- The German heiress and the prenup: the case that keeps on giving
Just when you thought the most talked-about supreme court case of last year was over, there's more
It's time for Katrin Radmacher, the German heiress, versus Nicolas Granatino, her Italian ex-husband, part two.
Part one, of course, was the supreme court case decided last year. Katrin Radmacher's attempt to enforce her prenuptial agreement – limiting her ex-husband Nicolas Granatino's access to her substantial wealth – resulted in a landmark supreme court decision which substantially increased the influence of prenups in English courts.
Lawyers reacted frantically declaring the judgment was "the codification of sexism", the "end of marriage", and the trigger for a "prenup boom".
On 20th October, the day of the supreme court's decision, both Katrin Radmacher and her solicitor made a statement about the case and the court's decision.
"I'm delighted that Britain has upheld fairness," Radmacher said. "I know some people think of prenuptial agreements as being unromantic, but for us it was meant to be a way of proving you are marrying only for love," she added.
Then her solicitor, Simon Bruce said the following:
"The supreme court has said that Katrin's prenup was fair. Her former husband is a really intelligent man, had a glittering banking career in the City and in New York, and has studied at Oxford university for a PhD in biotechnology – he is nobody's fool."
"He is well able to look after himself, and has really generous maintenance from Katrin for each of the two girls. He sees them for less than a third of a year, and receives £35,000 per child per annum…. It is extraordinarily generous by any standard."
"This judgment supports the public's desire to minimize conflict, and the emotional and financial cost of divorce… More couples will marry for love not money."
If there is anything obviously defamatory in that statement, I appear to have missed it. But Granatino feels differently. Word on the street is that he has decided to sue Bruce, Radmacher's solicitor, for libel.
When I contacted Farrer's, where Bruce is a partner, the firm confirmed that proceedings had been issued. But in France.
It's maybe not surprising that a German woman and Italian man who battled out their divorce in London would end the whole drama with a libel case in France. But it still seems like a random outcome.
And as for suing your ex-wife's solicitor for libel over what he said on the steps of the court after winning her case - well that just sounds like being a really, really bad loser.
• Afua Hirsch is now on leave
- Time for the sharia courts to open up | Afua Hirsch
The Guardian's unprecedented filming of sharia court proceedings shows that more transparency would benefit everyone
What does it actually look like inside a sharia court? You would think, given the frequency of alarming headlines about the spread of Islamic tribunals in the UK, that journalists had long been sitting in and watching proceedings. But that's far from the case.
In fact sharia courts – now operating in cities around England and Scotland – have remained remarkably closed. In the meantime they have enjoyed an almost universally bad press. Ever since Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan William's 2008 comment that "the application of sharia in certain circumstances…seems unavoidable", the red-tops frequently sound warnings about Islamic law "taking over".
In 2009 think-tank Civitas published a report claiming that sharia courts had crossed the proper limits of their jurisdiction and were regularly giving illegal advice on marriage and divorce and there have been regular controversies ever since.
In the US things are even worse. Passing laws that ban sharia law from being recognised in legal decisions has become the latest American trend. Last year Oklahoma became the first state to try introducing a new law banning its courts from considering sharia rules and principles.
There are no actual examples of sharia law actually being used in Oklahoma's courts, but that did not stop the state legislature voting in favour "State Question 755" or "Save Our State", as it was affectionately known. The law has been put on hold with a permanent injunction after a federal judge (applying that most American of laws, the first amendment guarantee of religious freedom) declared it unconstitutional.
Nor did that stop other states from trying to follow suit. Missouri is considering a law that would "maintain that US law shall take precedence in US courts", and Tennessee is considering a similar measure.
In fact Tennessee's bill warrants a special mention. Defining a "sharia organisation" as one which "knowingly adheres to sharia" and "engages in.. an act of terrorism" it captures nicely what is so wrong with much of the public debate about Islam. Sharia and terrorism, according to the Tennessee school of thought, go hand in hand. And there is no place for either in American courts.
That's not so far from the view of some Brits, either. See for example the Sun's headline after Rowan William's speech: A Victory for Terrorism. The reason why the emergence of sharia courts has prompted so much more hysteria than the Jewish Beth Din – which have long been operating under the same legal provision for arbitral tribunals – is presumably the inflammatory combination of fear and ignorance that uniquely surrounds the perception of Islam.
As far as sharia courts are concerned, this perception can only be based on the flimsiest of foundations, since few non-Muslims and even fewer journalists have ever stepped foot inside these much-feared sharia courts. This is in large part their own fault for remaining so closed to outsiders. But the Guardian has now spent two days filming inside one in Leyton, focusing on two divorce cases in an attempt to shed some light on what really goes on.
The result is not exactly a PR dream, as far as busting myths about Islamic law are concerned. Dr Suhaib Hasan, who is seen presiding over one woman's request for a divorce, asks her whether her husband has ever subjected her to violence.
"He has hit me in the past, yes," she replies. "He hit me once."
"Once only," Hasan replies. "So it's not a very serious matter."
This is exactly the kind of thing that prompts alarm about giving religious tribunals authority in some sensitive areas as marriage and divorce – it's hard to think of a clearer example of how sharia can diverge from English law, which now requires much less than hitting a woman once to constitute domestic violence.
On the other hand, there are ways in which the English courts are playing catch-up with what these tribunals have been doing for years. "Our role is not like an English court where if [a couple] are asking for divorce, we proceed at once, we try to find any possibilities for a reconciliation," says Hasan, displaying the mediatory approach towards divorce that the English family courts are now desperately trying to adopt.
There is no excuse for ignorant prejudice against sharia law, but this film shows that there are valid concerns about the way sharia tribunals operate. And if they really want to demonstrate their compatibility with a modern, secular society, then greater openness – of the kind this film demonstrates – must be the way forward.
- Rape and crimes against the disabled: the state admits it should do more | Afua Hirsch
The law officers and the director of public prosecutions both try to remedy a problem
The press can be unforgiving when it comes to the failure of the authorities to protect victims from crime. And two types of crime in particular – crimes against disabled people, and rape – attract particularly vehement criticism in this paper and others victims are let down by the authorities.
Sometimes the authorities bite back. This week, the law officers – the attorney and solicitor general – are in court referring four rape cases to the court of appeal on the basis that the sentences are unduly lenient.
The power to refer "unduly lenient" sentences is exercised in about 100 cases a year, and essentially involves cases in which the law officers think the sentencing judge messed up. Or to use the official language, the sentence given in the crown court "falls outside the range of sentences which the judge, applying his mind to all the relevant factors, could reasonably consider appropriate".
When it comes to the rapes that fall into this category, they are by definition the kind of offence that represents every woman's worst nightmare. The man who breaks into a stranger's home in the middle of the night, the student who binds, gags and rapes another student in their university halls of residence, photographing her ordeal, or the man who poses as a parcel delivery man, armed with a self-assembled "rape kit" to attack an unsuspecting woman at the front door. These are three examples of rape cases presented by the solicitor general in the court of appeal this week, arguing for a tougher sentence.
There have been various criticisms of this system – not least the fact that there is an element of randomness in the cases that get referred. The law places the burden of deciding which cases to appeal on the law officers, and they in turn rely on victims and prosecutors to prompt them.
Attempts to expand the powers to refer unduly lenient sentences were resisted under former attorney general Lord Goldsmith in part on the basis that the court of appeal couldn't handle the additional workload, although that seems a questionable legal foundation for deciding which cases get sent back to court and which don't.
Referring unduly lenient sentences doesn't really count as the state admitting it got things wrong – the law officers can place the blame squarely at the feet of the trial judge. But it is – imperfect or not – one mechanism by which the state seeks to correct mistakes.
And then there are those who will admit that the state gets things wrong. The director of public prosecutions has just made a speech admitting that the authorities "are still in the foothills when it comes to disability hate crime and supporting victims and witnesses with disabilities". Speaking at the University of Sussex, Keir Starmer has acknowledged that disabled people lack confidence in the criminal justice system, and that prosecutors have to do their part in reversing that.
Starmer cites figures that in London, almost double the number of disabled people have suffered some sort of harassment or crime than people without disabilities. Research by Mencap demonstrates that 90% of people with a learning disability had experienced bullying and harassment.
Yet only 506 people were charged with hate crimes against disabled people last year, compared to 9.214 for religious and racially aggravated crimes. And Starmer admits that the kind of incidents reported by the Guardian where both the police and prosecutors have humiliated disabled people by failing to take them seriously, are part of the problem.
But he also points out, and I agree, how complex the issue can be. For example, Starmer referred to another story in the Guardian about a man named Jim Watts, featured in our miscarriages of justice section "Justice on Trial". Watts is challenging the safety of his conviction after he was convicted of sexual assaults on severely disabled women after the victims gave their evidence by blinking or pressing buttons on their wheelchairs to indicate 'yes' or 'no'. His lawyers are arguing that their testimony is "unreliable".
Starmer on the other hand, presents this as the way forward for prosecutors, who should be doing more to enable disabled people to be heard by the courts and have cases againt them taken seriously.
There is no trade-off between rights of victims to be treated fairly and rights of defendants to have a fair trial – both are equally important and this is one of the issues that flags up how difficult that can be. But to have a chief prosecutor who admits that a dilemma and a problem exists, is at least a breath of fresh air.
- Afua Hirsch: No redress on Gaddafi asset seizure
The unusual moves to seize Gaddafi's assets do not provide for any form of challenge
Last Sunday, the Queen sat in court at Windsor Castle and approved the creation (pdf) of two new criminal offences, each attracting a maximum prison sentence of two years. Both relate to the provision of finances or assets to the now blacklisted regime of Gaddafi – dealing in anything ranging from bars of gold to derivative products (pdf) which are now forbidden in the UK.
The Queen's executive order – an ancient form of new law through the crown and the privy council that bypasses parliament – is the UK's way of implementing the decisions of the UN security council. Over the weekend the security council passed resolution 1970 — an unprecedented unanimous decision approving travel bans for 16 members of Gadaffi's regime and his family, and asset-freezing for six of them, as well as referring his actions to the international criminal court.
The ICC prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, has issued a statement saying he is deciding whether to open an investigation, and – in a move worthy of the social networking roots of this Arab Spring – called for some evidential crowd-sourcing. Emails from anyone with footage or images that may be relevant to Gaddafi's alleged crimes are, apparently, welcome.
But for now it's the prospect of having their assets frozen and movements curtailed that will really hurt Gaddafi and his people. As a security council resolution, under article 41 of the UN charter (the power to respond to threats to peace and security other than with armed force) it is mandatory on UN member states to adopt it.
But will the Gaddafi's really take it lying down? After all, the family is reported to have billions of dollars of investments in London alone. And if not, what options are open to them to challenge it?
It's not a matter for the UN's own court – the international court of justice. That much was established the last time significant sanctions were imposed on Libya, after the Lockerbie bombing. In a case brought by Gaddafi against the UK back in 1992, the court established that it did not have the power of "judicial review" over a resolution of the UN security council, unless it had been brought about by an invalid process.
But it's fair to say sanctions have become a more mainstream legal issue since then. The September 11 terrorist attacks brought a whole new regime of asset freezing, and a significant expansion of the security council's role. Resolutions were adopted, and implemented around the world, designed to freeze the funds of individuals and entities that were alleged to be associates of Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida network, and the Taliban, many of whom sought to challenge their designation.
One such person was Saudi businessman Yassin Abdullah Kadi, who in 2002 found himself listed as a suspected terrorist backer and his substantial assets frozen under EC law. He, like others in the UK, challenged his designation and the fact that there was no way of finding out why he was on the list, and no way of getting himself removed.
The impossibility of challenging the UN security council has in fact led to litigation in courts ranging from the Swiss federal tribunal, the Turkish council of state, the Pakistani courts, Italian courts and, in Kadi's case, the EC courts.
In the UK, the right to challenge asset freezing and travel ban measures became a central turning point in judicial tolerance of counter-terrorism law, with the first ever supreme court decision stating that executive orders implementing UN security council decisions could not preclude the right to a fair hearing in the courts.
Resolution 1970 says nothing about how its measures can be challenged. There is a provision for the sanctions to be kept under "continuous review" but the tone leans more towards adding more people to the list, rather than removing any of the existing ones from it.
The question of how to challenge resolutions like this is important – not because Gaddafi and his associates are likely to have a leg to stand on (unlike earlier, less sophisticated sanctions, these contain exemptions for "basic expenses, including payment for foodstuffs, rent or mortgage, medicines and medical treatment").
The whole concept of singling out individuals for asset freezes and travel banks represent an evolution in the UN's sanction practices, away from the historic tendency to impose blanket sanctions on a nation, towards targeted measures designed to hurt the individuals at the heart of oppressive regimes.
But legal measures should include a form of redress – history also shows that the security council does not always get it right. And at the moment, with academics still arguing over the duality of UN resolutions and domestic legal systems, with individual terrorist suspects still challenging sanctions against them at national and regional level, and with executive orders like this weekend's still passed by the Queen in council and not parliament, the world of asset freezing still seems like a law unto itself.
- Divorce is messy. Sometimes mediation won't work | Afua Hirsch
The government's plans to force warring couples to talk fail to take on board the complexity of marital breakdown
The law has a lot to answer for when it comes to divorce. Until judicial divorce was introduced in 1857, ecclesiastical courts presided over marriage breakdowns to the detriment of women: a woman's property became her husband's, and he could lock her up, beat her, and deny her access to her children. A married woman was legally equivalent to lunatics, outlaws and minors.
When divorce did become a judicial matter, it focused heavily on guilt. In the early days, a husband had to prove that his wife was guilty of adultery, and that he was an "innocent" party. A wife had to prove her husband guilty of an aggravated version of the offence – involving incest, sodomy or desertion, for example – to obtain a divorce. Even when things were equalised in the 1920s, the emphasis on guilt persisted until the latter half of the 20th century.
It's no surprise, therefore, that divorce law has evolved into perhaps the most acrimonious type of litigation the legal system has known. Even without the law's insistence on guilt – practically criminalising the parties – divorce cases offer all the ingredients of a bitter battle: a once loving relationship that has broken down; the most intimate elements of a person's home and family life at stake; and access to potentially unlimited quantities of personal and financial information. Viewed from this angle, divorce law is a perfect storm.
As the judges whose job it is to clear up the damage say frequently, it is these issues that force people into court in the first place. While everyone acknowledges that alternative means of resolving disputes are better for all parties involved – cheaper and faster and offer far better outcomes for children caught up in the crossfire, they do not always work. Mediation – one of the most popular out-of-court approaches – usually relies on some measure of goodwill, some willingness of the parties to provide information, and their ability to sit around a table as equals. In other words, "compulsory mediation" is something of a contradiction.
Yet that's exactly what the government has proposed. Under a protocol agreed between the ministry of justice and the judiciary, divorcing couples will now be required to undergo a compulsory "mediation awareness session", familiarising them with the mediation process and encouraging them to use it as an alternative to going to court.
Under the new rules, the spouse who initiates the case will first go to a professional mediator, who will be required to engage the other party and arrange the session – either together or individually. If the couple insist on litigating, they will be required to present evidence of their mediation session before their case is accepted by the court.
In support of the new measures the government cites National Audit Office figures that show the average length of time for a mediated case to be completed is 110 days, compared with 435 days for court cases on similar issues; and that where cases are publicly funded, the average cost per client of mediation is £535 compared with £2,823 for cases going to court.
But there are legitimate questions to be asked about whether these new measures will make any difference. There are about 130,000 divorces each year in the UK, and it is already the case that only a small minority of these end up in court. Divorce lawyers, who on the whole say that it is already their practice to encourage mediation, argue that the cases that make up this minority are often the ones that could not be resolved any other way.
There are cases where mediation simply cannot work. The proposals acknowledge this to some extent – providing exemptions in circumstances of domestic violence or child protection – in recognition of the fact that parties who have experienced abuse cannot be expected to sit around a table and reach a constructive out-of-court result.
But there are many other circumstances that fall short of this extreme, where mediation may also not be appropriate – when there is a significant power imbalance in the couple's relationship, for example, or where complex legal issues such as the validity of a prenuptial agreement arise. In these cases, forcing a couple to mediate may simply provide more ammunition for what is bound to be a protracted legal battle.
There are practical questions to consider too. The Family Mediators' Association is reportedly in a scramble to discover whether it has enough mediators to meet the spike in demand. In some parts of the country there will be a shortage and, until extra mediators are trained, divorcing couples will still have to look elsewhere to find them. Mediation success rates – currently high – are likely to fall as cases that legal advisers would otherwise have ruled unsuitable cease to be filtered out.
On the other hand, the removal of legal aid for divorce cases – currently proposed by the government – will see more people divorcing without any legal assistance at all. With the loss of legal advice comes the removal of that filter, as divorcing people no longer have access to expert opinion as to whether their cases should be settled out of court. Imposing mediation may be one way to counterbalance the otherwise inevitable spike in litigation. But only if it works.
- Race, adoption and the political roundabout | Afua Hirsch
Guidelines on interracial adoption are nothing new but the real question lies with the law
In 1998, the new Labour government decided that children in care were facing delays in adoption because of unnecessary "political correctness" in the criteria being applied by social services.
"Some local authorities still refuse to place children for adoption because one of the prospective parents is 40-plus, or is deemed the wrong colour, or smokes, or because of the belief that the family must be kept together, no matter what, even at the expense of the child's best interest,"
said then health minister Paul Boateng.
Headlines appeared announcing that the government was "relaxing the rules on mixed-race adoptions", and a predictable outcry about race, identity and the state's role in constructing families duly followed.
It all sounded very familiar this week, listening to education secretary Michael Gove and his guidance to local authorities telling them they should – guess what? – relax the rules on interracial adoption.
The fact is, neither of these two political statements involve any change to the law. Although the number of mixed-race families is growing faster than any other ethnic family structure and in the majority of cases, this is a result of private choice which has nothing to do with the state; politicians have never been able to agree about adoption.
Race is not the only issue. Jack Straw, who reminded us recently of his capacity to blurt with his statement about Asian men preying on white women, got himself in hot water in the 90s as well saying that teenage mothers should be actively encouraged to give their babies up for adoption.
"Everybody knows that some teenage mothers may not have the necessary skills to look after their children during their childhood," said Straw.
As a result, the actual law on adoption focuses on the one thing that everyone can agree on — that the worst thing that can happen to children in care is unnecessary delay in the adoption process, leaving them for months, or in some cases, years, without a family.
The Adoption and Children Act 2002 introduced various measures to reduce delay, but most significantly made the best interest of the child the paramount concern.
Of course, what is in the best interests of the child requires some view about the effects of transracial placements on a child's wellbeing. Research on this subject is still thin on the ground. One government study in the late 90s reported that some children in transracial adoptions suffered additional stress as a result of losing contact with their racial and cultural origins as well as the trauma inherent in adoption of losing contact with their birth families.
Academics have also questioned the interpretation of the research that has been done – in light of the difficulty of measuring how "successful" previous transracial adoptions have been. How much emphasis should be given to a child's sense of cultural belonging and inclusion, if all else appears to be well?
It's difficult to look abroad for insight as to how to resolve these issues. As actress Halle Berry reminded us recently, the American cultural context is pretty specific on this issue – she invoked the "one drop" rule to argue that her mixed-race child's cultural needs cannot be met by the father – white model Gabriel Aubrey. But her basic argument – that a black child needs a black parent – is one with which many black people agree.
Whether that ideal should trump the other interests of a child in being taken out of care and into a family is another question entirely. Berry might have expressed very different views had the choice facing her daughter been between living with her white father or being placed in care. Family judges, who deal with this sort of dilemma all the time seem to agree with Gove's new guidelines – if the words of the president of the family courts, Sir Nicholas Wall are anything to go by.
"One tries to place a child as appropriately as possible, racially and culturally, but if one cannot, the interests of the child may require the child to be placed in a family that is not of the same religion or race," he said.
Family judges are by definition experts at judging what is in a child's best interests. But maybe those of the Halle Berry school of thought would feel more confident of the legal system's grasp of the complexities of race, identity and multiple cultures if those judges came from a less homogeneous ethnic pool.
And everyone would feel more confident in the legal system if it wasn't facing cuts that are bound to impact children, increasing delays and decreasing efficiency in the family courts. Labour, who presided over the beginning of this problem, sidestepped the issue of race and identity in the end, bringing in a law that focused on delay instead of cultural matching in adoption cases.
The Tories have no plans to change the law, but seem to have a level of confidence, based on their dislike of political correctness and the fact that Michael Gove claims a special legitimacy on the issue since he was adopted himself. But does this government really get race and identity? That remains to be seen.
- The MPs voting against prisoners, and 21st century civic death | Afua Hirsch
Giving prisoners the vote might be unpopular, but defying the European court of human rights would be criminal
John Hirst is not a sympathetic character. The 59-year old hacked his landlady to death with an axe in 1979, and was convicted of manslaughter after he successfully pleaded diminished responsibility on the basis of a personality disorder that rendered him amoral. Although Hirst's much discussed European court of human rights litigation "Hirst v UK" has caused an unprecedented row about the nature of the UK's relationship with the court in Strasbourg, that the man himself makes an uncompelling spokesperson for a cause is undeniable.
Hirst claimed that the prohibition on voting for prisoners was a violation of his fundamental rights. In 2005 the European court of human rights agreed – sort of. It said that the UK's law – a blanket ban on prisoners voting was wrong. When the government asked the court for guidance as to where exactly the line could be drawn in determining which prisoners should be given the vote and which shouldn't, the court declined to provide it.
"It is primarily for the state concerned to choose… the means to be used in its domestic legal order," the court said.
In other words, the court said that while a blanket ban is a violation of the right of the state's obligation to take a proactive role in facilitating free elections, how UK law should change to remedy the situation is for the democratically elected legislature – parliament – to decide.
You wouldn't know that, given the frenzied debate about the court encroaching on our legal system this week. Faced with the prospect of unpopular legislation being demanded by some "Europeans", all three branches of state – the government, MPs, and judges – have obediently taken their cue to start Strasbourg-bashing. Next up is a backbench Commons debate tabled by Conservative MP David Davis, demanding that the UK should defy the court and continue to deprive all prisoners of the vote.
Given that David Davis is probably best known outside parliament for his track record in defending civil liberties, it is one of many ironies about a Westminster movement against letting prisoners vote that he should be a key protagonist. The circus surrounding prisoners voting rights is all part of the upside-down world where the Tories stand up for human rights, and otherwise civil liberties-defending politicians continue to resist them.
And then there's the Labour party. The former government presided over the deadlock in new legislation to implement the court's ruling for five years whilst they were in power. Now a briefing circulated by Jack Straw to the parliamentary labour party, which I've seen, is the clearest example yet on how much the party has lost its way on the question of civil liberties.
Straw says it's ok to change the law on the court's say so when it comes to "genuinely important issues like phone tapping", but that the issue of prisoner's voting is "very different". He then goes on to echo many of the allegations in the Policy Exchange report earlier this week, such as the idea that European judges lack competence, and that changing the law on prisoners voting would be to "allow the court to extend its remit far beyond anything that was ever anticipated".
On the one hand there is the question of why, if Straw is so determined to defy the Strasbourg ruling, his government wasted public time and money on two protracted consultations on how to give prisoners the vote.
On the other, there is the bigger issue – the strongly held view among MPs that prisoners voting is not an issue of fundamental human rights. This is clear nonsense – as the jurisprudence from many other sophisticated democracies demonstrates.
Depriving prisoners of the right to vote is part of an out-dated mentality of social exclusion, deliberate dehumanisation and "civic death" which should have disappeared with the Victorians and certainly should not have now found new favour among labour politicians.
But we all know that politicians, including those on the left, are willing to abandon human rights principles when to do so seems in accordance with public opinion. As Lord Mackay pointed out in his evidence to he constitutional reform committee, published in a report this week, the same thinking would have seen the death penalty still on the statute books. "The problem is that if you go along with public opinion you may well find yourself with oppressed minorities," Mackay said.
The European court on human rights exists for exactly these situations – where politicians lack the vision, courage or wisdom to provide unpopular people with the level of human rights protection that is accepted as part of an emerging international standard. As history has repeatedly shown, in the end that standard tends to be bigger than the small-minded politicians of the day. But that would be to think long-term, and as the Jack Straws of this world like to remind us, that is not what they do.
- A new initiative to promote law in Africa demands closer scrutiny | Afua Hirsch
The Africa Justice Foundation's desire to strengthen the continent's legal systems is laudable. But a focus on investment and natural resources during its launch event did it no favours
There is no disputing the role that lawyers have played in African development. Some of the greatest figures in the independence movements of countries throughout the continent were lawyers. And the lack of well-trained and properly paid lawyers, independent judges and fairly applied laws in African countries remains one of the many barriers to change.
Nevertheless, the congregating of a large group of lawyers declaring that what the world needs is more lawyers, is always going to be problematic.
All the more so if they are well-heeled corporate lawyers in wealthy global firms, part of a system seen by many Africans as having barely evolved since the colonial world order allowed London's commercial hub to exploit the continent's riches at will.
So when Cherie Booth's Africa Justice Foundation, a new initiative to promote the rule of law in Africa, launched this week at the Fleet Street offices of the global law firm Freshfields, it was bound to invite a degree of scepticism.
The event, with its sprinkling of presidents – including former Ghanaian president John Kufuor; politicians, including the shadow attorney general, Patricia Scotland, and former equality minister and now shadow international development secretary, Harriet Harman; African diplomats and plentiful lawyers and business people – focused on the positive and undeniable message that supporting Africa's lawyers will help strengthen the continent's democratic institutions.
Booth, the wife of former prime minister Tony Blair, and others behind the foundation invited donations to help pay for scholarships for African government lawyers to study abroad, for legal literacy programmes and for law reporting – all useful ways to build the capacity of Africa's legal systems.
But, and there is a major but, this initiative, like many others, needs closer scrutiny. First is the preoccupation with big business, and the assumption that creating favourable investment opportunities is the way to lift Africans out of poverty. The easiest way to reveal the flaws with this approach is to point out that the person invited to enlighten the audience on "how to answer the problems of Africa" was De Beers' executive director, Jonathan Oppenheimer. De Beers may have cleaned up its act lately, but the diamond industry, and especially the multinational diamond industry, would not be my preferred source of expertise on how to solve Africa's problems.
Then there is the emphasis on Africa's natural resources. I lost count of the references to investment potential and Africa's natural wealth at the foundation's launch, but until the continent stops being seen as a piggy bank for the rest of the world to raid, progress will be limited.
And finally there was the unquestioned premise that change is achieved by working with governments. The programme so far has a heavy emphasis on Rwanda, which Booth said glowingly she had visited with Laura Bush in 2005. I'm sure they had fun, but foreign donors have spent a lot of time lately wondering how to extricate themselves from the massive funding poured into a government whose democratic credentials are massively in question.
Suella Fernandes, the foundation's director, even named Chad as one of the countries illustrative of Africa's massive growth potential. Chad's politicians have had plenty of help in using the country's oil revenue to fund development rather than their own interests, and repeatedly been shown lacking.
All this was helpfully reinforced with a patronising film explaining that Africa "has a lot going for it". It's easy to be an "Afro-optimist", as Fernandes described herself, while based in a city which is, as ever, poised to profit from Africa's economic growth.
Even the foundation is driven, in part, by lawyers' unquenchable desire to self-promote. I have heard senior lawyers talk of wanting to support African development initiatives, and recruit more brown people generally, because it helps them sell business in the lucrative emerging markets of Africa and India. At this week's launch, law firms were invited to support the rollout of law reports in African countries – at a cost of £100,000 – on the basis that it provides them with a great marketing opportunity.
Booth, who made that point, speaks for herself, using her profile on the foundation's website as another opportunity to plug her book.
I hope I don't sound sceptical. I think training African lawyers is a great thing to do.
- David, Goliath, and the case that never was | Afua Hirsch
The Epilim case shows the gap between our ideals about holding large corporations to account, and reality
One of the reasons for my latest TV addiction – the Good Wife – is its depiction of feel-good, David and Goliath type court cases. The US show, in which Juliana Margulies plays the wife of a scandalous state attorney and goes back to work herself at a law firm, always depicts those cases; overworked train drivers whose employer try to screw over their widows when they die in a work accident, pregnant women whose insurers won't cover risky operations to save their unborn child, or – every now and then – class actions against pharmaceutical companies whose drugs have caused devastating health problems for the firm's clients.
It's not original that lawyers' court battles make good TV, provided of course that they are dramatised with a touch of gloss – immaculately made-up female lawyers in pencil skirts, killer heels and perfect blow-dries, temperamental judges who go overboard banging their gavel (you won't ever see a gavel in an English courtroom), cases that begin and end in the course of a single series, unlike the real-life litigation sagas that drag on for long, boring years.
But I can't think of a better, and more depressing, comparison, between the version of these kind of legal battles so loved by TV series and Hollywood, and reality than the Epilim case.
Epilim is an anti-epilectic sodium valproate drug which some doctors have recommended to women during pregnancy. In some cases, the doses women have taken have actually been increased when they were expecting a child, in order to reduce the risk of seizures.
The problem is, the women believe that whilst helping prevent seizures, the drug also irreversibly damaged their children. Spina bifida, physical deformities, developmental and cognitive delays have all now been linked to the taking sodium valproates in pregnancy. The women say they did not receive adequate warnings. They can't sue the doctors who prescribed the drugs because the doctors blame the manufacturer. They can't sue the manufacturer because… well that's where it gets complicated.
The point is these are families whose lives have been permanently damaged after they took powerful medication during pregnancy on medical advice. They want justice. They also want compensation – at the moment the cost of caring for their children, some of whom need 24-hour care – falls largely on the state. They believe, as many others no doubt would, that the NHS, local authorities and ultimately the taxpayer should not be picking up the bill for a problem caused by the world's fourth largest pharmaceutical company.
It would not be fair of me to suggest with any certainty that Epilim is responsible for their problems because the company that makes it, Sanofi Aventis, denies all liability. If this were an episode of the Good Wife, both sides would present their case before a judge and jury. The evidence would be scrutinised, and a decision would have been reached. Or a settlement would have been reached where the company would have agreed to compensate the victims to keep the case out of court. Sexy in-house investigator Archie Panjabi would have been running around snooping on the defendants, to find some killer piece of information that would seal the deal either way.
In reality, there are no sexy – or otherwise – investigators because costs have been kept to a minimum on legal aid funding. Had the case gone to court, there would have been no jury because, although there used to be juries available for this type of civil litigation, Lord Denning put an end to it in the UK in 1965.
And now there will be no court hearing, because no one is willing to pay for it. Sanofi can afford to defend itself – large corporations usually can. But the families who brought the claim were reliant on the Legal Services Commission, the soon-to-be defunct body that provides legal aid funding, recognising that a case like this is in the public interest. And sadly, they no longer do.
As a result, there has been no judicial scrutiny of pharmaceutical companies in the UK for fiteen years. So anyone who takes pharmaceutical products - i.e. everyone - and who wants to see manufacturers being held to account for problems they might cause, is I'm afraid going to have to stick to TV.
- Domestic violence moves beyond the physical | Afua Hirsch
As Hounslow council showed this week, authorities are seeking to protect resources by arguing for the narrowest definition of what domestic violence actually is
This is a moment, for a woman, to take stock. It's hardly news that male newsroom banter can take on a form as blatantly offensive to women as was evidenced by Andy Gray and Richard Keys, but if there were room for doubt then the recent run of Sky Sports leaks exploded it.
Dominc Raab, a leading Tory MP and an expert on civil liberties has demonstrated his grasp of the discrimination most women in society would still recognise, by saying that men "get a raw deal" and need to start burning their pants.
And now a council, whose own leaflets explained helpfully to women how "subtle" and damaging domestic violence can be, has fought all the way to the highest court in the land, to argue that the duty to rehouse a woman who is afraid of her husband should only kick in if she is imminently facing a black eye.
It seems we have come to this. Across a diverse range of civil law situations, women are being denied access to services unless they can show they are at risk of violence. In immigration and housing cases, showing a risk of abuse is one of the few ways to be guaranteed help under the law. Under current proposals on legal aid, divorce cases will only be publicly funded where a woman can show she is facing domestic violence or forced marriage.
And even then, authorities are seeking to protect resources by arguing for the narrowest definition of what "domestic violence" actually is.
The London borough of Hounslow claimed in the supreme court that a woman who had left the marital home because her husband terrorised her by intimidating her and denying her money had made herself "intentionally homeless" – a problematic concept at the best of times but ridiculous in these circumstances.
Hounslow would, presumably, have preferred to wait until the situation escalated into one of actual or imminent physical harm before offering to rehouse the woman and her children. Until then, the council argued, she had left not because of violence, but because of marital breakdown.
Baroness Hale – stating in many ways the obvious, but doing so with all the authority of a supreme court justice – introduced a reality check in this week's decision.
"It has been recognised for a long time now that it is dangerous to ignore what may appear to some to be relatively trivial forms of physical violence. In the domestic context it is common for assaults to escalate from what seems trivial at first …"
The purpose of the law, Hale said, with its explicit provisions for rehousing women facing domestic violence, is "providing a secure home for those who share their lives together".
"In this case, the purpose is to ensure that a person is not obliged to remain living in a home where she, her children or other members of her household are at risk of harm."
Hale has been making her presence as the only woman on the supreme court bench felt more than ever recently, with a string of enlightened opinions. But it's difficult to really feel that this decision represents progress. The law has protected women from having to remain in housing where they face domestic violence for decades. What's really remarkable is that a local authority, no matter how stretched its resources in this climate, tried to interpret that law in a way that put a woman and her children at risk.
Yet the fact remains – domestic violence is now one of the only ways that women are able to get help. And as all but the bare minimum of public services are stripped away, either more women will classify themselves as victims of domestic violence, or fewer will get help. It's hard to see either of those options as progress.