One of the main human rights debates of the General Election is whether the Human Rights Act 1998 will be replaced with or bolstered by an American-style Bill of Rights.One aspect of the debate which has been mostly ignored in the British media has been the impact which a Bill of Rights would have in Northern Ireland.
The need for an additional human rights framework that reflects the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland was recognised in the Belfast Agreement and given shape through the commitment to set up a Bill of Rights Forum as part of the St Andrews Agreement… The fundamental principle of mutual respect for the rights and freedoms of all the people of Northern Ireland has been at the heart of this progress, and still has a crucial role to play in its future success.
The Northern Irish Human Rights Commission responded in February, welcoming the proposal to produce a separate Bill of Rights. However, the Commission was sharply critical of the tone and content of the substantive proposals. Amongst other things, it accused the proposal of failing to take appropriate account of international standards and of suggesting that existing human rights standards are actually lowered.
The Committee for the Administration of Justice (CAJ), an independent human rights organisation, have also recently published their own response to the interim report, and have also argued that the proposals are too weak and do not go far enough in increasinghuman rights protections. CAJ say:
A Bill of Rights is one of the final parts of the human rights jigsaw; it ensures that rights currently enjoyed cannot be taken away at the whim of any government. It is intended to ensure, in a divided society, that whoever exercises governance over this disputed ground cannot rule without respecting the rights of everyone who lives here. It also ensures that those who are not or do not identify primarily as part of the two main communities will have their rights respected also.
The Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland is clearly in its early planning stages, and may not go ahead at all. That said, it is more advanced than English and Scottish proposals, which, if they ever happen, will certainly not do so until long after the Election.
Maya Evans, an activist, is brining a judicial review against the Ministry of Defence in respect of the British Army’s detainee transfer policy in Afghanistan. It is alleged that British forces knew of the torture risks when handing over prisoners to the Afghan security services.
This is the latest in a series of cases where the Government have been criticised in the courts for defence policies in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2007, the House of Lords (the old Supreme Court) inAl-Skeinieffectively opened the door to such claims by foreign nationals by holding that the Human Rights Act applies outside of the UK.
The most notable recent example is the Binyam Mohamedcase, where the Court of Appeal heavily criticised the security services. Similar issues in relation to secret evidence appear to have arisen in Evans, with The Guardian reporting:
So concerned is the Ministry of Defence about the challenge to the practice, that it is insisting that evidence it had passed to her lawyers must now be suppressed.
As a result, skeleton argument from her lawyers – a document consisting of an outline of the case – includes a number of passages blacked out at the insistence of the MoD.
Following one long excised passage, the document revealed in court today reads: “The lessons from these shocking events is … investigation by the NDS [Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security] is obviously incapable of providing any satisfaction of the UK’s human rights obligations.”
Our posts on the Binyam Mohamed litigation can be found here, here, and here
Our case comment on R (Mazin Mumaa Galteth Al Skeini and others) v Secretary of State for Defence
The University of Salford have informed us that they will be hosting the first post-election Human Rights conference, which aims to address these issues. The Conference also coincides Human Rights Act 1998’s tenth birthday.
The Conference is ‘Ten years on’: A Multi-perspective Evaluation of the Human Rights Act – Salford Human Rights Conference 2010″, at the University of Salford on Friday and Saturday 4-5 June 2010. Full details can be found here and a list of speakers here.
The National DNA database has become another key human rights issue in the 2010 Election. It is by far the largest such database in the world, with over 1 in 10 people now on the database. The issue of whether innocent people will have their DNA retained has now become highly politicised.
The Tories have now dropped their opposition to the Crime and Security Bill 2010, which has since become law. They had initially opposed provisions which allowed the police to retain the DNA samples of innocent people for up to 6 years. However, they have pledged if elected to bring in early legislation to ensure the DNA profiles of innocent people accused by minor crimes would not be retained.
The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary recently accused the Tories of not being tough enough on crime, whilst appearing at a press conference with Linda Bowman, whose daughter was raped and murdered at age 18. Her killer was convicted in 2008 with the help of DNA evidence. Liberty, the civil liberties organisation, commented that Labour had deliberately confused the issue.
The Conservatives pledge in their manifesto to “Reform Labour’s DNA system with the slimmer and more efficient Scottish system as our model” and “Change the rules on the DNA database to allow a large number of innocent people to reclaim their DNA immediately”.
The Liberal Democrats agree they will “Remove innocent people from the police DNA database and stop storing DNA from innocent people and children in the future, too.”
For their part, Labour say they will “ensure that the most serious offenders are added to the database no matter where or when they were convicted – and retain for six years the DNA profiles of those arrested but not convicted.”
It is probably no coincidence that the criticism of the Tory policy coincides with the Government’s recent concession to strong criticism from the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).
The Lord Chief Justice used a recent lecture to argue that the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) is being given too much respect in the UK courts, with its judgments being cited by lawyers and judges with alarming regularity.
Joshua Rozenberg writing the Law Society Gazette suggests that Lord Judge’s lecture was in fact misunderstood by many in the media, who used the speech to “call for the judiciary to give the good old English common law supremacy over that nasty foreign stuff they make in ‘Alsace, France’”
The issue an important one, as it goes to the heart of the debate over whether the Human Rights Act 1998 should be repealed. The original intention of the 1998 Act was to “bring rights home”; in other words, to prevent decisions on matters of great public importance and local sensitivity being decided in Strasbourg rather than the UK. Before the 1998 Act, the only human rights cases which could be cited were from Strasbourg. But the UK courts now have almost ten years of home-grown human rights case law to consider. The effect of the 1998 Act was therefore to diminish the relevance of ECtHR cases, and the Lord Chief Justice was reminding lawyers of this point.
Analysing the speech, it is clear that Lord Judge’s main complaint was that too many lawyers cite ECtHR authorities at inappropriate times, and that modern technology (including, it would seem, overzealous use of copy and paste) has meant that too many European authorities are creeping back into arguments.
Section 2(1) of the Human Rights Act 1998 states that a court determining a human rights question must “take into account” any “relevant” judgment of the ECtHR. However, as the Lord Chief Justice pointed out, unlike decisions of the European Court of Justice, “the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg do not bind our courts… What I respectfully suggest is that statute ensures that the final word does not rest with Strasbourg, but with our Supreme Court.”
Lord Judge also appears to despair of lawyers and even judges’ use of copy and paste. He said:
The British Chiropractic Association (BCA) has dropped its libel action against Simon Singh, in light of the stinging rebuke it received from the Court of Appeal earlier this month.
Dr Singh was being sued by the BCA in respect of an article he wrote in The Guardian (now reprinted) in April 2008, in which he said there was not enough evidence to prove that chiropractic treatment is effective against certain childhood conditions including colic and asthma.
We posted on April 1 on the preliminary decision. The Court of Appeal judges used their judgment on two preliminary issues (in particular, whether Dr Singh could use the defence of “fair comment”) to mount a robust and somewhat lyrical defence (quoting Milton, amongst other things) of the right to scientific freedom of expression.
Given the unusually strong tone of the Court of Appeal judgment, the BCA will have questioned their chances of success in the final hearing. The BCA say in their statement:
The Court of Appeal, in its recent judgment, has taken a very different view of the article [than Mr Justice Eady in the High Court]. On its interpretation, the article did not make any factual allegation against the BCA at all; it was no more than an expression of ‘honest opinion’ by Simon Singh. While it still considers that the article was defamatory of the BCA, the decision provides Dr Singh with a defence such that the BCA has taken the view that it should withdraw to avoid further legal costs being incurred by either side.
The three main political parties have now have set out their stalls on human rights in their election manifestos, and the future of the Human Rights Act is very much in the balance.
We have been following the arguments for and against a Bill of Rights, which has been proposed either as a replacement for or supplement to the Human Rights Act 1998.
After a period of uncertainty, now only the Conservative Party say they will actually replace the Human Rights Act, with both Labour and the Liberal Democrats committing to keeping it on the statute books. The Conservatives have not spelled out how or within what time frame their plans will take shape. Dominic Grieve, the shadow justice secretary, spoke to lawyers recently on the issue but provided little further detail.
The Human Rights Act 1998 came into force in October 2000, and despite approaching its 10th birthday, it still inspires strong views either in support or opposition. As Francis Gibb writes in The Times, “it… became derided by the Government’s own ministers as well as by the Conservatives as a “charter for the undeserving” and for criminals.”
The two parties which support keeping the Act may be reluctant to raise the issue over other more obvious vote winners, and as such it remains to be seen how much it will feature in debate leading up to the election. However, whether or not it becomes a key issue on the soap boxes, the fate of the Human Rights Act will be one of the important lasting effects of this election.
The manifestos can be found (in alphabetical order) below:
Article 6(3)(c) of the Human Rights Convention says that everyone charged with a criminal offence has the right to defend himself through legal assistance of his own chosing or, if he has not sufficient means to pay for legal assistance, to be given it free when the interests of justice so require.
The second important point is that from June, the right to legal aid in serious criminal prosecutions will be limited by the introduction of means testing.
The scheme is undergoing significant changes primarily in order save costs. In 2008/9 £2.186 billion was spent on legal aid, with 53% spent in the criminal courts, amounting to 1/630 of government expenditure. In order to reduce that figure, from June 28 this year criminal legal aid in the Crown Court, where more serious criminal offences are tried, will become means tested. Legal aid in the Magistrates’ Courts, where less serious offences are tried, is already subject to means testing. The Legal Services Commission now hopes to save a further £35m per year.
From June, anyone with a net (i.e. after tax) disposable income of more than £3,398 per year and with capital of over £10,000 will have to contribute to their own legal expenses when prosecuted in the Crown Court. As such, the three MPs would probably not receive full legal aid under the new scheme.
What social workers do not appear to understand is that the public perception of their role in care proceedings is not a happy one. They are perceived by many as the arrogant and enthusiastic removers of children from their parents into an unsatisfactory care system, and as trampling on the rights of parents and children in the process. This case will do little to dispel that perception. (paragraph 109)
A profile of Sir Nicholas in The Times suggests that he arrives at his new post with a reputation as a forthright critic of social services, local council, social workers and politicians. Indeed, it has been suggested that the Justice Minister Jack Straw may have been trying to block the appointment of Sir Nicholas for that very reason.
We posted earlier this week on the issues regarding child protection and the duty of care of local authorities. The courts are often finding themselves having to balance the competing rights of children, who must be protected against abuse, and parents, who are sometimes themselves the victims of overzealous prosecutions by local authorities. It would appear that the pressure on public authorities will only increase once the new Family Division head is in post.
The conviction of the “Heathrow heist four” at the Old Bailey has raised serious concerns that the historic right to trial by jury may be slipping away.
For the first time in 350 years, the four men were convicted in the Crown Court by way of a trial without a jury. On March 31st each received long prison sentences for their part in the robbery.
Henry Porter, writing in The Guardian, has severely criticised the reforms which allowed the trial to proceed with no jury. He says:
A profound change has occurred in Britain where it is now possible for counsels and a judge to decide the fate of defendants without the involvement of 12 ordinary citizens – the fundamental guarantee against arbitrary state punishment represented so well by the use of the star chamber under King Charles I.
The right to trial by jury has been steadily eroded in recent years. Civil courts now operate almost entirely without juries, as do some lower-level criminal courts such as Magistrates’ courts, which are only able to impose custodial sentences up to a maximum length of one year.
Anti-corruption body Transparency International welcomed the new law, describing it as historic, long overdue and sending out a strong message that the UK will not tolerate bribery. It is hoped that the new legislation will encourage ethical practices in the business world.
The connection between corrupt business practices and breaches of human rights has long been recognised. In their comment on the draft Bribery Bill, The Corner House said:
“most large-scale bribery is committed for the benefit and on behalf of businesses and that bribery often infringes upon a wide range of human rights, both directly and indirectly. As such, a commercial organisation’s negligent failure to prevent bribery should remain a criminal offence.”
Meanwhile, the Campaign Against Arms Trade and The Corner House are not pursuing an appeal for permission for judicial review of the Serious Fraud Office’s decision to enter a plea bargain settlement with BAE Systems and to drop “conspiracy to corrupt” charges against a BAE former agent. The organisations say that the action has been withdrawn with regret as a recent admission by the SFO makes it difficult to sustain any legal challenge.
Prisoners will be unable to vote in the general election despite the European Court of Human Rights ruling almost five years ago that the blanket ban was unlawful.
The House of Lords discussed the issue in the small hours of 7 April 2010 when Lord Ramsbotham, former Chief Inspector of Prisons, tabled an amendment to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill which would have removed the ban.
Lord Ramsbotham lamented that the Government was “frightened of offending reactionary public opinion by appearing not to be tough on criminals” and “determined to prevaricate for as long as possible, going to absurd lengths, such as suggesting that prisoners had lost the moral authority to vote.”
The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights has also expressed serious concern, noting that the Government risks not only political embarrassment at the Council of Europe, but will be in breach of its international obligation to secure the full enjoyment of Convention rights for everyone within its jurisdiction.
Council of Europe Committee of Minister’s resolution reiterating serious concern about the failure to implement the Court’s judgment before the general election and urging the authorities to rapidly adopt measures, of even an interim nature, for this general election
The Law Society of Scotland have sounded the alarm in relation to new Government powers to block an individual’s internet access, and argue that this is likely to amount to a breach of their Human Rights.
The Digital Economy Bill, which has now passed through Parliament and has royal assent, has attracted wide attention in the past few days for a number of reasons. Many have been concerned at the apparent lack of debate in relation to the wide-ranging Bill.
However, a pressing concern amongst internet users has been the proposed new powers for the Government to block an individual’s internet access as a punishment for internet piracy.
The Law Society of Scotland consider that blocking an individual’s internet access would be breach their human rights. They are concerned in particular with the lack of a requirement for a court order before access is cut off, which would amount to a breach of Article 6 of the European Convention. Jim McLean, convener of the Society’s Intellectual Property Committee says:
The Bill of Rights will be one of the major issues in the May 6th Election, even if it may not capture as much public attention as crime or the NHS. Whichever party (or parties) takes control after May 6th, their attitude towards the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) will have significant and long lasting consequences for the UK.
Joshua Rozenberg blogs today on his verdict of Labour’s record from 1997-2010. He says that the HRA is “what legal historians will remember as the defining reform of Labour 1997-2010 (if this year does, indeed, mark the end of an era). Even if the Human Rights Act 1998 is modified by an incoming government, it will not be repealed. There would be little point in doing so; no government would withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, jeopardising the UK’s membership of the Council of Europe and even of the EU.”
I am closer to Dominic Grieve than David Cameron on this one. I don’t regard Labour’s “incorporation” of the convention into domestic law as a disaster. I saw it as a political imperative – although it was one that would never have happened if Lord Irvine of Lairg, who became Lord Chancellor in 1997 – had not hit the ground running. It is he, I believe, who devised the subtle “declaration of incompatibility” on which the entire Act rests, preserving parliamentary sovereignty while giving judges strong powers to “read down” legislation in a way that complies with human rights standards.
This blog is maintained for information purposes only. It is not intended to be a source of legal advice and must not be relied upon as such. Blog posts reflect the views and opinions of their individual authors, not of chambers as a whole.