Category: Features


How most Australians do human rights without a Human Rights Act

9 July 2012 by

A sparkling, erudite and funny lecture last Thursday 5 July from the Chief Justice of Australia, exploring how the Australian system with a constitution, but without a Bill of Rights/Human Rights Act, seeks to deliver human rights protection – thanks to the Administrative Law Bar Association and the Angl0-Australasian Law Society. I shall try to summarise the differences, though, rather like the pre-HRA UK position, Australian human rights protection is a subtle one and a difficult one to explain in a short post. Particularly for a Pom. So I am in part throwing down a challenge to our Australian readers (up until this point, at least, quite a few) to comment on what follows.

The constitutional framework  is all important. There are three major differences between this and the UK “constitution”. The first is the presence of a written constitution over 100 years old, and amendable only by referendum. The second is a federal system laid down by that constitution. Out of that arrangement comes a separation of powers between judiciary, legislature, and executive, and also between the Commonwealth (i.e, the federation) and each State, taken against the background of general common law principles drawn from the States’ shared colonial history. And the third is the lack of any substantive human rights instrument applicable to Australia as a whole.

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When the EU implements Aarhus against itself, oh, how minimally it does it.

3 July 2012 by


On the EU watch again, I am afraid. We have looked at getting documents out of the EU, in the context of the IFAW case about the German Chancellor’s letter, via Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001 (the EU Access to Information Regulation). And also on how to seek annulment of  EU laws and decisions from the EU courts (Inuits and all that). Both apply to all EU issues. We have mused on what might happen if the EU institutions sign up to the ECHR, so that complaints about them can go to the Strasbourg Court.

Now we return to environmental cases, where there is a specific measure, EU Aarhus Regulation 1367/2006, which applies the Aarhus Convention to EU institutions. We have seen how in a specific context this Regulation must be interpreted in the light of the meaning of the Convention:  my post on the pesticides and air quality challenges, where the General Court of the EU effectively ignored the words “of individual scope” in the Regulation to make the Regulation comply with the Convention. But I am now going to have a look at this measure more generally. Remember we are not here dealing with getting environmental information out of member states; that question is dealt with via a separate EU Directive (2003/4), transposed in the UK by the Environmental Information Regulations 2004.

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What have the Inuit got to do with keeping EU law in check?

20 June 2012 by

In a recent post I mentioned that there has been criticism of the scope of the EU Aarhus Regulation inserting provisions about transparency, public participation and access to justice into EU processes themselves. It struck me just how confusing the whole area of EU challenges to EU measures is, so I thought I would summarise it as best I can in this and a following post. Here goes; the going may get a bit bumpy, but it is important stuff. I hope also to give some EU context to the debate about whether something is or is not a legislative act under Aarhus which I trailed in that post.

The EU signed up to the Aarhus Convention on environmental matters, as have all the member states. And the EU has made member states implement Aarhus-compliant procedures in major areas such as environmental impact assessment and industrial emissions, via the 2003 Public Participation Directive. The EU also requires member states to introduce a wide-ranging right to environmental information, transposed in the UK via the Environmental Information Regulations. The European Court has also chipped in with its own Aarhus gloss in the Slovakian Bear case; whenever a member state is considering some provision of EU environmental law, it must interpret that provision, if possible, so that it complies with Aarhus standards of public participation, even though those standards may be in the parts of the Aarhus Convention which have not received their own direct transposition into EU, let alone domestic, law.

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UK passes ‘human rights exam’, but with room to improve

6 June 2012 by

Last week the UN Human Rights Commissioner published the draft report of the second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the UK’s human rights record (draft report here,  webcast of the UPR session here). The UPR involves delegations from UN member states asking questions and make recommendations to the UK government on the protection of human rights, which the government will consider before providing its response. The report is extremely wide-ranging, perhaps to its detriment, though many valuable and interesting insights are provided.

The UPR process was established in 2006. It involves a review of all 192 UN member states once every four years. As readers of this blog will know, the protection of human rights has a troubled recent history in the UK, with newspaper campaigns against “the hated Human Rights Act” providing the background to government pronouncements on human rights that veer from the sensible to the ridiculous. In this context, the UPR provides a valuable attempt at a serious assessment of human rights in this country.


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Should we outlaw genetic discrimination?

9 May 2012 by

The late US law Professor Paul Miller reflected recently that Beethoven, Stephen Hawking and Elton John were examples of individuals whom, if they had been tested for serious genetic conditions at the start of their careers, may have been denied employment in the fields in which they later came to excel.

Earlier this month the Association of British Insurers announced the latest extension on the moratorium on the use of genetic test results for insurance purposes. But is this “Concordat” sufficient protection? Genetic technologies are becoming increasingly available and profound questions are arising in relation to life and health insurance and employability as genetic screening becomes cheaper and widespread.

According to the Human Genetics Commission (HGC)

The advent of cheap whole-genome sequencing, and greatly reduced costs for genetic tests in general, will provide the platform for genetic testing to be used for novel and unpredicted purposes. (Report on The Concept of Genetic Discrimination, Aril 2011)
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New report on worldwide human rights and democracy

30 April 2012 by

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has launched the Human Rights and Democracy- The 2011 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report, which aims to provide “a comprehensive look at the human rights work of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) around the world in 2011“. The report makes for essential reading for anyone with an interest in human rights at the global level.

The report contains a section devoted to the Arab Spring, which it describes as being “about citizens demanding their legitimate human rights and dignity” and having “no single cause“. The report also comments on the role of human rights protection in safeguarding Britain’s national security and promoting Britain’s prosperity.

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Is climate change a human rights issue?

24 April 2012 by


In his thought-provoking Guardian post Climate change is a human rights issue – and that’s how we can solve it, Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, makes a case for human rights playing a radical new part in our response to climate change.

His argument involves a number of propositions:

(i) global climate talks have reached an impasse;

  • yes, indeed, and from today’s perspective, there is no obvious way through that impasse;

(ii) carbon emissions cannot possibly be stalled or reversed until our politicians recognise that continued economic growth is inconsistent with a long-term climate change strategy;

  • many would agree that we can spend a bit of time deck-chair re-arranging or limiting increases in emissions, but the time will come when the world economies have to stop growing;

(iii) if that direction is not going to come from our politicians, then

 those political processes are clearly not fit for purpose.

Does this mean that democracy has failed, and must be sacrificed for authoritarian solutions? The solution may in fact be the polar opposite. A system where failing governance procedures are forced to think long-term does not necessarily require anti-democratic “climate tzars”. Instead, this revolution can be hyper-democratic and guided by human rights.

Climate change represents an enormous threat to a whole host of human rights: the right to food, the right to water and sanitation, the right to development. There is therefore huge scope for human rights courts and non-judicial human rights bodies to treat climate change as the immediate threat to human rights that it is. Such bodies could therefore take government policy to task when it is too short-sighted, too unambitious, or too narrowly focused on its own constituents at the expense of those elsewhere. Fossil fuel miningdeforestation, the disturbance of carbon sinks, and the degradation of the oceans are developments that can be blocked on human rights grounds.

Whoa, slow down!

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The rising cost of free speech: Reynolds, contempt and Twitter

12 April 2012 by

Free speech is under attack. Or so it seems. The last few weeks have been abuzz with stories to do with free speech: a Supreme Court ruling on the Reynolds defence to libel; contempt of court proceedings against an MP for comments made in a book and the latest in a growing line of criminal trials for Twitter offences. The diversity of media at the heart of these stories – print news, traditional books and online ‘micro-blogging’ –  indicates the difficulty of the task for the legal system.

Flood v Times: how does this affect calls for libel reform?

On 21 March, the Supreme Court affirmed the Times newspaper’s reliance on the Reynolds defence to libel – often referred to as Reynolds privilege or the responsible journalism defence – to a claim by a detective sergeant in the Metropolitan Police.

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Future of human rights court must not be decided by shadowy late night deals – Angela Patrick

13 March 2012 by

This post, by Angela Patrick, Director of Human Rights Policy at JUSTICE, is the fourth in a series of posts analysing the UK’s draft “Brighton Declaration” on European Court of Human Rights reform.

It’s a busy week for the debate on human rights reform. Today at 2:15pm, the Joint Committee on Human Rights will question the UK judge and current President of the European Court of Human Rights, Sir Nicolas Bratza. Sir Nicholas returns to the UK in a hailstorm of UK reporting – accurate and inaccurate – on the perceived failings of the Strasbourg Court and its judges.

His visit coincides with the expected production of the second draft of the Brighton Declaration which will set out the latest list of reforms to the Strasbourg Court the UK Government asking the Council of Europe to consider. It also follows the departure of Michael Pinto-Duschinsky from the Commission on a Bill of Rights, citing irreconcilable differences and his concern that criticism of the Strasbourg court’s lack of democratic legitimacy was falling on deaf ears.

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Law, politics, and the draft Brighton Declaration – Dr Mark Elliott

9 March 2012 by

The European Convention (via CoE)

This is the third in a series of posts analysing the UK’s draft “Brighton Declaration” on European Court of Human Rights reform.

Although not a “supreme law bill of rights”, the Human Rights Act 1998 is a significant constraint upon the political-legislative process. In this post, I argue that the extent of that constraint would likely diminish were the draft Brighton Declaration implemented in its present form.

At present, the Human Rights Act (HRA) serves two distinctive and important “bridging functions”. On the horizontal (national) plane, it operates as an interface between legal and political notions of constitutionalism: although the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty is formally undisturbed, the HRA reduces the political scope for legislative interference with rights by making the ECHR a benchmark by reference to which legislation falls to be judicially assessed – and condemned, via a declaration of incompatibility, if found wanting.

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Please stow your rights in the overhead compartment

9 February 2012 by

Stott v Thomas Cook Operators and British Airways Plc [2012] EWCA Civ 66 – read judgment

If you need reminding of what it feels like when the candy-floss of human rights is abruptly snatched away, take a flight.  Full body scanners and other security checks are nothing to the array of potential outrages awaiting passengers boarding an aircraft. Air passengers in general surrender their rights at the point of ticket purchase.

The Warsaw Convention casts its long shadow. It was signed between two world wars, at the dawn of commercial aviation, when international agreement had to be secured at all costs. These strong interests survived the negotiation of the 1999 Montreal Convention, now part of EU law as the Montreal Regulation.

Yet so powerful is the desire to travel, and so beleaguered it is now with the threat of spiralling aviation fuel prices and environmental taxes, that we are happier to surrender our freedoms at airports than we are anywhere else – hospitals, doctors’ surgeries, schools, and even on the public highways.

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What you can do with rights – Justice Edwin Cameron

7 February 2012 by

On 25 January 2012 Justice Edwin Cameron, Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, delivered an emotive and thoughtful talk entitled “What you can do with rights”. The Law Commission’s annual Lord Scarman Lecture covered apartheid, AIDS denialism, LGBT rights and delved into the essence of moral humanity. It was a lecture delivered with skill and fluency, with only the slight dissatisfaction being the vagueness of Justice Cameron’s conclusion: that legal rights allow people to achieve some progress, but they don’t solve every problem.

Justice Cameron has occupied a seat on the highest judicial bench of South Africa for three years. He was made a judge by President Nelson Mandela in 1994, when his country was emerging from the systemic violence that the apartheid system had wrought on human rights. This position gives him authority, but it is his personal experience that lent the lecture gravitas. The Justice was diagnosed as HIV positive at a time when the true scale of the epidemic was being realised, and publicly fought for access to the anti-retroviral drugs that saved his life at a time when the scale of his government’s folly in denying them to millions was becoming equally clear.

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Aarhus and environmental judicial review: cracking legal costs per Jackson LJ

2 February 2012 by

In October 2011, I posted on an important consultation, Cost Protection for Litigants in Environmental Judicial Review Claims, in which  the Ministry of Justice wheeled out its proposals to get it out of the various scrapes caused by the expense of environmental challenges.  The Aarhus Convention requires that environmental challenges not be “prohibitively expensive”, and both the European Commission and the Aarhus Compliance Committee don’t think that the English system complies – it costs way too much.

In a nutshell, MoJ were suggesting that there should be a starting point in the form of costs orders designed to protect unsuccessful claimants against excessive costs incurred by successful defendants – unsurprisingly called Protective Costs Orders. If a Claimant got permission to challenge an environmental decision, but then lost on a full judicial review hearing, he or she should have to pay no more than £5,000. In return, he should not be able to recover any more than £30,000 if he won. MoJ’s consultation period has now closed, and a very significant response has been received from Lord Justice Jackson, who recently carried out a set of mammoth reviews of litigation costs in all areas of the law.

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Strasbourg is not the Vatican…yet.

6 December 2011 by

Behind the Times paywall Anthony Lester today declares that “Sniping at Strasbourg will only hinder reform”. In his guest column, he says that Court is suffering unfair criticism from “sections of the British media” and “politicians who accuse it of over-reaching its power”. That may well be the case, but the most searing and authoritative criticism comes not from politicians or the press but from Lord Lester’s own profession – see Jonathan Sumption QC’s recent broadside (and our post) and Lord Hoffmann’s much-discussed analysis (posted here).  

If the Court is indeed hobbled by unfair squibs and arrows from a resentful sector of the British populace, as Lord Lester suggests, why is the prisoner votes example the only one he can come up with? That is an important fight, at least from a constitutional angle, but not the only flashpoint;  the Court’s tendency to act as fourth instance appeal tribunal particularly on deportation and terrorism cases is arguably far more “dangerous” and certainly of concern to more people than votes for prisoners.
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Ministry of Justice on Aarhus and environmental judicial review: its get out of jail card?

22 October 2011 by

Cost Protection for Litigants in Environmental Judicial Review Claims 

In this consultation announced this week, the Ministry of Justice is trying to get itself out of the multiple Aarhus problems facing UK justice. Infraction proceedings are threatened in the EU Court, and adverse conclusions were reached by Aarhus Compliance Committee; all  much posted about on this blog, for which see below. The main problem is that the Aarhus Convention requires that environmental challenges not be “prohibitively expensive”, and everybody now appears to agree that the basic UK system of “loser pays the costs” does not achieve that objective without changes. So what does MoJ propose to do about it?

It says that costs protection should be provided via codification of the rules concerning Protective Costs Orders. That means that a claimant in any public interest case may ask the court for a PCO, to “cap” his liability to pay the other side’s costs to such a figure as does not deter him from bringing those proceedings. The boundaries of when a PCO can be ordered are much fought over – leading to more costs –  but it certainly extends in principle to all public interest judicial review cases, not simply environmental ones. It is possible (at its very lowest) that PCOs can be made in public interest environmental challenges not involving judicial review, though there is not yet a decision either way on that.

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