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Weekly News Summary – 17th July 2017

Welcome to another weekly Lawyer Portal news summary. This post will cover the legal news stories from 10th – 16th July. In the week when Honolulu City Council introduced a ban on crossing the road while texting, there has been no shortage of legal news stories. This week, the Home Secretary has suggested acid attack convictions could soon carry life sentences, law firm Leigh Day suspended two paralegals after they advertised legal support for Grenfell fire victims and the Taylor review on modern working practices called for clearer legislation on employment status.

The Government has outlined its plan to combat the rising number of acid attacks in the UK. Following the five acid attacks that took place within 90 minutes in London, the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, is facing mounting pressure to reform the current laws on the sale of acids and the consequences of using noxious liquids as weapons. Rudd has proposed that acid attack convictions should carry a life sentence, saying that “life sentences must not be reserved for acid attack survivors.”

A review by the Home Office will seek to change the Crown Prosecution Service’s sentencing guidelines to ensure corrosive substances are treated as dangerous weapons and carry the requisite punishment. In order to control the sale of corrosive substances, a widened list of substances could also be included in the Poisons Act 1972.

The review has received support from MPs such as Stephen Timms and survivors of acid attacks such as Katie Piper, who has been campaigning on the issue since her life was changed by an acid attack arranged by her ex-boyfriend. The new guidance proposed by the Home Office is aimed to aid police in preventing attacks, searching potential perpetrators and helping victims at the scene. Controlling the sale of acids is also a priority since a simple Google search reveals that sulphuric acid can be freely purchased online.

Figures from the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) suggest that more than 400 acid or corrosive substance attacks were carried out in the six months up to April 2017. Campaigners have warned that gang members may be turning to acid as their weapon of choice following a crackdown on knives and guns.

Leigh Day has suspended two of its paralegals who are accused of touting for work among the victims of the Grenfell fire disaster. The Times reported that a poster titled ‘Free Legal Support’, including the two paralegals’ names and a non-work email address, was put up close to the tower in the wake of the fire that ravaged the building last month. The poster did not refer to Leigh Day. Leigh Day tweeted that it had no prior knowledge of the paralegals’ activity and stated that they had been suspended while an investigation takes place.

The Law Society’s president, Joe Egan, has highlighted that the North Kensington Law Centre is the official place where people affected by the fire can get advice for free. Although the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) rules prohibit cold calling and other similarly intrusive marketing methods, not all promotional material is banned. However, a bigger concern was whether two paralegals would be able to give impartial and accurate legal advice on the vast range of complex legal issues arising out of the disaster.

Two days after the suspension of the paralegals was announced, Leigh Day issued another statement saying that the two paralegals had in fact resigned before the investigation concluded. Nonetheless, a number of lawyers have come forward to say that the two paralegals have not done anything wrong and were merely trying to help.

Matthew Taylor’s report into modern working practices makes some important recommendations which could clarify the contested definitions of employment status.  Anyone who has come across employment law is likely to appreciate just how important employment status is. It is relevant in cases on anything from tax and employment benefits to pension rights and discrimination. However, the rise of the “gig-economy” has seen an increase in companies blurring the definitions of employment status. Companies such as Uber and Deliveroo are just two examples.  

Taylor has noted that flexibility needs to work both ways. While the economy has benefited from the flexibility offered by freelancers, gig economy workers, those on zero-hours contracts and the self-employed, the workers themselves should not be at a disadvantage. However, Andy Chamberlain, Deputy director of policy at the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed

(‘IPSE’), has criticised the Taylor report for failing to address the problem of clarifying what self-employment is. A statutory definition of self-employment would go some way to preventing workers being misclassified as self-employed. The Taylor report calls for clearer legislation but does not directly address the need for a statutory definition.

Currently self-employment is a default category assigned to those who are neither employees nor workers. However the personal responsibility for tax purposes and the financial risk can be overly burdensome if the individual does not receive the corresponding benefit of flexibility. The report states that it will still be up to the courts to rule on employment status, which can be a big hurdle for individuals to overcome. Taylor has proposed renaming workers as dependent contractors’, but changing the label in unlikely to help if the underlying definition remains unclear.

Words: Mariya Rankin

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