Full bhoona today – at it from start to finish, early til late.
First event was the plenary session – an assessment of the current issues in Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka from local speakers involved in or familiar with those situations.
In Zimbabwe there continues to be oppression of lawyers and judges. Anyone seeking to support, represent or protect persons targeted by the Government is now being accused on trumped-up charges of fraud or other criminal offences. This is a move away from beatings of large numbers of people, but potentially as damaging to the rule of law. We were taken through a harrowing sequence on how the law is being manipulated and subverted by the authorities.
Beatrice Mtetwa (see previous diaries) should have been at the conference, but had recently been released on bail following her appeal and had been advised by her own solicitors not to leave Zimbabwe for now. The CLA has sent a trial observer to oversee the Beatrice Mtetwa case, but the Government continues to pursue her for doing nothing more than her duty within the law. A tribunal has been set up for removal of the High Court judge who released Beatrice on bail, on an application in a hearing late at night.
On the big screen we were shown photos of the arrest. Beatrice is seen being made to sit on the floor of the police office, then being taken to court in the back of an open truck, in prison with uniform on, and then being released from the High Court.
Our speaker refuses to give up hope. Naming and shaming of key people in the Attorney General’s office and an audit of judicial decisions are processes ongoing to try to fight back.
A statement from Beatrice Mtetwa was read out and we signalled our concern and support loudly. I hope President Mugabe hears.
We then heard from the Sri Lankan speaker, a saddening tale of the Chief Justice being unlawfully removed from her position by a kangaroo court of Parliament, engineered by the Government out of fear or pique or utter failure to respect the rule of law. All she did was agree a bail variation for an out-of-favour general.
Our assembled membership delegates were asked to approve a decision by the CLA council to condemn and restrict Sri Lanka for oppressive removal of its Chief Justice from office just for doing her job. We did so, unanimously.
I attended a session on media control and was interested to hear a comparison between the South African experience and the UK. All media lawyers around the world are acutely conscious of the Leveson enquiry proposals and their follow-through to the royal charter process. Other nations chipped in, including a very good speaker from India who talked about India having one of the freest presses around, but this has now been called into question when during an armed attack on a building, Indian TV crews got right into the action. Their live video pictures showed so much that the confederates of the terrorists were able to direct the attackers by using the real time footage and phoning to help them avoid the defending police. It looks as if many countries are having the same Leveson debate we’ve had, though the South African speaker said that if the royal charter thing goes through in the UK, it will give the ANC the push it needs to follow through with their wished-for control of the media, only just being held back so far by the SA constitution.
A further session on the related subject of defamation was also most instructive. Lots of interesting technical stuff, but one feature that ran through the talks and questions was that of murmuring judges. How much protection should judicial officers have from personal sniping? While we were discussing this, Gilbert Marcus, an eminent South African attorney, got a text from his office that one of his clients, a newspaper in Swaziland, had just been convicted of traducing the Chief Justice of that country and had been handed a massive fine with the alternative of two years’ jail if not paid.
To put things in context of scale, Northern Ireland’s Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan said that sometimes the thing to do when you are attacked by a disappointed ex-cabinet minister is just to say nothing. I contributed to the debate from a Scottish media lawyer’s perspective and said how much I admired that attitude from Sir Declan. If you are in a big office, you have to have a strong back – can’t stand the heat? Get out of the judicial kitchen. But the point is that in so many countries that kind of calm thinking just does not apply.
It’s funny how you sometimes put things together by chance. I was at a session about equal opportunity in the legal profession, specifically from a sex equality point of view. We heard that entrants to the profession in, say, the bar in England are representative of the population split, but then 10 years on the imbalance has returned – for presumably family reasons mainly. A young female barrister was addressing the issue, and told us that as of yesterday, the bar has established (I presume in London) a nursery specifically for barristers. Given that barristers classically have unstructured days – getting a last minute brief for a trial in Manchester to last five days, a dedicated nursery that understands the flexibility and timing issues arising from a legal job must be a great new thing.
At the same moment my son, who is with a large law firm in London, emailed me with a photo of the Welsh Guards outside his office in Fleet Street, on guard for Lady Thatcher’s funeral, and I recalled the FL telling, on scouring that firm’s website for all sorts of data/reassurance before Jonathan went there, that they provide emergency childcare if there is a disaster outside working hours that would impact on availability of staff. Now OK, they do it because it makes sense in the best interests of the firm not to lose staff at short notice for a day or longer, but what an enlightened device it still is.
Went to the final of the Commonwealth moot, run by Michael Bromby and Patricia McKellar, a colleague of mine from my early BBC days, now working in the University of London.
The teams (university students) were from the UK and Australia, arguing a case about nuclear proliferation. The judges were the Chief Justices of New Zealand, Trinidad & Tobago and the Falkland Islands. The students were brilliant in front of such an eminent and inquisitorial tribunal. Calm submissions and comprehensive command of the brief on both sides. The room was packed by an audience of delegates from many nations, also pressurising the advocate contestants. The UK won, but either team could have, in terms of quality and skill.
Although there has been a substantial amount of formal business, indeed work, to be done here – partly because the conference is so busy, but also so we can get in everyone’s faces for Glasgow 2015 – there is of course a little downtime. Some of the WAGs went on the bus tour of the Cape, just a morning’s whistle-stop tour of some of the natural splendour that abounds near Cape Town. Sadly the weather has turned Glaswegian, though whilst that has probably fazed some of our more tropical brethren, it didn’t put the Scots off one whit.
They saw lots of exciting flora and fauna, magnificent landscapes and seascapes. On one sea edge they saw a penguin not so much hopping or waddling, but distinctly limping. Given my earlier tripping misfortune and ongoing ankle difficulties, the penguin was instantly christened Austin, and there was a mad scramble urged by the FL for camera and video cameras to record this heroic bird, no doubt to taunt me with. Sadly/happily he slid into the sea like a good’un and refused to return. He is probably well on his way to Antarctica, which the guide told them was the next landmass across the ocean from this spot. God speed, Austin! And don’t get married to any penguinette too bossy or fussy or satirical.
Evening was billed as a gala dinner. After an hour’s bus journey it turned out to be a boy scout cook-out. You needed strong elbows to get anywhere near any actual food. The Hong Kong delegation – who have promised us a big number of lawyers coming to Glasgow 2015 – were handing out keyrings with little bears. The lady wanted to know what I was going to call mine (she gave me four, all apparently female), so now Bella, Senga, Isa and Effie are carefully tucked in the flight bag for the journey home. The other noteworthy thing is that everyone was offered some face-painting. The sight of Alistair Morris with a series of white dots on his face was… unnerving.
Tomorrow is our big Scottish day at the CLC – I go on to the podium to close the conference and invite everyone to Glasgow. Can't wait.