Scotland, Sewel, and the Human Rights Act

Photo credit: Guardian

Photo credit: Guardian

The Queen’s speech suggests a slowing of the Government’s plans to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights. But recent comments from the Scottish Human Rights Commissioner suggest the Conservatives may be considering removal of HRA protections in relation to English and reserved UK-wide matters only, leaving the Human Rights Act in place in the other devolved areas of the UK. 

Much ink has been spilled over the Government’s proposals. This article will take a narrow look at Scotland’s relationship with the Human Rights Act, and how devolution may be a future thorn in the Government’s side. 

But wait! I thought the Human Rights Act was enshrined in the Scotland Act. Doesn’t that protect the Human Rights Act in Scotland?

Sort of (not really).

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North of the Wall – A Beginner’s Guide to Scots Law

With our new team of Scots law researchers in place, the time has come for the briefest of introductions to the Scottish legal system. David Scott is our tour guide.

The Court system

The Scottish court system is divided into five tiers:

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No standing for the Inuit in Luxembourg

ipTteC6iztnEInuit Tapiriit Kanatami et al v. European Parliament, CJEU, 3 October 2013 (read judgment), following Advocate General Kokott, 17 January 2013, read opinion and my post

This important case is all about “standing” before the EU courts, namely the ability to complain about some EU act that affects you. Lack of standing means that even if a measure was wrong and unlawful, you cannot get your foot in the door of the court. Domestic rules are quite relaxed, though proposals by Government to make it more difficult to sue Government and other public authorities are currently being consulted upon. But you cannot say that an EU law is unlawful without going to Luxembourg.

The EU Courts have always been very restrictive about the circumstances in which an individual can do so. A brief blip (C-50/00 UPA) a few years ago by a UK Advocate-General suggesting that things be done differently was squashed by the Court. And since then it has been one-way traffic in the EU Courts, brushing off criticism from NGOs and indeed the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee in 2011 (see here). For a good summary of the EU case law up to 2011, see the ACCC at [20]-[31]

Recent Treaty amendments in Lisbon have, it will be seen, made little difference to the result.

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Is rights replication undermining the international human rights system?

6a00d834515c2369e201157066f06e970b-800wiRapid expansion of human rights obligations at the European and international levels arguably undermines the system of International Human Rights Law. Countries like the UK, which place strong emphasis on the need to protect individuals from abuses, are faced with ever more obligations stemming from rights inflation. One crucial way in which this occurs is through rights replication.

No-one can legitimately argue that women, children, persons with disabilities, migrant workers, human rights defenders and other vulnerable groups do not need protecting from human rights abuses. Where those groups require additional rights then of course it makes sense for them to be enshrined within treaties. Yet the many treaties, resolutions and declarations about those groups almost always focus on rights that already exist for all individuals. Often these are civil and political rights, which can be found within international and regional treaties. Replicating these rights, rather than creating new additional ones, weakens and undermines the human rights system.

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Chakrabarti debates Clarke on secret courts bill

ClarkerabartiThe Constitutional and Administrative Bar Association (ALBA)  hosted an invigorating debate on Tuesday night, pitting Minister without Portfolio Ken Clarke against Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, over the question of Closed Material Procedures (CMPs) in civil claims, as proposed in the Justice and Security Bill.

The Bill is currently going through the parliamentary process, having reached the report stage in the House of Commons on 4 March 2013. Of particular note to those with an interest in human rights are the proposals to introduce CMPs into civil damages actions, where allegations such as complicity in torture by the UK intelligence agencies are made.

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Inuit, standing and the gates to the Luxembourg Court

flagInuit Tapiriit Kanatami et al v. European Parliament opinion of Advocate General Kokott, 17 January 2013, read opinion, on appeal from the General Court read judgment & my post on it

The EU makes a rule. When can the ordinary person affected seek annulment of the rule on the basis that it is unlawful? This is the big issue tussled with in this important and informative Advocate General’s opinion. You might have thought that if the basic ground for challenge was unlawfulness (and that is a high hurdle in itself), then as long as you were in some way affected by the decision, then you should be able to complain about the decision. That is broadly how we do things here in our UK system of judicial review.

But when you get to the EU Courts very different rules of engagement apply – far fewer people can complain about the illegality directly.

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A bluffer’s guide to human rights courts

Back to basics, then, as the new academic year starts. Which courts decide human rights cases, when, and by what rules?

Well, the easy one is domestic courts. They decide whether a public authority has acted or omitted to act unlawfully under the Human Rights Act.

If the act is a decision about housing or immigration status or prisoners’ rights, the courts can quash it, and so tell the decision-maker either to decide it again or if there is only one lawful answer, tell the decision-maker what decision to take. If it was a past course of conduct (unlawful detention, intrusion into privacy, unacceptable pollution), they may award damages for human rights breaches. If the domestic law is itself unlawful, and cannot be interpreted HR-compliantly, the domestic courts can make a declaration of incompatibility under s.4 of HRA – it does the claimant no good in respect of his claim, though it throws a huge gauntlet down to Parliament to do something about the non-compliant law. And in the criminal courts, the obvious sanction is to dismiss the prosecution for some abuse of process involving the defendant’s human rights.

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