Don’t be fooled! We have been led to believe there was a two-way split on the government-appointed Bill of Rights Commission, which published its report on Tuesday, but the split was at least three-way. The Commissioners tell us that ‘it [was] not always easy to disentangle in the opinions expressed to [them] what are tactical positions rather than fundamental beliefs’. The same must surely be said of the report’s seven ‘majority’ authors.
The two dissenters who did not sign up to the majority’s conclusions – Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws QC and Philippe Sands QC – are clear: the time is not ripe for a new UK Bill of Rights. This is because (a) the devolution arrangements in the UK, in which the HRA is successfully embedded, are potentially about to undergo significant change (post-Scottish referendum) (b) the majority of respondents to the Commission’s consultation support the HRA as the UK’s Bill of Rights which incorporates the ECHR rights (but not the European Court case law) into domestic law and (c) for some Commissioners, a Bill of Rights would be a means to decoupling the connection between the United Kingdom and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). In sum, “the case for a UK bill of rights has not been made” and the arguments against such a Bill “remain far more persuasive, at least for now.”
Update, 15:15: I originally referred below to there being a majority of six versus two in favour of introducing a bill of rights. This was wrong – in fact there were seven. The Commission chair, Sir Leigh Lewis, should have been included in that number.
The Commission on a Bill of Rights has reported, just in time for its end-of-2012 deadline. The documents are here: News release ; Volume 1 ; Volume 2.
I have read the introduction, which sets out the main proposals. A few things that jumped out:
- As predicted by most people since the beginning, there are areas of agreement but also some significant disagreements. Only seven out of the nine Commissioners believe there should be a bill of rights. Helena Kennedy and Philippe Sands disagree. Even the title is equivocal: “A UK Bill of Rights? The choice before us“.
- This is not a unified document, but rather a running, almost Socratic, dialectic between the nine members. It is difficult to follow who agrees with which bit, even in individual paragraphs which are often qualified by “a majority believes”. Bizarrely, and going beyond even my pessimistic expectations of strife, there are eight (eight!) separate papers written by individuals and groups of individuals included in the report, including one by Lord Faulks and Jonathan Fisher on the European Court and why it is going beyond its original remit, one by Sands and Kennedy on why they don’t think there should be a bill of rights, a personal explanatory note by Lord Lester… it goes on. That is one of the reasons this is such a long document.
Jonathan Fisher QC wrote an opinion piece in last week’s Jewish Chronicle entitled “The wrongs of human rights“. The article is highly critical of the human rights movement and raises the alarm over recent decisions on religious rights and “growing attacks on our traditions”. It also makes a strong case for the adding of a list of “responsibilities” to the Human Rights Act, which Fisher argues would be “more closely aligned with Judaism’s approach”. The article pulled no punches and chose the most emotive of starting points:
Using human-rights principles to attempt to ban circumcision in Germany is a grotesque insult to the memory of Holocaust victims. The Jewish jurists who helped inspire the human-rights movement must be spinning in their graves at the intellectual violence that their legacy has spawned.
I have written before about the misuse of the Holocaust to justify arguments for reforming the Human Rights Act (the human rights debate has its own version ‘Goodwin’s Law‘). But I will leave the substance of the article for another day – I will be responding soon in the same newspaper. Rather, I wanted to discuss the timing of the article.
As regular readers may know, Fisher is one of the eight member of the Commission on a Bill of Rights, which is currently consulting the public for a second time (see my post). The consultation is closing on 30 September 2012 and the Commission is due to report before the end of the year. No mention is made of the fact that Fisher is a Bill of Rights Commissioner; he is described as a “visiting professor of law at the London School of Economics”.
Does anyone else find this a little odd? Continue reading
It’ll all be over by Christmas: that’s what the coalition promised when it established the Commission on a Bill of Rights to, among other things:
… investigate the creation of a UK Bill of Rights that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, ensures that these rights continue to be enshrined in UK law, and protects and extends our liberties.
With less than four months to go, it seems a good time to reflect upon its work. My premise is that the process by which a bill of rights is created is as important as the outcome if the bill is to enjoy longevity and democratic legitimacy, in the sense of having been subject to inclusive and informed public deliberation. This lesson has been learned in contexts from Northern Ireland to Australia, where energetic consultation processes were designed using community organising techniques, televised hearings, the internet, social networking and other creative forms of public engagement. These are explored in research I conducted for the Equality and Human Rights Commission ahead of the 2010 general election.