“Careful what we wish for?” Event report

Dr Abbe Brown, Reader, discusses her event “Careful what we wish for? Clashing laws, energy and society” as part of the Being Human Festival.

The first snow in Aberdeen this winter did not deter the audience at “Careful what we wish for” at Queens Cross Church on Friday 20 November (see advance chat about the event in my 13 November blog post).

After a musical welcome of a “human” themed playlist (thanks Steven of QX – well, it was the AHRC Being Human Festival) I set the scene for the evening (broadly, is what I do relevant? Do you care? Can the Paris climate change discussions achieve anything?) and welcomed my panel: Scott Rennie; Aylin Bahmanyar; and, in a last minute call up, Derek McDonald of Aberdeenshire Council, an expert in forestry, fishing and economic development. Each of us spoke for around 10 minutes introducing personal and professional clashes we have encountered, and how activism, laws, courts and policymaking have helped or hindered.

From these common themes, discussion was wide ranging: health and IP; climate change and technology transfer; single issue politics; democratic deficits; the impact of trade agreements such as the TPP; racial and gender equality; developments in respect of female genital mutilation in Nigeria; the contribution of activism to human rights; changes to landing and discard obligations in the EU; the impact on fishers and fishing communities; the impact of NGOs in driving debate; the positive and negative elements of corporate power and trade; and continuing positions of some that addressing climate change is marginal and distinct from trade.

A lively Q and A session followed, when my carefully planted questions were not required. This covered the rule of law, sympathy/lack of sympathy for companies when a government changes the rules, the need for more or less localisation or centralisation, the need for action against climate change or if this is unfair in developing countries seeking their industrial revolution, and the need for expertise (including from mulitnationals) and for a long term view in politics and policymaking.

A seamless request from Scott about why Aberdeen couldn’t just choose to have more Hydrogen buses (Barney, we needed you), led to the audience all being put to work on how to bring about the hypothetical sustainable dreams of an activist group, as against the needs of energy security and the employment realities of city based in oil and gas. Calls for direct action against cars and boilers, led to dreams of a benevolent dictatorship to manage the transition; a fleeting moment of managed transition quickly moved on to the greater need for energy security. Then time ran out, we only touched on the media…

For me, as well as highly enjoyable, the evening was a reminder that not only do laws clash over objectives, but that the objectives are rarely clear. Seeking to bring about a common ground might not only be a legal challenge but might not always be the desirable goal – or at least not to all. And who should decide? Courts have always been my answer – but things have to get pretty bad for that to be relevant in a particular scenario, and this model doesn’t work so well for big questions such as energy security.

So for me, it’s now back to the day job, duly inspired and challenged. The discussions which ran on after we finished (and yes, some of them in Dizzy’s, a bar over the road) suggested that lots of other brains had been stirred and connections formed. Which is what it was all about.

A podcast of the event will be added here soon.  More detail from ongoing live tweets from Malcolm (thanks) are at the @AberdeenUniLaw Twitter feed.  Thanks to all at QX (especially Elspeth, Steven, Marina) and the University of Aberdeen public engagement team (especially Julie, Heather, Jen and Jill).  A Wordle prepared by Suzi during the event, and with which we closed, is below.

Being Human Wordle

Careful what we wish for? Clashing laws, energy and society

Dr Abbe Brown, Reader, introduces her 20 November event “Careful what we wish for? Clashing laws, energy and society”.

I am leading this event as part of the UK wide Being Human Festival. Aberdeen is a festival “Hub” and there is plenty going on. This is a fantastic opportunity for academics to engage with the wider community, to present their research and be challenged in respect of it.

A key theme throughout my work is that so many legal fields and forms of regulation can be relevant to a contemporary legal challenge – but often there is limited awareness of it. Say, addressing climate change might involve climate change, human rights, technology and trade. Within this, courts, lawyers, activists and policymakers often explore one particular issue – the one which is of interest to them, or which they are set up to consider – with others not being considered relevant. (Similar issues can arise in other areas of law, for example in respect of succession, as explored by my colleague and fellow-blogger Malcolm Combe.)

Clashes, and a lack of engagement with them, can lead to narrow, unfair and unworkable outcomes: say, a patent case ignores human rights issues, or a climate change treaty which encourages the transfer of technology but does not address the fact that companies which own relevant patents might simply refuse to transfer the technology. I am exploring these questions in London in 2016 with academic and professional partners, with research support kindly provided by BILETA.

But all this work can seem far removed from reality. What of the activists who called and marched for a treaty? Are they surprised that it can be blocked by private power, and was always likely to be? Or indeed what of those leading or working for multinational and local companies, seeking to secure UK energy security? Do they feel unfairly attacked? Are their contributions overlooked?

The open session on Friday 20 November, to which all are welcome, is a chance for members of the public (coming from all perspectives) to share their experiences. Is there indeed a problem? Are activists blocked or frustrated? How can problems be avoided or managed? Can useful solutions be shared? Can academics, lawyers and policymakers learn from this?

I am delighted that I will be joined on Friday by a diverse expert panel: Barney Crockett (Aberdeen City Council), Aylin Bahmanyar (student activist, University of Aberdeen) and Rev Scott Rennie (Queens Cross Church, LGBT and Green activist). The panel will share our own experiences and we then look forward to an interactive evening, with questions and contributions from the floor and via social media. The group as a whole will then “workshop” our solution to a (mainly…) hypothetical problem.

All are welcome at Queens Cross Church at 7pm on 20 November. For live Twitter feed on the night follow @AberdeenUniLaw. To send questions, please use our hashtag ‪#AbdnClash


My research and teaching explore the laws relevant to innovation and their impact on key societal challenges (see Intellectual Property, Human Rights and Competition and Environmental Technologies, Intellectual Property and Climate Change). Recent projects are copyright, human rights and equality law as they apply to dance and disability (see InVisible Difference.org.uk), the place of patents in encouraging greater innovation and use of it in oil and gas (see script-ed.org, openscotlandmag.com) and the future legal framework for renewables and innovation in the EU (see all-energy.co.uk). My personal tweets are @IGFTowardAccess

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Scottish Criminal Evidence Law Set Adrift

The School of Law has an ongoing seminar series, where our own academic staff or visiting academics are given the chance to showcase or develop some research. One such recent seminar was on the rules of evidence in Scottish criminal law.

Since the turn of the century, Scottish criminal evidence law has gone through a period of unprecedented change. Affected areas include:

  • the treatment of ‘vulnerable’ witnesses in court;
  • the tightening up of the ‘rape shield’ to prevent the questioning of complainers about their previous sexual history;
  • police questioning of suspects;
  • the Crown’s duty of disclosure;
  • the long-standing double jeopardy principle and rules relating to new evidence; and
  • increased pressures on the parties to agree evidence before trial.

That is just the beginning. There are proposals to render admissible the relevant previous convictions of the accused and for the introduction of a doctrine of ‘similar facts evidence’, not to mention the possible abolition of the ‘sacred cow’ of corroboration, where two pieces of evidence about an event are needed before that can come before a Scottish court.

Historically, the reform of criminal evidence in Scotland has been left to the experts, meaning lawyers, judges, legal academics, the Scottish Law Commission and the like. This has meant reform has principally come from ‘internal’ pressures and has taken place along familiar doctrinal lines. Increasingly, the recent revolution in Scottish criminal evidence law has been influenced by ‘external’ pressures, principally political considerations and a managerialist agenda which puts an emphasis on cost-cutting and efficiency.

The debate over corroboration provides an excellent example of the ‘politicisation’ of criminal evidence reform, whereby political considerations entered into what previously would have been a purely doctrinal debate. Similarly, the drive to increase the pre-trial agreement of evidence and to increase the amount of written (‘pre-frozen’) evidence introduced at trial as an alternative to oral testimony is a product of the managerialist drive to reduce the number of trials and shorten the length of trials that do take place in order to increase ‘efficiency’ and save money.

The future of Scottish criminal evidence law is difficult to predict. What is clear is that it will no longer be shaped primarily from within the field by experts in criminal evidence law, who might be expected to steer its development along traditional doctrinal or ideological lines. Increasingly its reform will be subject to external pressures, principally through the involvement of politicians, civil servants and interest groups pursuing ‘populist’ or ‘managerialist’ agendas.

All of this was discussed at a seminar in Old Aberdeen (see this collection of tweets) and will form part of an essay in a forthcoming collection edited by Peter Duff and Pamela Ferguson. The book will be called ‘Current Developments in Scottish Criminal Evidence Law’ and it will be published by Edinburgh University Press in early 2017.

Blog by Professor Peter Duff