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.”
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”.
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.
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. Continue reading →
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.
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:
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. Hungary, Judgment 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” 
Summary of freedom of information manifesto commitments here and here
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).
Al Rawi & Ors v Security Service & Ors  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:
BJ (Incapacitated Adult) sub nom Salford City Council V BJ (By His Litigation Friend The Official Solicitor)  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.
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,
Savage (Respondent) v South Essex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust (Appellant)  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…”
M and Others v Her Majesty’s Treasury, Case C‑340/08, 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.
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.
Lord Neuberger, the Master of the Rolls, provided an interesting discussion on so-called “super injunctions” in a speech on 28 April 2010. He said that “Where justice is carried out in secret, away from public scrutiny, bad habits can develop. Even if they don’t develop, the impression may arise that they have done so.”
Super injunctions came to prominence as a result of the case involving footballer John Terry, who initially used the courts to block publication of details of his extra marital affair, as well as all mention of the case.
The speech will be of particular interest to libel lawyers, as Lord Neuberger is currently chairing a high-profile panel to review super-injunctions which may lead to their demise. The speech provides a useful background to the issue in terms of human rights law, as well as in relation to freedom of speech in the United States (see our recent post on the topic).
Lord Neuberger gave little away, but does strongly emphasise the importance of open justice, which the super injunction has arguably diminished. The following paragraph may worry lawyers and celebrities who hope that the super injunction will survive:
29. But what of the substantive issue? How do we reconcile such injunctions with the principle of open justice? The first thing we could say is, as Mr Justice Tugendhat, the judge in the Terry case, pointed out, where such an issue is raised it requires intense scrutiny by the court. It does so because openness is one of the means by which public confidence in the proper administration of justice is maintained. Where justice is carried out in secret, away from public scrutiny, bad habits can develop. Even if they don’t develop, the impression may arise that they have done so. Neither reality nor suspicion are an acceptable feature of any open society.
Update 2/5/10 – Joshua Rozenberg writes on libel reform in Standpoint: “… this mixture of cherry-picking and window-dressing had been the only libel reform that Straw could have got through before the general election.”
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