As dust settles, Coalition gets cautious welcome on human rights

14 May 2010 by

The Coalition Government is only a few days old but it is already receiving a cautious welcome from civil liberties commentators and bloggers, with all eyes on significant policy commitments in the Con-Lib deal. The previous government enacted major civil liberties legislation within a year of taking power; the question now is whether the Coalition has the time, will and co-operative potential to fulfil its lofty promises.

In its final years, New Labour was regularly criticised on civil liberties issues, particularly in relation to anti-terrorism law. But it is undeniable that within around a year of coming to power it had enacted a major piece of civil liberties legislation in the Human Rights Act 1998, which was followed shortly after by two others; the Data Protection Act 1998 and Freedom of Information Act 2000. Some, such as the Human Rights in Ireland Blog, say that sadly this was a high water mark and not to be repeated.

The Con-Lib coalition has already made significant early promises. The focus of commentators has been on the cabinet appointees who will influence law and order policy, as well as the surprisingly full civil liberties section in the Con-Lib Coalition agreement. Just as important, however, is what has been left out.

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UK Human Rights Blog joins the Guardian Legal Network

13 May 2010 by

We are pleased to announce that the UK Human Rights Blog has joined the new Guardian Legal Network.

The Guardian’s website launches its Legal Network today.  This “brings together the best blogs and sites that cover legal affairs and developments from around the world” and we are delighted to have been asked to be a partner in this project.

The Guardian will be featuring content from our blog, and we welcome new followers who have arrived here by this route. You can subscribe to free email alerts by entering your address in the ‘Email Subscription’ box (below and to the right), or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

Update 18/05/10 – our article featured on the new site, and another one here


Voters seeking compensation will face uphill climb

13 May 2010 by

Not for everyone

We posted earlier this week on whether those who were locked out from voting in the 2010 General Election can claim for compensation under the Human Rights Act 1998 (read our post here). Liberty are asking spurned voters to contact them with a view to further legal action. But Joshua Rozenberg argues in this morning’s Law Society Gazette that those voters will face significant difficulties finding a legal remedy.

Our post concentrated on potential remedies under the Human Rights Act 1998, highlighting that the European Court of Human Rights has been reluctant to award monetary compensation in the past. The European Court has generally held that the “just satisfaction” remedy under human rights law was fulfilled by the fact that criticism from the court would lead to a change in the respective State’s voting system. As such, financial compensation to reflect the breach of the voters’ rights was not seperately awarded. It should be noted, however, that many of the recent cases involved prisoners and ex-convicts being barred from voting. We concluded that

Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, has already said that the problem “shows a lack of foresight and preparation”, so it seems unlikely that voters will be left without a remedy, and that may come in the form of compensation probably by way of an out of court settlement… However, how much that will be is by no means clear, and it may be difficult to prove in practice that a person was prevented from voting as a direct result of administrative difficulties.

Rozenberg addresses potential remedies under the Representation of the People Act 1983, and in particular the potential that some ballots may have to be re-run:

What about trying to get the election re-run in a constituency where a lot of people were unable to vote? A dissatisfied voter may present a petition which may be tried by an election court. But there is little chance of a second poll unless the number of people who were locked out in a particular constituency is more than the winning candidate’s majority. Even then, there might need to be some evidence that the non-voters were likely to have supported the candidate who came second rather than, as seems more likely, that they would have voted in proportion to the constituency as a whole.

That is because section 23 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 says that ‘no parliamentary election shall be declared invalid by reason of any act or omission by the returning officer or any other person in breach of his official duty… if… the election was so conducted as to be substantially in accordance with the law as to elections and the act or omission did not affect its result’.

It will be clearly be difficult for spurned voters to bring claims. However, there is a strong duty imposed by human rights law on the State to conduct free and fair elections. Further, it seems that at least some of the constituencies where voters were turned away were ultimately decided by a small majority. This is unsurprising, as one would expect turnout to be higher in places where people expect the vote to be close. So, the uphill climb which spurned voters face may still lead to some kind of legal remedy.

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Families of asylum seekers entitled to advantageous entry clearance requirements says Supreme Court

13 May 2010 by

ZN (Afghanistan) (FC) and others (Appellants) v Entry Clearance Officer (Karachi) (Respondent) and one other action, UKSC 21. Read judgment

The Immigration Rules, which applied lighter requirements for entry clearance for the dependants of persons granted asylum than for other British Citizens, should be interpreted to mean that a person should always be a refugee for the purposes of Rule 352D even though that status has technically expired on grant of citizenship.

This appeal raised a question  the true construction of the Immigration Rules, House of Commons Paper 395 (‘HC 395’): what rules apply to family members seeking entry to the United Kingdom, where the sponsor has been granted asylum and has subsequently obtained British citizenship. Put another way, the issue was whether the sponsor must enjoy refugee status at the time his spouse or child seeks to join him under the paras 352A and 352D.

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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]

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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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