The Fragility of Human Rights

Holidays_Halloween_Boiling_cauldron_on_Halloween_024660_The announcement this week of a new Conservative Party plan to repeal the Human Rights Act, ‘Protecting Human Rights in the UK’, has brought to a boil a cauldron of incredulity (pictured) about the Government’s attitude towards the law. The response from human rights lawyers and advocacy groups has been swift. Liberty describes the Conservative Party plan as ‘legally illiterate’. The several ways in which that is true have already been the subject of detailed exposition. Indeed, Liberty’s response is even more accurate than it might first appear. If the Conservative Party plan is legally illiterate then it is best read as a political tactic to assure its supporters that it is the party of anti-European sentiment. 

Nevertheless, if the move helps to bring about a Conservative Party government after the general election next May, then there is a great likelihood that steps will be taken to weaken the legal protection of human rights in Britain. The political pressure to do so will be even greater if the government must rely on support from Eurosceptic Members of Parliament for its majority in the House of Commons. Thus, political tactic or not, a Conservative Party-led government will likely take action against human rights law after the General Election.

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Another Strasbourg judgment which Putin may wish to ignore – Scientologists win

scientologyChurch of Scientology v. Russia, ECtHR, 2 October 2014 - read judgment

Amidst all the current posturing about the Strasbourg Court and how we would like to ignore its judgments we don’t like in future, one cannot help thinking about the old rule of behaviour that your enemy’s enemy is your friend. Western interests have been caught out, time and time again, when they intervene/interfere (insert, as appropriate) in the Middle East, and their enemy’s friend often turns out to be far from its friend.

Cue this case. Scientologists may not be widely favoured, in the UK, but then neither is Russia. And Russia would so love to ignore the slew of Strasbourg judgments against it – think Kordokovsky (€1.6bn, here), Chechnya and the environmental claims (here) against the various businesses which had so seamlessly ended up in the oligarchs’ pockets. But do we really want to feed Putin a line to get out of his difficulties in Strasbourg? This week’s back of an envelope announcements from the Conservative party conference about Strasbourg decisions would appear to do so.

The trigger for this claim in Strasbourg by the Church was the Russian courts’ decision that they were unwilling to allow the Scientologists to register their operations as a legal entity. And, as we shall see, Strasbourg thought that was not on.

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Journalists’ safety and the UN – Jessica Allen

steven-sotloffResolution A/HRC/27/L.7 on the Safety of Journalists by the UN Human Rights Council

Another day, another dead journalist; or so seems to be the trend in the media profession following recent news of the brutal beheading of an Israeli-American journalist, Stephen Sotloff, by Islamic State militants in Syria on 2nd September 2014. This Resolution seeks to facilitate the prevention of further fatalities.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 1055 journalists have been killed worldwide in the past 22 years. Gunilla Von Hall, an eminent Swedish foreign correspondent and journalist, opened the Annual Geneva Peace Talks by sharing her experiences as a foreign correspondent to conflict zones such as Iraq and Bosnia. Gunilla commented on her need to ‘write for a visa’, making her withhold certain information from print temporarily so that she could continue to enter certain countries. She has had to openly refuse calls to work in certain areas due to the risks she now faces. Following the birth of her children, Gunilla’s responsibilities have more recently prevented her from risking her safety by travelling to these regions. She observed that, as a result, inexperienced reporters who are based in the countries have to be hired instead. Research undertaken by UNESCO compiled in the report ‘World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development’ suggests that 94% of those targeted have been domestic journalists.

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Will devolution scupper Conservative plans for a “British” Bill of Rights?

Referendum In his speech at yesterday’s Conservative Party conference, the Prime Minister confirmed that the party’s 2015 election manifesto will include a commitment to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) and replace it with a “British Bill of Rights”. Last night, however, The Scotsman newspaper quoted a Scotland Office spokesman as saying that the change would not apply in Scotland. According to the article, the spokesman “confirmed that human rights legislation is devolved to the Scottish Parliament because it was ‘built into the 1998 Scotland Act [and] cannot by removed [by Westminster].’” As reported, this statement is seriously misleading. However, it does highlight genuine difficulties that devolution creates for the implementation of plans to reform human rights law. Continue reading

Council’s decision to close elderly care home not unlawful

ammaoldagehomeKaria, R (on the application of) v Leicester City Council (Sir Stephen Silber, acting as High Court Judge)  [2014] EWHC 3105 (Admin) (30 September 2014)- read judgment

In a robust judgment Sir Stephen Silber has asserted that neither the ordinary laws of judicial review, nor the Equality Act nor the Human Rights Act require the courts to micro-manage the decisions of public authorities. Indeed the latter two statutory powers are not designed as a back door into a merits review of a decision that is restricted to the court’s review of the legality of a public sector decision.

Background facts and law

The claimant, a 101 year old woman of Gujarati descent, challenged the decision to close the care home which she has occupied since 1999. Her grounds of challenge were threefold:

1. that the Council had failed to take account of material issues of fact relating to the present and future levels of demand for residential care one provision

2. that it had reached its decision without due regard to the need under the Equality Act 2010 to avoid unlawful discrimination in the provision of services

3. and it had failed to take into account the impact of the closure on the claimant’s Article 8 rights

She also complained that she had a legitimate expectation of a home for life at Herrick Lodge and that the Council had not considered whether her needs could be met in alternative placements.

Although the judge was at pains to stress that as this was a judicial review application, it was not for him to assess the merits of the Council’s decision, merely its legality. Having done so, he concluded that the Council had not acted irrationally, nor had it  paid due regard to the need to advance equality of opportunity.

It is not for the Court to determine whether proper weight has been given to a factor where as here there has been proper appreciation of the potential impact of the decision on equality issues.

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“What’s in a name”? Privacy and anonymous speech on the Internet

internet-anonymityKeynote speech by Lord Neuberger at 5 RB Conference on the Internet, 30 September 2014

The President of the Supreme Court has delivered a very interesting address on the protections that should be afforded to what might be termed the “new Fourth Estate” – journalism on the internet. The following summary does not do justice to his speech but is meant to act as a taster – download the full text of his talk here.

Lord Neuberger explores the interrelationship of privacy and freedom of expression, particularly in the light of developments in IT, and especially the internet. He recalls a colourful eighteenth century figure who contributed a series of letters to a widely disseminated journal under the pseudonym of “Junius”. He managed to make such effective attacks on public figures he brought about the resignation of the Prime Minister, the Duke of Grafton, in 1770. Because of his anonymity this character was able to make criticisms of the powerful for which others of his time faced prosecution.

Junius offered a voice of firm if sometimes scurrilous criticism, prompting both political and legal change. He is rightly remembered as one of the greatest political writers in an age dominated by great figures, yet his identity [still]  remains a mystery.

And it is this lack of traceability that links Junius with today’s bloggers. Print journalists are – with the exception of writers for The Economist – known figures. But forty percent of the world’s population use the internet, and despite initial expectations that bloggers and tweeters could hide behind pseudonyms, it has turned out to be extremely difficult for internet writers to maintain their anonymity. The public and the courts increasingly recognise the press’ interest in publishing the names of individuals in appropriate circumstances. Continue reading

Five things we learned from Cameron’s human rights announcement

9e422861-3131-40b3-a703-62426b2d1c9a-620x372There was some surprise at the lack of detail over human rights in Justice Secretary Chris Grayling and Home Secretary Theresa May’s speeches yesterday. Now, David Cameron has revealed all. Or at least, he has revealed some. Here is what we learned.

1. The Conservative Party will not be leaving the European Convention on Human Rights if it obtains a majority in 2015-2020.

This is the really important bit, as everyone knew the longstanding Tory policy of repealing the Human Rights Act and replacing it with a Bill of Rights (see below) would be maintained. There has been plenty of noise from the Eurosceptic right of the party in relation to the ECHR – both Grayling and May have consistently said leaving was a possibility. But surely now it is not. Or at least, if it intends to do so it would be very odd for that major policy not to have been mentioned at the Conference.

2. Saner heads have prevailed over the ECHR Continue reading