The UK and Strasbourg: a victim fantasy

Rhubarb, rhubarb. Another defeat for the United Kingdom in Strasbourg yesterday. In James, Wells and Lee v. the United Kingdom, a chamber of the Court’s Fourth Section held that indeterminate sentences of imprisonment for public protection infringed Article 5 of the Convention.  At his first Justice Questions in the House of Commons yesterday, our fresh-minted Conservative Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, advised MPs that:

“I’m very disappointed with the ECHR decision this morning.  I have to say, it is not an area where I welcome the Court, seeking to make rulings.  It is something we intend to appeal.”

One wonders which areas Mr Grayling would welcome the Court’s jurisdiction, but all in all, a somewhat tepid response from a man whose appointment was greeted by the Daily Mail with the enthusiastic suggestion that Grayling…

“… unlike his predecessor Ken Clarke, will have no truck with the cardboard judges at the European Court of Human Rights.”

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Religious freedom in UK to be considered by Strasbourg Court

Macfarlane and others v United Kingdom (ECHR 329 (2012) – read press release

Tomorrow the Strasbourg Court will hear complaints in four applications that UK law has failed adequately to protect the applicants’ right to manifest their religion, contrary to Articles 9 (freedom of religion) and 14 (prohibition of discrimination). See our posts on these cases here and here, and in the related Preddy case here.

All four applicants are practising Christians who complain that UK law did not sufficiently protect their rights to freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination at work. Ms Eweida, a British Airways employee, and Ms Chaplin, a geriatrics nurse, complain that their employers placed restrictions on their visibly wearing Christian crosses around their necks while at work. Ms Ladele, a Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages, and Mr McFarlane, a Relate counsellor, complain about their dismissal for refusing to carry out certain of their duties which they considered would condone homosexuality.  Their challenges to their consequent dismissal were rejected by the UK courts on the basis that their employers were entitled to refuse to accommodate views which contradicted their fundamental declared principles – and, all the more so, where these principles were required by law, notably under the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007.

The judgment is awaited with considerable anticipation: the National Secular Society and the Equality and Human Rights Commission have both filed  intervening submissions under Rule 44 §3 of the Rules of the Court.

“Locked-in” sufferer’s challenge to ban on voluntary euthanasia fails in the high court

The Queen(on the application of Tony Nicklinson) v Ministry of Justice [2012] EWHC 2381 (Admin) – read judgment

Lord Justice Toulson, sitting with Mrs Justice Royce and Mrs Justice Macur, has  handed down judgment in the case of Tony Nicklinson and that of another “locked-in” syndrome sufferer, “Martin”. On all the issues, they have deferred to parliament to take the necessary steps to address the problems created by the current law of murder and assisted suicide.

Philip Havers QC  of 1 Crown Office represented Martin in this case. 

Tony Nicklinson sought a declaration of immunity from prosecution for a doctor who would give him a fatal dose of painkillers to end his life in Britain. He also sought a declaration that the current law is incompatible with his right to respect for private life under article 8, contrary to s1 and 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998, in so far as it criminalises voluntary active euthanasia and/or assisted suicide.

Martin’s claim was slightly different as his wife does not want to do anything which will hasten his death. He therefore asked for permission for volunteers to be able to help him get to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland (under recent guidelines from the Director of Public Prosecutions only family members or close friends who are motivated by compassion are unlikely to be prosecuted for assisting a suicide). In the alternative he sought a declaration that section 2 of the Suicide Act is incompatible with the right to autonomy and private life under Article 8 of the European Convention.  Continue reading

When human rights hit the private law of damages for death

Swift v. Secretary of State for Justice [2012] EWHC 2000 (QB) Eady J, read judgment

This decision involves the intersection of Articles 8 (family) and 14 (discrimination) of the ECHR with the law governing who can recover damages for the death of a relative. This law is the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 (for the text see [10] of the judgment – embarrassingly, the one freely available on the internet is out of date). One does not to think for very long before realising that the FAA is underpinned by an idea that one ought to respect the rights of the family, and to pay the family when one has negligently caused the death of a family member. But like all such laws, there is the problem of where to stop – where does the family stop for these purposes?

Ms Swift had been living with Mr Winters for 6 months when he was killed at work. She was pregnant with their child. Under FAA rules, her child had a claim for financial dependency against his father’s employer – what he expected to derive from his father had his father lived – even though he was not born at the date of his father’s death. Indeed, her son recovered £105,000. But, says the FAA, Ms Swift does not have a claim. s.1(3) requires an unmarried partner to have been living with the deceased for 2 years before his death before they can become a “dependant”, and no amount of re-writing via  s.3 of the Human Rights Act  (to make the FAA  rights-compliant “so far as possible”) can make “2 years” read as “6 months” . Had she qualified as a dependant, she would have had a claim for about £400,000.

So Ms Swift’s claim was against the Secretary of State for a declaration that the FAA was incompatible with her Article 8 and 14 rights.

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Alien poster campaign’s anti-religious message

Updated | Mouvement Raëlien Suisse v Switzerland [2012] ECHR 1598 (13 July 2012) - read judgment

This case concerned the Swiss authorities’ refusal to allow an association to put up posters featuring extraterrestrials and a flying saucer on the ground that it engaged in activities that were considered immoral.

The association complained it had suffered a violation of its right to freedom of expression. The Grand Chamber did not agree, ruling that the refusal had met a “pressing social need” and that the authorities had not overstepped the broad margin of appreciation given to them in view of the non-political dimension of the poster campaign.

At first blush there is nothing remarkable about this ruling. But it was a narrow majority (nine votes to eight) and a brief reading of the dissenting opinions gives pause for thought: does the slightly loony nature of a message justify its suppression? Lurking behind the authorities’ refusal to allow the association’s advertising campaign is a sense of disapproval vis a vis their anti-Christian message;  one of the campaigns the association wished to conduct featured a poster stating “God does not exist”, and on another, below the association’s website, ran the message “Science at last replaces religion”. Continue reading

Locals’ Olympic missile site challenge rejected

Harrow Community Support Ltd v. Secretary of State for Defence [2012] EWHC 1921 (Admin), Haddon-Cave J, 10 July 2012, read judgment

In 776BC, the Olympics consisted of one day’s running and wrestling. A hundred years later, chariots and single horses arrived, thanks to the influence of Phaidon of Argos (a big shot in seventh-century Greece), and I dare say the civic pride which each participating Greek city-state brought to the Games was already running high. But I don’t suppose either Phaidon or Baron de Coubertin would have predicted the move which triggered this piece of litigation. The MoD decided to site a missile launcher and military personnel on the roof of a Council tower block in Leytonstone during the Olympics. Like all military hardware, it has a nice acronym, GBAD, being a Ground Based Air Defence system.

Anyway, a residents’ association formed by residents of Fred Wigg Tower, 15 storeys and containing 117 flats, decided to challenge the MoD. As their petition put it, “We, the undersigned residents of FWT, Montague Road, Leytonstone E11 3 EP, do not want explosive missile systems placed on the roof of our home”. Nor, I suppose, do any of us, but some of us may want someone else to have missile launchers on their roofs.

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Courts should take note of Strasboug’s doctrine of deference

R(on the application of S and KF) v Secretary of State for Justice [2012] EWHC 1810 (Admin)- read judgment

This case about prisoner’s pay provides an interesting up to date analysis of the role of the doctrine of “margin of appreciation” and its applicability in domestic courts.

Margin of appreciation is a doctrine of an international court: it recognises a certain distance of judgment between the Strasbourg court’s overall apprehension of the Convention principles and their application in practice by the national authorities. In theory it has no application in domestic disputes but ever since the Human Rights Act introduced Convention rights into domestic law there has been an ongoing debate about its applicability at a local level. This case demonstrates the importance of its role in the assessment, by the courts, of the compatibility of laws and rules with Convention rights.

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Hunting, animals, and the evolving landscape of rights

Herrmann v Germany (Application no. 9300/07) 26 June 2012 – read judgment

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the obligation of a landowner to allow hunting on his property violated his Convention rights. Although the majority based their conclusion on his right to peaceful enjoyment of possessions,  the partially concurring and dissenting opinions and the judgment as a whole provide an interesting insight into the way freedom of conscience challenges are to be approached in a secular society where religion holds less sway than individual ethical positions on certain issues.

Background

In 2002 the Federal Constitutional Court in Germany ruled that the granting of exceptional authorisation for the slaughter of animals without previous stunning, on religious grounds, did not breach the German Basic Law Schächt-Entscheidung (BVerfGE 99, 1, 15 January 2002). The social uproar that followed the ruling led to the German constitutional legislature taking a significant step aimed at protecting animal welfare with the 2002 constitutional reform, by including Article 20a in the Basic Law:

“Mindful also of its responsibility toward future generations, the State shall protect the natural foundations of life and animals through legislation…” Continue reading

Hate speech and the meaning of “unacceptable behaviour”

Raed Mahajna v Secretary of State for the Home Department IA/21/21631/2011 – read judgment

1 Crown Office Row’s Neil Sheldon appeared for the Secretary of State in this case. He is not the writer of this post.

Late last year I posted about the case of Mr Mahajna, a national of Israel (but of Palestinian origin), who appealed against a deportation order issued by the Home Secretary under section 3(5) of the Immigration Act 1971 on the basis that his presence in the United Kingdom was not conducive to public good. To recap:

  1. The Government has a list of “Unacceptable Behaviours” which forms the basis of its policy on excluding non-nationals under that provision. This includes actions expressing views which are likely to foster hatred and lead to inter-community violence in the UK (this policy was recent the focus of judicial consideration in the Court of Appeal in the case of R (Naik) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2011] EWCA Civ 1546).
  2. The Home Secretary relied on five pieces of evidence which were said to fall within the scope of the list of unacceptable behaviours and justify her conclusion that Mr Mahajna’s presence was not conducive to the public good.
  3. The First-Tier Tribunal (FTT) examined those pieces of evidence. It concluded that the Home Secretary was entitled to conclude that they constituted examples of unacceptable behaviour and fell within the scope of the exclusion policy.
  4. Although the order to deport Mr Mahajna constituted an interference with his right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) because he was unable to carry out a number of public speaking engagements in the UK, the views of the Home Secretary as to what was in the public interest were entitled to significant weight in assessing whether or not that interference was proportionate.
  5. The FTT ultimately concluded that the interference was proportionate, and the deportation order was upheld. Continue reading

Should gay marriage be legalised?

The Government has begun its consultation on whether the ban on marriage between people of the same sex should be removed. As suggested by the consultation’s title - Equal civil marriage consultation - the Government is only proposing to remove the ban on civil gay marriage.

The consultation document makes clear that it is “limited to consideration of civil marriage and makes no proposals to change the way that religious marriages are solemnised“. In other words, religious institutions will not be forced to allow same-sex marriages on their premises. And moreover, perhaps in order to dodge some of the controversy which has erupted in recent weeks, there are no plans to allow same-sex marriage to take place on religious premises at all. So even religious denominations which support same-sex marriage in principle will not be allowed to conduct the ceremonies on religious premises.

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Strasbourg rules on anti-gay speech for the first time

Vejdeland and Others v Sweden (Application no. 1813/07) – Read judgment

 “Will both teacher and pupils simply become the next victims of the tyranny of tolerance, heretics, whose dissent from state-imposed orthodoxy must be crushed at all costs?”, asked Cardinal O’Brien in his controversial Telegraph article on gay-marriage. He was suggesting that changing the law to allow gay marriage would affect education as it would preclude a teacher from telling pupils that marriage can only mean a heterosexual union. He later insinuated that the change might lead to students being given material such as an “explicit manual of homosexual advocacy entitled The Little Black Book: Queer in the 21st Century.”

A few weeks before that article was published, the European Court of Human Rights handed down its first ever ruling on anti-gay speech, in a Swedish case where a group of young men, seemingly motivated by a similar abhorrence to that expressed by Cardinal O’Brien for the “tyranny of tolerance” in education, put a hundred or so leaflets in or on the students’ lockers at a secondary school. The leaflets read:

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Axel Springer and Von Hannover: Grand Chamber victory for media – Inforrm

The media were successful in both the judgments handed down this morning by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights.  The judgments made it clear that the right to privacy has to be carefully balanced against contribution which a publication makes to a debate of general interest.  In both cases, taking account of the nature of the individuals involved and the publications the right to freedom of expression prevailed over the right to privacy. 

The judgments demonstrate the need for a careful balancing exercise in privacy cases.   Both cases involved “popular journalism” and show that,  even in this area, privacy is not a “trump card”.  The judgments will be welcomed by the media as showing that the Court of Human Rights remains sensitive to the need to protect its freedom of expression.

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Attorney General nuances the PM’s dig at European Court

The Prime Minister’s speech at the Council of Europe (see our coverage here) has attracted significant press attention over the past week – ranging from flag-waving, sabre-rattling support to criticism from Sir Nicholas Bratza (the British President of the Court).

Hot on the heels of Cameron’s address on Wednesday, the Attorney-General Dominic Grieve gave a speech on Thursday which set out in further detail the Government’s plans for reform of the European Court of Human Rights and the incorporation of human rights into UK law.

The full text of the Attorney-General’s speech is not yet available (although a similar speech he gave last year and his own speech to the Council of Europe can be found here). However, it was interesting to compare his comments with those of David Cameron just a day before.

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The god of free trade: why Austria cannot stop big lorries from using its motorways

C-28/09, European Commission v. Austria, 21 December 2011 - read judgment 

Many countries in the EU are struggling to comply with its laws about air pollution. The UK is in continuing breach of its nitrogen dioxide emission limit: see my post just before Christmas. But one way a country can try to comply with these laws is by banning or limiting heavy traffic. And that is exactly what Austria did in respect of an important bit of its motorway network; it prohibited lorries of over 7.5 tonnes carrying certain goods from using a section of the A 12 motorway in the Inn valley. And just before Christmas, it paid the price.

The EU Court told Austria it was infringing EU law, in particular, Articles 28 and 29 of the EC Treaty (now Arts 34 and 35 of TFEU) which are the core provisions protecting free movement of goods. Why, given that it was trying to comply proactively with another requirement of EU law?

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Extension of secret hearings would be “fundamentally unfair”, say Special Advocates

Government proposals to increase the number of court hearings held in secret, and in which parties can only see minimal evidence relied upon by the court, have been severely criticised by the “Special Advocates” who play the central role in closed hearings.

The group of 57 barristers, including 19 Queen’s Counsel, argue that despite attempts, for example, to give those subject to “Closed Material Procedures” a summary of the evidence against them, they remain “fundamentally unfair” and

represent a departure from the foundational principle of natural justice that all parties are entitled to see and challenge all the evidence relied upon before the court and to combat that evidence by calling evidence of their own.

The document is a response  to the Government’s Consultation (see my and Angus McCullough QC’s previous posts) which have to be sent via email or post by tomorrow, Friday 6 January 2012. I will be collating summaries of responses as I did with the Bill of Rights Commission consultation. If you would like your response to be included, please send it to 1crownofficerow@gmail.com, with the subject “Consultation response”.

In summary, the special advocates argue:

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