Lawyers Journal

Legal minds meet in Dubai

Symposium was a crossroads of legal culture

A crude and deliberately provocative video purporting to show the life of the prophet Mohammed was initially credited with sparking in September a wave of killings in the Middle East, including the American ambassador to Libya and three other American nationals. What better time for a forum that addressed the Western world's use of social media? And who better to lead it than some of Boston's best legal professionals?

The timing was coincidental. The International Symposium for Justice & Law, held Nov. 11-14 in Dubai, had actually been years in the making, and social media was part of a wider spectrum of U.S. law covered. The symposium, held at the Dusit Thani Hotel in Dubai, is part of a strategic partnership between the Dubai Judicial Institute and the U.S. Embassy in the United Arab Emirates, as part of a joint effort to strengthen the relationship between the two countries.

Attorney Joseph McDonough, of the Dubai office of Holland & Knight (profiled in the March 2012 issue of Massachusetts Lawyers Journal) marshaled the skills of Boston colleagues Ieuan Mahony of Holland & Knight's Boston office, Associate Appeals Court Justice Sydney Hanlon and former probation officer Bernie Fitzgerald.

The symposium drew praise from U.S. Ambassador to the UAE Michael Corbin, who stated: "At a time of extraordinarily rapid social and technological change, the topics chosen for the first International Symposium for Justice and Law are truly germane. Alternative sentencing and social media are cutting-edge issues for legal professionals in both the United Arab Emirates and the United States. I am delighted that the Dubai Judicial Institute, working in partnership with the Embassy and through the facilitation of Holland and Knight, was able to bring to the United Arab Emirates a group of leading experts, particularly from the Massachusetts Court of Appeals and Dorchester District Court, to speak to the legal community here in the UAE."

A GRACIOUS HOST

The symposium's enthusiastic reception by the diplomatic community underscores the importance of developing a more universal application of the rule of law across national boundaries in order to ensure safety and security, as well as to facilitate international commerce.

Dubai, one of seven of the United Arab Emirates, seeks to become a host for world conferences, events and festivals. The oil-rich UAE, a federal monarchy with a constitution drafted in 1971, has seven different court systems. While its leaders are federally appointed, its monarchies are hereditary. If this sounds complicated, it is. The human rights of non-citizens, who constitute 80 percent of the UAE's population, has been an issue of long standing, and now social media adds the potential for volatility to that mix.

Despite international tensions across the Middle East, the Western visitors were treated graciously by their hosts. Hospitality is not only an initiative in Dubai -- it's a key cultural attribute of Islam, in a part of the world where visitors may often have come from far away and have few contacts in their host country.

Associate Appeals Court Justice Sydney Hanlon said that the director of the court system met with the Western group and gave a tour of the Dubai court. She commends its level of technology, which includes online access to electronic bulletin boards to check the status of one's case, get instructions on how to proceed, and find directions for getting around the courthouse. Additionally, papers can be filed electronically or in person.

The Western visitors were also given a chance to see many of the sites in a "stunningly beautiful city," including a visit to the Dubai Museum and Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.

WESTERN LAW DEFINED

The symposium's first day on Nov. 11 was presented by Jason Klitenic, a partner at Holland & Knight, Associate Justice Sydney Hanlon of the Massachusetts Court of Appeals and retired Probation Court officer Bernard Fitzgerald. Best Practices addressed included sentencing and probation in criminal cases, experience with federal sentencing guidelines, introduction to probation and a demonstration. Alternative sentencing in the case of substance abuse and mental illness were also addressed, including case studies.

Nov. 12's presentation addressed the topic of white collar crimes, youth and gang violence, juvenile justice, motor vehicle offenses and domestic violence, as well as social initiatives such as fatherhood and women's programs, changing lives through literature, and practices to encourage safe neighborhoods.

"I don't think there are many places that have probation the way we do it," Justice Hanlon said in an email after her session ended. More than one seemed to lament the lack of oversight of juveniles in the Middle East.

She noted that the audience asked tough questions without being confrontational, despite a sense that some things may have been left unsaid. A woman asked whether Hanlon thought the jury system was a good one or whether judges wouldn't be better at deciding criminal cases. Another woman asked about sentencing considerations in motor vehicle homicide cases and what might constitute an adequate sentence for the loss of a life. A man asked why the U.S. didn't do something about violence in movies and television shows.

FREE SPEECH IS NOT FREE

The subject of social media, particularly as it relates to employer/employee responsibility, was a major topic of discussion. That's a challenge in the U.S., never mind in a foreign country with expatriated employees, notes Holland & Knight's Eiuan Mahony, who chaired and moderated the social media session on Nov. 13 and 14. Panelists included Anita Ramasastry, law professor at the University of Washington and Peter Dayton, consulting CFO to the Silicon Valley Finance Group and former senior manager of business operations for Yahoo! Inc. He provided an overview of how U.S. law is developing and responding to social media and sources of U.S. law in the social media "ecosystem." Its intent was not to tell the UAE, or the rest of the world, how to handle social media, he says --rather, it was to present the legal issues that the West is now addressing.

Case studies addressed subjects such as protecting children from social media harms; the role of parental consent; privacy policies; fair information practices principles; do-not -track initiatives and employers' use of social media in considering job candidates.

The U.S. Patriot Act, passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, redefined the concept of how intrusive government would be allowed to be into private life via surveillance. But in the decade since, surveillance has gotten more ubiquitous due to technological advances such as tracking devices and video capabilities on cell phones, which puts increasing pressure on the U.S. legal system to come up with rules to say yes or no to limitations on privacy.

So, can an employer ask an employee to hand over a smartphone loaded with personal data? "There are a lot of ways it can tear the lid off the notions of privacy," Mahony says.

The crude video that sparked so much unrest in the Middle East also puts the notion of free speech to test. U.S. law has "forgiven" adverse press treatment of public figures, unless such attacks were motivated by actual malice (New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 [1964]). But in the social media sphere, Mahony says, "there's no binary yes or no." So, if free speech provokes terrorism, what is an employer's role -- or, for that matter, government's role -- to protect against mayhem and loss of life? That question can't be answered without a set of standards to which to adhere.

ANY WAY TO RUN A RAILROAD

He brings up an analogy from the 19th century that works just as well today. When the nation's railroad system was being built, the gauge of the tracks could vary by operator, inhibiting the interstate movement of goods. It took adherence to a universal set of measurements to make the rail system truly able to serve the entire country.

Such is the challenge faced by those who seek to create international standards of law that will serve the world. The International Symposium for Justice & Law was intended to be a step in that direction.

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