Month: November 2013

Significant reforms of family law in 2014/15

Two important announcements have been made by the Government that will lead to reform of family law in Ireland:

  1. a referendum on same-sex marriage will be held in the first half of 2015;
  2. the Family Relationships and Children Bill will be enacted in advance of it.

Both announcements are the responsibility of the Department of Justice where the Minister, Alan Shatter TD (FG; Dublin South) has a long-standing interest arising out of his significant, high-profile career as a family law solicitor. He, literally, wrote the book and has been calling for reform of many aspects of family law for decades. The Bill is not a comprehensive reform package, but does address some key issues.

The current situation in cases involving children where the core concern of the courts is their welfare will be updated to emphasise their “best interests”, as will be required by the new article 42A.4.1° of the Constitution once signed into law by the President (assuming that the Supreme Court appeal challenging the referendum result is unsuccessful). The wording of the Bill itself is not yet available, but the proposal to include legislative guidance on the best interests principle is particularly welcome. “Best interests” will

includ[e] the benefit of meaningful relationship with both parents, ascertainable views of the child, needs of the child, history of upbringing and care, religious, spiritual and linguistic needs, harm suffered or which the child is at risk of suffering, custody arrangements, capacity of applicants etc. [as well as considering] any family/domestic violence and its impact

Existing guardianship legislation provides little detail on the nature, obligations and powers of guardians and this will also be changed. In addition, the range of people who can become guardians will be expanded to provide greater opportunity for non-parents to obtain guardianship. This will particularly benefit non-parents who reside with a child as a spouse, civil partner or cohabitant of that child’s parent. It also envisages guardianship for non-parents who have cared for children where their parents or guardians were unwilling or unable to do so.

While principles concerning the voice of the child in family are established in practice the Bill will clarify those principles, for example by requiring that a child over 12 must be consulted in relation to guardianship, custody and access applications. 

The Bill includes limited provisions to deal with assisted reproduction and surrogacy. While assisted reproduction will not be fully regulated, the Bill will specify who the legal parents of a child are in a number of possible scenarios. The Bill will also prohibit commercial surrogacy arrangements.

There have been reforms to the law on children, cohabitants and civil partners in recent years but there has been little reform of the key questions of parentage, guardianship, custody and access. Part of the reason, it could be surmised, is an unwillingness to tackle such issues when a variety of alternative or new family arrangements have arisen but were considered too politically controversial to address, for whatever reason.

Between 2008 and 2011 very little happened that was not dictated by economic considerations and it is refreshing to see that, while those considerations still dominate, the current Government has evidently decided to tackle social issues as well.

More detail on the proposals should be available by the end of 2013 with the Bill being published and (it is intended) enacted in 2014. The Government has created a long run-up to the same-sex marriage referendum, which will allow significant time for debate, though the proposed legislation is unlikely to be available before 2015.

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Road tax implications of horses in caravans

A caravan, to most of us, brings to mind cramped “holiday” accommodation in wet, seaside fields.

Motor caravans (including camper vans) are large vehicles, but benefit from reduced rates of road tax and reduced compliance obligations. They are used for leisure purposes (ie. tourism) which the State obviously has an interest in encouraging.

Pushing it.
Pushing it.

However, a “motor caravan”, as defined in Irish law, can be a much larger vehicle than the traditional caravan or camper van. For example, a commercial vehicle like a truck can be converted into a motor caravan and might have a large storage area which could be used to contain bicycles, or even animals. Once the vehicle meets the requirements of the Revenue Commissioners and is used for private purposes it can benefit from a special €95 rate of road tax. If its weight does not exceed 7.5 tonnes it does not require a tachograph machine.

Concessionary rate of road tax

The issue of road tax sometimes arises when the owner of a large motor caravan is accused of having paid the incorrect rate of tax. A vehicle must be taxed at the highest rate applicable to its use and, for example, commercial vehicles are taxed according to weight.

The definition of a “motor caravan”, for the purposes of road tax, is:

a vehicle which is shown to the satisfaction of the Commissioners to be designed, constructed or adapted to provide temporary living accommodation which has an interior height of not less than 1.8 metres when measured in such manner as may be approved by the Commissioners and, in respect of which vehicle, such design, construction or adaptation incorporates the following permanently fitted equipment—

(a) a sink unit,

(b) cooking equipment of not less than a hob with 2 rings or such other cooking equipment as may be prescribed, and

(c) any other equipment or fittings as may be prescribed

A special annual rate of tax for motor caravans has existed in Ireland since 1998, currently €95. By contrast, rates of road tax for commercial goods vehicles can reach almost €5,000 annually.

The fairness of the special rate for motor caravans was raised in the Dáil in 2012 by Sandra McLellan TD (SF; Cork East), who asked:

whether it is equitable that a large motor caravan only pays €95 road tax while it costs €307 for an 1108cc Fiat Panda

Phil Hogan TD (FG; Carlow-Kilkenny), Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government explained the background to the rate.

I understand that the rationale behind the introduction of the concessionary rate was that, while motor caravans are generally less in use than many other categories of vehicle, rates of motor tax were relatively high … I understand it was also considered that a concessionary annual rate of tax for motor caravans would encourage tourism and tourist related activities, not least by facilitating more out-of-season use of motor caravans, where previously owners may have taxed and used the vehicle for only three months of the year due to cost.

Some motor caravans have attracted attention because they resemble commercial goods vehicles, having started out life as such and having been converted into motor caravans. The owner of such a vehicle might be stopped by An Garda Síochána and told that their €95 rate is insufficient and a higher rate, which could well exceed €1,500, is due.

I have successfully defended a number of such prosecutions. If the registration certificate says the vehicle is a motor caravan and it is being used for private and leisure purposes, the €95 rate applies. Prosecutions have arisen because the vehicles in question, while meeting Revenue requirements, included an open cabin area at the rear which might be used for the carriage of, for example, horses. The legislation does not say that this is permitted but neither does it prohibit it. Once the horses are not being carried for commercial purposes, the higher rates do not apply.

Tachographs

© National Library of Ireland
Simpler times.

Many vehicles require tachograph machines in the interests of road safety. It is often thought that motor caravans are exempt from that requirement, but that is not quite correct.

There are a range of exemptions available and though they have different legislative sources they are listed in the Road Safety Authority tachograph declaration form. The two most relevant to motor caravans relate to weight:

  • where gross vehicle weight does not exceed 3.5 tonnes; or
  • where the vehicle or combination of vehicles does not exceed 7.5 tonnes and is used for the non‐commercial carriage of goods.

Confusion sometimes arises because the law on tachographs is made primarily on a European Union level and implemented into Irish law. The Irish regulations do not specifically mention all the exemptions available but some of those referred to are similar to those not referred to. Which is less than helpful.

For example, regulation 5(1) of the Irish law exempts a range of vehicles from the requirement to have a tachograph fitted. Subsection (d) refers to combinations of vehicles not exceeding 7.5 tonnes, but only when used by a universal service provider or for carrying equipment for use in the course of the driver’s work. This is sometimes understood to be a qualification of the non-commercial 7.5 tonnes exemption referred to but in fact it is a different exemption. Regulation 5(1) does not contain the full list of exemptions: regulation 21(1) goes on to say that the Irish law does not apply to vehicles exempted by article 3 of Regulation 561/2006, which itself contains the non-commercial 7.5 tonnes exemption.

Therefore, for most caravan owners, if your vehicle is under 7.5 tonnes a tachograph machine is not required.

As with road tax, confusion sometimes arises because converted commercial vehicles might still contain the tachograph machine that was used in the vehicle’s former life. It might not be functioning any more, or the driver might re-use an old tachograph card when driving, each of which could ordinarily constitute offences. However, if a tachograph machine is not required in the vehicle to begin with it does not matter that the machine is not functioning or is not being used properly.

The Circle (a rare book review)

The CircleSam Seaborn (or Aaron Sorkin) said it in 1999: “The next 20 years will be about privacy.” So it’s not surprising that serious authors will tackle the issue, as Dave Eggers has now done in The Circle.

The eponymous company in The Circle is quite obviously Google, or a successor to it. It dominates the internet and begins to dominate the world. Its name is apt, for the purposes of a book if not a real company: the Circle is closing in on us, one ring to rule them all, as it were.

Much discussion of the book has consisted of a misguided complaint that it lacks authenticity. Critics have made the absurd argument that because Eggers is not an insider it is not a valid portrayal. The complaint appears to be that he has not faithfully represented the internet, or Silicon Valley, as they exist (or are perceived to exist) today. This Wired review misses the point entirely.

In his desire to create a world where The Circle rules all, Eggers creates so many extremely unlikely or outright impossible scenarios that happen simply because he needs them to happen. As they stack up through the course of the book, it gets harder and harder to take it seriously even as satire until finally it becomes outright fantasy, with only a tenuous connection to reality as we know it.

It is true, to an extent, that some things happen because Eggers needs them to happen. Call it artistic licence or call it deus ex machina: an author is entitled to move a plot forward. Wired want a book about technology, which The Circle is not. Neither is it quite true that the book strays into the realm of fantasy; but even if it did, is that not a valid way of exploring the issues raised?

The Guardian, less obsessed with fidelity to the tech industry, struck the right note:

It’s not clear whether The Circle is intended as a satire of the present or a dystopian vision of the near future. Eggers’s writing is so fluent, his ventriloquism of tech-world dialect so light, his denouement so enjoyably inevitable that you forgive the thin characterisation and implausibility of what is really a clever concept novel.

The quality of the prose is not quite as the Guardian would have you believe and certainly does not match his earlier works. The Circle is patchy and clumsy in places (never in literature was a shark jumping pun more deserved). It is Crichtonesque and notably screenplay-friendly, but it fails to meet the standards set by either Crichton or Eggers himself. The Wall Street Journal sums it up well:

The Circle is not great literature. But it is a great warning—one that you’ll be hearing a lot more about.

The book is not interesting because of its prose or its authenticity: it is an allegorical tale, “a clever concept novel”. The allegory is not subtle and the tale is not particularly inventive, but nevertheless, even where the plot seems to overstretch, such as in the messianic monologues of The Wise Men, one does not have to go far to find similar statements and ideas already out there.

The Circle aims for “completion”, a state of complete “transparency” in society which effectively eliminates private spaces. Everyone has full access to everyone and everything else. That critics view this eventuality as being far fetched is astounding. For years now influential figures have formulated a philosophy of voluntarily limited privacy. In this profile of Mark Zuckerberg published by the New Yorker in 2010, a media and communications specialist at Microsoft Research outlined a key element of Zuckerberg’s views on privacy:

This is a philosophical battle. Zuckerberg thinks the world would be a better place—and more honest, you’ll hear that word over and over again—if people were more open and transparent.

In The Circle, it is as if Eggers has taken this quote and run with it. The book merely ties together a few strands that are already hanging out there today and develops them to a reasonably logical conclusion: how would people behave following a period of sustained erosion of privacy, cataloging of all information and aggressive privitisation or outsourcing of public services?

Zuckerberg, according to some, doesn’t believe in privacy. His response?

Zuckerberg defended the change — largely intended to keep up with the publicness of Twitter, saying that people’s notions of privacy were changing.

There are, generally, two primary ways the situation is currently viewed. In Zuckerberg’s articulation we have voluntarily modified our behaviour and our expectations of privacy. On the opposite end of the spectrum, as recently articulated by Eugene Kaspersky at the Dublin Web Summit, privacy can never be guaranteed online so you modify your behaviour accordingly. Either way there is grim inevitability.

“There is less and less privacy now. Fifty years ago, if governments and private companies were watching peoples every move there would have been huge protests,” he added.

A speaker at the same event pointed out that, despite the Snowden revelations, “nobody seems to care”, a view which arguably supports Zuckerberg’s vision of privacy.

In The Circle, the ability to modify behaviour and maintain privacy is challenged as the Circle closes in on everyone. Mercer, the totemic refusenik of the book, tries to live outside of the Circle and, in partly comic fashion, it closes in on him too.

Google’s long-stated aim has been to make the world, not just the internet, searchable. This can be achieved only by putting more information online and Google have been active in digitising libraries and cultural institutes to that end. Add in years of your emails and documents and they range of analyses they can perform are significant. The book addresses the issues raised by the digitisation of old information.

In Ireland, we are finally getting around to introducing a law on “spent convictions”. According to Remy Farrell SC:

as time passes the relevance of a person’s previous convictions diminishes to the point that they should be ignored.

Should a similar principle be said to exist in relation to information? Data protection law already requires that personal information should not be kept for longer than necessary; but how long is that? If you set up a Bebo account in 2005 which is now dormant but you have never deactivated it, at what point should there be an obligation on Bebo to shut it down and remove your photos from public view? At present, the European Union is preoccupied with “right to be forgotten” which, in The Circle, becomes the stated “right to disappear” of a high profile objector.

The Circle addresses, but does not fully confront, the manner in which the new global surveillance society is coming about: as a trade-off. You exchange your personal information for useful “free” services. You exchange your personal liberties for useful security services. The book presents the ultimate trade-off: what would you trade to stop child abduction?

Elements of The Circle that seem fanciful, such as politicians and individuals becoming “transparent” by voluntarily wearing webcams which broadcast at all times, seem less preposterous as technologies like Google Glass emerge. Adrian Weckler, reporting on the Web Summit, recently ran into Robert Scoble roaming the RDS wearing Google Glass. He mentioned, in jest, that you could not be sure if he was recording you or not.

These technologies initially take off due to their “cool” factor. They gain critical mass and then the trade-off comes: why don’t you want to be transparent? What are you hiding? Eric Schmidt has already made outstanding statements:

If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place, but if you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines including Google do retain this information for some time, and it’s important, for example that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act. It is possible that that information could be made available to the authorities.

The “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” argument is Orwellian, oppressive, ridiculous and easily debunked. But it persists. Schmidt suggests privacy is some personal foible or luxury that you might unreasonably insist on, not a basic human right which, by the way, is enshrined in numerous laws.

An interesting aspect to corporate attitudes to privacy is the reaction of Google and others to the Snowden revelations. Google and Facebook believe you should be transparent, that you should put as much as your life online as possible and open that up to as many people as possible while also allowing them to analyse the information and your interactions with others. But when it is revealed that the NSA may be carrying out some analyses of their own by using backdoors to their systems, it’s a different matter.

“We have long been concerned about the possibility of this kind of snooping, which is why we have continued to extend encryption across more and more Google services and links, especially the links in the slide,” he said.

“We do not provide any government, including the US government, with access to our systems. We are outraged at the lengths to which the government seems to have gone to intercept data from our private fiber networks, and it underscores the need for urgent reform.”

So, Google’s chief legal officer says they don’t provide access to their systems. But just a few years ago, pre-Snowden, Google’s then-CEO warned that information retained by Google could be made available to the authorities. They want to ensure that your data is protected from others, but not themselves.

What is particularly confusing and contradictory about the current erosion of privacy is the extent to which corporate, institutional and governmental secrecy is on the rise. We are told to accept limits on our personal freedoms in exchange for security while also being told to accept limits on the transparency of organisations for the same reason. Glenn Greenwald is the cause célèbre:

I really urge everyone to take note of, and stand against, what I and others have written about for years, but which is becoming increasingly more threatening: namely, a sustained and unprecedented attack on press freedoms and the news gathering process in the US. That same menacing climate is now manifest in the UK as well, as evidenced by the truly stunning warnings issued this week by British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Attacking press freedom attacks the citizen’s ability, and right, to know what is going on. Transparency is for Us, it seems, but not for Them.

The Boston Globe’s review of The Circle begins:

When I finished reading Dave Eggers’s chilling and caustic novel, The Circle, I felt like disconnecting from all my online devices and retreating for a while into an unplugged world. I gather that’s what he had in mind.

I didn’t have that reaction. Rather, I was angry at the reaction of publications like Wired who so easily dismiss it. We have already sleepwalked into an era of eroded privacy and astounding information storage. It is not at all unlikely or impossible that the trend will continue. There have been a number of horrific privacy breaches over the past years that should make people question the extent to which they engage with online services or which might have led to changes in those services, but it hasn’t happened. Sometimes a work of fiction is needed to allow people to think about these issues outside of the dense worlds of tech and law.