Bedroom tax challenge success

The Court of Appeal has given its judgment in a conjoined appeal of two of the latest challenges to the bedroom tax/removal of spare room subsidy (delete as you see fit), holding that it was unlawfully discriminatory in its application to:

 

 

 

  1. A female victim of serious domestic violence living in a home significantly adapted (including the provision of a “safe room”) to ensure her safety in the face of threats from her former partner; and
  2. A severely disabled 15 year old boy cared for by his grandmother and her partner, who required a carer to stay in their home two nights per week.

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Heterosexual Civil Partnership Refusal Not A Human Rights Breach

Photo: BBC News

Photo credit: BBC News

Steinfeld & Anor v The Secretary of State for Education [2016] EWHC 128 (Admin) – Read judgment

The High Court has ruled in the case of Steinfeld and Keidan v Secretary of State for Education, a human rights challenge to the law of Civil Partnerships. Mrs Justice Andrews ruled that the current law does not breach the human rights of opposite-sex couples who cannot obtain a Civil Partnership.

The case arises from the odd state the law was left in after same-sex couples were given the legal right to marry in 2014. Since 2005, same-sex couples had been allowed to form “Civil Partnerships”  which give them essentially the same legal rights and protections as marriage without being able to actually marry. Only same-sex couples can have a civil partnership. Civil Partnerships were a kind of half-way house; the message they sent was that the (New Labour) government wanted to give same-sex couples legal protection akin to marriage but didn’t feel that society was quite ready for full marriage equality.

Once same-sex couples were given the right to marry in 2014, the law was left in a bit of a mess. Same-sex couples have dual means of recognising their partnerships (Civil Partnerships and Marriage) whereas opposite-sex couples could only marry. This is clearly an unintended consequence of the winding route to marriage equality rather than any well-thought out plan.

In 2014, it would have been open to the government to abolish civil partnerships altogether or permit everyone to enter into them. Instead, a “wait and see” approach was adopted.

Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keiden (full disclosure: they are friends of mine) wanted to enter into a civil partnership but were prevented because they were not of the same sex. They brought a human rights case against the government saying they were being discriminated against by the current law.

Mrs Justice Andrews rejected their case in strong terms. You can read the full judgment here. I recommend doing so – it is tightly argued and very clear.

In cases involving the right to family and private life, there are two basic stages a judge needs to consider. First, is there an interference with the right – in other words, does the thing that is being complained about interfere with family or private life as it is defined in the European Convention and court judgments. Let’s call that Gate 1. If you get through Gate 1, you then have to get through Gate 2, which is to show that the interference was not justified with reference to proportionality (did the end justify the means?) and other balancing factors which are the text of the right itself.

The claimants here didn’t get through the first gate. Mrs Justice Andrews accepted the government’s argument that Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to family and private life) was not even engaged, let alone breached. Here’s a key bit of the judgment explaining why:

  1. The only obstacle to the Claimants obtaining the equivalent legal recognition of their status and the same rights and benefits as a same-sex couple is their conscience. That was the case both before and after the enactment of the 2013 Act. Whilst their views are of course to be afforded respect, it is their choice not to avail themselves of the means of state recognition that is open to them. The state has fulfilled its obligations under the Convention by making a means of formal recognition of their relationship available. The denial of a further means of formal recognition which is open to same- sex couples, does not amount to unlawful state interference with the Claimants’ right to family life or private life, any more than the denial of marriage to same-sex couples did prior to the enactment of the 2013 [Same-Sex Marriage] Act. There is no lack of respect afforded to any specific aspect of the Claimants’ private or family life on account of their orientation as a heterosexual couple. Thus the statutory restrictions complained of do not impinge upon the core values under either limb of Art 8 to the degree necessary to entitle the Claimants to rely upon Art 14. The link between the measures complained of, and their right to enjoy their family and private life, is a tenuous one.

See the powerful argument on UK Human Rights Blog (written before the judgment) about why this might be problematic.

As judges usually do, Mrs Justice Andrews went on to consider “Gate 2″ anyway, in case she was wrong about Gate 1. She accepted the government’s argument that their approach to the issue (“wait and see”) had been perfectly reasonable.

Where next? Potentially an appeal. The BBC reports the couple were given permission to appeal which means they can appeal to the Court of Appeal if they choose to do so. If they do appeal, they will have to convince the Court of Appeal that there has been an interference with the right to family life (Gate 1 – certainly arguable) but also that the interference was not justified. Gate 2 will be harder.

As things stand, the law is in a mess. Even if it is not a breach of human rights to refuse opposite sex couples the right to have civil partnerships, that doesn’t mean it is fair or right.

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An open or shut case?

Lady Hale, who delivered the court’s judgment (Photo: Guardian)

R(C) v. Secretary of State for Justice [2016] UKSC 2 – read judgment.

When is it right to keep the names of parties to litigation a secret? That was the difficult question the Supreme Court had to grapple with in this judgment, handed down on Wednesday. The decision to allow a double-murderer to remain anonymous led to outraged headlines in the tabloids. Yet the Court reached the unanimous conclusion that this was the right approach. Why?

The Facts

C, who had a long history of severe mental illness, was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend and her new partner in 1998 and sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 11 years before parole could be considered. The murder was described by Lady Hale as “a particularly savage killing which must have caused untold suffering to the victims and has continued to cause great grief to their families.” During his sentence C was transferred from prison to a high security psychiatric hospital. Whilst there, in 2012, C’s treating doctors applied for permission to allow him unescorted leave in the community in order to assess how well his treatment was progressing and whether he would be suitable for discharge. The Secretary of State refused to allow this.

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Visa scheme exposes workers to abuse -the Round-up

In the news

Domestic worker visas are leaving women vulnerable to conditions of abuse that amount to modern slavery, according to an independent review commissioned by the Home Office.

The current system ties overseas domestic workers to the foreign employer who brought them into the UK. Approximately 17,000 visas were issued under the scheme last year, with the large majority of applications coming from the Gulf States.

Workers have no legal right to change their employer, and are liable to deportation if they escape their situation. Campaigners argue that such restrictions expose women to the risk of serious ill treatment, with domestic workers being subjected to physical and sexual violence, deprivation of food and non-payment of wages.

The review of the scheme reinforces these concerns, finding “no evidence that a tie to a single employer does anything other than increase the risk of abuse and therefore increases actual abuse.” It recommends that workers be permitted to change employers and remain in the UK for up to two and a half years.

The Government has stated that it is “carefully considering the report’s recommendations” and would announce its response “in due course.”

In other news:

BBC: An independent investigation into concerns about Yarl’s Wood immigration centre has found no evidence of a “hidden or significant problem of serious misconduct” by staff at the facility. However, the report raised concerns that staffing levels had to some extent “undermined and compromised” the care of residents.

The Guardian: The Upper Tribunal has ordered the Secretary of State for the Home Department to admit to the UK four asylum seekers, currently residing in the ‘Jungle’ in Calais. The Tribunal ruled that the three unaccompanied minors and the dependent adult brother of one of them should be allowed to live with their relatives already in Britain while their asylum claims are examined.

Prime Minister David Cameron has said that there is now “an industry trying to profit from spurious claims” against UK military personnel which he plans to “stamp out”. However, lawyers have noted that the government has agreed to pay compensation in over 300 cases of abuse, and have urged Mr Cameron not to challenge the principle that no-one is above the law. The BBC reports here.

In a letter written to the Guardian, UK lawyers have sought to draw attention to the plight of human rights defenders in Honduras. Between 2010 and March 2015, the national commissioner of human rights recorded the targeted killings of 91 lawyers. The statement calls for greater protection by the Honduran state for those whose lives are at risk.

In the courts

Ivanovski v The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia

This case concerned lustration proceedings brought against the former president of the Constitutional Court of Macedonia, which resulted in his dismissal from office.

The Court found that the proceedings, taken as a whole, had not satisfied the requirements of a fair trial. The Court attached particular importance to the open letter, published by the Prime Minister while lustration proceedings were still pending, which denounced the applicant as a collaborator of the secret police of the former regime. In view of the content and manner in which it was made, the statement was held to be incompatible with the notion of an “independent and impartial tribunal”. The Court therefore found a violation of Article 6 ECHR (the right to a fair trial).

UK HRB blog posts

Court of Session: Murderer’s prison conditions fair – Thomas Raine

UK Government tells High Court: Same-sex couples may be shut out of Article 14 – Professor Robert Wintemute

Stop Powers under the Terrorism Act 2000 incompatible with Article 10 – David Scott

Events

UCL will be hosting a lecture by Professor George Letsas – The Moral Dimension of Proportionality. The event will take place at 18.00 on the 17 March 2016. More information can be found here.

Litvinenko – When real life is more fantastic than fiction

LitvinenkoNeil Garnham QC (now Mr Justice Garnham) and Robert Wastell of 1COR acted for the Secretary of State for the Home Department at the Litvinenko Inquiry. David Evans QC and Alasdair Henderson acted for AWE Plc. None was involved in preparing this post.

The publication on Thursday of the long awaited report by Sir Robert Owen into the circumstances of the death of Alexander Litivenko from polonium poisoning on 23 November 2006 has (unsurprisingly) resulted in bitter criticism by the Russian Government of the Inquiry’s conclusions that the poisoning was probably directed by the Russian Federal Security Service, and probably approved by President Putin. The report is long (246 pages not including Appendices), but in page after page of readable and measured prose Sir Robert Owen tells the extraordinary story of Alexander Litvinenko’s death and the subsequent 9 year investigation into it. Continue reading

Court of Session: Murderer’s prison conditions fair

Hands v Scottish Ministers [2016] CSOH 9, 15th January 2016 – read judgment

The Outer House of the Court of Session has refused a petition for judicial review brought by a convicted murderer against decisions made by the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) about his prison conditions and supervision level. Continue reading