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Legal News Round Up: December 2021

Happy New Year from the St Andrews Law Review! As 2022 begins, let us explore the final month in a long and tumultuous year. December may be a month where many take time off from work and spend time at home with family and friends. However, legal news does not take the holidays off.

This month has seen headlines ranging from Tesla being investigated and Russia and China clamping down on human rights and media groups to Ghislaine Maxwell being found guilty of trafficking minors, the controversial Nationality and Borders Bill and a string of new COVID-19 restrictions.

Tesla Probed by Government

In another blow for Tesla's eccentric CEO, Elon Musk, he and his company were placed under investigation by the United States government, and not for the first time this year. Musk is a staunch libertarian who, in online comments in the past, has referred to the 1999 movie The Matrix, encouraging his followers to “Take the Red Pill” and be distrustful of the government’s overreach into private businesses. He has shown disdain of government investigations of his businesses in the past.

This investigation is being carried out by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) who are investigating a feature called “Passenger Play” which allows users to play games on the cars' touchscreens while driving. Tesla owner Vince Patton filed a complaint with the NHTSA, describing the feature as "recklessly negligent”. The NHTSA are concerned that, despite Tesla warning drivers that only passengers should play while the car is in motion, drivers can still play or may be distracted by others playing. With 3,142 road deaths in 2019 attributed to distracted drivers, potentially more unfocused drivers is of great concern.

After initially not responding to the investigation, Tesla has disabled the feature across its almost 600,000 cars. Nevertheless, the feature and the company are still under investigation.

Russia and China’s Crackdown on Human Rights Institutions

In another move as part of a long history of aggression towards human rights groups, Russia’s Supreme Court has ordered International Memorial to cease operations in the country. The organisation, who were established in 1989, are the nation’s oldest human rights group. They have attempted to shine a light on Russia’s past and present atrocities, highlighting the millions executed, imprisoned and persecuted.

In 2016 the group were denounced as “foreign agents” like many other political groups and media outlets including members of Pussy Riot. By law, the group must identify as such online and in media. International Memorial failed to do so, maintaining it was due to a technical error. They subsequently argued that the government's response to this issue by shutting down the group was a disproportionate punishment. The group plans to appeal the decision to the European Court of Human Rights. In the meantime, this prominent, historic and celebrated human rights advocacy group in Russia will cease to exist, in seemingly yet another victory for Putin.

Russia was not the only state cracking down on opposition this month, with Hong Kong’s pro-democracy outlet Stand News shutting down following the arrest of many senior staffers and a raid of their offices. The arrested individuals are charged with "conspiracy to publish seditious publications". This case - which is very similar to the Russian incident, is not the first in an extensive list of attempts by the government to snuff out pro-democracy journalism in Hong Kong. Major outlet Apple Daily was also shut down earlier this year, prompting Stand News to stop accepting donations out of fear the money would go to waste when the organisation was eventually shut down.

Deputy Assignment Director Ronson Chan said that Hong Kong will “always need the truth and always need journalists''. While this is becoming increasingly challenging, those who believe in democracy continue to fight.

Ghislaine is Guilty

Former socialite and confidante to Jeffery Epstein, Ghislaine Maxwell has been found guilty on five of six counts, including trafficking a minor for sex. In a trial that took place over the course of a month at the Federal Court for the Southern District of New York, a jury of 12 reached the verdict that Maxwell was guilty of:

  • sex trafficking of a minor

  • transporting a minor with the intent to engage in criminal sexual activity

  • conspiracy to transport minors with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity

  • conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of minors

  • conspiracy to entice minors to travel to engage in illegal sex acts

During the trial there were a number of key moments of note: Maxwell’s lawyers suggested that one of the accusers was acting on the stand; Epstein’s housekeeper described Maxwell as the “Lady of the House” and that she directed the staff not to make eye contact with the late financier; Epstein’s massage table was presented to the jury; a never-before-seen picture showing the closeness of Epstein and Maxwell was brought forward and Maxwell was described as a “sophisticated predator” and the key to "a pyramid scheme of abuse".

The future for Maxwell and Epstein’s network of child sex trafficking remains unclear. The date for Maxwell’s sentencing has not yet been set and the civil case against Prince Andrew has not reached its conclusion either. One thing that was made public during the trial was that Epstein’s pilot recalled flying Prince Andrew, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Kevin Spacey. If any further action will be taken remains to be seen.

Updates to a Controversial Home Office Bill

For not the first time this year, the Home Office and Priti Patel have proposed a controversial new bill that negatively impacts the rights of British citizens and those wishing to call the United Kingdom home. The first came in April 2021 when the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill 2021 was proposed. The second, the Nationality and Borders Bill, was initially brought forward during the summer of 2021. Since then, the bill has made its way through the House of Commons and has been amended. Two main edits have been met with protests and dismay and have sparked controversy: the impact of the bill on border force accountability and Clause 9.

The amended bill will grant Border Force staff immunity if people die during push-back operations, which are designed to turn away asylum seekers who enter UK waters through the English Channel. This practice breaks both international and domestic law by denying asylum seekers their right to claim asylum and be protected. The UK's Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) has stated that the bill breaches human rights law as well as the 1951 Refugee Convention. Granting immunity for border forces is simply a further step for the state to wipe its hands of accountability for the refugee crisis in the Channel and the loss of life due to government immorality.

Clause 9 of the bill has also grabbed headlines for allowing the government to strip someone of their citizenship without prior notice if the state does not have their contact details or believes it is not “reasonably practical” to give notice. It also allows the government to strip citizenship if it is in the “national interest.” This is yet another step towards prioritising the wishes of the government over the rights of its people.

This clause has been criticised for its lack of due process and its effects specifically on ethnic minorities. By only allowing an individual to appeal the decision after their citizenship has already been revoked, it makes it harder to regain citizenship and strips the individual of the right to defend themselves. Furthermore, Frances Webber, Vice-Chair of the UK's Institute of Race Relations, believes that the bill will embolden the far-right and lead to more anti-Muslim violence. This is because she suggests the bill will most likely only be used to target British Muslims in the name of counterterrorism.

Coronavirus Restrictions

Boxing Day, 26 December, for many is a day for family, leftovers and shopping as January sales begin. However, in three of the nations of the UK, it was a day for new Coronavirus restrictions with Omicron cases on the rise. While new restrictions came into force across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, this was not the case in England as the government did not believe they were necessary.

The new restrictions vary in their specifics but include:

  • in Scotland, limits on the size of public events, the closure of nightclubs, a return to table service in pubs, restrictions on the numbers of households that can interact and the return of work from home requirements

  • in Wales, new restrictions include limits on the size of public events, closures of nightclubs, increased contact tracing, 2 metre social distancing and limited gatherings of up to 6 people

  • in Northern Ireland, restrictions include, the closure of nightclubs, a prohibition on dancing in hospitality venues and 6 person gatherings in hospitality sites

It remains to be seen if these new restrictions will be successful in curbing the spread of Omicron. However, as New Year’s Eve set a record high for daily cases with almost 190,000 people infected, the lack of new restrictions for the majority of the UK population in England is not looking hopeful. The World Health Organisation has suggested 2022 might be the year we finally conquer COVID-19. As we enter 2022, two full years since Coronavirus first entered news headlines across the world, only time will tell.


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