Human Rights Act may be safe under new Justice Secretary Ken Clarke [updated]

12 May 2010 by

The appointment of Ken Clarke as the new Justice Secretary may have saved the Human Rights Act 1998 from repeal. The Conservative plans for the Act to be replaced with a Bill of Rights may be scrapped in any case under the full terms of their agreement with the Liberal Democrats. In the mean time, supporters of the Act will be encouraged by supportive statements by the new Justice Secretary.

The policy agreement between the two parties has now been published, and the Human Rights Act is notable by its absence under section 10, entitled “Civil Liberties”, which promises to “reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour Government and roll back state intrusion“. What the agreement does promise, amongst other things, is the scrapping of the ID card scheme and the Contact Point Database, extending the scope of the Freedom of Information Act and protecting the right to trial by jury. There will also be a “Great Repeal” or “Freedom” bill.

No withdrawal from the European Convention

Whilst the Human Rights Act is not mentioned in the document, its supporters will take heart at the new Justice Secretary Ken Clarke’s comments on today’s BBC The World At One. He said ”We are not committed to leaving the European Convention on Human Rights, we have committed ourselves to a British Human Rights Act. We are still signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights”. He continued that he has “also got to see when the coalition agreement is completed how high a priority this is going to be given.”

Whilst he may have hedged his answer, Mr Clarke gave an even clearer indication of his views in 2006, when David Cameron first announced his plans to repeal the Human Rights Act. He said that “I think he’s going to have a separate task force on the Bill of Rights, isn’t he? He’s going out there to try to find some lawyers that agree with him, which I think will be a struggle myself.” Even more strikingly, he went on to describe the presentation of the Act as a foreign invention to be “anti-foreigner” and that “I think the Convention of Human Rights was written by a Conservative lawyer after the war. It was a British document“.

Ken Clarke, well known within his party as a fan of European integration, is to be the new Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice. Like his predecessor Jack Straw, he started out as a barrister and became a QC in 1980 whilst he was already part of the Thatcher Government. His views will be key in shaping the new Government’s policies towards civil liberties.

Safety for the 1998 Act?

The coalition partners have opposing policies towards the Human Rights Act, and the policy agreement suggests that these remain. In their manifesto, the Conservative Party pledged to repeal the Human Rights Act, a key early New Labour reform, and replace it with a Bill of Rights. The form and content of the Bill has remained deliberately vague. By contrast, the Liberal manifesto promised to “ensure that everyone has the same protections under the law by protecting the Human Rights Act.”

Of course, Mr Clarke’s 2006 comments do not necessarily reflect his views now, and his word will not be final when it comes to policy. Further, it is notable that the Act’s repeal, a well publicised plank of the Conservative Party manifesto, has been left out of the draft policy agreement. Given that the civil liberties section is fairly detailed, this is probably deliberate. It may be that a Bill of Rights in some form is still on the policy agenda, perhaps to work in tandem with, rather than as a replacement to, the Human Rights Act.

It is also notable that the Liberal Democrats’ longstanding policy to introduce a written constitution, which some commentators argue would be the best way of enshrining and protecting the Human Rights Act in future, is also absent from the policy agreement.

However, on balance it seems likely that the new Justice Secretary’s pro-European outlook and past comments, an addition to the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto commitment to protect the Human Rights Act, puts the Human Rights Act in a far stronger position than it would have been in the face of Conservative majority parliament.

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New head of Court of Appeal making waves on civil liberties

12 May 2010 by

Making waves

Lord Neuberger, the Master of the Rolls (head of the Court of Appeal), has only been in post for six months but has already made significant waves, particularly in a series of judgments on the impact of terrorism law on civil liberties. In a speech yesterday, he discussed the experience of having his judgment censored during the Binyam Mohamed appeal.

He used an old Woody Allen joke to describe the experience, saying that his “favourite of his aphorisms is I’m not afraid of dying – I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” He continued that the this has some resonance for him now, as “I’m not afraid of changing my judgments – I just don’t want to be there when I do.

The tone of the speech was light – Lord Neuberger has been praised for his unusually (for a judge) affable manner – but it does provide an opportunity to take stock of the Master of the Rolls’ eventful first six months in post.

An eventful six months

Lord David Neuberger turned down the chance to be an inaugural member of the UK Supreme Court in order to head up the Court of Appeal, the second highest appeal court. He had already been highly critical of the evolution of the House of Lords to the Supreme Court. Six months later, it already seems clear that the Court of Appeal under its new Master of the Rolls is to be an activist court, and particularly in relation to civil liberties.

We posted last week on the three provocative linked judgments, each written by Lord Neuberger and Lord Justices Maurice Kay and Sullivan, released as a triptych on the same day. The appeals all related to terrorism legislation, and each judgment sought to limit the ability of the Government and security services to keep evidence secret – from the public and even the parties to the litigation – in civil trials. A fourth, relating to control orders in a criminal context, was also released on the same day.

The security services will see the judgments as a fly in their ointment, arguing that the protection of the public from terrorism sometimes trumps the principle of open justice, that justice is done but is also seen to be done. The Government will say in the inevitable appeals to the Supreme Court that the Court of Appeal judgments have stymied their ability to fight terrorism, making it impossible in future for the security services to keep sensitive information from the public domain.

Censorship and the Binyam Mohamed affair

Whilst the three linked judgments were important, by far the most controversial incident involving Lord Neuberger’s court was the censoring of part of a judgment in an appeal relating to Binyam Mohamed (see our post). The court ordered that an email concerning MI5’s knowledge of Mr Mohamed’s alleged torture be disclosed. But part of Lord Neuberger’s judgment, the now notorious paragraph 168, was sharply critical of MI5’s involvement in the material events as well as their conduct in the litigation. Upon an application by the Government, the paragraph was briefly sanitised, and then eventually restored to its original wording.

Lord Neuberger spoke about the experience of “seeing one paragraph of a judgment being discussed in op-ed pieces, headlines. TV and radio bulletins and interviews, and, I imagine, the tweets.” He continued:

One thing the Binyam Mohamed case did teach me was that even a Master of the Rolls should not tempt fate. The day before we initially handed down judgment in the case, the Lord Chief Justice asked me how I was getting on with the new job after my first 20 weeks. Blithely ignorant of what was to happen the following day, tempting fate, I said that, for the first time I was beginning to feel in control of things. Let me tell you: one is never in control of things, above all when one thinks one is. As Woody Allen said, If you want to make God laugh, tell him your future plans. Although my favourite of his aphorisms is I’m not afraid of dying – I just don’t want to be there when it happens. I suppose that that has some resonance for me now: I’m not afraid of changing my judgments – I just don’t want to be there when I do.

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One year on, “opening up” of family courts has led to closed justice

11 May 2010 by

Watch but don

The family courts were opened up to media scrutiny by the Justice Secretary Jack Straw at the end of April 2009. One year on, the Times legal editor reports that not only have family courts remained closed, but media access is even more restricted than before the reforms.

In a week where promoting open justice has been high on the Court of Appeal’s agenda in cases involving terrorism, Frances Gibb writes that the family courts are still sealed shut: “After a flurry of interest, the media have stopped reporting family cases in all but rare high-profile disputes because a restrictive reporting regime makes coverage meaningless.”

The Justice Secretary’s 2009 reforms were the outcome of years of campaigning by the media and pressure groups to open up the secretive family courts. The arguments had centred on the conflict between the privacy of those involved in proceedings versus the public benefit of open justice; a balancing exercise which all public authorities are now familiar with by virtue of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to privacy). It is an often quoted principle of English law that justice must not just be done but be seen to be done, and it seemed that that the family courts were moving onto that side of the balance.

In the heady days of late April 2009, Camilla Cavendish, who had campaigned for the changes predicted that “more than 200,000 hearings involving sensitive and traumatic cases, and with decisions that will have a huge impact on the lives of children and their families, will now be open to media scrutiny.”

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Inquests and legal aid for relatives of the dead

11 May 2010 by

Recent weeks have seen considerable media attention paid to the role of inquests and their increasing significance for relatives of the deceased.

Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, providing legal protection for everyone’s right to life, in some circumstances requires investigation into a death such as an inquest. It places a duty upon the state to ensure the investigation is properly conducted. This may entail providing funding, such as legal aid given to relatives so they may be represented at the hearing.

On 1 May 2010, The Times published “How coroners have become the public voice of grieving relatives” which considered the trend in recent years for coroners to take a role similar to that taken by a chair of a public inquiry. Frances Gibb wrote that David Ridley, a coroner in an inquest for two soldiers killed in Afghanistan, made comments which will give some comfort to grieving relatives. Only two days earlier, another coroner, David Masters, “castigated US authorities’ failure to cooperate in an investigation into the “friendly fire” deaths of three British soldiers”.

The article goes on to note that

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Religious versus other freedoms: the future of Article 9?

10 May 2010 by

McFarlane v Relate Avon Ltd [2010] EWCA Civ B1 (29 April 2010) – Read judgment or our previous post

Case comment

Lord Carey of Clifton, responding to Lord Justice Laws’ observations in MacFarlane, has called this latest dust-up about religion in the courts a “deeply unedifying clash of rights“. It is indeed a clash of rights, but unedifying it is not. It is precisely when these rights collide that some real, hard thinking is generated, not only about the precise content of these rights, but their historical purpose and their proper function in modern society.

It may be that when the architects of the Convention drafted Article 9, guaranteeing freedom of thought, conscience and religion, they did not foresee that its future role would not be so much the protection of oppressed believers against Soviet-style secularisation but instead a thorn in the flesh of public authority employers seeking enforce their legitimate objectives against non-compliant religious employees.

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Feature | Barred voters and the right to compensation under human rights law

9 May 2010 by

With possibly thousands of people prevented from voting in the 2010 General Election, can those who were locked out claim for compensation for breach of their human rights, and how much are they likely to receive?

The legal basis: Article 1 of Protocol 3 to the European Convention on Human Rights, the duty on States to hold free and fair elections, has been receiving more than its usual share of attention. Under Section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998, it is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way which is incompatible with a convention right. Under Section 7, a person may bring proceedings against a public authority which has acted unlawfully. One of the potential remedies is compensation.

How many: It appears that thousands of voters may have been prevented from voting as polling stations were unable to handle the amount of people who arrived in the last few hours before voting closed at 10pm. For example, The Guardian reports that “In Chester more than 600 people were unable to vote because the electoral list had not been updated and Labour won on a majority of 549“and in Hackney “The council estimated that 270 voters were turned away at four polling stations in the south of the borough.” In Sheffield Hallam “students tried to prevent ballot boxes being taken to the count after up to 500 voters were turned away”.

How much: We posted on Friday on an article by Lord Pannick, a human rights barrister, in which he said that prisoners denied the right to vote (a separate but certainly comparable issue to those who were turned away) may be entitled to awards “in the region of £750 and possibly more”. Geoffrey Robertson QC, also a well known human rights barrister, told the BBC that spurned voters may be entitled to “at least £750”.

However, it is not clear where either lawyer derived the £750 figure from.
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You may have missed…

8 May 2010 by

Posts you may have missed on the UK Human Rights Blog last week.

News and features:

Case law:

The human rights cost of preventing people from voting

7 May 2010 by

See a more recent post on this topic here

One of the enduring images of the 2010 General Election will be of long queues of people turned away from polling stations due to lack of facilities. This may well result in legal action. But according to Lord Pannick, the worse scandal may be the exclusion of 85,000 prisoners, which he says is “a constitutional disgrace that undermines the legitimacy of the democratic process”.

The BBC reports this morning that hundreds of voters were turned away from polling stations throughout the UK. This was initially blamed on a higher than expected turnout. The Electoral Commission has promised a “thorough review“, but legal action may follow from the individuals, who have been denied their basic rights, but also from the parties who may argue that marginal results would have been different if people hadn’t been turned away. In the likely outcome of a hung parliament, every seat counts and litigation may therefore follow (Update – Afua Hirch in The Guardian: Legal challenge to polling stations could result in byelections; meanwhile, Liberty, the human rights organisation, says that it will investigate the issue on behalf of voters.)

Those who have been disenfranchised may be entitled to claim under the Human Rights Act 1998. Article 1, Protocol 3 of the European Convention provides:

“The High Contracting Parties shall hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.”

This Article imposes obligations on States, and the provision includes the right to vote. Voters should be able to claim for damages under section 8 of the Human Rights Act if they can prove that they were denied a vote due to administrative incompetence, which appears to have been the case in some places. Whilst high turnout may have been a factor, voters will argue that high turnout has been predicted for a while, and should have been planned for. Similar claims were made in respect of the controversial 2000 presidential election in the United States, which was ultimately decided by the US Supreme Court, but resulted in months of paralysis.

85,000 claims?

Whilst a few hundred appear to have been affected by administrative incompetence, Lord Pannick, barrister and cross-bench peer, argues that the absolute ban on prisoners voting runs contrary to repeated decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. We have posted recently on the tens of thousands of potential compensation claims that may result, which Lord Pannick estimates will be worth at least £750 each. Similar claims may be available to those who were denied the vote for other reasons.

Lord Pannick is scathing of the Government’s failure to implement the European decisions. He says:

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The General Election and human rights

6 May 2010 by

The UK General Election takes place today. For the 38% of voters who may yet still change their minds, below are our previous posts on the General Election 2010 and human rights:

Evolution of a right to freedom of information?

6 May 2010 by

For much longer?

Whichever party wins today’s General Election, freedom of information in and outside the courts will be a key issue for the incoming government. In light of this, Hugh Tomlinson QC asks whether a “right to freedom of information” is evolving through human rights case law in an interesting piece on the International Form for Responsible Media Blog (Inforrm).

The Government is under increasing pressure to release information which was once uncontroversially secret. As we posted yesterday, freedom of information is a hot topic in the courts at the moment, specifically in the context of the security services and the information they are obliged to disclose to defendants in criminal trials and claimants in civil proceedings. In those scenarios, the right to a fair trial was conditional on a right to see information which goes to the heart of that trial (Article 6 ECHR). However, when divorced from the right to a fair trial, there is as yet no explicit right to information.

Article 10 of the Convention only extends to the right to “hold opinions and to receive and impart information“. This does not necessarily entail a right to access confidential Government information. Hugh Tomlinson says:

This has often been identified as an important weakness in the Convention. However, the position is changing: the Convention is a “living instrument” and recent case law suggests that, in accordance with international trends, the Convention may be evolving its own “right to freedom of information” as a fact of the right to freedom of expression in Article 10 of the Convention.

We posted recently on the the robust freedom of expression enjoyed by those living in the United States, as compared to the arguably less robust freedoms in the UK under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998. Freedom of expression has gone hand in hand in the United States with superior access to government information. The US Freedom of Information Act was passed by Lyndon Johnson in 1966. It is only with the Freedom of Information Act 2000, sister-legislation to the Human Rights Act, that the UK has begun to catch up. The development of a right to freedom of information would close that gap further. As Tomlinson argues:

… the Court of Human Rights has recognised that there can be a right to access to official information. In some cases this has been done by reference to Article 8 of the Convention… Most recently, in the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union case (Társaság a Szabadságjogokért v. HungaryJudgment of 14 April 2009) the applicant had been refused access to a constitutional complaint made by an MP. The Court said that “the law cannot allow arbitrary restrictions which may become a form of indirect censorship should the authorities create obstacles to the gathering of information” [27]

Read more:

Court of Appeal launches offensive against secret justice with three linked judgments

5 May 2010 by

 

 

 

 

 

… but not too blind

Home Office v Tariq [2010] EWCA Civ 462  – Read judgmentBank Mellat v HM Treasury [2010] EWCA Civ 483 – Read judgment

[Updated 7/5/10]

The Court of Appeal has told the Government three times in 24 hours that it cannot keep evidence secret in civil proceedings. Similar reasoning was applied in three different contexts; the employment tribunal, a case relating to Iranian nuclear proliferation and a claim for damages for foreign torture.

An identically constituted court as in the Al-Rawi and others judgment had already held on the same day that evidence in a high-profile torture compensation claim should not be kept entirely secret.

In two further decisions, the same judges held that the Treasury must give sufficient disclosure to allow a bank accused of involvement in Iranian nuclear proliferation to not just deny but refute the allegations (Bank Mellat v HM Treasury), and that the Home Office must provide the “gist” of material it had wanted to keep secret from an employment tribunal (Home Office v Tariq). The court did not, however, go as far as saying that evidence can never be kept secret in cases involving national security.

All three cases revolve around the controversial “closed material procedure“, which allows certain evidence to be kept from the public and sometimes a defendant, and the use of “special advocates” (SA). As the Court of Appeal said in para 1 of the judgment, these procedures, developed as part of the fight against terrorism, represent “exceptions to the fundamental principle of open justice.” We have posted about the issues surrounding the special advocate system in relation to control orders (read post).

The cases higlight the strong line the courts have taken towards open justice since the AF case in 2009, a criminal matter in which the House of Lords (now the Supreme Court) held that it was a breach of the right to a fair trial under Article 6 to hold someone under a control order without sufficient information about the allegations against him even where disclosure would compromise the country’s national security (read our case comment).

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More secret evidence trouble for Government in foreign torture case

4 May 2010 by

Binyam Mohamed

Al Rawi & Ors v Security Service & Ors [2010] EWCA Civ 482 (04 May 2010) – Read judgment

The Court of Appeal has roundly rejected a request by the Government that evidence in a high-profile torture compensation claim should be kept secret from the public. It has also used the opportunity to emphasise that the interests of open justice would be serious compromised if this kind of request were ever granted in a civil case, even in very limited circumstances.

This compensation claim involves six claimants who were detained at various locations, including Guantanamo Bay and Bagram in Afghanistan, alleging various forms of mistreatment.

The judgment is the latest in a series of reverses suffered by the Government in matters involving Binyam Mohamed and others in relation to their alleged torture. In February the Court of Appeal ordered it to release an unredacted version of an email relating to the “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment which Binyam Mohamed received during questioning by American authorities.

In the latest judgment, the Court of Appeal rejected the previous judgment of Mr Justice Silber in the High Court. The issue was whether the judge was right to conclude that it is open to a court, in the absence of statutory authority, to order a closed material procedure for part (or, conceivably, even the whole) of the trial of a civil claim for damages in tort and breach of statutory duty.

The appeal judges concluded that it was not open for a court to order a closed material procedure, stating that:

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Deprivation of liberty must be regularly reviewed

4 May 2010 by

BJ (Incapacitated Adult) sub nom Salford City Council V BJ (By His Litigation Friend The Official Solicitor) [2009] EWHC 3310 (Fam) – Read judgment

Where there is a deprivation of liberty within the meaning of Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights, regular reviews by the court are not merely desirable but essential.

This case concerned the application of Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights to the ongoing review of the continuing detention of persons lacking capacity.  The individual in question was a 23 year old man, BJ.  As BJ lacked capacity, it was found that his best interests would be served by his continued residence at a location referred to as “MH”.

As such, the care plan devised by the local authority and approved by Lord Justice Munby (in the original hearing of 16 May 2008), required the deprivation of BJ’s liberty within the meaning of Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Summary

Given that BJ was being deprived of his liberty, Article 5 required a review by the court of the lawfulness of his detention at ‘reasonable intervals’. Munby LJ had set out the frequency and nature of any review at the previous hearing and at paragraph 10 of this judgment the LJ again highlighted the importance of regular reviews in such circumstances,

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End of the Savage saga as High Court finds hospital liable for patient’s suicide

4 May 2010 by

Savage (Respondent) v South Essex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust (Appellant) [2010] EWHC 865 (QB) – Read judgment

The High Court has ruled that a mental health trust was responsible for the death of a patient who threw herself in front of a train. The judgment marks the end of a long and complex case, and a significant shift in the law relating to public authorities’ responsibility to preserve life under the Human Rights Act. The trust must now pay Mrs Savage’s daughter £10,000 in compensation.

Carol Savage committed suicide on 5 July 2004 at age 50. At the time of her death, she was detained at Runwell Hospital under Section 3 of the Mental Health Act 1983. She had suffered from mental illness intermittently for many years.

After Mrs Savage’s death, her daughter Anna made a claim on the basis that the hospital owed her, as a victim of the death, a duty under the Human Rights Act 1998. The basis of her claim was that the hospital had failed in its duty to protect her mother under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to life. She also made a claim in her own right under Article 8 (right to family life).

Mental health patients and the right to life

Before making a decision on the liability of the trust, the House of Lords (now the Supreme Court) was asked to decide a preliminary issue relating to it’s responsibility under Article 2 (read decision). The Trust argued that the reasoning in Osman v United Kingdom (23452/94) (1999) 1 FLR 193 ECHR was not applicable to the care of hospital patients. In Osman, the European Court of Human Rights held that there is a positive obligation for a State to take preventive measures to protect individuals whose life is at risk.

The trust argued that applying Osman to mental health care would conflict with other obligations of medical staff to their patients and encourage them to be too restrictive of patients’ liberty for fear that they might commit suicide.

The House of Lords threw out the Trust’s appeal. They held that Article 2 put health authorities under an overarching obligation to protect the lives of their patients. If members of staff know, or are in a position to know, that a particular patient presented a real and immediate risk of suicide, there as an additional “operational” obligation to do all that could reasonably be expected to prevent such an eventuality.

End of the saga

The case has now finally concluded, with Mr Justice Mackay finding that the trust could and should have done more to protect Mrs Savage. He said “all that was required to give her a real prospect or substantial chance of survival was the imposition of a raised level of observations, which would not have been an unreasonable or unduly onerous step to require of the defendant…”

Read more:

  • A note by Philip Havers QC on the 2008 House of Lords judgment.
  • See below (after the page break) for commentary on the House of Lords case by Rosalind English

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Terror suspects’ families can claim benefits

2 May 2010 by

Terrorist suspect's families can claim benefitsM and Others v Her Majesty’s Treasury, Case C340/08, 29 April 2010 – Read judgment

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that social security benefits cannot be withheld from family members of those suspected of being associated with the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

The Government will probably now have to change the law, although The Times reports that the judgment will only affect less than a dozen people living in Britain.

Summary

The United Nations implemented measures shortly after the 11 September 2001 attacks to freeze all assets of terror suspects. The UK had up to now taken a wide view of these measures, and had frozen not just the benefits of the suspects themselves, but also of their families.

The Treasury’s reasoning had been that money spent by, for example, a suspect’s wife on the running of the family household will be “for the benefit” of him. For example, if she buys food for a communal meal in which he participates, the money will have been spent for his benefit.

The case was referred to the ECJ by the House of Lords (now the Supreme Court) in 2008 (M, R (on the application of) v Her Majesty’s Treasury [2008] UKHL 26). The question of interpretation was whether the words “for the benefit of” in article 2.2 of Council Regulation (EC) No 881/2002 have a wide meaning which covers any application of money from which a listed person derives some benefit, or whether they apply only to cases in which funds or assets are “made available” for his benefit, so that he is in a position to choose how to use them.

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