Information Commissioner v Fat Controller

This week was a week of altogether too much train travel and Friday took the biscuit. (NB : This is a bit woe is me. I feel much better now…)

Care brief (legal aid) for client who needs continuity of counsel. Distant court at out of town location. Ordered to be at court at 8.30am. No. That isn’t a typo. Travelled down the night before to make said 8.30 start, missing a fourth consecutive bedtime with the kids, aware that the Legal Aid Agency are almost certain to reject any claim for train or b&b or the taxi to court (even though it is not possible to get to on foot) and I am therefore effectively working for free. Long train journey, with mahusive suitcase. No room for mahusive suitcase in rack, but safely stowed out of aisle in (empty) designated wheelchair area along with others. Nice conductor assists passengers with reorganising luggage to fit all in a safe corner. Unable to work due to being seated next to octet of pink spangly Brizzle ladeez on a 40th birthday bash, drinking peach schnapps, eating cupcakes and chatting up all male train staff and passengers whilst playing tinny music via their iphone speakers. Arrive at B&B 9pm, prep, sleep, up at the crack. Taxi to court for 8.30am as per order. Others arrive (predictably) after 9.00am.

Friday lunchtime – long train journey back. No room for mahusive suitcase in rack, but safely stowed out of aisle in (empty) designated wheelchair area, beneath unused table. Am ousted from seat next to my luggage by person with booked seat. I move to the seat opposite where an exceptionally long legged girl with bad dance music emanating from poor quality headphones permits me to use a generous half of the seat beside her, taking up only half of said seat with her handbag. She doesn’t seem to mind when I sit on it though, so it’s all good.

Until the conductor man arrives and gets all legalistic on me. Demands I move my suitcase from it’s entirely safe and unobstructive position to the other end of the carriage where I will not be able to see it. Reasoning with him (albeit in a slightly tetchy tone) does not elicit any flexibility. Because “there is a sign” and “I’ve announced it” so “it’s a legal requirement”. Observing wearily that it did not seem to be a legal requirement on the way down does not produce results. Explaining that I cannot leave my bag unaccompanied produces only “it’s a legal requirement, I refer you to the notice.”. Oh yes. The one I can read because it ISN’T obstructed by a wheelchair. “What if” he says triumphantly “A wheelchair user got on? Then you’d slow down the train.” But there isn’t! And OF COURSE I’D BLOODY MOVE MY SUITCASE FOR A WHEELCHAIR USER!! And…did I mention that there ISN’T A WHEELCHAIR USER??

And I – realising that my stack is about to blow, irritated by legal stuff thrown at me which is probably rot but which I am unfamiliar with – refrain from explaining in full that I cannot leave my suitcase at the other end of the carriage because I am a barrister and it is full of not only the detritus of a week away, but also of files and files of papers about the parents’ mental health and criminal history, and details of several very vulnerable children. That I *cannot* lose (for both the sake of the client and her family and for reasons of self-preservation). That this is information that the Information Commissioner will fine me tens of thousands of pounds for if I were to lose it by being so careless as to comply with something so flimsy as a “legal requirement” from a train conductor. I resist explaining all this partly so as to avoid becoming that self important twonk whose presence is obligatory in every train carriage. And partly because this is not a battle that can be won by “my law is ‘arder than your law”. And partly because, whilst conducting this rather unsatisfactory “debate” I have in fact been attempting unsuccessfully to fit my suitcase in the undersized, inefficiently stacked luggage compartment next to my seat – preferring to be righteously cooperative than brazenly non-compliant. I am finding the multi-tasking tricky.

Just as I reach the point where one corner of my mahusive suitcase is teetering on the top of the suitcase mountain with its full weight on one shoulder, and just as it is threatening to slide back off and pin me to the floor of the carriage the train conductor turns tail and leaves me to it, mid teeter. I have to be rescued by a suitcase samaritan (thank you). We realise this mountain must be re-stacked to get my suitcase in. I am then told off loudly, in sequence, by three separate women for variously touching or moving their bags. First lady…Yes, I’m trying not to crush your bag by putting my suitcase on top of it. I’m just putting it here whilst I make room for mine. You want to be able to SEE your bag from your seat? OK, well have you considered putting it in the overhead shelf RIGHT ABOVE YOU? The ENTIRELY EMPTY ONE? Second lady…. Yes, as I said before I’m trying not to crush your bag either so I need to move it to re-stack. Lady number three is my neighbour with the legs. “Can you not touch my bag please?” After I observed loudly that she seemed to be quite happy for me to be sitting on her handbag on account of her not moving it off my seat she shut up and me and my samaritan finished re-stacking the suitcases and I sat down. The handbag was gone.

Deep breath. What just happened??? I think I need a peach schnapps.

I regularly have my suitcase moved less than delicately or blocked in by other passengers on the train. It’s annoying but I don’t do more than humph on discovering it as I’m trying to make my exit. I’ve never encountered this sort of vocal bag preciousness before. I think that my insistence on needing to be with my suitcase prompted a sort of crowd-think reaction – “my bag’s as important as yours”. Just as well I didn’t do the whole “I have sensitive data in my bag” thing… God knows what might have kicked off!

But the point to this rant is this:

Sometimes we have to travel by train to get to clients. Sometimes it’s too far or we’re just to dog tired to safely drive. Whether it’s car or train or bus we take great care with our papers – damn it I even take them in the station toilet cubicle with me – but this will cut no ice in the unfortunate event of a loss or theft. The Information Commissioner has been absolutely clear – any data loss is basically our loss and it will cost us. More than we can hope to sustain. Career ending amounts of money. So busy trains are a nightmare. Sometimes it is impossible to keep the luggage rack in line of sight, sometimes you nod off on the journey. Sometimes you spend the whole journey anxiously craning your neck to watch the rack every time the train “platforms” (whilst resisting the urge to shout “Platform is not a verb!”). Sometimes you come up against a “legal requirement”.

In trying not to be a conspicuous legal-twonk I did not attempt mid-carriage, mid-argument to look up the railway byelaws. I’m a lawyer to the core but I’m not the sort who loves a confrontation for the heck of it. However twitter did look it up for me (h/t @unity_mot). I am now armed with the knowledge that Rule 12 of the Railway Byelaws provides as follows :

12. Safety instructions

  1. An Operator may issue reasonable instructions relating to safety on any part of the railway by means of a notice on or near that part of the railway. No person shall, without good cause, disobey such notice.
  2. An authorised person may, in an emergency or in other circumstances in which he believes he should act in the interests of safety, issue instructions to any person on the railway. No person shall, without good cause, disobey such instructions.
  3. No offence is committed under these Byelaws where a person acts in accordance with the notices or instructions given under Byelaw 12(1) or 12(2).

A further rummage in the byelaws produces this, which I think is what my conductor was referring to:

19. Classes of accommodation, reserved seats and sleeping berths

Except with permission from an authorised person, no person shall remain in any seat, berth or any part of a train where a notice indicates that it is reserved for a specified ticket holder or holders of tickets of a specific class, except the holder of a valid ticket entitling him to be in that particular place.

Except of course 19 isn’t applicable because there was no person in the designated area, only a suitcase. So I’d say the question is rather whether it was a reasonable instruction and whether I had good cause to disobey. I’d say “No” and “Yes” respectively (but then I’m a child lawyer not a transport lawyer).

I plan to print out and tape these regulations to the inside of my trolley to be wheeled out next time I am confronted by a legal requirement that is incompatible with my fear of the Information Commissioner.

I shall do so in the almost certain knowledge that although I am now equipped to argue the toss I will probably simply grumble and then capitulate in a desperate attempt to avoid looking like the cleverdick fatcat lawyer who thinks the rules don’t apply to her. And to avoid getting kicked off the train…


The Children Act : Ian McEwan

I wasn’t going to read this book, fearful of the same galling disappointment when Silk (in series 3) started to lose its sense of realism and go off into flights of legal fancy.

But then I read Ian McEwan’s piece in the Graun on Saturday about the coming about of the book and decided to trek up to my local bookshop with kids in tow to buy this in anticipation of a long train journey. And here I am less than a week later and I’ve polished it off in two sittings. And I don’t have that sinking feeling I had by the end of Silk Series 3. It was pretty accurate as to law I think and as to the legal environment (insofar as I am familiar with the life of a High Court Judge). Familiar to even those of us at the lower end of the food chain are those nights when you just have to park your argument with the other half – no matter how serious – and turn away to prioritise the prep for tomorrow. Those moments when tough judgment calls spill over into your personal life, resonating in uncomfortable ways. Those cases that bother you. I found it reassuring to feel as I read that those tensions between home and work are felt by many of us, and to think that through this book other people might see the humanity behind the Family Court (even though most of us are a world removed from Fiona Mayes, the protagonist).

I treated Ian McEwan’s Guardian article as a sort of introduction to the book, and read it through that lens. Unsurprising then that what struck me the most was the use of judgments and the focus upon different forms of writing from poetry to letters to judgments, all crafted carefully, all with the humanity of the writer poured into them. There is a craft to a judgment, a significance in the route and the tone and not just the final destination. The sympathetic rendering of a party in a judgment may make an unwelcome decision more bearable, more workable, more just.

For those of you who wish to compare some of the judgments that appear to be referred to or drawn heavily upon in The Children Act, take a look at Re G (Children) [2012] EWCA Civ 1233 (04 October 2012) and Re A (Children) [2000] EWCA Civ 254 (22 September 2000), a decision of a Court of Appeal comprising Brooke LJ, Walker LJ and Ward LJ, whose anecdote and guidance has clearly been so influential on this book.

You can read a substantially more informative review of the book here.