The European Court of Human Rights: anti-democratic or guardian of fundamental values? – Judge Robert Spano

Strasbourg_ECHR-300x297This post is adapted from a speech given by Judge Robert Spano of the European Court of Human Rights at Chatham House on 13 October 2014. It is reproduced here with permission and thanks.

There is currently a vigorous debate in the UK on the status and future of the European Convention on Human Rights in national law and also on the relationship between my Court, the Strasbourg Court (ECtHR), the UK Parliament and the domestic judiciary. 
In principle, democratic debates on such fundamental issues should always be welcome. Indeed, discussions on the role and functions of institutions of public power lie at the core of the democratic concept. It is therefore essential for the Court and its judges to engage in reasoned and informed debate about their work and its wider European implications. 


How Does the ECtHR Discharge Its Mandate? 


I have been asked to discuss the question of how the Strasbourg Court discharges its mandate. To give an answer, one must first respond to the fundamental question: What is the Court‘s mandate?

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Letting in a chink of light to closed material cases : Bank Mellat again

brown-blanket-ray-of-lightBank Mellat v HM Treasury [2014] EWHC 3631 (Admin), Collins J, 5 November 2014 –  read judgment UPDATED POST

Fireworks here from Collins J in making sure that Bank Mellat got some disclosure of information in its fight to discharge a financial restriction order against it.

Bank Mellat is an Iranian bank, initially singled out by an 2009 order which prohibited anybody from dealing with it.  The order was part of sanctions against Iran in respect of its nuclear and ballistic missiles programme. However, it bit the dust, thanks to the Supreme Court:  see judgment. I  did a post on that decision, and followed it up with one (here) on the (dis)proportionality arguments which led to the order’s downfall. 

However the Bank was subject to two further orders, made in 2011 and 2012. They led to the freezing of €183m held by it in London. The 2012 order has since been revoked, but the 2011 one remains. This is the subject of the Bank’s application to set it aside. On any view, as Collins J recognised, it had caused very serious damage to the Bank’s business.

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Three strikes and out? Major defeats for Government Judicial Review reform plans in the Lords

Pannick Faulks

Lords Pannick and Faulks

Last night saw the important Report Stage consideration of Part 4 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill in the House of Lords. Angela Patrick, Director of Human Rights Policy at JUSTICE provides a summary.

Widely – and quickly – reported as a “crushing” or an “emphatic” defeat – in a rare turn – the Government was last night defeated in three consecutive votes on its proposals to restrict access to judicial review. With a ‘hat-trick’ of blows, on three crucial issues, votes on amendments tabled by Lords Pannick, Woolf, Carlile and Beecham were decisive. On the proposal to amend the materiality test – the Government lost by 66. On the compulsory disclosure of financial information for all judicial review applicants, and again on the costs rules applicable to interveners, the Government lost by margins on both counts by 33. A fourth amendment to the Government proposals on Protective Costs Orders – which would maintain the ability of the Court to make costs capping orders before permission is granted – was called after the dinner break, and lost.

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The Monstering of Human Rights

On Friday 19 September I spoke at a very interesting conference at the University of Liverpool on Human Rights in the UK Media: Representation and Reality. My talk was entitled The Monstering of Human Rights. You can download it by clicking here (PDF). It is also embedded below.

As always, comments are welcome. There is quite a lot in there tying together some of the themes I have been writing about over the past few years. As a number of people pointed out in Liverpool, it is too easy to point to errors in human rights reporting as proof that all criticisms of the human rights system are bogus, which is clearly wrong. But nonetheless, misinformation and exaggeration is an important feature of the public debate on human rights and it is interesting to consider why that might be the case, and – a question which has troubled me over the past few years – how to stop it happening.

I expect the issue of human rights reform will arise again now that the Scottish referendum process has concluded and the political parties are setting out their agendas for 2015. It seems pretty clear that the Conservative Party will promise to repeal the Human Rights Act but what they will do in relation to the European Convention on Human Rights is still very much an unknown. My expectation is that they will not promise to withdraw from the ECHR. Not yet, anyway. Labour and the Liberal Democrats are likely to retain the existing system, with a few tweaks. But whoever wins the election, there is a huge amount of work to be done to repair the reputation of human rights laws in the UK and convince the public that they are, on balance, a good thing.

PS. if any kind soul would like to turn the PDF version into a HTML linked blog-ready post, I would be eternally grateful! Email me if you would be interested, you would of course get full credit in the ensuing post/s.

Have the Tricycle Theatre broken the law by refusing to host the Jewish Film Festival?

TRICYCLE-UKJFFUpdated | It emerged on Tuesday the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn has refused to host the UK Jewish Film Festival (UKJFF) for the first time in eight years. The theatre told UKJFF that they must reject longstanding funding from the Israeli Embassy if they wanted to use the venue. UKJFF refused and the relationship ended.

There has already been some excellent writing: see Nick Cohen, Archie Bland and Dorian Lynskey. Cohen makes a powerful case for the decision being anti-Semitic. I’m not going to go there, although as I have been saying on Twitter, in my view this is a bad move by the Tricycle. I thought it would be interesting, however, to investigate whether the Tricycle may have broken any laws.

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School’s out? Peers ask Government to use summer holidays to reflect on controversial judicial review reforms – Angela Patrick

RCJ restricted accessAngela Patrick, Director of Human Rights Policy at JUSTICE provides a summary of the House of Lords debate on Government proposals to reform judicial review in Part 4 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill.

As the House of Lords closes its gilded doors for the long recess, the Westminster village enters its equivalent of the school holidays. Yet, as Ministers pack their red boxes and MPs head diligently back to their constituency business, the House of Lords – debating the Committee Stage of controversial judicial review proposals in Part 4 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill – may have suggested that officials and Ministers yet have some homework to do.

Summing up the debate – and thanking Lord Faulks, the Minister responding to a barrage of criticism from all benches, for his efforts – Lord Pannick acknowledged that many of the Government’s proposals on judicial review had been driven by the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling. He suggested that both Ministers would do well to get together over the summer to digest the Peers’ concerns – perhaps on a convenient beach. There were so many flaws in the Bill that Lord Faulks should pack a red pen with his sunscreen (HL Deb, 30 July 2014, Col 1650).

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The Tory human rights “car crash”

Car crash human rights

Imagine you are on the board of large corporation. You attend the Annual General Meeting and asked the chief executive about that controversial tax avoidance scheme the company had been considering, but which the in-house legal team had advised against. The Chief Exec smiles and says that has been dealt with: “we just sacked the lawyers”. 

The BBC is reporting what many suspected. Attorney General Dominic Grieve QC was sacked in order to clear the path for major reform of the relationship between the UK and the European Court of Human Rights. This is bad news, for the UK and potentially for the European Court of Human Rights too.

The Attorney General’s advice, which has been leaked to the BBC, was that plan to limit the power of the European Court of Human Rights were “incoherent” and a “legal car crash… with a built-in time delay“. Intriguingly, the BBC’s Nick Robinson also reports that William Hague, the now-former Foreign Secretary, also raised doubts over the plans.

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