Problem Solving

Many people like puzzles. They become expert in crosswords or sudoku or similar recreations, which can be a pleasant way to spend time, but real life legal puzzles are not an entertainment; for those clients caught in the midst of a legal puzzle they endure great stress. Most people who find themselves being sued or having to sue never, when they started on a course of business or a relationship, envisaged that it would end in tears. They suddenly, and these things often happen suddenly, discover that their life’s work is at risk, and the stress of many thousands of hours being wasted. Continue reading

Making Too Many laws

In ancient times people started with custom, a way of doing things, which morphed into law. As people developed, so law developed. In some places custom became precedent, and frequently whole bodies of precedent were turned into codified laws. Continue reading

Are Social Media Platforms Publishers?

We all have something to say and social media provides a platform from which we can speak. Platforms amplify speech. Social media platforms allow individuals to publish whatever they choose, generally without censorship, or editorial interference. They are a useful and cheap way to communicate to the world at large. They are also an environmentally friendly way to communicate.

There is a long tradition of people wanting to communicate; centuries ago some published pamphlets; others wrote books. These communications could only reach a mass audience because of the invention of the printing press. Today even the President of the United States of America frequently communicates through twitter.

Most nations have laws which prevent, or seek to prevent, the dissemination of material which is defamatory or severely pornographic or which induces hatred or which espouses violence in some form or other. If such material were printed in a newspaper or in a book the publisher would face the same legal sanctions as the author. However, if such material is communicated on a social media platform the social media company faces no legal sanction. It may, if the material is drawn to its attention, take it off the platform, but the internet is a complex beast and once something is published on it, the material usually stays on it, somewhere or other.

Governments are now looking to see how such material can be regulated on the internet. One way is to make the platform liable in the same way that traditional publishers are responsible for their publications equally with the author. However the sheer volume of material put on to social media is a problem. Perhaps social media companies could spend much more of their vast resources policing their own platforms, but they are loathe to do this voluntarily. Germany has enacted laws which require a stringent policing by social media companies, so I am sure that this could be done in other jurisdictions.

We do not want to get to a state where platforms are censoring what people put on social media. There are many opinions which I personally find extremely offensive and disgraceful, but I do not want to prevent people expressing their ideas. The expression of an idea is the right of everyone in the world; free speech, however, is limited to the expression of ideas: hatred, propaganda (now fashionably called fake news) instructions to build bombs and encouragement to violence are not ideas.

 

Pensions and Carillion

The sudden (and in some quarters) expect collapse of Carillion has left many people who thought that they had a pension of a certain amount from the conglomerate finding that their pensions will be significantly less than they expected. It is astonishing that the law seems to permit companies to ignore their pension obligations and give priority to the payment of dividends over their legal obligation to make payments into their own pension funds. Pensions are wages, in reality, deferred wages, and I cannot understand a position where Carillion’s pension funds are in deficit, and apparently have been in deficit for many years, while dividends have been continuously paid to shareholders.

After all, when a person works for a company and it is a term of the employment that the person will get a pension based on final salary or average earnings, what is really happening is that the employee works for lower wages on the basis that he or she will get the agreed pension.

Pension fund deficits seem to be widespread among many large companies.  It is hard to understand how auditors manage to give such companies a clean bill of health. In Carillion’s case it seems that the pension trustee warned that there was a shortfall of around £990 million in the fund. Collectively the Pension Protection Fund’s review of pensions showed that although there were 1,878 schemes in surplus, there were more than double that amount in deficit, and that in the aggregate the deficit was more than £100 billion.

The funds that the pension funds maintain do fluctuate, usually as the stock market fluctuates and as fixed interest investments change. I can understand that fluctuations must be taken into account and over several years you would expect some fluctuation with the company having to put more money in, or if it has put in too much, having a contribution holiday until things were smoothed out. I cannot understand how it is that funds can be in substantial deficit for ten years. Perhaps some regulator is not doing its job properly.

If the pension fund is in deficit, the Pension Protection Fund steps in to help in a limited way. Not all of the pension is covered by the PPF and this means not only does the pensioner not get his or her full pension but also the taxpayer loses the income tax on that part of the pension that is lost.

There needs to be a fix. I would suggest that there should be a more transparent treatment of pension obligations in companies’ accounts and further that companies should not be permitted to pay dividends while pension funds are in substantial long term deficit. This rule will, I am told, deter investment in companies whose pension funds are in deficit, but would that be a bad thing? Should investors be able to reap dividends from companies who do not pay their pension contributions?

We live in Interesting Times

The nations of the world are set on growing their economies. It is, they think, the best way to increase prosperity and reduce their debts. Certainly it will increase material prosperity, if growth can be achieved but at the cost of the environment. We live in the environment and as our economies grow and nations become materially wealthier so our the places where their peoples live become more malignant.

What does it profit humanity to gain the whole world if humanity then has no place to live?

Merry Christmas

Very Merry Christmas