Legal News Roundup: November 2020
Note: The cases mentioned below are on-going and are therefore frequently changing. The article below provides most recent details at the time of publication.
While the easing and tightening of COVID-19 restrictions continue to dominate headlines and discussions around the globe, there have also been ground-breaking developments in the legal sphere. From Poland’s shocking decision to ban all abortions to President Donald Trump’s threat of legal action following his failed re-election, check out some of the top headlines in November.
The Verdict is Out: Judge Rules that Johnny Depp is a “Wife Beater”
One of the most high-profile celebrity legal cases in recent history, Johnny Depp’s libel claim reached its conclusion earlier this month. The Hollywood star sued News Group Newspapers over an article in British tabloid The Sun which described him as a “wife-beater”. Over the last few weeks, evidence presented to court dominated headlines and gripped fans who heard testimonies of Depp’s alcohol and substance abuse as well as his beatings inflicted on him by ex-wife Amber Heard. The case embroiled several celebrities as well as various medical practitioners and staff who worked for the couple. Judge Mr Justice Nicol ruled that The Sun’s claims were nevertheless “substantially true” and substantiated 12 out of 14 cases of domestic violence. He found Heard to be the “victim of sustained and multiple assaults” at the hands of her ex-husband.
Various women’s and domestic abuse charities have hailed the ruling for breaking traditional silence around domestic abuse in favour of listening to victims. Particularly considering the high-profile status of the perpetrator, this case is seen to validate the experiences of those subjected to domestic violence by their spouses. In response to the Judge’s decision, Depp was also requested to step down from the upcoming installment in J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts franchise, sealing the irretrievable damage to his reputation.
Significantly, this libel suit is simply a springboard for a larger claim Depp seeks to launch in the United States over an article Heard wrote for the Washington Post. The piece discusses domestic abuse she faced and while it does not name Depp specifically, it is widely speculated to refer to him. The US$50 million (over £37.4 million) defamation suit describes Heard’s claims as “an elaborate hoax to generate positive publicity” at Depp’s expense. His lawyers have argued that he has faced professional and financial difficulties as a result of the accusations, including being fired from his iconic role as Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The outcome of his libel suit against The Sun was crucial for anticipating how his defamation case will play out.
Despite stating his intention to appeal the Judge’s decision, Depp was denied permission to appeal, suffering a further blow. Nevertheless, we can anticipate that the former spouses’ legal battle will continue to play out for the foreseeable future.
Scotland to Offer Free Sanitary Products
In a landmark decision, the Scottish Parliament voted to make feminine hygiene products free for “all who need them”. The first country in the world to do so, the move sealed Scotland’s commitment to fighting period poverty and supporting people who lack access to basic needs such as proper sanitary provisions. The Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill, which was passed unanimously, follows a government program launched in 2018 which began offering free sanitary products in schools, universities, and colleges.
Period poverty is people's inability to access suitable products during their menstrual cycle, with nearly a quarter of young Scots in schools or higher education reporting facing struggles in acquiring menstrual products. However, issues surrounding lack of access to sanitary products are not simply related to costs. Menstruating individuals may face other constraints such as homelessness, abusive relationships, and health conditions, to name a few. Concerns surrounding period poverty have undoubtedly been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic which has resulted in around a third of girls struggling to access sanitary products. Crucially, “periods don’t stop for pandemics” and the closure of schools limited access to free pads and tampons while alternative methods such as toilet roll were threatened by shortages.
As well as addressing these concerns, the new legislation is a move towards destigmatising periods which can often be a source of embarrassment for young girls. Hopefully, this can hopefully spark more open and constructive discourse. After many years of relentless campaigning, the bill also crucially establishes feminine hygiene products as essential items, much like contraceptives, rather than luxuries.
Local authorities will now be legally responsible for ensuring the accessibility of tampons and pads to any individuals who need them. How this will be implemented in practice remains to be seen as of yet.
Revival of Taylor Swift’s Music Ownership Debate
In 2019, pop star Taylor Swift made headlines for denouncing the sale of her masters to Scooter Braun when his company, Ithaca Ventures, acquired her former record label Big Machine Label Group which had control of her first six albums. She had objected to the sale on the grounds that Braun “tried to dismantle” her music legacy. Braun has now further sold Swift’s recordings to Shamrock Capital, an American private equity firm, for a reported US$300 million (approximately £225 million).
Ownership of her original recordings gave Braun, and now Shamrock Capital, sales revenues from Swift's songs as well as control over their use (for example, their inclusion in adverts and films). However, as a co-writer she has retained some publishing rights, giving her the power to veto any of the companies’ choices in how her music is used. Nevertheless, there is very little she can legally do to actually counter the sales of her masters as these are the property of record companies.
Swift intends to re-record her original six albums under her new record label Republic Records once contractual restrictions over re-recordings expire this month. She also hopes to collaborate with Shamrock Capital in the future, a venture the firm has also openly welcomed. In the meantime, she continues to advocate for artists’ ownership of their creative works.
Persistent Gender Inequality in the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court
There has undoubtedly been slow but steady improvement in incorporating more women into the legal industry with women constituting around 49 percent of lawyers in firms. However, women tend to dominate entry-level positions with the presence of women declining in the higher echelons of the legal sphere. This is clearly demonstrated in the Supreme Court where efforts towards gender inequality have been marred by the recent resignation of one of two female Justices.
Lady Black is due to step down at the beginning of 2021, following in the footsteps of another former Justice, Lady Hale, who retired around the same time earlier this year. This leaves the UK’s highest court facing an 11:1 ratio in favour of male Justices. This will be further exacerbated by the departure of Lady Arden, the last remaining female Justice, in 2022.
Applications for Lady Black’s replacement have placed a heavy emphasis on diversity, not only in terms of gender but also in regard to other factors such as ethnicity. While appointments will be based on merit, when faced with two candidates of similar credentials and qualifications, those from underrepresented backgrounds will be given preference. This aligns with the Court’s wider objective to adapt to current demands for inclusivity and equality and create a judiciary that reflects the country’s population.
Delays in Implementing the Abortion Ban in Poland
Controversially, Poland’s recent court ruling banned nearly abortions in Poland significantly even those involving severely malformed foetuses. Abortions have been a highly contentious subject in the country with the abortion bills in 2016 sparking some of the largest public demonstrations in Polish history. This was surpassed earlier this month when over 100,000 protestors flouted social distancing guidelines to gather in the country’s capital of Warsaw. The protest was also accompanied by over 400,000 people participating in women’s strikes across 400 towns.
In the face of these mass protests, particularly in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the country’s right-wing government, spearheaded by the Law and Justice (PiS) party, has been forced to delay its implementation. President Andrezj Duda also backtracked, amending the original ruling to allow for abortions in cases of “life-threatening birth defects”. However, this crucially still does not include Downs syndrome and other similar conditions. The government has stated its intention to navigate this issue cautiously as it is “difficult and stirs high emotions”. Uncertainty plagues the nation as men and women wait to see whether or not it is followed through in practice.
Allegations of Australian War Crimes in Afghanistan
Trigger Warning: Please note that the discussion below contains graphic and violent details that may be disturbing to readers. Discretion is advised.
After four years of investigations, the newly-released Brereton Report has implicated members of Australian Special Forces in the murder of 39 Afghan civilians. A group of soldiers from the elite Australian Special Air Services have been accused of perpetrating war crimes such as slitting the throats of non-combatants and elaborately covering up their actions, by planting weapons with the corpses to justify their brutality. Their merciless “blood lust” shocked and deeply troubled researchers who found that many of the killings were a form of ritualistic initiation to give junior soldiers their first “kill”.
Many of the victims were prisoners, entitling them to protection under various forms of international law such as the European Convention on Human Rights, the Third Geneva Convention, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to name a few.
The recent release of the report has prompted apologies and condolences from several prominent members such as President Scott Morrison, Chief of the Australian Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, and Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne. The Australian government has also launched investigations into the claims made by the report in order to persecute individuals who were involved.