Sunday Law Review: the week that was 11th to 17th March.

‘The Hobbit’, a Southampton pub came under media glare this week after it was accused of copyright infringement by lawyers representing Saul Zaentz Company (SZC), in California. SZC possesses worldwide rights to motion picture, merchandising, stage and other rights in certain literary works of JRR Tolkien including ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’. However, after an intense social media campaign and support from the actor Sir Ian McKellen, who had played Gandalf in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ film trilogy, and Stephen Fry who is to appear in the forthcomming film ‘The Hobbit’, SZC has come up with the offer to the pub of a nominal licensing fee of $100 dollars, for useage of the name.

In February, this column had reported that courts in England and Wales ceased to use freelance interpreters from a national register. The government had chosen Applied Language Solutions (ALS) as a single agency solution, to provide interpretors with the promise of a £60 million saving from the annual translation bill. As many of the professional interpreters refused to sign up over a drop in pay and conditions, courts experienced major delays in certain cases. This week, the Justice Minister Crispin Blunt admitted that there had been problems on the eve of a protest by interpretaors outside the Houses of Parliament.

Cost cutting seems to have affected other areas of the justice system too as Michael Fuller, chief inspector of Her Majesty's Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate (HMCPSI), said the cost of lawyers' fees was being put before quality, damaging cases. Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) managers had attempted to make savings, which lead to in-house prosecutors having to rely on notes, being unable to anticipate likely questions and being of little use to judges in sentencing hearings. The Sunday Telegraph revealed at the start of the week that civil court cases cost British taxpayers £612 million, paying millions of pounds to fund court costs associated with wealthy overseas businessmen and corporations settling their disputes in London.

An amendment to the Legal Aid bill tabled by Lord McNally last week had raised alarm over removing the recoverability of success fees from claimants launching claims in the next year. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has now confirmed that Jackson reforms would not be applied retrospectively to cases launched before April 2013. A MoJ spokeswoman stated that ‘cases launched on or before 31 March 2013 would allow claimants to recover success fees from losing defendants. After that date the government’s reforms allow for up to 25% of potential damages payments to cover that expense’.

The New Law Journal reported this week that ‘Alternative Business Structure’ (ABS) and ‘Legal Disciplinary Practices’ (LDP) could be the future of legal business as the partnership model becomes less predominant. Recent events such as Quindell Portfolio’s approach to personal injury firm Silverbeck Rymer and Australian firm Slater & Gordon’s takeover of Russell Jones & Walker indicate the potential scale of reform.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) will bring together the Competition Commission and the competition functions of the Office of Fair Trading (OFT). While acknowledging the improved efficiencies and streamlined processes the reforms should bring, many in the legal community have questioned whether the lower threshold for cartel prosecutions could pose a threat to the UK’s internationally renowned reputation. The CMA should be in place by April 2014 and will have a primary duty to promote effective competition.

The Legal Services Board (LSB) has urged indemnity insurers and consumers to work together in improving legal services. As consumer empowerment has seen customers drive change in markets through a shared feedback on services and brands, regulators could also potentially utilise this information to target poorly performing practises. Comparative data could serve as a truly independent reviewer of the quality of service provided by law firms and chambers, ultimately providing consumers with ratings of lawyers. While comparison shopping works in many sectors, it is hard to imagine at the present moment how a lawyer rating system could appease everyone in the profession.

In Scotland, ‘the Land Registration Bill’ would make it an offence to knowingly or recklessly register land under false pretences. The bill is seen as a crackdown on mortgage fraud and money laundering. However, the bill could potentially lead to solicitors being imprisoned for up to two years for genuine mistakes. Mortgage fraud is estimated to cost the UK economy £1 billion a year but Scottish ministers have acknowledged that it is difficult to prosecute fraudsters and their accomplices in the legal profession under current laws. A typical mortgage fraud could involve taking out a mortgage under false pretences at an inflated value, perhaps with the help of a corrupt solicitor, and then skip the payments and allow the property to deteriorate. Some fraudsters would buy and sell the same property back to themselves under assumed names several times, at ever inflating prices, until the bank finally forecloses and finds the land or property has been ruined.

A mother of four whose husband had forced her to work in a massage parlour providing sexual services to other men has been jailed for ‘falsely retracting’ rape allegations against her allegedly abusive husband. She was jailed in November 2012 for perverting the course of justice by retracting accusations of repeated rape by her husband. The husband had been originally charged with six counts of rape but the case had to be discontinued when, under extreme duress from the husband and his family, she retracted. She was charged after confessing to the police that the retraction had been false. The Court of Appeal accepted that she was suffering post-traumatic stress disorder at the time, but stated that it could not ‘quash a conviction on a broad, somewhat nebulous basis of unfairness where the conviction, following due process, is in every respect safe’ because the woman was ‘undoubtedly guilty of a serious crime’. The judgment is a bitter blow to the woman, known as Sarah and her legal team. In December, Keir Starmer QC, the director of public prosecutions, had offered a public apology to Sarah.

The High Court has refused to strike out a legal action brought by Tony Nicklinson, a sufferer from ‘locked-in syndrome’ who wants the law changed to allow someone to end his life without fear of punishment. The Ministry of Justice, in seeking to block Mr Nicklinson’s case, had argued that only Parliament could change the law of murder. Mr Justice Charles has decided otherwise and the case will now be heard in the courts. The moral issue raised by Tony Nicklinson is certainly compound and what the judiciary is being tasked to decide should perhaps be truly addressed once and for all, by the Parliament? 

In the international law news front, a US official has revealed that the soldier accused of killing 16 villagers in Afghanistan had suffered a traumatic brain injury on an earlier tour in Iraq. The army staff sergeant was seriously injured when he was in a vehicle that rolled during a tour of duty in 2010, the official stated. Staff Sgt Robert Bales is held in solitary confinement by the military pending further investigation. In perhaps the most eagerly anticipated verdict in the US, former Rutgers University undergraduate Dharun Ravi, originally from India has been found guilty of hate crime and invasion of privacy. Ravi had used a webcam to secretly film his room-mate’s intimate gay encounters. The case attracted national attention, including comment from President Obama, and prompted anti-bullying measures. In Egypt, 75 football fans are to stand trial in the country’s worst ever event of football violence. In China, the state legislature has approped new laws to limit secret detentions.

My choice of two recommended reading articles from last week are by, Timothy Garton Ash, writing in the Guardian, ‘One rule for Jesus, another for Muhammad?’ and John Pilger writing in, ‘The Dirty War on WikiLeaks Is Now Trial by Media in Sweden’. Garton Ash argues that double standard in equality law is the measure of a healthy democracy. The second article’s title describes the theme most accurately requiring no further synopsis from this reviewer.

As ever, I thank the legal representatives, journalists, web editors and publications I have cited, and linked, for allowing me to compose this week’s Sunday Law Review. Readers are welcome to highlight any critical omissions, offer factual corrections or discuss the issues raised in my review.