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The future of blasphemy

LAW IN ACTION
Book Burning
BBC Radio 4's Law In Action
Tuesday 4 March 1600 GMT
On Radio 4 and online

The government is committed to repealing the blasphemy laws - but do they serve a useful purpose?

Blasphemy and blasphemous libel are ancient common law offences in England and Wales.

They were recently described by a House of Lords Select Committee on Religious Offences as protecting the Church of England and its beliefs.

Many Christians and others believe they go - or should go - far wider, to cover Islam for example.

In the late 1980s protesters took to the streets against what they considered blasphemous references in Salman Rushdie's novel, The Satanic Verses.

Neither Salman Rushdie nor his publishers could be prosecuted by Muslims under the blasphemy law as it stands.

The most recent attempted prosecution came after the BBC screened Jerry Springer - The Opera in 2005.

Stephen Green of the group Christian Voice tried to bring a private prosecution for blasphemy against the programme's producer, and the Director General of the BBC.

He failed initially and is now appealing to the House of Lords.

Last week, the Government proposed amending the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill to repeal the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel.

But should the offences be kept, buttressed or abandoned?

We discuss the issues with Mark Hill, a barrister specializing in ecclesiastical law; the Bishop of Winchester, the Right Reverend Michael Scott-Joynt; and by the Reverend John Glass, the General Superintendent of the ELIM Pentecostal Church.

Love and marriage

Pre-nuptial agreements have long been thought of as tools for the rich to remain rich if their liaisons with the less rich go the way of McCartney and Mills.

Until now they haven't been binding in the English and Welsh courts, though they are in Scotland.

But could the case of the super rich ex-Mr and Mrs Crossley mark a change?

The Court of Appeal said that if ever there was a case where a pre-nup was not just peripheral to a settlement but a factor of magnetic importance, it was theirs.

couple divorcing
Can a pre-nuptial agreement reduce the trauma of divorce?

The decision has got lawyers excited that the pre-nup is going to play an increasingly important role in divorce settlements, and not just for the rich.

Jane Craig, a partner at solicitors firm Manches, says the decision is extremely significant.

She predicts a rise in pre-nuptial agreements, especially for remarriages, older people, widows and widowers and for those expecting inheritances.

Our reporter Ruth Alexander investigates what motivates couples who decide on pre-nups.

She meets Carol Dix, who was encouraged by her daughters to take out an agreement before her marriage to a younger man.

And a prospective bridegroom, who wants to be known only as James, says discussing the pre-nup has helped strengthen his relationship with his fiancée.

There's disagreement, however, on whether these agreements are useful for anyone other than the super-rich.

Solicitor Barbara Reeves predicts that pre-nups will be useful for people with fewer assets, who don't have the money to litigate if they divorce.

However, lawyer Diane Benussi, says that when properly drawn up, these agreements are and should remain "very expensive."

Coroners courts - your responses

We had a strong response to last week's edition discussing shortcomings in the coroners courts system and the government's plans for change.

Liz Byrne was struck by the story of a bereaved family who had to sit in the same waiting room as the man directly involved in a relative's death.

She had a similar experience after her brother was killed in a road accident, 20 years ago.

Possibly the most traumatic aspect of it was unexpectedly finding ourselves sitting next to the driver of the other car (who was unhurt) before the start of the proceedings. It was a huge shock and very difficult to deal with as we were unprepared for this… I was therefore horrified to hear that this insensitive practice is still going on - almost 21 years later!

The Justice Minister Bridget Prentice issued a statement in response.

I am extremely sorry to hear about the distress caused to your listener. I am absolutely committed to reforming the coroners system to ensure that it provides the best possible support to the bereaved and I intend to take the Coroner's Bill through Parliament at the earliest possible opportunity. This will make provision for the appointment of a Chief Coroner who will be responsible for setting national coronial standards and will be accompanied by a Charter for the Bereaved that will set out clearly the support that families can expect during the inquest process and their rights as the process unfolds.

I am also hoping to expand further the voluntary support services already available at some coroners courts, which I know provide invaluable advice and guidance to families on the day of the inquest. And I hope that as a result of these reforms we can finally end the additional distress caused to bereaved families as experienced by your listeners.

There was a particularly strong reaction to Clause 64 of the Counter-Terrorism Bill, which allows ministers to order inquests to be held in secret.

Here are some of your thoughts.

I am a prison chaplain and know the trauma that prison officers, and others, go through when they appear in court when someone in our care has apparently committed suicide in prison. The one thing that carries everyone through is the thought that the family are/can be present for the hearing; that all the information is presented… In my view Clause 64 needs to be stopped.

Reverend Steve McKevitt

Any attempts to reinforce/increase secrecy should be strongly and cogently resisted, except where a genuinely 'cast iron', and very particular and obvious, case can be made. After all we supposedly live and share in a constitutional democracy where the government exists to serve the nation and the people; not an autocracy or dictatorship… What are they so afraid of?

Alisdair Laird

I have fifteen years experience of UK family law, where hearings are held in secret, and I can say that the secrecy creates more problems and issues than it resolves…This is particularly relevant when considering the expense to the public purse - it is our money that is spent on these proceedings and we, the tax-payers, should be able to see any and all justifications for the expenses incurred.

Peter Belcher

If you have thoughts on any of the topics we've covered, or any other legal issues, we'd like to hear from you. Please get in touch: lawinaction@bbc.co.uk, Law in Action, BBC White City, Wood Lane, London W12 7TS or call us on 020 8752 5646

Law In Action will be broadcast on Tuesday 4 March 2008 at 1600 GMT on BBC Radio 4.

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SEE ALSO
Blasphemy law 'may be abolished'
09 Jan 08 |  UK Politics
Reforming the Coroners' Courts
26 Feb 08 |  Law in Action

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