Fully-Online Divorces Planned Within Four Years

The UK’s most senior family law judge, Sir James Munby, has said that people will be able to divorce using a fully-online system within four years. While Munby acknowledged that this is a tight timeframe for a system that is “unprecedented anywhere in the world,” he remains confident that “it can be done; it must be done; it will be done.”

The process of digitising divorce will begin early next year. Some other aspects of the legal system, notably probate, will also be incorporated into the new online system. The process will become increasingly digital across the next four years, until most couples can carry out the process of ending a marriage entirely over the internet from their own homes. When this process is complete, Munby said, “we will at last have escaped from a court system… moored in the world of the late Mr Charles Dickens.”

Most cases of divorce in the UK are uncontested, with both couples agreeing to the end of the relationship. In such cases, there is already no legal requirement for couples to physically attend court. Rather, such divorces are usually handled by officials in regional court centres, with district judges supervising. The new system would move the process for the majority of uncontested cases further from the courts, achieving an entirely paperless system which separating couples can utilise from their own homes through a computer or other internet-enabled device.

Divorce proceedings could be initiated through the online system, Munby said, and those involved would then proceed to complete a series of online questionnaires. These questionnaires would gather all the information that is relevant to the case, such as financial information and facts that have a bearing on childcare considerations. The separating couple, their legal representatives, and the judge would all “interact electronically” so that none of these individuals will have to be physically present in court at any point throughout the divorce process.

Divorces, along with probate cases, will be the first legal processes to be incorporated into the new online system, Munby said. Whether the digital process will later incorporate any other kinds of legal proceedings remains to be seen.

This new system is not directly related to recent proposals for an online court, which would be exclusively for monetary claims and would handle cases with a value of up to £25,000.

While Munby admitted that this vision of a paperless and wholly internet-based divorce system is ambitious, he nonetheless maintained that it is “a vision not of some distant future but of what has to be.”

Police Workload Grows Following Mental Health Service Cuts

PolicePolice are having to deal with more and more issues which bear some relation to mental health issues following cuts to mental health services. Analysis of incidents entered into police logs in the past several years has shown that the number recorded to be mental health-related rose by around 33% between 2011 and 2014, and that these incidents can occupy up to 40% of a police force’s time.

The increase accompanied a series of spending cuts in the areas of social services and mental health provisions. With provisions in these areas cut and people struggling with serious mental health issues left lacking adequate and ongoing support, police have been left to pick up much of the slack and with an increased number of incidents to deal with that are partially or fully down to matters of mental health.

According to Joanne McCartney, police and crime committee chair for the London Assembly, local authorities now simply lack the resources to deal as comprehensively with mental health issues as they could before these cuts. As a result, and as a “last resort the police are going to have to be the ones to respond to incidents.”

McCartney went on to say that the police in question “will do their best and do now have training in how to deal with vulnerable people, but they are not best placed to do that. They are not mental health professionals.”

The information used in the analysis was released under the freedom of information act. It comprises the logbooks of 35 police forces across England and Wales as well as Northern Ireland, containing comprehensive information on the incidents dealt with by police including which ones were related to issues of mental health. National newspaper the Guardian carried out an analysis of the figures and identified the 33% rise in the number of incidents since 2011. The College of Policing provided further relevant information including an estimate that mental health issues could occupy up to 40% of the time of some police forces as well as significant amounts of funding. Previous, though separate, estimates from the Metropolitan Police have put this figure at just 20%.

Police in Suffolk have also carried out an analysis of relevant data. This analysis did not use the recently-released data, but rather consisted of a month last year spent monitoring the incidents to which police responded and the role of mental health. In that month, officers spent 37% of their time responding to incidents which involved mental health in at least some way. Suffolk’s Chief Superintendant David Skevington said he “wasn’t surprised” by this result because Suffolk Police “knew the profile of mental health was being raised significantly.”

Wales has also seen big jumps in the proportion of incidents that involve mental health issues between 2011 and 2014. Both North Wales Police and South Wales Police recorded particularly large jumps.

Motoring Law: Common Myths and Misconceptions

The rules of the road make up one of the areas of the law that most directly and prominently affects the everyday lives of UK households. This is perhaps why it is an area with a particularly large number of myths and misconceptions in common currency, and some of these can be genuinely harmful as they can lead to people breaking the law without knowing they are doing so. Some of the common myths include:

Eating at the Wheel

One common myth is that it’s illegal to eat or drink anything while driving. This is not true, with the obvious exception of alcoholic drinks. However, like many myths this does have a grain of truth. If you are distracted from your driving by other tasks – including food and drink – and drive carelessly as a result, this could be classed as an offence under the umbrella term of driving without due care and attention.

Seatbelts in the Back

Some people believe that a seatbelt is optional when in the back of the car, and only a legal requirement in the front. This is simply false; you must always use seatbelts in a moving vehicle. However, there is more than a grain of truth in this myth, as there are some limited exceptions. Until the early 1980s, it was true that seatbelts were optional in the back of a car, and as a result many cars were made that didn’t even have rear seatbelts. Even older, vintage cars may have been made with no seatbelts at all. If a seatbelt is not available for your seat because the vehicle was made without them before they became a requirement, then it is still legal to ride in the car without using one. There are also a few other, very specific exemptions such as certified medical reasons, If a seatbelt has since been added, however, then you are required by law to use it.

Police Uniform Technicalities

There are a number of supposed technicalities that purportedly invalidate any penalties handed out by a police officer based on their uniform. The most common is that if the police officer is not wearing their hat, they are considered to be out of uniform or improperly dressed, and therefore lack the power to issue you a valid fine. These myths are entirely untrue, and small technicalities of dress like this will not be enough to invalidate a penalty.

Using a Phone in a Stationary Vehicle

This is not so much a single, straightforward myth as a set of misconceptions and conflicting beliefs that leave many people unsure what to believe. Is it an offence to use a mobile phone while in a vehicle that is on the road but not moving, such as during a traffic jam? If you have (legally and sensibly) parked up, then there is nothing to stop you using your phone while simply, physically inside the cockpit of your vehicle. However, if you are in a traffic jam then you are still technically driving, even if you are not moving and don’t look likely to start any time soon, and are still breaking the law.

£85 Parking Penalty Reaches Supreme Court

Parking FineAn ongoing legal battle sparked by a parking ticket imposing a penalty of £85 has now reached the supreme court. The case has been heralded as a potentially landmark one, as it could establish an important precedent which would go a long way towards clarifying the controversy that surrounds such penalties.

The ticket was issued to Barry Beavis after he left his car in a car park with a two hour limit and did not return until he had stayed for nearly three hours. Beavis launched a legal challenge after crowdfunding the cost of taking the matter to court. He stresses that the challenge is not about the £85 charge itself, as he has already paid this. Rather, he claims to be “appealing against the industry, in particular the type of parking company that operates this business model.”

Beavis is represented by John de Waal QC on a pro bono basis, but claimed that there were other costs involved with taking the case to the supreme court which totalled £6,000. It was to meet these expenses that he turned to crowdfunding and soon surpassed his target, raising £8,500 in just 48 hours. The case has previously been heard in the Court of Appeal, but was dismissed. Now, entering the Supreme Court, it is to be heard by seven judges.

The matter of parking charges issued in private car parks against those who overstay is a controversial one, largely because many believe the fees are disproportionate. It’s not just a matter of public opinion; questions have been repeatedly raised about the legality of raising charges on the kind of scale that is commonplace in private car parks when the losses incurred against operators are much smaller.

In particular, the case is expected to rest heavily on the question of how the charge should be classified. If it is decided that the £85 ticket should be classed as a penalty, then it is expected that it will be deemed unlawful. A penalty must bear some relation to the loss that the issuer suffered, and as the car park in question was a fee one ParkingEye, the car park operator that issued the ticket, suffered no loss. Such a ruling would likely have similar ramifications for paid car parks. It is not uncommon for charges of £75-100 to be levied for overstaying by an hour in pay and display car parks when buying a ticket for the extra hour would cost less than £1, so if such charges are deemed to be penalties this would likely be considered too disproportionate to justify.

A ruling in Beavis’ favour could therefore potentially set a precedent that changes the way car park overstay fees are handled across the country. A victory for ParkingEye, on the other hand, could potentially move the controversy surrounding such charges closer to reaching its end.

Police to pay £20,000 Settlement to Victim

PoliceHampshire Constabulary has agreed to pay an out-of-court cash settlement worth £20,000 to a rape victim. They have also issued an apology to the victim, having arrested her and failed to properly investigate when she reported the crime.

The woman in question, who has remained anonymous, was raped in 2012 at age 17. The attack took place after a night out, when she and some friends had headed back to the home of one member of the group. Her rapist was also a member of this group, and when she reported the attack to police she said that she believed there was forensic evidence left on her T-shirt which would implicate him in the attack.

However, Hampshire Constabulary did not properly investigate the report and failed to test the T-shirt fully for the forensic  evidence she had told them about. They later arrested her and told her she could be charged for lying about being attacked.

According to her mother, the victim self-harmed and even attempted suicide following this ordeal. She tried to kill herself twice, her mother reported, “because she couldn’t cope.”

Several months later, the Crown Prosecution Service asked for proper tests to be carried out on the T-shirt which the victim had reported may contain forensic evidence. Detectives then paid a visit to the victims home to say that they believed her, and based on this evidence the perpetrator was convicted, being handed a five year jail sentence in 2013.

The victim, however, was naturally still unhappy with the way she had been treated and the police’s initial failure to investigate the evidence she had told them about. Under the Human Rights Act, she initiated proceedings against Hampshire Constabulary, which decided to settle out of court with a £20,000 payout to the victim.

Hampshire Police also investigated a number of officers who were involved in the investigation. A written warning was handed to one such officer, and three others were permitted to retire or resign during the course of the investigation – something the victim’s mother described as “disgusting.”

“If you’re in the middle of an investigation and you’ve been named, they shouldn’t let you resign or retire, because you are answerable to that,” she said. She also said that, while she was “glad that they have admitted that they were wrong,” she wondered whether other women would suffer the same treatment as her daughter after falling victim to a crime.

According to David Powell, Chief Superintendent of Hampshire Constabulary: “We have already personally apologised to the victim and her mother and I repeat here now that we are sorry for how we let her down.”

Spycatcher Revisited: the Intelligence Agencies & Open Government

Peter Wright was a former technical specialist with MI5 in the heyday of the Cold War. Retiring to Australia in the 1980′s, he wrote a lurid and candid account of his espionage experiences- Spycatcher. Amidst damaging revelations, several significant allegations against MI5 were made. Seeking to publish the book in Australia, the British government attempted to stop the publication. After two years, legal efforts wee unsuccessful, and Spycatcher was published in Australia in 1987. The book was then published in the United States- and soon became a bestseller, with 400,000 copies sold.

Whilst the legal battles were on going in New South Wales, two British newspapers (the Observer and the Guardian) published articles outlining Mr Wright’s revelations in 1986. The Attorney General was successful in obtaining interim injunctions against their publication- and a further injunction when the initial injunction expired. However, the New South Wales court dismissed the British government’s case in March 1987. Spycatcher was published- and the Independent published extracts from the book.

The government was able to successfully prevent the material being published in the UK- but could not stop Spycatcher being published elsewhere in the world, nor media in other countries publishing extracts. Legal action followed legal action in efforts to stop the book and articles being published in the UK- whilst the book enjoyed success elsewhere in the world. 1998 saw the House of Lords rule against the government- and Spycatcher was finally allowed to be published and printed in the press.

In their verdict, although fully admitting the great damage to national security done by the allegations and revelations, the Law Lords found ultimately that the damage to national security had already been done by the book’s publication abroad, thus rendering the government’s attempts to block publication as futile and absurd.

1991 saw the European Court of Human Rights rule in the matter; the 24 judges delivered a unanimous verdict criticising the British government’s efforts to stop publication. Peter Wright died in 1995- a millionaire from the success of the book. The whole Spycatcher episode also raised questions of press freedom and government censorship- very relevant in 2015 following the Levenson inquiry and phone hacking.

Over twenty years later, British intelligence is once again the subject of allegations of improper actions. 2014/15 sees similar revelations against the three intelligence agencies once again being made.

Once again, the three UK spy agencies have been accused of overreach. This is after the recent revelations of whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden, and various court cases concerning national security and international relations. Indeed, a recent report censured GCHQ for its practises; these practises centring mainly with its intelligence sharing with the US NSA, and unethical surveillance procedures, amidst concerns of state surveillance of the Internet and personal communications. The report further found that GCHQ only recently started acting again with transparency and openness. The other agencies have also been censured or criticised for their actions. Above all, their interactions with the US CIA, and their involvement in or knowledge of torture or extraordinary rendition.

Not only has British intelligence been thrust into the spotlight in the last two years, but legal action and Parliamentary proceedings have been initiated against them, and committees arranged to hear evidence in the matter of improper intelligence gathering. In an interesting twist, leading politicians (such as Theresa May and William Hague) have long been supportive of, and defended, the three agencies and their actions.

In the wake of recent legal proceedings, it is as if the Spycatcher episode is being revisited by the state. Once again, allegations are being made of improper actions by British intelligence. This time, however, the three agencies are publicly defending their actions and unwillingly submitting to legal and Parliamentary scrutiny. Much has come out already- and much still remains buried in mystery.

Instead of attempting to hide the allegations, the government is attempting to investigate and scrutinise the actions of the state agencies in 2014. This time, it is the intelligence agencies that are being censured- not the government. Despite the apparent role reversal, the legacy from Spycather is still painfully obvious, such as legal battles, government investigations and overzealous intelligence services.

However, in the interests of national security, surely it is in the public interest for the intelligence agencies to be over zealous, rather than publicly scrutinised? In another throwback to Spycatcher, the same essential questions and issues remain under discussion and debate- the main one being the need for an effective balance between national security and open and transparent government.



Drama in the Commons over European Law & Order Measures

Application of European Union law has always shown the love/hate relationship the UK has with the EU, and the inherent confusion of that relationship.  Always a partner, but never a leader- always threatening to leave, but also demanding equal rights with other member states. Despite having signed up to most of the European Union in all its political, legal and free trade forms, the UK has also been vocal as regards the national sovereignty of member states.

Although UK law now has to be in line with EU law, it is not that straightforward. The 20 year or so Factortame litigation just shows the inconsistencies and how hard it is to get national legislation and EU law working together- but work together they must. To add further confusion, member states can derogate from certain laws and regulations.

This last has been shown as regards law and order, often flagship domestic policies for successive governments in the UK. With that in mind, the UK opted out of 133 EU law and order directives in 2013, with the changes coming into force in December 2014. Before that, however, the UK was to rejoin 35 such EU directives relating to law and order- including EU Arrest Warrants.

EU Arrest Warrants can be issued by any member state, and, once issued, police of any member state are able to make arrests of suspects from any member state, and deport them to the relevant member state to stand trial. The warrants replaced the cumbersome system of extradition treaties between individual member states that existed previously.

Despite the legal framework being agreed upon, and the police working and affecting arrests using the EU wide warrants, they have long been a touchy issue in the UK Parliament, and heatedly debated by both proponents and skeptics. When the motions to rejoin 35 EU directives was debated in November,  in farcical scenes in Parliament,  the Conservatives defeated a Labour motion not to rejoin the EU arrest warrants- by 40 votes.

In the end, the debate hinged on EU arrest warrants rather than anything else. Introducing the motion, Home Secretary Theresa May stated that only 11 of the directives actually needed to be voted on to re-introduce them to UK law; however, the vote on the 11 directives would be seen as a vote on all 35 directives. When pressed, the Home Secretary admitted that EU Arrest Warrants would not be addressed and discussed per se; in this she was supported by the Speaker, John Bercow, when he ruled upon that point of Parliamentary procedure. Angry scenes ensued, after which Labour MP Yvette Cooper sought an adjournment on the debate using an archaic and rarely used Parliamentary procedure, to allow the matter of EU Arrest Warrants to be debated at a later date.

With the debate effectively ended while the motion was voted on, there were farcical scenes as MP’s raced back to the House of Commons to vote- including the Prime Minister returning from the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in white tie to vote. In the end, the Labour motion was defeated by a mere 40 votes. The debate was promptly resumed- with the 35 directives being voted back into law with a vast cross party majority.

The Speaker was the first of many openly critical of the government’s tactics in the whole farcical saga- notably as regards Mrs. May reneging on a previous promise to hold a vote on the EU Arrest Warrants, as she had promised.

In the matter of the EU Arrest Warrants, they are very divisive, despite being a part of UK law (again). Proponents on both sides of Parliament and elsewhere state that they are vital as regards finding and arresting criminals throughout the EU, and are beneficial for police forces across the EU. Critics (on both sides of the green benches) consider the arrest warrants to infringe domestic civil liberties, to be contrary to national sovereignty, and to be overused by police forces.  As is often the case in arguments and debates over the EU, the good of the Continent as a whole, and the rights of each sovereign nation are often at odds.

The whole matter is also typical of European Union law- where the real issue (in this case, law and order directives) often gets overlooked and superseded by another point of law under the labyrinthine, Byzantine system in Brussels.

Sheffield Police “Let Down” At-Risk Children

According to one whistleblower, Sheffield police let down hundreds of children and adolescents who faced the risk of sexual exploitation. Ann Lucas, who was previously responsible for running Sheffield’s Sexual Exploitation Service, has claimed that the police were regularly given details of alleged sexual abusers by her, yet frequently failed to act on the information.

Lucas alleged that the police had made their priorities burglary and car crime, and focussed on these issues to the point of failing to act properly in order to deal with other kinds of crime. According to Lucas, Sheffield Police were “very blinkered on what their targets were.”

The allegation comes at a significant time. As well as general concerns about the police response to sex crimes, there is the police force in Rotherham, just six miles from Sheffield, is facing high-profile allegations of failing child abuse victims after the revelation that a 16-year period saw 1,400+ vulnerable children in the town abused.

While Sheffield is geographically close to Rotherham, its police have until now seemed a world away in their reputation for dealing with child abuse. A specialist unit was set up in 1997 to tackle the problem of young girls in Sheffield being involved with the sex trade, treating such girls as victims rather than criminals. In 2001, a Sexual Exploitation Service was set up in the city with police involvement, using funds provided by the Home Office and, later, police funding as well. Initiatives such as these have earned Sheffield’s police force a relatively strong reputation in this area, but the recent allegations, from the former head of the Sexual Exploitation Service seem to claim that the police could and should have been doing much more to bring abusers who had already been identified to justice.

Ann Lucas was in charge of the Sexual Exploitation Service from the beginning, and continued in this role until 2012, at which point she retired. She continues to praise the officers she directly worked with on the “front line,” but claims that their superiors seriously failed to act on information that was passed on them. Though they were given information such as the addresses at which abuse was taking place, names and aliases used by perpetrators, and the car registration numbers of abusers, they too often failed to bring any prosecution against the individuals in question.

At one point, Lucas claims, she presented the information in person to Jon House, Sheffield’s chief superintendent at the time. She requested that an investigation be launched, but “was told that their priorities were burglary and car crime and we had to cope with no extra police resources.”

Mr House, who is now a senior manager for a consultancy firm, said: “I cannot immediately remember the details of a meeting alleged to have taken place eight years ago. Throughout my period we had to deal with very serious issues on a daily basis.”

South Yorkshire Police has said that there will be an investigation into Ms Lucas’ allegations.

Special Needs Deadline Could Trigger Flood of Judicial Reviews

Special NeedsA flood of judicial reviews could hit health organisations and local councils across the UK. A number of these organisations have failed to introduce new mechanisms for assessing and accommodating special educational needs by the required deadline.

A number of new systems are supposed to be in place by 1st September. These include:

  • New transitional arrangements
  • A new statement format, taking health needs and social care requirements into account
  • Provision of information on personal budgets
  • Co-ordinated processes for assessment of special needs

As part of the Children and Families Act, statements are being replaced with a more wide-reaching and comprehensive plan taking into account health, care and educational issues. They have also been extended to apply to young adults up to 25 years of age. Many parts of a statement constitute obligations under the law, and legal aid continues to fund many appeals relating to issues with statements.

However, the deadline is now imminent and it appears that in many cases these new arrangements are not going to be implemented in time. According to Polly Sweeney, a lawyer with major firm Irwin Mitchell, “Some local authorities are nowhere near ready. We hear reports that they are either not complying with their duties or are rushing through changes, and we’re already advising parents on possible legal challenges.” She described this situation as one of “immediate concern” due to the apparent lack of necessary progress.

Sweeney particularly pointed to health partners as a weak point in providing adequately for those with special needs. “Local authorities,” she said, “will be relying on the health partners to comply with their new duties – including having joint commissioning arrangements in place. But we are seeing evidence that getting health partners to engage with this is a struggle.” This, she believes, could indicate that councils will resort to judicial reviews out of desperation, on account of being let down by health partners who fail to meet their obligations adequately.

At the beginning of this month Edward Timpson, children’s minister, insisted that 90% of councils had been on track to implement the new processes in time for the deadline as of May 2014. According to Sweeney, Timpson’s confidence that this was true in May was “surprising.”  She formed this opinion partly on account of the fact that councils were only provided with statutory guidance in June. This throws the value of any claims that councils were on track a month beforehand decidedly into question.

Parents and Children Suffering Under Legal Aid Cuts, Magistrates say

A study recently published by the Magistrates’ Association has highlighted the problems that legal aid cuts have created within family courts. Magistrates are warning that the number of families who are no longer entitled to legal aid is creating a two-tier system, where low-income families or single parents and their children are disadvantaged.

According to data revealed in the study, almost 50% of those appearing in front of a judge in a family court now represent themselves. 97% of the 491 judges surveyed for the report agreed that the work of the court is negatively affected when people have to represent themselves. It can result in delays and, when the other side is able to afford legal assistance, lead to unbalanced and unfair proceedings. 62% of judges said that when people have to appear as litigants in person rather than with professional legal representation, this has a negative effect most or all of the time.

The Magistrates’ Associations’ chair of the Family Courts Committee said “it is evident to every family magistrate that the rise in litigants in person in private-law children cases is having a profound effect on the effectiveness of court operations. This is echoed by all other family judges.”

The chair of the Family Courts Committee also said that “Savings in legal aid costs on family cases disadvantages those people unable to afford lawyers, and risks injustice for children.”

The recent cuts to Legal Aid have resulted in many parents unable to afford legal advice or representation when they would previously have been entitled to financial support. The result is that many have no choice but to represent themselves, and the number of parents doing so has increased sharply.

A number of charities and non-profit organisations that deal in family matters have also noticed more and more people unable to afford professional legal aid services. Single parent charity Gingerbread has reported rising number of enquiries about legal advice. According to the charity’s chief executive Fiona Weir, “The cuts to legal aid have had a significant impact on single-parent families. We have had hundreds of calls from parents who cannot get legal aid and may now have to represent themselves in court.” A representative of Families Need Fathers also spoke out on the matter, saying that many parents now find they have no option but to represent themselves.

Nonetheless, the Ministry of Justice stands by its decision to cut legal aid. In response to the report it insists that “Legal aid remains available where people most need legal help” and also emphasised the fact that more money is now being put into mediation.