Wednesday, 20 June 2007

YL v Birmingham CC

Otherwise known as "what's a public authority?" Not surprisingly, but very disappointingly, the House of Lords has held by 3-2 majority that private care homes are not covered by the Human Rights Act, even when they looking after clients on behalf of a local authority. This was the view of Lords Scott, Mance and Neuberger, Lord Bingham and Baroness Hale dissented.

As the government supported the appeal surely they must now throw their weight behind Andrew Dinsmore's Private Members' Bill. Publawyer will believe it when he sees it.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Power of Information

The Government has recently published a report entitled 'Power of Information' focussing on how they can "empower individuals and communities to create solutions to improve their lives and make informed decisions" through technology, especially the internet (which is apparently spherical).

All well and good, but do we really want to see politicians on Facebook? It's just for bandying insults about really. Which on reflection makes it perfect for PMQs.

Binarylaw has also picked up on this report.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Shine a little light

Ages ago I happened upon this article on Wired about, a new(ish) development in mashups which aims to highlight links between campaign contributions and the votes that legislators cast once they have been elected. Maplight started out covering the California Legislature and promised in the Wired article to expand and track Congress too. This has now been implemented and my brilliantly planned tardiness can now be seen as a cunning strategy to wait until this project had reached its second stage before posting about it (ahem).

Digging into the data suggests some intriguing results, but is there really a direct correlation between the amount of money spent and the way in which a vote was cast? If there is, then doesn't an analysis of some of the votes suggest that a better (more targetted) use of funds could have produced a different result? This is obscured by the way in which information relating to a specific campaign can be presented as it suggests that the funds referred to have been donated solely in support of that particular measure. As this is not the case then we need to consider how much influence each donated dollar has across all the campaigns in which it might be relevant.

As a purely random example consider the result of a Californian measure dealing with forestry resources which failed to become law by 36 votes to 33. Supporters of the Bill donated around $105k, while its opponents donated about $267k. This suggests that the trigger value for a Yes vote was much lower. The Bill's supporters donated a total of $18.25k to people who voted against it (including $12k to one individual). At a 'price' of $2,648 per succesful vote this money could be said to be worth six extra votes (and a 39-30 victory). The point is that campaign donations are part of a much more complex web of influences and that generally (absent outright corruption) the value of each dollar in determining how someone votes is variable depending on a whole range of other factors, such as their moral and social incentives and other donations that are competing for their attention on this particular issue. Despite this I'm sure that there are some interesting patterns to be discovered here which can hopefully lead to difficult questions for elected representatives. At a time when access to information about our legislators seems to be going backwards again perhaps Maplight is also a good model of the kind of connected thinking that would be welcome in any new analysis of Parliamentary activity. Of course, this information could very useful not just to scrutinisers of accountability, but also to lobbyists. I think Henry Ford is supposed to have said that he knew that only 10% of his advertising spend was effective, but he had no way of knowing exactly what comprised the ineffective 90%. Ok, this is probably apocryphal, but Maplight's figures suggest that if donations were made with to intent to secure influence then some of them have failed. This project may make it clearer just what was wasted.

Maplight stress that their data only shows correlation, it does not prove causation. For that we have to rely on cartoons.

All of which leaves only one question remaining - how can Web 2.0 track brown envelopes stuffed with used notes?

Neatly tying in with some of the points that I was trying to make about the nefarious range of influences on legislators and politicians in general, Lawrence Lessig has announced that he is going to dedicate the next decade to the issue of the "corruption" of the political process.

Friday, 15 June 2007

New Jury Research

This was actually published on Wednesday, but I've only just got round to looking into it. It is apparently ground-breaking and debunks myths. I'm all in favour of myth debunking, but I prefer to destroy ridiculous chain email urban legends, leaving this sort of laborious and far more worthy stuff to people far better qualified. While the official releases are understandably very positive (MoJ, University of Birmingham) a couple of places have picked it up under headings suggesting ethnic minority defendants get an easier ride from juries, for instance "Juries 'more lenient' to minority defendants" and "Jurors show leniency to ethnic minorities", which distorts the report's findings.

The full report contains several interesting points (and I may discover more if I get the time to read it properly), among which are:

  • "There was some evidence that BME jurors on jury panels appeared to be selected to serve on juries less often than White jurors on jury panels, which may be the result of court clerks inadvertently avoiding reading out juror names that are difficult to pronounce." (p.14)
  • "There was no significant gender imbalance on juries at any of the three courts: 88% of all juries at all three courts had a male to female ratio of 6:6, 7:5 or 8:4." (p.14) Which means that in 12% of cases (1 in 8) there was a gender imbalance of 3:1 or greater. Which, if it makes any difference (and I can't recall any research either way off the top of my head), is pretty significant.
  • There can be quite wide disparities between different jurors, depending on the defendant's race (p.166). However, the report goes on to make the point that it is the final verdict of the whole jury which really matters and their whole point is that any individual biases are evened out by the system.
  • "White jurors at Blackfriars do not demonstrate bias against BME defendants, but instead show a more subtle bias in favour of the White defendant." (p.176)
The final kiss off is particularly revealing as it demonstrates just what they haven't investigated yet - "Research will now be conducted into whether all-white juries show any signs of bias against ethnic minority defendants."

Also, MoJ has been warned that it needs to do more to actually get benefits from IT and indeed "harness the power of IT". While the last bit is a piece of consultant buzzwording par excellence, there is undeniably great scope for improvement. Maybe they can get a supercomputer to crunch numbers for these reports faster.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

A "squalid little bill"

So said Lord McNally as progress of the dreaded FOI amendment appeared to grind to a halt yesterday. Publawyer has been very busy for the last few weeks and neglected his sorry little blog, but he appears to have timed his return to coincide expertly with the latest development in what appears to have become his hobby horse. He also remembers, too late, that he was going to dispense with this whole third person malarkey. Oops. The usual sources are here and here, although The Times can't appear to get David Maclean's name right.

Elsewhere, as everyone probably knows by now, the House of Lords has ruled that the Human Rights Act applies to certain military acts carried out abroad. A "seminal decision" indeed.

I have been updating my links and added several EU law sites. It appears that the EU Constitutional Treaty might be reborn, but the same problems about agreeing a direction will still need to be dealt with.