Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Supreme Court: there's rue for you

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where I live, runs a special group for young mothers. A mother has to be at least 12 years old to join. 

For the 40-odd years of their fertility, girls and women are playing in a fixed match where the other side doesn’t get pregnant.


At university I was naively surprised to meet otherwise educated girls – even biochemistry students – who were slapdash about contraception. It seemed that they were more likely to come from secure, well-off families which could cope privately with any consequence, rather than humbler stock haunted by ancestral fears of ruin. I never met my Toxteth grandmother who was a teenage unmarried mother without chances.

Fifty years after her experience, metropolitan women could sign up at the Margaret Pyke Centre, a legendary NHS birth-control research and training powerhouse (now shrunk by the cuts). Back in the day you might have got an appointment there with one-time physician to The Grateful Dead Dr Sam Hutt, aka country and western singer Hank Wangford, whose albums include Cowboys Stay on Longer

I remember him being rather touched during a coffee shortage in the 1970s when grateful vasectomy patients plied him with jars of instant. He still trains doctors and nurses between gigs.







Until 2002 the Centre was led by the non-judgmental Professor John Gillebaud who in his book The Pill points out that giving a child or a woman the right to say no is a powerful contraceptive. He is concerned with population and sustainability, and as we move to standing-room-only we are reminded that the planet has the right to say no to the lot of us.

Nobody would advocate abortion as primary birth control, but when there’s a failure of hardware or society or health a pregnant woman may find out who claims to own her. 

Today’s case (day two of a three-day hearing) is In the matter of an application by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission for Judicial Review. It asks if failure to allow abortion in cases of serious foetal malformation, rape or incest violates the European Convention on Human Rights. 


In Northern Ireland, abortion is allowed only to preserve the mother’s life, because the 1967 Abortion Act does not apply there, and the maximum penalty for illegally procuring a miscarriage is life imprisonment. Some of the cases cited today are heartbreaking.





In The London Review of Books (17 Aug 2017), Joanna Biggs writes: ‘Northern Irish feminists can’t rely on Westminster: many people reminded me of the moment in 2008 when Harriet Harman blocked a move to extend the 1967 act to Northern Ireland in order to gain votes from the DUP for 42-day detention of terrorism suspects. If it makes travel to England harder, Brexit will make access to abortion harder too.’





She adds: ‘The 1967 act was preceded by the Bourne case of 1938, when a gynaecologist turned himself in having performed an abortion at St Mary’s Paddington on a 14-year-old girl who had been raped by several soldiers. (She had been turned away by St Thomas’s on the grounds she might be carrying a future prime minister.)’

We have a prime minister who is still in hock to the pro-life DUP. A report on abortion law in Northern Ireland, completed last year, is yet to be released because of the stasis in Stormont.




In a letter responding to Biggs’s article, writer Elizabeth Gabriel describes what happened after a condom failure when she was a student at Bristol before the Abortion Act: ‘I knew that I wasn’t ready to have a baby, so I tried jumping off tables (gingerly), taking scalding baths, drinking a lot of whisky. Then a friend gave us the name and number of a midwife in the docks who sometimes provided abortions to dockers’ wives whose husbands refused to use contraception.’ Legal minds will know whether that was technically an assault by a husband on a wife.

In court today, Lady Hale pounces on a contronym: she asks counsel if he is using the word ‘sanction’ to mean ‘permit rather than punish’. Contronyms have contradictory meanings, such as cleave and oversight. I am at the stage of life where I feel more keenly how quite a lot of things harbour their opposite, including life itself.















Coda
‘It’s an emergency,’ says the young woman asking the pharmacist in Boots for a continuation supply of the Pill without a prescription. The pharmacist and I glance at the self-conscious emergency himself, standing beside her. She gets her supply. True privilege is not knowing how privileged you are. 

Counsel cites Lord Bingham on Pretty beneath his portrait

'There's rue for you,' says Hamlet's Ophelia, handing out an abortifacient. Is she pregnant?




Thursday, 5 October 2017

Supreme Court: a shard of history

I wish I'd watched a recent episode of Coronation Street in which an artist breaches section 41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925 by drawing live action inside one of the lower courts (i.e. not the Supreme Court, which doesn't sit in Weatherfield).

In real life, an artist has to draw such scenes from memory. This was not a plot line but a collective mistake. The subject of the picture is the alleged victim of sexual abuse so she would not be portrayed anyway, even from memory. It has led to complaints to Ofcom and apologies from Corrie chiefs.

This is Lady Hale's first session as President, joined by two of the three new Justices, Lady Black and Lord Lloyd-Jones. All is serene on the bench while courtroom nerves are about normal: just before the second half, a lawyer breaks a glass. Symbolists would say this represents a ceiling.

The usher emerges cheerfully from behind the scenes: 'Did someone make an impact in there? Everything OK? I've seen a lot worse.' He sorts everything out.

The appellant, who in 2010 was the first barrister to become a partner in a legal disciplinary practice, is here to observe. Daphne Evadne Portia O'Connor v Bar Standards Board asks whether, in a claim that a prosecution breaches human rights, the time limit for bringing proceedings under the Human Rights Act 1998 runs from the date of acquittal/conviction or the date on which any appeal is concluded. And was the High Court judge right to conclude, for the summary judgment application, that Portia O'Connor's claim of indirect discrimination under ECHR had a realistic prospect of success?



Counsel are softly-spoken. Lady Hale reminds them: 'The first duty of any advocate is to be heard,' adding that the microphones are mainly for recording and transmission, with only a small amount of amplification.













'I can't hear anything,' says the woman behind me. She adds, 'They are all beautiful,' referring to the row of students in front of us, and leaves.
















Outside, another bench, another beginning.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Bench pressing: 'Debating Judicial Appointments in an Age of Diversity'

Are you bench-fit? There's a handy 'Am I Ready?' guide on the Judicial Appointments Commission website.

I picked up this tip in Debating Judicial Appointments in an Age of Diversity (Routledge, £115) edited by Graham Gee and Erika Rackley. These essays spotlight key questions, such as the level to which judicial appointments should be political.

And what is merit? Sir Thomas Legg, former Permanent Secretary to the Lord Chancellor, writes: 'We appear to owe the concept of merit for public appointments originally to the Chinese Civil Service in the Qin and Han dynasties.' I would like a whole chapter on this, with sample exam papers and ink drawings of Confucius, but it is not to be.

Legg expresses doubt about lay members of selection committees: 'For many reasons, lay members are often likely to defer to their judicial colleagues in these decisions.' This is countered by Jenny Rowe, the first Chief Executive of the Supreme Court: 'The judges were always very respectful of these levels of expertise and welcomed the perspective offered by lay members...There was no shortage of lively discussion and debate, and no question at all of the lay members being supine.'

Sadly, proof-reading budgets are slashed nowadays. For example, page 34, with its three references to the 'Prime Minster' [sic], sounds the Proof-Reader Attention Deficit Alert (PRADA), pointing to that trippy state in which subconscious urges to be skimming Vogue over-ride what you see. But cost-cutting doesn't allow for a second proof-reading and sometimes not even a first.

Sketch of Christopher Allan at Judicial Images workshop
Uncritically, I would say that the best bit of the book is Appendix IV - included in the free preview on Amazon - which is about how I came to draw the cover illustration. I'm indebted to Christopher Allan, Court and Ceremonial Manager at Ede & Ravenscroft, for giving me a close-up view of the robes in his care, groomed like champion race-horses.

If you think you're hard enough for the bench, then - even without issues of diversity - you'll be interested in the matters this book raises.

Coda: if you prefer the soft and fluffy, may I recommend The Supreme Court: A Guide for Bears.