Prisoner voting back on the human rights agenda this week

The Guardian reports today that prisoner voting rights will be back in the public eye this week with critical comments from Europe and increased pressure from compensation claims.

Interestingly, the article has now been amended to remove part of a quote from the Ministry of Justice, who had initially said that “Disenfranchisement is an outdated, disproportionate punishment which has no place in a modern prison system with a renewed emphasis on rehabilitation and resettlement”. This line has been replaced by a policy-neutral quote. On the face of it, it seems that government may finally act on this issue, five years after the European Court of Human Rights criticism of its ban in the case of Hirst v UK.

In the 2005 decision of Hirst, the European Court held that Section 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, which prevents prisoners from voting, is in breach of the electoral right under Article 1 of Protocol 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

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Medical records not as private as they may first appear under human rights law

General Dental Council v Rimmer [2010] EWHC 1049 (Admin) (15 April 2010) – Read judgment

A dentist has been ordered to hand over his patients’ medical records to a court in order to help his regulator prosecute him for misconduct. The case raises interesting questions of when the courts can override patient confidentiality which would otherwise be protected by the Human Rights Act.

When health professionals are being prosecuted for misconduct,their patients’ confidential records will almost invariably be disclosed to the court if requested, even without the patients’ consent. Some may find this surprising, given the fact that medical records almost invariably contain highly private and potentially embarrassing information which a person would justifiably not want disclosed in a public court. However, the situation is not as simple as it first appears, as demonstrated by the recent case of an allegedly dodgy dentist.

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Libel reform debate hots up as new Government takes advice on reform

Set the ball rolling

The recent announcement of the review of libel and privacy law by a high-profile panel has led to a flurry of conjecture, comment and proposals. The new Government has pledged to reform the law of libel, but what shape will the reforms take?

The committee, which was announced last month, is being led by Lord Neuberger, the head of the Court of Appeal, and will be composed of legal and media experts. One notable absence, as Joshua Rozenberg blogs, is Mr Justice Eady, who has been responsible for many of the more controversial “super injunctions”.

The new Coalition Government have pledged to “reform libel laws to protect freedom of speech“. Cases involving libel, defamation and super-injunctions have seen two competing European Convention rights fighting it out; Article 8 (right to privacy) versus Article 10 (freedom of expression).

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New Coalition abolishes Infrastructure Planning Commission after less than a year of operation

The Infrastructure Planning Commission (“IPC”) is to be one of the first fatalities of the new coalition government. What impact will another change to the controversial system have on the fairness of planning decisions?

In a letter on 24 May 2010, the head of the IPC, Sir Michael Pitt, has confirmed the government is planning to scrap the organisation as a part of a wider overhaul planning powers in the Department for Communities and Local Government.

The IPC was set up as part of a number of planning reforms under the Planning Act 2008. The goal of the IPC is described on the website as “making the application process for nationally significant infrastructure projects faster, fairer and easier for people to get involved in”. Whether the IPC was achieving this goal is hard to say, as the body only began operation on 1 October 2009, and only began to receive applications on 1 March 2010.

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Child rape case sparks debate on child witnesses in criminal courts

The recent Old Bailey case involving two boys aged 10 and 11 accused of rape on an eight year gold has reignited the long running debate over the treatment of child witnesses in the adversarial courts system.

In a Daily Telegraph article John Bingham and Caroline Gammell report that

More than 1,000 children under the age of 10 are called to give evidence in courts in England and Wales every year.Almost two thirds are themselves the victims of crime, asked to relive a traumatic experience, often as much as a year after the event. Although special measures are in place to make the ordeal of giving evidence in court less stressful, the current system remains open to criticism.There is no legal minimum age to give evidence in court but prosecutors must be satisfied that a child is capable of understanding evidence and being cross-examined before they can be called.

It should be noted at the outset that evidence from children can only be compelled by the courts in criminal prosecutions. We posted recently on the case of Re W (Children) [2010] UKSC 12 , where the Supreme Court ruled that refusing an application for a child to give evidence in a trial may contravene Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Lady Hale said at para 22 of the judgment:   Continue reading

Amnesty International report criticises UK’s record on deportation and torture

Amnesty International published its 2010 Report yesterday, documenting torture and other human rights abuses around the world.

In relation to the UK, Amnesty’s report condemns the UK’s continuing reliance on “diplomatic assurances” in deportation cases where individuals were likely to be at risk of torture or other abuse if sent to countries where the Government accepts they would otherwise be abuse, in particular Algeria and Jordan. The report summarises that:

Reports implicating the UK in grave violations of human rights of people held overseas continued to emerge. Calls for independent investigations into the UK’s role in these violations went unheeded. The government’s attempts to return people to countries known to practise torture on the basis of “diplomatic assurances” (unenforceable promises from the countries where these individuals were to be returned) continued. The European Court of Human Rights found that, by detaining a number of foreign nationals without charge or trial (internment), the UK had violated their human rights. The implementation of measures adopted with the stated aim of countering terrorism led to human rights violations, including unfair judicial proceedings.

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Transsexual’s NHS breast enlargement claim rejected

AC v Berkshire West Primary Care Trust [2010] EWHC 1162 (Admin) (25 May 2010) – Read Judgment

An NHS Trust acted rationally in refusing to provide breast enlargement surgery to a transsexual, the High Court has ruled, even though there was credible medical evidence that the surgery would have been beneficial. The case raises issues as to when treatment can truly be said to be “necessary” in light of increasingly tight purse strings, and whether NHS policy could be discriminatory towards transsexuals.

The Claimant, AC, had been diagnosed with gender identity disorder (GID). As part of its GID treatment program the PCT had been prepared to provide genital reassignment surgery, which AC had refused.

As part of her treatment, AC was given hormone therapy but was disappointed with her subsequent breast development. Her GP wrote in 2006 that AC had found that her lack of breasts made it “much more difficult for her to feel feminine. It tends to get her down although she does not have a history of significant depressionWhilst we can offer her what support we can with this, this is never clearly going to be as effective as a surgical solution.” Continue reading

Detention of man suspected of insurgency and terrorism was unlawful

HXA v Home Office (King J) [2010] EWHC 1177 (QB) – Read judgment or our full case comment

The authorities’ statutory power to detain pending deportation had to be motivated purely by the need to remove a subject from the United Kingdom, not to ensure his surrender into custody of the authorities operating in the receiving country. A subject detained not only for the purpose of effecting his removal from the UK, but also for the purpose of investigating whether acceptable arrangements could be made to return him into detention in the receiving country, was being detained unlawfully.

The claimant sought damages and declaratory relief against the defendant both at common law for the tort of false imprisonment and pursuant to s. 6(1) and s.7(1) of the Human Rights Act 1998, by reason of a claimed breach of Article 5(1) of the European Convention of Human Rights.

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Sarah Ferguson scandal raises debate on right to privacy

Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, is in trouble for offering to sell her influence for cash. She proposed to sell access to her ex-husband Prince Andrew, a “trade envoy”, for £500,000 to an undercover reporter from the News of the World. The circumstances of the sting raise interesting issues in respect of the right to privacy under the Human Rights Act.

Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights provides that “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence“. The right is not absolute, and can be breached by a public authority “in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society”, that is, if the breach is in the public interest. Only public authorities need to keep within these rules.

The Inforrm Blog has posted an interesting analysis of the issue, concluding that

it seems to us that there is a proper justification for the publication of the story.   What the Duchess was offering was “access to a public official”, for a payment which appears to be wholly disproportionate to the “monetary value” of the service offered… The fact that neither the Duchess nor the businessman had any specific wrongdoing in mind does not matter.  The whole transaction was “tainted” and its exposure was, we suggest, justified for that reason. Continue reading

The Queen’s Speech and human rights [updated]

The Coalition Government has presented its legislative agenda for the coming year in the Queen’s Speech. Below are links to some of our previous posts which address some of the proposed policies.

The full line-up of bills announced can be found on the Number 10 website, or you can also read the full transcript. Our analysis of the Coalition’s human rights policies is here. The list will probably not be exhaustive, as some of the promises made in the Programme for Government may be instituted via secondary legislation or attached to other related Acts of Parliament.

One notable absence is any mention of reform to extradition policy (see our post from yesterday). The Programme for Government included the promise to “review the operation of the Extradition Act – and the US/UK extradition treaty – to make sure it is even-handed.” Liberty, the human rights organisation, had already welcomed the change in a statement on Monday. The family of Gary McKinnon would have also been waiting for this, as Mr McKinnon is currently awaiting a decision from the new Home Secretary as to whether he will be extradited to the United States on computer hacking charges. That being said, a change to the extradition arrangements may be included in another bill, although this seems unlikely.

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The increasing role of human rights law in extradition and deportation cases

Human rights challenges to deportation and extradition seem to be constantly in the public eye. Gary McKinnon’s battle against extradition has caught the public, as has the now notorious “Pathway Students” terrorist deportation case. An examination of three recent decisions highlights the various ways in which the courts approach the human rights arguments in such cases.

There have been a steady stream of high-profile deportation and extradition decisions in the past few weeks, none more controversial than the “Pathway students” case, where two suspected terrorists were saved from deportation to Pakistan as they were thought to be at risk of torture or death upon their return. The Daily Telegraph reports that the Human Rights Act is being invoked in a growing number of asylum and immigration case, although it does not say whether the number of successful uses of the Act has increased.

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Coalition civil liberties policies may be uncontroversial quick wins

The Economist has provided a useful analysis of the Coalition Government’s proposed policies on civil liberties.

The article highlights the fact that the policies detailed may not represent the transformative change which Nick Clegg suggested in his reform speech, but rather “uncontroversial quick wins” which will be dwarfed in policy terms by the incoming government’s policing and immigration policies:

The disagreements can probably be haggled away, with the Lib Dems getting their way (eventually) on human rights in return for agreeing to control orders. Coalition government is such a novel and interesting thing that almost any fudge or u-turn can be passed off as a natural product of the “new politics”, at least for now. Continue reading

Are trials without juries always illiberal?

Under threat?

The Coalition Government has pledged to “protect” the right to trial by jury. It is often assumed that the a jury is needed to ensure a fair trial, but Sir Louis Blom-Cooper argues in an interesting article in the Guardian that juries may not always be essential, particularly in cases involving serious organised crime.

Blom-Cooper, an academic and barrister, argues that jury-less trials need not always be illiberal. He says “The experience in Northern Ireland over three decades suggests that serious organised crimes can effectively and efficiently be tried before a professional court ‑ a single judge or perhaps three judges.” He also suggests that defendants ought to be able to waive their right to trial by jury as is the case in many other jurisdictions. Continue reading

You may have missed…

Posts on the UK Human Rights Blog that you may have missed in the last week:

Case law -

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Electoral commission report opens door for barred voter claims

voter compenationThe Electoral Commission, an independent body which sets standards for the running of elections, has released its report on problems experienced by voters during the 2010 General Election. It calls for “urgent action” to ensure that “the restrictive rules which prevented participation should be changed”. This has probably opened the door to legal claims.

The Interim Report found that at least 1,200 people were still queuing at 27 polling stations in 16 constituencies at 10pm. It concludes that the main contributing factors to this problem were:

  • Evidence of poor planning assumptions in some areas.
  • Use of unsuitable buildings and inadequate staffing arrangements at some polling stations.
  • Contingency arrangements that were not properly triggered or were unable to cope with demand at the close of poll.
  • Restrictive legislation which meant that those present in queues at polling stations at the close of poll were not able to be issued with a ballot paper.

There are a number of possible legal remedies for barred voters. Continue reading