The round-up of the stories that a budding Student Lawyer should be aware of this week. Sign up here to get these updates in your inbox every week.
UK tenants face losing home when eviction ban ends
Reported by Ellena Mottram
The Government has announced an extension to the moratorium of evictions it first announced at the beginning of lockdown as campaigners warn that thousands of tenants could have been made homeless at the end of the month.
The government introduced a moratorium on evictions in March to ban landlords in England and Wales from evicting tenants. The measure was called for my campaigners and tenant’s unions who warned tens of thousands could be made homeless if they were unable to afford their rent as a result of job losses and furloughs caused by the Coronavirus pandemic.
The moratorium on evictions was due to end on 25 June, at which point it was feared that landlords would have been able to start repossession proceedings against tenants who have been unable to meet their rent demands.
Tenant’s unions such as The London Renter’s Union has called for an extension to the eviction ban. It had argued that without an extension to the ban which is set to expire in 20 days, there could be a ‘rent debt crises worse than anything w have ever seen in this county before”.
It is reported that just under a quarter of all private renters were worried about paying their rent. This number rises to 31% for households with children as almost half of all private renters, 42%, have reported a reduction in rent since the introduction of lockdown.
According to the Resolution Foundation, approximately half of tenants who have asked for a rent holiday in recent weeks have been refused. Campaigners therefore fear that rent payment problems and homelessness will grow rapidly as the government support stops. This is in reference to both the rent support and the government’s job retention scheme, which looks to end in August.
A spokesperson for the government has said it is looking into the next steps which can be taken to support both tenant and landlords to ensure the rental market remains fair for both groups. The Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has however announced that new evictions will be suspended for another two months and therefore ‘eviction hearings will not be heard in courts until the end of August and no-one will be evicted from their home this summer due to coronavirus’.
The moratorium on evictions will therefore be extended until 23 August, meaning in total to suspension will have been present for 5 months. Whilst the support has been welcomed by some groups, it has also be criticised as a short-term solution as it does nothing to prevent private tenants incurring large debts during the pandemic.
The government has proposed a protocol which would require landlords to try and agree an affordable repayment plan for those tenants who are in arrears, however details of this have not yet been published. Campaigns have therefore argued the lack of clarity will likely lead to large scale evictions when the measures end.
It is believed that there will be no further extension will be granted at the end of August as the government transitions from the current measures ‘to allow the market to operate”.
Serafin v Malkiewicz and Others  UKSC 23
Reported by Jasmine Cracknell
Last week, the Supreme Court ordered a full retrial in the case of Serafin v Malkiewicz & Others, stating the original trial in the High Court had been ‘unfair’.
Lord Wilson, giving judgement for the Supreme Court, said Mr Justice Jay directed a ‘barrage of hostility’ at the claimant and therefore ‘did not allow the claim to be properly presented’. The Court also clarified how judges should interpret the statutory public interest defense to defamation.
Jan Serafin (the claimant) ran a café in a Polish community centre in London and was well-known in the community. In 2017, he brought a claim against the publishers and editors of a Polish newspaper, Nowy Czas¸ for libel, based on an article they had published about him in October 2015. Mr Serafin claimed the article, titled ‘Bankruptcy need not be painful’, contained 13 separate defamatory meanings.
The defendants sought to rely on the public interest defense under s.4 Defamation Act 2013, which states there will be a defense to an action for defamation if the defendant can show he reasonably believed releasing the statement was a matter of public interest.
Mr Serafin’s claim was initially heard by the High Court, where he represented himself. After a seven day trial, Mr Justice Jay found the defendants could indeed rely on the s.4 defense for all 13 statements and subsequently dismissed the case.
Mr Serafin appealed against the decision and alleged Justice Jay had shown ‘hostility and rudeness’; toward him. The Court of Appeal found in his favour. They rejected the public interest defense and criticized the approach of Mr Justice Jay, ultimately concluding the trial was unfair. The Court did not order a retrial, however, and instead instructed a judge other than Justice Jay to quantify the damages.
The defendants subsequently appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, on the basis that the Court of Appeal had wrongly used an old common law test from the case of Reynolds v Times Newspapers Ltd, which was no longer good law due to the introduction of the statutory defense.
The Supreme Court first considered whether the initial trial in the High Court was indeed unfair. All five Supreme Court Justices were in unanimous agreement it had been, with Lord Wilson stating in reference to Mr Justice Jay “he did not allow the claim to be properly presented;…therefore he could not fairly appraise it; and… in short, the trial was unfair.”
Lord Wilson also went on to say “Instead of making allowance for the claimant’s appearance in person, the judge harassed and intimidated him in ways which surely would never have occurred if the claimant had been represented … Conscious of how the justice system has failed both sides, this court, with deep regret, must order a full retrial.”
In the second part of its judgement, the Supreme Court also made it clear that the ten-point test established in Reynolds should no longer be used as a checklist when interpreting the statutory defense.
The Reynolds test of ‘responsible journalism’ preceded the 2013 Act and was the main authority for libel cases such as this. The Act however does not reference the test, and instead states that when assessing if publishing information was in the public interest the court should have regard to ‘all the circumstances of the case’.
Lord Wilson therefore stated that whilst some of the factors in the Reynolds test may still be relevant, ’Parliament made clear its intention that the Reynolds factors…were not to be used as a checklist’.
Find out more here.
Hong Kong & China (follow up from two weeks ago)
Reported by Laurence Tsai
As an update to our previous post, China bypassed Hong Kong’s legislative council and implemented the national security law on its own accord. The law to criminalise any insults to China’s national anthem has also been enacted, whereby any offences which “insult” or misuse the anthem, or distort the lyrics or score in a disrespectful way are punishable with a fine of HK$50,000 (£5,150) and up to three years in jail.
The phrase “it is better to be a broken piece of jade than an unbroken ceramic tile” pervades the slogans and placards of many Hong Kong protesters who are vehemently defying Beijing’s controversial power play to take control over the semi-autonomous territory. Xie Feng, commissioner of China’s ministry of foreign affairs in Hong Kong, publicly announced that the controversial security law will “strengthen [Hong Kong’s] status as an international financial, trading and shipping centre” and help generate a more profitable future for both domestic and foreign businesses. Despite international criticism from, amongst others, the UK, the US and Canada, China warned the UK to “recognise and respect the fact that Hong Kong has returned” to China. Indeed, various assertions by China combined with the recently enacted statutes indicate a divergence from its obligations under the “one country, two systems” framework.
China appears to show no signs of stopping its current course of action to signify to the world that it has control over Hong Kong. The Hong Kong government appears to have accepted this, though it has been met with a rebellious uproar from its citizens. In recent weeks, social distancing rules in Hong Kong have eased, with public gatherings limited to eight people. Additionally, restaurants, bars and schools have reopened.
Despite this, for the first time in three decades, the Hong Kong police banned a vigil to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre for the first time, which again sparked considerable criticism. The police stated that the prohibition aimed to limit the potential spread of COVID-19. However, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China – the group which organises the June 4 vigil – contested that the pandemic is used as a pretext to suppress protest assemblies. Amnesty International echoed this view, stating that the virus “must not be used as an excuse to stifle freedom of expression”.
Rather than an outright ban, implementing a socially distanced vigil would have been less authoritarian and suppressive, which might not have exasperated the existing belligerent tensions between protestors and government. It is widely known that June 4 is banned in mainland China, but Hong Kong and Macau are the only jurisdictions in China where the June 4 ceremony is allowed. Although some may take the police’s words at face value, it is hard to ignore the true intentions of China, whose authority bleeds into Hong Kong’s government, which consistently demonstrate a forced manoeuvre to reshape Hong Kong into its own image.
Regarding Hong Kong’s status as a global financial hub, the city could face a blow depending on the range of measures the US decides to take as a result of the Secretary of State stating that Hong Kong has lost sufficient autonomy from Beijing. The US move couldn’t come at a worse time, considering Hong Kong’s economy is already struggling due to the pandemic, the US-China trade dispute, and months of anti-government protests. On a brighter note, however, a US decision to revoke Hong Kong's special trade privileges would not have a direct impact on the city's international status. The territory would continue to be treated as an independent customs territory by the World Trade Organization and as a separate entity by other multilateral institutions, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
The impact of restrictions in prisons due to coronavirus
Reported by Emma Ducroix
Inspectors, who carried out scrutiny visits on 19 May, said they were troubled by the impact of new restrictions at three female-only prisons – Bronzefield, Eastwood Park and Foston Hall.
Self-harm has increased among female prisoners during the coronavirus pandemic and some are being released without anywhere to go, inspectors have said.
The restrictions were aimed at helping to control the spread of the virus but the inspectors were concerned about the suspension of specialist support for some of the most vulnerable women.
Despite enhanced welfare checks and support in place at Bronzefield and Eastwood Park, Clarke, the chief inspector of prisons, said: “We were concerned about the impact of the very sudden withdrawal of a range of interventions from a small number of prisoners with very high levels of need.”
An inspectors’ report noted: “Despite the work of staff, the very restricted regime meant prisoners at risk of self-harm felt isolated from others and craved more human contact.”
He said: “Since the start of the restrictions, 40% of prisoners released from Bronzefield and Eastwood Park and 20% of those release from Foston Hall had no accommodation on the day of their release.”
The inspectors’ report on the scrutiny visits added: “This was not a safe way to release potentially vulnerably prisoners, especially during a pandemic.”
Efforts to reduce the amount of inmates through release schemes had proved largely ineffective as significant numbers of new prisoners were admitted.
Under the new restrictions, face-to-face visits and education sessions had stopped and prisoners were allowed out of their cells in smaller groups.
The inspectors were concerned by the absence of any organised physical education provision and they said that social distancing was not routinely observed at Bronzefield.
They said video-based “visits” not been set up and some women had not seen their children for two months.
The report comes as children separated from their mothers, and the prisons minister Lucy Frazer, are set to give evidence to the joint committee on human rights on Monday.
You can find more here.