Skipped the London Eye, Headed for the UK Supreme Court

By: Amy Flick & Julienne Grant

After IALL in Oxford, some of us seized the opportunity to take a few extra days to explore London. London is full of tourists, and sometimes the lines can be daunting, particularly at sites like the London Eye.  Tourists were not pounding at the doors of the UK Supreme Court, however, which made for a very pleasant visit.  Several of us opted for guided tours and also explored the excellent exhibition in the basement.

The UK Supreme Court has only existed since October 2009 per the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. Final judicial authority for the UK was previously vested in the Appellate Committee of The House of Lords, its members serving as judges known as Law Lords.  When the UK Supreme Court opened for business, the 12 Law Lords became the first sitting UK Supreme Court Justices. According to the Court’s website, the Court was “established to achieve a complete separation between the United Kingdom’s senior Judges and the Upper House of Parliament, emphasizing the independence of the Law Lords and increasing the transparency between Parliament and the courts.”

The UK Supreme Court is housed in the former Middlesex Guildhall, which sits on Parliament Square, across from the Houses of Parliament and next to Westminster Abbey. Constructed in 1913, the building once served as a Crown Court and was refurbished to house the new UK Supreme Court.  There are three courtrooms in the building with the first being the largest and most traditional in appearance. The second courtroom is sleek and modern, and its glass back wall is etched with an Eleanor Roosevelt quotation. Court 3 is used by the Judicial Committee of The Privy Council (JCPC).

The 12 Justices sit on panels of five, seven, or nine, with five being the most common. Panels are assigned by the Court’s president, currently the Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury.  The Court is the final court of appeal for civil cases from all of the UK, and criminal cases from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The Court hears around 100 cases a year with about a quarter being criminal, and the rest covering a broad range of topics. The 12 Justices also sit on the JCPC, although other Commonwealth judges may be invited to sit on those panels.  The JCPC docket runs about 50 to 60 cases per year.

Cases can take up to four years to wind through the UK lower courts, but can be expedited if they are time sensitive.  Cases are chosen for a hearing in the Supreme Court if they have an arguable point of law and/or a “general impact on society.” The Court operates from October through the end of July, spread over four terms.  Hearings average between one and five days in length.  One recent, and quite compelling case, involved a transgender individual. In that case, the plaintiff applied for her state retirement pension when she was 60, but was denied as she had not formally applied for a gender recognition certificate.  The Court had not yet decided the case when we were on site, but the judgment came down last week. The Court elected to defer the legal question to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). One assumes that the CJEU will be out of the picture completely once Brexit is implemented.

The Court’s Justices are selected in a process that is quite different from that in the U.S., which is highly politicized. To be eligible to serve on the Court, a candidate must have served at least 15 years as a “qualifying practitioner” or two years as a judge in the UK court system.  An independent panel of legal and non-legal experts vets and interviews candidates.  The Queen formally makes the appointment.  Mandatory retirement age is 75 for those Justices who were Law Lords, and 70 otherwise.  In the next couple of years, half of the Court will be retiring.  Currently, two Justices are Scottish, another is from Northern Ireland, and the Baroness Hale of Richmond is the only female Justice.  The current lack of diversity on the Court will seemingly be addressed with the forthcoming wave of retirements.

The Court’s elegant emblem includes the blue flax flower of Northern Ireland, England’s Tudor rose, Wales’ green leek leaves, and Scotland’s purple thistle. These symbols are intertwined with a Libra representing the scales of justice, and an Omega, which represents the Court as the final source of justice in the UK.  The Court’s colorful carpeting repeats the emblem and was designed by Sir Peter Blake, who also designed the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album cover.  The Court’s interior is functional, but also quite attractive; you can even rent out the place for a wedding, dinner, or other event. (Somehow it’s difficult to picture a wild wedding reception taking place here, but anything is possible.)

The Court employs eight Judicial Assistants (JAs)—one permanent, the others serve for one year.  The four Justices with the highest seniority have their own clerks, while the remaining eight share four JAs.  The Justices don’t wear traditional robes in the courtroom and sit on the same level as the parties’ legal teams.  The Court’s usher does wear a gown, and barristers have the option of wearing wigs and robes.  Barristers address the Justices as “Lord” and “Lady.”  Hearings are streamed live and remain on the Court’s web archive for a year.

The Court’s library is generally not open to the public, but we were allowed a visit, hosted very graciously by Head Librarian Paul Sandles (one of two librarians on staff).  The library spans two floors, and the walls have quotations (selected by the Justices) penned by a wide variety of authors ranging from Aristotle to Martin Luther King. The print collection is somewhat limited since most of the Law Lords’ book collection remained on site within the House of Lords. The library concentrates on basic texts on subjects covered in court, adding titles preemptively and as needed. There are some primary and secondary foreign materials. The library’s U.S. Reports set was donated by the U.S. Supreme Court after a visit by the U.S. Justices.

Although the Court tour does not offer the London Eye’s “view you’ll never forget,” it is nonetheless a worthwhile way to spend an afternoon.  In a jurisdiction that can lay claim to the Magna Carta (1215), it is fascinating to get a glimpse of a legal institution in its infancy.

 

#IALL2016 Recap: Humans as Service? Regulating Work in the Sharing Economy

Employment in the Shring Economy

By: Charles Bjork

Session Six of IALL’s 35rd annual course on international law and legal information in Oxford featured a talk by Associate Professor Jeremias Prassl of the Oxford University Law Faculty on the following topic: Humans as a Service?  Regulating Work in the Sharing Economy.

Professor Prassl began by describing the phenomenon known as the “collaborative,” “sharing,” or “gig” economy.  This phenomenon relies on crowdsourcing, a term coined by Jeff Howe of Wired magazine in 2006 to describe a business model in which online providers (platforms) outsource everything from project financing to the performance of specific tasks to large groups of individuals (crowds).  Examples of crowdsourcing platforms disrupting established business models include Uber and Lyft (taxi services) and airbnb (hotels).  Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon.com, has stated that it is his ambition to use the provision of “humans as a service,” his term for crowdsourcing, to disrupt all types of conventional industries.

From the consumer’s perspective, the sharing economy offers several advantages, notably more providers of services at a lower cost, and the opportunity to incentivize better service through rating systems.  From the service provider’s perspective, the sharing economy also offers concrete benefits, such as the possibility of earning extra income, greater flexibility in the scheduling of work, and the opportunity to be one’s own boss by becoming a “micro-entrepreneur.”  However, as Prof. Prassl noted, the sharing economy is analogous to an iceberg.  The benefits are readily apparent on the surface, but hidden dangers lurk below the waterline.

The biggest downside of the sharing economy for service providers is that there is no guarantee that steady work will be available when needed.  Even when work is available, competition may drive down the price that providers can charge.  Thus micro-entrepreneurs may find themselves working long hours for low, unpredictable pay.  Micro-entrepreneurs also face legal uncertainties.  Will they be eligible for workers’ compensation if they are injured while performing a gig?  Not if they are classified as independent contractors, rather than employees.  What about liability insurance for negligent acts?  Most individual auto insurance policies don’t provide coverage when an Uber driver uses her vehicle to carry passengers for hire.

Consumers also face hidden downsides.  Rating systems are subject to manipulation and don’t guarantee good service.  In addition, platform owners, such as Uber, almost always require users to not to hold them liable for the negligence or fraudulent conduct of service providers as a condition of downloading the platform owner’s app.  Few users bother to read this fine print before downloading.  Consequently, a platform user who is injured or defrauded by a service provider may have no recourse other than to sue the service provider as an individual, rather than the platform owner with the deeper pockets.  If the service provider isn’t covered by liability insurance, there is a real danger that he may turn out to be judgment-proof.

Platform owners insist that they should not be subject to conventional employment laws because their new technologies are transformative.  Uber, for example, is actively lobbying to exempt itself from being subject to minimum wage and unemployment insurance laws.  Professor Prassl contends that, from a legal perspective, “gigs,” “tasks,” and “orders” are indistinguishable from conventional employment.  The technology may be novel, but the issues that it raises are not new.

The sharing economy can be seen as the continuation of longstanding trend among employers to shift more and more risks on to workers.  Individuals may find themselves working almost non-stop during periods of high demand, or risk being dropped by platform owners if they fail to make themselves available, and then go for long stretches with little or no work when demand is low.  Thus fluctuations in the business cycle are now born by workers rather than employers.  These practices undermines the conventional social contract whereby employers make long-term commitments to employees, providing them with a steady income and benefits, in return for a stable, better trained, and more highly motivated workforce.

Moving forward, the challenge will be to bring the new employment opportunities created by the sharing economy within the legal framework of conventional employment law.  Platform owners need not be required to provide the same level of legal protections and benefits to service providers that would be expected of a conventional employer, but some baseline level of protections and benefits should be required in order to create a more level playing field among conventional businesses and novel service providers.

#IALL2016 Recap: Guy Goodwin-Gill on Refugee Law

Goodwin-Gill 2
By: Amy Flick

Our program on Wednesday, August 3 included a program on “International Refugee Law: Where it Comes From, and Where It’s Going.” This was a timely topic this year, and our speaker was an expert on the subject.  Guy Goodwin-Gill practices as a barrister from Blackstone Chambers in London and has served as Legal Adviser in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as an advisor to United Kingdom Parliament Committees on asylum and immigration control, as Professor of asylum law at the University of Amsterdam, as Professor of international refugee law at All Souls’ College of Oxford University, and as founding editor and Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Refugee Law.

Goodwin-Gill noted that refugee law developed along with international organizations, so he began with historical background as important to understanding refugee law. The first High Commissioner for Refugees, Fridtjof Nansen, was appointed when the International Committee of the Red Cross wrote to the League of Nations in 1921 about Russian refugees needing attention in the displacements that followed World War I and the Russian Revolution. Nansen identified identification documents as a primary need to allow refugees to travel and find work, so he persuaded states to issue “Nansen passports.” Rather than returning refugees to dangerous environments, he concentrated on allowing states to allow resettlement and employment. The earliest refugee law focused on Russian refugees, but there were three million refugees in need of resettlement after World War I. Aid was provided in a piecemeal fashion as individual groups in need were identified.

In 1933, the League appointed James Grover McDonald as High Commissioner for Refugees to work with the growing number of Jewish refugees from Germany. He found that governments were unwilling to deal with the causes of the refugee crisis and resigned in 1935, with a famous letter of resignation, noting that “conditions in Germany which create refugees have developed so catastrophically that a reconsideration by the League of Nations of the entire situation is essential.”  Goodwin-Gill asserted that the challenges of earlier decades in refugee law are still those of today, where governments need to lead the way and do not.

In 1946, at the first session of the United Nations General Assembly (at the Central Hall Westminster in London), the refugee problem was the second most debated issue, after peace and security. Refugee law “took off” in 1948 with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its recognition of the right of persons to seek asylum. Politics are always involved in refugee law, and early refugee law was informed by Cold War politics, with United States policy important in setting the direction of the law. The 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees was adopted by a United Nations conference and was signed in July 1951. Goodwin-Gill pointed out that the convention is on the status of refugees, concentrating on how refugees are treated, not on the bigger picture of the conditions creating refugees. States sought to limit their obligations, and definitions of who is a refugee were limited to those outside their own country, with a well-founded fear of persecution.

Goodwin-Gill began work with High Commissioner Sadruddin Aga Khan in 1976, and he recommends Aga Khan’s lectures on refugee law at the Hague Academy of International Law as reading for law students. Under Sadruddin Aga Khan, the UNHCR expanded its jurisdiction beyond Europe, encouraged self-sufficiency, and encouraged repatriation and aid to refugees who do return. States were still reluctant to recognize the reasons for refugees to remain, and Aga Khan encouraged mediation of international disputes and recognized that underdevelopment is as much of an issue as conflict. As co-chairman of the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues in 1986, Aga Khan pushed for a new international humanitarian order, with a report on international cooperation to avert new flows of refugees that Goodwin-Gill recommends.

Before the 1980s, there was little writing on “aliens” and the movement between states, but in the 1980s there was an explosion in the literature on refugee law, including Goodwin-Gill’s own book, a fourth edition of which is in the works now.  There was also an explosion of jurisprudence on refugee law that hadn’t existed before, but states wanted procedures for determining refugee status.

In current refugee law, Goodwin-Gill finds that there has been an over-judicialization of refugee law, approached on a case-by-case basis. Human rights jurisprudence has contributed to more progressive thinking on refugees, with human rights law, international humanitarian law, and refugee law all cross-referenced.

The challenges of 2016 include the inability of the European Union states to develop a coherent response to the crisis, which is smaller than earlier crises like that of the 1930s. EU states have been reluctant to provide practical help, wanting someone else to be responsible.  Goodwin-Gill argues that there is need to focus on the practice of states. There should be collective action of the European Union, which has principles of cooperation in its treaties. Its failure to respond has left people in limbo and has been a major political failure. The European Union has promised migration agreements to developing countries but has failed to deliver. Forty years after his work with the UNHCR, the world is facing the same challenges. How Europe, and the world, work through the current issues will influence the future of refugee law.

#IALL2016 Recap: Diversities Among Common Law Countries

By: Julienne Grant

On the morning of August 1, Professor Francis Reynolds Q.C., Emeritus Professor of Law at Worcester College (University of Oxford), began the 2016 IALL Course with a talk on “Diversities Among Common Law Nations.” As indicated by the speaker, the purpose of the presentation was to provide only general observations of differences between selected countries following the common law tradition.

Before proceeding into the main content of his lecture, Professor Reynolds made a brief detour to define common law. According to him, the common law is a legal system wherein the application of law does not begin with a code, but rather a corpus of prior court decisions that judges utilize to reason by analogy.  In defining common law, the speaker also contrasted it with the civil law tradition, suggesting that the methodology is the same, but the technique is different; that is, the two systems differ in their treatment of precedent.

Professor Reynolds next segued into a general examination of the development and use of common law in various jurisdictions.  The speaker posited that the common law itself is largely an English invention that is now utilized in numerous countries across the globe, although its functionality varies.  The speaker emphasized that there is really no such thing as British law, as Scotland has its own legal system. He said that the term “U.K. courts,” however, can be accurate in the right context and noted that there is now a U.K. Supreme Court that has been operational since 2009.  The professor contended that the use of common law in the U.S. departs from that utilized in the U.K., partly because of the U.S.’ sheer size and geography.

Turning to Australia, the speaker specified that there is also no general Australian law and that emphasis there is on court opinions emanating from the states of Victoria and New South Wales, with the latter decisions being “more adventurous.” Professor Reynolds observed that the High Court of Australia, the country’s final court of appeal, has been reducing the number of categories of law as of late.  The professor also mentioned the 1974 Trade Practices Act, specifically §52, which created a new form of liability for deceptive conduct in the consumer protection context, along with a new remedy.  Focusing next on New Zealand, the speaker asserted that legal reform began there in earnest in the 1970s, specifically referencing the 1970 Illegal Contracts Act and the Contracts (Privity) Act of 1982.  Professor Reynolds noted that not all of the attempted legal reforms have been successful in that country, although these types of changes are generally easier to implement in smaller jurisdictions.

Moving to Hong Kong, the speaker indicated that the Court of Final Appeal there is a bastion of the retention of common law values. The Court, which is Hong Kong’s highest appellate court, has a high standing in the common law world.  He noted that there is increasing use of Chinese in the lower courts, which begs the question, can the common law be applied successfully in a language other than English. Turning to Singapore, the professor explained that there has been an increasing amount of commercial law litigation there in the past ten to fifteen years.  In Singapore, there is no third tier appellate court of review, and the country is currently experimenting with a new International Commercial Court.

Professor Reynolds conceded that he did not have a clear view of the common law in Canada, a statement that prompted laughter from many audience members.  He suggested that Canada is another example of where common law is utilized in a jurisdiction where its linguistic tradition is not exclusively linked to the English language.  He also briefly touched upon India, where he maintained there are serious delays in the judicial system and outdated codes. The speaker also mentioned the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC), which he contended does not have enough vision, although there are still some important cases emerging from the JCPC.

The speaker closed his talk with a brief look at the current status and future of the common law. Overall, Professor Reynolds views it as a satisfactory method for private law cases and stipulated that the common law would be difficult to change, as its legal methodology is essentially a cultural matter. In addition, he pointed out the increasing popularity of international commercial arbitration, concurrently noting that the common law is often applied in that context.  Regarding the latter, he referenced recent developments in Singapore, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi.  Professor Reynolds concluded that the common law is indeed still vigorous and internationally viable.

Several attendees subsequently added to the discussion with information, questions, and comments. Professor Reynolds’ paper on his presentation topic will be published in a forthcoming issue of the International Journal of Legal Information (possibly in January 2017).

Minding the Gap, Walking Law Books, & the U.K.’s own “Judge Judy”


By Julienne Grant

I spent a few days “minding the gap” in London before IALL started. Caught a show in the West End, walked  through the “Painters’ Paintings” exhibition (wonderful) at the National Gallery, and watched the RideLondon cycling race.  What I’m always drawn to in London, however, is Trafalgar Square. Trafalgar is unlike anywhere else in the world; it has a certain pulse that reflects the vibrancy and diversity that makes London such an incredible place. I could sit for hours and take it all in, from the sidewalk art, to the eclectic mix of rhythms booming from the electronic keyboards of street musicians.
While at Trafalgar, I stepped briefly into the Westminster Reference Library and chatted with the librarian on duty. She explained that the Reference Library has the strongest public collection of legal materials in Westminster (one of Inner London’s boroughs). The Library currently offers access to Westlaw UK, which includes a number of eBooks, such as Chitty on Contracts. She explained that the eBooks are extremely important because the print copies of the same titles tend to walk off.  At the same time, however, the librarian bemoaned the fact that the Library’s funding was being cut, and the Westlaw UK subscription might be discontinued.
While in London, I was also introduced to “Judge Rinder” on the telly.  “Judge Rinder” is a reality court TV show seemingly modeled after the U.S.’ “Judge Judy.” Judge Rinder himself is actually barrister Robert Michael Rinder who has been hearing disputes on this popular ITV series since 2014. According to  HuffPost Entertainment United Kingdom, these disputes “usually revolve around two mates fobbing each other out of money, and other issues with a vaguely legal undercurrent.” For those who are interested in such things, Judge Rinder wears an English barrister’s robe, rather than a judge’s.
More to come from Oxford where we are experiencing a bit of soggy weather, but are grateful for the foresight of the local organizers who provided us with our own Oxford rain ponchos.