The Weekly Round-up: Brexit and some judgments from the European Court

14 September 2020 by

Photo: Chris McAndrew

In the news

The Prime Minister has courted controversy yet again this week with a new Brexit bill that appears to violate international law. The proposed Internal Markets Bill would give ministers certain powers relating to Northern Ireland in respect of customs rules and state aid. In particular, it would give them powers to modify or “disapply” rules relating to the movement of goods which will come into force from 1st January 2021, if the UK and EU are not able to agree a trade deal. These were key issues under the Northern Ireland Protocol that was negotiated as part of the Withdrawal Agreement concluded on 31 January this year. In a striking admission, Northern Ireland Minister Brandon Lewis stated in Parliament that this breach of the Withdrawal Agreement does indeed breach international law, but only “in a very specific and limited way”. The bill is to be formally debated by MPs today.

In a further move to avoid the UK’s international law obligations, the Government has indicated that it is planning to “opt out” of parts of the European Court of Human Rights. This proposal is apparently made in order to enable the Government to accelerate deportation of asylum-seekers, and to minimise legal action against British forces overseas, which the Government identifies as key areas where the judges of the European Court have “overreached”. The proposals have provoked outrage from Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights’ inquiry into racism and human rights in the UK heard evidence this week from ClearView Research. The evidence provided from surveys indicates that black people in the UK overwhelmingly do not think they receive equal human rights protection. According to the data, 75% of black people in the UK do not believe their rights are equally protected compared to white people; 85% are not confident they would be treated the same as a white person by the police; and 60% do not believe their health is equally protected by the NHS compared to white people.  

The British Institute of Human Rights has released a report which raises new concerns about the operation of the care sector during the pandemic. The report states that more than 75% of social care staff were not given proper training to deal with the impact of COVID-19, in particular in relation to human rights law and coronavirus emergency powers – despite the wide-ranging changes made by the government to the legal framework which governs the care sector, including suspending duties under the Care Act, changing vulnerable individuals’ care packages, and banning non-essential visits to care homes. The report also noted that more than 60% of vulnerable individuals with care and support needs were not informed of the legal basis of the drastic changes made to their care packages.

As the school year gets going again, grammar schools will need to be cautious in complying with their duty to make reasonable adjustments, following a legal challenge funded by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The challenge was brought by a visually impaired student who was unable to sit an 11+ entry exam for a Berkshire grammar school when the school refused to make adjustments specified in his Education Health and Care Plan, on the basis that they were too expensive; the First-tier Tribunal found for the student.

In the courts

With the UK courts in recess, there are very few reported judgments this week. However, there are some noteworthy judgments from the European Court of Human Rights:

  • GL v Italy: a child diagnosed with nonverbal autism was entitled to specialised assistance under Italian law. The local authorities did not provide this for 2 years, while she was in primary school, on the basis of lack of resources. The ECtHR found that there had been a violation of Article 14 read with Article 2 of Protocol 1 (right to education). In particular, the court noted that the Italian courts had failed to consider whether there was a fair balance between the child’s educational needs and the authorities’ capacity, and did not verify how the effect of budgetary restrictions compared for non-disabled and disabled children. The court further observed that the national authorities had not considered the possibility that they could address their lack of resources by reducing their educational offer accordingly, such that it could be distributed equitably between non-disabled and disabled students. In giving judgment, the court emphasised that budgetary restrictions must impact the education available for disabled and non-disabled pupils the same way; and that discrimination of this kind is all the more serious when taking place in compulsory primary education.
  • NS v Croatia: the applicant’s daughter and partner had died in a tragic car accident, but their daughter survived. In the aftermath of the accident, there was a custody battle between the applicant and the child’s uncle; following confidential court proceedings, the uncle was given custody. The applicant subsequently appeared on a national TV show, where she discussed the proceedings, and expressed criticism of the Croatian child protection system on a TV show; she was convicted of a criminal offence for breach of confidentiality in respect of the court proceedings. The court held that there had been a violation of Article 10. The domestic courts should have considered the fact that most of the information disclosed in the TV report was already known to the public, and that the applicant had been appearing on TV in good faith to raise serious concerns about the malfunctioning of the country’s social welfare services.
  • Yordanovi v Bulgaria: two Turkish-Muslim brothers decided to set up an association for the integration of Turkish-speaking Bulgarians. In pursuit of this aim, they built a monument on private land to commemorate soldiers killed in the 19th Century Russo-Turkish War, and set up the ‘Muslim Democratic Union’ at an assembly in the centre of town. Police told them the assembly was illegal, but it went ahead; criminal proceedings were subsequently brought for setting up a political organisation on a religious basis, and for breach of the peace in setting up the monument. The brothers were given a suspended prison sentence. The court held that this was a violation of Article 11. The authorities had many other options: they could refuse to register the would-be political party, without which registration the party would not be able to engage in any official activity; and they could have dissolved the party if it were declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court. A criminal sanction had been a disproportionate interference with freedom of expression and freedom of association, and was not ‘necessary in a democratic society’.
  • Timakov and Ooo Id Rubezh v Russia: the applicant and his newspaper had published an article making allegations of corruption against the Governor of the Tula region in Russia. The Governor brought civil and criminal proceedings, and substantial damages awards were made – sufficiently substantial that some of the applicant’s household items were taken to fulfil them. The Governor was ultimately found guilty of bribery and corruption and sent to prison. The court found that there was a violation of Article 10. In reaching this conclusion, the court noted a laundry list of failings in the Russian courts: the courts had not sought to balance the governor’s interest in protecting his reputation against the importance of public transparency and accountability; the courts had not considered the applicant’s role as a journalist, that these were matters of public concern, or that he had acted in good faith; the courts had not attempted to consider whether the statements complained of were statements of fact or value judgements. The court further emphasised the chilling effect of such disproportionately high awards, with the awards from the civil proceedings having been substantially higher than the fine in the criminal proceedings.
  • BG and others v France: Eastern European asylum-seekers with young children were accommodated by the French authorities in a set of tents in a parking lot, for a period of approximately 3 months. They alleged that there had been a violation of Article 3 and 8, insofar as they had not benefited from the material and financial support provided for under national law. The court rejected their claim, noting that the applicants had received constant food aid; medical monitoring, vaccination, and education had been provided for their young children; and their asylum application had been examined under an accelerated process.
  • Shuriyya Zeylanov v Azerbaijan: this case highlights serious failings in the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan. The applicant’s son had been charged with treason, having been accused of collaboration with Iranian intelligence forces, and died in custody from an alleged pulmonary embolism. The applicant claimed that the government had violated Articles 2 and 3. The court upheld his claim, under both the substantive and the procedural limbs. The government had failed to convincingly account for the circumstances of the victim’s death, and it appeared likely that injuries visible on video footage of his body had been occasioned by torture. Likewise, the government had failed analyse the causal links between his injuries and his death, or to cooperate with the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture or Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; and it appeared that the government had attempted to prevent an effective investigation into the matter, by levelling accusations of defamation against the deceased’s family.

On the UKHRB

  • Sapan Maini-Thompson discusses a High Court challenge to conditions at Brook House Immigration Removal Centre  
  • Philippa Collins considers the implications of the new pattern of home working for privacy rights under the European Convention of Human Rights
  • Elliot Gold examines a judgment of the European Court of Human Rights on Article 3 ECHR in the context of a rape investigation

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