Category: Judges and Juries


Reforming or redefining the European Court of Human Rights? – Noreen O’Meara

8 March 2012 by

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

Reactions to proposals for reforming the European Court of Human Rights contained the recently leaked Draft Brighton Declaration have been rightly critical.  Concerns have been directed at specific features which could impact on the essential role and function of the Court, inhibit access to the court for victims, and which may prejudice the practical impact of the HRA 1998 and the debate on replacing it with a UK Bill of Rights. 

It is testament to the eagerness with which these reforms are awaited—and the weaknesses which have been detected—that the Open Society Justice Initiative has launched a petition against the direction these proposals are taking.

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Justice wide shut

1 March 2012 by

Yesterday I spoke at Justice Wide Open, an excellent conference organised by Judith Townend. I mounted my usual open justice hobby horses (to coin a topical phrase) on how to make the justice system more accessible to the public, including a moan about human rights reporting. Someone told me during the break that according to her research, when newspapers put a positive slant on a human rights story, they tend to use the code word “civil liberties”. And, as if to prove the point, on the very same morning the Daily Mail put its considerable weight behind a crucial but until now sub-public-radar “civil liberties” and open justice issue, the Justice and Security Green Paper.

As readers of this blog will be aware, the Government proposes in the Green Paper to introduce “closed material procedures” into civil proceedings. For an explanation of why this amounts to “a departure from the foundational principle of natural justice“, look no further than the Special Advocates’ response to the consultation and my co-editor Angus McCullough QC’s post, A Special Advocate’s comment. But although the proposals have been getting lawyers and The Guardian hot and bothered, the sound of tumbleweed has been the loudest response. Until now, that is.

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Former Top Judge hits back at current Top Judge

17 February 2012 by

Sir Stephen Sedley, until last year of the Court of Appeal, has launched a stinging rebuttal to the speech of Lord Sumption (Jonathan Sumption QC as was) in which the soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice rebuked the judiciary for failing to stay out of the political arena.

This blog covered Lord Sumption’s speech here. Sir Stephen’s response in the London Review of Books takes issue with Lord Sumption’s assertion of excessive judicial interference in political matters, with the words:

there is a repeated insinuation that judicial interference in the political process regularly occurs: ‘The judicial resolution of inherently political issues is difficult to defend.’ It is not only difficult to defend; it does not happen.

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Sound of tumbleweed greets secret civil trials proposals

14 February 2012 by

65 responses to the Justice and Security Green Paper consultation, which proposes introducing “Closed Material Procedures” – secret trials – into civil courts, have been published on the official consultation website. According to the site there are potentially 25 more to come.

Whilst it is a good thing that the responses have been published at all, the low number of responses is a little depressing. In a country of over 60 million people, and given the proposals could amount to a significant erosion of open justice, 90 responses seems a little thin. Granted, many of the responses are from organisations or groups of individuals, such as the 57 Special Advocates who have called the proposals a “departure from the foundational principle of natural justice“. But the low number surely represents the fact that as yet the proposals have failed to capture the public imagination.

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UK Supreme Court is tweeting, but where are the other courts?

7 February 2012 by

The UK Supreme Court began tweeting yesterday as @UKSupremeCourt to deserved international fanfare. Some even speculated that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s extradition fate could now be revealed on Twitter.

The court is already being followed by almost 4,000 Twitter users (for the uninitiated, that is a lot) and has already beaten its own Twitter policy’s prediction of “2-3 tweets a week” with eight on its first day. The eventful debut tweets included seven live updates on the swearing-in ceremony of the court’s newest Justice, Lord Reed, and one relenting to Twitter user @FOImanUK‘s valid point that contrary to the court’s stated policy, it should be possible to put freedom of information requests to the court via Twitter.

This is all excellent news. The UK’s newest and highest appeal court is now setting the international standard for open justice, with its splendid press summaries of judgments, live transmission of hearings online (today’s is a very interesting case about the state’s financial responsibility towards disable people), accessible court facilities and generally public-facing approach. This is also as it should be: the Court has a statutory duty to be “accessible”. But the Supreme Court, which is largely independent from the rest of the court system, is now streaking ahead of it in terms of access to justice. And this open justice gap is becoming a problem.

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More secret trials? No thanks

31 January 2012 by

A child learns early that if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it. Thankfully that principle does not apply to Government consultations and this is aptly demonstrated by a group of responses to the consultation into whether “closed material” (secret evidence) procedures should be extended to civil trials.

Of the responses that I have read, there is very little support for the proposals as they stand and, as journalist Joshua Rozenberg has pointed out, the most damning criticism has come from the very lawyers who are currently involved in “closed” proceedings.

If you are interested in the issue, the Joint Committee on Human Rights is hearing evidence on it today from two special advocates, including my co-editor Angus McCullough QC (see his post on the topic), as well as the current and former independent reviewers of terrorism legislation. The session begins at 2:20pm and can be watched live here.

As I did with the Bill of Rights Commission consultation, I asked people to send me their consultation responses. What follows is a wholly unscientific summary of the ones I received:

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European Court of Human Rights: is the admissions system transparent enough? – Ben Jones

27 January 2012 by

Two recent posts on this blog have brought deserved attention to the question of the European Court’s handling of admissibility decisions. In the course of criticising the substantial misrepresentation of the statistics for UK petitions to the European Court, Andrew Tickell’s piece highlighted the significant contribution of “highly discretionary concepts” in the filtering of the Court’s caseload.

Alongside clearer procedural hurdles such as the six month time bar and exhaustion of domestic remedies, the “manifestly ill-founded” criterion may be a clear and meaningful legal term but certainly isn’t manifest exactly what obstacle it sets.

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Is Strasbourg obsessively interventionist? A view from the Court – Paul Harvey

24 January 2012 by

Andrew Tickell in his recent post (Is the European Court of Human Rights obsessively interventionist?) makes a number of important points about the European Court of Human Rights’ approach to admissibility, in particular the application of the manifestly ill-founded criterion. Perhaps understandably, the majority of legal scholars have preferred to focus on the more substantive aspects of the Court’s work and its leading judgments.

However, Tickell’s analysis, and his other efforts to ensure that the less glamorous work of the Court on admissibility are not overlooked, must be welcomed, both as redressing that balance and informing the wider debate on the proper role of the Court. This post seeks to build on his contribution by providing an overview of the Court’s approach to admissibility in applications brought against the United Kingdom.

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Extension of secret hearings would be “fundamentally unfair”, say Special Advocates

5 January 2012 by

Government proposals to increase the number of court hearings held in secret, and in which parties can only see minimal evidence relied upon by the court, have been severely criticised by the “Special Advocates” who play the central role in closed hearings.

The group of 57 barristers, including 19 Queen’s Counsel, argue that despite attempts, for example, to give those subject to “Closed Material Procedures” a summary of the evidence against them, they remain “fundamentally unfair” and

represent a departure from the foundational principle of natural justice that all parties are entitled to see and challenge all the evidence relied upon before the court and to combat that evidence by calling evidence of their own.

The document is a response  to the Government’s Consultation (see my and Angus McCullough QC’s previous posts) which have to be sent via email or post by tomorrow, Friday 6 January 2012. I will be collating summaries of responses as I did with the Bill of Rights Commission consultation. If you would like your response to be included, please send it to 1crownofficerow@gmail.com, with the subject “Consultation response”.

In summary, the special advocates argue:

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Top judge speaks! Are the judiciary becoming too outspoken?

8 December 2011 by

Top Judge yesterday

A lot of headlines begin with “Top judge” at the moment. Top Judge has variously attacked MPs who reveal injunctions, expressed fears over cameras in court, warned legal aid in family cases may disappear, protested over legal aid reforms, urged murder law reforms and said Britain can ignore Europe on human rights (he didn’t, but that’s another story).

Aside from lazy sub-editors (one of whom was me), what is causing this proliferation of Top Judges? It may be that senior judges are speaking out more, even on controversial topics which could create problems for them in the future.

Or perhaps Top Judge has always been outspoken, but fewer people were listening. In the internet age judges’ pronouncements are more quickly and widely reported. Speeches are often published instantly (sometimes, even before being made) on websites such as judiciary.gov.uk. Previously obscure Parliamentary committee hearings are broadcast live on the internet. The increased profile of the still-new Supreme Court adds to this dynamic.

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Should lawyers get named and shamed for being boring?

5 December 2011 by

Mortgage Agency Services Number Four Limited v. Alomo Solicitors, HHJ Simon Brown QC, [2011] EWHC B22 (Mercantile)

Every so often, a judge gets so infuriated with the prolixity of an advocate that he has a real go at him in the resulting judgment, and this solicitors negligence case is a good example. However, this judge spiced up his reasoning with a tale of how long-winded advocates were treated in the past when their legal documents went on too long:

“One early remedy that had an effect was used by the Lord Keeper in England in 1596 in the case of Mylward v Weldon…[1595] EWHC Ch 1]. He ordered that a pleading 120 pages long be removed from the file because it was about eight times longer than it need have been. He ordered that the pleader be taken to the Fleet prison. His Lordship then ordered that on the next Saturday the Warden of the Fleet bring the pleader into Westminster Hall at 10 a.m. and then and there cut a hole in the midst of the pleading and place it over the pleader’s head so that it would hang over his shoulders with the written side outwards. The Warden had to lead the pleader around Westminster Hall while the three courts were sitting and display him “bare headed and bare faced” and then be returned to the Fleet prison until he had paid a £10 fine – a huge sum in those days.”

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Bratza bites back

25 November 2011 by

I had intended to entitle this post “Bratza goes ballistic” which  would, for reasons I will explain, have been unfair. However, as reported by guardian.co.uk, the new British president of the European Court of Human Rights has pushed back strongly against the “vitriolic and – I am afraid to say, xenophobic – fury” of the reaction to recent rulings by the UK government and press, which he says is “unprecedented in my experience, as someone who has been involved with the Convention system for over 40 years.”

Safe to say, if anyone in the UK Government had been expecting an easy ride from the new, British born, president of the court, they will be disappointed by Bratza’s article in the European Human Rights Law Review. However, reading beyond the incendiary first few paragraphs, Bratza ends in a more conciliatory fashion, accepting many of the criticisms of the court and indeed offering suggestions for change.

I cannot link to the full text of The relationship between the UK courts and Strasbourg as it is only available on Westlaw, but I will quote some of the choice paragraphs.

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A blueprint for a simpler, fairer justice system

11 November 2011 by

The Civil Justice Council (CJC) has just released a major new report: Access to Justice for Litigants in Person (or self-represented litigants). The report attacks head-on the prospect of thousands more people having to represent themselves in court once civl legal aid is mostly taken away.

The 94-page report, written by a group including a QC and a High Court judge, is a major and ambitious attempt to make the justice system fairer and simpler for people who go to court without a lawyer. A huge amount of research and thought has gone into it, building on the process begun by Lord Woolf in 1997 with the Civil Procedure Act. The CJC was itself a creation of the 1997 Act, its function being to figure out how to make the civil justice system more accessible, fair and efficient.

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More secret justice on the horizon

19 October 2011 by

The Cabinet Office has released its long awaited (by this blog at least) Justice and Security Green Paper, addressing the difficult question of to what extent the state must reveal secret information in court proceedings. A consultation has been launched on the proposals; responses can be sent via email by Friday 6 January 2012.

The review was announced shortly after the Coalition Government came to power, on the same day that Sir Peter Gibson’s Detainee Inquiry was launched. In summary, the Government has recommended that controversial Closed Material Procedures and Special Advocates are used more frequently, particularly in civil proceedings. The courts have been reluctant to take this step themselves as any expansion of secret procedures will have significant effects on open justice and the right to a fair trial.

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Why have a European Court of Human Rights? – Dr Ed Bates

13 October 2011 by

At last week’s Inner Temple hall event, ‘Strasbourg and the UK: Dialogue or Conflict’, Lord Justice Laws asked some provocative questions: 

why should judges decide matters of social policy [thrown up by human rights cases] at all? The political rights, Article 8 – 12, with the right set out in the first part and the derogation in the second, create a structure which means that a very large number of legal debates is about how the balance between private right and public interest should be struck. But what authority, expertise, do lawyers have to strike that balance, that is special to them? Why are lawyers any better qualified to assess family ties in foreign criminal questions?

When the floor was opened to questions I suggested that these comments could be extended out more broadly: what was the proper role and function of the Strasbourg Court? This question, I suggest, lies at the heart of much of the recent controversy surrounding the influence of the European Court of Human Rights, especially in the context of the disagreement over whether prisoners should be able to vote.

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