Charlotte Bellamy brings you the latest human rights news
The death knell has tolled on another of Grayling’s policies from his ill-fated tenure as Justice Secretary. The controversial criminal courts charge, which has seen over 50 magistrates resign since its imposition in April, is to join the jettisoned ranks of the prisons contract with Saudi Arabia, the prisoner book ban and plans for a super-sized child prison.
Criticised as a “tax on justice” which encouraged defendants to plead guilty, the charges ranged from £150 (for a guilty plea to a summary only offence) to £1,200 (conviction at trial for indictment). The charge did not take into account the means of the defendant, leading to a plethora of desperate situations including one homeless shoplifter ordered to pay £900 despite “not being able to afford to feed himself” and a £150 levy imposed on another for stealing a can of Redbull worth 99p.
The decision was announced by Gove at the annual meeting of the Magistrates Association last week, where he described the policy as “falling short of its honourable intentions”. His Ministerial Statement suggests he is standing by its “underlying principle”, that “those who break the law should make a contribution towards seeing justice done”. The courts charge came in addition to fines, victim surcharges, compensation orders and prosecution costs, a system Gove concedes is “complex and confusing”, and the whole panoply of which he has now announced a full review.
The Chair of the Justice Committee Bob Neill MP welcomed the change which was so swiftly made after the unequivocally damning report produced by the Committee in November. The Howard League for Penal Reform, who led an uncompromising campaign against the charge, has described Gove’s announcement as a “victory for justice”.
Is the “underlying principle” of which Gove speaks about making “those who break the law” contribute towards seeing justice done? One legal commentator writing in the Solicitors Journal suggests that the abolition of the charge is in fact a Trojan Horse disguising a trade-off for plans to impose in its place a 1 per cent levy on the turnover of the top 100 corporate City law firms – an idea first floated by Gove at a speech to the Legatum Institute in June – the ultimate aim of which is perhaps to remove the criminal justice system from the ambit of public funding completely, with lawyers themselves footing the bill.
- A disabled man suffering from Parkinson’s disease has brought an appeal for legal guidance to be issued in Scotland on assisted suicide, the BBC reported on Tuesday. Gordon Ross wants the Lord Advocate to produce guidelines on the circumstances that would be taken into account when deciding whether to prosecute somebody who had helped someone to end their life. Mr Ross had unsuccessfully argued in September that there is a substantive right under the European Convention on Human Rights to a “dignified suicide”. He now argues that the position of the Lord Advocate is the same as that of the DPP in England before the case of R(Purdy)v DPP in 2009 required the DPP to clarify the position as to the factors regarded as relevant for prosecution in cases of encouraging and assisting suicide.
- Northern Ireland’s ban on same-sex marriage treats same-sex couples as “biological oddities who do not fit into society” the High Court in Belfast was told last week during judicial review proceedings brought by two same-sex couples. The couples, who were the first to become civil partners in the UK, argue that the ban breaches Article 8 ECHR, amounting to “State discrimination of an already marginalised section of society”. Northern Ireland remains the only part of the UK and Ireland not to have legalised same-sex marriage, standing out (in the words of the couples’ lawyer) “effectively as a blot on the map”. Despite MLAs backing the introduction of same-sex marriage for the first time last month in the fifth Stormont vote on the issue, the Democratic Unionist Party controversially blocked the proposal via a ‘petition of concern’. Amnesty International has described the case as “hugely significant” and the judgment is expected after Christmas.
- In the week that saw the release from prison of transgender woman Tara Hudson, who had spent a week in all-male HMP Bristol where she was tormented by inmates before a petition of 150,000 signatories succeeded her transfer to a women’s prison, transgender inmate Joanne Latham has been found dead in her cell at male prison HMP Woodhill, the BBC reports. Joanne is the second transgender woman to die in a male prison in the last month, following the death of Vicki Thompson in November at Armley jail in Leeds, after being refused custody in a women’s prison.
- The Dominican Republic has taken the human rights of women and girls “back to the 19th century”, the Americas Director of Amnesty International has said in response to the decision of the Constitutional Court to strike down reforms to the Penal Code which would have legalised abortion in certain cases. The current code dates back to 1884 and criminalises women for abortions in all cases including those involving rape, incest, those where the foetus would not survive outside of the womb and where there is a risk to the woman’s life. Amnesty warns the impact of the decision will be “catastrophic” and will force women to seek out unsafe abortions.
In the courts:
- MM & GY & TY v Secretary of State for the Home Department – the wife and children of an Islamist extremist have won a challenge by judicial review against the Home Secretary’s refusal to grant them UK citizenship. The family have lived in the UK since 1994 and have had indefinite leave to remain since 2009. Mr Youssef, the husband, is listed as associated with al-Qaeda by the UN Sanctions Committee. Mr Justice Ouseley held it would be unfair to deny citizenship to his wife, Egyptian-born wife Hany Youssef, and their children, on the basis of providing a “general deterrant to others over whom the applicant has no control”.
- Seherwet v ECO – the Court of Appeal has for the first time allowed an appeal against a refusal to admit a foreign national on the grounds of freedom of speech (Article 10). The Free Movement immigration law blog describes the ruling as a “landmark judgment”. Mr Seherwet, one of the Cuban Five, had been invited to a week-long enquiry at the Houses of Parliament to discuss his controversial US conviction for spying on the Cuban regime and 15-year custodial sentence. The refusal of Mr Seherwet’s entry visa was based on the fact of his conviction, the length of his sentence, and the suggestion that the US generally have a fair justice system by international standards. Yet the Court of Appeal held the seriousness of his conviction “must be set against the fact that the very reason why the MPs wish to meet him is the existence of genuine concern about the fairness of the trial that led to the conviction and sentence”. Permission to appeal for the Secretary of State was refused.
- Roman Zakharov v Russia – arbitrary and abusive snooping on phone calls by Russia was held unanimously to be a violation of Article 8 (right to respect for private life and correspondence). Mr Zakharov, an editor-in-chief of a publishing company, had complained that Russian mobile phone operators were legally required to install equipment allowing the police to intercept communications. Though the court recognised that such interception pursued the legitimate aim of protecting national security, it was found that there were insufficient legal safeguards to protect against arbitrariness and risk of abuse, particularly due to the lack of effective domestic remedies available to challenge an interception – remedies which could only be used by those who could prove the surveillance had occurred – almost impossible, given the secret nature of surveillance.
- Cengiz and Others v Turkey – blocking access to YouTube for more than two years was unanimously a violation of Article 10. Three Turkish academics, all law professors, had brought the complaint after access to YouTube was prevented from 5 May 2008 until October 30 2010, following a court order imposed by the Ankara Criminal Court of First Instance to block the site on the ground that around 10 videos were insulting to the memory of the “Father of the Turks”, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and first President of the Republic of Turkey. The Court held that such an order was an unjustified interference by a public authority into the rights to freedom of expression guaranteed under Article 10.