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Couple to Head to Supreme Court in Pursuit of Civil Partnership

An opposite-sex couple who wish to enter into a civil partnership now hope to take the matter to the Supreme Court after the Court of Appeal ruled against them. Currently, UK law only allows opposite-sex couples to enter into civil partnerships.

The solicitor representing Charles Keidan and Rebecca Steinfeld has confirmed that the couple intends to seek a hearing in the Supreme Court, the UK’s highest court. They are seeking a judicial review on the government’s decision that it will not pursue any change to the current law which prevents opposite-sex couples from entering into a civil partnership. After losing their case in the High Court, the couple then proceeded to the Court of Appeal where they again lost their case on 21st February.

Appealing to the Supreme Court will cost the couple a minimum of £20,000, according to a post on the website of the legal firm representing them, Deighton Pierce Glynn. They must submit their application for a hearing by the end of this week.

Louise Whitfield, the solicitor representing the couple, said that it was “very frustrating indeed that my clients lost their appeal by such a narrow margin on such an important issue, particularly when all three judges readily accepted that there had been a potential violation of their human rights.”

Whitfield also said that the government “must act quickly” to deal with an issue “which the court as a whole recognised could not continue indefinitely and which they agreed is ultimately unsustainable.” She said that one of the judges, Lady Justice Arden, had “accepted that time had already run out” for the government to take action, but that “her fellow judges were unfortunately prepared to allow the government a little more time.”

There is currently a bill making its way through parliament which would indeed see the government open up civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples, the Civil Partnership Act 2004 (Amendment) Bill 2015. This bill is due to go before the House of Commons for its second reading next month.

Proponents of civil partnership for opposite-sex couples say that it would enable cohabiting couples to access the same legal benefits as married couples even if they do not wish to actually get married. There are currently few rights and protections for unmarried cohabiting couples in the UK. Others wish both to access these protections and make a statement of commitment, but without the cultural baggage that they feel is attached to the status of marriage.

The government welcomed the Court of Appeal’s ruling on Steinfeld and Keidan’s appeal. A spokesperson said that the government would “carefully consider this judgement and will take it into account as we evaluate the take-up of civil partnerships and same-sex marriage.”

Mixed Reception for Legal High Ban

Legal HighsThe new nationwide ban on legal highs has come into force, sparking a mixed set of opinions and responses. Some have welcomed the ban as an important step in tackling dangerous substance abuse issues, while others have expressed doubts as to the practicality of enforcing the ban.

Legal highs, also known as “new psychoactive substances,” are chemical substances that are designed to have effects very similar to those of prohibited drugs, but also to be different enough in composition from those drugs to escape existing bans. They are ostensibly sold for purposes other than human ingestion – another step in evading existing drug laws – but when ingested produce a “high” similar to other drugs such as cocaine. Last year, a rise in prison violence was linked to legal highs, and over 100 deaths around the country were believed to involve such substances.

The new law represents a blanket ban on all such substances, effectively closing all the loopholes that the previously slipped through. Bans have previously been enforced on the local level in some areas, but the new law takes effect nationwide. It prohibits production of these substances, as well as selling or otherwise supplying them. It also empowers the police to shut down both online stores and physical “headshops” which sell drug paraphernalia, as well as to carry out searches and to confiscate and destroy any such substances they find.

Many have been delighted by the new law. Notably, those who have campaigned against the use of dangerous psychoactive substances have welcomed the ban. Karen Vandersypen, who began campaigning against legal highs after they led to the death of her son, described herself as “delighted.”

However, there are also doubts about whether it will be feasible to enforce the ban effectively. The new law was originally supposed to take effect last month, with questions about enforcement reportedly being among the reasons for the delay. Now the government has released its “forensic strategy,” methods of testing substances to establish whether they fall within the scope of this law, further doubts have been expressed. A number of lawyers, forensic experts and pharmacologists predicted that enforcing the prohibition on new psychoactive substances would be “fraught with difficulty.”

Critics have also suggested that convictions under the new law would be relatively difficult to obtain. A large part of this difficulty relates to the testing strategy, and difficulties in definitively establishing that a substance produces a high. According to professor Les Iversen, chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), writing in a letter to the Home Secretary: “There is currently no way to define psychoactivity through a biochemical test, therefore there is no guarantee of proving psychoactivity in a court of law.”

Police Will be Lenient With new Car Smoking Laws

Car Smoking ChildrenStarting on the 1st of October, long-discussed laws banning people from smoking in cars that contain children will come into force. However, some police have said that they intend to take a lenient and “non-confrontational” stance when it comes to the enforcement of this new law.

It will be illegal for anybody, driver or passenger, to smoke in a car that also contains somebody under the age of 18. If the smoker is a passenger, both this passenger and the driver will be held responsible.

The law was first suggested after extensive research into the serious harm that passive smoking can do to children, especially in enclosed spaces such as vehicles. Police will have the power to stop vehicles and issue warnings or on-the-spot fines if they see somebody breaking these laws. The standard fine will be £50, though paying within two weeks of issue will get this discounted to £30. A conviction in a magistrates court for breaking this law, on the other hand, could see a fine of up to £200 issued.

However, a number of prominent individuals within the nation’s police force have expressed an intention not to be too strict with the enforcement of these new laws. Many have said that they will favour warnings over fines, as they believe this equates to “education not prosecution.”

“As the existing smoke-free law extends to vehicles,” said a spokesperson, “police forces will be following guidance from the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health by taking an educational, advisory and non-confrontational approach when enforcing the new legislation.”

The new ban on smoking in vehicles containing children has been welcomed by many because of the very real danger that passive smoking can pose to the help of young people. Others, however, have criticised the new laws over the course of the long discussions involved in bringing it from proposal to enforceable legislation. In many cases, criticism centred not on the intentions of the law but on the idea that it would simply prove impractical to enforce it effectively.

While the police insist that their approach is in line with relevant guidance, others have criticised their stated intention to exercise lenience. Shadow policing minister Jack Dromey suggested that it was less a result of following guidelines and more a result of having to keep costs down in the face of cuts to their budgets.

“The ban on smoking with kids in cars is designed to protect their health and save lives. It is absolutely wrong that Theresa May’s police cuts will put vulnerable children at risk,” Dromey said.

Surveillance Legal Challenge Succeeds

A legal challenge mounted by two MPs against state surveillance powers has been upheld by the High Court. The laws in question, the MPs claimed, gave security services and police the right to “spy on citizens” and lacked the safeguards that should such powers should be subject to.

Tom Watson, a candidate for the role of deputy leader of the labour party and David Davis, a former Conservative minister, said that these powers violated the human rights of UK residents. Two judges at the High Court ruled that this was indeed the case, deciding that the legislation allowing such surveillance breached both the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights and the Human Rights Act.

The legislation in question was contained in the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act, which was passed last year. This allowed the UK’s security agencies and certain other public bodies to gather and retain information about who suspects are contacting by phone and email. While the content of these communications is not retained, a detailed record is kept of who people are contacting and when. The act was rushed through parliament as a piece of emergency legislation, passing in a matter of days. According to Watson and Davis, this meant there was no time for the act to be properly scrutinised before it was passed.

According to campaign group Liberty, which supported the two MPs in their legal challenge, the act “”It was privately agreed following discussions between the then three main party leaders. It became law within just three days – denying time for proper parliamentary scrutiny, amendment or even debate.”

The court’s ruling that this act is “inconsistent with EU law” has effectively rescinded certain parts of the legislation – though this will not take effect until March next year. The court’s decision comes at a significant time, as there is much discussion surrounding issues of state surveillance. Much of this stems from Theresa May’s controversial proposals, widely nicknamed the “Snoopers’ Charter”, which would allow even more comprehensive gathering of information on how people are communicating and using the internet.

A court challenge to primary legislation by MPs is very unusual, and some have called it entirely unprecedented.

The government has expressed dissatisfaction with the High Court’s ruling and has stated that it intends to appeal against the decision. John Hayes, the Security Minister, said: “The effect of this judgment would be that, in certain cases, communications data that could potentially save lives would only be available to the police and other law enforcement if a communications company had decided to retain it for commercial reasons.”

Lawyers Doubt Usefulness of Government Mediation Scheme

MediationLawyers have expressed doubts about the usefulness of the new scheme which provides separating couples with a free session of mediation funded by the government. Lawyers have stated that they doubt the scheme will increase the number of couples who manage to resolve their disputes without taking them to court.

Jo Edwards, Chair of Resolution, a family lawyers’ group, was one of the voices expressing doubts. While she welcomed the move, she felt that it would have little impact. In particular, she pointed to the fact the scheme is only available in cases where one party is eligible for legal aid.

The new scheme was announced this week by Simon Hughes, family justice minister. It is intended to bolster the government’s efforts to promote the concept of mediation. The government believes that mediation can avoid courtroom battles, and provide an alternative that is both faster and cheaper.

However, the government has had little success in its efforts to encourage mediation so far. These efforts began in April 2013 directly following the controversial cuts to legal aid. Despite the fact that these cuts removed legal aid from the majority of cases in the family justice system, the number of couples turning to mediation actually fell significantly after the cuts took effect. In the first six months, the number of couples who attended mediation dropped by more than half (51%), despite active efforts on the part of the government to encourage the process. The Ministry of Justice has a £24 million fund set aside for mediation, but due to low usage rates only £9.4 million of this was actually needed.

Some have suggested that the reason that fewer couples are using mediation despite the lack of legal aid for courtroom battles is down to the reduced involvement of lawyers in the process. Previously, lawyers would have informed clients about the availability of mediation. Without legal aid, many couples are never consulting lawyers and simply heading to court as litigants in person. Critics have also pointed out that, despite the introduction of several schemes to make mediation accessible, the government has done relatively little to promote or publicise the process.

Despite the doubts expressed by lawyers, the Ministry of Justice remains positive about the scheme’s potential to help couples resolve their issues outside the courtroom. The ministry claims that almost two thirds of couples with child-related disputes reached an agreement after attending just one mediation session. The ministry also claimed that, overall, 70% of couples who use mediation reached an agreement without the involvement of the courts.

According to family justice minister Simon Hughes, “We know mediation works and we want more people to make use of it.”

Tory MP Calls for Halt on Lawyers Helping With Tax Avoidance

Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke today put proposals before clients that could see lawyers prosecuted if they help clients with tax avoidance. The plan would prevent solicitors from providing clients with advice which serves no purpose except to act as a way of avoiding tax.

Elphicke, was formerly a tax lawyer himself and is now Conservative MP for Dover. He has tabled the proposals as amendments to the Finance Bill. Today is the final day that this bill will spend in the House of Commons as part of its public bill committee stage. Among the issues dealt with by the bill is the legal framework to facilitate a crackdown by HMRC on the use of limited liability partnerships to avoid tax through “disguised employment.”

The proposed amendments would make it an offence for a solicitor to propose arrangements to their client that “[meet] the definition of ‘tax abuse.'” The definition in question is given as “any arrangement that, having regard to all the circumstances, it would be reasonable to conclude is an arrangement that has no business, social or other purpose other than the obtaining of a tax advantage.” Those caught carrying out activities which are decided to fall within this definition could potentially face prosecution.

Another proposed clause was also floated which would provide an expansion to HMRC’s already-growing powers to combat tax avoidance. The amendment would allow the tax office to “require any person to disclose any privileged information” in certain situations.

Elphicke’s proposals have met with mixed reactions in the political and legal spheres. However, the opinion of most legal and political experts is that there is little chance that the proposals in question will ultimately be passed into law. Nonetheless, Elphicke is adamant that he wants to at least ignite debate about issues surrounding tax avoidance and its morality. In an interview with The Times, he said “We need to get to a point where, at a dinner party, if somebody tries to boast that they’ve secured millions of pounds in tax savings for a client, people don’t just smirk and think it’s funny.”

Another Tory MP, back-bencher John Redwood, has also been notable for his views on the issue of tax avoidance this year. Redwood called on politicians to build up “a concept of good and bad tax avoidance.” This, he suggested, could avert the possibility that competing measures and proposals from different parties keen to tackle the issue might turn into an “arms race.”

New Family Court System Takes Effect

Family-CourtA new system of combined family courts is now in place throughout England and Wales as part of a range of family justice reforms. The new system has been described as “a hugely important change” by Justice Minister Simon Hughes, who also called the old system “very dysfunctional.”

Every year, around 270,000 new cases reach the family courts. These cases relate to a wide range of issues, notably divorce, domestic violence, adoption and intervention from local authorities. Concerns about the system in the past have particularly related to cases involving children. A 2011 review of the family court system said that delayed decisions on care and supervision were leaving children with their “futures undermined.”

The changes introduced through the new system are very much aimed at improving the way cases with children are handled. The system is intended to put greater focus on the experience and wellbeing of the children. Terms that were held to focus more on the rights of parents than on the real needs of the child, such as “contact” and “residence,” have been scrapped and a number of rules have been introduced to address practical problems with the process.

At the time of the 2001 review, such care and supervision cases averaged at 56 weeks. Though the figure has since been reduced to an extent, they should now be completed within six months in normal circumstances. This is partly thanks to the old three tiered system being replaced by a single, combined court.

Other changes include limits placed on the amount of expert evidence that can be used in any given case that involves children. This evidence can now only be used as far as necessary, if it is necessary at all, in order to ensure a fair resolution to the case. Furthermore, separating couples will be required to attend mediation awareness sessions before going to court with disputes about children or financial matters.

Furthermore, there are now new measures in place which aim to ensure that the best location is assigned for each individual case, and that the most appropriate level of judge is appointed to deal with it.

According to Sir James Munby, Family Division President, these changes constitute “the largest reform of the family justice system any of us have seen or will see in our professional lifetimes.”

Sir James went on to describe the new system as “a revolution” and to say that it represents “a fundamental change in the cultures of the family courts.”

Car Smoking Ban Soon to be Implemented?

Car SmokingMPs in the House of Commons have passed an amendment aimed at banning smoking in cars that contain children by 376 votes to 107. While the passing of this bill does not mean the ban will necessarily take place, many indications seem to suggest that it will.

The amendment already passed successfully through the House of Lords, but returned to the House of Commons to undergo further debate. MPs were given a free vote by the government on the issue.

Thanks to the passing of the amendment, which relates to the Children and Families bill, gives the government the ability to implement the ban, but they are not under any compulsion to do so. However, various sources have suggested that they are likely to do so, perhaps before the general election due to take place next year. The bill also gives the same powers to the Welsh government.

Health Minister Norman Lamb, of the Liberal Democrats, seems to support this implication. He said that, in his opinion, the passing of the bill leaves the government with “a very clear mandate now to get on and legislate.” Lamb was commenting at the time on the very decisive majority that passed the bill.

Concerns about second hand smoking and the health hazard it poses are nothing new. There have been concerns for a number of years on the matter, particularly where children are involved. Exposure to second hand smoke during childhood can lead to chest infections, asthma and even cot death. An estimated 300,000 children have to see their GP with health issues relating to second hand smoke every year.

Smoking in public indoor spaces was banned in England in 2007 due to concerns over the effects of second hand smoke. When the ban did take effect, many believed it was already overdue. Most public attention on the ban related to smoking in restaurants or bars. However, smoking inside a car can create a concentration of smoke that is 11 times greater than you would get in a bar, raising serious concerns over what it could mean for children’s health.

Some have objected that the bill affects personal liberties that should be protected for reasons of individual freedom. However, many have dismissed these claims including health minister Norman Lamb. Addressing the issue, Lamb said: “The liberty to smoke in your car in front of a child doesn’t seem to me that important and protecting a child’s health does seem to me to be incredibly important.”

Marital Coercion Law to be Abolished

An outdated legal defence for women based on “marital coercion” is to be abolished. The law allows women absolution from offences, excluding treason and murder, if the offence was committed in their husband’s presence or under his coercion.

Vicky PryceThe defence gained public attention recently when Vicky Pryce (pictured right), former wife of Chris Huhne, unsuccessfully tried to use the defence to escape liability for falsely claiming to have been driving her husband’s car when it was caught speeding. Many people found it shocking that a woman – particularly one who was once a joint head of the Economic Service – would try to use this defence. The chief objection is that it is outdated, sexist, and relies on the assumption that a woman is ultimately under the control of her husband.

Governmental support for the abolition of this law was confirmed by Lord Taylor of Holbeach. The Home Office minister has stated that an amendment to the antisocial behaviour, crime and policing bill will be considered next week during the bill’s report stage. It is widely expected that the amendment, designed to repeal the offending section of the Criminal Justice Act 1925, will be approved by peers. Assuming this proceeds as planned, the removal of this defence will take effect two months after parliament passes the bill.

The amendment was first tabled by Lord Pannick QC in 2013. Cross-bench peer Lord Pannick said “I welcome the government’s decision to remove an absurd law that should have been abolished a long time ago.”

Lord Pannick went on to say that “the defence is widely regarded as a relic of a bygone age.”

Lord Taylor, meanwhile, drew attention in a letter to peers that calls for the abolition of the law had been taking place for some time. In 1977, the Law Commission was calling for the law to be abolished.

The concept of duress will remain unaffected by the removal of the law. Duress relates to cases where somebody committed an offence but did so under coercion. This defence is generally applicable, and is separate and independent from the concept of marital coercion. The concerns around marital coercion relate not to the concept of a woman being coerced by her husband, but by the underlying assumption that married women are under the control of their husbands in a way separate from general coercion. It also carries the implication that men are not subject to marital coercion, and that women in unmarried relationships are not subject to coercion by partners in the same way as their married counterparts.

The Website of UK Supreme Court Becomes Independent From the Government

The UK supreme court changes its website in December 2013 and Lord Hope is finally proved right.

The story started when eight years ago the UK supreme court was refused its own address. In 2005, Lord Hope has said that those things are important in the technological era we live in. Hope became deputy president of the court and even though he retired from this post earlier in 2013, he has worked on things concerning the web address of the court and its street address.

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Nowadays, top-level domains are generic suffixes like .com and .net, plus country codes like .uk. what comes before this suffix is the so called second-level domain: .co, .ac, .gov. however, some important national institutions were allowed to share a second-level domain. Such institutions are the parliament, the police, the British Library and the Ministry of Defence. They use their own name or initials, followed by the country code. This plays the role of emphasizing their independence while at the same time it enhances their status.

Obviously, it is expected that the address for the UK supreme court would be supremecourt.uk. However, the court was not allowed to use it.

The response of the government officials was that this would be too expensive to be bought. It would cost a minimum of £125,000. Furthermore, no one could be sure whether the naming committee would allow “supremecourt” as a second-level domain because it is relatively small institution where few email addresses would be derived from.

The new court was obliged to use the web address supremecourt.gov.uk. This implied how tight it was to the government and its will and not to much an actual safeguard against unlawful government actions. Eight years ago there was an announcement that has proved Lord Hope’s predictions right.

In December 2013, a change in the web address of the supreme court of the United Kingdom was discussed because it was necessary to show its independent constitutional position as a separate branch of government.  The other alternative was shifting the own portal of the government which was impossible to do.

The final decision is that from 6 January 2014, the domain address of the court will be supremecourt.co.uk and a similar change would be implemented for the judicial committee of the council which hears appeals from some Commonwealth countries.