The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Month: December, 2009

Happy new year and and a happy VAT rise

I wish a very happy new year to any and all readers of the blog. You’re awesome.

You will almost certainly have heard that the VAT rate is returning to its pre-credit crunch level tomorrow — 17.5% from 15%. The people complaining most bitterly about this are the retailers who claim this unreasonable 1/40 th increase in prices will kill off any recovery and kill their businesses.

Don’t believe it. VAT can be a wonderful thing for businesses because of a thing called “input tax” — businesses rated for VAT don’t pay VAT themselves, in fact they get to claim back any that they’re charged and offset it against any VAT that they themselves charge (“output tax“). That means that if you pay more VAT than you charge you actually get a tax rebate. For example charities that produce “zero-rated” goods and services can end up getting a quite substantial amount of money from Her Majesty’s Revenue. Effectively it means that just about everything your company buys costs you 15% – 17.5% less than it would cost a normal person.

As far as businesses are concerned there is simply a little bit (2.5 pence in every pound) more money going to and from their accounts than when the tax rate was reduced from exactly what it’s now going back to. It may impact profitability but as far as cashflow is concerned it can be balanced out by an identical increase in the amount of rebate-able input tax — you’re charging an extra 2.5% on your goods, but you’re also claiming an extra 2.5% back on your purchases. The scales of commerce have not suddenly become unbalanced.

On the other hand if you’re not a VAT rated company, if your products are tax exempt or, heaven forbid, you’re just a consumer then you should be a bit annoyed because VAT hates you and you can’t claim anything back.

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The art of the list

Straight across the internet you will find no shortage of people who want to tell you how to write your blog. A lot of them look at it from a Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) or copywriting perspective which is fine if you like that sort of thing. It’s not the only way to write, though.

I came across this link as an advert on Digg.com. On a personal note I dislike their advertising. It’s designed to fit into the socially recommended links so it’s a wee bit like someone pretending to be your friend to sell you stuff. I think the “no one knows you’re a dog” problem is bad enough online without advertisers taking advantage of it.

The post says:

“What works best for me is to see if a post has an ordered (1, 2, 3) or bulleted (*) list; if it does, it’s probably worth reading.”

In fact, it says, writing which isn’t set out in a list is probably written by someone called Kevin. I-am-not-making-this-up. He also suggests that you should highlight the keywords using HTML formatting.

I find it a little sad. That’s not nearly all that makes a piece of writing good. All it suggests is that the writer knows their SEO principles. Good typesetting is an important thing in writing but it’s just the cherry on top.

Some kind of structure is a desperately important thing for your writing to have and picking out the “important words” in bold does mean that people can skim your writing like nobody’s business. It’s just a bit sad that this guy thinks you must put it in a list for people to read your stuff. I’m yet to see a newspaper, essay, novel, or so on that was set out as a list of bullet points with the keywords in bold despite these often being excellent pieces of writing.

You shouldn’t make your writing needlessly obscure but please don’t write for the lowest common denominator either. It hurts us all.

Three police officers punished for NOT stopping photographs being taken

Photographs and police officers world wide have a pretty tortured history, even more so since the rise of anti terrorist legislation. I should declare an interest — I’m one of those amateur photographers you hear complaining that the police have stopped them taking photos for somewhat iffy reasons, in my case it was a potential breach of the peace (“but we’ll let you off with a warning”). The experience has utterly changed how I look at the police ever since.

There’s a rather well reported example of one of the BBC’s press photographers “having his collar felt” as he took photographs of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. You hear stories of people taking photos of the blue light on police stations receiving similar treatment. There’s been motions in Parliament to clarify the lack of powers that the police actually have to stop regular people taking photos. The Home Office has given guidance (sadly in my view leaving it down to the regions rather than actually giving guidance for the whole country). The G20 protests in London are a smörgåsbord of examples which are still only coming to light – the Metropolitan Police Press Office sending out letters demanding that photographs of police officers hiding their badge numbers be destroyed for one. This is the background I read this particular story on — the apparent view that photographers are terrorists planning something.

The basic facts are that four, presumably, drunk young women were involved in an alleged assault in a bar on a Saturday night two weeks ago and were taken to a Staffordshire police station to give statements. That’s perfectly normal and fine. However, something happened and they ran amok as only drunk people can. The end result is that a lot of reasonably salacious images ended up Facebook. Egg was on face and so on. The Tax Payers Alliance absolutely hates the wasted police resources they feel this represents and they’re getting their boot in too.

Assistant Chief Constable Mick Harrison is quoted in today’s Metro (Tuesday, December 15, 2009, pg 7) as saying he was “extremely disappointed” by the event. “Officers made attempts to talk to the women about their behaviour and to stop them taking photographs for security reasons — these were not heeded or firmly enforced.”

This is a relatively innocuous quote but, given that the pictures in question were the result of party goers putting on police hats and taking photos of each other on their phones we should probably assume that there was not exactly an Al Qaeda attack going on. I think the idea that there was a security risk (except, perhaps, to the male officers’ virtue) is actually pretty laughable. I know that there really isn’t the whole story expressed in the dozen or so newspaper reports over the last couple of days so I thought I’d do it properly and do some research. Unfortunately Staffordshire police force doesn’t seem to have any way for members of the public to ring up and ask the police questions, it seems limited to reporting crimes or a press office. I resorted to calling the press office on the off chance but that naturally leads to the ” ‘Hello, I’m hoping you could answer a couple of questions’ ‘Are you press?’ ‘No’ ‘Well no then’ ” conversation that doesn’t really help anyone. In the absence of other information it sounds like it’s just a regular police station where you question witnesses, fill out your reports and hold antisocial drunks overnight as opposed to a nuclear silo.

It’s absolutely, undeniably not what the police should be doing on a Saturday night and it’s very embarrassing for the police but I think we really need to avoid defining everything that embarrasses the police as a security risk.

Law Commission wants insurance law reformed but BBC makes mistake

I was watching BBC Breakfast this morning and they were covering the story of consumers losing out to insurers by mis-over-use of the disclosure requirement. I absolutely hate the disclosure requirement. I consider it to be the most excessive power anyone can have. It has almost entirely put me off getting insurance (but really makes me want to sell insurance.)

That said the report isn’t perfect. It claims that the law comes from the 1909 Marine Insurance Act “because back then insurance was mainly used for shipping.” This personally gives the impression that people are subject to laws which are being shoehorned into positions they shouldn’t be. It’s disingenuous to reality and misunderstands how law is made — the 1909 Act didn’t make the law on insurance, it codified much older common law principles which applied to many different situations dealing with insurance. It also ignores that there’s a lot of analogies in common with insuring a ship and insuring anything else. You pay the premium and when it gets damaged you claim on the insurance. Fundamentally insurance is insurance. It’s the selling to consumer element that complicates matters, rather than the insurance part.

It’s also not true. The clue’s in the name, if you need an act of Parliament to deal with marine insurance specifically that suggests that insurance is a substantial area of law and shipping is a part of it. 1906 was a long time ago to us young folk but it’s not the middle ages, people still insured their houses and cars in 1906. Certainly shipping has always been a huge part of the insurance trade — initially it was the only sort of insurance that had been invented. If Parliament had passed the Marine Insurance Act two hundred years earlier in 1706 it would have been called the Insurance Act.

The Marine Insurance Act only applies to marine insurance. I don’t think I’ve changed many lives by saying that. However, in codifying the common law as it relates to marine insurance, Parliament set out what the common law relating to insurance was in general. The reason that a lawyer would go to the Marine Insurance Act to deal with insurance that’s not marine is that it sets out the common law position at the time on all insurance, whether marine or otherwise, in one place. They then rely on authorities that are applicable to the particular case.

Cormac McCarthy to auction his typewriter

Cormac McCarthy's venerable typing machine
(Cormac McCarthy’s venerable typing machine)

This is a heavily worn Lettera 32 – it’s an Olivetti portable typewriter. It’s clearly seen some heavy use. I find it hard to imagine just how much use it’s seen though — about 5 million words across 7 books and numerous smaller works.

I’ve blogged about my own Olympia SG-3 earlier in the year and this is the absolute opposite end of the scale. The portable typewriter is a smaller, lighter, portable option. It’s not at all dissimilar in its intended use to the laptop of today:

(There’s a really good photo showing how a portable typewriter is used in the same way as a laptop on the BBC News site but it’s a getty image and I’m not going to risk embedding it here – BBC link)

That’s the very good thing about the portable typewriter. They really are portable. They are designed specifically to fit into a bag and be light enough to carry around. You could even get cases which allowed you to carry files, accessories, supplies along with the typewriter etc — very much like a laptop bag.

My big model sits on a desk in my room and stays there until I get someone to help me move it. In return it’s a considerable chunk of springs and gears which can do some amazing things with no more than a cunning use of gears and springs (decimal tabulation anyone?) and is pretty hard to hurt. It’s really up to the user — you wouldn’t say that a laptop is better than a desktop to type documents on. It may have different features but at the expense of portability, for example. If you only need to type notes any typewriter will do that fine.

I can’t possibly afford Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter but I think I’m content with my current typewriter altogether. It’s given me a good few months of reliable, handy service so far and long may it continue.

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Search queries: How law lords are elected in supreme court

Short story

They’re not, they’re appointed.

Long story

I’ve been noticing a number of Supreme Court related search queries in the blog stats and thought this was a good question to be searching for because the Supreme Court is a new and critical part of our constitutional framework. I’ve studied the House of Lords reasonably well for mooting etc but I’ve read very little on the Supreme Court because it’s just not yet bubbled down to me. Therefore, pinch of salt should follow.

The Supreme Court is a horizontal shift for the House of Lords. It doesn’t actually gain any new powers but the judges get new emails, a new building and court room and they lose their robes and wigs (which I think is a shame).

There are 12 Justices of the Supreme Court who have simply stopped being Law Lords and started being Justices of the Supreme court one day. It’s really probably the best way to get your bench of venerable and well experienced judges from one court to another.

I think that elected judges are a pretty dangerous situation. You don’t actually want the guy who can literally send you to jail trying to appeal to people who read the Daily Mail, you’re not going to measure up. You end up with situations like the US where judges need to differentiate themselves through how tough they are on criminals. It makes wonderful headlines but it’s not exactly Baron Hume. I think there are considerable problems with the appointment model, it appears to be self propagating etc, but it is a better curtailing measure against concentrated state power (a very New World ideal) than if they and the legislature were both chasing after the same votes from the same voters. I think you really want a little bit of heterogeneity in your government.

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Saddleback Leather Company

I’ve found myself reading the artofmanliness.com (links to a competition thread – very best of luck to anyone clicking it) over the weekend. I happen to think that it’s a really good idea — it’s a blog dedicated to the idea that it’s good to be manly, in a self-reliant and skilled way rather than a boorish or overly FHM way. I agree with this, I think it’s a good model for someone to aim to be. I actually think that’s a fairly good model for everyone to aim to be, just to be modern.

The blog mainly divides into posts about how to be manly — how to camp, how to put up shelves, that sort of thing — and things that are manly — the pocketknife, hats, Frank Sinatra, that sort of thing. In the second category lies the Saddleback Leather Company’s products, their site is frankly one of the most tempting boutique shopping sites I’ve ever seen. Generally I can look at boutique items and say “right, it’s lovely but it’s wholly impractical as well as very expensive” but in this case I’m looking at leather satchels and bags built to last for generations and thinking “it’s lovely and dammit that’s probably quite practical too.” I do like the idea of buying a bag that’s just not going to wear out, and I say that as someone with a cracked laptop from hitting pavement after a zip on a backpack burst.

I think the idea of me buying a briefcase just now, as an undergrad, would be a massively presumptuous act and I think the smaller items are disproportionately expensive compared to the bags to consider buying one – I think the $140 leather document wallet is a particularly shocking act of pricing that frankly reflects badly on the other items but that doesn’t change the central issue: those are some lovely looking bags. They’re too much money for a student to spend on a single bag in my view (I get by very well with a beaten up Berghaus daypack at uni – you just need something that holds your books) but I think these might be worth looking at when money is less tight even if just because they’re quite pretty.

Edit: I’m at the “know enough to be dangerous” stage of my tax education just now. Would someone get a letter from the revenue if they imported one of the $519 (small) – $607 (large) briefcases?

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