Whose human rights are more important, yours or mine?
Under the law, should your right to express your opinion – be it on politics, the environment, abortion, or anything else – trump my right to go about my business unhindered, whether or not I happen to agree with your opinion?
On the face of it, such a potential conflict of interests seems absurd. Surely, in a fair and liberal country such as the UK there should be plenty of room to accommodate a plurality of opinions and to protect the public from any undue interference in their daily lives.
And yet the Public Order Act 2023, which received royal assent in May, seeks to strike a balance between precisely those two rights. Our cover feature this month, written by Emelia Bezant-Gahan, analyses the act, its implications for the right to protest and competing human rights issues.
Has the government struck the right balance? The bill was ping-ponged between parliament and the House of Lords multiple times as MPs and lords and the government clashed over the extent to which police should be empowered to shut down demonstrations – even those that are, arguably, at an embryonic stage.
The police, it should be noted, never requested these powers. As our cover feature explains, the new act may simply snarl up regular police work as officers are waylaid by a surge in arrests and the knock-on effects upon both police time and the availability of local custody suites. It may require significant government investment in policing to accommodate effective enforcement of the new law.
And that’s before we even discuss the impact on protesters themselves. Secondary legislation has also since been passed, with regulations that lower the threshold for what kind of protest activity is considered “serious disruption”.
Whatever one may feel about protesters slow-marching down motorways, many would argue a line is being crossed when police are permitted to impose restrictions on, or prohibit protests which cause, “anything more than minor” hindrance to the day-to-day activities of others.
The fact that David Cameron’s former director of communications, Camilla Cavendish, described the (then) bill in the Financial Times as an “affront to a civilised society” suggests that this isn’t, necessarily, a party-political issue either.
Elsewhere in this issue, we have a feature on the Financial Reporting Council’s proposals for overhauling the UK Corporate Governance Code (p32). Paul Brehony argues they are a backwards step from what was first envisaged.
On p40, Jennifer Dickson examines the Law Commission’s review of the laws on the financial consequences of divorce. She argues that while the current law may be sufficiently certain for couples who can afford legal representation, the situation is unclear for the majority of couples who cannot.
Linzi Bull and Sarah Everington, meanwhile, examine proposed reforms to surrogacy law in the UK (p28). They argue that while societal attitudes towards surrogacy may have changed in recent decades, “the current surrogacy laws in the UK are outdated, inadequate and, quite frankly, discriminatory”.
And on p36, Matthew Briggs considers the tax implications for employees and employers when employees work abroad – particularly since the Covid-19 pandemic, which brought about significant changes in working patterns.
This month’s edition also features an interview with leading international lawyer and author Philippe Sands KC. On p48, he talks about his new book, The Last Colony, and discusses the intersection between public international law and environmental law.