2012 has been a busy year on the UK human rights front, never short of controversy, hyperbole and even some interesting points of legal principle along the way.
The Human Rights Act 1998, twelve years young, has been under fairly constant attack from politicians and newspapers. Meanwhile, the HRA has been operating pretty well in the courts, with judges producing a steady stream of interesting home-grown human rights judgments. The European Court of Human Rights has produced some fascinating and controversial judgments, and has also, thanks to the UK’s presidency, signed up to some significant reforms.
Here are a few highlights from January to March – hopefully I will have time to complete the rest of the year!
January (click for all posts)
- Abu Qatada wins at Strasbourg: In a ruling which surprised many, Abu Qatada, a suspected terrorist which the UK is trying to deport to Jordan to face trial, lost his Article 3 case but won on Article 6, the right to a fair trial. For the first time, the Court ruled that someone could not be deported because he faced a real risk of facing a trial where evidence obtained under torture would be used against him: Suspected terrorist may not be deported to Jordan – Strasbourg rules; No deportation for Abu Qatada, but where are we now on torture evidence? – Professor Adam Tomkins
- Strasbourg in the spotlight: On 25 January Prime Minister David Cameron visited what I called l’enfant terrible, the European Court of Human Rights, and gave what I thought was a constructive, interesting speech, mercifully (mostly) free of the dog whistle criticisms which have come to characterise the domestic human rights debate. One of last year’s more notorious examples of an irresponsible and inaccurate human rights story was the silly claim, which made several front pages in January, that the UK loses three out of four cases at Strasbourg. The speech in effect set the agenda for the Brighton Conference which was to come later in the year. More coverage of the Court: Mr Cameron goes to Strasbourg; European Court of Human Rights: is the admissions system transparent enough? – Ben Jones; Is Strasbourg obsessively interventionist? A view from the Court – Paul Harvey; UK loses 3 out of 4 European human rights cases? More like 1 in 50, actually
- Secret trials: the Special Advocates speak - The Justice and Security Bill, which seeks to introduce secret hearings to civil courts, has still not made it through Parliament. In January the Special Advocates, who know most about secret hearings in other contexts, came out strongly against the proposals in a UK Human Rights Blog exclusive: Extension of secret hearings would be “fundamentally unfair”, say Special Advocates; More secret trials? No thanks
- Rendition inquiry scrapped:The Justice Secretary announced to Parliament that the Gibson Inquiry tasked with considering whether Britain was “implicated in the improper treatment of detainees, held by other countries, that may have occurred in the aftermath of 9/11” had been scrapped.
February (all posts)
- Interesting month in the Supreme court: The Supreme Court had a month to remember for human rights judgments, in particular the ruling in Rabone, a case in which the court found that a hospital had a human rights duty to protect a voluntary patient from suicide. Our detailed analysis is here and here. Meanwhile, the Court also ruled that the BBC need not reveal internal Israel-Palestine coverage report in the case of Sugar. And, in a very important development (in my opinion anyway), the UK’s Supreme Court became amongst the first in the world to start tweeting.
- Other interesting domestic decisions:The High Court ruled that the poor are not singled out by the rise in university fees and the Court of Appeal upheld a gay hotel discrimination ruling (watch this space for the Supreme Court’s take); and prayer in council meetings was held by the High Court to be unlawful in a decision not based upon human rights but interesting nonetheless.
- Secret trials..? I complained that the sound of tumbleweed had greeted the Government’s secret civil trials proposals. Little did I know what would happen later in the year when the Daily Mail got involved in the debate…
March (all posts)
- Brighton hots up – The UK’s ‘Brighton’ conference on reform of the European Court of Human Rights began to take shape in March (it took place in April). In my view, the UK used its 6-month presidency of the Court constructively and can point to some genuine achievements. We covered the leaked proposals in some detail with a series of guest posts: Future of human rights court must not be decided by shadowy late night deals – Angela Patrick; Law, politics, and the draft Brighton Declaration – Dr Mark Elliott; Reforming or redefining the European Court of Human Rights? – Noreen O’Meara; Who should have the final word on human rights? – Dr Ed Bates
- Fireworks at the Bill of Rights Commission - Meanwhile, back on the home front, Dr Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, one of the Government’s eight appointees to the commission (which ultimately reported in December) resigned. I was critical of an article he then wrote in the Daily Mail: I can’t say anything because you’ve brought up… the Holocaust, an article which is still generating controversy, even as of yesterday. I also argued that the Bill of Rights Commission should open up. Which it didn’t.
- Gay marriage consultation launched: I asked whether gay marriage should be legalised? This issue is still just as vexing now as it was in March.
- Andrew Neil misses the boat: Andrew Neil’s critique of human rights on prime time TV, Rights Gone Wrong, was in my view a missed opportunity. He interviewed the right people but in an attempt to cut through the noise managed to create some more of his own, offering an unnecessarily simplified version of the debate in the guise of a balanced documentary.
- One of my favourite posts of the year… From County Court Strike Out to Strasbourg Success
- Judicial restraint… or not – Lord Neuberger (now President of the Supreme Court, then head of the Court of Appeal) gave an interesting and subtle speech about judicial restraint when speaking outside of the court room. Still relevant today…
- Free expression win in the Supreme Court – In Flood v Times Newspapers, the Supreme Court allowed a “Reynolds” appeal – the Times was entitled to rely on the defence of Reynolds qualified privilege in relation to the printed publication of the article about a police officer allegedly bribed by Russian oligarchs.
- Supreme Court on secret evidence – An interesting, if somewhat quirky decision: Witness allowed to give secret evidence of torture in Algeria says Supreme Court
Part 2, April to June, is here.
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