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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Family pressure group “had no business” in applying for habeas corpus on behalf of mother

6a00d83451ccc469e201a73e196361970dJustice for Families Ltd v Secretary of State for Justice [2014] EWCA Civ 1477 – read judgment

An  application for habeas corpus by a pressure group was completely “hopeless” and “entirely misconceived”. The appellant’s challenge to the decision of the judge below was equally devoid of merit.  Third party applications are only appropriate where the prisoner is incommunicado or where the impediment preventing the prisoner from acting is ignorance or disability. It was entirely inappropriate in these circumstances, where the prisoner had been represented by counsel throughout the proceedings which resulted in her imprisonment, or where her detention had already ended before the application for habeas corpus was made.

The principle of “habeas corpus”

The right of a stranger to apply for habeas corpus is a rather singular thing since it does not depend on that third party to be instructed by the prisoner on behalf of whom the application is being made, nor even on the knowledge of the prisoner that someone has decided to act in his/her interest in such a way.

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Housing, Article 8 and A1P1 in the Supreme Court

mapmainSims v Dacorum Borough Council [2014] UKSC 63 - read judgment 12 November 2014 and

R (ota ZH and CN) v. LB Newham et al [2014] UKSC 62 - read judgment 12 November 2014

A brace of cases showing the limited role which Article 8 and Article 1 of the 1st Protocol has to play in housing law, so heavily regulated by a combination of statute and contract law. The human right protections conferred, as we shall see, are mainly procedural.

The contract and property issues are well illustrated by the case of Sims. Mr and Mrs Sims had lived in a council property, until Mrs Sims left, she said as a result of her husband’s violence. For her own housing reasons she sought termination of their periodic secure joint tenancy by unilateral notice. Her husband, as the other joint tenant still living in the property, maintained in response to possession proceedings that he was entitled to remain there as a sole tenant; anything else was inconsistent with his Article 8 and A1P1 rights.

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Government may weigh rights against national security without courts’ interference

Mujahedin-e-Khalq-OrganizatR (on the application of Lord Carlile of Berriew QC and others) (Appellants) v Secretary of State for the Home Department (Respondent) [2014] UKSC 60 – read judgment

The exclusion of a dissident Iranian from the UK, on grounds that her presence would have a damaging impact on our interests in relation to Iran, has been upheld by the Supreme Court. (My post on the Court of Appeal’s ruling is here).

At the heart of the case lies the question of institutional competence of the executive to determine the balance between the relative significance of national security and freedom of speech. The exclusion order was imposed and maintained because the Home Office is is concerned with the actual consequences of Mrs Rajavi’s admission, not with the democratic credentials of those responsible for bringing them about. The decision-maker is not required by the Convention or anything else to ignore or downplay real risks to national security where they originate from people acting for motives which are contrary to the values of this country.

The following summary of the facts is partly based on the Court’s press release. References in square brackets are to the paragraphs in the judgment. Continue reading

Be wary of judicial slogans – Jonathan Sumption

SumptionIn his lecture to the Administrative Law Bar Association  earlier this month, Lord Sumption surveys the concept of “anxious scrutiny” – a judicial method which he characterises as a forerunner to the principle of proportionality. The term was actually coined by Lord Bridge in Bugdaycay (1986), and was meant to apply where the rights engaged in a case were sufficiently fundamental, and stretched the traditional “Wednesbury” test to public authority decisions or actions which were not, on the face of it, irrational. (The citation given in the PDF of the speech incidentally is incorrect). The same way of thinking had been arrived at in the US courts a few years earlier, with their “hard look” doctrine, but to Lord Sumption there was something peculiarly English about the “crab-like” way in which our courts approached and eventually acknowledged this doctrine, hitherto alien to the judicial toolbox.

But if we apply anxious scrutiny to the doctrine itself, Sumption suggests, it raises more questions than it answers. Continue reading

Wind turbines, noise and public information

3844964938R (o.t.a Joicey) v. Northumberland County Council , 7 November 2014, Cranston J  read judgment

An interesting decision about a Council not supplying some key information about a wind turbine project to the public until very late in the day. Can an objector apply to set the grant of permission aside? Answer: yes, unless the Council can show that it would have inevitably have come to the same conclusion, even if the information had been made public earlier.

Mr Barber, a farmer, wanted to put up one turbine (47m to tip) on his land. The claimant was an objector, another farmer who lives 4km away, and who campaigns about subsidies for renewables – it is him in the pic. The planning application was complicated by the fact that an application for 6 turbines at Barmoor nearby had already been approved (where Mr Joicey is standing), and the rules on noise from wind turbines looks at the total noise affecting local people, not just from Mr Barber’s turbine.

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Delays in prisoner rehabilitation did not breach Convention – Strasbourg Court

man_in_prisonDillon v United Kingdom  (no. 32621/11)  – read judgment  and David Thomas v United Kingdom (no. 55863/11) – read judgment 

Two prisoners have failed in their human rights protest against prison rehabilitation courses in the United Kingdom.

Dillon

The applicant Dillon, currently detained in HMP Whatton, had been given an indeterminate sentence following his conviction for sexual assault. He was given a tariff period of four years. His release after the expiry of this tariff period was subject to the approval of the Parole Board.

He completed the core Sex Offenders Treatment Programme (“SOTP”) in March 2009 and had been assessed as suitable for the extended SOTP in 2010. But then the  prison authorities concluded that he was insufficiently motivated to undertake the extended course.  He complained that the only way that he could address the risk he presented to the public was by completing the extended SOTP, but his access to this course had been delayed.   Continue reading