Musings: Law in the media

Seriously though, it might have been owed totally to my own jaundiced eye or ears but it seemed as if most of the media reports that I either read or heard during the past week smacked of law or some legal principle.

For starters, there was the bizarre episode in Trinidad &Tobago where two sitting Court of Appeal judges were rewarded by the State with the honorific of Senior [our Queen’s] Counsel, even though, at least in the case of the Chief Justice; he had not even applied to be so conferred. A number of the more senior silks in that jurisdiction subsequently expressed their consternation at this chain of events, with one categorising it as driving a donkey cart through the judicial distance required for observance of the separation of powers doctrine. Precisely how this view comports with the award of civilian national honours except as a matter of rank is, however, not immediately clear. More persuasive, perhaps, is the claim that the appellation is reserved solely for those members of the profession who practise at the Bar, though with some modern exceptions. A sitting judge, who is beyond the Bar, should clearly not be so entitled on this basis. According to reports this morning, their Lordships have now forfeited the instruments of conferral.

Then there was the deceptively intriguing consumerist issue explored during the week on the VOB talk show. It appears that in a prior press advertisement on Sunday, January 1, Courts had stated that a free laptop would be gifted with the purchase of certain office chairs. Some, anxious to take advantage of this bargain, were to be later disappointed to learn that what being offered was in fact a paradoxically termed “laptop table”, and not the laptop computer they had reasonably hoped for. A correction of the advertisement subsequently appeared on Wednesday.

The difficulty here of course is that our law has generally regarded an advertisement of items for sale as a mere offer to chaffer or an invitation to treat and not an offer to sell, so that no legal obligation is imposed on the advertiser to sell the advertised item at the advertised price, to anyone who presents him or herself as a potential purchaser in response to the advertisement, or at all. In law, this is simply because the advertiser did not make an offer capable of acceptance by anyone to sell the item on the advertised terms.

However, the Consumer Protection Act, Cap.326D, in section 14, now proscribes under pain of criminal sanction, the offer of a gift, prize or other free item in connection with the promotion of the supply of goods, where there is the intention not to provide the gift, prize or other free item as offered. Of course, this raises the critical issue as to what constitutes an offer for this purpose – should it be accorded its common law meaning so that the offence night never be committed through an advertisement, or should it be given its more popular colloquial meaning? This is clearly a matter for those charged with the enforcement of the Act.

In any event, there are a number of defences available even if there is a contravention of the section. Most of these tend to suggest, however, that the latter definition might be the appropriate one in this context.

Next, we had during the CBC television newscast one night last week, in answer to one of the questions usually posed at a break for commercials, the oft-repeated local assertion that the U S Constitution somehow borrowed the principle of “no taxation without consent [or representation]” from the Charter of Barbados 1652, more familiarly known as the Charter of Oistins.

In truth, this claim may be a congeries of errors because, for one, the phrase is nowhere expressed in the US Constitution. It is, to be found rather, in its Declaration of Indepen-dence 1776. Second, even though the Charter of Barbados does include a reference to “no taxation without consent”, and the US Declaration of Independence charges the King of Great Britain with “imposing on us taxes without our consent”, this concept, as I have written before, is scarcely original.

In 1215, Article 12 of the Magna Carta of England proclaimed that “no scutage nor aid [both taxes] may be levied in our kingdom without its general consent…” And it is to this rather than to the Charter of Barbados that the U S credits the origins of the clause in its Declaration – see an address by the President of the US Capitol Historical Society dated April 12 2003.

There were other legal references too which might provide fodder for future comment. A column in the Guardian of London came up with some collective nouns for lawyers; two of the murderers of Stephen Lawrence in London were finally tried and convicted after having been initially freed in 1993; the Coroner’s verdict in the Arch Cot tragedy has raised the possibility of liability in negligence and Ms Shanique Myrie of Jamaica has sued Barbados in the Caribbean Court of Justice.

What a week!



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