Free speech is under attack. Or so it seems. The last few weeks have been abuzz with stories to do with free speech: a Supreme Court ruling on the Reynolds defence to libel; contempt of court proceedings against an MP for comments made in a book and the latest in a growing line of criminal trials for Twitter offences. The diversity of media at the heart of these stories – print news, traditional books and online ‘micro-blogging’ - indicates the difficulty of the task for the legal system.
Flood v Times: how does this affect calls for libel reform?
On 21 March, the Supreme Court affirmed the Times newspaper’s reliance on the Reynolds defence to libel – often referred to as Reynolds privilege or the responsible journalism defence – to a claim by a detective sergeant in the Metropolitan Police.
It’s a busy week for the debate on human rights reform. Today at 2:15pm, the Joint Committee on Human Rights will question the UK judge and current President of the European Court of Human Rights, Sir Nicolas Bratza. Sir Nicholas returns to the UK in a hailstorm of UK reporting – accurate and inaccurate – on the perceived failings of the Strasbourg Court and its judges.
His visit coincides with the expected production of the second draft of the Brighton Declaration which will set out the latest list of reforms to the Strasbourg Court the UK Government asking the Council of Europe to consider. It also follows the departure of Michael Pinto-Duschinsky from the Commission on a Bill of Rights, citing irreconcilable differences and his concern that criticism of the Strasbourg court’s lack of democratic legitimacy was falling on deaf ears.
This is the third in a series of posts analysing the UK’s draft “Brighton Declaration” on European Court of Human Rights reform.
Although not a “supreme law bill of rights”, the Human Rights Act 1998 is a significant constraint upon the political-legislative process. In this post, I argue that the extent of that constraint would likely diminish were the draft Brighton Declaration implemented in its present form.
At present, the Human Rights Act (HRA) serves two distinctive and important “bridging functions”. On the horizontal (national) plane, it operates as an interface between legal and political notions of constitutionalism: although the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty is formally undisturbed, the HRA reduces the political scope for legislative interference with rights by making the ECHR a benchmark by reference to which legislation falls to be judicially assessed – and condemned, via a declaration of incompatibility, if found wanting.
Stott v Thomas Cook Operators and British Airways Plc  EWCA Civ 66 – read judgment
If you need reminding of what it feels like when the candy-floss of human rights is abruptly snatched away, take a flight. Full body scanners and other security checks are nothing to the array of potential outrages awaiting passengers boarding an aircraft. Air passengers in general surrender their rights at the point of ticket purchase.
The Warsaw Convention casts its long shadow. It was signed between two world wars, at the dawn of commercial aviation, when international agreement had to be secured at all costs. These strong interests survived the negotiation of the 1999 Montreal Convention, now part of EU law as the Montreal Regulation.
Yet so powerful is the desire to travel, and so beleaguered it is now with the threat of spiralling aviation fuel prices and environmental taxes, that we are happier to surrender our freedoms at airports than we are anywhere else – hospitals, doctors’ surgeries, schools, and even on the public highways.
On 25 January 2012 Justice Edwin Cameron, Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, delivered an emotive and thoughtful talk entitled “What you can do with rights”. The Law Commission’s annual Lord Scarman Lecture covered apartheid, AIDS denialism, LGBT rights and delved into the essence of moral humanity. It was a lecture delivered with skill and fluency, with only the slight dissatisfaction being the vagueness of Justice Cameron’s conclusion: that legal rights allow people to achieve some progress, but they don’t solve every problem.
Justice Cameron has occupied a seat on the highest judicial bench of South Africa for three years. He was made a judge by President Nelson Mandela in 1994, when his country was emerging from the systemic violence that the apartheid system had wrought on human rights. This position gives him authority, but it is his personal experience that lent the lecture gravitas. The Justice was diagnosed as HIV positive at a time when the true scale of the epidemic was being realised, and publicly fought for access to the anti-retroviral drugs that saved his life at a time when the scale of his government’s folly in denying them to millions was becoming equally clear.
In October 2011, I posted on an important consultation, Cost Protection for Litigants in Environmental Judicial Review Claims, in which the Ministry of Justice wheeled out its proposals to get it out of the various scrapes caused by the expense of environmental challenges. The Aarhus Convention requires that environmental challenges not be “prohibitively expensive”, and both the European Commission and the Aarhus Compliance Committee don’t think that the English system complies – it costs way too much.
In a nutshell, MoJ were suggesting that there should be a starting point in the form of costs orders designed to protect unsuccessful claimants against excessive costs incurred by successful defendants – unsurprisingly called Protective Costs Orders. If a Claimant got permission to challenge an environmental decision, but then lost on a full judicial review hearing, he or she should have to pay no more than £5,000. In return, he should not be able to recover any more than £30,000 if he won. MoJ’s consultation period has now closed, and a very significant response has been received from Lord Justice Jackson, who recently carried out a set of mammoth reviews of litigation costs in all areas of the law.
Behind the Times paywall Anthony Lester today declares that “Sniping at Strasbourg will only hinder reform”. In his guest column, he says that Court is suffering unfair criticism from “sections of the British media” and “politicians who accuse it of over-reaching its power”. That may well be the case, but the most searing and authoritative criticism comes not from politicians or the press but from Lord Lester’s own profession – see Jonathan Sumption QC’s recent broadside (and our post) and Lord Hoffmann’s much-discussed analysis (posted here).
If the Court is indeed hobbled by unfair squibs and arrows from a resentful sector of the British populace, as Lord Lester suggests, why is the prisoner votes example the only one he can come up with? That is an important fight, at least from a constitutional angle, but not the only flashpoint; the Court’s tendency to act as fourth instance appeal tribunal particularly on deportation and terrorism cases is arguably far more “dangerous” and certainly of concern to more people than votes for prisoners. Continue reading →
In this consultation announced this week, the Ministry of Justice is trying to get itself out of the multiple Aarhus problems facing UK justice. Infraction proceedings are threatened in the EU Court, and adverse conclusions were reached by Aarhus Compliance Committee; all much posted about on this blog, for which see below. The main problem is that the Aarhus Convention requires that environmental challenges not be “prohibitively expensive”, and everybody now appears to agree that the basic UK system of “loser pays the costs” does not achieve that objective without changes. So what does MoJ propose to do about it?
It says that costs protection should be provided via codification of the rules concerning Protective Costs Orders. That means that a claimant in any public interest case may ask the court for a PCO, to “cap” his liability to pay the other side’s costs to such a figure as does not deter him from bringing those proceedings. The boundaries of when a PCO can be ordered are much fought over – leading to more costs - but it certainly extends in principle to all public interest judicial review cases, not simply environmental ones. It is possible (at its very lowest) that PCOs can be made in public interest environmental challenges not involving judicial review, though there is not yet a decision either way on that.
When a Convention right arises in circumstances which also engage EU law, which court is the final arbiter of their meaning and application?
This is not as arcane a question as it appears, since in the UK many cases engage points of EU law, so Convention rights, which are part of the “general principles” of Community law, get in under the wire via the European Communities Act 1972. And in July the Council of Europe published the draft agreement for accession of the European Union as a signatory to the European Convention, which either adds another string to the ECHR bow, or a further layer of constitutional obscurity of interest only to international jurists, or both: – time will tell. Continue reading →
There are somewhere in the region on 12 million people worldwide who have no nationality. Being stateless can create enormous problems, from being unable to rely on diplomatic assistance to having no home country with an automatic right to return to. The risk to stateless of people of having their human rights breached to is great. The United Nations has expressed its concern repeatedly, and is encouraging states to sign up to two conventions which provide basic rights to those without a state.
Back in March we considered a case where a man claiming asylum alleged that he was a member of a particular ethnic group which, it was accepted by the parties, is at risk of persecution in Kuwait. His claim failed as the court found him to be Kuwaiti. However, because he had no documents to show he was Kuwaiti, the Kuwaiti authorities would not allow him to enter their state. Hence the Catch-22 situation of many stateless people, where they cannot establish a right to reside in one state but have no other state to return to.
Access to environmental justice is as topical asever. Delegates at the recent conference of the United Kingdom Environmental Law Association (UKELA), held in late June at UEA in Norwich (yards from the Climatic Research Unit much in the news) argued that the current regime in this country is unsatisfactory – because of the cost, but also, and less predictably, because of a lack of basic fairness.
One QC who specialises in planning law pointed to the fact that a developer who is dissatisfied with a planning decision can appeal it, but an affected third party (often a disgruntled resident) cannot. He commented off the record that in his experience both as an advocate and as a decision-maker, decisions were affected by the knowledge that developers could readily challenge refusals, whereas third parties could not challenge grants other than by way of judicial review.
A recent guest post from Begonia Filgueira celebrated the move by the Bolivian Parliament to accord rights in law to Nature. It rightly commanded considerable attention but not all readers were ecstatic. So when last week DEFRA came out with a rather different approach to valuing nature in its Natural Environment White Paper - the first in 20 years – it was interesting to see the way that the Environment Department thought things should be done.
Not the Bolivian route, unsurprisingly, but the White Paper raises an entirely different way of valuing nature which we should compare with the idea of granting rights.
McCaughey & Anor, Re Application for Judicial Review  UKSC 20 (18 May 2011)- Read judgment
The Supreme Court has followed the European Court of Human Rights in ruling that an inquest into the death of two people killed before the introduction of the Human Rights Act is still bound by the rules laid down by that Act. In so doing, it preferred a “poorly reasoned and unstable decision” of the Strasbourg Court to a clearly drafted Act of Parliament and a recent decision of the House of Lords. How did this happen, should it have done so – and does it really matter?
The case concerned an appeal to the Supreme Court against a decision from the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal on which we have previously blogged at length. The appellants were the families of two men killed by the British Army during an attack on a police station in Northern Ireland in 1990. Allegations were made that a “shoot to kill policy” was being operated by the security forces.
Our guest post from Frances Aldson last week drew many and varied comments from our readers on this blog and elsewhere, including those at each end of a spectrum ranging from the enthusiastic to the choleric.
This follow-up post is designed for those who have no strong views but who want to muse on the implications of the proposal which is due to be raised, via one route or another, with the UN, either this year or next.
Ecocide is the extensive destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished. Continue reading →
The ticklish question of how to come up with a cheap but effective form of environmental judicial review still has not been answered.
One way talked about at a recent seminar on environmental tribunals (see John Jolliffe’s post of today) is to use the environmental part of the new tribunal system, and have judicial reviews heard by judges sitting there. As John noted, the advantage to claimants is that there is a general practice in the part of the tribunal dealing with land disputes that costs are not awarded against them if they lose – unless they have been thoroughly unreasonable. Continue reading →