What the Mosley privacy decision really means

Where does this leave effective protection for privacy?

This morning the European Court of Human Rights rejected Max Mosley's contention that the United Kingdom should ensure that those who are about to have their privacy intruded upon by the media be notified in advance. (There is an excellent legal analysis of the decision already at the INFORRM website by Hugh Tomlinson QC.)

There are three main points of significance to this decision.

First, the substantive English law in respect of the misuse of private information remains unchanged. Mosley would still be able to bring his case and the News of the World would still have to pay substantial damages and costs. There is nothing in this decision that actually changes the law as it stands.

The unhappy consequence of the decision is that in situations like the case of Mosley, where there was no public interest in the intrusion, the victim's only remedy will still be to bring an action for damages after their privacy has been irretrievably lost.

This means that only individuals as wealthy and resilient as Mosley have a remedy for the breach of their legal rights. The cheaper, speedier and effective remedy of an injunction, which would allow the enforcement of privacy rights by those not rich and famous, has been held by the Strasbourg Court to be not a requirement.

So, contrary to the misleading spin of the mainstream media about how "prior notification" would favour the rich and famous, continuing with the status quo means that expensive and lengthy damages actions for privacy can only really be threatened or taken by someone of the attributes of a Max Mosley.

Second, this decision may not be the final word in this case. It is open to Mosley to appeal to the Grand Chamber. Indeed, had Mosley won this round, then the UK government may have made such an appeal. If so, this is a matter that will not go away and, just as no one could predict how the Court would rule today, no one can predict confidently what the Grand Chamber may decide, and then there would then be no higher appeal for any party.

Third, it leaves open the difficult question of what protection should there be in the meantime for individuals who face having their right to privacy irrecoverably lost for no good reason.

Such intrusions, without a public-interest justification, will continue to be an infringement of an individual's legitimate right to a private life. The "Hackgate" scandal has shown that tabloids are indifferent to the legal and voluntary restrictions to their intrusions. The commercial desire to publish the private details of individuals when there is no public interest is not a serious "free-expression issue". Obliging the press to have a public-interest justification before publishing such information cannot seriously be called censorship: it is simply decency and fair play. In 99 per cent of cases, the press contacts the subjects of stories in advance, and that is not "censorship" either.

However, given the welcome and impressive development of privacy law since the introduction of the Human Rights Act 1998, today's adverse decision is only mild setback for those seeking a more civilized and respectful society.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and a practising media lawyer.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.