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Trial By Media

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Having recently watched the FX production of ‘The People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story’, I was interested in the role that the media played in the trial.  Beginning almost instantly after the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman, the media focused heavily on both the NFL player himself and the lawyers on either side.  For example, the Los Angeles Times covered the case on its front page for over 300 days after the murders.  Similarly, a number of TV networks gave more air time to the case than to the Bosnian War and Oklahoma City bombing combined.

During the O.J. case, not only did the media play an external influence, but some legal professionals have also claimed it played an internal role.  Judge Ito ruled that live camera coverage of the case was warranted, and thus allowed the media to play a significant role inside the court room.  Ito has also been criticised in comparison to Judge Fujisaki who judged the Simpson civil trial; Fujisaki banned TV cameras in the courtroom and implemented a gag order on lawyers.  Thus, Fujisaki was able to ‘pull the plug on circus antics in the O.J. Simpson case’ [Gale Holland].

Throughout late 20th and early 21st century America, there have been a number of cases where the media has been criticised for its overt implications on the doctrine of a ‘fair trial’.  For example, the media played a significant role in the impeachment trials of Bill Clinton.

The 2007 federal trial of United States v Libby was also notable for its media presence, including the increasingly popular blog form.  In this case, former high-ranking official in the George W Bush administration, Lewis Libby, was on trial for interfering with special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s criminal investigation of the Plame affair.  This trial was notable as Robert Cox, president of the Media Bloggers Association, claimed the case was ‘the first federal case for which independent bloggers have been given official credentials along with reporters from the traditional news media’.  On February 26th, it was reported that one of the twelve jurors had been ‘dismissed’ because she ‘was exposed to information about the trial’ [Richard Schmitt], thus indicating the potentially harmful role the media played.  This example conveys the danger of ‘trial by media’; it is important, particularly in America as per the first amendment rights, that the press is allowed freedom of expression.  However, when the press becomes too involved so that it infringes on the accused right to a ‘fair trial’, that is when the danger becomes too great.

In light of this, in England there are far greater restrictions on the role that the media can have in a trial.  As a result of contempt of court orders, the press is limited in what it can report on a trial; upon arrest of a suspect, the press is automatically obliged to restrict reporting of legal proceedings.  As Owen Boycott claims, ‘in an era where jurors are increasingly tempted to browse the internet for details… the problem of how to prevent them being unduly influenced is becoming more problematic’.  Thus, as individuals have a far greater opportunity to search for information, the media is under far greater restrictions on what it can express.  In order to take into consideration the recent social media advancements, the Attorney General in 2013 issued official statements highlighting the need for care by members of the public who came into contact with the justice system in their use of social media.  The Attorney General stated ‘this is not about telling people what they can or cannot talk about on social media’, claiming rather the guidelines were to protect the rights of citizens and facilitate lawfulness.

Therefore, although the case is different in Britain and America, in both countries there is a recognition of the significant danger the media can play in the application of a fair trial.  A fair trial is one of the most sacred aspects of the modern legal system, and thus it is important to protect the rights of citizens, however without infringing too significantly on the press’ right to expression.

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Legal Reform: Social Norms and Technology

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In the same way that photoreceptors in your eye respond to light, law responds to the stimulus of social pressure and technological advances. Take smoking as a first example. Rising drastically during the First and Second World War, the number of adults smoking cigarettes by 1949 amounted to approximately 81% of the male population and 39% of the female population. In the mid-20th century, smoking was seen as a social norm, with many advertisements oblivious to the health detriments caused by smoking. Notable slogans claimed fabricated benefits: “for digestion’s sake”, “a feeling of well-being”, and “throat protection against cough irritation”.

It was not until a 1950 report published in the British Medical Journal that evidential research was found, linking smoking with the formation of lung cancer. This was the first of a chain of research that changed the way both doctors and the public viewed smoking, resulting in social pressure for legal reform, in which the government was forced to respond to. In 1965, a ban on television cigarette advertisement was implemented, progressing to a complete advertisement ban in 2005 and most significantly an end to smoking in public was enforced in July 2007. More recently, the debate over cannabis legislation is a hot topic for future debate, with 26 US states currently legalising marijuana in some form. As scientific research progresses in this field of study, perhaps society’s attitudes towards cannabis may change, prompting further legal reform.

New crimes were necessary as computing became more prominent towards the end of the 20th century. The Computer Misuse Act 1990 served as a response to the rise in cyber-crime, most significantly hacking. Further legislation brought in targeted identity fraud and harassment over the web, encompassing cyber-bullying although it has no specific mention. Moreover, the development of cars and their sudden surge in frequency led to more common traffic accidents. Subsequently, laws were implemented to make driving on the roads a safer experience, with drink driving, mobile phone usage, and speeding all becoming new additions to criminal law in the UK.

To conclude, law has successfully evolved in line with social norms and technological developments in order to protect society and respond to pressure from reformist groups. It is vital that the law regularly adapts to modernisation, to prevent a backwards legal system and to protected the welfare of the majority.

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Recent Case of Charlie Gard – Who Knows Best?

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doctors vs judges

The recent Charlie Gard case that has flooded international news is characteristic of the intricate, global controversy: who has the right over life?

Infant Charlie Gard was born with an extremely rare genetic defect known as MDDS, which irreversibly deteriorated his condition to severe brain damage, immobility, deafness and ventilation by artificial means alone. Established under The Children Act 1989, institutional authorities (hospitals, governments) were assigned with giving the final decision on whether a young patient could live, designed to safeguard parents from protecting their own needs rather than what was best for their child.

Whilst Charlie’s parents wanted their precious child to live, all courts of appellate jurisdiction, along with the doctors at Great Ormond Street Hospital, at which Charlie was kept on the life support, thought it was in Charlie’s best interests to end his life rather than allow his quality of life to be irrevocably poor.

So, who should we trust to give the final say about a child’s well-being? Should families, who have given birth to the child, their possession, be given the legal responsibility to overrule the state in their decision? Of course, this brings moral implications, such that the parents would not want to say goodbye to their child and therefore not act in his/her’s best interests.

Let’s now bring in another scenario, whereby the patient is of adult age. Tony Bland sustained detrimental injuries from the Hillsborough Disaster in 1989, which left him in a permanent vegetative state (PVS) until his death in 1993. It was eventually ruled in the House of Lords that the Artificial Nutrition and Hydration (ANH), that was prolonging him living, should end to allow Bland to “die in dignity” (Court order). This case differs from the Charlie Gard case as both the parents and the doctors thought withdrawing ANH was in Tony’s best interests.

Despite differences, the Bland case elucidates the complexity involved in euthanasia cases in the UK. Was it morally right for the state to prevent Gard’s parents from allowing experimental treatment to be made in the hope of keeping their son alive, despite his physical and mental state? Was it morally right for the court to give consent to the withdrawal of ANH and allow Tony to die? How would the result differ if it was unsure how long he would be in a vegetative state for?

Let us assess one last scenario. Terminally ill man Noel Conway, aged 67, launched a legal challenge for his own right to die. He was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, which has meant his ability to move, dress, eat and even breathe has irrevocably diminished. Noel condemned Section 2(1) of the Suicide Act 1961, which prohibited assisted suicide (voluntary euthanasia) under UK law, outlining his deteriorating quality of life and the prospect of “unimaginable suffering”. As he strongly remarks, “Current law means that I will have no control of how my life ends”.

We are once again asking ourselves where ultimate authority lies in determining the end of one’s life. This global complexity should never be looked on lightly and all cases of similar note should be looked at distinctly and intricately.

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After Taiwan, What’s Next For Asia?

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LGBT rights in Asia

T​aiwan has long been home to Asia’s most spirited LGBT communities, with the hashtag #TaiwanGayMarriageLegalization attracting over 11 million views on China’s Weibo. The country ​has recently joined the United States, Canada and 18 others to rule in favor towards ​constitutional protection of same-sex marriage. But the question of what it symbolises in Asia remains unresolved.

If the law functions to balance the need for stability with the demand for progress, Taiwan’s ​announcement from May acts as a positive testament. The decision favoring constitutional protection confirms growing momentum in the country, where child adoption by unmarried same-sex couples is becoming increasingly popular. Yet until the legislation was passed, only one individual can be recognised as a legal guardian. A condensed look reveals that legalising marriage is bound to cultural and political acceptance more deeply than economic concerns. It implies that the parliament has two years to amend laws regarding same-sex marriages. If not, couples will be permitted to register under the current framework. Both mothers or fathers of the adopted child could be entitled to equal welfare and property benefits.

Around the world, controversies surrounding alternative ideas from LGBT to the businesses of Uber and AirBnB have demonstrated the difficulty of balance. Taiwan’s ruling is undoubtedly a landmark for changing attitudes in Asia, but what does it signify for the rest of the hemisphere, where responses to minority cultural views remain conservative? Although attitudes to homosexuality were relatively liberal during the imperial times in mainland China, the ​Communist revolution in 1949 led to more cautious attitudes. Despite having it removed from the list of “mental disorders” in 2001, the stigma remains. Naturally, responses from China have been two-folded. Some are excited by the milestone, but others remain disheartened to the possibility of achieving legislative change. While many were still rejoicing shortly after the Taiwanese ruling, China’s most iconic lesbian socialising platform ‘Rela’ was shut down without explanation.

Likewise, although LGBT is not prohibited in the South Korean constitution, many remain closeted due to pressure from cultural traditions. But this is understandable, when some of the largest mobile corporations in the country have agreed to ​remove homosexual dating apps on the market, and a presidential candidate openly attacks gay soldiers for “weakening the country’s military.” Whether the rest of Asia could follow Taiwan’s footsteps as the social forerunner is still open to question, and it is certainly unjustified to generalise one of the largest and most diverse continents with a handful of examples. But one can be certain that ​LGBT continues to grow as an influential social dynamic in many Asian societies. ​Although t​he tug of war between traditional cultural views and changing public opinion will persist, ​Taiwan’s ruling could induce a chain effect in the long term.

When asking the youth “what do you dream of the world,” perhaps many would speak of tolerance. Such an abstract idea will undoubtedly carry a fluid definition, but obscurity is both its limitation and its beauty. The road to constitutional desegregation in the United states during in the 20th century was a difficult journey back and forth, and the same will go for LGBT in our time. But acceptance, before any legislative change is the first step that can go a long way. Regardless of whether one is in support of Taiwan’s ruling, it is an optimistic sign that ​societies are increasingly being warmed to the rights of gender and sexuality minorities through activism. It signifies not only acceptance of LGBT, but acceptance of cultural differences and their rights to equality before the law.

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