Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Three wishes for 2014 (and no more Masters…)

Happy New Year to all. Here's to prosperity, health and peace for all in 2014. Here's also to much-needed changes in the three following areas:

1. Women and the glass ceiling.

Sadly the glass ceiling is still there. I'm reminded it lurks, invisibly, in a great many sectors of society. Women work hard, perform brilliantly and every bit as well as, if not better than, men, only to find that access to the top positions is often denied. Whether through patriarchy, or chauvinism, or sexism; on occasion even through conspiracy. The fact is that women still don’t get a fair deal.

Take, for example, the law. Today's City firm in London will have a raft of corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes and policies, implemented because the firm's partners recognise that they need to give something back.  And yet for all the CSR, for all the positive PR it yields, often those very same firms still have partnerships in which men vastly outnumber women.

It is the same in so many other sectors of the legal profession - which is why the news just before Christmas that women, for the first time in history, have been recommended for more judicial posts than men was so welcome. The Law Society Gazette reported the news, which comes from statistics released by the Judicial Appointments Commission.
​Women overtake men in judicial appointments - Law Society Gazette

It transpires that across 17 selection exercises for court and tribunal posts completed between April and September in 2013, 280 (52%) of those recommended for appointment were women, compared with 233 men (30 recommendees declined to identify their gender).

Yes, a judge should attain his or her role regardless of gender and solely on fitness for the job, but after centuries in which women have been explicitly or tacitly treated as second class citizens this news is good, and hopefully the trend will continue making equality a reality.

2. Hillsborough and the law on secondary liability.

As a football fan I thoroughly enjoyed the Boxing Day we've just had, when - for the first time in an age - every single league team in England was in action, along with all the teams from the Scottish Premier League. But amid the feast of football, I couldn't help but think ahead to this year's 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster.

We all know the facts. At Sheffield Wednesday's historic ground on 15 April, 1989, 96 fans died in a terrible crush early on in an FA Cup Semi-Final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. The crush resulted in injuries to a further 766 people. Those involved ranged from children to the elderly. The tragic incident is Britain’s worst-ever stadium-related disaster.

But what we don’t all know is how the law has dealt with the disaster. It was, thanks to the ruling in Alcock v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police [1992] 1 AC 310, a disaster of its own kind for what the law describes as ‘secondary victims’: those who were not primarily affected, in the sense that they were injured or in danger of injury, but who suffered harm because of what they witnessed.

Alcock severely restricts their ability to bring claims for post-traumatic stress disorder thanks to arbitrary 'control mechanisms' created by the court. Chief among them is the requirement that a claimant must perceive a 'shocking event' with his or her own senses, either as an eye-witness or happening upon its immediate aftermath. This means that if a father saw his son crushed via television footage, or if he arrived some 30 minutes after the incident, he would not be able to bring a claim.

The Alcock ruling and its criteria for recovery for psychiatric harm has been described "a patchwork quilt of distinctions which are difficult to justify". Set against what we now know to be the truth of Hillsborough, this is true. We need to revisit Alcock and campaign for a change in the law so that real justice is available for victims of psychiatric injury. APIL are planning to do just that and they need our every support.

3. The notion of justice.

Just before Christmas I wrote of War On Welfare's admirable success with its e-petition, which has now garnered enough signatures for force a parliamentary debate on a number of issues which affect the sick and disabled, not least the present government's seemingly obsessive desire to implement cuts in this area. WOW's work has been tireless and fantastic, and we must all do our bit to maintain its momentum, but so too should we continue to fight the systemic erosion of formerly sacred legal principles with which the government also seems to be engaged.

I am mindful in particular of the proposals to reduce the availability of judicial review and the apparently endless attack on what used to known simply as 'legal aid'.

What has happened to the notion of justice? Why is it now so rife with 'cost considerations'? What has happened to the days of absolute legal principles, with which no government - other than a dictatorship - would dare to tinker?

Three of my wishes for 2014, then, are for the end of the glass ceiling, due recognition of the rights of those who suffer psychiatric injury and a restitution of our fundamental commitment to justice. Oh, and while we're at it, how about a change to nomenclature in the courts - is the term 'master' really what we need for a judicial officer in the civil justice system, women included? Or is a remnant of the very sexism and unthinking patriarchy that preserves the glass ceiling?

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