Lawyers Express Concerns Over Post-Brexit ECHR Commitment

A group of legal experts have expressed concerns about the UK’s future commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Although the ECHR is separate from the European Union, experts have voiced concerns that the UK’s vote in favour of leaving the European Union “seriously increases” the possibility that Britain may also choose to leave the ECHR.

According to De Montfort University Professor Neil Parpworth, who specialises in human rights law, the UK’s continued commitment to the ECHR depends in large part on the question of who will be the next Prime Minister. One of the favourites to succeed David Cameron as leader of the Conservatives and current government is Justice Secretary Michael Gove, who was a prominent figure in the Leave campaign during the run-up to the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. While Gove has previously spoken in support of the Convention, he has also said that the UK must strive to ensure the European Court of Human Rights is reformed and that, if this did not happen, then nothing should be ruled out.

Theresa May, the current Home Secretary, has also been named as one of the favourites to succeed David Cameron. May previously spoke out in favour of abandoning the UK’s commitment the ECHR, claiming that “the ECHR can bind the hands of parliament.”

Barrister Sir Paul Jenkins QC, of Matrix Chambers, believes that the vote in favour of Brexit leads to a higher possibility of the UK also abandoning its commitment to the ECHR even though this is not part of the European Union. Sir Paul said: “In law and in logic the two are not linked but I think the political reality is that if the public saw a vote to leave as a step towards reclaiming our independence as a British nation why wouldn’t they at the same time want to reclaim our independence on Strasbourg?”

Parpworth expressed similar sentiments. If the next Prime Minister does decide to pursue the possibility of exiting Britain’s current commitment to the ECHR, he suggested, they might frame this as a means of “taking back control” – a phrase which was one of the key mantras of the campaign to leave the European Union.

In response to Theresa May’s previous statements in favour of abandoning the ECHR, Bella Sankey of campaign group Liberty said “the convention doesn’t bind parliament and – despite Theresa May’s best efforts at mud-slinging and myth-spreading over the years – the case for remaining a signatory is unequivocal.”

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Finland to Relax Tough Alcohol Laws

DrinkingThe government of Finland has confirmed that it will loosen up the country’s tight alcohol laws. The country is notoriously strict in its regulation of the advertising and sale of alcohol products.

The Finnish government, which is a coalition of three parties, has now said that it intends to reform the regulations surrounding alcohol, which are largely defined by the country’s Alcohol Act. According to the National Coalition Party, speaking to the Finnish press, the new approach will be “less patronising, more sense.”

The change that will perhaps make the biggest difference to individuals on a night out will be the removal of a restriction on the amount of alcohol that can be purchased in a single transaction. Currently, an individual is only allowed to buy one portion of alcohol at a time in a bar or restaurant. This has prevented any one member of a group from buying a round of drinks for their friends, but with the restriction removed this practice will become possible.

Other restrictions on the purchase of alcohol in bars and restaurants will also be lifted. This will allow people to do various things they cannot do under the current system such as buy drinks to take home and paying for alcohol with a credit card. The minimum drinking age will also be reduced from 18 to 16, provided that somebody is present to provide appropriate supervision, for example a parent.

Retailers will also gain additional freedoms in how and where they supply alcohol. Currently only the Alko off-licence chain, which is owned by the state, is able to sell drinks that contain more than 4.7% alcohol by volume, but this is due to change with corner shops being able to sell drinks with strengths up to 5.5%. Micro-breweries will gain the ability to sell drinks that contain more than 5.5% alcohol by volume on-site, and events such as music festivals will gain more freedom for the provision of beer tents.

Outi Makela, deputy chair of the National Coalition Party, published the full list of upcoming amendments to the Alcohol Act on her blog. The reaction from the Finnish people has been largely positive, with many pointing out that the reforms will bring the legal situation regarding alcohol in Finland much closer to that found in most other European countries. Some, however, have criticised the loss of restrictions which they see as safeguards against underage drinking, while others claim that the new laws do not go far enough in providing the freedoms available in many other nations.

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UN Committee Rules Russian Employment Restrictions Discriminatory

cedawExperts from the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) have ruled that a Russian list of occupations that are restricted to women is discriminatory and in violation of women’s rights. The Committee reached the conclusion in the course of analysing the case of a Russian woman who had been rejected from a position as a helmsperson on a boat.

Svetlana Medvedeva applied to helm a boat for a private company in 2012, after qualifying as a navigation officer. She was initially selected for the position, but was later denied it on the grounds that it appeared on a list of jobs that women in Russia are restricted from carrying out. Medvedeva launched a judicial challenge to her denial of employment at the helm of a boat. However, the courts denied her appeal and upheld the restriction, claiming that the limits on female employment in Russia are designed to protect their “reproductive health.”

Analysing the case, CEDAW – which was set up to implement the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women – reached the conclusion that Medvedeva had suffered discrimination in being denied employment. Regarding the grounds for the rejection of her appeal, the Committtee said that no scientific evidence had been presented to support the claim that women’s reproductive health may be endangered in any way by holding the position of helmsperson-motorist on a boat. Furthermore, the Committee found that the restrictions on women working in this field had put Medvedeva into a position where the “profession for which she was educated” is one she is legally barred from working in on account of her gender.

Regarding the case of Medvedeva specifically, CEDAW called on the Russian government to allow her access to work in the field for which she has successfully qualified. The Committee also called for compensation to be paid to Ms Medvedeva by the Russian government.

In more general terms, CEDAW urged Russia to change its policies on restricting and prohibiting women from certain jobs and industries. The country’s government should, the Committee said, begin to amend and reduce the list of professions that, by law, women have limited or no access to.

CEDAW is a panel that aims to support work towards gender equality across the UN. Last September, it was said by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that there is no country which has yet achieved full equality for women. CEDAW is intended to help tackle these issues, along with other bodies such as the Human Rights Council and a new, recently-announced panel to address issues relating to the economic empowerment of women.

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Australian Free Online Legal Advice Platform off to Strong Start

Online ChatAn online platform that recently launched in South Australia to provide free and accessible legal advice has proven successful through its first few months of existence. Legal Chat, a chat room where members of the public can communicate directly with lawyers in order to obtain answers to their questions, has served more than 1,000 individuals across the space of just four months.

Since October 2015, lawyers have served over 1,000 clients through the platform, which provides real-time, two-way communication much like an instant messaging service or internet chatroom. The majority of clients – around 600 – have sought advice on matters that fall under the domain of civil law. These include wills and probate matters, boundary disputes, and tenancy disputes. Around 200 individuals have sought advice on criminal legal issues, most of which were motoring offences, and a similar number have turned to the platform for help with matters of family law.

The platform is the first of its kind to launch in Australia, and its success has been taken as an indicator that this kind of venture could be useful in other parts of the world too. It has also been heralded as a good sign at a time when many countries, including the UK, are looking into ways to use digital technology to improve the way the law operates. The attraction of Legal Chat to clients is not just the fact that the advice is free, but that it is also easily-accessible to anybody with an internet connection without the need to visit a legal office in person or speak to somebody over the phone.

Indeed, accessibility is the key issue that Legal Chat was founded to deal with. Many of those living in South Australia’s rural areas struggle when it comes to accessing legal advice, and those living in smaller and more remote country towns had little or no physical access to professional lawyers without undertaking considerable travel. There is a telephone advice line provided by the Legal Services Commission, but this receives very large volumes of calls – around 80,000 over the course of 2015 – and is often overstretched.

Legal Chat provides an accessible and somewhat more manageable alternative to the telephone helpline, and could help relieve some of the pressure that line is under and reduce waiting times for those who continue to use it. Furthermore, a survey of Legal Chat’s users showed that more than three quarters (79%) found an online advice service preferable to a telephone one. For many, the major advantage of getting advice through an online chat room instead of over the phone is the increased level of privacy, allowing advice to be more readily obtained in public spaces and workplaces.

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Volkswagen Scandal Sparks Worldwide Legal Action

Volkswagen Golf TDIThe Volkswagen emissions scandal has sparked a wave of litigation across the world. This includes the automotive giant’s home country of Germany, where the company could be facing criminal charges for its efforts to manipulate emissions tests.

The scandal broke when it emerged recently that the major vehicle manufacturer had fitted a number of its diesel vehicles with software designed to alter the results of the USA’s emission testing process. These “defeat devices” enabled the cars to effectively cheat on major emissions tests, providing readings that did not represent the actual emissions levels produced by the car in use. As a result, the vehicles were able to get through the tests even though their engines produced up to 40 times the legal limit of harmful emissions at other times.

The revelations caused the company’s shares to rapidly lose 30% of their value, and led the chief executive of Volkswagen, Martin Winterkorn, to step down. According to some news reports, funds equivalent to £4.3 billion have been set aside by VW in anticipation of the costs involved in dealing with the fallout of the scandal.

The revelation of the scandal has led to legal proceedings against the company in various jurisdictions. In the US, the country where Volkswagen has so far been shown to have fooled emissions tests, the country has asked international legal firm Kirkland & Ellis to handle expected litigation. In Germany, where the company is based, it is possible that criminal charges could be brought.

Major UK legal firm Slater and Gordon predicts that the company could also face legal action on British shores. A group claim could potentially be brought against Volkswagen by the many dealerships and individuals who purchased cars which have now severely fallen in value as a result of the scandal. A prominent specialist in shareholder fraud has predicted that a group claim by shareholders could also potentially be valid, having seen nearly a third of the value of their shares wiped out by the scandal.

Environmental law specialists ClientEarth have also weighed in on the matter, asking the Department for Transport to look into whether VW’s use of software to cheat on emissions tests may be part of a more widespread practice within the automotive sector.

ClientEarth chief executive James Thornton said: “The industry has shown it cannot be trusted. We cannot wait for action from the EU. First responsibility for protecting our health lies with our own government. The public must know the full scale of the problem and urgent action must be taken to fix it. Flouting laws cannot be tolerated.”

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Lawsuit Looms for “Infidelity Dating” Site Ashley Madison

A class action lawsuit worth a total of C$760 million (£367 million or US$576 million) is being brought against infidelity dating website Ashley Madison. The lawsuit stems from recent high-profile data leaks, in which the personal information of many of the site’s users was made available on the “dark web.”

Ashley Madison is a highly controversial dating website, which specifically targets married users who are looking for affairs. The controversy has not been lessened by its marketing messages, which are anything but coy about the nature of the site. It uses the slogan “Life is short, have an affair,” and has aired television adverts which featured a number of men cheerfully singing the words “I’m looking for someone other than my wife.” The company’s adverts have also been criticised on other grounds, such as denigrating women, and in some cases have been pulled as a result of high volumes of complaints.

Ashley MadisonDespite the moral question mark that many see hanging over the nature of the site, it has proved very successful across the world. It has 37 million users from over 50 countries, including over a million in the UK.

It was the controversy surrounding the site that led it to become the target of Impact Team, a group of hackers. This group obtained data about the site’s users including names, home addresses, email addresses, and message histories from the site’s private messaging feature. They then threatened that, if the site was not taken down, they would reveal this information and publicly expose the infidelity of the site’s users. The site remained operational, and the data was leaked online.

The lawsuit is being brought against the site’s operating companies, Avid Media and Avid Dating Life, by Canadian law firms Sutts, Strosberg LLP and Charney Lawyers. The firms claim to be bringing legal action against Ashley Madison on behalf of “all Canadians” who were caught up in the data leaks.

In a statement, the two forms said they had been approached by “numerous former users of” with enquiries about their rights to privacy under Canadian law.

“They are outraged,” the statement continues, “that failed to protect its users’ information. In many cases, the users paid an additional fee for the website to remove all of their user data, only to discover that the information was left intact and exposed.”

While social media has seen a lot of public support for the data leak, others have criticised Impact Group. Not all critics of the leak are supportive of Ashley Madison’s infidelity dating model, as the nature of the attack raises complex concerns about individual privacy rights and vigilantism.

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Greece Could Take Legal Action to Remain in Eurozone

As the problems in Greece continue to deepen, the possibility has emerged that the country could be forced out of the Eurozone if it should fail to secure a deal for the repayment of its debts. A prominent Greek politician has suggested that if events reach a stage where this looks likely, the country could seek legal action to prevent such a forced exit.

Since the creation of the euro, no country has yet left the common currency either voluntarily or otherwise. However, in recent months Greece has been having problems with repaying the debts it was left with after high-profile bailouts. This, combined with the anti-austerity stance of the country’s current government, is leading to significant and sometimes heated talks between the Greek government and its creditors in an attempt to renegotiate the terms of the debt and secure a more manageable deal. Most recently, Greece has made it clear that it will not be able to meet its latest repayment to the International Monetary Fund – 1.5 billion euros or over £1.06 billion – by today’s deadline. As well as requiring the country to default on its payment, this puts future instalments of bailout funds at risk.

Over the weekend, talks neared the point of collapse when the Greek government rejected a potential deal. The deal in question would have seen Greece receive much-needed money, but would have required the country to introduce austerity measures. Rather than rejecting the terms of the potential deal outright, the government agreed to hold a referendum on Sunday.

A number of European leaders urged Greek voters to accept the terms, saying that voting against the deal would amount to voting against Greece retaining its place in the Eurozone. However, the situation did not look promising. The Greek public voted the current government into power on the back of its anti-austerity platform just a few months ago, and after the referendum was announced protesters took to the streets with banners urging people to reject the deal.

Regarding the prospect of a forced exit from the eurozone if it cannot meet its repayment obligations, the Greek government has said threatened a legal battle to try and hold onto its membership of the common currency. According to Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s finance minister, “the Greek government will make use of all our legal rights.”

Varoufakis continued: “We are taking advice and will certainly consider an injunction at the European Court of Justice,” and pointed out there are no provisions made in EU treaties for a situation where a country refuses to exit the eurozone.

“Our membership is not negotiable,” he said.

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Amazon Surrenders in Long-running Tax Battle

AmazonAmazon has long been one of the more prominent companies to face accusations of illegal tax avoidance practices on an international scale. Now, the company has seemingly surrendered in one of its most long-running battles and agreed to cease using one of its most lucrative tax avoidance practices.

Amazon has faced both criticism and investigations by authorities as a result of its practices of moving earnings around internationally in order to reduce the amount of tax it pays on profits made in certain jurisdictions. Large amounts of Amazon’s profits made in the UK and other European companies are redirected to Luxembourg without tax first being paid. As Luxembourg is a very low-tax jurisdiction, funnelling profits from other countries there before paying tax in the country of origin results in a much smaller tax bill – but the legality of this approach has frequently been called into question.

Now, Amazon is to start calculating profits on all sales in the country in which those sales took place. In other words, UK sales will no longer be reported in Luxembourg instead of the UK to avoid paying UK tax.

Amazon’s apparent surrender comes soon after Chancellor George Osborne announced further measures to crack down on tax avoidance and the redirection of profits made in the UK. Since April, Osborne has introduced a new class of tax known as diverted profits tax, specifically designed to catch out corporate tax structures like Amazon’s. Indeed Amazon, a company which has long denied claims that this structure is an artificial one designed to avoid tax, would certainly have been caught by the new tax had it not announced this change of heart. Under the diverted profits tax, the company would have had to pay tax on the profits diverted to Luxembourg at a punitive rate of 25%.

A spokesman speaking on behalf of Amazon said simply that the company would begin “recording retail sales made to customers in the UK through the UK branch. Previously, these sales were recorded in Luxembourg.”

Of the new diverted profits tax, Osborne said that “while we offer some of the lowest business taxes in the world, we expect those taxes to be paid.” He went on to add: “If you abuse our tax system, you abuse the trust of the British people.”

The new tax has been nicknamed the Google Tax, as prominent search and technology giant Google is another company often accused of this kind of tax avoidance practice. It is reported that a number of other countries are considering similar steps to tackle diverted profits.

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International Bar Association Defends Trade Treaty

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership came under fire from various sides including a number of political parties recently through election amnifestors. David W Rivkin, president of the International Bar Association (IBA), has now come to the defence of the proposed treaty in a statement in which he aimed to rectify misconceptions about the nature of the agreement.

Among the parties who hit out at the treaty in their manifestos are the Green Party, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and UKIP. Rivkin, who is also a partner at prominent New York legal firm Debevoise & Plimpton, said that critics of the potential trade agreement were “subverting debate” through the use of inaccurate information. In particular, he said, incorrect claims were being made about matters of investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) contained within the treaty’s terms.

As a result of such erroneous claims about the agreement, Rivkin said in his statement: The IBA Arbitration Committee and I are concerned that the discussions about ISDS in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trans-Pacific Partnership are being compromised.”

ISDS is the process through which businesses can make complaints against nation states. Through ISDS, the businesses in question can undergo a process of arbitration through which they can have their complaints examined and the dispute settled.

The arbitration committee of the IBA, Rivkin said, is now going to analyse the matter of ISDS in depth. The committee will look at the full range of criticisms and concerns being raised about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership’s treatment of the matter, as well as the proposed benefits of ISDS. The aim will be to identify which criticisms of ISDS are substantiated in fact, and which are untrue or based on misconceptions.

Among the complaints being made about ISDS in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership which Rivkin claims to be misconceptions are:

  • Investors Win Every Time: In fact, Rivkin says, a greater proportion of cases have been won by states than by investors. Around a third of all cases have come to an end with investors and states reached a settlement.
  • ISDS is Guarded From the Public Eye: Another prominent complaint being made against ISDS is that proceedings rarely come under scrutiny from the public. The IBA, however, says that the majority of awards are published and that some proceedings are even streamed live online. Furthermore, a number of recent investment treaties allow for public attendance at proceedings.
  • States are Forced to Change Laws Through ISDS: It has been claimed that ISDS can force states to change laws and policies against their will. However, the truth is that “States subject to investment treaty arbitration cannot be ordered to amend their laws or change their policies, and awards issued by investment tribunals do not order states to change their policies or laws.”

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Safari Users to Sue Google

Google Logo 2010Users of Safari, Apple’s internet browser, which comes installed as standard on many of the company’s products, have won the right to sue Google over issues of privacy. A Court of Appeal bid, in which Google sought to block the legal action, has ruled against the search giant.

The users in question claim that Google misused privacy settings and bypassed security features of the Safari browser for its targeted advertising campaigns. By bypassing their security settings, Google was able to install cookies to track the internet activities of users. This information was then used to guide advertising campaigns and choose which adverts would be displayed to those users based on their browsing history.

Google took the case to the Court of Appeal seeking to prevent legal action from the claimants. The company claimed that Safari users could not sue because they had suffered no financial loss as a result of the company’s actions, and therefore there was no case for Google to answer to. However, the court ruled that the claimants’ allegations “raise serious issues which merit a trial.”

Google’s defeat in the Court of Appeal was described by one of the users seeking to sue as “a David and Goliath victory.” Google, on the other hand, said that it was “disappointed with the court’s decision” to allow the claimants to bring legal action against the company.

Safari is installed as standard on the computers produced by Apple, as well as on other devices such as the popular iPad range of tablets. Allegedly, the “Safari Workaround” was utilised by Google to get around the security settings and preferences of the browser in order to install cookies – pieces of code that can track and record data – against the wishes of the users. These then gathered information about the ethnicity, social demographic, and browsing habits of those users without their knowledge or consent so that Google could more specifically target them with advertising.

According to the Court of Appeal’s judgement, the allegations against Google “concern what is alleged to have been the secret and blanket tracking and collation of information, often of an extremely private nature… and the subsequent use of that information for about nine months. The case relates to the anxiety and distress this intrusion upon autonomy has caused.”

Should the case against Google prove successful, the millions of people in the UK who use Apple devices could potentially be able to bring similar cases against the web giant.

According to one claimant, Judith  Vidal-Hall, “The Court of Appeal has ensured Google cannot use its vast resources to evade English justice.” As a result, she said, “Ordinary computer users like me will now have the right to hold this giant to account before the courts for its unacceptable, immoral and unjust actions.”

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