The Independent Human Rights Act Review and the government’s Bill of Rights

24 January 2022 by

Do they have anything in common? Relatively little, says Nicola Barker, Professor of Law at the University of Liverpool.

When the IHRAR was announced by Robert Buckland in December 2020, it was accompanied by some of the usual rhetoric about the courts “rewriting” legislation, but the more hyperbolic claims about foreign criminals and pet cats were absent. The Terms of Reference given to the IHRAR were relatively narrow and the Call for Evidence emphasised that it was ‘not considering the substantive rights set out in the Convention’. Instead, the Review was to focus only the operation of the HRA under two themes: the relationship between domestic courts and the ECtHR; and the impact of the HRA on the relationship between the three branches of the state.

However, in its consultation document, the government’s language once again carries echoes of the pet cat oeuvre with a stance premised on the idea of a ‘broader public interest’ that must be ‘safeguarded’ (para 182) from the HRA. In this, they are articulating a problem that lies not so much with the HRA’s impact on the separation of powers and Parliamentary sovereignty (though those remain too) but with ‘the way in which [Convention] rights have been applied in practice’ (para 184). In other words, the focus is back on how to prevent rights from benefitting the ‘undeserving’ and how to forestall further development of rights through the ‘living tree’ doctrine.

Given that the Review was only commissioned a year ago it is unfortunate to see several reforms proposed in the government’s consultation that could have usefully been included within the remit of the Review but were omitted from the Terms of Reference, not least the proposals in relation to section 6. The government propose to expand the exception in section 6(2)(b) (that applies where a public authority was giving effect to primary legislation that could not be read or given effect in a way that is compatible with Convention rights) to include circumstances where the public authority is giving effect to the clear intentions of Parliament (para 274). This proposal is based on the premise that section 6 has created ‘confusion and risk aversion for frontline public services’ (para 132-140) and undermined public protection as the police and armed forces ‘find operational decisions challenged’ and ‘have a court retrospectively second-guess their professional judgement exercised under considerable pressure’ (para 142). It is regrettable that the Review was not able to consider the accuracy of the premise underlying such potentially far-reaching reforms, which could significantly undermine individual rights protection in the UK.

The more substantive questions of the balance between speech and privacy, between rights and responsibilities, limiting access to Convention rights in the context of deportation, and whether a specific right to jury trial is necessary, could also have been usefully informed by the extensive research, in-depth discussion with a variety of stakeholders, and objective analysis that were characteristic of the Review.

The table below maps the government’s proposals for a new Bill of Rights on to the recommended and not recommended/rejected options in the IHRAR report. The government makes around 40 proposals, though some present alternative options rather than separate and distinct proposals. Green text indicates where the government’s proposals broadly match a recommendation of the IHRAR, while red text indicates that the government are proposing something that the Review explicitly or implicitly cautioned against. Sometimes the proposals do not map in exactly the terms recommended or rejected by the Review, but I have matched them as closely as possible with the language used by each. For example, where the government proposals refer to ‘enabling’ UK courts to take account of case law from other jurisdictions and international bodies (a power they already can and do exercise), the Review did not consider affirming this existing power but rejected ‘requiring’ them to consider such case law. As the table illustrates, the government’s proposals bear little resemblance to the recommendations made by the IHRAR panel. More of the government’s proposals are ideas that were rejected by the Review than were recommended by it and around half of the government’s proposals were not considered by the Review at all, in most cases because they were outside of its Terms of Reference.

The Independent Review recommended first, and in my view most importantly, that there should be more public education about the UK constitution and HRA in schools, universities, and adult education. The Review itself could form the basis of that education. It is a thorough and clear exposition of the Act, its interpretation and use by the Courts, and its impact on the separation of powers, Parliamentary sovereignty, and the relationship between the UK and Strasbourg. However, the government appears to have ignored this recommendation and in general the Review appears to have asserted little influence on the government’s proposals. 

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