Saturday, 28 December 2019

Councils or the Courts – Who reigns Supreme?

In the case of Samuels v. Birmingham City Council (2019), the councils’ duties to provide suitable accommodation to those declared homeless were explored by the supreme court. The Supreme Court investigates how far they must acknowledge the guidance given in legislation and from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the interaction between benefits and the council’s ultimate decision to provide aid.  The label of intentional homelessness came to light following the case with much criticism from the media, due to the fact it seemed almost impossible in reality.
Ms. Samuels Situation
In a privately rented house in Birmingham, Ms Terryanne Samuels and her 4 children were found to be short on their rent payment for the month by just over £150. This caused them to enter financial difficulties and with nowhere to turn following this, Ms Samuels made an application to the council declaring her and her children homeless.
Due to the fact that Ms Samuels was accompanied by her children and was reliant on social security benefits, she fell under the impression the council would fulfil their duty and provide new suitable accommodation to the family. The council’s response, however, was not what she was expecting. Birmingham council chose to interpret Terryannne’s situation as being “Intentionally homeless “claiming the shortfall could have been made up by other benefits and therefore she was owed nothing.
The Courts Involvement
This dispute was initially brought to the County Court where the decision was found to be in favour of the council. However, due to their being ambiguity and a sense of injustice in not issuing any aid to the family, the dispute rose up the court hierarchy on appeal.
Judges consistently preferred the argument that the guidance given to councils was not binding and that they had the right to declare Terryanne had sufficient benefits that could have been repurposed to be put towards housing (when the actual benefit intended for this cause ran out). Upon reaching the highest domestic court (the Supreme court), the overall perception greatly varied from those previous. A unanimous judgement was passed, declaring that the council was bound by duty to help Ms Samuels as instructed by the purported guidance and that therefore she was owed reparation.
But why did this dispute cause such conflict that it ascended to the highest court of the land?
The Councils Perception
The underlying legal question established via the arguments of Birmingham council was declared to be:
Does the 1996 act permit for interpretation as to include benefits for purposes other than housing when assessing expenses in relation to suitability of accommodation?
Birmingham City Council argued that relevant expenses had to be considered as a whole and therefore without purpose. The 1996 Housing act and 2006 guidance were deemed only to be “recommendations” upon how they carry out their work and so in Terryanne’s case, they were able to extend the definition to cover all her benefits in considering if her previous residence had been suitable. When assessing her case before the legal trial a council officer declared that her living allowance of £750 was “excessive even for a family of that size.” Hence, they proposed that benefits intended for general living could have been used to prevent the shortfall and therefore there was no need for her to leave this property (making her, by definition intentionally homeless).
Essential Guidance or a Mere Recommendation?
The (S.191) Housing Act 1996 establishes the council’s duty to secure living arrangements for those declared homeless providing they have not done so intentionally.
It defines intentional homelessness to be as follows: “Whether they deliberately did or failed to do anything in consequence of which they cease to occupy accommodation which was available for their occupation and which it would have been reasonable for them to continue to occupy.”
Therefore, the courts would have had to decide if Terryanne met this test.
Similarly, the Homeless Order 1996 declares that the factors that must be considered when deciding the suitability of accommodation that was occupied by the tenant before the declaration of homelessness.
They include:
  • financial recourses available
  • salary/fees
  • social security benefits
The Supreme Courts Response
The Supreme Court dissented from the findings of the other courts and declared that Ms. Samuels should not have to use her other living expenses. It was supported that she should not have to choose between paying for accommodation and feeding her 4 children as this hindered her ability to live securely and depend upon her benefits, diminishing their purpose. The justices detailed that they agreed with the defenses reasoning that all expenses are included however due to the absurdity and hardship this would cause this was not the right action to take.
The court also decided that her living expenses were not excessive as previously stated by the council but rather “reasonable.” By the council’s standard it fulfilled the definition of reasonable and therefore should not be limited. Lord Carnwath who delivered the judgement blamed ambiguity in the limited guidance given to the councils. He also showed distaste for the concept that anyone can be found intentionally homeless as mitigating factors are often at play.
This judgement was praised by the media for the hardship it prevented and depicted the courts as generous in its choice to be broad in application, rather than to acknowledge only the strict wording of the guidance that may have been done in a literal approach.
Moving forward?
With the judgement of this case creating a positive outcome many hope it is a guiding light moving forward in relation to how the law interacts with the benefit system. However, this case may just be the tip of the iceberg. Many now want to see the monitoring of cases where people are wholly reliant on benefits so that they are treated with the same sympathy as Ms. Samuels. Will councils begin to take a more worldly perspective in their assessment of cases like this one, or will they maintain that they have full discretion over how they apply their functions? Lord Carnwath stated he hopes councils take guidance from this case a request that appears to be shared by many members of the public.

This article was originally written by Emily Counter for The Student Lawyer. The Student Lawyer is a fantastic source of free information for law students.

Sunday, 24 November 2019

Taming the Social Media Giants: How far should the state go in regulating online content?

The law, history teaches us, lags inevitably behind technological change. In respect of no development is this more true than the ‘Information Revolution,’ those sweeping and manifold transformations brought about by popular and near-instantaneous access to the internet. Proving a particular challenge to regulators is social media. Compare, by way of illustration, the regulatory scheme governing more traditional media with that applicable to the media of this new digital age. Whereas television content is beholden to a comprehensive set of guidelines and overseen by a government-approved regulator, content published via social media exists in what may more accurately be described as a regulatory ‘wild west’. It is my argument that more stringent legal safeguards need to be built into the online sphere, and that this is a challenge that the state cannot shy away from.

In my view, the most insidious by-products of this technological revolution is the emergence of ‘fake news’. Of course, the dissemination of false information has long been used as a tool to manipulate public debate, but the confluence of social media and AI has undoubtedly intensified the phenomenon. Individuals can now be targeted via sophisticated algorithms that draw on data from our online activity. Examples of fake news are innumerable, but, according to, some of the most viral false stories from 2017-2018 include: claims that Black Lives Matter protestors blocked emergency services from reaching hurricane victims, claims that illegal immigrants started California wildfires, and claims the leaders of Islamic State had Barack Obama on speed dial. And the problem is growing exponentially: evidence of concerted online disinformation campaigns has been found in fort-eight countries since 2018.

Why is this so harmful? Partly, the answer lies in our psychology. Social psychologist Sander Van Der Linden posits that, as fakes news takes advantage of our pre-existing biases, it often spreads faster and more-widely than real news stories; moreover, once we have been exposed to doctored information, it is very difficult to remove the impression, even once myths have been debunked. This has stark implications for our public life. If citizens do not share, as a starting point, a common appreciation of what is broadly true and false, how can any semblance of mature, healthy democratic debate take place? This is before we even begin to consider the foreign interference aspect of fake news or the more palpable impacts of disinformation; last year, for instance, more than twenty people were killed in India after false rumours went viral alleging the presence of child abductors in several villages across the country.

The legal status-quo is essentially toothless in the face of these challenges. Being a platform as opposed to a publisher, Facebook is not liable for the content it hosts, and is only obliged to remove patently illegal material – child sexual exploitation, incitement to violence – once brought to its attention. In regard to those harms with a less clear definition, such as online disinformation, there is even greater legal immunity, if not total discretion. Clarifying Facebook’s policy, Nick Clegg has stated that content from political campaigns will, by default, by treated as “newsworthy,” even if otherwise in violation of the platform’s standards, and will thus be exempt from fact-checking. Politicians will be allowed, indeed   tacitly encouraged, to continue lying to us.

The UK Government has recently published a ‘White Paper on Online Harms’ which aims to fill this regulatory vacuum. Key to the proposals is the imposition of a statutory duty of care on social media companies to take reasonable steps to protect their uses, thus shifting responsibility from individuals to the platforms themselves. This duty of care is to be enforceable via an independent regulatory body.

Although welcome, these proposals do not go far enough. Firstly, there is a strong case for imposing a regime of strict, as opposed to negligence based, liability – social media companies have powerful AI tools at their disposal which could enable harmful content and disinformation to be filtered out before even first posted. Secondly, to truly tackle the problem of disinformation, the response needs to be not just reactive but also proactive, incorporating a public education element.  For example, researchers at the University of Cambridge have developed a technique to psychologically ‘inoculate’ people to fake news by exposing them, via an online game, to the methods used to spread disinformation. Whilst this may seem somewhat far-fetched to be the stuff of public policy, it is essentially the position taken in Finland. Following the country’s 2014 Anti-Fake News Initiative, a response to increasing Russian electoral interference, all high school students undergo a course designed to build a ‘digital literacy toolkit,’ enabling them to spot false and inflammatory information. It is worth noting that the Press Freedom Index ranks Finland first in terms of public trust in both the media and democratic institutions.

Opponents of online regulation argue that greater state oversight threatens to have a chilling-effect on freedom of speech. In particular, many are uncomfortable with the prospect of a government agency setting rules as to what constitutes ‘harmful speech,’ and inherently normative category. However, the problem with this line of libertarian thinking is that we are in fact already in a situation where regulators set arbitrary rules as to balancing of competing rights online. These regulators are Facebook and other social media giants, and they are far from neutral actors; the more time we spend on these platforms, the more profitable they are from an advertising perspective, and there is no better way to ensure our continuous attention than through emotive content that plays on our fears. Somebody always sets the rules. We need to ask: who, how and for what purpose? Surely it is better to have the framework for online engagement set by a legally reviewable public agency than by Mark Zuckerberg.

More broadly, I’d ask the White Paper’s critics to reflect on what we mean when we talk about freedom in this context. From the consumers perspective, does genuine freedom of thought not entail informed choice, which can only be ensured within a reasonably fair, thorough and unmanipulated media landscape? From the publishers perspective, ought not freedom of the press, historically fundamental to our public life, be paired with a corresponding duty to exercise this freedom responsibly?

The writer, Philip Matthews, is an aspiring barrister based in London, with a keen interest in European Law and Tort Law. Previously, he has studied history at the University of Oxford and the GDL at City, University of London. He is currently pursuing the BPTC at BPP Law School in London.

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Law Reform: Psychiatric Harm and Secondary Victims

In the spring of 1989, ninety-six Liverpool fans were killed and many hundreds more seriously injured in a human crush during the team’s FA Cup semi-final match against Nottingham Forest. This tragic event, known as the Hillsborough disaster, is indelibly scarred on the national collective memory; as are the shortcomings of the police, the press and the public inquiries. What is less well known – at least outside of legal circles – is that many of the friends and family of the victims have faced further bitter disappointment in their attempts to win compensation for the intense psychiatric harm they suffered, and continue to suffer, as a result of the disaster. The key legal starting point is the decision of the House of Lords in Alcock v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire [1992]. In this case, the court set out three criteria for a successful claim by secondary victims of psychiatric harm; those who suffer psychiatric damage as a result of injury to, or death or imperilment of, another. Firstly, the claimant must have enjoyed a relationship of ‘love and affection’ with the primary victim. Secondly, the claimant must be close to the accident in time and space. Thirdly, the injury must have been caused be a ‘shocking event’ which is perceived by direct sight or hearing. This article shall seek to explain why this ratio is misguided and the criteria much too restrictive, both in regard to the particular facts of the case, and also in terms of the wider development of tortious principles, and shall suggest some tentative proposals for law reform.

However, even before the decision in Alcock, the law relating to psychiatric harm had long been set on an unfortunate path. The key difficulty remains the initial distinction drawn between psychiatric and physical disorders, with markedly harsher rules applying to the former than the latter; it is worth noting that, until recently, lawyers commonly referred to psychiatric harm as ‘nervous shock,’ a term indicative of the profession’s inherent scepticism.[1] However, there is no clear reason why one form of harm should be prioritised over the other. Who is to say that the mental anguish of losing a loved one in harrowing circumstances is any more or less painful than experiencing severe physical injury? Moreover, such a division of mind and body appears arbitrary in the light of modern medical science; it has long been recognised that conditions stemming from the psyche can have a physical impact, and vice-versa.

A clear example of the more stringent approach applied to psychiatric harm is embedded in the first of the Alcock criteria; the requirement that claimants had a relationship of ‘love and affection’ with the primary victim in order for a duty of care to be established. This is a marked departure from wider tortious principles, according to which, unless statute dictates otherwise, one party owes a duty to another if they have created a dangerous situation which the ‘reasonable man’ would have foreseen as such. There is no personal nexus requirement. Beyond this imbalance, the deeper issue is that only a small class of relationships are presumed to be sufficiently close – that of husband and wife, and that of parent and child. Firstly, is it not somewhat arbitrary that only spousal and paternal bonds are prima-facie recognised?  What of siblings, civil partners, step-parents or close friends?  It appears that the courts’ approach here is rather old-fashioned and out of step with reality. Secondly, and more significantly, placing a burden of proof on the majority of claimants to evidence the fact that they enjoyed a sufficiently close relationship with the primary victim has unseemly practical implications. Professor Jane Stapleton summarises the issue powerfully:

“Is it not a disreputable sight to see brothers of Hillsborough victims turned away because they had no more than brotherly love towards the victim? In future cases will it not be a grotesque sight to see relatives scrabbling to prove their especial love for the deceased in order to win money damages and for the defendant to have to attack that argument?”[2]

Post-Hillsborough, we can already see the impact of the legal hurdles facing non-familial psychiatric harm claimants. Take McFarlane v EE Caledonia [1994]. The plaintiff in this case, a sailor aboard a vessel within sight of the of the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster, watched hundreds of his friends and colleagues burn to death. The Court of Appeal, despite recognising that this was an ‘unusually horrific’ event, nevertheless chose not to undermine the rules set out in Alcock, and defined this claimant as a mere bystander to whom no duty was owed.

Just as restrictive as the relationship criterion are the rules applying to breach; firstly, that the claimant must be sufficiently proximate to the event, in time and space. Whilst this vague requirement has been expanded to include the ‘immediate aftermath,’ it still seems to impose an artificial time limit, inevitably bound to result in inadequacies of justice. Indeed, Mr Alcock’s claim was dismissed on precisely this ground:

“Mr. Alcock identified his brother-in-law in a bad condition in the mortuary at about midnight, that is some eight hours after the accident. This was the earliest of the identification cases. Even if this identification could be described as part of the "aftermath," it could not in my judgment be described as part of the immediate aftermath.”[3]

The court’s reasoning here was that the primary victim was not in quite the same gruesome state that he had been at the time of the accident itself. This ratio betrays the readiness of the court to decide which events meet its own discretionary standard as to what is sufficiently shocking, regardless of the subjective experience of the claimant.

The second element of the rules applying to breach – that the injury must have been caused by a ‘shocking event,’ perceived via direct sight or hearing – is equally unsatisfactory. To begin, there is an implicit assumption at work here that the ‘shocking event’ must constitute a single, discrete phenomenon, which clearly runs counter to reality. For example, in Young v MacVean [2015], a comparable decision of the Scottish Court of Appeal, a mothers’ dawning realisation, after witnessing a fatal accident, that hers son was in fact involved was not considered adequate. Tellingly, the High Court of Australia has rejected the ‘sudden shock’ requirement as arbitrary.[4] Moreover, the caveat that the event needs to be perceived by the unaided senses has thrown up considerably difficulty. In Alcock, the undoubtedly harsh position was taken that the viewing of the disaster on television could not be said to be equivalent to actually seeing or hearing the event. However, there is a potentially much more serious issue relating to the armed and emergency forces. For example, a soldier may not actually be able to see with clarity his comrade fall in the heat of battle; is this to say that the event could not cause psychological trauma, and that he or she should be disqualified from making a claim against the Ministry of Defence if the event was caused by faulty equipment?

The courts have been unusually forthright in their admission that the restrictive criteria applied to secondary victims of psychiatric harm is a public policy position intended to prevent excessive liability; indeed, the term ‘control device’ runs though the case law to refer to the legal hurdles that such victims must pass.[5] Even if one accepts the premise that updating the law in this area would open the floodgates of litigation, this seems poor reason to stall reform. Surely justice demands that victims have appropriate right to redress, regardless of any potential increase in workload for the courts or the legal departments of defendant companies, particularly when institutional defendants are more likely to benefit from deep-pockets and insurance.

Of course, this is not to say that the law in this area should be relaxed entirely. It would be absurd to enable people to win compensation for, say, the trauma they experience following the death of a celebrity that they learned of through social media. Any reform must seek to carve a middle way between striking out legitimate grounds of action arbitrarily and being so open as to as to impose universal duties of care. Broadly speaking, this could be achieved by bringing the law regarding psychiatric harm and secondary victims in line with normal personal injury, but some more specific proposals might include:

1)    A case-by-case, common sense approach to the category of relationship criteria, which leaves it to the judge to (generously) interpret whether a relationship is capable of giving rise to psychiatric harm in the event of injury to, or death or endangerment of one of the parties.
2)    A recognition that psychiatric harm might well be caused by a culmination of shocking events, not only a single phenomenon.
3)    A much broader approach to the perception requirement, which take account of the context of the event and the emergence of 24-hour live news coverage and social media.

Ultimately, in the vast majority of cases, claimants seeking compensation for psychiatric harm are seeking recognition of how their lives have been destroyed by the negligent actions of the defendant. Therefore, it is concerning that the current law in this area is denying claimants fair opportunity for redress and closure due to limitations and distinctions that are both artificial and unjust. It is too late for the families and friends of the Hillsborough victims, but, if the law is to reflect moral values and social and technological contexts, it is imperative that we strive for reform going forward.

[1] For example, see: Dulieu v White & Sons [1901] 2 KB 669
[2] Stapleton J., ‘In Restraint of Tort’, in P. Birks (ed.) The Frontiers of Liability, vol. 2 (Oxford University Press, 1994) 95
[3] Alcock v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire [1992] 1 AC 310, p. 405
[4] Fordham M., ‘Psychiatric Injury, Secondary Victims and the Sudden Shock Requirement,’ Singapore Journal of Legal Studies (2014), 41-58 
[5] For example, see: McLoughlin v Jones [2002] QB 1312

The writer, Philip Matthews, is an aspiring barrister based in London, with a keen interest in European Law and Tort Law. Previously, he has studied history at the University of Oxford and the GDL at City, University of London. He is currently pursuing the BPTC at BPP Law School in London.