2021vi23, Wednesday: “Important.”

Qualified good news about open justice – but with a significant sting in the tail. And a fascinating update on corruption definitions from an old friend.

Short thought: For anyone relatively new to the law (by which I mean the past half-dozen years or so) the idea of a life before BAILII is just incomprehensible. 

Seriously? No public access to judgments? Court decisions – which in our common law world define much of the law, and are absolutely critical to anyone resorting to it – only available at vast cost, or to the tiny minority of practitioners? Madness. Worse; injustice. 

(A good description of why this matters is in the case of R (Unison) v the Lord Chancellor. I’ll take any excuse to point to paras 65-73 because it’s one of the paradigm examples of judicial disdain, cloaked in perfect and elegant courtesy. In this case, the Supreme Court saying to the government minister in charge of the legal system: just sit down and shut up, while we explain your job to you. With pictures. And short, easy words. But the key paras for this purpose are 69-70, where the critical role of case law in our common law system is concisely and superbly outlined. With a sarcastic sting in the tail.)

So the fact that we have this resource, with vast numbers (if by no means all) of judgments from the Tribunals, via the High Court and Court of Appeal, to the Supreme Court, freely available, and searchable, is not just desirable. It’s necessary.

Having “grown up” in the law with BAILII, I find the existence in the US of PACER both staggering and an outrage. A public database of federal court decisions – great. But not only is it charged for – but the charge is $0.10 a page! As any trial lawyer will tell you, researching a case often means looking at loads of authorities, many of which will prove ultimately to be useless or even counter-productive. Most are dozens of pages long. Some are hundreds. This is just as much an obstruction of justice as were the Employment Tribunal fees that the Unison case ultimately, and rightly, defeated.

All this said, it’s worth remembering that BAILII isn’t a public enterprise. It gets about a quarter of its £230,000-odd budget from the Ministry of Justice, but it’s a charity.

Some may see this as an anomaly. And change is on the way. The MoJ has just this week announced that the National Archives will from next year host an openly-available archive of “important” court and tribunal judgments, including “Judicial Review rulings, European case law, commercial judgments and many more cases of legal significance from the High Court, Upper Tier Tribunal, and the Court of Appeal”.

I’m not going to be a curmudgeon about this – at least, not immediately. This is an advance. It’s absolutely worth having. And putting it in the hands of the National Archives, rather than the MoJ, is the right move.

But there is a problem. The words “important” and “of legal significance” do a lot of heavy lifting. Again, any trial lawyer will tell you that it’s not always the obvious cases that are worth having. Sometimes, the “legal significance” won’t emerge for some time, till various authorities and competing bits of jurisprudence settle out over time. This could leave huge gaps. And I want to know: who gets to decide what’s “important”? 

I’m not alone in this. Smarter and better minds – such as Paul McGrath and Natalie Byrom – have beaten me to it.

The counter to which could be: BAILII will still be there. Well, yes… but as part of this new deal, the MoJ will stop its funding to BAILII from next year. That’s a huge slice of budget. I’m really worried about its future. And its loss would be a loss to us all.


Someone is right on the internet: As anyone foolish enough to expose their thinking online (but not irretrievably arrogant) will tell you, one of the greatest joys of this game is when something you write prompts someone smart to help you expand your mind.

Tristram Hicks, former Detective Superintendent of the Metropolitan Police, has been kind enough to do that. Tristram, whom I’ve known on and off for a good long while, specialised during his policing career in economic crime: fraud, asset recovery, money laundering – and corruption. 

He’s reminded me firstly that I got the standard corruption definition wrong in my piece on Monday. I should have said: “abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. That’s “private”, not “personal” as I had it. 

In the context in which I used it, I’m not sure there’s a great difference; “private” in the sense of “for the sake of the organisation itself, not for the sake of its mission” works better than my explanation, but perhaps not materially.

But Tristram points me to a piece he wrote for Sussex University’s Centre for the Study of Corruption, which I commend to any reader of these pages as an excellent use of 10 minutes of their time. (It’s not long – less than 10 sides of A4.) Entitled “Why are there so few domestic corruption cases in the UK?”, it explores some of the familiar (no resources; no incentives; no measures) reasons why domestic corruption goes largely uninvestigated, unprotected and thus unpunished – but also some more unfamiliar ones. 

(He doesn’t mention my particularly caustic and cynical take: that successive governments are so wedded to the UK’s image as a “clean” place that except in certain specific locations, such as prisons and border control, there’s simply no incentive to lift the rocks and look underneath. In case we find anything…)

But alongside this, Tristram also points out that my mistaken definition is the one the Government adopted for its 2017-22 Anti-Corruption Strategy, although it wrongly attributed its wording to Transparency International (the source of the “private gain” one). And then it added a further gloss: the corruption, by the Government’s definition, had to “benefit a third party – an individual, business or other organisation”. Like Tristram, I don’t believe this is right. At its most basic level, the additional condition might be interpreted as ruling out people within the organisation in question – particularly those running it, whose motives might well be mixed up with or attributed to the organisation itself. And even if that’s not the case, this definition carefully exempts the kind of “institutional corruption” we were discussing on Monday.

Not good enough. We’re not as clean as we think we are. Narrowing the definitions to exclude some of the ways in which that manifests itself only makes things worse. Thanks, but no.


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2021vi16, Wednesday: Domestication.

Pets deserve eulogies; cats especially so, given that it’s the junior partner in the relationship who’s writing them. And an example of the fake “war on woke”. From a silk, no less. For shame.

Someone is right on the internet: The relationship between cats and people is a nuanced one. That may be one of the reasons I’m more a cat person than a dog one. I recognise the beautiful straightforwardness of the dog-human connection: at its best, an honest mutual loyalty (albeit with a clear hierarchy as well). But the more mercurial, less owner/pet way that cats and the humans they cohabit with interact is more to my taste.

John Naughton captures that in a lovely elegy to Zoombini, one of his cats, who died last week. Should pets get eulogies? I can’t imagine why not. We may anthropomorphise shamelessly as a species, but we do so because – I think – we have an inbuilt need for relationships. And you can’t have a relationship with something unless you imbue it with some sort of self – even if it’s a partially imaginary, reflective one.

John writes:

She was a remarkable animal — the most intelligent cat I’ve ever known. She was wily, perceptive, affectionate, needy and could be imperious, so much so that we used to joke that she conformed to PG Wodehouse’s explanation of why cats are different from dogs — they know that the ancient Egyptians worshipped them as gods. She could never understood why we — her servants — never rose at daybreak, and made her displeasure vocally plain. Although we had a perfectly good cat-flap, she would on occasion sit outside the back door yowling insistently — and of course I would eventually cave in and open the door, at which point she would strut in, purring ostentatiously at the triumph of the feline will.

This is instantly familiar to those of us with cats. Our own, Iroh (the name comes from here) who’s not quite a year old and has been with us for little more than seven months, is now wholly a member of the family. To lose her, even now, would leave a gap of significant proportions. For John and his family, with almost two decades of intimately shared existence, the gap will be huge. I feel for him.

John also observes – a day or two later – what appears to be a sense of deep loss in Zoombini’s sibling. I have no trouble in believing that there’s more to what he describes than mere instinct, or habit. A cat’s inner life is likely to be wildly different from our own. But I’m confident it’s there. And it’s definitely independent of us two-legs who give them house room. 

Much of John’s description of Zoombini maps directly onto Iroh – particularly her insistence, at sun-up, that the world should rise with her. And, of course, his insight about the direction of the cat-human relationship. As I’m not the first to notice, it’s clear to any thinking cat “owner” (such an inapposite term!) who, in fact, domesticated whom. 

I think it was Pratchett who observed that cats only tolerate us, amusedly, until someone invents a tin opener that can be operated by paw. That’s overdoing it: there’s definitely affection in the relationship, albeit perhaps the indulgent affection of a supreme monarch for minions she’s rather fond of. But Iroh, as the picture shows, is clearly a frustrated biped – and her frequent attempts to manipulate keys and door (and window) handles indicate that if anyone were ever to give her opposable thumbs, we’d be in deep trouble…


Someone is wrong on the internet: OK, OK. I promised myself I’d try not to do this – do a “SIWOTI”. But it’s so closely linked to what I wrote about on Monday concerning the weaponisation of culture wars for malign political ends that it feels obligatory.

The nutshell version, thanks to Joshua Rozenberg:

  1. Hardwicke Chambers, a long-standing commercial set of very high repute, announced yesterday that it was changing its name to Gatehouse. A year ago, it had come to recognise that Lord Hardwicke – after whom it was named – was the co-author of a 18th-century legal opinion which had played a significant role in buttressing the survival of slavery for many years. It decided it was time for a change.
  2. So far, so good. Until Lord Wolfson, a commercial silk himself and now – importantly, for this purpose – a justice minister, decided to wade in. In a series of tweets, he implied that this was a distraction from “the important business” of fighting racism and improving diversity – asking whether because Lincoln’s and Gray’s Inns (two of the four Inns of Court, to one of which all of us barristers must belong) were named after advisors to Edward I, and he’d expelled Jews from England in 1290, they should be renamed too.

There’s simply no meaningful comparison to be drawn between these two things. Lord Wolfson’s prowess as an advocate is not in doubt, so why he’s making such a snide, weak and tendentious argument is beyond me – unless, of course, he’s simply looking (or has been instructed) to score cheap and deliberately divisive political points in the name of the “war on woke”. 

For shame.


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2021v19, Wednesday: Thingification.

The first of a series about what happens when we make things out of stuff (and ideas) that we shouldn’t. And: why grift isn’t good.

Short thought: I’m not always a fan of neologising. (Is there a word, akin to onomatopoeia, for “doing the thing you’re just criticising”, since I’m not convinced that there’s actually a verb that derives from the noun “neologism”? Oh. Yeah. Hypocrisy. Oops.) 

But a pair of posts (first one heresecond one here) – neither terribly new, but fascinating – do the job beautifully. 

The word? “Thingifying”. 

They’re all about the process by which we tend, as humans, to treat all that we see and experience as objects: specific, manipulable, concrete. How that obscures ideas and concepts. How it shrinks actions and processes to snapshots.

And perhaps most importantly, how it can obscure – often deliberately – agency.

The example in the second of the two pieces, which I won’t spoil more than this sentence, is “umbrellas are non-refundable” – as if this is not so much a choice, albeit probably an entirely fair and sensible one, by a store-owner faced with people returning umbrellas once it stops raining as though they were just for rental, but instead some intrinsic quality of umbrella-ness.

But think beyond this. “The situation is regrettable.” By whom? Why? Is that just how it is, or has someone done something dumb, damaging or malicious to bring the situation into being? Echoes there of “mistakes were made”, or “unfortunate circumstances”. Ouch.

Just reading these two pieces has sparked half a dozen lines of thought into thingification – some arising from my own experience, some from things I’ve read, and one or two which even relate to law and advocacy (honest). Over the next few pieces, I’ll try to break it down a bit. 

If this sounds turgid beyond belief, I’m genuinely sorry. (This is not a non-apology “sorry if you’re thin-skinned enough to feel offended” quasi-insult; honestly, I apologise that the next few pieces might not work for you, but this is an itch I feel really compelled to scratch, and I’ll try to spread the net wide enough so there’s something for everyone.)

I genuinely think there’s something interesting going on here, with significant ramifications. Stay with me. Let’s see where it goes.


Someone is right on the internet: While we’re mulling that one, as usual (this one’s a sorry-not-sorry, I have to admit) my thoughts stray to fraud.

Or rather to grift. An excellent piece of writing by Can Duruk highlights the key distinction between fraud and grift. And there are interesting and uncomfortable parallels to the distinction between lies and bullshit. Can points out that a true modern grift…

…is not run behind closed doors. Instead, you do it fully out in the open, screaming about it from the mountaintops. While greed is about focus, grift is about shamelessness. With greed, the game is to find the path between the rules with the most profit. Grift, on the other hand, ignores the rules altogether, armed with the knowledge that with shamelessness comes zero social costs, and with absent enforcement, no real legal risk.

One of his examples is Elon Musk, in which context he points to what amounts to a pump-and-dump scheme of publicly backing Bitcoin, riding the resulting surge as a bunch of techbros who hang on his every word jump aboard the HODL train, then selling a chunk of Tesla’s BTC holding before declaring that oh, yes, actually it’s an environmental nightmare not entirely in keeping with the noble business of making electric cars. Nice.

Or, as Can puts it:

Look, I am struggling to string together words into legible sentences here. Just like there’s no real person that thinks Bannon deserves his accolades as a wellness warrior, no one who doesn’t put laser eyes in Twitter bio thinks that Elon Musk didn’t know about the environmental horrors of Bitcoin. Or that he could not get away with a pump and dump scheme as blatantly run as this one. I know we are all amused by his antics, and as a car-guy who doesn’t even drive, I have somewhat of a soft spot in my heart for the Model S. But the grift here is so, so obvious and run so transparently that it becomes borderline paralyzing. I do wonder if I am not getting something here?

This also sparks thoughts about the Online Harms bill which the UK government published last week. In amongst the publicity was a comment that the bill would include: 

Further provisions to tackle prolific online scams such as romance fraud, which have seen people manipulated into sending money to fake identities on dating apps.

Well, lovely. Three big problems, though:

  1. The bill only deals with user-generated content. So anyone running a scam and willing to pay for it to be advertised is just fine. Rather missing the point, therefore.
  2. I’ve been through the bill, and I can see precisely nothing that deals expressly with any kind of fraud or scam. At best, it might be in clause 41, which defines “illegal content” to include content amounting to a “relevant offence” – further defining that as either an offence whose intended victim is an individual (although not one which concerns “the performance of a service by a person not qualified to perform it”) or one which is defined in further regulation. Honestly, I’m baffled. What have I missed?

That’s only two problems. The third is too big for a numbered paragraph. And it’s the old favourite: fraud is a huge problem. It hurts huge numbers of people, terribly. And yet, as always, no-one’s actually coughing up to resource dealing with it properly. 

To be fair, the Online Harms publicity does promise a “Fraud Action plan after the 2021 spending review”. And apparently the DDCMS is going to consult on “online advertising, including the role it can play in enabling online fraud, later this year”.

Reassured? Me neither.


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2021v7, Friday: Finding family.

Why I welcome the fact that I ache. And a quick link to a writeup of one of the most interesting Supreme Court cases around: Lloyd v Google.

Short thought: “I ache, therefore I am,” as Marvin once put it. “Or perhaps I am, therefore I ache.”

I ache. And I’m happy that I do. Because it’s 48 hours or so since I went back to capoeira for the first time in months.

It’s not the exercise that I’ve missed – from time to time I’ve stopped mid-run and trained a little, solo, in the park.

No. It’s that even for an introvert like me, the community of training with others in this most organic and communicative of martial arts has been a painful thing to lose. That feeling as your mind, soul and body ease into the ginga, the music wraps itself around you, and techniques start to flow the one into the next. As you smile, full of malandro, at the person you’re playing with. As the physical conversation between you ducks and weaves, slow, fast, slow.

God, it’s glorious. Although God, it hurts a couple of days after. I’m 50. I don’t bend as well as once I did.

But every ache is a benção, a blessing.

Because I’m back with family. Or rather, back with one of them.

Here’s the thing. We all have multiple families, which sometimes – but not always – overlap. If we’re fortunate (and my heart breaks for all those for whom this is tragically, painfully, sometimes dangerously not true) our first is with blood.

Another comes from the person we choose to bond our life with: spouse, partner, name them what you will. (My good fortune on this front is boundless; a wife and daughter who are both beyond compare.)

And then there are all the other communities which you find. Or which find you. Some of which will themselves wrap you in love and care, and so will become found families in themselves.

For all but the most wholly solitary among us, these multiple families are the earth from which our lifelong learning, growth, evolution, even our ongoing ability to be human, springs.

My capoeira family is one such. I’m blessed to have so many families. Blessed.

So, yes. I ache. Therefore, I am. Thank goodness.


Someone is right on the internet: Despite my best intentions, I wholly failed to make time to watch the submissions in Lloyd v Google, which sees the Supreme Court wrestle with some fundamental ideas in privacy and data protection.

I’ll try to make the time, then I’ll probably write something. (A radical idea: digest the source material before opining. Good lord.) As usual, the SC has the video of the hearing up on its website at the above link. Open justice for the win.

In the meantime, the UKSC Blog does a great job of summarising the submissions: a preview here, then a rundown of Day 1 and Day 2.

If privacy is at all important to you, and goodness knows it ought to be – it (along with worker status) seems to me to be the critical question of how individual rights interact with contract law and business for the next few years – the upsums richly repay a read.


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2021v3, Monday: Miscellany.

It’s a bank holiday. I have to work. So I’m afraid a linkfest will have to do. With a quick shout about sleaze at the end.

Incidentally: do subscribe at http://remoteaccessbar.substack.com if you fancy getting this automatically. Now, advert over. Let’s get on.

Someones are right on the internet: It’s the early May bank holiday, and I’ve got a hearing tomorrow at 10 for which the papers only arrived late last week. Life at the Bar… so I fear this will have to be a brief canter through some stuff worth (I think) reading:

  • First up, a rather nice discussion of why an absence of good faith doesn’t equal bad faith, relating to a 2019 case, by someone I’m up against in an ET case soon. Scouting out your upcoming opponents is always a good idea. Not least because, as here, you can always learn something.
  • Next, an absolutely stellar piece of writing from one of the UK’s foremost experts on constitutional law, Professor Mark Elliott. He reviews the Government’s apparent intention to legislate on judicial review (going far beyond what its own review advised), and identifies the view of the constitution which seems to underpin it. Which is, to say the least, a rather heterodox and – to these untutored eyes – deeply untrustworthy one.
  • And finally, the wonderful Separated by a Common Language (a site which looks at different usages in English, particularly but not exclusively across the Atlantic), examines the word sleaze. As I may have mentioned before, I hate the word as it’s used here in the UK. Far too often it’s a synonym for corruption, and thus a way of avoiding having to face up to just how bent parts (not all, thank goodness, but critical parts) of our polity actually are.

Short thought: I wasn’t going to editorialise beyond the links, but I have to mention something here. Out walking back from the pub (an actual pub! Wow) with a mate, he commented on how much of a time-waste it felt like the whole “Boris’s flat” thing felt like, given everything else around. I can empathise with his view. But the point of the “flat thing”, and indeed all the rest of the miasma of misconduct, arrogance and downright crookedness that envelops Johnson is not that it’s a one-off, but that it’s symptomatic. Symptomatic of incompetence. Of greed. Of a rules-don’t-apply-to-me mentality which disdains accountability, in favour of a kind of 21st century droit de seigneur. Of an almost feudal sense of right, without any of the balancing obligations which underpinned, at least in theory, every feudal system which has ever survived more than a handful of years, and belies Johnson’s claim to be any kind of real historian.

And why is that important? Because all of the critical stuff that my friend, justifiably, wants to hear about – and still more wants those in charge to get on with, and get right – needs competence, and transparency, and accountability, if it’s to be done at all well. More than ever, in the wake of the past hateful year, we need people for whom the public interest means something beyond “what makes me win the next election” or “what owns the libs”.

That’s why the flat thing matters. That’s why the Arcuri affair matters. That’s why the refusal to take misconduct (Patel) or incompetence (Williamson) seriously matters. That’s why the “VIP lane” for Covid kit matters. That’s why the utterly unserious approach to what would be called “corruption” if it happened in a country at the bottom of the Transparency International CPI index matters.

Because they all point to an administration to whom you, and I, and anyone else outside the charmed circle of mates and muckers, don’t matter – except on voting day. And even then, not often.

That’s not how to solve our huge problems. It’s how to make them worse.

(By the way: it’ll come as no surprise to anyone reading this that I’m not exactly a fan of the current government. Right now, though, I don’t care about Labour vs Conservative. Even though I’m something of a leftie, I’d take a competent, relatively honest Conservative government over an incompetent, dishonest Labour one, because we’ve got work to do. But our current administration is neither competent nor honest. And shows no signs of ever being either.)


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2021iv7, Wednesday: Gaslighting by government.

Two smart people find much to fear in the UK government’s views on judicial review. For what it’s worth, I feel the same. And a fundamental, and discriminatory, misunderstanding of objectivity.

Someones are right on the internet: I’m reversing the usual order here, because from a UK perspective this one’s a lot more urgent and important. (Thank you, the Eisenhower Matrix.)

I’m the first to say that administrative law isn’t my speciality. But it’s critical: if we want to live in a world of laws rather than fiat decisions made by those with power (and while the rule of law isn’t perfect, it’s an awful lot better than the alternatives), then making sure our government can be held to account is as important a thing as a thing can be.

Which is why a lot of angst was triggered by the Government’s Independent Review of Administrative Law, led by Lord Faulks, when it was launched. The fear was that it was a stalking-horse for the current UK government – which hasn’t been exactly shy about its desire to do what it wants without question or limitation, or indeed about its rampant levels of corruption – to hamstring judicial review.

In fact the Faulks Review’s report is generally regarded as a pretty level-headed, sensible piece of work. (One or two evidence-related quibbles aside.) It side-stepped most of the really extreme stuff the government seemed to want in favour of relatively modest reforms. But that hasn’t stopped the government making it clear that it wants to go the whole hog, both in its response and in its summary of government submissions

As I said: I’m no expert. But when Joshua Rozenberg calls it an attempt at “emasculating” judicial review, and Professor Mark Elliott – one of the foremost academic experts on administrative law – accuses the government of “constitutional gaslighting”, it’s worth listening.

One point in particular which both Elliott and Rozenberg note, and the trigger for this strong language, is the government’s desire, in any case other than where a government decision was ultra vires (wholly outside its powers) to do away with nullity. 

For the non-admin lawyers, “nullity” means that if a court finds a government decision unlawful, then it is as if that decision were never made. Without getting too deep into the technicalities (that’s what Elliott’s post is for), what the government seems to want is to change that so that in the overwhelming majority of JR cases, the most that will happen is the government can’t do it again. But what it’s done already, however extensive or damaging, and even though it was unlawful, is fine. In other words: its unlawful actions are retrospectively made lawful. 

Why is this gaslighting? Because, as Elliott points out, the justification is apparently that the rule of law requires this kind of certainty. The doublethink is breathtaking: we need to be allowed to break the law and get away with it, the government seems to be saying, because otherwise people couldn’t be certain about whether our decisions would stick or not.

To take a thoroughly imperfect and highly simplified private-law analogy:

  • Let’s say you’ve got a contract with X for X to supply you with widgets. You’ve been paying full whack for them. 
  • But your customers are complaining: apparently the widgets are below the standard the contract requires. You sue X. 
  • It’s a matter of first-year contract law that you’ll want a compensatory remedy: X has broken the contract, you want to be put in the position you’d have been if they hadn’t, so you want the amount you’ve lost as a result of the substandard widgets. 
  • That could be calculated any number of ways (usually how much profit you’ve lost whether through lower sales, lower prices or compensation paid), but the point is that X acted unlawfully, and its past action has to be unpicked. 
  • Damages are an imperfect medium for this, of course – but they’re what’s available. And the critical point is that no-one is saying X gets a free pass for its past behaviour, and simply has to avoid flogging you the rubbish widgets in the future. 

As I said: this is a very imperfect analogy. Private and public law are different, not least because remedies in the latter are rightly discretionary. The public interest has to play a part. But what the government is seeking is indeed extreme. It would emasculate a critical control on government overreach. And that scares me. It should scare you.


Short thoughtThis made me mad.

The tl;dr version: apparently a Washington Post reporter was angry because the paper had failed to support her after she reported sexual assault allegations against a prominent basketball player. The paper first suspended her, then reinstated her but banned her from covering stories about sexual assault.

Why? Because she’d been the target of such an assault herself, and had spoken out about it.

I can’t even. Let’s set aside the rampant sexism inherent in such a move and just consider an analogy. Would we ban someone from covering labour disputes because they’d vocally complained about having been mistreated by a boss in the past? Take someone off the health beat because they’d once sued a healthcare provider?

No. Obviously not. So why on earth do it here?

Bring sexism back into the picture and it’s even worse. As I wrote the other week, I don’t and can’t really understand the experience; but it seems clear that many if not most women will have undergone some form of unwanted sexual conduct in their lives. God willing, mostly at the minor end (although what right do I have to draw that distinction?) – but unwanted, unwarranted and undeserved nonetheless.

Which makes me think that if this happened here in the UK, I could make a pretty good employment discrimination case out of it. Either it’s direct discrimination (s13 of the Equality Act 2010) – if the argument could be made that a female reporter was stopped from working in an area that a male reporter (even one with experience of assault) would still get to write about. Or indirect (s19), if it’s a “we’re not going to let anyone who’s been a victim of assault and who hasn’t kept it to themselves write about it” – since that would amount to a provision, criterion or practice which applied far more to women than men. Or even victimisation (s27), since the reporter in question raised a concern about her treatment and lost the chance to cover these stories as a result.

I’m not saying these are sure-fire cases, if they ever were brought. But couch them in those terms, and the idiotic wrongness becomes even more apparent. And we haven’t even got onto the toe-curlingly ghastly logical end-point of the WaPo position, which echoes with the core argument of sexists down the ages and which the piece I linked to makes crystal clear: since most women have suffered something along those lines, even those who’ve not made it public, no women should be allowed to cover assault against women. They can’t be trusted to be objective, can they? Not women. Leave that to the blokes. Their brains work better. 

For shame, WaPo. For shame.


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2021iv5, Monday: Deliberately rigged?

Right back atcha, CRED.

Short thought: In re the UK Government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (or CRED, to give it its backronym): I haven’t read the whole report, so I’m not going to take a view on it as a whole. But as short takes on the bits I have read:

  • At least some of the recommendations aren’t bad at all. (Improve transparency on how algorithms affect non-white people? Definitely. Require ongoing de-escalation training for all police officers? Should’ve happened years ago.)
  • Some of the others (the curriculum looking at the upsides of slavery? Please), and the foreword – written by the Commission’s chair, Dr Tony Sewell – are tendentious at best, and give at least the appearance of being thoroughly intellectually dishonest.

I’m going to cherry-pick one example from the foreword, because it’s particularly egregious and serves – unless it’s wholly unrepresentative of the rest of the report – to undermine the integrity of the whole thing.

Dr Sewell writes:

Put simply we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities. The impediments and disparities do exist, they are varied, and ironically very few of them are directly to do with racism. Too often ‘racism’ is the catch-all explanation, and can be simply implicitly accepted rather than explicitly examined.

The evidence shows that geography, family influence, socio-economic background, culture and religion have more significant impact on life chances than the existence of racism. That said, we take the reality of racism seriously and we do not deny that it is a real force in the UK.

The Commission was keen to gain a more forensic and rigorous understanding of underlying causes of disparities. However, we have argued for the use of the term ‘institutional racism’ to be applied only when deep-seated racism can be proven on a systemic level and not be used as a general catch-all phrase for any microaggression, witting or unwitting.

Look at two key phrases: “deliberately rigged”. “Deep-seated racism proven on a systemic level”.

And contrast it with the definition of institutional racism used in the Macpherson Report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, published more than 20 years ago:

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people. (para 6.34)

Dr Sewell, deliberately or negligently, throws this definition out of the window. It’s a good thing that almost no organisation is prone to being “deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities”. But to narrow the problem to solely that, and declare victory, is to describe night as day.

Just as bad is the idea that institutional racism only exists when “deep-seated racism can be proven on a systemic level”. Let’s leave aside the casual, if not malicious, straw-manning of implying that anything else amounts to a trivialising of the term, and look at how the law deals with discrimination – on race and ethnicity grounds as in other things.

Of particular importance here is s19 of the Equality Act 2010, which deals with indirect discrimination. This is where a “provision, criterion or practice” (“PCP”, as we in the trade call it – often a policy, whether formal or informal) is applied to everyone, but has a particularly detrimental effect on people with the same protected characteristic as the claimant – that effect extending to the claimant herself. The classic example: a height requirement for a job, if it didn’t have a good reason for existing, would discriminate against women and some ethnicities, simply because they’re on average shorter than men (on the one hand) and than other ethnicities (on the other).

There’s no “deliberate rigging” here. The PCP might be applied in good faith. But it’s still discriminatory. And if one PCP, or a clutch of them, has the effect of systematically disadvantaging non-white people – well, how is that not institutional racism at work?

As for the proof point: it’s good law, and rightly so, that the claimant doesn’t have to show the mechanism. As the Supreme Court held in Essop v Home Office in 2017, if someone can show they’re the subject of a PCP and that PCP has caused them to be treated less favourably than someone else, they don’t need to prove exactly how the one leads to the other. Put differently: they don’t need to prove “deep-seated racism on a systemic level”. Frankly, they almost never could. If that were the standard, no-one would ever win an indirect discrimination case. The more so because the courts are well aware that discrimination is rarely overt, or obvious, or amenable to direct proof. Instead, as explained by the Employment Appeal Tribunal in Barton v Investec Henderson Crosthwaite, the norm – not the exception – is to look at what facts are established, and then see whether discrimination can be inferred from them.

In the name of fairness, I must make two big caveats here.

Firstly, there’s a difference between institutional racism in the abstract, and the workings of indirect discrimination against individuals. Obviously there is, and I’m not seeking improperly to conflate the two. But it’s both fair and proper, I think, to look at the Sewell Report in the context of how the law defines discrimination – and, of course, against the backdrop of the Macpherson Report – and interrogate its implications. They’re not good.

Secondly, and I must make this clear: I have no reason to believe Dr Sewell or the Commission would wish the Equality Act (whether s19 or any other element of it) to be undermined. That’s not what I’m suggesting. Not for a second.

But to draw a parallel with harassment, as defined in s26 of the Act: it’s not just a behaviour’s purpose which is important, but its effect. Even assuming good faith on CRED’s part – and, while saying nothing about the Commission’s motives, I have to admit I find it hard in the light of many ministers’ public pronouncements to assume any such good faith on the part of those who commissioned them – maturity means you own the outcome of your actions, even if they’re not what you intended.

Dr Sewell’s foreword may not set out to undermine protection against discrimination. I’m sure he wouldn’t intend to do so. But it may have that effect.


There’s another side to this, one which comes from an advocate’s point of view.

We barristers spend a lot of time arguing over expert evidence. Experts, even when briefed by one side or the other, are meant to serve the court, not the person who pays their bill. It was beautifully put by Thorpe LJ in Vernon v Bosley:

The area of expertise in any case may be likened to a broad street with the plaintiff walking on one pavement and the defendant walking on the opposite one. Somehow the expert must be ever mindful of the need to walk straight down the middle of the road and to resist the temptation to join the party from whom his instructions come on the pavement.

Unsurprisingly, given that any situation requiring expert evidence is likely to be far from clear-cut, each side’s expert report will likely favour its own position – while (if it’s any good) making clear that there are a range of other views, albeit less reliable than the writer’s.

However, just once in a while you come across an expert report in which it’s crystal clear that the writer has started from the desired conclusion and argued backwards, cherry-picking or at the very least selectively weighting the evidence to ensure they end up where they want. These are the reports any opposing counsel loves: they offer the rare opportunity not just to interrogate the findings, but to undermine the credibility of the whole report such that the judge may treat its contents with disdain.

As I said at the start: I haven’t had a chance to read the whole report. So it may well be that the rest of it is far more nuanced and thought-through than the foreword.

But if this was the executive summary of the opposition’s expert report which landed on my desk? I’d be dancing for joy. Open goal time.

2021iii22, Monday: font (mis)judgments.

Like many ex-hacks, I take fonts seriously. Clearly US judges don’t – or rather, they do for the wrong reasons. More fool them.

Short thought: It may be just my background as a reporter, but fonts and layout matter to me. A well-chosen typeface, apt for the task at hand, and a design which leads the eye to where it needs to go and includes enough space for the text to breathe, aren’t afterthoughts. They’re integral to the process of respecting the reader’s attention, and maximising the chance that the words will get past the pupil and into the brain.

None of that changes when you’re an advocate instead of a journalist. The more so, perhaps: obviously a nice design isn’t going to save a hopeless case or slipshod drafting, but all things being equal a pleading or skeleton which makes the tribunal’s life easier can’t hurt, and is highly likely to help.

I’m staggered, therefore, when I discover friends and colleagues who don’t have templates that do the hard work for them, routing around Microsoft Word’s disastrously unpredictable list settings and ensuring that headings, subheadings, and cascading numbering all work consistently and well.

I started developing one about three months into pupillage, with styles for every type of paragraph and heading I needed. I update it every few months. It stands me in good stead. It does the critical job of making sure I only need to worry about the words.

The one thing I never settle on, though, is a font. Not for me Times New Roman; I know it’s traditional, but sweet Jesus it’s boring, ugly and not particularly pleasant to read. Calibri or Cambria? No. Helvetica? A little too grotesque. Arial? Don’t even. Seriously.

I waver between Liberation Serif (for when a serif font is absolutely necessary) and Gill Sans (my BBC background leaves me with a huge soft spot for this). Both are readable, clear, understated and – critically – reasonably compact.

(This is why, sadly, I have to avoid Optima. It’s always been a clear favourite of mine, hinting at serifs and exploiting their readability without actually quite displaying them. But it’s just too big, so even a relatively short skeleton starts looking like something of a novella to a time-pressed judge.)

Sometimes, though, I return to an early love: Garamond. Not only is it a thing of beauty, harking back to the early Apple days (when it was the standard house font for printed materials). It’s also startlingly compact. When you’re short of space and there’s a page limit, Garamond can squeeze in about 15% more words.

Unfortunately, everyone knows this. Including, apparently now, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals in the USA, which has now explicitly said it wants Century or TNR, and specifically doesn’t want Garamond.

Tasteless beggars. Shame on ‘em. Not least for the utter monstrosity of a font they used to issue the edict.

(This is not unduly to critique my friends who don’t see it that way – I’m looking at you, Daniel. But there’s been a nice little twitter-spat brewing – nicely good-natured despite the critically important nature of the subject matter – among UK barristers on this. It seems to have died down, so obviously one shouldn’t pitch in and re-ignite it. Obviously.)


Someone is right, and wonderfully generous, on the internet: Anyone involved in civil litigation needs to understand Denton.

For those fortunate enough to be uninitiated: more often than any sane person would like, things go wrong. Deadlines are missed. Orders or rules are broken. And sanctions are applied by the Court.

When they are, rule 3.9 of the Civil Procedure Rules allows a party to apply for relief from those sanctions – to have permission to file a late pleading, say, or to use an expert witness. But the rule is very brief. How the Courts will apply it in practice is the subject of an ever-expanding body of authority, arising primarily from the case of Denton v TH White [2014] EWCA Civ 906 which set a three-stage test: Was the breach serious or significant? Was there a good reason for it? What, in the light of all the circumstances, is the just thing to do?

Clearly, applying this is – as we lawyers say – an intensely fact-specific exercise. Every situation is different. But that body of authority can help you work out where your client stands – and maximise the odds of getting the result you want.

How, though, to keep track of it? In an act of wonderful generosity, Dr Rachel Segal of St John’s Chambers in Bristol not only does so, but regularly shares the results in a PDF, currently more than 200 pages long. If you’re seeking relief from sanctions, or opposing it, you can’t do better than to start with Rachel’s document, current as of last month.

I was reminded of Rachel’s magnum opus by an equally superb resource, which I must have mentioned before: Gordon Exall‘s Civil Litigation Brief website. How the man finds the time to do any actual billed work is beyond me, but this site is an absolute godsend, particularly for examples of how the courts deal with knotty procedural issues.


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2021iii19, Friday: arbitrage while the music plays.

How long can Uber’s “labour law arbitrage business” last?

Short thought: There are times when someone comes up with a phrase that perfectly sums a concept up. And you therefore have to lift it – giving due credit, of course.

This week’s example came from FT Alphaville, which caustically, and I think accurately, described Uber as “everyone’s favourite labour law arbitrage business”.

This is beautiful. The whole Uber business model – even more, perhaps, than other gig economy businesses – rests on treating its drivers as self-employed in law, but as under contracts of service (ie workers) in practice. (This was, after all, the essence of the Supreme Court’s judgment earlier this year.)

The reason is simple. As many, many people have documented over the years, the sums just don’t add up otherwise. To succeed, Uber needs to undercut old-fashioned cab services (since its technological advantage is no longer quite so extreme as once it was). So it needs to externalise the significant costs of running a real-world service – which isn’t something that benefits from the zero-marginal-cost scaling advantage of a purely online ones-and-zeroes business – onto its drivers, while retaining sufficient control over them to make sure it can both supply the services with relative certainty and avoid the risk of drivers genuinely running their own “competing” businesses.

Even with this externalisation, and the relentless driving-down of payments to drivers, Uber still loses money hand over fist. Smart people have long opined that the only way the company could ever make a profit is to either have genuinely driverless cars – not going to happen, not in the near enough future – or to drive every other cab firm out of business and hike fares.

At some point, the music will stop. And setbacks to the core arbitrage play like the Supreme Court judgment may well bring that closer. Uber is resisting the judgment, or at least parts of it, while proudly declaring how wonderful it is for complying with the bits it thinks it can just about live with. We’ll see how long that works.

(I note, too, that it spends a lot of time talking about the need for a kind of “middle way” for workers between employee and self-employed status. Which – the sceptic might observe – isn’t a bad definition of “limb b” worker status, which is what the Supreme Court said Uber drivers were. Whereas what Uber seems to be pushing for – unsurprisingly – is something much closer to “self-employed, but with a bit of help”. Which really doesn’t seem to address the point.)


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2021iii8, Monday: even the wisest can stumble.

A small and humble disagreement with the UK’s best commentator on the law. And the joy of newsletters: a welcome return to pre-Web habits.

Short thought: Joshua Rozenberg is fantastic. He is the best reporter of the law I’ve ever encountered. (Although the late, and wonderful, Marcel Berlins – who taught me media law many years ago – probably runs him a close second.)

I subscribe to a lot of newsletters. Almost always, I only take the free version. But I pay for Joshua’s, willingly and happily. As a working barrister and an ex-hack, I find his insight and wisdom unmissable.

But even the wisest can stumble. And I think Joshua’s just done so.

He ends an otherwise (characteristically) excellent piece about the welcome elevation of Dame Vivien Rose to the Supreme Court with the following quote from the President of the Court, Lord Reed:

Having spent a substantial part of her career working in government and parliament, Lady Justice Rose will add significantly to the diversity of experience on the court. Her outstanding legal ability and breadth of experience will be invaluable in maintaining the high quality of our judgments and our reputation as an international centre of legal excellence.

To which Joshua adds:

He’s right. Diversity of experience is the most important diversity of all.

In one sense, he’s right. England’s judiciary (and its Bar) is less pale, male and stale, less monocultural, than it used to be. It still has a very long way to go. Dame Vivien, like Lady Hale before her, isn’t from the “traditional” career path of the independent Bar. And also like Lady Hale, we’ll be much the better for having her on the Court.

But he’s also wrong – not so much in the underlying sentiment but in putting it this way, in this context. It reads altogether too much as though Dame Vivien’s “diversity of experience” – as a Government lawyer as opposed to a product of the self-employed Bar – is distinct from, and more valuable than, that which emerges from actively looking to get more non-men, non-white and non-public school/Oxbridge people into the judiciary.

If Joshua meant it that way, it would be a ludicrous, and foolish, tension to encourage. It would be so at any time, given how often we still here the old, old voices that seek to paint every attempt to broaden the pool of gender and ethnicity in particular from which the benches and the Bar is drawn as a dilution of quality, rather than the other way round.

But right now, when government ministers use “woke” as a rude word, when all it really means is “genuinely aware that bias and prejudice are still alive, kicking and deeply rooted in how our society works”, it’s more dangerous than ever.

Our Bar and judiciary need diversity of experience. And they need it as much from throwing open our profession to as wide a base as possible, in every way possible, as they do from making sure lawyers with non-traditional career paths – even truly fantastic ones like Dame Vivien – get the nod.

I should make one thing clear. I can’t believe Joshua did mean it that way. I’m confident that giving comfort to those who, deep down, see righting the wrongs meted out on the grounds of race, sex, faith, gender or sexuality as some kind of discrimination in itself – or who may not think that, but find it a convenient punching-bag for political gain – would be the last thing he would would want to do.

It’s a shame that, inadvertently I’m sure, that’s what he’s done.


Someone is (pretty much always) right on the internet: More about newsletters, I’m afraid. This time, not a lawyer, but an academic.

John Naughton is one of the people I turn to when I want to understand what’s happening in the online environment. He’s been studying and writing about it for years. And his writing is accessible, thoughtful and considered.

Unsurprising, then, that I’ve been following his blog – Memex 1.1 (for those who don’t know what Memex 1.0 was, here’s a rabbit hole to disappear down) – for longer than I can remember.

These days, John writes something every day. A curated series of pictures, music, commentary and links. How he sustains it I don’t know. And I can’t remember a single edition which hasn’t included something I’m desperately glad I was pointed to. Not one.

And while it appears on his website, he also sends it out via Substack (for free) each morning. Needless to say, I subscribe.

The funny thing is, the wildfire growth of newsletters (yes, I know – like this one) is something of a reversion to the early days of the online world. Remember that the public Web is less than three decades old. Before then, and for many years thereafter, email newsletters in plain text were the standard way of “publishing”. I’m a huge fan of their return.

While I’m not giving up on RSS, I’m happy to have a dozen or more people’s newsletters popping into my inbox on a regular basis. I may have less time to read them than I did (the one thing I miss about commuting). But the habit of regular writing is a valuable one, and those who commit to it tend – counter-intuitively – to think before they write, and write thoughtfully as a result.

John is a pre-eminent example of that breed. I commend his newsletter warmly.


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