Law and religion round-up – 24th October

Dominic Raab on the rule of law

Last Sunday, the Secretary of State for Justice gave an interview to the Sunday Telegraph on his proposals for amending (or maybe replacing) the Human Rights Act 1998 in which he suggested that the European Court of Human Rights was imposing too many “obligations on the state” rather than simply defending individuals from “undue interference”.

It’s well worth a read, as is this riposte from Professor Mark Elliott on Twitter – kindly unrolled at our request by @ThreadReaderApp – and this analysis by Joshua Rozenberg.

Assisted Dying Bill: the Government’s position

On Friday, the House of Lords debated the Assisted Dying Bill and, in accordance with long-standing custom, it was given an unopposed second reading. Replying to the debate on behalf of the Government, Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice, summed up the Government’s position on the Bill like this:

“So far as the position of the Government is concerned, I can sum it up in one word: neutrality. But I mean real neutrality. If the will of Parliament is that the law on assisting suicide should change, the Government would not stand in the way of such change but would seek to ensure that the law could be enforced in the way that Parliament intended. That would include … reviewing the language in some parts of the Bill to ensure that it reflected what Parliament meant…

“It may seem obvious to us, but it might not be obvious to all those watching our proceedings—and we should be conscious of the interest that this debate has engendered outside the House—so I want to make it clear that the Government’s neutral position is certainly not an indication that we have no interest in the topic or do not care much one way or the other. Our neutrality is not a shrug of the shoulders; we are not uninterested in the outcome. Rather, as a Government we are disinterested as to the outcome. Precisely because the matter is so important, and is a matter of conscience, we take no partisan position. We are impartial and neutral.

“The Government therefore remain of the view that any change to the law in this area is an issue of conscience for individual parliamentarians. We all have to make up our own minds, based on our background and all the other matters that will shape our conclusions“ [Lords Hansard cc507-508].

CCTV use by churches

On 12 October 2021 at the Oxford County Court, HHJ Melissa Clarke upheld the claim of Dr Mary Fairhurst that the surveillance devices installed in the house of her neighbour Jon Woodard broke data protection laws and contributed to harassment: see Fairhurst v Woodward [2021] G00MK161 Oxford Cty Ct. We have covered issues related to CCTV and GDPR in a number of posts, and this latest judgment involving the “smart” doorbells and cameras has raised further issues of privacy and data protection.

The case was widely – if inaccurately – reported by many publications. Our review CCTV use by churches notes:

  • this was a civil action resulting in injunctive relief, not a fine;
  • as a County Court judgment, it is not binding on other courts;
  • it was not the “smart” Door Bell per se that was the issue but the use by the Defendant of both video and audio information from this and other devices;
  • at the time of writing, the quantum of damages was yet to be determined.

Apart from that, the reporting was OK. Make up your own “bingo card” and see who scores most!

Wedding law reform: the Welsh Government’s view

Russell Sandberg reports that Mick Antoniw MS (Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution) has confirmed the support of the Welsh Government support for wedding law reform on the floor of the Senedd. In reply to a question from Joyce Watson MS asking what discussions he had had with other law officers regarding the campaign to grant humanist marriages legal recognition, he said:

“I thank the Member for an important question. The Welsh Government supports the Law Commission’s proposals for a framework that would allow non-religious belief organisations to conduct legally binding weddings. The Minister for Social Justice has written to the UK Government expressing support of these proposals and seeking this work being taken forward in a timely fashion.”

Identical divorce petitions: a postscript

On 13 October, we reported on Yorston & Ors, Re (Matrimonial Causes Act 1973: Improper Petitions) [2021] EWFC 80, in which Moor J had dismissed 28 divorce petitions, drafted by and filed on behalf of the petitioners by iDivorces, in which the allegations of unreasonable behaviour were absolutely identical. Mr Eastham, a director of iDivorces, had apologised to him “profusely” [8]; nevertheless, he had given serious consideration to referring the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions as a possible attempt to pervert the course of justice [10].

Subsequently, in an interview with Legal Futures, Mr Eastham said that all 28 had resubmitted their divorce petitions with amended reasons and that Moor J had been “fantastic and very understanding”. He described having to prove fault as “so old hat” and said that the company’s standard divorce petition was “trying to use amicable and neutral language that did not point the finger … We were trying to push things more towards no fault, but the law is the law and the grounds were just too similar.”

So now you know.

Defaming the dead

In a judgment by the ECtHR – ML v Slovakia [2021] ECHR 821 – which only came to our attention because it was related to the activities of a dead Roman Catholic priest – the First Section ruled that articles in three tabloid newspapers about his conviction for sexual abuse and a possible link between his conviction and his supposed suicide had violated the Article 8 rights of his mother. She had argued that he

“had been a simple parish priest until his death in 2006, hence he had no longer been active in public life at the time of the publication of the articles and could thus not have been considered a person of public interest; moreover, his criminal convictions had occurred a long time ago, and the time interval that had passed had weakened any potential interest of the public in receiving such information. Nor could the involvement of the Church in her son’s case be considered a matter of public concern, as maintained by the Government, since her son had never been in custody and it had not been proven that any guarantee had been offered on his behalf by the Church” [27: emphasis added}

In an article in The Spectator, Professor Andrew Tettenborn comments that “the effect of this will be to throw a substantial monkey-wrench into the machinery of journalism”. The assurance that you cannot be sued for libelling a dead person “may well be gone”.

Which hasn’t got anything specifically to do with “religion”, but it’s certainly of great interest to journalists – and bloggers. One for the Grand Chamber, maybe?

Ritual slaughter

In answer to a question from Fabian Hamilton (Leeds North East, Lab) asking the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what steps he is taking to ensure the Jewish community is able to continue performing shechita, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Jo Churchill, replied:

“The Government is committed to protecting the rights of Jews to eat meat prepared in accordance with their religious beliefs. This includes slaughtering animals by the shechita method. This is a fundamental issue of religious freedom and belief, which the Government upholds.”

COVID-19 and religion in Manitoba

In Gateway Bible Baptist Church et al v Manitoba et al 2021 MBQB 219, the Court of Queen’s Bench of Manitoba dismissed challenges to the Public Health Orders imposed by the Province on gatherings at places of worship and at private homes. The court held that, though the restrictions infringed the rights to freedom of conscience and religion,  thought, belief, opinion and expression, and peaceful assembly, the Public Health Orders fell within “such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society” under section 1 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and

“the decision to temporarily close places of worship and otherwise limit the size of gatherings, was rational, reasoned and defensible in the circumstances of an undeniable public health crisis” [335].

[With thanks to Howard Friedman.]

It’s that time of year again

On 18 October, the ONS released its latest data sets on the most popular first names for baby boys and girls in England and Wales in 2020 using birth registration data. Whilst this is only of peripheral relevance to “law and religion”, our own statistics from WordPress indicate that the post from 2014 Naming Children: England and Wales, 2013 is the eighth most popular post for “All time”, i.e. since 2012.

Which leads us to wonder, with Moya Crockett of The Independent, Why we are so fascinated by what other people choose to call their children? We’ll leave further comment to the media.

Quick links

And finally…

God and robots: Will AI transform religion? Probably not, concludes the BBC website.

Alexa, what was the Vestiarian Controversy about?

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