Having your cake and eating it? Reflections on the UK Supreme Court’s decision in the ‘Belfast gay marriage cake’ case

By Prof Steven Greer, Professor of Human Rights (University of Bristol Law School)

Photo: QueerSpace

On 10 October 2018 five judges on a panel of the UK Supreme Court unanimously held that the owners of Ashers bakery in Belfast, Mr and Mrs McArthur, had not violated the rights of LGBT activist, Mr Gareth Lee, by refusing to supply a cake decorated with Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie, the logo of the campaign group ‘QueerSpace’, and the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’. The bakery had initially accepted Mr Lee’s order but declined to complete it and returned his money on the grounds that the proposed message conflicted with the deeply held religious convictions of the proprietors, that the only form of marriage consistent with the Bible and acceptable to God is that between a man and a woman. Supported by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, Mr Lee brought a claim against the bakery and the McArthurs (‘the appellants’) for direct and indirect discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and/or on grounds of religious belief and/or political opinion contrary to relevant legislation. In March 2015 a county court judge held that Mr Lee had been the victim of direct discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, religious opinion and political belief. The Northern Ireland Court of Appeal subsequently upheld the sexual orientation complaint and decided there was no need to settle the other issues. Having earlier been joined as party to the appellate proceedings, on 28 October 2016, the Attorney General for Northern Ireland referred the matter to the UK Supreme Court where it was heard together with the appeal by the McArthurs and the bakery (more…)

Why we are teaching Law and Race at the University of Bristol

By Dr Foluke Adebisi, Teaching Fellow (University of Bristol Law School).

‘Education does not change the world. Education changes people. People change the world.’ — Paulo Freire, Brazilian Philosopher and Educator

In the 2018/2019 academic year, Yvette Russell and I will be (for the first time) teaching a unit called Law and Race. It is a very exciting prospect, not least because there are very few law schools in the UK who teach race in any direct or focused way, and much fewer have a unit dedicated to race. This has been an intellectually stimulating enterprise for both of us, and in this article, I would like to explain why we have embarked on it and what we hope to achieve.

The history of the world can be perceived as the history of continuing inequalities. Oftentimes, race functions as the motivation for and justification of oppressive social, cultural, economic and political structures. This is evidenced by colonisation, slavery, and persistent global racial inequalities that cut across gender and class. Law has often been used to create, justify or maintain these demarcations. Notwithstanding this, legal study often ignores the correlation between race and law, as well as the paradox inherent in the use of law to both oppress and liberate. In our unit we aim to examine legal history and the current state of the law in a critical exploration of how legal evolution has impacted upon and caused racial disparities, and how these factors are continuously consciously and unconsciously embedded and reproduced within the operation of law. (more…)

Why the People’s Vote is not ‘the answer’

By Prof Phil Syrpis, Professor of EU Law (University of Bristol Law School)

Photo: Nadja von Massow, People’s Vote March, London 23 June 2018.

Momentum seems to be building for a people’s vote. I argue here that there are a number of legal and political issues which need to be addressed before it is possible to decide whether a people’s vote is indeed ‘the answer’ to the mad Brexit riddle. My conclusion is that it is not.

The most common plea is for a people’s vote ‘on the final Brexit deal negotiated by the UK Government’. But, there are also calls for a people’s vote ‘if the Brexit deal is rejected by Parliament’. Scratch a little below the surface, and it becomes apparent that many of those who are now calling for a people’s vote are either uncertain, or perhaps deliberately vague, about the circumstances in which a people’s vote should be held. They are also uncertain, or again perhaps deliberately vague, about the nature of the question to be put to the people, the timing of the people’s vote, and indeed the consequences which should flow from such a vote. There are, as the Leave campaign should be able to testify, pros and cons for campaign groups who take this sort of stance. A vague plan might elicit support from a wide range of people. But then, it might turn out not to be able to deliver that which people were hoping for.

Calls for a people’s vote come from a variety of sources. The most enthusiastic voices are the ‘remainers’. They tend to see a people’s vote as an opportunity – perhaps the last opportunity – to stop Brexit, and to enable the public to vote not, as in June 2016, on the abstract idea of leave, but instead on the Government’s concrete Brexit plans. They are confident that while there was a small majority for Brexit in 2016, there would not, given what we now know, be a majority for any of the Government’s possible plans, or indeed for a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Recent polls support their claim. They have been joined by a number of other groups, who argue that there is a tactical political advantage to be gained (for the Government and the Labour Party) in backing a people’s vote. (more…)

‘The Successful Law Student’ and the student voice

By Imogen Moore, Senior Teaching Fellow (University of Bristol Law School)

‘The Successful Law Student: An Insider’s Guide to Studying Law’ (Oxford, 2018), co-authored with Craig Newbery-Jones of the University of Leeds, was written with the aim of supporting and guiding law students through transition, the law degree, and beyond. One of the particular features of the book is the incorporation of authentic student comments to support, challenge and enrich the text. It is the value and significance of this student voice that I intend to focus on in this blog post.

As the slightly quirky design might indicate, ‘The Successful Law Student’ is neither a substantive law textbook nor a conventional legal skills compendium. Our goal was to create a ‘supportive friend’ to assist a law student through the challenges they might face, recognising that every student’s experience will be unique. The book is therefore aimed at any and all aspiring and current law students rather than directed toward any particular ‘type’ of law student, law degree, institution or career aspiration. And at its core is a definition of success rooted in the individual and not dependent on external validation.

A key element of our initial proposal was the inclusion of the authentic and reflective voice of our students, providing their take on aspects of the law student experience: a feature we dubbed ‘I wish I’d known’. This reflects the book’s origins in myriad conversations with prospective, current and former students over many years in different institutions, as well as our own interests, aims, experiences, and occasional frustrations. Our publisher, OUP, supported this by enabling us to communicate with a large number of students beyond our own institutions, ensuring the student voice incorporated within each chapter of ‘The Successful Law Student’ truly reflects the diverse law student community.

We were pleased – but perhaps a little surprised – at just how popular this feature proved to be with reviewers of early drafts. It appeared that using student voice in this way was really valued. Why might this be? (more…)

A Foucauldian Interpretation of Modern Law: From Sovereignty to Normalisation and Beyond

By Dr Jacopo Martire, Lecturer in Law (University of Bristol Law School).

Although it can be rightly said that Michel Foucault is one of the most influential scholars of the 20th (and dare we say it? 21st) century, it is also easy to affirm that his ideas have always elicited a certain degree of scepticism. A degree of scepticism would be a suave euphemism to describe the reaction that Foucault’s ideas on power, subjectivity, and truth have caused in the legal field. Scholars as diverse as Jürgen Habermas, Duncan Kennedy, and Nicos Poulantzas (to name a few) have accused Foucault of excessively downplaying the role of law in modernity and of culpably disregarding the function of rights in protecting individuals against external interferences – either public or private. This line of reasoning found its most elaborate champions in Alan Hunt and Gary Wickham who, in “Foucault and law” (Pluto Press, 1994), advanced the so-called “expulsion thesis”: Foucault was guilty of having expelled law from the locus of power, depicting the legal discourse as a sort of veneer for real power with no substantive importance in modern societies.

It must be said that, notwithstanding such trenchant critiques, Foucault’s thought has continued to have a huge effect in many legal areas – from criminal law, to labour law, to international law and beyond. It must also be recognised, however, that the trope of the “expulsion thesis” has survived for almost two decades basically unchallenged (at least in the Anglo-Saxon academia), thus gnawing at the foundations of any Foucauldian-inspired reading of the legal field.

My own monograph “A Foucauldian Interpretation of Modern Law” (EUP, 2017), similarly to Ben Golder’s works on this topic – “Foucault’s law” (Routledge, 2009) together with Peter Fitzpatrick and “Foucault and the politics of rights” (SUP, 2015) – addresses exactly this problem, trying to solve the puzzle of the relationship between the legal discourse and contemporary forms of power as described by Foucault. My interest in this question was dictated not only by what I saw as gap in the literature, but also from a more general preoccupation. (more…)

NHS procurement and Brexit: limited scope for no-deal preparations

By Dr Albert Sanchez-Graells, Reader in Economic Law and Member of the Centre for Health, Law, and Society (University of Bristol Law School).

As Brexit day approaches and the UK and the EU fail to complete their negotiations for a withdrawal and transition agreement to ensure an ‘orderly Brexit’, more and more voices will raise strong concerns about the impact of a no-deal Brexit for important sectors of the UK economy and public sector. In a leaked letter, the trade association of NHS providers sent a clear warning message to the public bodies in charge of running the English NHS (NHS England and NHS Improvement). As widely reported by the press, NHS providers made it clear that poor co-ordination by ministers and health service bosses means there has been a failure to prepare for the UK to be left without a Brexit deal, and that this could mean “both stockpiles and shortages of medicines and medical devices”.

NHS providers have thus requested that the Department of Health and Social Care, NHSE and NHSI accelerate preparations for a no-deal Brexit. In this post, I argue that there is very limited scope for no-deal preparations concerning medical equipment and consumables, and that this can have a very damaging impact on the running of the NHS post-Brexit, given that it annually spends approximately £6 billion on goods (such as every day hospital consumables, high cost devices, capital equipment and common goods). (more…)

Oration for Professor Bryan Stevenson on the occasion of his receipt of an Honorary Doctorate at the University of Bristol in July 2018

By Dr Devyani Prabhat, Reader in Law (University of Bristol Law School).

In July 2018, the University of Bristol awarded a Doctorate of Law honoris causa to Professor Bryan Stevenson.

Dr Devyani Prabhat had the honour of writing and delivering the Oration for Professor Stevenson. In her Oration, Dr Prabhat stresses the incredible and inspiring work of Professor Stevenson, and in particular his Equal Justice Initiative. Professor Stevenson delivered a very inspiring speech where he fleshed out his view of the ways in which recent law graduates, and all lawyers more generally, can make a meaningful contribution towards social justice. Prof Stevenson’s speech is available online. His acclaimed book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption also offers gripping and extremely thought-provoking insights.

The full text of Dr Prabhat’s oration is now reproduced here as a token of the values that the University of Bristol Law School, as a community, strives to foster. (more…)

‘Meal-tickets and gravy-trains’: countering the false narrative in the wake of Mills v Mills

By Dr Emma Hitchings, Senior Lecturer in Law (University of Bristol Law School).

Mills v Mills [2018] UKSC 38 is an example of a rare ‘everyday’ financial remedies case on divorce that has been decided at the highest appellate level – the Supreme Court. It was handed down in the middle of July. Costs, time, energy and a host of other factors involved in taking a case to an adjudicated final hearing, mean that over 90% of financial remedies cases settle before reaching this stage (Family Court Statistics Quarterly, January – March 2018) and it is only a tiny minority that end up being appealed, let alone appealed to the highest level. That one of those rare appellate cases is an ‘everyday’ case where the assets and finances involved are pretty ordinary, is particularly note-worthy. The usual wealthy entrepreneurs or celebrities are absent, and instead, the Mills case involves a couple, who on divorce in 2002, agreed a capital settlement of £230,000 to the wife, £23,000 to the husband, and ongoing monthly spousal periodical payments of £1,100 a month from the husband to the wife. This is not a case about millionaires or billionaires, but an ‘everyday’ couple, where the financial needs of the parties dominate.

Guidance provided from the higher courts has, to date, focused on the larger-money case and the associated issues relevant to those wealthy individuals who can afford to litigate on issues such as the nature of their ‘special contribution’ and whether this should result in an unequal division of the family assets due to one spouse’s exceptional skill or acumen in the business or entrepreneurial world. It was therefore to be hoped that the Supreme Court would seize this rare opportunity and provide some much-needed broader guidance for family lawyers on ‘needs-based’ cases – the usual ‘run-of-the mill’ case, which although does not usually make headlines, takes up the vast majority of Family Court financial remedy business up and down the country. (more…)

UK Universities must soon comply with the EU Web Accessibility Directive

By Dr Albert Sanchez-Graells, Reader in Economic Law (University of Bristol Law School).*

In 2016, the EU adopted the Web Accessibility Directive to foster better access to the websites and mobile applications underpinning public services – in particular by people with disabilities, and especially persons with vision or hearing impairments. This Directive is meant to complement the European Accessibility Act and to implement the EU’s commitments under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). Article 9 UNCRPD requires the adoption of appropriate measures to ensure equal access to information and communication technologies, including the Internet, for persons with disabilities. Under the Web Accessibility Directive, this translates into an obligation for public sector bodies to ensure that their websites and apps comply with a 2014 EU standard adapted to the latest Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) at level AA (currently WCAG 2.0).

The Web Accessibility Directive must be transposed into UK law by 23 September 2018 and will generate obligations for new websites from 2019, for pre-existing websites from 2020, and for all public sector apps from 2021. The UK Government is currently analysing the responses to a public consultation on the draft Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations 2018 (the Web Accessibility Regulations), and the Government Digital Service is developing a host of initiatives to roll-out accessibility policies throughout the public sector. This blog post explains that UK Universities and further education institutions are covered by the Web Accessibility Directive. They must be clearly placed under the scope of application of the future Web Accessibility Regulations and be supported by the Government Digital Service and the Department for Education to ensure that their websites and apps comply with the relevant accessibility standards as soon as possible. This is not only legally mandated, but also essential to the public service mission of universities and other educational institutions. (more…)

Brexit – What are the options for the UK now?

By Prof Phil Syrpis, Professor of EU Law (University of Bristol Law School).

In the light of the resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson, it is time to reexamine the state of play in the Brexit negotiations. In this post, I seek to identify the various possible outcomes, and to provide some comments on the political ramifications of each.

The list of possible outcomes is almost as long as it was in March 2017, when Article 50 was triggered. That in itself is a cause of huge concern. What is also worrying, is that there does not appear to be a clear path to any of the possible outcomes.   (more…)