The rights of immigrants and asylum seekers have been at the forefront of the news this week, with the Home Secretary coming under fire both in the courts and in the political arena. On Wednesday, a landmark court ruling held Ms Patel accountable for failures properly to investigate deaths among asylum seekers at detention centres. The case concerned two Nigerian nationals, one of whom was found dead in Harmondsworth immigration centre in 2019. His friend, Mr Lawal, was a key witness in the investigation of the death, but the Home Office sought to deport him before he could give evidence. The court held that the Home Secretary’s initial policy, which sought to remove Mr Lawal, its replacement, applied from August 2020, and the current policy, were unlawful and breached human rights because they failed to ensure that those who had relevant information would be able to give evidence before removal proceedings were commenced, thus frustrating inquiries into immigration centre deaths. Days later it was reported that this may be a widespread problem, with suggestions that scores of people had been prevented from giving key evidence to police investigations as a result of early deportation. While Ms Patel was warned that this practice must be curbed by a coroner in August, it is suggested that her response did little to address the problem.
Women’s rights and gender equality issues have been at the forefront of the news this week. The appalling murder of Sarah Everard, abducted when walking home in London, has elicited a huge social media response. In particular, it has highlighted the problematic phenomenon of victim-blaming directed at women, with advice focusing on teaching woman how to avoid being sexually harassed, rather than educating men about how to be better allies in calling out the misogynistic behaviour that enables harassment. These events coincided with statistics published by the World Health Organisation on Tuesday, which found that one in three women have been physically or sexually assaulted by their male partner across the world, and a survey conducted by UN Women UK published on Wednesday, which showed that 97% of women between the ages of 18 and 24 had been sexually harassed. The latter study also revealed that the majority of women don’t report these incidents because they don’t have confidence that the abuse will be dealt with effectively by the police or the legal system. On Tuesday the government unveiled the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which, among other changes, has amended the sentencing laws for sexual offenders, enabling them to be put behind bars for longer. The government stated the new legislation was aimed at ‘restoring confidence in the criminal justice system’. However, given current statistics indicating a diminished number of successful rape prosecutions in the last year, it seems unlikely that the mere possibility of tougher sentences for sexual offenders once convicted is going to improve women’s confidence in the justice system. In fact, the new Bill has been substantially criticised by equality and civil liberties campaigners because it will increase the powers of the police to shut down public protest. Under the new law, the Home Secretary would be able to label particular protests as a ‘serious disruption’, enabling the police to then impose stringent conditions on the demonstration. The first detailed discussion of the Bill in Parliament today comes after accusations that the police were ‘too heavy-handed’ in dealing with demonstrators at the Sarah Everard vigil on Saturday evening. However, the Conservative majority in the Commons will almost certainly ensure that the Bill passes.
The High Court will hear a case brought by a mother and her 11-month-old baby, who are arguing that they should not be excluded from the UK government’s ‘Healthy Start’ scheme. The scheme provides vouchers for healthy food, nutritional advice, and vitamins to low-income families, but currently excludes many migrant families, including those who have a right to live and work in the UK, have British children, and earn well below the threshold needed to obtain welfare benefits. The judicial review will challenge the eligibility criteria of the scheme on several grounds: it is inconsistent with the intended purpose of the scheme to benefit those in greatest need, it breaches human rights, and it indirectly discriminates against families from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds.
Campaigners have welcomed a government announcement that it will introduce several key amendments to the Domestic Abuse Bill currently being debated in Parliament. In particular, the Bill will make non-fatal strangulation a specific offence, with an attached maximum sentence of five years. This is a significant shift from the previous maximum six months’ sentence if tried in the Magistrates Court under the crime of common assault. The Bill will also expand the definition of coercive behaviour by removing the requirement that the victim co-habit with their abuser, and broaden the scope of the laws on revenge porn by enabling those who threaten to share indecent images to be prosecuted.
The European Court of Justice has ruled this week that air pollution in 75% of the United Kingdom’s urban areas has exceeded legal levels for over ten years. Nitrogen dioxide, which is emitted largely by diesel vehicles, significantly contributes to pollution, and was found by a scathing coroner’s report to have contributed to the death of a nine-year-old girl last year. Imposing charges in urban centres to deter polluting vehicles (‘clean air zones’) is thought to be the most effective means of combating the problem. However, the government has only established one such area, in London, in the four years since research was published. The legal proceedings in the CJEU began before Brexit was concluded, and the pollution limits are still part of UK law. The UK could therefore face financial penalties if it fails to remedy the situation within a reasonable period.
In the courts:
A And B (Minors: placement, faith)  EWHC 455 (Admin): In this judicial review case, the Claimants, two brothers with complex medical and behavioural conditions from a strict Orthodox Haredi Jewish community, argued that the decision of Manchester City Council to offer them respite accommodation in a secular residential home in Manchester, rather than an exclusively Orthodox Jewish home in London, was unreasonable. In particular, it was contended that placement in the Manchester accommodation would prevent the boys from fully manifesting their religious faith, for example, in following kosher dietary rules and observing holy days, contrary to Part III of the Children Act (1989), and possibly Articles 8, 9, and 14 of the European Convention for Human Rights, and the Equality Act (2010). There was an important difference between the two brothers: it was agreed that A should undertake a 12-week assessment placement at one of the homes, whereas B would only stay at the home once a fortnight and during school holidays. Accordingly, His Honour Judge Stephen Davies held that the decision of the council to offer only A a place at the Manchester home was unlawful and in breach of his Article 8 and 9 rights under the ECHR, because he would not be able to cook kosher meals nor perform the required prayers by himself, and so the placement would not allow him to manifest his religion. However, the council’s proposal was not unlawful in relation to B, because the limitations imposed by a fortnightly short overnight stay were not significant enough to breach his rights under the ECHR.
Turner, R (On the Application Of) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions  EWHC 465 (Admin): The High Court rejected the Claimant’s case that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions acted unlawfully in withdrawing Errol Graham’s disability benefit, who tragically was found to have starved to death in his flat in 2018. It was contended that the Department for Work and Pension’s (DWP) policy for assessing Employment Support Allowance eligibility was unlawful on two grounds. First, the policy placed the onus on the applicant to show ‘good cause’ for failing to attend appointments, which was incompatible with the objectives of the legislation; and, second, the DWP has an implied duty to inquire as to why the applicant had withdrawn their engagement where they are known to have mental health difficulties, under s.149 of the Equality Act (EA) (2010). Justice Bourne held that the reference to ‘good cause’ did not create an unlawful burden of proof, because it was clear from the policy that the Defendant must also utilise information that they could reasonably obtain, rather than just relying entirely on the applicant to demonstrate their eligibility. In addition, s.149 of the EA did not impose a duty to inquire after individuals, but rather a broad obligation to give due regard to the advancement of opportunity for disabled people generally, which the Defendants satisfied. The Equality and Human Rights Commission was given intervenor status, but the judge considered their submissions to be outside the scope of the ground of challenge.
Last week’s round-up detailed China’s ongoing oppression of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province. This week, the government narrowly defeated a backbench rebellion in the form of an all-party amendment, strongly endorsed in the Lords, which would have given victims of genocide the ability to obtain a determination in the High Court confirming the existence of genocide in their country. Such a determination would have required Parliament to reconsider all trade deals with the country in question. The amendment aimed to deal with a current impasse whereby international courts cannot make a ruling on genocide because the involved nations, for example, China, veto such matters from consideration, or do not recognise the relevant courts. The Trade Secretary, Greg Hands, had strongly opposed the amendment, suggesting that it fundamentally undermined Parliamentary sovereignty in giving the courts too much power to determine UK trade deals. The government’s failure to act in seeking to prevent serious violations of human rights has been widely criticised. Tobias Ellwood, the chair of the defence select committee, suggested that ‘the UK was suffering from an absence of clarity about what we believe in’. In response to the motion’s defeat, the independent peer Lord Alton, who co-sponsored the motion in the Lords, has stated that the amendment will be re-drafted to make explicit the requirement that Parliament would vote on the revocation of all trade deals with a country where a determination of genocide had been made. The revised amendment will be re-submitted in the Lords as quickly as possible. The US State Department’s declaration that the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in China represents genocide and crimes against humanity on Tuesday, is likely to embolden rebels to maintain their pressure on the UK government for further action.
Four and a half years after Britain voted to leave the EU, and 12 months after Boris Johnson was elected Prime Minister with his ‘oven-ready’ Brexit deal, the UK and European Union finally concluded a trade agreement on Christmas Eve. The deal, yet to be ratified by Parliament, is expected to gain approval without difficulty on 30th December, with the Leader of the Opposition, Keir Starmer, whipping his MPs to approve it. So did this deal supply the Christmas joy we’ve been missing in 2020? What does the deal contain?
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