12 June 2013 may go down in legal history. For it was the first time a national newspaper’s main headline was about the launch of a legal textbook. In a paradoxical explosion of free publicity for said book, the Daily Express reported that a new online guide to European asylum and immigration has caused “outrage” for helping “migrants claim British benefits”.
As you might expect, the article is as full of arrant nonsense as the new guide – which can be downloaded for free here – is full of useful information. Nonsense like this:
In a list of examples of past cases, it even cites Islamist cleric Abu Qatada’s successful challenge under human rights laws against Home Office attempts to send him back to Jordan to face terror charges
Obviously, any book about “asylum, borders and immigration” law which failed to mention the Abu Qatada case, one of the most important deportation decisions of the past decade would be not worth the PDF it was encoded in.
The reported “outrage” is that of a representative from Get Britain Out, an organisation I have never heard of (perhaps readers have?), the Express’s editor and, of course, Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader.
As tempting as it is to reproduce some more silly quotes (ok, one more: “One passage points out that: “The ESC grants a right to housing, which acts as a gateway to a series of additional rights.”” NOOO!), that isn’t really the point of bringing this slow-news-day silliness to your attention. There is a serious point here to0.
It is about courts and organisations producing free legal information. The Council of Europe, which runs the European Court of Human Rights and was partly responsible for this book along with the European Court of Human Rights and European Agency for Fundamental Rights, does a brilliant job of it. Just look at what is available here. And here. The information is almost all up to date, which as anyone who runs or uses a legal information service knows, is very impressive.
No UK court comes close . Our Supreme Court does a good job of summarising judgments and has led the way in the use of social media. But our other courts are woeful – the Court of Appeal doesn’t even have a proper independent website. And as fun as it is to watch Supreme Court hearings live on Sky, it is a great shame that those same hearings cannot be accessed afterwards, as equivalent videos can be on the European Court of Human Rights website.
Of course budgets are tight. But it would take a relatively small amount of money to make huge improvements. The US Supreme Court produces free transcripts and audio recordings of its hearings. Our courts produce no record of any hearings. No court documents are released online. No transcripts are available without paying. No recordings at all, audio or video.
There is a reason why reactionary newspapers like The Express are so upset by the prospect free online legal information. People knowing about their rights and the law surrounding them makes it a lot harder to unlawfully deport, imprison, and torture them. And as anyone who follows the human rights debate knows, it is unpopular groups like migrants and prisoners who are most likely to have their rights abused when the law is unclear and access to legal information is poor. Which suits some newspapers, but isn’t great if you are the victim of arbitrary or unlawful state action.
Indeed, that is really what the European Convention on Human Rights is. Traditional British common law rights distilled into a single, readable document which the public can understand and, now, thanks to the Human Rights Act, apply in their local courts.
There is a proviso, however. The best and most efficient way of giving people access to their rights is through a lawyer. That is why so many lawyers are up in arms at the legal aid cuts which have already, and will further, reduce access to lawyers for so many vulnerable groups.
But leaving that difficult issue aside for a moment, there is a huge amount which can be achieved – for lawyers and non-lawyers – for relatively little money by providing free online legal information and resources. And that is why free handbooks like this one should be making the front pages, but for all of the right reasons.
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