The announcement this week of a new Conservative Party plan to repeal the Human Rights Act, ‘Protecting Human Rights in the UK’, has brought to a boil a cauldron of incredulity (pictured) about the Government’s attitude towards the law. The response from human rights lawyers and advocacy groups has been swift. Liberty describes the Conservative Party plan as ‘legally illiterate’. The several ways in which that is true have already been the subject of detailed exposition. Indeed, Liberty’s response is even more accurate than it might first appear. If the Conservative Party plan is legally illiterate then it is best read as a political tactic to assure its supporters that it is the party of anti-European sentiment.
Nevertheless, if the move helps to bring about a Conservative Party government after the general election next May, then there is a great likelihood that steps will be taken to weaken the legal protection of human rights in Britain. The political pressure to do so will be even greater if the government must rely on support from Eurosceptic Members of Parliament for its majority in the House of Commons. Thus, political tactic or not, a Conservative Party-led government will likely take action against human rights law after the General Election.
“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. … Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” Eleanor Roosevelt (1958).
For human rights to matter, they must be made real first, at home, in those small places that matter to us all. After almost four decades of debate, it was in this vein that the Westminster Parliament, with Conservative Party support, voted to “Bring Rights Home” in the Human Rights Act 1998 (“HRA”). As we wake this morning to the front pages of two national newspapers decrying human rights “madness” and welcoming freshly minted (but fairly familiar) Conservative Party policy plans to condemn the HRA to history, this is a good message to remember.
The proposals are incoherent in their consideration of domestic law, incomplete in their engagement with the devolved constitution and disrespectful to the UK’s commitments in international law. They undermine the cause of bringing rights closer to home and seemingly have no care for progress of minimum standards in the wider world.
It turns out that the Prime Minister missed out the really important bits about the Tory plans for human rights reform from his Conference speech. My cautious optimism in my post was entirely misplaced too.
We will be covering the announcements in detail in the coming days, but in the meantime, the full proposals, named, with major chutzpah, Protecting Human Rights in the UK, are here.
My provisional thoughts are below, subject to the qualifier that many of the wackier proposals in this document are highly unlikely to make it through Parliament, even if the Conservative Party wins a majority in the next election. In that sense, this may be more about electoral politics than a solid plan. But for the purpose of this post I will assume the document is a serious proposal and not just a major trolling exercise.
In his speech at yesterday’s Conservative Party conference, the Prime Minister confirmed that the party’s 2015 election manifesto will include a commitment to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) and replace it with a “British Bill of Rights”. Last night, however, The Scotsman newspaper quoted a Scotland Office spokesman as saying that the change would not apply in Scotland. According to the article, the spokesman “confirmed that human rights legislation is devolved to the Scottish Parliament because it was ‘built into the 1998 Scotland Act [and] cannot by removed [by Westminster].’” As reported, this statement is seriously misleading. However, it does highlight genuine difficulties that devolution creates for the implementation of plans to reform human rights law. Continue reading →
As always, comments are welcome. There is quite a lot in there tying together some of the themes I have been writing about over the past few years. As a number of people pointed out in Liverpool, it is too easy to point to errors in human rights reporting as proof that all criticisms of the human rights system are bogus, which is clearly wrong. But nonetheless, misinformation and exaggeration is an important feature of the public debate on human rights and it is interesting to consider why that might be the case, and – a question which has troubled me over the past few years – how to stop it happening.
I expect the issue of human rights reform will arise again now that the Scottish referendum process has concluded and the political parties are setting out their agendas for 2015. It seems pretty clear that the Conservative Party will promise to repeal the Human Rights Act but what they will do in relation to the European Convention on Human Rights is still very much an unknown. My expectation is that they will not promise to withdraw from the ECHR. Not yet, anyway. Labour and the Liberal Democrats are likely to retain the existing system, with a few tweaks. But whoever wins the election, there is a huge amount of work to be done to repair the reputation of human rights laws in the UK and convince the public that they are, on balance, a good thing.
PS. if any kind soul would like to turn the PDF version into a HTML linked blog-ready post, I would be eternally grateful! Email me if you would be interested, you would of course get full credit in the ensuing post/s.
Angela Patrick, Director of Human Rights Policy at JUSTICE provides a summary of the House of Lords debate on Government proposals to reform judicial review in Part 4 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill.
As the House of Lords closes its gilded doors for the long recess, the Westminster village enters its equivalent of the school holidays. Yet, as Ministers pack their red boxes and MPs head diligently back to their constituency business, the House of Lords – debating the Committee Stage of controversial judicial review proposals in Part 4 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill – may have suggested that officials and Ministers yet have some homework to do.
Summing up the debate – and thanking Lord Faulks, the Minister responding to a barrage of criticism from all benches, for his efforts – Lord Pannick acknowledged that many of the Government’s proposals on judicial review had been driven by the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling. He suggested that both Ministers would do well to get together over the summer to digest the Peers’ concerns – perhaps on a convenient beach. There were so many flaws in the Bill that Lord Faulks should pack a red pen with his sunscreen (HL Deb, 30 July 2014, Col 1650).
Imagine you are on the board of large corporation. You attend the Annual General Meeting and asked the chief executive about that controversial tax avoidance scheme the company had been considering, but which the in-house legal team had advised against. The Chief Exec smiles and says that has been dealt with: “we just sacked the lawyers”.
The BBC is reporting what many suspected. Attorney General Dominic Grieve QC was sacked in order to clear the path for major reform of the relationship between the UK and the European Court of Human Rights. This is bad news, for the UK and potentially for the European Court of Human Rights too.
The Attorney General’s advice, which has been leaked to the BBC, was that plan to limit the power of the European Court of Human Rights were “incoherent” and a “legal car crash… witha built-in time delay“. Intriguingly, the BBC’s Nick Robinson also reports that William Hague, the now-former Foreign Secretary, also raised doubts over the plans.
According to the Magna Carta Trust, there will be eight century beer, festivities, new books, an opera, a calypso tribute and even a new roundabout on the A308 at Runnymede. And if a new roundabout isn’t “English” enough for you, there will of course be lots of dressing up in silly costumes.
But along with celebration, there will be disagreement. It has already started. Continue reading →
Sadiq Khan, Labour’s shadow Justice Secretary, has given us a glimpse of what the Human Rights Act would look like under a future Labour government in a Telegraph article. Labour will “shift power back to British courts”, says the former solicitor.
The article presents a strong case for human rights as an “ancient British tradition” and ties future reforms in with the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. But the only real proposal here is publishing ‘guidance’ to judges in order to
make sure it is clear to the judges what Parliament intended by Section 2 – that they’re free to disagree with Strasbourg, that it’s sometimes healthy to do so, and that they should feel confident in their judgments based on Britain’s expertise and strong human rights standing.
Section 2 of the Human Rights Act says that any judge deciding a question involving human rights “must take into account“, amongst other things, any judgment of the European Court of Human Rights. This has been a controversial provision as on its face it only requires judges to pay attention to, not follow, Strasbourg’s judgments. But the judiciary have often gone further than they a required to – see Rosalind English’s summary of the recent public spat between the judges.
On 28 April 2014 I debated Dr Lee Rotherham of the Taxpayers’ Alliance at NYU London. The motion was: This House believes the human rights agenda is promoting unfairness in the UK. I was against the motion (as you may have guessed).
Angela Patrick, Director of Human Rights Policy at JUSTICE, summarises the important Joint Committee on Human Rights report “The implications for access to justice of the Government’s proposals to reform judicial review”.
Proposed Government restrictions to judicial review, including new cuts to legal aid, have already been dissected in detail by this blog (see here, here and here). Controversial Government proposals to limit when legally aided claimant solicitors will be paid in judicial review claims came into force last week (Civil Legal Aid (Remuneration)(Amendment)(No 3) Regulations).
Heralding the arrival of the changes, the Lord Chancellor again repeated his now oft-heard refrain that reform is necessary to prevent “legal aid abusers” tarnishing the justice system. Specific restrictions were justified to limit judicial reviews “instigated by pressure groups, designed to force the Government to change its mind over properly taken decisions by democratically elected politicians”.
Today, the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) publishes its verdict in a lengthy and considered report on the likely impact on access to justice of the cuts and the proposed changes in Part 4 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill. In short, the Committee rejects the case for reform and suggests that the Government go back to the drawing board.
Sometimes, especially with Government consultations, a kite is raised in order to distract from what is really happening on the ground. As with the last phase of JR reform, the rhetoric is more extreme than the reality.
Without wanting to say “I told you so” (oops), don’t be fooled by the seeming concessions. There is still a lot to be concerned about in what remains, as there was in the last round of changes – as Dr Mark Elliott points out, JR, like the NHS (and Communist Russia), now seems to be in a state of perpetual reform. I do not intend here to analyse the proposals in detail, but I will point you towards some excellent early articles.
The glass foyer of the Palais de Droits de l’Homme in Strasbourg (pictured) is not to everyone’s taste. Some find it inspiring, others – often advocates appearing for the first time – are simply too nervous to notice. Typically, Rumpole on his triumphant visit takes a much more down-to-earth approach, comparing the building to the boiler of a ship.
Whatever one makes of it, the foyer of the Court is designed to remind visitors of two things: the Court’s accessibility and its openness. That is not always apparent from the Court’s procedures or from the language it sometimes uses to express itself, but it is beyond question that the Court is open to the different legal traditions of its member States. Most influential among those traditions must surely be the common law.
Updated | The relationship between the UK and the European Court remains turbulent and fractious. The Court has been the subject of significant criticism, notably from some politicians and commentators in the UK, relating to its supposed interference in domestic, sovereign questions and the quality of its judges.
Some commentators say that the UK may have to withdraw from the jurisdiction of the court. Michael Pinto-Duschinsky argues that if (as is highly likely) the Council of Europe refuses to institute a “democratic override” for states of European Court of Human Rights decisions, withdrawal should be seriously considered. MP Nick Herbert argues that the UK should withdraw immediately.
Others have proposed withdrawing from the European Convention altogether. For example, in April, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, said that temporary withdrawal from the Convention was one option being considered by the UK government in its efforts to deport the Islamic cleric Omar Mohammed Othman (also known as Abu Qatada). Two members of the Commission tasked with investigating the creation of a UK Bill of Rights advocated withdrawal from the Convention unless the Court ceased its ‘judicially activist approach’ (p. 182).
At first glance, prisoner voting proponents may interpret the Supreme Court’s R (Chester) v Justice Secretarydecision (see Adam Wagner’s previous post) as a defeat for advancing prisoner voting rights in the UK. This blog post offers a different perspective. By comparing Chester to the seminal US Supreme Court case of Marbury v. Madison, we summarise that such proponents should take a step back and see the wood, rather than merely the trees. This is because Lord Mance’s Chester judgment offers human rights advocates, and therefore supporters of prisoner voting rights, an unequivocal foundation from which to defend future human rights claims.
Chester does not achieve the same ends as Marbury. Marbury established the institution of judicial review in the United States, against Congressional legislation. Chester does not disturb the supremacy of the UK Parliament. Comparison arises within the strategies of the leading judgments in each case. Chief Justice Marshall’s judgment in Marbury is celebrated not only for its conclusion, that the Constitution of the United States is the highest form of law and therefore “it is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is”, but also for how it reached that conclusion.
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