anger, too.

Just look at his use of language, ‘hi gorgeous, how are you beautiful?’ Am I supposed to be thrilled to read such a salutation? This lavish praise of my physical appearance is both ridiculous, and grossly inappropriate. Like Ms Proudman, I am on LinkedIn for professional reasons, and professional reasons only. I do not wish to know what you think of my personal appearance. I would far rather you discussed my CV, my work experience and career aspirations with me.

And how am I, a young female student, supposed to react when I am asked whether I am married, or single? And that I will only be told more about my messenger when I reply? Excuse me if you think I am being dramatic, but these sentences sounded faintly sinister. I felt uncomfortable, and I hated that a message could have such an effect on me.

Is this a sexist message? In my opinion, yes. I highly doubt a man would receive such a message. Women are subjected to such messages, and then women are told that we must deserve it, because we opted to use that photograph for our profile pictures, or we posed in such a way. Surely it must be our fault that men feel obligated to message us about our appearances. When we ignore the messages, we receive more. When we do not reply, sometimes the messages become angry. We are accused of being selfish and bitchy for our lack of replies, for ‘leading men on’. Apparently we must consider men and their feelings when we select profile pictures – Heaven forbid women do anything for themselves.

Evidently the fella in my tale is a serial spammer, who must believe that such a message works when connecting with women. No doubt he has emailed the same words to other women on LinkedIn. I have received similar messages on Facebook, mostly from people who I am not friends with, and I just ignore them.

I ignore them, even when I am criticised and maligned for not replying. I ignore them, even when I am sent message after message in quick succession. I even ignored them during one particular incident, when a man apparently in America asked for, and then demanded, topless photographs. (That was another faintly sinister occasion; consequently when I went to report him, it transpired that his account had already been taken down.) I ignore them, but that does not mean I am content with them. I will never be content about being subject to sexism. My being a woman does not afford men the right to degrade me, and render me to a subject comprising only a face and a body.

Simply put, it is a regrettable fact that women are subject to receiving unwanted messages regarding their appearance on social media, and as such we just have to deal with it. But oh, how I thought I would be safe from this on LinkedIn, an apparent professional platform.

Charged no more: the end of the Criminal Courts Charge.

Law students, this post is for you. Consider it a legal awareness story, and an example of how politics and the legal sphere interact.

There comes a time when even the most stubborn politician must come to the realisation that an unpopular policy has to be halted. And so it finally proved to be the case this Thursday the 3rd December, when one Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, announced his intent to repeal the criminal courts charge.

The criminal courts charge, which had been a brainwave from the former Justice Secretary Chris Grayling and introduced this year, had attracted much criticism and considered both unpopular and controversial. The charge imposed a financial burden on convicted defendants, forcing them to pay the ‘relevant court costs’ for their court case – this may range from between £150, to £1,200 to cover the cost of the court proceedings. Once the defendant was found guilty, or submitted a plea of guilty, the charge was to be imposed. This was regardless of how minor the offence was. Moreover, the charge did not take into account the financial circumstances of the convicted defendants.

Judges and magistrates did not have the discretion to determine whether or not to impose the charge. This was unusual, as generally magistrates do have discretion over the fines they impose, and the orders they make to compensate victims or impose contributions towards prosecution costs. Yet the minimum £150 court charge was a universal penalty, which magistrates could not wave. Unsurprisingly, many often spoke out against the charge and expressed regret they could not refuse from imposing the charge. The extent of the opposition was revealed in a poll conducted by the Magistrates’ Association. Whilst only a minority, some 42 percent, thought the court charge should be scrapped altogether, 93 percent polled thought the £150 charge was ‘not reasonable or proportionate’, and 84 percent thought it ‘should be means tested’.

There was also the case of Magistrate Nigel Allcoat, who assisted in the payment of the mandatory charge on behalf of an asylum seeker, was suspended for his actions, and later resigned.  Mr Allcoat spoke of the hopelessness of the situation, asking how could this asylum seeker pay the mandatory charge, when he was not permitted to work.

In response to the incident, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice stated:

“It is right that convicted adult offenders who use our criminal courts should pay towards the cost of running them.

‘The legislation and guidelines to magistrates and judges make it crystal clear that the charge is separate to the sentence and should not be considered as a mitigating factor….”

Perhaps it is not a bad principle to argue that some of the cost of court proceedings should be transferred to the offender from the taxpayer, at least in theory. Yet in practice, the persistent continuation of the court charge did not keep into account that many of those who were summoned to the magistrates court are from deprived areas. Ordering these people to pay at least £150 is already demanding £150 too much.

Furthermore, an unintended (unforeseen?) consequence of the court charge was that victims who ought to be compensated were unlikely to receive due compensation, simply because the court charge is all that an offender can reasonably be ordered to pay.

Any wonder, then, that the Justice Committee called upon the government to abolish the charges, questioning whether the charges ran contrary to ‘principles of justice’. In the Justice Committee’s report, it was submitted that the charge created ‘serious problems’ and was often ‘grossly disproportionate’. It was also argued (and I point I wholeheartedly agree with) the existence of the court charge created ‘perverse incentives’, in the sense that not only may those passing sentence could reduce compensation and prosecution, but also place pressure on defendants to plead guilty in order to avoid having to pay an increased court charge.  Finally, the report also criticised the lack of discretion afforded to judges and magistrates, arguing this was creating ‘unacceptable consequences within the criminal justice system’.

The report was not before time. The charge was simply ineffective and unjust in practice. More than eight out of 10 of people who appear in magistrates’ courts are on benefits, further increasingly the likelihood that the fines just could not be paid. This was evident not only in the previously mentioned case involving magistrate Nigel Allcoat, but also the ‘Mars Bars’ case. This involved a lady who stole a four-pack of Mars Bars worth 75p. She claimed she had not eaten in days, after her benefits had been sanctioned. After pleading guilty to the theft, she was ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge on top of her £73 fine, £85 costs, a £20 victim surcharge and 75p compensation.

Thus I was pleased to read the news this past Thursday. Michael Gove sought to rectify two causes for concern; he did not only abolish the mandatory criminal courts charge, but promised that judges and magistrates will be given greater discretion in imposing financial penalties. He announced the abolishment of the charge in an address to the annual meeting of the Magistrates Association, before the written ministerial statement was issued.

Gove stated:

“The basic principle behind the policy – that those who have broken the law should bear some of the costs of running the criminal courts – is right…However, as the justice select committee set out in its recent report, there have been concerns raised about how this has worked in practice.”

“It was introduced for the best of reasons: to ensure that those who impose costs on the criminal justice system make a contribution to those costs wherever possible.

“But it has become clear that while the intention behind the policy was honourable, in reality that intent has fallen short. Whenever I have had the opportunity to talk to magistrates over the last six months, the criminal courts charge has been raised and in almost every case it has been criticised … I would like to give the judiciary – including, of course, the magistracy – greater discretion in setting financial orders.”

The Magistrates’ Association’s national chairman, Malcolm Richardson said that was ‘an enormous success for the MA (Magistrates’ Association) but most importantly for justice in our criminal courts system.’ He went on to state that in his 26 years as a magistrate, he had ‘never seen such a powerful reaction from my colleagues on the bench’, highlighting the widespread unpopularity of the charge.

The Howard League for Penal Reform, which had campaigned against the charge, calling it ‘simply unfair’, welcomed the news on Thursday. Its chief executive, Frances Crook said:

“This is a victory for justice. It augurs well for changes being made to the courts and penal systems, which both need radical reform.”

So, there we have it. Proof that sometimes, widespread criticism and unpopularity can have an effect on the government, resulting in its scrapping of an unpopular measure, or policy.

A pity, however, that this charge was still allowed to continue for such a time this year. I feel that in allowing the criminal courts charge to be introduced in the first place, the government via then-Justice Secretary Chris Grayling showed a lack of understanding and empathy with the public. They did not seem to consider the fact that many who appear in front of magistrates are from the poorest areas. The Justice Secretary did not appear to consider the ramifications of imposing such a charge on those who would not have the funds available to pay.

According to the Justice Secretary, as of the 24th December this criminal courts charge will no longer be imposed, meaning that naturally there will still be people who will have to pay this charge. I can only hope that there will be no repeat cases such as those described above.

Semester updates, or: ‘Since when was it Week Ten already?’

Hello all,

We are into the Christmas countdown, now that December has come upon us. I am actually on top of the festive marlarky this year. I have my present shopping completed, and getting rightly through the Christmas cards too. I am looking forward to Christmas, as I do enjoy the joyful atmosphere and spending time with family – I am excited to see my sister when she comes home for the holiday from her teaching in Scotland. Yet for a law student like myself, Christmas time tends to mean that coursework is the upcoming festive treat.

This year, I have three coursework pieces to research, plan and write, all due in quick succession within the second week of January. So, no prizes for guessing what I shall be doing over the Christmas break.  We are given relative freedom to select our own titles and areas of research/focus now that we are in final year, which I appreciate. It is far more interesting and enjoyable to research and write coursework on topics of personal interest, knowing that you have drafted the question yourself, rather than answer a generic ‘should there be reform of the law in this area, discuss’ question. I also think that you learn more as a student, and develop key employability skills when you are given such discretion as my peers and myself are being granted this semester.

I have already submitted a paper proposal for my Courts and Judicial Power module (my clear favourite this semester; the best mix of constitutional and public law combined with legal theory and politics). I am going to examine the influence of politics and public opinion on the courts: I plan on examining the role of political exploitation and expediency in judicial decision-making, and how such pressure and public demand for justice can result in miscarriages of justice. So I am selecting the cases of the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four and Maguire Seven to prove my argument, and I cannot wait to get started. My Understanding Human Rights module is now open for coursework question discussion; I think I am going to write about the right to protest and how it is provided for in theory, but when in relied upon in practice tends to result in the ‘criminalisation’ of protests. I am hoping to use the lens of Critical Legal Studies and Foucault, and include examples from Northern Ireland. I am now just waiting for the guidelines for my Legal Theory coursework to be released, and then that means it must be all systems go, and cue frantic planning and research for the next while.

For all the talk about Christmas and coursework, I cannot believe that I find myself in the middle of Week Ten of the semester. How did that happen? It feels like only yesterday I was completing the battle of wills that is online registration for final year. Whilst a part of me feels satisfied about this – I am a strong believer in ‘time passes quickly when you are enjoying yourself’ – a part of me feels a twinge of trepidation, because first semester is nearly over, and second semester, aka my final semester of my undergraduate degree, is  upon me.  I suppose it is just the fear of the future being invoked. Young people are always told to have plans, to know what they are doing, but that really is easier said than done, especially in the current economic climate and graduate market. I am resolved to make the most of my final year and enjoy my studies whilst I can. There is no point in allowing fear and worry to consume me, not when I can enjoy learning, my student organisations and volunteering.

On that note, what a marvellous and exciting year this is proving to be already. I have thoroughly enjoyed every minute, whether it is from seminars to tutorials (being too keen to share my thoughts with my peers, no doubt) to new opportunities through the InnovateHer programme, Inspiring Leaders and Campaign SU. I have met new people, and made new friends along the way, too.

Allow me to share some highlights with you:

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Freshers Fair with Children in Crossfire.

Being accepted onto the Committee and given the role of Secretary for the QUB Children in Crossfire society was an honour. I have enjoyed my time thus far, and cannot wait to see what the new year holds for this upcoming and growing society. As I have mentioned previously, I recently came up with our current fundraiser for Christmas, centring on giving up cherished treats such as coffee and chocolate raise funds and awareness for those enduring poverty and hardship in developing countries this Christmas. (Day Three, and I believe I may have caffeine withdrawals to report…)

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Figure One: a wild Law student’s nest.
As mentioned, my main coursework assignments are due for submission over January 2016, but I have still had assignments during this semester. Firstly, there was the unique method of assessment in my Understanding Human Rights module, where we had to select a topic from a given list to present to the class as a group. I requested the topic of ‘Rape as a War Crime’ and it transpired that my lovely group and myself had to use the feminist critique to examine the law and context of rape as a war crime, and present it as a debate. I suggested that we make the debate a ‘Newnight’ debate, which the group liked and went down well with our class. Subsequent to the presentation, we were required to write a blog post (I kid you not; it did not feel like an assessment I will say) summarising our arguments and stating our personal opinion. It was a really enjoyable exercise, allowing me to revisit the character I assumed for the debate and also include my personal opinion.
In addition, I have had to write about the amazing Feminist Judgments Project for my Legal Theory module; an examination of feminist critique and how it provides a fresh perspective through considering the original judgment of
R v A (No 2) and comparing it to the rewritten feminist judgment. 

And yes, I apparently make a nest of papers whenever I am typing up assignments.

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Campaign SU launch night!
One of the most memorable and thrilling experiences of this semester was signing up to participate in Campaign SU, and attending the launch night. It was amazing to hear Eamonn McCann speak so passionately and share his own experiences of activism. I found it most inspiring when he noted that issues such as welfare reform and tuition fees ‘are not just issues to complain about. They are issues to campaign about, and to campaign for change.’
As I wrote at the time, I was excited to sign up to join because I believe strongly that young people have the right to be heard, and express their opinions and campaign for positive change. I was so glad to join like-minded fellow students to campaign for and demand change. Student activism is not something to be feared, rather it is something to celebrate. Young people working together to bring about social change that benefits all members of society should be encouraged, not ridiculed. Hence why I am proud to support Fossil Free QUB in their battle for divestment at my university. You can read my write-up of their recent occupation here.

InnovateHer sch and bag
Business/Entrepreneurship is no man’s world. Here come the girls.

I was so excited to be informed my application for the Enterprise SU InnovateHer programme was successful. The InnovateHer programme is organised by the SU Enterprise department and is unique in that it is for female students only. It aims to assist 25 business and entrepreneurial minded female students who want to learn more about this line of work, providing practical assistance and support through interactive seminars and workshops.
Thus for the past six weeks, I have attended seminars and interactive workshops, learning about researching  ideas and developing plans, marketing and branding – and it has been great fun, and very informative. I have really enjoyed the friendly environment and the camaraderie shared with the girls, and have felt myself grow further in confidence and self-belief. I am looking forward to the next six sessions, which will take place next semester.

As I posted about recently, I had a great day course with the Inspiring Leaders programme this semester. The day comprised of workshops and seminars, which required us to work within our table teams, but also work with others. We had to present to our peers, work in teams to provide information such as our experiences working as leaders or being lead by leaders, and what we have come to expect from leaders. These were very informative and interesting sessions, and I thought it was invaluable to hear the experiences of my peers.

I have also been involved with an Open Learning course through my university this semester, learning about parades, commemorations and symbolism in Northern Ireland. This has been a fascinating course, and has essentially been the socio-historical equivalent to my Legal Theory module in that it has challenged me to re-assess my perspectives and examine facts through new views.

I am currently studying a course through FutureLearn relating to Intercultural Communication and Cultural Awareness, which I am thoroughly enjoying.

I remember writing at the beginning of the semester how I felt that final year would be my most interesting, exciting and packed year to date. Reflecting upon the first semester thus far, I think I may have been right in my prediction. (Just call me Mystic Meg from now on.) It goes to show that if you seize upon available opportunities and make the most of your time, you can have a wonderful, stimulating time.

The future may be uncertain in terms of plans after graduation and career plans. But I am determined to focus on the here and now, and enjoy the remainder of my final year. I have such amazing memories to date – it is my intent to add to the growing collection.