Month: February 2014

Update on plain packaging

Further to my recent post about the submissions of the Law Society on plain packaging of tobacco products to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children, the below letter was sent yesterday by a number of solicitors to that Committee.

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Solicitors and “plain packaging” laws

I wrote earlier about plain packaging laws for tobacco products and intellectual property. I mentioned that the Law Society had made submissions to the Oireacthas Joint Committee on Health and Children in relation to the issue.

I, along with 12 other solicitors who are members of the Law Society, did not endorse the submissions made by the Law Society before they were made and do not agree with them. On Monday afternoon, we wrote to the Society. A copy of the letter appears below.

I have received a response from the President of the Society today to say, essentially, that it is under consideration. The Director General of the Society has also written to The Irish Times in relation to a clarification he makes about their reporting of the issue, and that letter may well appear tomorrow. The President tells me:

The elected representatives of the solicitors profession, who comprise the Council of the Law Society, will continue to decide on what issues and with what content the views of the Law Society will be submitted to the many Government Departments, agencies, Oireachtas Committees and, indeed, other bodies who constantly seek the Society’s views on a vast range of different issues.

Tobacco packaging and intellectual property law

Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/sludgeulper/
Misty water-colored memories, of the way we were

The Oireachtas is currently considering a draft law that would introduce mandatory “plain packaging” of tobacco products. Last week, the Law Society appeared before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children to make a presentation opposing such a law. RTÉ’s Prime Time covered the issue on Monday evening.

From Irish Cancer Society
I’ve seen the future and it will be; I’ve seen the future and it works

A written submission was made by the Intellectual Property Law Committee of the Law Society in December 2013.

Videos of the Law Society’s appearance before the Joint Committee appear at the end of this post.

A number of issues arise, both from the point of view of the proposed legislation itself and in relation to intellectual property rights. Australia has led the way in introducing a plain packaging law and its courts have upheld the measure. A case is underway under the World Trade Organisation dispute resolution system.

One of the main arguments, made both by the tobacco industry and the Law Society, against plain packaging is that such laws may breach international treaties on intellectual property. The Australians have already been down this road, so it is worth looking at their experience and commentary.

no right of use exists under either Paris or TRIPS and … Article 20 of TRIPS has [a very limited role] in the context of the debate surrounding the legislation

An important theme of the [Australian] ruling [which upheld their plain packaging law] concerned the nature and role of IP law. The judgments stressed that IP law is designed to serve public policy objectives – not merely the private interests of rights holders.

  • Following the introduction of the plain packaging law, Australia dropped a rank in the Global Intellectual Property Center International IP Index – from fourth place internationally, to fifth. That ranking has itself been criticised by IP experts. It is notable that, in the context of the Law Society fearing that a plain packaging law would damage our international standing, Ireland does not feature at all in the GIPC index. According to Mark Summerfield:

In a number of places the GIPC somewhat disingenuously neglects to mention that the restrictions are limited to tobacco products.  For example, in its summary of key findings, under the heading ‘Moving Backwards’, it contends that ‘Australia’s plain packaging requirements severely limit the ability of trademark owners to exploit their rights, and send a chilling message to brand owners interested in selling in the Australian market’, as well as making a point of the fact that ‘[i]n 2013, five countries brought action against Australia in the WTO on the basis that the new law violates Australia’s WTO commitments.’

As far as the contribution to the index is concerned, Australia scores zero, out of a possible one point, in the category of ‘non-discrimination/non-restrictions on the use of brands in packaging of different products.’

That’s right, a total fail, on the basis of a restriction which applies to just one category of products, which is applied for the purpose of furthering public health policy!

The tobacco industry and the Law Society are also greatly concerned about counterfeiting. The Law Society submission stated:

plain packaging can only lead to an increase in counterfeit activity … The lack of distinguishing features on plain packaging will make it significantly easier to produce counterfeit tobacco products.

At the hearing of the Joint Committee, the Law Society effectively abandoned this point after representatives of An Garda Síochána and the Revenue Commissioners gave evidence that they did not expect to have to deal with an increase in counterfeiting activity on foot of a plain packaging law. According to Cancer Research UK, the argument does not hold water.

The least one can say is that the tobacco industry is very inconsistent in their main argument that plain packs will be easy to copy. On the one hand they claim that plain packs are easy to counterfeit, on the other they insist that counterfeiters already copy all paper-based material at short notice, even the most sophisticated tax stamps. The reality is that all packs are easy to counterfeit and that plain packaging will not make any difference.

An argument is also put forward that there is no evidence that a plain packaging law would be effective in reducing smoking. This argument is highlighted by the industry and the Law Society on the basis that, in the absence of such evidence, a plain packaging law may be unjustifiable and disproportionate. I am somewhat confused as to the points made in the written submissions and those made at the Joint Committee hearing regarding justifiability and proportionality and those elements appear to have been conflated in relation to intellectual property law and constitutional law. Nevertheless, the argument seems weak in an Irish context and at least in relation to the Constittuion, one Irish intellectual property expert has concluded that “on balance, plain packaging legislation is unlikely to be struck down on Irish constitutional property grounds”.

The tobacco industry commissioned its own research which, unsurprisingly, is inconclusive as to whether or not plain packaging laws have any effect on smoking rates. There appears to have been a reduction in smoking since the law was introduced in Australia, but the industry says that reduction in not statistically significant. Of course, the Australian law is still relatively new so the most that can be said is that it is too soon to say. Thankfully, the Australian media have fact-checked the industry’s claims. It certainly seems that the law has had an immediate impact:

Calls to the NSW Quitline increased by 78 per cent in the four weeks after the world-leading move in October 2012 before starting to taper off. “Our study demonstrates real behaviour change following the introduction of plain packaging,” said lead author University of Sydney Professor Jane Young. The response was more immediate and lasted longer than the 2006 introduction of graphic health warnings, said Prof Young, who is also scientific director at the Cancer Institute NSW.

Australia is the only country to have introduced a plain packaging law to date, and it has done so very recently. Therefore the evidence of the practical effects of such a law is not yet available and conclusions on the legal position of such a law remain to be tested. As things stand, it is clearly an area in which there is a significant level of debate and certainly very strong and convincing arguments against the position of the tobacco industry in relation to intellectual property law.

Challenging court closures

A few years ago there were concerns, which sometimes resurface, that the Courts Service might close the District Court in Newcastle West and transfer its sittings elsewhere. The only logical venue would be Limerick city, which would raise a number of problems for the Courts Service, lawyers and their clients.

It appears unlikely, at least for now, and in the past year some areas have been added to the Newcastle West district. Court sittings have also been reorganised. Other districts have not been so lucky and have lost out on their local court house.

The West Cork Bar Association has recently been granted leave by the High Court to challenge the closure of the court in Skibereen.

The West Cork District Court area extends from Kinsale westwards as far as Castletownbere. In recent years, there has already been seven local courts closed by the Courts Service in the West Cork area, the most recent being Kinsale District Court which sat for the last time on December 19.

The West Cork Bar Association issued a statement yesterday saying solicitors were concerned court closures were seriously eroding access to justice for people living in the region. The organisation said that if more closures were allowed to proceed, the people of West Cork would face travelling long distances to Cork City to deal with district court matters, when under the Constitution, the State has to provide courts of local and limited jurisdiction.

Solicitors pointed out that vulnerable citizens, who require the urgent assistance of the district court, such as in a domestic violence situation, will find it much more difficult to access the help and protection they need.

I mentioned previously a High Court judgment which dismissed a challenge brought by solicitors in New Ross area against the temporary relocation of court sittings to Ardcavan. The challenge was on public interest grounds and on the basis that the move threatened the applicant’s right to earn a living.

In that case, the Courts Service argued that solicitors do not have locus standi (a legal interest) to challenge the closure. Mr Justice Hedigan rejected that argument:

I accept that as solicitors practising in the relevant area they have a strong interest in the decision sought to be quashed both in their own and their clients interest. The question is fairly posed “if they do not have locus standi – who does?” The fact their interest coincides with the public interest does not, it seems to me, alter anything. In my view, the applicants have the requisite locus standi to challenge the decision made.

However, in the New Ross case the transfer was originally intended to be temporary due to an “urgent need” where the courthouse was “unsafe or otherwise unusable” and therefore the challenge was dismissed. Mr Justice Hedigan’s decision obviously leaves the wider questions open:

  1. is a court closure an attack on the constitutional right of local solicitors to earn a living; and
  2. is a court closure an attack on the constitutional right of citizens to have access to justice?

We might get an answer from Skibereen.

Protecting court proceedings from social media

[Updated 6/2/14] The most high-profile white collar crime trial in the history of the State got underway today. This post in not about that case, but rather the impact of social media on court proceedings and reporting. Previously, when the jury for that trial was being selected and sworn in, Judge Martin Nolan made a number of interesting comments which hint at the impact social media and the internet can have on court proceedings.

Jury Cat

[Judge Nolan] told the panel that it is unrealistic to expect them not to have heard of Anglo but said that anyone who has expressed strong views in public should not sit on the jury.

He said that this includes views expressed on the Internet, including Facebook. Judge Nolan said it would be embarrassing for the jurors if it emerged during the trial that they had expressed views on Anglo on such “permanent forums.”

Once the jury had been selected, he warned jurors that they “should not conduct their own investigations into the case or even read up on it. He said he will regard such activity as a breach of the jurors’ oaths.”

The risk that a juror would engage in independent research is not new but it is heightened by social media and the availability of information online. For example, a university lecturer in the UK was jailed for three months in 2012 for researching a defendant online and sharing her findings with the jury.

It is obvious from the comments of Judge Nolan that the Irish judiciary is alert to the risks. With smartphones in every pocket an array of research resources are available to everyone to an extent unimaginable fifteen years ago. The temptation for a juror to google the accused over lunch could be considerable. [In fact, the issue has already arisen: last year a criminal trial in Cork collapsed when the jury foreman informed the judge hearing the case that a juror had learned of information concerned the accused on Facebook and had discussed it with fellow jurors. Judge Ó Donnabháin warned the juror that she could be facing contempt of court proceedings and granted her legal aid in order to engage a solicitor.]

Research by jurors is an issue which the Law Reform Commission has already considered, in their 2013 Report on Jury Service.

The advent of the internet and social media sites, and in particular their ready accessibility through smart phones or Wi-Fi enabled tablets, now provide access to a wide range of materials such as archives of media reports that may have reported on the factual background to a trial, general information on scientific matters that might arise in a trial (such as DNA evidence) and a huge array of general commentary such as blogs and other material from social media. This information can contain prejudicial material, and has the potential to impact on the right to a fair trial. In recent years, trial judges have incorporated specific comments to the jury not to access information regarding the trial through internet search engines or social media.

The Commission recommended that specific reform was needed to deal with juror misconduct in carrying out “extraneous investigations” using the internet and social media. Their report includes a draft Juries Bill 2013 which includes, in section 39, an offence of making inquiries about the accused or any other matters relevant to the trial. “Making an inquiry” is defined as including “conducting any research, for example, by searching an electronic database for information (such as by using the internet), viewing or inspecting any place or object, conducting an experiment or causing someone else to make an inquiry.”

The proposed penalty, however, is a Class B fine on summary conviction – currently a maximum of €4,000. Under the existing law, referred to by Judge Nolan, such research could be a breach of the juror’s oath and result in a finding that they are in contempt of court. Such a finding could lead to a prison sentence, as has happened in the UK. I suspect that the proposal by the LRC is intended to highlight the issue for jurors and while the draft Bill is only a suggestion, one would think that a stronger maximum penalty is warranted.

Inappropriate contact between parties to proceedings is another risk, referred to by Gerry Curran in the Courts Service News in 2012.

Examples of flagrant abuse of this exist [internationally], including the appearance of disparaging remarks about other jurors on social media sites and jurors ‘friending’ each other on Facebook, trying to ‘friend’ counsel for either side and even ‘friending’ defendants in cases they were serving on.

This might appear unlikely to some readers but anyone who has maintained social media accounts for a few years is likely to have received more than one unexpected friend request. Juries already get warnings about discussing cases, but Judges may have to spell things out for jurors. According to Curran:

“[Studies suggest] that the magnitude of social change caused by social media requires the judge to adopt additional specificity when giving instructions. Brand names of social media need to be used as people are so used to using them as an extension of thought. It is also important to emphasis the fair trial element of the instruction – as the same familiarity might well cause a feeling in the juror of giving up a personal freedom in not communicating.

As if the courts don’t have enough on their plate worrying about the conduct of juries, court orders can of course be broken by members of the public. In the UK in 2013 two men received suspended sentences for posting photographs allegedly showing the now-adult killers of James Bulger, in breach of an injunction, on Facebook and Twitter (AG v. Harkins & Liddle [2013] EWHC 1455 (Admin)). That decision shows the relative speed and success with which the UK authorities have kept on top of the issue and no doubt will act as a deterrent in future.

Whatever about jurors, journalists have certainly taken to social media and many provide interesting updates in between various court hearings. [In fact, the Irish Times is liveblogging the Anglo trial.] Curran notes the risks:

Live ‘tweeting’ is akin to broadcast – it is sent with no delay, there is no taking it back, and no limits to dissemination. But what if soon after a courtroom tweet a judge rules something inadmissible, or to be ignored by the jury, or is patently shown to be a lie? In the UK guidelines effectively limit the use of Twitter to accredited media, who apply to do so and who, of course, are familiar with the court process and the consequences of endangering same.

Again, these risks are not necessarily new: a journalist might deliver an update on radio news during a lunchtime broadcast which includes material which might later be ruled on by the presiding judge. Journalists, of course, have expertise in dealing with court reporting and generally are sensitive to what should and should not be reported depending on the stage the case has reached.

Very meme

Nevertheless, recent developments certainly suggest an aversion to live tweeting or “contemporaneous reporting”. In the high profile surrogacy guardianship case  (M.R & Anor v. An tArd Chlaraitheoir & Ors [2013] IEHC 91), the appeal of which is currently being heard by the Supreme Court,  Mr Justice Abbott directed that the case be heard otherwise than in public but that certain journalists be allowed to attend and report on the hearings subject to a number of conditions, including that “no contemporaneous social media reporting e.g. by Twitter shall be carried out”. [I am not sure how the Irish Times liveblog of the Anglo trial is maintained but such a blog could constitute contemporaneous social media reporting.]

Similarly, family law proceedings have now been opened up to the media who can report cases so long as the parties are not identified. New guidelines on reporting of such cases prohibit live-tweeting (although the Courts and Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2013 do not contain the prohibition). Those guidelines appear to have been circulated to judges but not, to my knowledge to date, to lawyers and they don’t appear to be available on the websites of the Minister for Justice or the Courts Service.

As with many areas of the law, it is enforcement rather than any new measures themselves that will be interesting. Recent experience in the UK is of effective detection and prosecution of offences followed by serious penalties. The Anglo trial, which will last for months and be of intense media interest, may provide the first real test for the Irish court system in dealing with these dangers.

Financial Services Ombudsman: a preference for “talk” over rights?

Late last year the Financial Services Ombudsman made some remarkable comments about High Court judgments affecting his office. He acknowledges that powerful agencies should be accountable to the courts, but believes that judicial decisions have been inconsistent and/or incoherent. The tone of the comments is alarming, given that the Ombudsman deals with complaints made by consumers.

FSO

The Ombudsman provides a form of binding arbitration which does not impose costs (either up front or as a consequence of losing) and so it is obviously attractive to consumers. However, the sting in the tail is that a decision of the Ombudsman can only be appealed to the High Court, which would otherwise only deal with cases worth more than €75,000.

An appeal from a decision of the Ombudsman must be lodged within 21 days. The Ombudsman’s website helpfully informs visitors that parties wishing to appeal should contact the Central Office of the High Court. Appeals are not simple: they will probably involve complicated issues of fact and law. The complainant may not have had legal or professional advice during the course of the complaint but would reasonably seek at this stage.

The Ombudsman is affronted by the outcome of some of these appeals.

He said findings that he should hold an oral hearing if there was a “conflict of material fact” in a case were “not compatible” with the operation of his office. “If we have to hold an oral hearing in every such case, I hope our political establishment has the intellectual honesty to abolish the office because otherwise it is simply a charade,” he said.

This is a surprising argument: it is not “compatible” with the operation of his office to hold oral hearings, so therefore decisions saying that oral hearings might be necessary are incoherent or, at least, somehow incorrect. When dealing with these appeals the High Court is considering issues of fair procedures and the correct application of the law, not the convenience of a State body. Whether or not the holding of oral hearings is compatible with the Ombudsman’s office is a question for the executive, not the courts.

Mr Prasifka said if the logic of one judgment was followed, “potentially every one of the thousands of decisions made since we have set up is constitutionally challengeable”.

One might think that such a decision suggests that the practice or the law needs changed. Instead, the Ombudsman takes the view that these decisions are “incompatible” with his office and therefore wrong. By contrast, he believes that financial institutions should “learn” from their experience of complaints decided on by his office. He does not appear to consider the possibility of financial institutions taking the view that decisions by his office are “incompatible” with their own business (as, in fact, seems to be the attitude of certain financial institutions).

The Ombudsman, however, appears to betray his true feelings by suggesting that perhaps the Ombudsman system just won’t work in Ireland because “rights are much too important”. This is an extraordinarily dismissive attitude to the rights and interests of complainants. One must wonder what is more important than rights? Perhaps bureaucratic efficiency or satisfying some particular group over the interests of individual rights holders. Bear in mind: the statement was made by the  “most powerful office of the ombudsman in the world”.

William Prasifka

The Ombudsman was subsequently interviewed on RTÉ’s This Week radio show. First, however, Padraic Kissane was interviewed and discussed his extensive experience of Ombudsman complaints. He said that he had dealt with a number of identical complaints to the Ombudsman that resulted in inconsistent decisions.

[The banks] take the view that they really have nothing to lose by getting a case referred to the Ombudsman because  … the win percentages of the Ombudsman for complainants is so low in Ireland, compared to the UK for example, and I have seen and have in my files inconsistent decisions from the Ombudsman’s office relating to the identical terms and conditions of an application and they were both within three months of each other. So it’s the inconsistency of the whole issue.

Mr Kissane refers to the “win percentage” for complainants. The win percentage for financial institutions has gone from 63% in 2009 to was 73% in 2012.

A significant issue for the operation of an office like the Ombudsman is that while it purports to be in the interests of consumers by providing a cost-effective means to pursue a complaint, the reality is that it is pitting those consumers against seasoned professionals. Not only that: consumer complaints are being arbitrated by an office that does not want to be constrained by having to respect the rights of the people who generate the complaints.

This is, in many respects, the contemporary blueprint for justice. The Personal Injuries Assessment Board is another low-cost, modern alternative to courts but one which again encourages individuals to enter a forum, alone, in which they are faced with heavyweight professionals. There are calls for the establishment of a similar body to deal with medical negligence claims. It is popular, if not populist, to essentially seek the removal of lawyers from the equation, but does that protect the interests and rights of citizens? In addition: each time a new dispute resolution forum is established the supposed failings of the courts system remain unaddressed.

One of the consumer’s rights is the right, already referred to, to appeal a finding of the Ombudsman to the High Court. Whether to do so is a serious question. Such an appeal would not be expensive and risky. Many would seek legal advice and services and might not have had those services when first dealing with the complaint. So the complainant and their lawyers have only 21 days in which to weigh up the situation and make a decision.

Given the Ombudsman’s statements about High Court decisions it might not be surprising that he does not appear to be in favour of people taking such appeals.

If anyone thinks that we’re inconsistent they should come and talk to us and in certain cases where people have come to talk to us about this we found that on a closer examination there are actually important differences between the cases and that explained by and large the different result. But look, we always seek to improve our decision making and anyone who has a concern about that is really free to come and talk to us.

I don’t know how available the Ombudsman’s staff are to people who want to “come and talk” but it would seem to be an unhelpful approach to suggest that people who have 21 days in which to decide whether to appeal a decision should first consult the other side in this manner.