Religion and Law roundup: 18th November

Our weekly(-ish) roundup of the law and religion news, with one or two items that did not seem to merit individual posts.

A vote on votes for prisoners

Earlier posts have noted that the UK has until 22 November to comply with the ruling of the ECtHR in Hirst v United Kingdom (No. 2) 74025/01 [2005] ECHR 681 (6 October 2005), and the difference of opinion between the Prime Minister and the Attorney General on complying with the court, here. The BBC has reported that Ministers will now give Parliament another vote this coming Thursday, 21 Novemberon whether to give prisoners the vote and will place a draft Bill before the House of Commons setting out three options:

  • Votes for prisoners who have been imprisoned for four years or less.
  • Votes for prisoners who have been imprisoned for six months or less.
  • No votes for prisoners at all.

The report also says that the legal implications of flouting the ECtHR ruling would be made plain to MPs, but for “legal reasons” ministers will not say which option they back. Adam Wagner has already expressed doubts on UKHRB as to whether or not the Government’s reported proposals will satisfy the ECtHR’s requirements. But in any event it is to be hoped that the Home Office’s perception of ECtHR deadlines has become more acute since its failed action in April on the extradition of Mohammed Othman, (a.k.a. Abu Qatada): there is a link here to the ECtHR’s original press release – which states that it was on 22 May that the clock started ticking on the six-month period of grace.

Faith schools by the back door?

The involvement of faith communities in education is becoming increasingly controversial; and this week the BBC reported that the British Humanist Association and Richmond Inclusive Schools Campaign were in the High Court seeking judicial review of a decision by Richmond Council to approve new Roman Catholic primary and secondary schools in the borough.

The schools are due to open in September; and the Council says that a democratic decision was taken to approve the schools and that it is confident it acted lawfully. The petitioners argue, however, that under the current law Richmond Council should have first sought proposals from groups wanting to set up free schools or academies. In short, the BHA was accusing Richmond of setting up two new Church schools by the back door.

In the event, the challenge was rejected but Sales J said that he would give his reasons later. We await them with interest.

When interfaith marriages die

We recently reported on the dispute between divorced parents over whether or not their halachically-Jewish daughter should be allowed to be baptised. A similar dispute has arisen in Scotland, in KS v TS [2012] ScotSC 100 (1 November 2012), in which the unfortunate sheriff had to adjudicate on the religious upbringing of the children of a divorcing Muslim/Christian couple.

Historic sexual abuse

The miserable catalogue of historic sexual abuse within the Churches was in the news again when Swift J handed down her final decision on causation and quantum in Raggett v The Society of Jesus Trust 1929 for Roman Catholic Purposes & Anor [2012] EWHC 3132 (QB) (09 November 2012). Mr Raggett claimed damages for personal injury, loss and damage consequent upon sexual abuse and assaults allegedly committed on him by a teacher, one Fr Spencer, who died in 2000, when he was a pupil at Preston Catholic College between 1969 and 1976. There was limited comfort for the defendants in the fact that she awarded only some £51,000 for pain, suffering, loss of amenity and the costs of therapy but rejected Mr Raggett’s claim for some £4 million for past or future loss of earnings, handicap on the open labour market or pension loss.

Coupled with this came the news that Peter Ball, a former Bishop of Lewes who later became Bishop of Gloucester, had been arrested on suspicion of abusing eight boys and men in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He was later released on medical advice and the police said that it was intended to interview him at a later late. The police also arrested a retired Church of England priest, Vickery House, on a separate set of allegations and released him on bail. The arrests followed a police investigation which started when the Church of England passed on two reports on the safeguarding of young people in the Chichester Diocese during the 1980s and early 1990s.

Social media – how far can you go?

Last week we included a guest post by Andrew Hambler on a case that has stimulated a lot of critical media comment: for example, this long piece in the Daily Mail. In Smith v Trafford Housing Trust [2012] EWHC 3221 (Ch) the claimant, a housing manager employed by the Trust, had been demoted to a non-managerial position with a 40 per cent cut in salary for posting comments on Facebook critical of the prospect of  same-sex marriages in church. Briggs J concluded that Mr Smith had been wrongfully dismissed from his original post; but because he had accepted a  lesser role under a new contract of employment the possible damages were very limited. His Lordship expressed “real disquiet about the financial outcome of this case” and clearly felt that an injustice had not been remedied.

Given that no less an authority than Peter Tatchell (whose record of campaigning for gay rights is unimpeachable) described the outcome as “a victory for free speech and fair play” there is little more to be said – except, perhaps, that though Mr Smith may have received an apology from the Trust and vindication from the court, neither of those things puts him back to where he was before the whole affair started. Not, perhaps, the most wonderful day for Anglo-Welsh justice.

Social media and the Church

Our ten further questions for the new Archbishop asked how important were electronic communication and social media in communicating the Church’s message?  We noted that Twitter was one of the media used by the Prime Minister to announce Bishop Justin’s appointment, who with the ABCD added their own tweets.  The echurch blog notes that his Twitter handle will have to change from Bishopofdurham, which preceding the announcement had 2,500 followers, and now is rising rapidly.

Across in Rome, Pope Benedict is reported to have encouraged Catholics to join sites like Facebook and Twitter, and as part of a communication initiative to bring the Vatican closer to its 1.1 billion members, he will launch a personal Twitter account before the end of the year.

And finally … Ireland’s abortion laws under scrutiny again

The Irish newspapers reported the tragic case of Savita Halappanavar, a dentist aged 31 who presented with back pain at University College Hospital Galway on 21 October, was found to be miscarrying and died of septicaemia a week later. According to her husband, she asked several times over a three-day period that the pregnancy be terminated but her request was refused.

The case has been the subject of extensive comment both in the press and on the Web, notably by Fiona de Londras and Máiréad Enright on the admirable Human Rights in Ireland blog, and raises again the unresolved issues from the ECtHR judgment in A, B and C v Ireland 25579/05 [2010] ECHR 2032 (16 December 2010).

For us to attempt to add anything to their analyses would be verging on the impertinent; however, a report in the Irish Times suggests that the tragedy may have at last spurred the Government into action. Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore is reported as saying that there was a need to bring “legal clarity’’ to the abortion issue following the death of Mrs Halappanavar. Well, that’s one way of putting it…