Lawyers Protest Cuts, Constitutional Nihilism and Libel Liberalisation – the Human Rights Roundup
6 January 2014
Welcome back to the UK Human Rights Roundup, your regular wholesome takeaway of human rights news and views. The full list of links can be found here. You can find previous roundups here. Links compiled by Adam Wagner, post by Sarina Kidd.
Welcome to 2014 and Santa has brought us the Defamation Act 2013, which aims to reduce the ‘chilling effect’ of previous libel laws . But as we enter 2014, not all is new. The Conservative Party continues to complain about European human rights. They seek to challenge the ECtHR ban on prison life sentences. How to deal with this? With hundreds of years of imprisonment instead. Meanwhile, today criminal lawyers will refuse to appear at court in order to protest against legal aid and criminal barrister fee cuts.
In the News
Today (Monday), for the first time in the history of the criminal bar, barristers will refuse to attend court and take to the street to protest against legal aid and fee cuts. The protests will take place from around 9:30-10 outside courts all round the country – all details here. For more detailed background on the protests and general issue, see:
- The Justice Alliance site
- Lawyers protesting outside courts over legal aid cuts (BBC)
- Further legal aid restrictions endanger access to justice, say MPs
- Life at the Thin Edge of the Wedge – The Grim Reality of the Independent Junior Criminal Bar (50 Shades of Affray)
- Misinformation By Public Bodies (Simon Myerson QC)
Human Rights Overhaul
Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling has stated that the Conservative Party will draft new laws this year to limit the authority of European human rights legislation. Notably, this may include pulling out of the European Convention on Human Rights. This would be a Conservative party move and is unlikely to be backed by Coalition partners the Liberal Democrats. Grayling has listed the four key principles that will be addressed, ‘We have to curtail the role of the court in the UK, we have to replace the Human Rights Act….we have to ensure there is a balance of rights in our laws…and we have to make our Supreme Court supreme’. The Shadow Justice Secretary recently criticised the Government’s European human rights approach, citing the Volkov case, as it has encouraged other countries, such as the Ukraine, not to adhere fully to the human rights framework.
Lord Judge (the former Lord chief Justice of England and Wales) gave an interview this week in which he put forth that the European Courts have too much power. Naturally, this has provided fodder for critics of the ECHR. ObiterJ examines Lord Judge’s points, and explains the misgivings he has with his arguments.
However, other serving judges, such as Lord Sumption and Lord Justice Laws, have also been critical of the ECHR, although Lady Hale and Lord Mance have provided some much needed counter arguments. The latter, for example, explained that having no written constitution or document containing fundamental rights actually constrains parliamentary sovereignty. He also detailed some of the important human rights successes that are attributable to the HRA 1998.
Richard Edwards, at Euro Rights blog, whilst happy with the current state of the Human Rights Act, has had a go at drafting a Euro Rights Bill of Rights. He states, ‘We hope it provides an alternative vision to the constitutional nihilism on offer from Messrs Cameron, Grayling, Raab et al’. You can read it here.
Hundreds of years of solitude
The government’s onslaught against the ECHR continues with prison sentencing. The ECtHR ruled last year that life sentences violated human rights law due to the absence of a right to review. Ministers are trying to bypass this with a loophole; by giving sentences lasting hundreds of years (like the American system) it is intended that compliance with the Convention would appear to be . This is because there would still be a right to review even though the laws of nature mean that the prisoner would inevitably die before the release date. The Telegraph has also reported it here.
The new Defamation Act
The Defamation Act 2013 came into force on the 1st January 2014. The Act aims to reduce the ‘chilling effect’ that previous libel laws had on freedom of expression and legitimate debate. It is also hoped that it will prevent journalists, scientists and academics from being subjected to unfair legal threats. It is now the case that claimants, before suing, will have to demonstrate that they have suffered ‘serious harm’. Mike Harris of The Libel Reform Campaign stated that, ‘we hope the judiciary will take note, and that in the future open debate on matters in the public interest will not be chilled by litigious oligarchs or corporations’.
Benefit Cap JR
Over at the Nearly Legal blog, Dave discusses a recent benefit cap challenge – R(JS) v SSWP  EWHC 3350 (QB). The challenge argued Art 14/Art1Proto1/Art 8 discrimination and a Wednesbury challenge. As Dave explains, ‘the basic point is that the eligible amount for housing benefit is reduced by the excess over either £350 or £500pw (for singles and others respectively). However, where a member of the household is entitled to (for example) working tax credit, then the benefit cap does not apply. The cap is a pretty crude mechanism for forcing cheap part-time labour’.
The issue of concern here, however, was that such labour was not open to the claimants. Nevertheless, the Divisional Court found that although in this case the situation was not ideal, the policy generally struck a fair balance between in/out of work, with a ‘broad political concept of fairness’. The case will soon be going to the Court of Appeal.
In other News
- Frank Cranmer at Law and Religion covers the last year’s important legal religious matters. He discusses, for example, the recent attempt by Lord Toulson in the Supreme Court to provide a definition of ‘religion’ appropriate to a multi faith, multi-cultural and rather secularised society.
- David Pocklington, also at Religion and Law, looks at the newsworthy issues arising between Christmas day and New Year’s Eve.
- Nigel Farage has suggested that the UK accept individuals fleeing the armed conflict in Syria. Importantly, however, only Christians should be given shelter. Clearly such a statement has attracted comment and Noelle Quenivet at Euro Rights discusses her own reservations with this call.
- Human Rights Europe details the recent key Council of Europe issues, such as the row intensifying over assembly resolution’s ‘threat’ to male circumcision, or what has been dubbed, ‘the foreskin war’.
To add to this list, email Adam Wagner. Please only send events which i) have their own webpage which can be linked to, and ii) are relevant to the topics covered by this blog
- Peace & Progress – A Party for Human Rights International Crime & Punishment, Lecture by Philippe Sands QC Saturday 25th January 2014 at 2pm, Friends’ Meeting House, Euston Road, London
- EHRA Workshop – Maximising the Role of Civil Society in the European Human Rights Protection System 23 and 24 January 2014, Strasbourg
- In Conversation with Joshua Rozenberg – 01 – 2014
- New event: Human Rights Beneath the Headlines | British Institute of Human Rights (featuring Adam Wagner amongst others) Thursday 30 January, 6:30-8pm, Leigh Day
UK Human Rights Blog Posts
- The Legal Ombudsman: more than a paper tiger – January 3, 2014 by Ross Beaton
- Human Rights for Kids – January 1, 2014 by Thomas Horton
- UK Human Rights Blog 2013 in review – December 31, 2013 by Adam Wagner
- Justice Secretary wins and loses in discrimination challenge to post-prison facilities for women – December 30, 2013 by Dominic Ruck Keene