Shell decommissioning of the Brent Platform – haven’t we been here before?

In February 2017 Shell lodged plans to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (DBEIS) to undertake the decommissioning of offshore petroleum installations in the Brent Field, located in the North Sea, north east of the Shetland Islands. The Brent field is an iconic field, having commenced production in 1976, producing a sweet light crude oil that has been used as a benchmark crude, serving as a reference price against which other crudes are measured. However, given the decline of production from the Brent field, the Brent benchmark crude now comprises a mix of crudes from the Brent, Forties, Oseberg and Ekofisk Fields in the North Sea.

The Brent field is a giant field with installations to match: the topside of the 4 platforms being removed range between 16,000 and 31,000 tonnes. Three of the Brent installations (Bravo, Charlie and Delta) comprise concrete legs, known as ‘Gravity Based Structures’ (GBSs) (also known as Condeep Structures), which vary between 290,000 and 340,000 tonnes. In its detailed decommissioning plan that has been lodged with DBEIS, Shell recommends that the three GBSs remain in place, since they cannot be refloated or dismantled in one piece. This is seen as the best option based on technical, safety and cost grounds. Shell proposes to remove the top of the installations and seal the GBSs with concrete caps, and fit navigation aids. The decision to leave the GBSs in place has not been taken lightly. In its Decommissioning Plan, Shell outlines the reasons for leaving these structures in place. In particular, Shell stresses that these supports are made from very thick concrete with steel bars and solid ballast, and were anchored down during installation by flooding the legs with water. The GBSs were not intended to be removed once they had been placed on the seabed, and at the time these platforms were designed and installed, there was no requirement to remove such structures. These GBSs have been extensively used in the North Sea (both in the UK and Norwegian Sectors) as they provide the best stability in the rough North Sea, and have the added advantage of enabling oil to be stored in them if required.

It is Shell’s recommendation to leave the Brent GBSs in place that have united environmental groups to oppose the plan. This is not the first time that Shell, or the decommissioning of Brent Field installations, has come to the international attention. In 1995, after three years of evaluation of options, Shell was authorised by the UK Government and the OSPAR Convention (the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic) to dispose of the Brent Spar, an oil storage and tanker-loading buoy from the Brent Field, on the North Feni ridge, in over 7,000 feet of water. What followed was international outrage, with Greenpeace playing a lead role. At the heart of the opposition was the contention by Greenpeace that over 5,500 tons of oil remained in the Brent Spar, a figure countered by Shell who said only 50-100 tonnes remained. After a series of protests and boycotts in Germany and Northern Europe, Shell withdrew their plan to scuttle the Brent Spar in deepwater, with the Spar instead dismantled by Det Norsk Veritas in a Norwegian fjord. Soon after the withdrawal of the plan to scuttle the Brent Spar, the UK Energy Minister called the Greenpeace campaign ‘completely misleading’, leading to a public apology by Greenpeace for its mistake in the estimation of the amount of oil remaining in the Spar.

In the latest controversy to affect the Brent Field, environmental groups claim that the proposed decommissioning plan may be in breach of international law. The two main international law instruments related to the decommissioning and disposal of disused installations is the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the OSPAR Convention. Under UNCLOS, there are a number of general duties to protect the marine environment, particularly Articles 191 and 192. The primary law relating to the OSPAR convention is the decision of the OSPAR Commission after the Brent Spar incident, known as OSPAR Decision 98/3 on the Disposal of Disused Offshore Installations. Under this decision, the dumping or leaving in place (wholly or partly) of disused offshore petroleum installations is prohibited within the OSPAR maritime area (which covers the Brent Field). There are, however, exceptions to this prohibition, including:

  • steel installations weighing more than ten thousand tonnes in air;
  • gravity based concrete installations;
  • floating concrete installations;
  • any concrete anchor-base which results, or is likely to result, in interference with other legitimate uses of the sea.

Given the weight and nature of the structures, it is well within the OSPAR convention exceptions to leave the structures in place, in line with the ability to remove the GBSs, and whether it is safe to do so.

Indeed, it is important to realize that there are instances where the removal of a structure may well pose a greater threat than leaving it in place. Such a threat can be to the environment itself (such as the debate surrounding the rigs to reef program) and safety to those undertaking the removal of the installation. Indeed, in the 2000s the MCP-01 concrete platform, located in the North Sea, was decommissioned. The MCP-01 was also a GBS, containing 386,000 tonnes of ballast. After a consideration of all possibilities for removal, the decision was made to leave the subsea GBS structure in place, with as much of the equipment and materials as practicable removed from the concrete substructure and reused/recycled. The primary reason for this decision was the risk to workers, particularly those involved in demolition, marine operations and offshore diving operations.

Whatever decision the UK government makes regarding the decommissioning plan for the Brent Field, it is essential that considerations beyond environmental groups’ interest be considered. Such a decision on whether to leave the GBSs in place need to also consider the safety of those undertaking the removal and recycling, and whether more environmental harm will be caused by removing a 300,000 tonne structure that has been in place for over 40 years. Whatever happens, the ensuing debate regarding this issue is sure to be interesting.

Blog by Professor Tina Hunter

 

Small holdings, big complexities

This blog post, by Malcolm Combe, originally appeared as an online article for the Journal of the Law Society of Scotland, available here. It is reproduced here with permission.

The law relating to leases of rural property in Scotland has long been an area replete with special considerations. There is a surfeit of statutory regulation in relation to crofting and agricultural holdings, but rural considerations flow from before that surfeit: for example, a rule about delectus personae to restrict assignation (Bell’s Principles, 1216).

Crofts (governed by the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993, as copiously amended), and agricultural holdings (whether a “1991 Act” tenancy or one of the more recently introduced fixed-duration tenancies in terms of the Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Act 1991 or the Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Act 2003, both as extensively amended) are relatively well known. Those dabbling in rural matters can normally be on guard for these. But for the unwary and perhaps even unlucky solicitor, a small landholding might be chanced upon in a transaction.

Small landholdings are a type of rural lease that can be found outwith the traditional crofting counties (of the Highlands and Islands) that are not quite governed by the agricultural holdings regime. They have not – yet – been much affected by Holyrood legislation, save for s 6 of the Crofting Reform etc Act 2007, which amended the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 to allow small landholdings to be converted into crofts in areas outwith the traditional crofting counties but now designated as new crofting areas (namely Moray, the Cumbraes, Arran and Bute, per the Crofting (Designation of Areas) (Scotland) Order 2010, SSI 2010/29), and now part 11 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016. It is as a result of that more recent amendment that small landholdings will now find themselves subject to a bit more legislative attention.

History and current status

The statutory system of crofting was introduced to parts of Scotland by legislation passed in 1886, but the rest of Scotland had to wait until 1911 before its smallholdings were subjected to similar, and rather powerful, statutory control. The Small Landholders (Scotland) Act 1911 essentially expanded the system introduced by the Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act 1886 to the whole of Scotland, bringing in control for matters like compensation for improvements (namely what a landlord would have to pay a tenant for any works introduced by the tenant) and security of tenure (meaning the ability of a tenant to hang around on land even at the end of the original term of a lease, provided rent was being paid and other obligations complied with). The Crofters (Scotland) Act 1955 then reintroduced the division between Highland and Lowland Scotland, leaving the 1911 Act and the 1886 Act (and indeed many other Acts) to govern leases of small landholdings outwith the crofting counties.

To this far from simple system, an extra layer of complexity can be introduced. The 1911 Act actually introduced two different regimes, where someone who rented a smallholding could be a “landholder” or a “statutory small tenant” (in terms of s 32 of that Act), depending on whether it was the landlord or the tenant (or indeed a predecessor of either of them) who had built the structures used for that smallholding. Generally speaking, a statutory small tenant has less in the way of statutory rights than a landholder.

For a variety of reasons, there are not that many of these regulated leases still in existence. Notwithstanding that relatively low number – which seems to be settled at 74 (yes, seventy-four) – there has been a perception that these leases have been ignored when other leases have not. In part, any neglect is ably demonstrated by the mass of legislation about crofting and agricultural holdings, but of course the low number of small landholdings also explains that lack of legislative attention. That point notwithstanding, it may be the case that parties to such leases do not have a particularly clear handle on what arrangement they have, not to mention that there are arguments about whether such arrangements are suitable for the present day, and as such it is a worthwhile exercise to have a look at small landholdings.

Modern reform?

To this mix, s 124 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 can now be added. This was the result of a Scottish Green Party amendment at stage 3 of the then bill. It committed Scottish ministers to: (a) review the legislation governing small landholdings; and (b) lay a report of that review before the Scottish Parliament no later than 31 March 2017. This the Scottish ministers have done. The report can be found here.

The report is an impressive piece of work. (I declare an interest, in that I had some limited input to it: a couple of drafts were circulated to me and I commented on them. To be clear though, I declare that interest to give the credit to those that deserve it.) A lot of people inputted to this document, and of course those directly affected by the proposals (the landlords and tenants) provided data for the exercise, so any credit is due to them. This post has skimmed over some of the details about small landholdings, whereas the report goes into the background, the current regime, and the potential for the future in detail.

To offer some selected thoughts on the report’s interpretation of the future, it essentially narrows down three options, namely:

  • the status quo;
  • conversion to another type of tenancy; or
  • reform and modernisation.

The report then suggests two of them are not appropriate, as: maintaining the status quo would lead to further diminution of numbers of small landholdings (with unclear effects on rural Scotland); whilst mass conversion of small landholdings into another type of tenancy is just not quite suitable (as, for example, you could end up with crofts outside traditional and even recently expanded crofting areas, not to mention that it could have an uncertain effect on already settled positions between landlord and tenant). In passing, the report also tells us (at para 133) that to date, no small landholder in one of the new designated crofting areas has converted. Such small landholdings would be prime candidates for conversion, so this seems to show either that there is no appetite for conversion or that the existing conversion process is not appealing.

That leaves the reform and modernise option. Much could be said about this, but the two key issues that came up in consultation with respondents related to clarity of legislation (which is a bit of a bùrach across many statutes at present) and a right to buy. As regards the potential for a right to buy of any sort, irrespective of the undeniable politics of such an option it is clear that small landholdings missed out on such rights in 1976 (when an absolute right to buy was conferred on crofters) and 2003 (when a right of first refusal was given to secure 1991 Act tenants of an agricultural holding).

What next?

The Scottish Parliament will get the chance to ponder the report, but para 170 sets a number of future steps. Some of these might involve the Scottish Law Commission, the new Tenant Farming Commissioner, and the Crofting Commission. Other steps could involve researchers looking into historical data and trends relating to small landholdings, and (either related to that historical research or independently) the likely socio-economic impact of them in the present day.

To conclude, despite the relatively low numbers of small landholdings in Scotland, there is a lot of work to be done in relation to them. I will be watching carefully to see what happens next. Meanwhile, anyone who has to deal with the legislative regime will be praying a more user-friendly system emerges at the end of this process, while those directly involved with Scotland’s remaining small landholdings will be watching even more carefully than me to ensure that any new regime is workable both for modern agriculture and as a part of a healthy rural environment in Scotland.

The Fifth Element: Exclusive Possession in the Scottish Law of Leases

This blog post is by Mitchell Skilling, a 2016 LLB (Hons) graduate. It is based on the presentation he gave at the launch of the seventh volume of the Aberdeen Student Law Review, itself based on an article that he wrote for that volume.

At a common law level, the Scottish contract of lease is made up of four elements:

  1. parties acting as landlord and tenant;
  2. a property to be leased;
  3. payment of rent; and
  4. a period over which the contract has effect, which in Scots could be described as a definite ish (or end date).

Combined, these four requirements afford each party a personal contractual right enforceable against the other. A contract lacking one or more of these requirements is instead likely to be a contract of licence. However, there is a fifth element that lurks outside of this four-element paradigm: exclusive possession of the leased subjects by the tenant.

Under the Leases Act 1449, a tenant entering into possession of their leased subjects will, provided that the four elements are present, gain a real right enforceable against their landlord’s singular successor. This cannot be achieved with a licence agreement, which will only ever afford a personal right. Possession here has been clarified to mean exclusive possession (Millar v McRobbie 1949 SC 1, 8). Similarly, the various Housing Acts in the social and private rented sectors as well as the Agricultural Holdings Acts have used exclusive possession as a mechanism for obtaining security of tenure, a powerful right that protects the tenant against eviction without a legal ground, even past the end date of their lease.

From this, it would appear that exclusive possession plays no role in the construction of a common law lease, and that it is rather used only to obtain additional rights once that lease has been established. However, there appears to be a growing school of thought that it is an essential requirement on par with the other four. This was the opinion of Sheriff Gordon in the case of Conway v Glasgow City Council (1999 Hous. LR 20), which related to accommodation in a hostel for homeless people.

In that case, Sheriff Gordon stated that the law had ‘come increasingly to talk of exclusive possession as a necessary condition of a lease.’ To support this proposition, he cited the earlier case of Commercial Components (Int) Ltd v Young (1993 SLT (Sh Ct) 15). That case was an appeal to a Sheriff Principal in which it was said that exclusive possession was ‘one of the badges of a lease.’ In addition, Sheriff Gordon was persuaded by the defender’s arguments relating to the case Brador Properties Ltd v British Telecom Plc (1992 SC 12), which came before the Inner House of the Court of Session. The pursuer in the Conway case had tried to use Brador as authority for exclusive possession not being a feature of a lease, but Sheriff Gordon felt that it was in fact consistent with exclusive possession being a requirement of a lease as it was concerned with the question of what needed to be exclusively possessed.

Whilst Conway proceeded to appeal, it was ultimately decided on the basis of another, more successful, argument made by the pursuer, based on contractual rights unrelated to a tenancy. This meant that no further comments were made about Sheriff Gordon’s opinion on leases. This is a pity, as it is clear that these comments are not wholly consistent with the most likely readings of those two cases.

In the case of Brador, the idea that this case is consistent with exclusive possession as an element of a common law lease is at odds with its treatment of Street v Mountford ([1985] 1 AC 809), a case that is authority for this requirement in England and Wales. The Inner House stated that Street was of no assistance in this case, which suggests that their comments on sufficient possession instead related to an unspoken degree of possession that would rule out a lesser agreement.

Meanwhile, the reading of the term ‘badge of a lease’ from Commercial Components seems stretched in its interpretation. The word ‘badge’ does not suggest an essential element so much as an obvious, but not definitive, outward sign that something is the case, akin to a learner driver plate affixed to a car. Whilst it suggests a highly likely conclusion, it is not an absolute guarantee, and to treat it as such seems to go too far.

Later case law developments also seem to count against Sheriff Gordon’s interpretation of a lease. Denovan v Blue Triangle (Glasgow) Housing Association (1999 Hous LR 97), another hostel case decided later in the same year as Conway, did not use exclusive possession as a requirement of a lease, instead only bringing it in as something to be considered with legislation that first required a tenancy to be established. In the 2005 case of South Lanarkshire Council v Taylor ([2005] CSIH 6), it was held that a lease existed even with a contractual clause forcing the tenant to vacate their property at any time within a short notice period.

A final nail in the coffin for Conway came in the Land Court case of Cameron v Alexander. The landlord’s arguments in this case were strongly based on Sheriff Gordon’s opinion, however the court did not find them a persuasive authority. Instead, it stated that exclusive possession was an ‘important pointer’ in determining the nature of an indeterminate agreement, which seems more consistent with the ‘badge of a lease’ comment from Commercial Components.

Despite these comments, it may still be possible that there is a valid argument for including exclusive possession among the cardinal elements of a lease.

One such argument relates to legal certainty: that is, with a view to clarifying the distinction between leases and licences. Historically, the licence agreement has been rarely used in Scotland compared with its application south of the border, but in recent times the term has appeared more frequently in litigation. As such, a definitive difference between the two may be necessary in order to prevent future disputes. That being said, the introduction of a possessory requirement is not the only way to accomplish this. There is currently no statutory definition of a licence agreement, and while several texts have defined the term, no single one has become definitive. The creation of such a definition, rather than a modification of another type of contract, may serve as a better basis for distinguishing between the two.

Another argument for exclusive possession is that many types of lease now afford access to security of tenure, a right arguably greater than a personal right for its ability to keep a tenant in their property even past their ish date (assuming the landlord has no legal ground on which to evict them, such as non-payment of rent). Access to this right shifts the balance of power firmly in favour of the tenant, so perhaps the balance should be corrected by making those rights harder to access.

That being said, it has been observed by commentators such as Stalker that the various residential tenancy acts seem to have been designed to extend security of tenure to as many people as possible, so the introduction of a possessory requirement may go against the intentions of Parliament. Additionally, the introduction of a fifth element to benefit only one type of lease ignores the diversity present in the Scottish lease, which encompasses a broad variety of rights, some of which are not dependent on possession in order to be exercised.

Exclusive possession, then, is probably not the best means by which to distinguish leases from licences. What is required is a mode of distinction that respects the unique character of the Scottish lease and recognises the exact nature of the difference between the rights conferred by a lease and a licence.

The full article may be found in Volume 7 of the Aberdeen Student Law Review , which is available for free online viewing.

Burkini Ban: Violating both facets of religious freedom

This blog post is by the undergraduate LLB (Hons) candidate Shanardra Fadhilah. It is based on the presentation she gave at the recent Lawyers Without Borders conference hosted at the University of Aberdeen, which she was selected to give after winning a competition amongst her fellow students.

Take a deep breath and focus on your thoughts. At your core, what guides your actions? Your moral compass? Your conscience? The values instilled in you since young? For a lot of people these all fall under one umbrella – religion. It serves as a compass for the right and wrong, a conscience to guide them through the grey area and a set of values to uphold throughout life.

Religion continues to be fundamentally important in society. Hence why it is still maintained as a human right – a right one has for simply being human. As a human right, freedom of religion is enshrined in various international instruments, including Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the two international human rights covenants (on civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights) as well as Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

In the mentioned instruments, freedom of religion is captured as a 2-dimensional right that may be exercised alone and in community with others. The first aspect speaks of the right to freely choose one’s own religion. This is absolute in nature and cannot be circumvented. The second aspect is the right to manifest religion, which on the other hand can be limited. Even so, rule of law requires the limitations be necessary and legitimate. The main reasoning for the constraint is because the right to manifest religion bleeds into the public sphere. In order to safeguard the rights and freedoms of others, this limitation is needed so that human rights do not conflict with each other.

But as with most things, a simple categorical division on paper does not accurately reflect the reality. Religion is not something that is only practiced in private or can be separated from the public sphere. This is reflected in the second strand of religious freedom: the right to manifest religion. However, the fundamental freedom to choose one’s religion is intrinsically connected with the right to manifest it. A person chooses their religion because they agree with its teachings and want to practice it. Thus, it follows that the right to choose one’s religion is only as useful as its right to manifest it.

Religious manifestation includes religious expression, which is where religious clothing stems from. This brings us to the issue at hand: the burkini ban in France.

In 2016, mayors in about 30 French coastal resorts banned the burkini. Although not expressly stated, the clothing banned is indicative of a burkini and mainly target female Muslims who wear them in beaches. In late August of last year, the Council of State held that the ban in one of the towns was a serious and manifestly illegal attack on fundamental freedoms. Local authorities could only curb individual freedoms if there was a “proven risk” to public order. Significantly, it was ruled that, “the emotion and the concerns arising from terrorist attacks” was not legally sufficient to justify a ban.

While this ruling may set a precedent for the other French towns, which have implemented the burkini ban, after the ruling some mayors have said they would refuse to lift the decree. There are several arguments put forward in favour of the ban. The burkini is allegedly an affirmation of political Islam in the public space and incompatible with the French concept of secularism. Furthermore, it is argued that the ban will allow for social and cultural integration; ultimately, serving to empower women.

A similar development is the burqa or face veil ban in France that was introduced in 2010. It makes it illegal for a person to conceal their face in a public place. This has also been criticised as targeting Muslim women. In the case SAS v France (reported at (2015) 60 EHRR 11) the European Court of Human Rights upheld the ban and accepted that the French are seeking to protect social interaction between people.

But, at a closer glance, this argument is actually counterintuitive. How does criminalizing a deeply significant form of religious clothing serve to improve social interaction when it will only further segregate them from society as they opt not to go to public spaces?

Furthermore, note that the ‘margin of appreciation’ allowed for the qualified right to manifest religion displays that the different national contexts require for varying implementation of the right. If we extract this line of reasoning – we can apply it to the conception of human rights in general.

Why do we so easily ignore the fact that there are various frameworks for human rights and favour the ‘universal’ conception? Setting aside pragmatism for a moment, it seems strange that Court allows for a wide margin of appreciation for enforcement of the right to manifest religion but no consideration is given to the different cultural conceptions of human rights. This is significant because the different conceptions result in different understandings of human rights. It is connected to the degree of importance attached to the right to religious manifestation and expression by various faiths that is not reflected in most international human rights documents.

These stances against specific styles of dressing are not at all uncommon. When you look at the development of society, there were various cases when the introduction of novel fashion trends have been met with opposition as it does not fall in line with the societal values of the time. But this current move in Western culture towards wearing as little clothing as possible being equated to the emancipation of women is misleading as empowerment actually comes from choicenot a certain style of dressing.

For Muslim women, it is the act of dressing modestly which reflects their choice to submit to Islam. This is the root for wearing the burkini. It is a cultural interpretation of modesty as mandated by religion. So when this dress is banned – the consequences are not only literal but transcends to the constraint of the fundamental exercise of the religion. It is the criminalisation of being a Muslim woman who wants to go to the beach but also maintain her modesty.

Essentially, here the State is enforcing how strictly a woman can follow their religious teachings. The state has criminalized a form of religious expression and in doing so constrained the overall religious freedom in general. Religious clothing is highly important to Muslim women who choose to manifest modesty in such form. The burkini ban was enacted to respond to the terrorist threat in France. But placing the blame for such terrorist attacks on the whole Muslim community, especially the female Muslims does not make sense. Human rights should not be curbed discriminatorily – let alone as a method to punish a large group of people for the actions of a few.

Syrian Refugees in Europe: what’s happening?

The following is the text of remarks made by our Dr Justin Borg-Barthet at a panel discussion organised by the Aberdeen University Yad’am Society on 6 February 2017.

Introductory remarks

To begin with, it is worth considering why we in Europe should be concerned about the Syrian refugee crisis.  Syria, after all, is not a European state and Syrians do not traditionally consider Europe to be their most immediate cultural hinterland.  It is arguable, therefore, that Syria and Syrian refugees are not European problems.

But let’s be clear that since the end of the Second World War, at least, we have all embraced the principle of a common humanity.  This is not merely a political statement, but is a principle entrenched in international law – like the 1951 Refugee Convention – and in the human rights law of the European Union and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

In the spirit of a broader humanity, I will not confine my comments to matters solely pertaining to the Syrian crisis.  That crisis is simply the most recent in a series of developments which have seen the European Union fall short of its humanitarian and human rights obligations in respect of refugees and asylum seekers.  It illustrates, in stark terms, an ongoing systematic and systemic problem in the EU’s relations with its neighbourhood.

In these brief remarks, I will address two main points.  First, I wish to highlight a failure to comply with obligations.  Secondly, I will consider briefly the constitutional policy implications of this failure, and make modest recommendations about how the Union could seek to address persistent problems.

Humanitarian and human rights obligations

EU human rights law has come a long way since the first steps towards European integration in the 1950s.  This is most clearly seen in recent judgments of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) regarding relocation of asylum seekers.  In the NS case, Afghan asylum seekers in the UK were to be returned to Greece, which was their point of entry into the EU.  Under the Dublin Regulation, Greece was responsible for processing the asylum claim.  It was found, however, that the applicants’ right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment would be at risk due to systemic problems in Greece.  It followed that the UK could not return the asylum seekers.

The decision of the CJEU is, of course, to be applauded.  It demonstrated a shift in emphasis from the rights of states to those of individuals.  However, that judgment did nothing to alter the facts on the ground for most asylum seekers in Europe.

Reception conditions

Greece, Italy and Malta are the main ports of entry for refugees and asylum seekers from Africa, the Middle East and further afield.  Each of those states has been found to be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights due to their inadequate treatment of refugees (e.g. M S S v Belgium and Greece (2011) 53 EHRR 2; Aden Ahmed v Malta ECHR App No 55352/12 (23 July 2013); Hirsi Jamaa v Italy (2012) 55 EHRR 21).  In particular, reception conditions have been found to breach the prohibition of the right to liberty (due to forced detention) and, consequently, the prohibition of torture (due to the adverse effects of detention on mental health).

The problems in these three states are compounded by the fact that they bear the brunt of responsibility for dealing with migration to the EU.  Whatever lofty declarations are made in the north and west of Europe, and despite images of hundreds of people trekking across a continent, the fact remains that pressures are concentrated in a small number of member states, which brings us to another problem of so-called burden sharing.

Burden sharing

A number of EU member states have long argued that there should be a system of compulsory burden sharing.  In other words, the responsibility for hosting and processing asylum seekers should be shared between the Member States rather than being concentrated in border-states.  The Geneva Convention arguably requires burden sharing as a matter of international law.  EU law itself is founded on the principle of solidarity between states and people.

But still, wealthier states which are geographically insulated from the crisis have resisted compulsory burden sharing.  Instead, they initially accepted a voluntary system.  Latterly, a system of agreed relocation has been put into place, but the Member States have been very slow in taking any practical steps to ensure that pressures are distributed.

This is important to member states which face significant financial and social burdens.  And because of those burdens, it is also important to asylum seekers.  No member state is able single-handedly to accommodate and welcome the numbers that have been crossing the Mediterranean Sea.  In the absence of collective action, asylum seekers remain vulnerable to the inadequacies of ill-equipped states.

Relocation to third countries

Following repeated failures in seeking compulsory burden-sharing within Europe, southern EU member states have changed their strategies.  Rather than advocating relocation of asylum claimants within the EU, they have successfully argued for the externalisation of problems through so-called reception centres in Turkey and Libya.  An agreement with Turkey is now fully operative.

Of course, there is nothing wrong, in principle, with supporting Turkey in its own efforts to provide reception to migrants, or in discouraging dangerous sea-crossings.  But the fact is that, for all the failures of EU member states, the treatment of asylum seekers in Turkey and Libya leaves far more to be desired.

You may recall that I mentioned the judgment in NS earlier.  In that case, it was decided that Member States could not return migrants to other EU States if there were systemic problems in the destination state.

There is no logical reason why that principle should not be applied between the EU and third countries in the same manner as it is applied within the EU.  Fundamental rights, after all, bind the member states whether they are acting unilaterally or collectively.  The principle of non-return in the judgment in NS should preclude the return of asylum seekers to Turkey.  Yet, just last week, the informal council meeting in Malta concluded that the Turkey agreement should be replicated in Libya.  Far from questioning the strategy, the Member States are seeking instead to entrench and extend it to ever more questionable destinations.

Tellingly, humanitarian corridors were not addressed in the council conclusions, but were determined to be a matter for the future.  We will deal with that once we have secured the border.  Now where have we heard that before?

Constitutional observations

The refugee and migrant crises expose cracks in the institutional architecture of the European Union.  There has been a consistent failure to act according to constitutional principles due to the stranglehold that the member states hold over law and policy-making processes.  If they refuse to act, the Union’s principles are meaningless in practice.  While the EU rightly baulks at President Trump, its own record of treatment of refugees has not been pristine.

Of course, it is difficult for the Union and Member States to act when public opinion is unsupportive.  But let’s not forget that public opinion is divided.  It is far from unanimous in its opposition to migration.

And there is equally a great danger in failing to uphold and defend principles.  If constitutional principles are not upheld, this lends an air of legitimacy to the ideologies that are threatening the EU’s collective model itself.  By reducing the stranglehold of states, and focusing instead on representation of people and rights of people, the Union could ensure that collective action remains possible, and that it is given further effect in future.

In other words, far from the answer being less Europe; far from the answer being the dismantling of Schengen; and far from the answer being border fences between states; the answer is a more principled Europe – a more meaningful European Union that is capable of acting internationally in accordance with its founding principles.

Dr Borg-Barthet is the co-author (with Carole Lyons) of an analysis article in the 2016 Edinburgh Law Review. ‘The European Union Migration Crisis’ is currently the ‘Most Read’ article online.

yadam-syria-poster
The poster for the recent event hosted by the Yad’am Society

A Draft for the Digital Dilemma: The E-Evidence Convention

This blog post is by Nikolaos Trigkas, a third-year Ph.D. candidate.

  1. THE FIRST CONVENTION ON E-EVIDENCE

The legal question of how to treat probative information generated or stored in electronic form has a relatively short history, but is becoming increasingly significant. Interest in the new possibilities and challenges regarding the introduction of electronic evidence at trial is growing, awareness is spreading and dialogue is beginning to unfold. In 2016 an innovative cross-disciplinary initiative was launched by Stephen Mason, barrister and IALS associate research fellow, in the wake of concerns about the nuances of e-evidence such as intangible form and changeable nature. He initiated a Convention on Electronic Evidence, which was the first attempt to systematically treat the subject of digital evidence.

The obvious lack of standardised processes regulating the admissibility (and particularly authentication) of electronic evidence was the driving force behind the recent project. According to Mr. Mason, who has provided training to judges and lawyers in matters relating to electronic information across the globe, the need for accepted guidance is emerging. In the absence of a systematic scheme to commence development of such a convention by (inter)national organisations, a private initiative relying on scholars from various countries would be helpful. Mr. Mason reasoned as follows:

I have spoken so many times (especially in Europe) about electronic evidence, and spoken to so many people, and the same question keeps on being raised: why is there no Convention on Electronic Evidence being devised by the Council of Europe or the UN?

The ‘Draft Convention on Electronic Evidence’ workshop (supported by the Information Law and Policy Centre) took place at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies on 20 May 2016. The workshop was designed to take forward the discussion outcomes from a previous similar conference held in Zagreb in April 2016 and aimed to provide a platform to facilitate a fuller understanding of the complex concept of electronic evidence by judges and lawyers. In essence, the event was created to urge that electronic evidence be viewed in a different way to documentary evidence and, more generally, the traditional forms of proof.

After a consultation period, the final version of the draft was published in the latest issue (2016) of the Digital Evidence and Electronic Signature Law Review. In the preamble of the draft, it is explained that the existing rules – tailored to the characteristics of paper evidence – cannot always apply to electronic information. Although this critical matter has not yet been settled at international level, it is becoming increasingly clear that e-evidence has a unique nature. Because of its complex character, some rules (e.g. the authentication rule, the best evidence rule and the hearsay rule) appear to be irrelevant or inapplicable to such evidence.

This brave initiative should be warmly welcomed by modern legal professionals as the first convention dealing with the treatment of electronic evidence in civil and criminal trials. The purpose of the initiative can be described as ambitious, but even so it is realistic, given that the contributors to it have carefully taken account of legal and technological considerations. Additionally, the final text of the Convention is based on a consensus between international scholars, as the provisions have been excluded that were not generally agreed. Time will tell, however, whether and to what extent this project will bring about a landmark change in the way legal professionals perceive e-evidence.

  1. THE IMPORTANCE OF THE CONVENTION

It should be acknowledged that this initiative has already made a significant contribution to legal scholarship in terms of innovative thinking. It is commonplace these days to say that the current procedural rules are still in force, simply for the reason that they sufficiently serve their purpose. While this is true in some cases, it is debatable whether the old legal doctrines can accommodate technologies underlying electronic records as a rule. In fact, it can be argued that existing rules give short shrift to the critical question of authorship, when it comes to complicated information in electronic form. The initiative offers a new insight into the issue, as it recognizes that the specific nature of electronic evidence poses new challenges to legal practitioners.

With regard to the treatment of electronic evidence at the admissibility phase, two totally opposite lines of thought have been supported in the international literature. These were aptly described by van der Merwe in his analysis as: a) the ‘paper’ approach; and b) the ‘protocol’ approach.

The ‘paper’ approach stipulates that all the traditional rules of evidence fulfil their purpose, on the condition that they can be applied mutatis mutandis to electronic evidence. Without any doubt, this approach prevails in the European Union and the United States, where evidentiary rules generally apply with equal force to any type of proof.

The ‘protocol’ approach acknowledges that we are now faced with forms of evidence essentially different in nature from those traditional forms, which constituted the basis of the law of documentary evidence. Therefore, we need to find alternative digital guarantees, namely internationally agreed protocols, concerning the authenticity of the electronic information that a proponent may seek to introduce at trial. This approach has so far failed to gain significant traction among legal practitioners, who have no choice but to follow the current framework governing the status of e-evidence.

  1. CONCLUSION

It is clear that the equal treatment of traditional and electronic evidence represents something of a paradox, given that the latter can be altered or fabricated with relative easiness (as the Hon. Alan Pendleton pointed out).

The Draft Convention on Electronic Evidence marks a shift to a new legal thinking, which seeks to bring traditional legal principles into line with the modern technological environment. The Convention seems to follow the ‘protocol’ approach in that it seriously takes into account not only the legal aspects, but also the technical details of the cases under consideration. In this sense, the Convention may serve as a useful starting point for legislative work, as the old rules may sometimes be inapplicable to electronic evidence. Should legal professionals’ understanding of sophisticated technology become more complete, it can be expected that the convention will inspire changes in rules in the light of technological evolution.

Australia’s aversion to compulsory settlement for maritime boundary disputes comes back to bite it

This is a guest post by Professor Andrew Serdy of the The Institute of Maritime Law at the University of Southampton. It builds on a guest lecture he gave to the Aberdeen University Centre for Energy Law. Robert Veal, Senior Research Assistant at the Institute of Maritime Law, contributed to this post. A longer version of this post is available at the Institute of Maritime Law’s website.

The background

The long-running saga over the maritime boundaries between Australia and Timor-Leste has been keeping lawyers for both sides busy. There have been no fewer than four separate legal proceedings in recent years related directly or indirectly to the issue.

One of these is the subject of this post: the invocation by Timor-Leste of compulsory conciliation under Article 298 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and Annex V to UNCLOS as a means of settling permanently their outstanding boundaries, despite a clause in the 2006 Treaty between Australia and the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste on Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea (CMATS) by which the parties agreed not to invoke such proceedings against each other for 50 years, with particular reference to the ruling by the conciliation commission to reject Australia’s challenge to its competence, delivered on 19 September 2016.  Also tangentially relevant to the conciliation is another of the four proceedings, an arbitration under the 2002 Timor Sea Treaty, in which Timor-Leste seeks a declaration of the invalidity of CMATS on the ground that its conclusion was tainted by the alleged planting of listening devices in 2004 by the Australian Secret Intelligence Service in Timor-Leste’s cabinet room.

Much has been written over the years about the substance of the dispute as to where the maritime boundaries between Australia and Timor-Leste should lie, and the conciliation commission (the Commission) will come up with its own recommendations now that it has rejected the Australian challenge to its competence.  Readers unfamiliar with the arguments on both sides will find them conveniently illustrated by the Timor-Leste and Australian slideshows from the public opening session of the conciliation hearing on 29 August 2016 (which, along with the transcript of that session and the Commission’s preliminary ruling, are the only publicly available documents at the time of writing; in particular, the written pleadings have not been released), but this post is confined to the procedural aspects of the conciliation, which are novel enough in themselves.  Indeed this was the first-ever compulsory conciliation under UNCLOS (or at least the first that has entered the public domain – it cannot be excluded that parties to earlier disputes have settled or attempted to settle them by conciliations which they have agreed not to disclose).

Conciliation as a method of settling disputes

Conciliation has been defined as a procedure in which the disputant parties establish a commission or other body to help resolve their dispute, whose chief task is to examine the dispute impartially and attempt to define the terms of a settlement it thinks likely to be acceptable to the parties. UNCLOS provides for both voluntary (see Article 284) and compulsory conciliation.  The latter is an unusual combination of compulsory procedure with a non-binding outcome, but is occasionally encountered elsewhere, for example the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties provides for compulsory conciliation for a small class of disputes arising under it (though again none is known to have actually occurred).

As provided for by Article 3 of Annex V, a five-member conciliation commission was constituted.  Pursuant to Article 3, the party initiating the proceedings appoints two conciliators and the other party does the same.  The four chosen conciliators together in turn nominate a fifth who becomes the chairman.  It comprises HE Ambassador Peter Taksøe-Jensen (Chairman, a former UN Assistant Secretary General for Legal Affairs – I am grateful to a member of the audience at the initial presentation of these thoughts at the Faculty of Law of the Victoria University of Wellington a few weeks ago for pointing this out), Dr Rosalie Balkin (a former Director of the Legal Division and Assistant Secretary-General of the International Maritime Organization, a specialised agency of the United Nations, appointed by Australia), Judge Abdul G. Koroma of the International Court of Justice, appointed by Timor-Leste), Professor Donald McRae (a member of the International Law Commission, a body of experts reporting to the Sixth Committee of the UN General Assembly, appointed by Australia) and Judge Rüdiger Wolfrum of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) established by UNCLOS, appointed by Timor-Leste).  Its decision to uphold its own competence of 19 September 2016 despite the objections put forward by Australia was taken unanimously and will, I suspect, have taken many observers by surprise, myself included, though this is not to say that it is wrong in law.

The relevant law

Australia’s analysis, like my own before the event, took as its starting point Article 4 of CMATS, which remains in force until and unless the Timorese attack on its validity succeeds.  This provision is headed “Moratorium” and provides in pertinent part:

  1. Neither Australia nor Timor-Leste shall assert, pursue or further by any means in relation to the other Party its claims to sovereign rights and jurisdiction and maritime boundaries for the period of this Treaty.

[…]

  1. Notwithstanding any other bilateral or multilateral agreement binding on the Parties, […] neither Party shall commence or pursue any proceedings against the other Party before any court, tribunal or other dispute settlement mechanism that would raise or result in, either directly or indirectly, issues or findings of relevance to maritime boundaries or delimitation in the Timor Sea.
  2. Any court, tribunal or other dispute settlement body hearing proceedings involving the Parties shall not consider, make comment on, nor make findings that would raise or result in, either directly or indirectly, issues or findings of relevance to maritime boundaries or delimitation in the Timor Sea. Any such comment or finding shall be of no effect, and shall not be relied upon, or cited, by the Parties at any time.

[…]

  1. The Parties shall not be under an obligation to negotiate permanent maritime boundaries for the period of this Treaty.

By Article 12 of CMATS the “period” of this Treaty” referred to above is 50 years from its entry into force, which took place in 2007.  On its face, therefore, there has been a clear breach of Article 4 by Timor-Leste in calling these conciliation proceedings into being.  Nothing in the words of Article 4 suggests that the fact that the proceedings do not have a binding outcome makes any difference in that regard.  Of course, if the Timorese claim in case (1) succeeds, CMATS will have been void ab initio and thus there will have been no breach of it by Timor-Leste after all, but it would be risky for it to rely on that outcome, since that condition has not yet been satisfied, and may never be.

The Commission, however, rejected this approach and instead based its analysis on the dispute settlement provisions within UNCLOS, grouped in Part XV (Articles 279 to 299), since it was to UNCLOS that it owed its own existence.  It said that, having been created under UNCLOS and not under CMATS or the Timor Sea Treaty, it had no authority to decide any secondary claim that there had been a breach of CMATS by Timor-Leste in bringing the primary claim.  Instead, it began with Article 280 of UNCLOS: “Nothing in this Part impairs the right of any States Parties to agree at any time to settle a dispute between them concerning the interpretation or application of this Convention by any peaceful means of their own choice.”  This makes clear that the UNCLOS compulsory mechanism for settling disputes is a default one and can be displaced by agreement of the parties to a dispute, even if what they put in its place is non-compulsory or leads to a non-binding outcome, or both.

Article 280 is one of three relevant provisions in Part XV of UNCLOS for this conciliation.  The effect of making an alternative choice under Article 280 is governed by Article 281, headed “Procedure where no settlement has been reached by the parties”, which is in the following terms:

  1. If the States Parties which are parties to a dispute concerning the interpretation or application of this Convention have agreed to seek settlement of the dispute by a peaceful means of their own choice, the procedures provided for in this Part apply only where no settlement has been reached by recourse to such means and the agreement between the parties does not exclude any further procedure.
  2. If the parties have also agreed on a time-limit, paragraph 1 applies only upon the expiration of that time-limit.

This is another way of saying that the compulsory procedures of Part XV can still be applied to a dispute if the alternative methods of the parties’ own choice under Article 280 have not led to its settlement, unless the original agreement to contract out of Part XV precludes this.  Article 281 was critical to the result in the Southern Bluefin Tuna arbitration where an arbitral tribunal formed under Annex VII to UNCLOS found by majority that it lacked jurisdiction because the 1993 Convention for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna procedurally displaced UNCLOS through its optional dispute settlement provision, from which it inferred the exclusion of any further procedure within the meaning of Article 281(1) of UNCLOS, even though the relevant provision of the 1993 Convention was completely silent on the matter.  Sir Ken Keith dissented: his view was that a clear indication of intent to displace UNCLOS would have been needed in the 1993 Convention but was absent there.  This decision has in the main been heavily criticised and has very few supporters, so it was not unexpected when in 2015 a differently composed Annex VII tribunal in the South China Sea arbitration accepted the Philippines’ invitation to depart from the reasoning of the Southern Bluefin Tuna tribunal, deciding that the non-compulsory procedures of the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, to which the Philippines and China were both parties,  could not displace Part XV jurisdiction as argued informally by China in a position paper.

The last relevant provision of Part XV of UNCLOS is Article 298.  This creates, in the words of its heading, a series of “[o]ptional exceptions to [the] applicability of section 2”, in other words to Articles 286 to 296 which is where the compulsory procedures are found.  One of the limited number of opt-outs it offers is for maritime boundary disputes:

  1. When signing, ratifying or acceding to this Convention or at any time thereafter, a State may…declare in writing that it does not accept any one or more of the procedures provided for in section 2 with respect to one or more of the following categories of disputes:
  • (i) disputes concerning the interpretation or application of articles 15, 74 and 83 relating to sea boundary delimitations, […] provided that a State having made such a declaration shall, when such a dispute arises subsequent to the entry into force of this Convention and […] no agreement within a reasonable period of time is reached in negotiations between the parties, at the request of any party to the dispute, accept submission of the matter to conciliation under Annex V, section 2; […];

Australia had made such a declaration in 2002, shortly before Timor-Leste’s independence.  Unlike the other opt-outs in the remaining subsubparagraphs, for a subset of excluded disputes this is not the end of the road: no further procedure is available for pre-existing disputes, but for those arising once UNCLOS is in force, compulsory conciliation of the kind represented by these proceedings is contemplated.

The unsuccessful Australian objections

The foregoing provisions collectively enabled the Commission to dismiss each of Australia’s objections made on six distinct grounds, which I paraphrase in the underlined text before commenting on each:

  1. Article 4 of the CMATS Treaty precludes either party from initiating compulsory conciliation under Article 298 of UNCLOS and from engaging in the substantive matters in dispute in such proceedings. As noted above, the Commission took the view that it had no authority to give effect to a treaty other than UNCLOS except where UNCLOS itself dictated this, adopting a narrow reading of Article 293(1), which prescribes the sources of law that a Part XV forum should apply as follows: “A court or tribunal having jurisdiction under this section shall apply this Convention and other rules of international law not incompatible with this Convention.”
  2. The CMATS Treaty falls within the category of “provisional arrangement[s] of a practical nature” specifically contemplated by Articles 74 and 83 of UNCLOS for the situation when a boundary delimiting the parties’ exclusive economic zones and continental shelves respectively remains outstanding, hence the moratorium in CMATS was not displaced by the later entry into force of UNCLOS between the parties, which occurred in 2013 when Timor-Leste acceded to UNCLOS (Australia having been an original party to it since 1994). To the extent that this argument also depended on direct application of CMATS, the Commission declined to give effect to it for the same reason as the first ground.
  1. In 2003 the parties agreed on a mechanism for resolving their boundary dispute, i.e. negotiation. The CMATS Treaty built on that agreement, confirmed negotiation as the method of dispute resolution, and added a time stipulation, namely that the negotiation was not to occur for 50 years.  Accordingly, the Commission’s competence is precluded by UNCLOS Article 281, which recognises the CMATS Treaty as a relevant choice by the parties as to how their dispute is to be settled.  Although this argument is more in tune with Commission’s approach of needing a gateway within Part XV of UNCLOS itself through which the previsions of another treaty can enter into its considerations, the Commission interpreted both Articles 280 and 281 and CMATS strictly: Part XV would in principle yield to any agreement to settle the dispute by some other means, but the moratorium in Article 4 of CMATS was something different: in fact it amounted to an agreement not to settle the dispute for 50 years.  Thus the gate remained shut, and Article 281 proved to be of no use to Australia.
  1. The parties’ dispute over maritime boundaries dates from 2002, before UNCLOS entered into force as between them, so the first condition of Article 298, that the dispute must have arisen “subsequent to the entry into force of this Convention”, was not met. Had this objection succeeded, the failure of the prior ones would not have mattered, since any one objection on its own would have had the desired effect for Australia of putting an end to the conciliation.  But it too failed, in this instance because the Commission interpreted against Australia the ambiguity in the quoted phrase: does it refer to the entry into force of UNCLOS generally, which occurred in 1994, or as between the particular disputants, which did not happen until 2013?  The objection would succeed only under the latter interpretation, but the Commission preferred the former.
  1. Because both Parties have observed the CMATS Treaty, there have not been negotiations on the maritime boundary, which Article 298 requires before resort to its provisions. Accordingly, the second condition of Article 298 is not met.  In this instance the Commission took a broader view of what was encompassed by the term “negotiations” – there clearly had been negotiations on the dispute as a whole, if not, at Australia’s insistence, on the boundary itself.
  1. The dispute is “inadmissible” because Timor-Leste was seeking to seise the Commission in breach of its treaty commitments to Australia, or at the least the Commission should stay the conciliation proceedings until the Tribunal constituted to hear the related arbitration concerning the validity of the CMATS Treaty has reached its decision on that point. The first half of this contention logically would have to suffer the same fate as the first two objections, but under other circumstances – i.e. if the Commission had decided those points differently – there would certainly have been an argument that it would make sense for the conciliation to wait until the fate of CMATS on which Australia was relying had become apparent through the outcome of case (1).

Next steps

So where to from here?  One important consequence of the Commission’s disinclination to apply CMATS is that Australia’s (and my own) contention that Timor-Leste’s initiation of the conciliation was in violation of the Article 4 moratorium remains undetermined, thus leaving Australia free to pursue that claim in whatever ways are open to it.  The obvious solution would be to bring a case of its own against Timor-Leste under CMATS alleging its violation, and to seek by way of remedy an order compelling Timor-Leste to discontinue the UNCLOS proceedings, a kind of international equivalent of an anti-suit injunction.  This, though, is easier said than done.  Although there is a provision of CMATS dealing with dispute settlement, Article 11, all it says, reflecting Australia’s negative attitude towards compulsory settlement of maritime boundary disputes, is: “Any disputes about the interpretation or application of this Treaty shall be settled by consultation or negotiation.”  So, ironically, Australia would need Timor-Leste’s consent to bring a claim against it to seek such an order, which is clearly not going to happen.

This leaves the conciliation to run its course, and the Commission has indicated that it will allow it a year to run.  Australia has announced that it will participate fully, a welcome expression of readiness to follow the UNCLOS procedures which were beginning to show signs of fraying at the edges after the respondents in two recent cases, the Arctic Sunrise and South China Sea arbitrations, refused to take part.  One final ambiguity may need to be resolved once the Commission reports back to the parties: UNCLOS Article 298(1)(a)(ii) states that “…after the conciliation commission has presented its report, which shall state the reasons on which it is based, the parties shall negotiate an agreement on the basis of that report; if these negotiations do not result in an agreement, the parties shall, by mutual consent, submit the question to one of the procedures provided for in section 2, unless the parties otherwise agree[.]”

Here it is not clear which of “shall” and “mutual consent” takes precedence: in other words, would the failure of post-conciliation negotiations pave the way to an ordinary compulsory Part XV case to decide the boundary through a putative oxymoronic obligation of the parties to consent to this?  This would suit Timor-Leste, but is the very thing Australia has been at pains to avoid.  Or are the disputants free to give or withhold their consent as they please, such that only if both of them consent “shall” the question ultimately come before a Part XV forum?  Thus it is by no means beyond the bounds of possibility that yet another case would become necessary a year or so from now to decide this point.

A fuller version of this post is available for download at the Institute of Maritime Law’s website.