Legal News Roundup: December 2020
As the most tumultuous years in recent history draws to a close, the legal industry continues to battle with the rippling effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Simultaneously, countries around the world continue to grapple with various socio-political issues from animal welfare to sexual assault. Here are some of the legal highlights over the last month.
Shia LaBeouf Sued for Emotional, Physical, and Mental Abuse
Trigger Warning: Please note that the discussion below contains details about domestic violence which may be disturbing to some readers.
American actor and Transformers star Shia LaBeouf is facing allegations he subjected his ex-girlfriend, British singer FKA twigs, to emotional, mental, and physical torture during their relationship. FKA twigs (real name Tahliah Debrett Barnett) filed a lawsuit outlining instances of abuse she suffered at LaBeouf’s hands.
For instance, she claims that in February 2019, while driving back from a holiday, LaBeouf removed his seatbelt and threatened to crash the car unless she told him she loved him. After begging to be let out, Barnett states that LaBeouf pulled over at a petrol station where he “followed and assaulted her, throwing her against the car and screaming in her face” before forcing her back in the vehicle. During this same trip, LaBeouf consistently demeaned and criticised Barnett, going so far as to choke her in the middle of the night while she was sleeping.
Over the course of their two-year relationship, LaBeouf had also exercised various forms of violence, such as isolating Barnett from friends and peers, keeping a gun beside him while they slept and knowingly infecting her with a sexually transmitted disease. When attempting to leave the relationship, she claims he became violent, yelling at, grabbing and locking her in a room. This was also supported by witness statements from Barnett’s housekeeper.
Barnett’s claims have been mirrored by stylist Karolyn Pho, another ex-girlfriend of LaBeouf’s, who included her own allegations in the suit. Pho claims that during their relationship LaBeouf pinned her to the bed and head-butted her, causing her to bleed. Both Pho and Barnett also state that LaBeouf restricted them from looking at or speaking to male waiters. By constantly haranguing Barnett, she claims that LaBeouf conditioned her to look down when spoken to by men.
LaBeouf, who has a history of violent behaviour and was filmed threatening another ex-girlfriend, Mia Goth, in 2015, has denied some of the allegations. However, he has also acknowledged his struggles with PTSD and alcoholism, apologising for any harm he may have caused to people as a result.
The nature of Barnett’s tort suit is unique as most allegations of domestic and sexual violence only arise during divorce or child custody proceedings or when seeking protective orders. However, claiming civil rights violations on the basis of gendered violence has become more frequent in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Her testimony also demonstrates how even powerful, wealthy and successful individuals with strong support networks can face abuse. It is therefore powerful for highlighting “the tactics that abusers use to control you and take away your agency”.
Airbnb Listed on the Stock Exchange
With the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the hospitality industry, American online holiday rental marketplace Airbnb tried to mitigate its financial blow by going public.
Facing a 72 percent decline in bookings in April 2020, the company tried restructuring its business. It cut its workforce across the globe by a quarter, reduced executive salaries, decreased marking expenditure and sought cash injections through private equity. Over the course of the last few months, it has slowly but surely improved with some people turning to local Airbnb’s for staycations or remote working.
Airbnb’s Initial Public Offering (IPO) is a further attempt to raise crucial funds in order to secure its survival as the pandemic continues. The move was highly successful with the company’s valuation exceeding US$100 billion (£73.7 billion), making it one of the US’ largest technology IPOs of 2020. Initially priced at US$68 (£50.13), share values jumped on the first day of trading before finally closing at US$144.71 (£106.60). This, analysts have theorised, was fuelled by investors’ faith that the tourism industry will soon recover from its “pandemic-fuelled slump”.
Lockdowns, social distancing measures and remote working during the pandemic have encouraged increasing dependence on forms of technology. This has fuelled greater investment in tech companies which have seen their revenues soar. Airbnb’s latest move sees it joining a wave of tech IPOs such as food delivery service DoorDash and cloud data storage company Snowflake, setting new market records.
Scotland Introduces Stricter Animal Cruelty Law
The newly-passed Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Act 2020 is set to toughen punishments for those found guilty of animal cruelty. The maximum jail sentence has been increased from 12 months to five years with courts also being granted the power to issue unlimited fines for serious offences against animals and wildlife.
Animal welfare agencies such the Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Scottish SPCA) will also be able to remove animals from unfit home and rehome them without requiring a court order.
Scotland also follows England and Wales by adopting Finn’s Law to protect service animals such as police dogs who act in self-defence. This legal protection limits people’s ability to harm such animals who “put themselves in harm’s way to look after us and protect society”.
Overall, these new measures reflect the country’s dedication to their animals by affording all manner of creatures “respect and care”. The new Act has been lauded by animal organisations for holding violent perpetrators accountable for their crimes. Particularly in light of concerns about the effect Brexit will have on animal welfare laws, this new legislation is lauded by animal rights activists and their supporters.
Denmark Criminalises Sex Without Explicit Consent
Trigger Warning: Please note that the discussion below contains details about sexual assault which may be disturbing to some readers. Discretion is therefore advised.
Denmark has passed landmark legislation regarding rape. Due to come into force in the New Year, the new law outlaws all instances of sex without the explicit consent of both parties. It joins other Danish laws which ban marital rape and emphasise that forms of rape can constitute acts beyond sexual intercourse.
In the past, lawmakers had demanded evidence that violence had occurred or the victim had been unable to fend off the attack in order for it to constitute as rape. Therefore, refusing sex did not constitute proof of rape in a court environment. However, the new law broadens the definition of rape to include any form of non-consensual sex. As highlighted by freelance journalist Kirstine Holst, “rape is violence in itself… you shouldn’t need other types of violence to prove it”. This legislation makes Denmark one of 12 European countries to adopt a consent-based rape law.
Research suggests that over 11,000 women are sexually assaulted every year in Denmark. The country has also faced issues with underreporting of cases due to a lack of faith in the Danish police force and judicial system. These doubts have been prompted by low conviction rates of sexual assaults and a tricky reporting process steeped in “rape myths and gender stereotypes” which undermine survivors and their experiences.
Therefore, as well as allowing judges to take a harsher stance towards sexual assault, the new legislation tackles an outdated rape culture that denies survivors justice and protection. Psychologist Nina Beck Hansen argues that the legislation can help develop public awareness and knowledge about rape which is not just “some sort of monster jumping from behind a bush to attack you” at night. Instead, “forced sex” that is not agreed upon by both parties can also be perceived as rape. Such laws importantly take responsibility away from the “woman to fight with her rapist” and instead “expects the man not to rape”.
Having passed a similar law in 2018, Sweden witnessed the number of rape convictions increase by 75 percent between 2017 and 2019.
The new Danish law will also be accompanied by a 24/7 hotline to support victims and amendments to sexual education curriculums in schools in order to reflect these new understandings. The country’s police force also faces reform as new specialist teams will be established to facilitate the effective handling of rape cases. Overall, these actions signify Denmark’s commitment to supporting victims of sexual assault and deterring such incidents.
High Court Rules Under-16s Cannot Consent to Puberty Blockers
The United Kingdom’s High Court has ruled that children under 16 are unable to give “informed consent to undergo treatment with puberty-blocking drugs”. Three judges, Dame Victoria Sharp, Lord Justice Lewis and Mrs Justice Lieven, argued that under-16s may lack the maturity to “understand the nature of the treatment” which has several life-altering consequences and side effects. Their decision was also influenced by concerns over the efficacy of such medical interventions, which are still experimental and have inconsistent success rates.
The ruling was in response to charges brought against Tavistock and Port NHS Trust, the UK’s only gender-identity development service (GIDS). As a teenager, claimant Keira Bell was referred to the centre for treatment for gender dysphoria, a condition where individuals’ “perceived identity” does not match with their “sex at birth”. She was subsequently prescribed puberty-blocking drugs. However, finding herself “down the wrong path”, Bell began detransitioning a few years later. She therefore criticised the clinic for not challenging her decision to transition more strongly.
Her claim was also supported by the mother of a 15-year-old autistic girl who is currently on the waiting list for such treatment. Mrs A, whose identity has been protected, is concerned about the long-term effects of such treatment. She argues that there needs to be more discussion of children’s feelings before steps towards medical intervention are taken.
In response to the ruling, the National Health Service (NHS) has “welcomed the clarity” on how to proceed in the future and has suspended all treatment referrals for “puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones” for under-16s. In the future, doctors are required to seek permission from courts to proceed with such medical intervention for teenagers up to the age of 18. However, this has also sparked concerns over the impact this will have on trans people and their right to express their chosen gender.