Legal News Roundup: September 2021
This September, news coverage of various cases showcased flaws with existing legislation and judicial practices in the United States, with Britney Spears’ conservatorship case and Gabby Petito’s missing person search. The International Criminal Court reinstated an investigation into the Taliban’s crimes against humanity since joining the ICC in 2003, and the European Union Court of Justice ordered the largest fine in its history to the Polish government over refusal to close a coal mine on the Czech Republic border. Several COVID-19 civil suits are underway in Europe, including one over a deadly super-spreader event held at Ischgl in Austria. Here are the legal news highlights from September 2021:
Britney Spears’ Conservatorship Sparks Potential Change in US Guardianship Laws
As of 29 September 2021, a Los Angeles judge ruled in Britney Spears’ favour for her father to immediately be suspended from his 13-year title as her conservator. This very public case - which has gone on for several months - has sparked controversy over guardianship laws at large for those with physical and mental disabilities. In testimony, Spears specifically cited how the guardianship stopped her from choosing her birth control method for her body. This denial of personal, bodily rights for a person under guardianship represents a broader contention over guardianship. Some see the current state of guardianship as a loss of critical human rights that conflicts with the United Nations Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities.
Washington and Maine are the only two states who have adopted the Uniform Law Commission's model legislation that includes reforms to give more autonomy to those under guardianship. This legislation includes prohibiting courts from denying people like Spears access to the council of their choice.
In Congress on 28 September 2021, The Guardianship Accountability Act was re-proposed by Democratic Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine. Most see Spears’ public case as pivotal in the push for this legislation. The Act would create a national resource center to improve guardian practices in various states and is viewed as legislation that can actively and positively change guardianship practices in the United States.
International Criminal Court Asked to investigate Taliban Crimes Against Humanity
A new prosecutor in the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan, has asked the Court to restart an investigation into alleged crimes against humanity committed by the Taliban in Afghanistan since 2003, the year Afghanistan joined the ICC. This comes after the Taliban reclaimed government control of Afghanistan in August 2021 followed by the official departure of US troops from the country at the end of the month.
Khan plans to utilise international law and specifically Article 5 in his case. He cites ongoing threats to civilians, persecution of and crimes against women and children and the suicide bombing at Kabul airport on 26 August 2021 as grounds for his case. His plan for the inquiry also includes the deprioritisation of alleged war crimes committed by both the Taliban and the US armies.
This is not the first time the ICC has attempted to hold the Taliban accountable for Article 5 crimes. A prosecution request to open a full investigation for alleged war crimes was granted by ICC judges in 2020 but the case was paused as the Afghan government submitted a deferral request in April of last year. The announcement of the investigation was kindly received by the Coalition for Genocide Response.
Homicide of YouTuber Gabby Petito and Missing Person Procedure
After 22-year-old influencer Gabby Petito’s death was ruled a homicide in Wyoming on 21 September 2021, an outcry on social media surfaced over the thousands of women classified as missing per year in the United States whose cases remain unsolved.
Several greater issues, including the process of reporting and the differentiation in investigating someone who is classified as a runaway versus someone who is classified as a missing person, play a critical role in this discussion. Critics of the current system explain that many black girls are usually classified as runaways rather than missing persons, and a runaway does not warrant an Amber Alert to be sent out to make those in the area aware of a nearby missing person. In 2016, the National Crime Information Center found that 5,712 indigenous women and girls went missing, but only 116 were recorded by the United States Department of Justice.
As statistics like these and personal stories about girls and women who have gone missing rise on social media, a push from the public to raise awareness about this issue and problems with procedures around missing person reporting and investigating is anticipated.
€500,000 per day Fine Issued to Polish Government over Coal Mine on Czech Republic Border
The largest fine ordered by the European Union Court of Justice was issued to Poland over a coal mine dispute on 27 September 2021. The Polish government has been ordered to pay a fine of €500,000 (approximately GBP 430,000) per day for the coal mine in Turów, on the border of Poland and the Czech Republic after the Czech government successfully argued in a case to the ECJ that the mine was creating a cross border environmental hazard.
The mine has been in operation since 1904 but the bordering countries of Germany and the Czech Republic have historically blamed Turów for draining their groundwater and creating dangerous levels of both air and noise pollution at the plant. The electricity plant is also allegedly the fifth-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Poland.
The Czech government asked the court to fine Poland €5 million per day as the country refused to halt coal mining but the court compromised with an order for a €500,000 charge per day. The Polish government stands by its decision on the grounds that the suspension of production would put the country’s energy supply at risk and has declared they will continue to pay the fine.
Austrian Ski Resort Super-Spreader Event Lawsuit
The Consumer Protection Association brought a civil suit to a Vienna Court on 17 September 2021 over a man who died from contracting COVID-19 at an Austrian ski resort. The case involves the widow of the man who seeks €100,000 (around GBP 85,600) in compensation for the death of her spouse. He died after staying in Ischgl in Austria where the ski resort allegedly held a super-spreader event with up to 11,000 people.
A report by a panel of Austrian experts that led to the court process concluded that government authorities should have closed the resort four days earlier than they did because the risk of the deadly virus spreading was already evident. They further criticised the government’s mishandling of the situation. Once it was found that guests were contracting COVID-19 at the resort, the Austrian Chancellor’s announcement of an immediate quarantine at the resort evolved into thousands of tourists quickly leaving the vacation spot to avoid getting stuck in lockdown, causing unnecessary panic.
There are 14 other lawsuits of this nature in progress according to the Consumer Protection Association and the ruling of this case may provide insight into the outcomes of similar cases.