Prison law failing trans people: the Round-up


In the news

LGBT campaigners have called for an urgent reform of the law, following the death of 21 year-old transgender woman Vicky Thompson in an all-male prison. Ms Thompson had previously said that she would take her own life if she were placed in a prison for men.

The system of locating transgender people within the prison estate has recently come into criticism after transgender woman Tara Hudson was placed at HMP Bristol, an all-male establishment. Ms Hudson spoke of being sexually harassed by other prisoners, before a petition signed by more than 150,000 people led to her eventual transfer to a women’s prison. Statistics from the US suggest that transgender women in male prisons are 13 times more likely than the general prison population to be sexually assaulted while incarcerated.

Under the current rules, in most cases prisoners must be located “according to their gender as recognised under UK law”, although the guidance allows discretion where the individual is “sufficiently advanced in the gender reassignment process.” But the case of Vicky Thompson has been said to show that “the law is simply not working. For people living for years as women to be sent to serve sentences in prisons for men is inviting disaster.”

Responding to a question on the issue, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Andrew Selous has stated that the government intends to implement “revised policy guidance… in due course.”

In other news:

  • The Guardian: The Metropolitan Police has issued an unreserved apology and paid substantial compensation to women who were deceived into forming long-term intimate sexual relationships with undercover police officers. The police force acknowledged that the relationships had been “a violation of the women’s human rights, an abuse of police power and caused significant trauma.”
  • BBC: Members of the public and journalists will be permitted to attend the majority of hearings in the Court of Protection, where issues affecting sick or vulnerable people are heard. The new pilot scheme is intended to provide greater transparency, whilst safeguarding the privacy of the people involved.
  • MPs on the justice select committee have called for the scrapping of the criminal courts charge, voicing “grave misgivings” about whether it is “compatible with the principles of justice.” The charge of up to £1,200 is imposed on convicted criminals, and is not means-tested. In its report, the parliamentary committee expressed concern that the charge, which is higher for those convicted after pleading not guilty, was creating “perverse incentives” affecting defendant behaviour. The BBC reports here.
  • The Legal Voice: The Ministry of Justice has announced that the introduction of duty provider contracts will be postponed until 1 April 2016. A number of legal proceedings have been issued, challenging the legitimacy of the procurement process. The decision has been welcomed by the Bar Council, which has consistently opposed measures it claims would “damage access to justice and the provision of high quality advocacy services.”
  • BBC: A couple from north west London have been found guilty of keeping a man enslaved in their home for 24 years, in “a shocking case of modern slavery.” The couple had “total psychological control” over their victim, threatening that if he left the house he would be arrested by police as an illegal immigrant.

In the courts

The Court found that a family of asylum seekers evicted from an accommodation centre had been exposed to degrading treatment, in violation of their rights under article 3 ECHR. The family had been left in conditions of extreme poverty, without basic means of subsistence for a period of four weeks. The Belgian authorities had not paid due consideration to the vulnerability of the applicants, who had small children including a seriously disabled daughter.

UK HRB posts

Best interests, hard choices: The Baby C case – Leanne Woods


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The Round-Up: Plaudits for Gove, and the Constitutional Convolutions of the Ministerial Code.

michael-Gove_2566694bLaura Profumo serves us the latest human rights happenings.

In the News:

At the Howard League for Penal Reform AGM last week, Michael Gove held his own when challenged about criminal justice reform. Despite his Making Prisons Work speech in July, and his successful overturning of his predecessor’s prison book ban, Gove has remained relatively reticent on his plans for the criminal justice system. Speaking for some 30 minutes, Gove addressed the “need to move away from the sterile debate of ‘lock people up or let them out’”, and summon a “new era of talking about crime and punishment”. His audience, many still bristling from Grayling’s stringency in office, were won over by the Lord Chancellor’s more peaceable approach to penal reform. In addition to emphasising the need for a more sensitive sentencing framework, Gove urged for the causes of criminality to be tackled, including the “moral absence” experienced by many offenders growing up in care. In contrast to Grayling’s perceived complacency over prison conditions, Gove recognised the current “crisis”, pledging his commitment to his “new for old” prisons policy – replacing ineffective Victorian prisons with functional new ones – as well as to improving the autonomy of prison governors. The Lord Chancellor also proposed the use of more advanced technology in prisons, in order to improve the safety of staff and inmates, and to meet the particular educational needs of prisoners with learning difficulties. The conference ended on an especially poignant note, with Gove expressing his admiration for social workers – words which left Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League “blown away”.

It remains to be seen whether the Autumn Statement, unveiled later this month, will affirm Gove’s ambitious plans. Yet his moral framework for policy choices bodes well, informing the ongoing debate on the prison system with a quieter rhetoric of hope and realism. Continue reading

The Round-Up: Gove’s Gallop to the Commons

michael-Gove_2566694bLaura Profumo delves into the latest human rights happenings.

In the News:

In an “exclusive” last weekend, The Independent revealed that the government is planning to “fast-track” a British Bill of Rights into UK law. The report claimed a 12-week consultation will run from late this year, which will seek to clarify that the UK will not pull out of the ECHR. In an “unusual but not unique” move, a Bill will then proceed straight to the House of Commons, without a preliminary Green or White Paper. With the EU referendum due in 2017, ministers are anxious to extricate the ECHR question from that of EU membership, making the Bill law before the in/out campaigns begin. Yet the Bill’s Parliamentary passage will be far from seamless. A cabinet minister has cautioned that the short timescale is “aspirational”, as the Bill could be “really clogged up in the House of Lords”. The upper chamber, where the Conservatives fail to command a majority, hosts some “seasoned lawyers”, who are fearful of the fallout with Strasbourg. It is understood that Gove will visit Scotland before the consultation is published, to convince the SNP to back the proposal. Yet it is not yet clear whether Gove will visit Northern Ireland and Wales as well, where he must also secure support. If the Bill is to reach the statute books before the MPs’ summer recess, it will need to be propounded in the next Queen’s speech, due in May 2016. Continue reading

The Round-Up: Holyrood’s Hard-line, and Sumption’s Long Game

SumptionLaura Profumo brings you the latest human rights happenings.

In the News: 

Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister, announced last week that it was “inconceivable” that the SNP would support the Conservative plans to scrap the Human Rights Act. Talking to an audience in Glasgow on Wednesday, Sturgeon pledged her unequivocal commitment to block the HRA-repeal. Sturgeon warned that human rights remained a “devolved issue”, meaning that Scottish opposition might well hamper Gove’s forthcoming efforts. Many find sympathy with Sturgeon’s stance. Sturgeon values the HRA as a “careful model” which incorporates human rights protection into UK law, without upsetting our constitutional bedrock, writes Alex Cisneros in The Justice Gap. Continue reading

Picket lines in General Franco’s Britain – the Round-up

Photo credit: The Independent

In the news

The controversial Trade Union Bill this week passed its second reading in the House of Commons by a majority of 33 MPs. The bill contains plans to impose a minimum 50% turnout in industrial action ballots, whilst public sector strikes will require the backing of at least 40% of all eligible voters. It further includes proposals to:

  • Increase the period of notice given by unions before a strike can be held from seven to 14 days;
  • Permit the employment of agency workers to replace permanent staff during strike action; and
  • Introduce fines of up to £20,000 on unions if pickets do not wear an official armband.

The civil rights organisation Liberty has warned that the bill will infringe the right to join a trade union, protected by Article 11 of the ECHR. Director Shami Chakrabarti has described the measures as a “spiteful and ideological attack” on freedoms that “must have one-nation Tories like Disraeli and Churchill spinning in their graves.”

Aspects of the bill have moreover come into criticism from senior members of the Conservative party. David Davis MP made clear his opposition to the requirement that organisers of picket lines register their details with the police, suggesting that the proposed reform was reminiscent of the Spanish dictatorship of General Franco.

Business Secretary Sajid Javid has, however, defended the measures, insisting that the reforms would “stop the ‘endless’ threat of strike action” and ensure that the right to strike was “fairly balanced with the right of people to be able to go about their daily lives and work.”

Other news:

  • A coroner has concluded that the suicide of 60-year-old Michael O’Sullivan was a direct result of his assessment by a DWP doctor as being fit for work. Mr O’Sullivan, who suffered from severe mental illness, hanged himself after his disability benefits were removed. The Independent reports.
  • Proposals announced by the Ministry of Justice to further increase court fees have been criticised by the Bar Council, which has warned that higher costs would give wealthy individuals and big business an unfair advantage over weaker parties in court proceedings. The Bar Council press release can be read in full here.
  • The Guardian: Cuts to legal aid have led to an increase in demand for free legal representation and advice, placing considerable strain on the resources of charities and lawyers engaged in pro bono work.
  • Local Government Lawyer: Lord Chancellor Michael Gove has launched a review of the youth justice system, which is to be led by Charlie Taylor, former chief executive of the National College of Teaching. Mr Gove noted in a statement to Parliament that 67% of young people leaving custody reoffend within a year, and emphasised that the rehabilitation of young offenders had to be a government priority.

UK HRB posts


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The Round-Up: Janner’s debut, and the plight of relying on Dignitas.

2138Laura Profumo serves us the latest human rights happenings.

In the news:

Lurid show-trial of a vulnerable man, the timely vindication of justice being done, and being seen to be done, a CPS volte-face.

Whatever you think of the Janner trial, it’s now in full swing. The former Labour Peer made his first appearance in court on Friday, facing 22 historic child sex abuse charges. The 87 year old’s committal hearing lasted some 59 seconds, after weeks of legal grappling with his defence lawyers. Any doubt over Janner’s dementia was “dispersed instantly” by his arrival, writes The Telegraph’s Martin Evans: flanked by his daughter and carer, Janner appeared frail and “confused”, cooing “ooh, this is wonderful” as he entered the courtroom. The case will now pass to the Crown Court, with the next hearing due on September 1, where a judge will decide whether the octogenarian is fit to stand trial, or whether a trial of fact is a suitable alternative. If the latter course is taken, a jury will decide if Janner was responsible for his charged actions – no verdict of guilt will be found, and no punishment will be handed down. Continue reading

The Round-up: Controversy over the Courts Charge and Serdar Mohammed

Photo credit: The Guardian

In the news

The Howard League for Penal Reform has called for a review of the “unfair and unrealistic” Criminal Courts Charge, which “ penalises the poor and encourages the innocent to plead guilty”. The mandatory charge of up to £1,200 is imposed on those who admit committing minor misdemeanours, regardless of their circumstances.

The charity has compiled a list of cases where heavy financial charges have been demanded of people convicted of low-level offences. These include the case of a 38-year-old homeless man who admitted persistently begging in Oxford, and breaching an Asbo prohibiting him from sitting within 10 metres of a cash machine. He was jailed for 30 days and ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge.

Continue reading