DWF set for Northern Ireland.

I spotted a little article of interest for fellow Northern Irish legal eagles, regarding international law firm DWF viewing Northern Ireland as a potential opportunity for the firm.

DWF has said Northern Ireland can be a key source of growth, after announcing a merger with a practice established in the jurisdiction. The firm confirmed on the 28th November that it is set to merge with Belfast-based commercial firm C & H Jefferson with effect from 1 December.

This deal will mean that DWF increases its national and international scope in the industrial, commercial, property and insurance markets in the UK.

DWF Managing Partner and Chief Executive Andrew Leaitherland said that in bringing on board the 100-year-old firm, the strength of the legal market in Northern Ireland is highlighted and should be realised.

‘We are always looking at strategic opportunities for growth that will enhance our legal capability in key practice areas and allow us to offer our clients advantages in terms of resource, reach and multi-jurisdiction expertise,’ he said. ‘The legal market in Northern Ireland is vibrant, and rapidly changing, and this merger makes us well-equipped to take advantage of the growing number of opportunities it presents for our clients in target sectors.’

This will be DWF’s 12th office in the UK. Employing over 2,300 staff, it is based in 16 locations across England, Scotland, Ireland, Brussels, with two offices in Germany (Cologne, Munich), and Dubai.

C & H Jefferson has specific expertise in litigation, professional indemnity, public liability and motor claims, which will complement DWF’s existing national insurance practice, and advises several leading national and international insurers in defence litigation, including the Law Society of Northern Ireland’s professional indemnity insurers.The firm also operates in industrial disease litigation and is one of only four firms appointed to the Law Society of Northern Ireland’s negligence claims panel.

So there we have it, fellow legal eagles. This merger is a promising sign, especially in light of the Brexit vote, and subsequent uncertainity. There is strength in the legal market in Northern Ireland yet!

Autumn Statement Revisited.

And so it came to pass, that after a political rollercoaster of a summer, some order was restored to the UK political scene as Chancellor Philip Hammond delivered the Autumn Statement of 2016. Except that it was not really a case of ‘was you were’, seeing that whilst it was the first Autumn Statement delivered by Mr Hammond, it was also his last.

Yes, Mr Hamond promised to abolish the Autumn Statement, with Budgets now set to happen in the autumn from next year, along with a new “Spring Statement” from 2018. Basically, it’s a switch around: Spring Budgets will now take place in Autumn, and Autumn Statements will take place in Spring. It’s a literal case of the changing of the seasons. (As recent Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan did not sing, ‘The future for me is already a thing of the past/You were my first Autumn Statement, and will be my last’.)

Musical references aside, it has nearly been one week since the Autumn Statement 2016. It ws rather a mixed bag, with a mixed reception to boot. Depending on who you ask – or what newspaper you read – it was either an unmitigated triumph, proving the doomsayers wrong as the Chancellor sought to bring about a glorous new dawn via a wave of celebrated spending. Or it was confirmation that the UK must face up to being stradled with ever-increasing debt fuelled by a borrowing bill racked up by reckless pro-Leavers. As for Mr Hammond, he was as resignedly calm as ever, telling BBC Breakfast: “I don’t think it was gloomy at all.”

Poor old Mr Hammond. He had so wanted to keep the whole thing low-key. I suspect that in that he succeeded, as very little of what he announced was probably retained by any one other than economists. I doubt whether many will be able to recall it at the end of the year, let alone next year.

But he found himself between the proverbial rock and hard place. He was caught between balancing the competing pressures of Prme Ministerial demands for more spending against Treasury demands for prudence. Not of course to forget those warnings from the Leave camp against pessimism for a UK outside the EU against the economic reality of the uncertainty for the future. I fear that uncertainty was the overall winner of the bout.

It was noticable that there were not many leaked proposals for this Autumn Statement. Mr Hammond’s predecessor had a habit of trailing the positive news from his Statement days in advance to build optimism and confidence. In a marked change, Mr Hammond only hinted at helping the JAMS (just about managing families) and promised a spending package aimed at improving infrastructure. He might have availed of his predecessor’s habit, and generated soeme positive coverage going into the day. Instead, the gloomy predictions of the cost of Brexit ended up being the headline news.

You see, after all the months of bitter bickering over what the true cost of Brexit, and what this might entail,  last week the estimation of withdrawing from the EU was given at a bitter £58.7billion. That was the predicted rise in borrowing over the next four years which the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) directly attributes to the EU referendum outcome, and the uncertainty arising from same, with the UK economy 2.4% smaller than expected. Oh, and it gets better, as all of the above was based on the hope that the UK leaves the EU as planned by 2019.’As planned’ being the key words there.

The Brexit bill is around half of the total £122 billion extra in borrowing, on top of what was forecast back in one George Osborne’s last budget in March. Essentially, we can say goodbye to the long-planned and hoped for Budget surplus, as promised by Mr Osborne.

Speaking of borrowing: Mr Hammond declared he will also borrow another £26 billion to fund investment in housing, transport, digital technology and science research in the latest attempt to address the startling low productivity in the UK.

Appearing on ITV, BBC, Sky News and Radio 4, Hammond kept emphasising that the OBR is “independent” from British Government. On the Today programme he commented that “We know very well that economic forecasting is not a precise science”. On BBC Breakfast, he pointed out that despite some saying the OBR forecast was “gloomy”, it still predicts an extra 500,000 jobs by 2020. (So that’s alright then).

And bless the man, he did also stress that this was not all about Brexit. He told the BBC:

“Of course there is uncertainty around the process of our exit from the European Union but there is also uncertainty about what is going to happen in the United States when Donald Trump assumes the presidency. There is uncertainty about the Chinese economy.”

Basically, uncertainity is in vogue this season, and we are not the only ones struggling to find clarity.

Mr Hammond elaborated:

“The message is we have got a strong economy, we need to invest to build on that strong foundation, we need to deal with some of the long-term challenges we have in this country including our long-term productivity gap, challenges in our housing market, challenges in our distribution of economic growth across the county.

“And yes, we do need to just heed the warnings that we’re getting from organisations like the OBR and keep a little bit of fire power in our locker just in case it is needed over the next few years.”

He did try so very hard to argue that Brexit is not the be all and end all for the UK economy at this moment in time. Yet this argument was futile. Brexit means Brexit, yes. But we are not closer to understanding what this means. Uncertainty breeds. And no matter how many positive points Mr Hammond sought to pull out of his hat last week, the tension and concern surrounding Brexit taints all.

Autumn Statement 2016 Summary

Household incomes

  • A so-called ‘Taper rate’ on universal credit cut from 65% to 63%,  saving low-paid workers 2p for every extra pound they earn;
  • Tax-free personal allowance to rise to £12,500 by the end of this Parliamentary mandate;
  • Increase in the higher rate income tax threshold to £50,000 by the next election; and
  • National living wage increased by 30p to £7.50 an hour next year.

Cost of living

  • Freeze in the 2p a litre rise in fuel duty;
  • 15 hours a week of free childcare for 3 and 4 year olds to be doubled;
  • Insurance premium tax will rise from 10 per cent to 12% next year;
  • Crackdown on whiplash claims to reduce insurance premiums by £40 on average a year; and
  • A new NS&I savings bond with a rate of 2.2 per cent on deposits up to £3,000 held for three years.

Housing

  • A £2.3 billion housing infrastructure fund for up to 100,000 new homes in high demand areas and £1.4 billion to build 40,000 additional affordable home.

Infrastructure

  • New national productivity investment fund of £23 billion over five years for innovation and infrastructure;
  • More than £1 billion for digital infrastructure plus 100% business rates relief on new fibre infrastructure;
  • £1.3 billion investment in roads and to reduce traffic pinch points; and
  • £450 million on digital signalling on the railways.

Miscellaneous

  • Employee and employer National Insurance thresholds to be equalised at £157 per week from April 2017;
  • Funding for 2,500 more prison officers;
  • £390 million to build on our competitive advantage in low emission vehicles, plus a 100% first year capital allowance for installing charging points for electric cars;
  • Extra £400m for venture capital funds through the British Business Bank, unlocking £1 billion of new finance for growing firms;
  • Ban on pension cold-calling and pension schemes to trick people out of their life savings;
  • Investment in research and development rising to an extra £2 billion a year by 2020-21;
  • No plans for further welfare savings in this Parliamentary mandate;
  • Carbon price support for oil and gas sector capped until 2020 and business rates reductions worth £6.7bn; and
  • Doubling UK export funding capacity.

Just in case you are not fuly stat-ed out just yet, the magic number is £1,950,198,032,349. That is what the OBR predicted the national debt will reach by 2021.

Moreover, after studying the details of the Autumn Statement, the Institute for Fiscal Studies declared that households are facing the sharpest squeeze on living standards since at least the Second World War. The IFS Director, Paul Johnson said: “One cannot stress enough how dreadful that is. More than a decade without real earnings growth.”

Proving that there is always room for more (negavitity), The Resolution Foundation went even further. Its Director, Torsten Bell said that “This decade is now set to be the weakest one for wage growth since the 1900s.” Fabulous. I am just amazed that no Conservative has thought to dredge up some irony and comment that we are all in this squeeze together,

I will wrap up with a brief NI point of view: Northern Ireland is set to see a £250m boost to infrastructure spending for capital projects over the next four years, which will come from the Barnett Formula. The aim of this package is to give NI “greater spending power to boost productivity and promote growth.” Exactly how this money is spent shall be decided by the Executive. Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir is expected to set out the Executive’s plan when he presents his Budget to the Assembly next month.

To keep with the theme of finding negavitity in positive places, it should be noted that the British government’s ‘City Deal’ programme is still yet to cross the Irish Sea. It was noted by the Chancellor that the aim shall be that every city in Scotland has a Cty deal, and this will get underway in Wales also. Nothing, however, for Northern Ireland. It would appear that our Executive was disappointedly caught asleep at the wheel on this one.

Mr Davis Goes To Brussels (and Strasbourg).

And so it begins. ‘It’ being preliminary discussions between the UK and the EU as the countdown to the proposed date of triggering Article 50 commences.

The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis, has had a busy week to date. He has embarked on a tour of Brussels and Strasbourg, meeting key members of the EU institutions’ negotiation teams. He seemingly met with different receptions across both days.

Mr Davis went to Brussels on Monday. This marked his first time engaging in EU talks since his appointment to post last summer.

Speaking about Monday’s trip, a UK government spokesperson had said Mr Davis would hold talks with “with key figures as the U.K. government prepares for the formal triggering of Article 50,” which also included a trip to the UK’s Permanent Representation to the EU.

The spokesperson then added that the meetings would “not seek to open negotiations” but rather sought “to lay the ground for a constructive dialogue and a smooth and orderly exit which is in the interests of all parties.”

Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s main Brexit negotiator, tweeted yesterday that he had met with Mr Davis. It appeared as though the talks had gone smoothly.

It was anticipated that Mr Davis would summarise his first talks sessions with EU representatives by saying he wanted:

“…to begin the work of ensuring we have positive, strong and productive relationship with our closest neighbors … I am confident that by working together we will be able to secure a deal that works in the mutual interests of the UK and the rest of the European Union.”

After Brussels, Mr Davis ventured to Strasbourg, which this week hosts a European Parliament plenary session. Strasbourg however appeared to to take a different view of the talks. For Mr Davis went to Strasbourg, but Mr Davis also met one Guy Verhofstadt, the designated chief negotiator for the European Parliament.

The initial meeting between the two has been described as ‘frosty‘. And frankly, I am not surprised in the slightest.

It should be recalled that back in September, Mr Davis was giving evidence before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee at Westminster. He was unsurprisingly asked about his expectations of the future negotiations with the EU, and replied he saw nothing to fear in any outcome. Mr Davis was also asked about Mr Verhofstadt. He indulged in Biblical-inspired humour: “Get thee behind me, Satan!” Matthew 16:23 continues with Jesus saying to Peter “you are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Evidently Mr Davis saw Mr Verhofstadt, and his four freedoms protectionist stance, as a hindrance. The Brexit Secretary then proceeded to dismiss an ultimatum issued by his counterpart, that the UK must continue to accept open door immigration in exchange for EU single market access.

It is rather understandable then that Mr Verhofstadt greeted Mr Davis on Tuesday with “welcome to Hell”. Perhaps the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator could have pulled out a Shakespearan quote, given the Shakespearan-scale drama the EU referendum has started. I was thinking of The Tempest’s immortal words: ‘Hell is empty/And all the devils are here’.

The mood reportedly did improve throughout the meeting in Strasbourg: Mr Verhofstadt and Mr Davis said they reached agreeent that the UK should leave the EU before the European elections in 2019. Mr Davis ventured May 2017 would be the starting point for detailed negotiations.

Mr Verhofstadt said:

“We agreed … that the process needs to start as early as possible and finish in any case before the next European elections … The window for negotiations is more or less 14-15 months, let’s be honest.”

Mr Verhofstadt said his priorty during the negotiations would be protecting the EU’s four freedoms. (Cue a revision course for law students in EU internal market law.) The former Belgian Prime Minister told his counterpart that access to the EU single market cannot be severed from the interdependent right of EU citizens to freedom of movement within the EU.

Mr Verhofstadt moved to reassure those concerned about a forced hard Brexit, saying that in the interest of all involved citizens, the end result of the negotiations had “to be a close partnership between EU and UK”. It was his belief that the negotiation period should be utilised by the EU as an opportunity to “work on a reformed, effective EU” going forward.

Moreover, according to a spokesperson, Mr Verhofstadt also said he wants to ensure that the 48 percent of UK voters who voted Remain will have their rights protected. Great news for Northern Ireland and for Scotland. (Note that my neck of the woods voted to Remain by 56%. We are adamant to have our voice heard and respected on this.)

As soon as Mr Verhofstadt had mentioned his view that negotiations would require a window of around 14 to 15 months, quelle surprise, the UK right-wing press had a field day.

Britain will be given just 14 months to negotiate its exit package with the EU,” the Express exclaimed in apparent horror. It was apparently concerned that this timeframe was not sufficient to trash out a deal, and would result in a transitional deal only. Yet the Express has just published an article online urging for the UK’s withdrawal, on the basis that ‘longer we stay, more we pay‘. So maybe it is content with such a proposed timeframe after all. Although goodness knows with the Express. It recently published an online article about how Tim Roth apparently ‘hints’ Brexit could see a return of the ‘DEATH PENALTY‘. The actor actually said ‘reinstating the death penalty is an attractive proposition for the extreme right wing’. But when in doubt, the Express will always caps lock it out.

If anything, the past two days have shown that whenever the UK does trigger Article 50, and negotiations do commence, it will prove to be a mammoth task. The EU’s various negotiators have proven they will not cede to UK demands to remain within the single market, yet also be permitted to restrict free movement of citizens. Moreover, it is clear that whilst the EU is not seeking to insist upon a hard Brexit, it is not seeking to give the UK an easy ride, either.

‘Hell is empty/And all the devils are here’. We must wait until March 2017 to see if this quote rings true, and if the negotiations will indeed prove to be a tempest.

 

Autumn Statement 2016.

If you were caught up in the news today which saw President-Elect Donald Trump tweet his desire to see Nigel Farage (the ex-ex-UKIP leader) become the UK’s ambassador to the US, you might be forgiven for thinking this year of political topsy-turvy refuses to go out nicely. (Mr Farage spoke of his being ‘flattered’ when asked about the tweet. Needless to say, ‘flattered’ probably wasn’t how Ms May felt.)

However, after all the tension and excitement of the past number of months, UK politics actually does seem to be slowly but surely returning to normal. We have had ministerial announcements, the battle cry of ‘Brexit means Brexit’, policy u-turns, Jeremy Corbyn staying as Labour leader, and UKIP resignations. Even in my part of the world, politics seems to be returning to normal. We have had ‘Brexit means Brexit’ from the DUP, calls for a border poll from Sinn Féin, Charter NI funding rumbling on, calls to resolve the legacy funding stalemate, and the promise that academic selection is staying put.

A sign of a return to normalcy might be evidenced by the annual Autumn Statement due to be delivered tomorrow, Wednesday 23rd November. Chancellor Philip Hammond will establish the state of the economy, and provide an annual update of government plans for the economy. It will be the first test for Mr Hammond since being appointed as Chancellor, and the first test for the UK economy post-European Union referendum.

This time last year, then-Chancellor George Osborne delivered an Autumn Statement was was widely hailed as the first step towards winding down austerity policies. What merry days they were, before Brexit and the disorganised chaos that is the Cabinet’s response to Brexit.

Last year, Mr Osborne announced that the planned £4.4bn cuts to tax credits would be watered down, with changes to income thresholds due in April 2016 to be abandoned. The Office for Budget Responsibility said public finances were set to be £27bn better off by 2020 than previously forecast. Moreover, it was anticipated the UK Goverment would borrow £8bn less than forecast, as it aimed to secure Mr Osborne’s cherished £10.1bn budget surplus by 2020.

Alas, those days are gone. (So to is Mr Osborne, from the Cabinet.)

Doing the interview rounds over the past weekend, the Chancellor took to warning that an unprecedented level of uncertainty surrounding Brexit has led to forecasts which predict slower growth for the UK and an “eye-wateringly” large debt. Speaking to the BBC, Mr Hammond admitted that the UK Government will not have any clarity on the UK’s future trading arrangements after it triggers Article 50 to begin the Brexit process.

Campaigners have called on the Chancellor to reverse cuts to Universal Credit made by George Osborne, which critics have said will leave working families up to £1,300 worse off by 2020. Mr Hammond said the priority for the UK Government would be to help so-called Just About Managing Families (charmingly known as JAMS). He accepted there were “people who work hard and by and large do not feel that they’re sharing in the prosperity that economic growth is bringing to the country”. As such, he was keen to stress the Government wanted to ensure prosperity is shared across the country, and across income distribution.

Mr Hammond spoke of slowing growth and a sharp challenge to public finances, seemingly keen to manage expectations:

“We have to maintain our credibility – we have eye-wateringly large debt, we still have a significant deficit in this country and we have to prepare the economy for the period that lies ahead.

“I want to make sure that the economy is watertight, that we have enough headroom to deal with any unexpected challenges over the next couple of years and most importantly, that we’re ready to seize the opportunities of leaving the European Union.”

Rolling around to ITV on Sunday morning, Mr Hammond added:

“We have to wait and see what inflation figures look like when we get the OBR’s (Office of Budget Responsibility) report on Wednesday, but I think looking at the consensus of forecasts, it’s clear that inflation is back.”

Generally though, despite gloomy prose worthy of Poe, Mr Hammond refused to be drawn on his plans.

Mr Hammond has already revealed the Autumn Statement will contain a £1.3 billion improvement package for UK roads. That will include £1.1bn to reduce congestion and upgrade local roads and transport networks, and £220m to tackle ‘pinch points”‘ on motorways and major A roads in England.

The icing on the cake comes as the FT suggested the UK might face a £100bn black hole in public finances over  its withdrawal from the European Union.

When pressed about continued calls for the government to say more about its aims in Brexit negotiations, Mr Hammond noted the “commendable discipline” from other European leaders in not discussing their opening positions. He submitted that Prime Minister Theresa May must be given the same “flexibility”. He added that he was “surprised” by how much the Cabinet was coming together around a “view of the opportunities and the challenges ahead”.

The general message is that Mr Hammond is not a Mr Osborne. He will not launch shiny new spending packages – so families hoping for a boost might be disappointed. He will not use the dispatch box for jokes, or as a stage for his own political career.

Interestingly enough, Mr Hammond will be delivering his statement against a foundation laid by the Prime Minister. Theresa May delivered a speech before the CBI yesterday, hoping to win over disaffected business leaders. She pledged to slash corporation tax , recommiting the Government to the target of making British corporation tax to the lowest in the G20. (This would not have been music to the ears to the NI Executive, let me tell you). She made clear that she would not be revealing any details of her plans for negotiations during leaving the EU. The irony was that she declared this to be so after the CBI President, speaking previously, made equally clear the CBI was adamant there should be more information provided.

The speech however came amid potential signs of disagreement over extra spending between the Prime Minister and her Chancellor. After all, he had said at the weekend that all spare additional spending should go towards boosting growth and productivity.

All in all, tomorrow will make for interesting viewing. Despite the unexpected positive news today that Government borrowing fell by more than expected to £4.8bn in October, thanks to a record amount of tax income for that month, there will be gloomy news on the horizon.

Abortion, decriminalisation, and the women’s rights argument.

In 1967, an Act of the UK Parliament was passed, which legalised abortions by registered practitioners, and regulated the free provision of such medical practices through the National Health Service (NHS). This was the Abortion Act 1967, commonly referred to as the ‘1967 Act’.

It was introduced by David Steel as a Private Member’s Bill, but was backed by the British Government, who appointed the President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Sir John Peel, to chair a medical advisory committee that reported in favour of passing the bill. The bill prompted heated political and moral debate, against  backdrop of conservatism, religious objection, and a legacy of so-called ‘backstreet abortions’. Under a free vote it was passed on 27 October 1967, coming into effect on 27 April 1968.

The 1967 Act made abortion legal in all of Great Britain (but not Northern Ireland) for up to 24 weeks’ gestation. In 1990, the law was amended by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, meaning that abortion was no longer legal after 24 weeks except in cases where it was necessary to save the life of the woman, there was evidence of extreme fetal abnormality, or there was a grave risk of physical or mental injury to the woman.In May 2008, there was a parliamentary debate over whether the limit should be reduced from 24 to either 22 or 20 weeks but no changes were made.

Abortion laws in the United Kingdom appear stricter than those countries where abortion is available entirely on demand, as the health of the mother must be taken into account. Having said that, it has been said that abortion is “part of life in Great Britain“: one in three women will have an abortion before the age of 45. The highest rate is found among 21-year-olds. Abortion rates have remained fairly constant over the past few years, higher in England and Wales than in Scotland. It was found that 197,906 Britons and 5,190 non-British residents had an abortion last year. About 98% are NHS-funded and the vast majority, (around 80%) are carried out at fewer than 10 weeks pregnant. With this in mind, a campaign to lobby for abortion to be removed from the British justice statutes, and decriminalised entirely, is due to be launched this month by the country’s newest political party – the Women’s Equality Party.

You see, the current legislation governing abortion in Great Britain is the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.The 1861 Act was amended by the Abortion Act 1967, but abortion actually still remains a criminal offence in Great Britain. As outlined previously, only cases that meet certain criteria are exempt from prosecution. Two doctors must sign to confirm that a woman’s or her unborn child’s health and welfare is at risk, and abortion is limited to 24 weeks maximum. Campaigners have argued that the 1967 Act thus requires reform, and that abortion services are only viable now because healthcare professionals operate around the law. Campaigners thus advocate for what has been termed ‘abortion on demand’, i.e. remove the requirement for doctors’ signatures and permit women to access abortion services when they need them. With an abortion outside these criteria still deemed criminal, the result is that a life prison sentence still exists on the statute books for women if they acquire an abortion without two doctors’ agreement.

It is on that basis that Sophie Walker, leader of the Women’s Equality party, has argued it is now time that abortion was made a sexual health and human rights issue. This has become a key policy for the new party, and it is hoped that a movement will be built that pressures other political parties to follow suite.

Ms Walker is proceeding on the argument that women’s healthcare rights – also termed ‘reproductive rights’ – are human rights. She submits that the existence of the criminal threat is a threat to women’s rights, and to the realisation of full equality. She has stated:

“That is why we want to debate this motion at our first conference and to put a focus on prioritising and funding sexual health and wellbeing. If you are denied control over your own body then you are denied so many other controls over your life. Any denial of reproductive rights is a form of violence against women, and the massive funding cuts ongoing in the UK are part of a real trend that is de-prioritising equality.”

Ms Walker might not have to wait too long for her campaign to encourage other politicans to advocate decriminalisation. Diana Johnson, Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull North, has tabled a 10-minute bill for next year, and where she hopes to also raise the issue of decriminalising abortion. Miss Johnson does not want to change time limits, but does want to see medical procedures under the governance of clinicians, as opposed to the current system of governance by the criminal law.

She has said that:

“any woman procuring an abortion is potentially facing a prison sentence of life under legislation dating from 1861 is patently something that needs looking at carefully…Decriminalising abortion, for both health professionals and for women, would put the issue with clinicians and health experts, where it belongs.”

What I found interesting about stumbling across this story today is that there is a Northern Irish connection to this.

Dawn Purvis, a former Leader of the Progressive Unionist party is on the advisory board of Marie Stopes International, which provides contraception and safe abortion services. She apparently will give a keynote speech at the first Women’s Equality party conference on the position in Northern Ireland, where several prosecutions are under way of women who have used the so-called ‘abortion pill’.

The 1967 Act does not extend to Northern Ireland, where abortion is illegal unless the doctor acts “only to save the life of the mother” or if continuing the pregnancy would result in the pregnant woman becoming a “physical or mental wreck.” Essentially, the situation in Northern Ireland (in 2016) is the same as it was in England before the introduction of the Abortion Act 1967. The Offences against the Person Act 1861 and the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 remain in full force. It should be noted that rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality are not pemritted circumstances for women to acquire an abortion.

In November 2015, a Belfast High Court Judge found that the law in Northern Ireland breaches the human rights of women, and declared it incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998 which enshrined the ECHR into domestic law. Declaring a law to be incompatible with the ECHR does not render it invalid according to s4(6) of the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA 1998). The HRA 1998 provides that parliamentary sovereignty remains paramount; in the case of Northern Ireland the Assembly will decide whether to devise a bill pertaining to abortion in the state in light of the judge’s ruling. The Executive may also suggest a bill in light of the ruling. In addition, Mr Justice Horner did rule out imposing changes that could have led to limited terminations occuring in Northern Ireland. He stated that allowing abortions for victims of sexual crime, and cases of FFA under the present law would “be a step too far”. His decision thus placed the onus on the Assembly to consider his judgment, and how to proceed. But at present, there is no legal compunction on Stormont’s politicians to change the law.

I look forward to reading about the Women’s Equality Party Conference, and the speech to be delivered by Dawn Purvis. If Ms Walker’s proposed campaign receives strong support, it could resonate with other political parties. I am curious to see how Ms Johnson’s 10-minute bill progresses, and what comments are made during debate. I find mysef wondering if the heated debate witnessed in 1967 might be replicated in 2017, fifty years in the making.
Most of all, I wonder how the above will impact, if at all, Northern Ireland. It is a complicated, tangled mess of a legal-political scene. The political parties here are divided on the issue. Many parties are against the extension of the 1967 Act. Some have called for abortion to be legalised on the grounds of rape and incest. The Justice Minister is currently reviewing a completed reort which investigated whether aborion should be legalised on the grounds of FFA. Legal and political certainty is needed here.
So we wait, and wonder. I wrote something along the lines of waiting in November 2015. I find myself saying the same, nearly one full year on. And I will probably be writing the same in November 2017.

 

 

Over 70s? At your (jury) service.

Did you know that in Northern Ireland, my neck of the woods, approximately 25,000 people are randomly selected from the Electoral Register to potentially be called for jury service every year? If selected as a jurior, you would receive a letter called a jury notice, and will have to complete a Form of Return.

Let’s delve into the role of the juror a bit more.

From where does jury service originate? Well, the English jury has its roots in two institutions that date from before the Norman conquest in 1066. The ‘inquest’, as a means of settling a fact, had developed in Scandinavia, whilst Anglo-Saxon law had used a ‘jury of accusation’ to establish the strength of the allegation against a criminal suspect. In the latter case, the jury were not triers of fact and, if the accusation was seen as posing a case to answer, guilt or innocence were both determined by oath, sometimes in the form of trial by ordeal. During the 11th and 12th centuries, juries were sworn to decide property disputes but it was the Roman Catholic Church’s 1215 withdrawal of support for trial by ordeal that necessitated the development of the jury in its modern form.

Now, in the 12th century, Henry II took a major step in developing the jury system. Henry II established a system to resolve land disputes using juries. A jury of twelve free men were assigned to arbitrate in these disputes. Unlike the modern jury, these men were charged with uncovering the facts of the case on their own, rather than listening to arguments in court. Henry II also introduced what is now known as the ‘grand jury’, and which saw a jury of free men charged with reporting any crimes that they knew of in their hundred to a ‘justice in eyre’, a judge who moved between hundreds on a circuit. A criminal accused by this jury was given a trial by ordeal (it was rather a favourite back in the day, wasn’t it.). Under the jury, the chances of being found guilty were much lower, as the king did not choose punishment nor verdict.

As previously mentioned, the Catholic Church banned participation of clergy in trial by ordeal in 1215. Without the legitimacy of religion, trial by ordeal could not endure. The precuser to the grand jury soon began to determine guilt as well as providing accusations. The same year, trial by jury became a fairly explicit right in one of the most influential clauses of Magna Carta. Article 39 of the Magna Carta reads:

No free man shall be captured or imprisoned or disseised of his freehold or of his liberties, or of his free customs, or be outlawed or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we proceed against him by force or proceed against him by arms, but by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the

Over time, the existance and role of the jury became an integral part of the court system in England, which was implemented in the British Empire and its colonies.

Fun fact: did you know women first served on juries in England in 1920?

That’s our history lesson for now, so now let us move on to the practicalities of jury service.

The Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunal Service (NICTS) normally posts jury notices to those lucky, selected people in February/ March of each year. If you are so fortunate to receive a jury notice, it means you could be called for jury service at any time during a 12 month period from the beginning of July, to the end of June the following year. Now, if you are selected at random for jury service during this period of time, you will receive a jury summons. This provides further information, including where and when you are required to attend to meet your legal obligations as a juror. Moreover, the jury summons will give you at least 10 days’ notice to enable you to make arrangements to attend, however the office will always try to give longer notice were this is possible.

And finally: if you are on the list of potential jurors in Northern Ireland, you will receive a juror notice pack. This pack will provide you with additional information on the jury service process, and a form you need to complete called the ‘Form of Return’. A Form of Return is required, because the Electoral Office does not retain all the information the Court needs to know about you. This includes:

  • if you are retired,
  • your job, and
  • if you have any criminal convictions.

Okay Leah, I hear you say. Why are you suddenly fascinated by jury service? Well fret not – there is indeed a reason. (Although I have always wanted to receive a jury summons. Perhaps in the future?)

My current fixation with jury service derives from a news story I recently read: the Ministry of Justice announced that the upper age limit of jurors will rise to 75 from December. This has been decided upon in a move to reflect longer life expectancies. It is believed that this will enable more people in retirement to participate in their civic duty, and spread the load of the jury system over a wider pool of eligible citizens.

The Ministry of Justice’s intention to increase the age limit was initially announced two years ago, and will now come into force on the 1st December 2016. The Ministry made sure to emphasise that, as with everyone selected for jury service, those over 70 can apply to be excused if they feel incapable of carrying out their duties.

Justice minister Sir Oliver Heald QC said it was important that juries reflect society. He submitted that trial by jury is a “fundamental part” of the British justice system, and that:

“People are living longer, healthier lives, so it is right that our courts are able to benefit from the wisdom and experience that older people can offer…”

The previous cut-off age was 70; the youngest age at which people can serve remains 18. This is not the first time that the decision to increase the age has been made. In 1988, the maximum jury age was increased to 70 from 65.

I am uncertain as to whether this decision will be implemented in Northern Ireland, for I have not heard of any move to adopt this, or to consider it going forward. Thus for now, this increase will apply only to England and Wales.

It is estimated that around 178,000 people currently complete jury service in England and Wales each year. By increasing the age limit, it is estimated another three million people will be added to the pool of eligible jurors.

I have to say that I do not see reason not to raise the age limit in a society where people are living longer and are generally fitter. In fact, I would say that this decision highlights the vital role older people play in society. I feel that too often older people are forgotten about, or not fully considered by society. This decision shows that older people have life experience, and will provide a valuable voice and contribution to jury sevice and jury deliberations.

Sarah Rochira, older people’s commissioner for Wales, said the increase will help to “challenge negative assumptions about older people” and ensure they can continue to contribute to society.

Jane Ashcroft CBE, chief executive of older people’s charity Anchor, said:

“Older people already contribute a great deal to society and represent an integral part of any local community.The knowledge and experience of older people is invaluable and I’m pleased that more will now be able to share their wisdom by contributing to the criminal justice system.”

Moreover, it should be noted that the retirement age for magistrates and judges is 70. If it has now been determined that citizens over 70 are fit enough to serve on a jury, is there a mischevious argument to be made that magistrates and judges should be allowed to continue in their roles until 75 should they wish to do so?

On that note, I’ll leave you. I will resume my hopeful longing to receive a jury summons – maybe if this decision is implemented in my region, I might have an additional five years to see if my hopes come true!

Of Sofa Government and Facts.

The Chilcot Report was published this summer, after many years of waiting and expectation. I wrote about the report in a blog post on the date of publication. I explained how Sir John Chilcot’s report aimed to examine the path towards war in Iraq in 2003, and the country’s subsequent descent into civil war and terrorist violence after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The Inquiry’s remit, I noted, was to examine the UK’s decision to intervene in Iraq, how the British army’s offensive was conducted, and to determine where there lessons to be learnt from same. To undertake this, the Inquiry sought a wide timeframe: from the commencement of war in 2003, to when combat troops were remove from Iraq at the end of July 2009. I noted too how it was expected that Tony Blair would be largely acquitted of blame for the Iraq War. This conclusion was expected to be derived from the report’s main focus, i.e. what commitments Mr Blair gave to then-President Bush, and whether Mr Blair misled the UK public over the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction – which, it transpired, turned out to be non-existent.

I later wrote a post specifically about the reaction of former Prime Minister Tony Blair to the publication of the Report. I summarised Sir John’s findings, and the revelation of the collection of letters exchanged between then Prime Minister Tony Blair, and then President George W Bush. I thought the letters were revealing, showing that perhaps Mr Blair was uncertain about the proposed invasion, that perhaps he was still attempting to convince himself that this was the correct path to take. However, what I found to be most interesting was the press conference Mr Blair held immediately after Sir John’s public statement on the publication of the Report.

It was a surreal press conference, full of emotion, determination and a touch of theatre. For two hours, Mr Blair endured question after question, grilled on the finer points of detail raised by Sir John. Mr Blair submitted the decision to removal Saddam Hussein had been the “hardest, most momentous, most agonising” decision of his time as Prime Minister. Mr Blair took note of Sir John’s criticisms and said he took full responsibility for the failure of post-transitional planning. He however stated firmly that he would take the same decision to proceed with military intervention again, despite Sir John arguing the UK intervention went badly wrong and ‘with consequences to this day’. Basically, Mr Blair acknowledged the findings of the Chilcot Report, but despite expressing remorse over the deaths which resulted from his decision to go to war, he did not express regret for making that decision.

This was something that was touched upon today. For Chilcot is not over, and questions still remain over the Report’s findings – particularly around the conduct of Mr Blair.

Today, Sir John Chilcot appeared before the House of Commons Liaison Committee. It marked his first appearance and first time testifying since the publication of his report. Suffice to say, his evidence made for interesting reading. Moreover, if you thought his comments during the summer about Tony Blair, his decision-making, and style of leadership were critical, then today’s comments were cetainly damming.

The evidence session saw questions and answers which covered Mr Blair’s leadership, his relationship with his Cabinet, his decision-making, and the impact of the Iraq invasion on his premiership, and indeed British politics in general.

In a two-and-half hour session, Chilcot was asked if trust in politics had been corroded because MPs were fed an argument that could not reasonably be supported by the available evidence.

He replied: “I think when a government or the leader of a government presents a case with all the powers of advocacy that he or she can command, and in doing so goes beyond what the facts of the case and the basic analysis of that can support, then it does damage politics, yes.”

Chilcot then added that he “can only imagine” it would take a long time to repair the voters’ trust in their politicians. I feel that Sir John has a valid point here. Simply onsider how Mr Blair is viewed today, not just by supporters of the Labour Party but the UK electorate in general. Note how the mention of his name rovokes a negative reaction within the Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn: ‘Blairite’ is an insult. Recall that Liz Kendall was attacked for her position on Blairite policy when she contested the Labour leadership in 2015. His legacy as Prime Minister has become focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, and the civilian and military deaths effectuated by these conflicts. His brand, was so promising and hopeful has become toxic.

Sir John elaborated on the issue of evidence (or lack thereof) and held that Mr Blair’s case for war in Iraq went “beyond the facts” in a way that caused long-term damage to public trust in politics.

Referring to Mr Blair’s now-infamous speech to the House of Commons on the eve of war, Sir John said that “the evidence to support it was more qualified than he gave expression to”. (Ouch). Sir John added that whilst he believed the then-Prime Minister did not set out to willfully deceive Parliament, Mr Blair opted for persuasive rhetoric over setting out the facts, and relying upon accurate and valid evidence to make his case.

“A speech was made in advocate’s terms and putting the best possible inflection on the description that he used…

“I absolve him from a personal and demonstrable decision to deceive Parliament or the public, to state falsehoods knowing them to be false.

“However, he also exercised his very considerable powers of advocacy and persuasion rather than laying the real issues and the information to back the analysis of them fairly and squarely in front of either Parliament or the public. It was an exercise in advocacy.”

Sir John also made reference to his report’s finding that Mr Blair had “overestimated” his ability to influence US decision-making on Iraq. Yes, Mr Blair did manage to persuade Bush to turn to the UN and seek international support for military action in September 2002. But by the end of that year it was clear that the military timetable had taken control of the diplomatic process, and the US was calling on the shots on both. The UK and US had had differing objectves from the beginning, and Mr Blair, for all his efforts, did not manage to merge the objectives together for a truly united approach from both countries. For whilst the Bush administration had from the outset been determined to achieve regime change, Mr Blair had sought to reconcile the US’s goal with the UK’s objective to disarm Saddam.

The UK’s objective proved to be a problem in its own right. Mr Blair had argued that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), and there was the potential risk of his using these weapons in the future. But as we all now know, there were no WMDs to be found at the moment of the invasion. Sir John accepted that on the eve of his crucial speech to Parliament in March 2003, Mr Blair genuinely believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The government’s Joint Intelligence Committee had wrongly told him this, Chilcot said, and Mr Blair was thus relying on false information, not indulging in willful fabrication. However, Sir John added that at that point there was “no evidence” Saddam intended to deploy such weapons against UK interests. There was no imminent threat. In fact, it later emerged Saddam had secretly destroyed his chemical and biological weapons after the Gulf war, and before international inspectors were allowed back into the country.

What I found most illuminating from Sir John’s evidence is that evidence which highlighted how Mr Blair’s leadership style contributed towards the Commons speech, and ‘beyond the facts’ approach. And how so? He simply was not challenged by his Cabinet.

Sir John’s words do not exactly place the former Labour Prime Minister in a postive light: his “sheer psychological dominance” of his Cabinet meant that few ministers sought to challenge him, or the legal advice on which he based his argument on the eve of the military intervention. Indeed, Sir John noted just how much he was struck by how few members of the Blair Cabinet challenged the Prime Minister. The main dissenting voice was that of the late Robin Cook, who resigned from his Cabinet position in protest at the decision.

It was also noted that Mr Blair’s preference for so-called ‘sofa government’ meant that the Cabinet was sidelined. The problem with ‘sofa government’, for all that it empowers the Prime Minister and can result in more decisive leadership and Cabinet efficiency, is that ministers are often not consulted on crucial decisions. The Committee actually asked if Mr Blair had perceieved himself as being the modern equivalent to the French King Louis XIV – who had famously declared ‘I am the State’. Sir John replied that such an approach “reached a high point in Mr Blair’s prime ministership”. (Ouch again.)

It is evident that Mr Blair preferred to make the decisions, and relay his case to Cabinet. Sir John pointed out to the Committee that there had been several occasions between 2002 and 2007 when “things were decided without reference to Cabinet”. Such ‘things’ included the legal basis on which the UK went to war in 2003 as part of a US-led coalition and the decision, once Saddam Hussein had been toppled, for the UK to take over the administration of four of Iraq’s southern provinces. Obviously, these were important decisions, involving high stakes decisions and policy. To know that there was a democratic deficit so to speak in the determination of such decisions. Cabinet should collectively debate and reach consensus, afer hearing arguments from all sides of the debate. Cabinet should not be a box-ticking exercis for a Prime Minister who has already made up their mind, and who prefers not to consult their ministers.

Moreover, it seems as those Mr Blair’s ministers were somewhat resigned to the situtation. At the very least, they were aware of Mr Blair’s prefered means of decision-making, and did not make efforts to speak out and demand to be included. For example, when referring to the evidence given to his inquiry, Sir John said he recalled asking the then-Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw why the Cabinet had not “provided more of a challenge” to Blair or even demanded more information.

“The answer that came back was that Tony Blair had, as leader of the Opposition and in government, rescued his party from a dire predicament. I had the sense from Straw’s answer that he had achieved a personal and political dominance, a sheer psychological dominance.

“He [Blair] had been right. Was he not right this time? That’s what I took from Mr Straw’s evidence.”

Indeed, perhaps the ministers preferred this means of working. It meant they could always fall back on the excuse of, “it was the Prime Minister’s decision” if the consequences of such a decision were unsatisfactory. What should also be considered is the suggested complacency which might be dervived from Mr Straw’s comment. There is a suggestion that Mr Blair was always right, or nearly always, and so there was no harm in going along with his decisions. This could be in part a consequence of the standing of Mr Blair within the party at the time: he was the Labour leader who brought the party back into government, who had ensured stunning election victories. In May 1997, Labour defeated the Conservative government with a landslide general election victory, the largest in its history. The party won another landslide victory in 2001, and even after the invasion of Iraq, won another general election in 2005 (albeit with a reduced majority). There was an aura of victory and success around Mr Blair, in hand wih his personal approval ratings and personality. Perhaps his Cabinet believed it was an easier and indeed a better option to follow Mr Blair’s decisions, given his public mandate and approval.

I previously refered to how the Chilcot report revealed that in a private note sent on 28th July 2002 Blair promised the then-US president, George W Bush: “I will be with you, whatever.” Whilst giving evidence to the Committee,  Sir John said the Cabinet was actually never informed about the note. Only Jonathan Powell, Mr  Blair’s Chief of Staff and David Manning, the UK’s ambassador to the US,  were aware of its existence. Sir John noted how “both tried to persuade him not to use those form of words. But he did.” Moverover, Mr Straw eventually found out about the letter after it had been issued, and when it was too late to say “you shouldn’t write it”.

It is therefore unsurprising that Sir John said to the Committee that in future those at the top of Whitehall should challenge ministers, even if their advice was not ultimately taken, and should also make a note of what they said at the time:

“It’s vital for serious decisions to be recorded in the public archive, not for immediate release necessarily, but they should be written down.

“If someone is in serious disagreement the reason for that decision, and the fact of it, should be recorded. [This] allows different voices to be heard.”

When asked by the Committee as to who was most responsible for the Iraq disaster, Sir John responded: Blair, Straw, and the defence secretary, Geoff Hoon. Mr Blair and Mr Straw were more experienced and therefore most at fault, he suggested. (I am only surprused that Mr Blair did not hold a press conference after Sir John testimony before the Committee).

Sir John informed the Committee of his satisfaction with the positive public reaction to his report. He said it was “particularly welcome” that it had been accepted by the bereaved families of the 179 British service personnel killed in Iraq between 2003 and 2009. He said said he was often asked what his most important finding was, after such a lenghty inquiry. After saying it was a “whole range of things” he elaborated, sayng it was the “failure to exert and exercise sufficient collective responsibility for a very big decision.”

Andrew Tyrie, Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, said the parliamentary hearing had been a useful exercise, adding that M Blair “did not feel the need to be constrained by facts when putting his case to Parliament.”

If one can take anything from the evidence session, it is that there truly is a need for collective responsbility, especially within the Cabinet, and especially on matters of national security, proposed intervention, and military exercise. The decision to invade another country, to engage in war, is not an easy one. Nor should it be. Lives of civilians, and military personnel must be considered. Planning for the future, for a transitional justice process and the strict necessity of observing human rights obligations are paramount. It cannot be determined by one individual, regardless of how many special advisors they have to hand. It is much more preferrable to gain the perspective of Cabinet collegues, and to hear arguments from all sides. If this had been undertaken instead of that one fateful decision reached by Mr Blair, th Iraq invasion might have been avoided. As it is, we shall never know. But we do know that there are lessons to be learnt, and mistakes to avoid for the future.