Joint Committee on Human Rights calls for control order scheme to be discontinued

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights (‘the Joint Committee’) has released its report on the Annual Renewal of Control Order Legislation 2010, in which it heavily criticised the control order scheme. The scheme, introduced in 2005, allows courts to put terror suspects under restrictions resembling house arrest by placing them under curfews of up to 16 hours a day and, typically, constraints on their movements and communications. There were 12 suspects subject to control orders in December 2009.

Whereas the Joint Committee has previously criticised the scheme, this is the first time that it has recommended for it to be discontinued. The committee said:

We have serious concerns about the control order system. Evidence shows the devastating impact of control orders on the subject of the orders, their families and their communities. In addition detailed information is now available about the cost of control orders which raises questions about whether the cost the system is out of all proportion to the supposed public benefit. We find it hard to believe that the annual cost of surveillance of the small number of individuals subject to control orders would exceed the amount currently being paid to lawyers in the ongoing litigation about control orders. Finally, we believe that because the Government has ignored our previous recommendations for reform, the system gives rise to unnecessary breaches of individuals’ rights to liberty and due process.

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Shadow Justice Secretary speaks to lawyers on “The State of Human Rights”

We have been following with interest the debate over the proposed “Bill of Rights” which all of the major parties are considering in some form. Dominic Grieve QC, the Shadow Justice Secretary, gave a speech last week to the Human Rights Lawyers Association which touched upon the Conservative Party’s proposals. Francis Klug wrote in The Guardian that:

Some of us asked Grieve to clarify the effects of these proposed interpretation clauses at yesterday’s meeting. I am not sure we were any the wiser. The purpose appears to be to free our judges from the approach of the Strasbourg court (they are already free from slavishly following the case law) where rights are not absolute. The text of the ECHR could still be used, Grieve says (although he suggests this is only his personal preference, not necessarily his party’s). But it is not at all clear that the human rights framework for balancing or limiting rights – based on preventing harm rather than creating eligibility criteria – will survive these suggested “interpretation clauses”.

The text of the speech has not been published, but Mr Grieve has published a speech on the same topic on his website, given in November 2009. In that speech he made clear that the Human Rights Act would not be replaced without a wide public consultation. However, he did provide some clues as to the nature of the “interpretation clauses”, saying:

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Education not recognised as a “civil right” under Convention due process rules

R (on the application of LG) (Appellant) v Independent Appeal Panel for Tom Hood School (Respondent) & Secretary of State for the Department for Children, Schools and Families (Interested Party) [2010] EWCA Civ 142

(Read judgment here)

CA (Civ Div) (Rix LJ, Wilson LJ, Sir Scott Baker) February 26 2010

An exclusion hearing by a school does not engage the pupil’s Article 6 of the Convention since there is no “civil right” to education recognized as such either by the Convention or by domestic law.

Summary

The appellant pupil (VG) had been involved in a fight at the school. He was accused of having a knife, which he denied. The school permanently excluded VG and he appealed. The panel, in accordance with the Education (Pupil Exclusions and Appeals) (Maintained Schools) (England) Regulations 2002 reg.7A, found on the balance of probabilities that he had carried a knife, and upheld his exclusion. VG appealed against a decision ((2009) EWHC 369 (Admin), (2009) BLGR 691) to refuse his application for judicial review of the decision of the respondent panel to uphold a decision to permanently exclude him from a school. He argued that his right to a fair hearing under Article 6 was engaged, either on the basis that the panel had determined his civil right not to be excluded from the school without good reason, or on the basis that the panel had determined a criminal charge against him, and that right had been infringed by the decision to exclude him having been based on allegations established against him on the balance of probabilities rather than on the criminal standard of proof. He also contended that regulation 7A(c), although purportedly made pursuant to the Education Act 2002 s.52, was ultra vires in that a rule about standard of proof was one of evidence and not procedure as permitted by s.52(3)(d).

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European Commission warns the UK about unfair cost of challenging environmental decisions

The European Commission has sent an official warning letter to the UK regarding the prohibitive expense of challenging the legality of environmental decisions.

The UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (the Aarhus Convention) was signed by the United Kingdom in 1998, and came into force in October 2001.  It was ratified by the United Kingdom in February 2005, at the same time as its ratification by the European Community.  Article 9(4) of the Convention provides that access to environmental justice must be fair, equitable, timely and not prohibitively expensive.

The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) does not provide for a specific human right to a clean environment, nor a right to environmental justice, although Article 2 (right to life), Article 6 (right to a fair trial) and Article 8 (respect for family and private life) do provide some scope for environmental protection, Conventions such as Aarhus are important in supporting these rights in an environmental context, particularly where the ECHR may provide inadequate protection. This connection is recognised in the preamble to the Aarhus Convention which identifies that, “the adequate protection of the environment is essential for human well-being and the enjoyment of basic human rights, including the right to life itself.”

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European Court rejects UK pensioners’ top-up claim

Carson and Others v The United Kingdom (Application no. 42184/05)

The European Court of Human Rights has rejected a claim by British pensioners living abroad that their pension payments should be uplifted to take into account inflation. The case was supported by Pension Parity UK, a pressure group. The majority in the Court held that the pensions system was not a breach of ECHR Article 14 (non discrimination), saying at [86]:

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Sharper teeth for the European Court of Human Rights?

According to Alex Bailin QC and Alison Macdonald writing in The Guardian, the European Court of Human Rights will soon have much needed power to filter cases at an early stage, and therefore begin to clear its huge backlog of cases:

Fortunately, in January a significant stalemate was broken when Russia finally ratified a six-year-old provision which will speed up the court’s processing of cases. Protocol 14 provides for a more robust and rapid filter of weak cases, with a single judge having the power to declare wholly unmeritorious cases inadmissible, without any right of appeal. “Repetitive cases” can also be blocked if a relevant ruling on similar issues has already been given. Most controversially, the court can also refuse to hear cases in which the applicant has suffered “no significant disadvantage”, providing the case was properly considered by the domestic courts in the relevant state. Russia had previously blocked the entry into force of Protocol 14 in protest at what it considered were “political rulings” of the Strasbourg court, primarily relating to the conduct of its operations in Chechyna.

One immediate effect which the change will have on the UK, according to the authors, is in relation to prisoners voting rights. Until now, even though the Court has criticised the UK in relation to this issue, the criticisms have not led to an actual change in UK policy. However, as a result of Protocol 14:

The Committee of Ministers can refer a case back to the European court if it considers that the state has not fully complied with a decision of the court. If the court agrees, the committee can decide to take action against the state for noncompliance – including, in theory, suspension or expulsion from the Council of Europe

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