The UK Human Rights Blog doesn’t write about itself. There is too much of interest in the law of Human Rights to cover and the Blog has been providing this service ever since 1998 when Rosalind English and others started the Human Rights Update. With the know-how and energy of Adam Wagner, this developed into a Blog and last year, under Commissioning Editor, Jonathan Metzer (with the assistance of a small army of contributors), it attracted about 1.1 million visits from readers. In 2017 Rosalind launched LawPodUK to complement the blog, bringing the made for Podcasting voice of Emma Louise-Fenelon to thousands of listeners.
At this time of year, the Blog would normally be preparing for its annual party to thank its contributors. For obvious reasons, this is impossible this year and we decided it would be interesting to organise an online seminar instead. Is a Blogcast a thing?
We wanted to talk about the Rule of Law. Liberated by the earthly constraints of distance and time zones, we thought it would be interesting to bring together three stellar academics to discuss it from an Indian perspective. Joining us from Delhi will be Dr Shruti Kapila (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge), from Oxford, Professor Tarunabh Khaitan – and from our own neighbourhood, Dr Mukulika Banerjee (LSE). You are invited to join us, and we would welcome your contributions (message us or leave a comment below with your questions and thoughts). The Bar Human Rights Committee has been active in this area and we are very pleased its Chair, Schona Jolly QC, has accepted our invitation to take part too. The discussion will be facilitated by Marina Wheeler QC who has written recently about this subject.
It is irresistible to recall that at the time that the Blog was starting out its life, the BJP had secured a major victory when Atal Bihari Vajpayee became the first BJP Prime Minister of India to hold office for a sustained period (he was previously PM for 13 days in 1996). Over three terms, he was to serve over six years in Office – a party record that was surpassed by the current incumbent Narendra Modi in 2020. However, this does not begin to describe the transformation of the Indian polity – most especially after the saffron wave that broke over India in the 2019 general election.
In his seminal article, “Killing a constitution with a thousand cuts: executive aggrandizement and party-state fusion in India,” (2020) 14 Law & Ethics of Human Rights 49, Professor Tarunabh Khaitan examined various steps taken in the Modi first term and concluded that the approach of the administration was undermining all strands of institutional accountability in a way that was, “subtle, indirect, and incremental, but also systemic” and coined the phrase, “killing a constitution by a thousand cuts.”
If anything, Narendra Modi’s second term as PM appears to show signs of a quickening of progress in a crusade to transform India, as Dr Kapila explored in a piece in the FT last year: The annihilation of India’s political opposition is almost complete. For an outsider, perhaps the most startling of the developments was the revocation of the statehood of Jammu and Kashmir and its bifurcation and demotion into two Union Territories – all the while accompanied by the detention of the democratic leadership of the state and the suppression of most forms of communication. The Citizenship Amendment Act was reintroduced and sweeping reforms made of agricultural support – both of these steps provoked widespread protests. The latter was met with repression – with opposition being characterised as “anti-national.” The US organisation, Freedom House has recently downgraded the status of India from “Free” to “Partly Free” in its 2021 annual global survey.
The response of the Courts has been muted. One of the reasons for this is that the rate of High Court Judge vacancies has been allowed to hover around the 40% mark for some years with a consequent impact on the effectiveness of the Courts. This tends to create a culture of impunity.
This might all be thought to be a surprising development in the world’s largest democracy with a sophisticated constitution – whose moving spirit, Dr Ambedkar is honoured by statues all over India and by many monuments in the UK – including a portrait in Gray’s Inn – a development examined by Dr Banerjee in the Sunday Times, Modi parades his hatred of Muslims — and makes a mockery of India’s constitution. It is important to recognise that Indian governing norms have been assaulted before – the most striking being during the period of the Emergency (1975-1977) and the misuse of the powers of Governors to subvert state governments is nearly as old as the Constitution itself. The question may be asked as to what extent all this is a product of a tension when an administration with a substantial mandate seeks to bring about change in a country. Are recent developments just an upsurge of majoritarianism or is India witnessing the degrading of constitutional norms and a fundamental assault on the rule of law?
Come join us, explore these questions, and offer your view about how might we respond. RSVP via Eventbrite here.
The event will also be recorded and available on request.
The High Court will hear a case brought by a mother and her 11-month-old baby, who are arguing that they should not be excluded from the UK government’s ‘Healthy Start’ scheme. The scheme provides vouchers for healthy food, nutritional advice, and vitamins to low-income families, but currently excludes many migrant families, including those who have a right to live and work in the UK, have British children, and earn well below the threshold needed to obtain welfare benefits. The judicial review will challenge the eligibility criteria of the scheme on several grounds: it is inconsistent with the intended purpose of the scheme to benefit those in greatest need, it breaches human rights, and it indirectly discriminates against families from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds.
Campaigners have welcomed a government announcement that it will introduce several key amendments to the Domestic Abuse Bill currently being debated in Parliament. In particular, the Bill will make non-fatal strangulation a specific offence, with an attached maximum sentence of five years. This is a significant shift from the previous maximum six months’ sentence if tried in the Magistrates Court under the crime of common assault. The Bill will also expand the definition of coercive behaviour by removing the requirement that the victim co-habit with their abuser, and broaden the scope of the laws on revenge porn by enabling those who threaten to share indecent images to be prosecuted.
The European Court of Justice has ruled this week that air pollution in 75% of the United Kingdom’s urban areas has exceeded legal levels for over ten years. Nitrogen dioxide, which is emitted largely by diesel vehicles, significantly contributes to pollution, and was found by a scathing coroner’s report to have contributed to the death of a nine-year-old girl last year. Imposing charges in urban centres to deter polluting vehicles (‘clean air zones’) is thought to be the most effective means of combating the problem. However, the government has only established one such area, in London, in the four years since research was published. The legal proceedings in the CJEU began before Brexit was concluded, and the pollution limits are still part of UK law. The UK could therefore face financial penalties if it fails to remedy the situation within a reasonable period.
In the courts:
A And B (Minors: placement, faith)  EWHC 455 (Admin): In this judicial review case, the Claimants, two brothers with complex medical and behavioural conditions from a strict Orthodox Haredi Jewish community, argued that the decision of Manchester City Council to offer them respite accommodation in a secular residential home in Manchester, rather than an exclusively Orthodox Jewish home in London, was unreasonable. In particular, it was contended that placement in the Manchester accommodation would prevent the boys from fully manifesting their religious faith, for example, in following kosher dietary rules and observing holy days, contrary to Part III of the Children Act (1989), and possibly Articles 8, 9, and 14 of the European Convention for Human Rights, and the Equality Act (2010). There was an important difference between the two brothers: it was agreed that A should undertake a 12-week assessment placement at one of the homes, whereas B would only stay at the home once a fortnight and during school holidays. Accordingly, His Honour Judge Stephen Davies held that the decision of the council to offer only A a place at the Manchester home was unlawful and in breach of his Article 8 and 9 rights under the ECHR, because he would not be able to cook kosher meals nor perform the required prayers by himself, and so the placement would not allow him to manifest his religion. However, the council’s proposal was not unlawful in relation to B, because the limitations imposed by a fortnightly short overnight stay were not significant enough to breach his rights under the ECHR.
Turner, R (On the Application Of) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions  EWHC 465 (Admin): The High Court rejected the Claimant’s case that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions acted unlawfully in withdrawing Errol Graham’s disability benefit, who tragically was found to have starved to death in his flat in 2018. It was contended that the Department for Work and Pension’s (DWP) policy for assessing Employment Support Allowance eligibility was unlawful on two grounds. First, the policy placed the onus on the applicant to show ‘good cause’ for failing to attend appointments, which was incompatible with the objectives of the legislation; and, second, the DWP has an implied duty to inquire as to why the applicant had withdrawn their engagement where they are known to have mental health difficulties, under s.149 of the Equality Act (EA) (2010). Justice Bourne held that the reference to ‘good cause’ did not create an unlawful burden of proof, because it was clear from the policy that the Defendant must also utilise information that they could reasonably obtain, rather than just relying entirely on the applicant to demonstrate their eligibility. In addition, s.149 of the EA did not impose a duty to inquire after individuals, but rather a broad obligation to give due regard to the advancement of opportunity for disabled people generally, which the Defendants satisfied. The Equality and Human Rights Commission was given intervenor status, but the judge considered their submissions to be outside the scope of the ground of challenge.
On Monday the Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Act 2021 came into force, allowing the Attorney General, Suella Braverman QC, to be the first minister to take maternity leave. The Act grants cabinet ministers six months’ maternity leave whilst retaining their government post, whereas in the past MPs would have to resign to take time off to give birth. The Act is not without its critics, including those saying it should apply to MPs outside the Cabinet, and include provisions for paternity, adoption and shared parental leave. There was also heated debate in the Lords on the gender-neutral phrasing of the original Bill, with the Lords voting to replace ‘person’ with ‘mother’ in the final Act, despite its potential exclusion of trans and non-binary people.
A new offence of non-fatal strangulation has been included in the Domestic Abuse Bill following a campaign by the Centre for Women’s Justice, other organisations and the Victims’ and Domestic Abuse Commissioners. The Bill is passing through the House of Lords and now includes the offence of intentionally strangling another person or otherwise affecting their ability to breathe. Currently perpetrators are usually charged with common assault, with a maximum of just six months in jail. The Bill also includes amendments strengthening the laws on ‘revenge porn’, making it an offence to threaten to share intimate images of a person with the intention to cause distress, and extends the coercive control offence to situations where perpetrators and victims do not live together. The Victims’ and Domestic Abuse Commissioners welcomed the amendments but urged the Government to go further in creating a defence for people who commit offences due to domestic abuse.
On Friday the Women and Equalities Committee published the Government’s response to its report on the impact of coronavirus on BAME people, in relation to inequalities in health, employment, universal credit, housing, and the no recourse to public funds policy. The Committee’s inquiry found that comorbidities in BAME people place them at risk of experiencing coronavirus more severely and with graver health outcomes. Specific risks to BAME people include difficulty in accessing Government guidance, the disproportionate impact on BAME people of zero-hour contracts and being denied furlough, difficulties in applying for Universal Credit, and overcrowded housing due to housing inequality.
The Department of Health and Social Care on Friday published new guidance for care homes and visitors, to take effect on 8 March. This is not a change in the law, as visits to care homes have never been unlawful, but the new guidance sets out the government’s advice on safe visiting practices. This is that:
Sophie Basma (“Sophie”) is 10. She suffers from Type 3 Spinal Muscular Atrophy (“SMA”). SMA is a rare, genetic, neuromuscular disease which progressively leads to sufferers being unable to walk or sit unaided with devastating consequences on their quality of life. Sophie can no longer walk. There is medication for SMA sufferers which would have had the potential of helping Sophie regain her ability to work. But the NHS Trust had concluded that Sophie did not meet the eligibility criteria for this new medication, “Nusinersen”.
By her mother she challenged the decision by way of judicial review. The judge below found that the NHS Trust had lawfully reached the decision that they did. This was her appeal against that finding.
On 16 February 2021, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) granted further interim measures against Russia in relation to political opposition figure Alexei Navalny, requiring that Navalny be immediately released from prison due to the risk to his life and health.
Special Immigration Appeals Commissionand Secretary of State for the Home Department v R (Begum)  UKSC 7
Since 2019 when Shamima Begum was found in a camp in north Syria, her hopes of returning to the UK have ebbed and flowed (see here and here). Stripped of her British citizenship, she brought three sets of legal proceedings. Last week, after a ruling by the Supreme Court, her hopes receded once more. The Home Secretary was entitled to refuse her entry to the UK to pursue her appeal against the loss of citizenship, the Court ruled. So, Ms Begum’s appeal has been stayed, pending some change in her circumstances which will enable her to participate in a hearing – albeit from outside the UK.
The importance of the Judgment goes well beyond Ms Begum’s own circumstances.
It underlines an important constitutional principle about the separation of powers, at a time when the Government is carefully scrutinising such matters: the executive, not the judiciary, is the primary decision-maker when assessing risks to national security.
In failing to acknowledge this, said the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal erred when it ruled last summer that fairness required Ms Begum be permitted into the UK to pursue her citizenship appeal, notwithstanding the national security concerns.
The Hague Court of Appeal has recently handed down a ruling that is of profound importance to environmental lawyers. It is not only the first case at the appellate level in Europe that has resulted in a victory on the merits for the victims, but also the first case to hold that a parent company was under a duty of care with regard to foreign claimants. I will attempt to summarise one of the judgments in the following paragraphs, but readers would do well to look at the detailed analysis of the case by Dr Lucas Roorda on the Rights as Usual blog: “Wading through the (polluted) mud: the Hague Court of Appeals rules on Shell in Nigeria”.
David Hart QC will follow up my post with a piece on the UK Supreme Court decision in Okpabi v Shell on 12 February 2021.
There are in fact three judgments in this case Four Nigerian Farmers and Milieudefensie v. Shell; as Dr Roorda says,
The first (‘Cases A and B’) concerns an oil spill from an underground pipeline near Oruma in 2005; the second (‘Cases C and D’) concerns an oil spill from an underground pipeline near Goi in 2004; the third (‘Cases E and F’) concerns an oil spill from a wellhead near Ikot Ada Udo.
In the latest episode of Law Pod UK Rosalind English talks to Matt Hervey, co-editor with Matthew Lavy of a new practitioner’s text book on Artificial Intelligence. Matt is Head of Artificial Intelligence at Gowling WLG., and advises on all aspects of AI and Intellectual Property, particularly in relation to the life sciences, automotive, aviation, financial and retail sectors. Our discussion ranges across many areas covered by the book, which was conceived a mere three years ago when the only laws we had to deal with machine learning were those to do with self-driving vehicles and automated decision making under the GDPR. This is a very important subject which is why Law Pod UK visits it again and again; Matt compares machine learning to the industrial revolution itself.
The ability to understand patterns in language and sudden unlocking ability of machines to understand language and see things has massive implications.
But there are much greater challenges, particularly on the topics of liability, foreseeability, and the general risks of AI,
a technology that is aiming to replicate or even transcend human abilities.
In the forthcoming months I will be speaking to Matt’s fellow contributors to the book on their specialist subjects, including negligence, liability for physical and economic harm, AI and professional liability, and more on AI and intellectual property, a fascinating subject which Matt touches on in this episode.
The UK has seen an increasingly falling rate in arrests and prosecutions for cannabis possession over recent years, as police forces no longer see the point in enforcement. The Liberal Democrats have campaigned for its legalisation since 2016, and the first medically-prescribed cannabis was permitted in the UK in 2018. However, crucial NHS cannabis-based medicines for epilepsy remained prohibitively difficult to access for another year, with the majority of self-reported ‘medicinal’ users still turning to the black market. With growing numbers of US states, alongside Canada and South Africa decriminalising recreational use over the past three years, some UK MPs believe that cannabis legalisation will occur in the UK within five to ten years.
R (The Motherhood Plan and Anor) v HM Treasury  EWHC 309 (Admin)— read judgment
In a judgment handed down on 17 February 2021, the High Court has ruled that the Self Employment Income Support Scheme (“the Scheme”) introduced during the coronavirus pandemic does not indirectly discriminate against self-employed women who have taken a period of leave relating to maternity or pregnancy in the last three tax years.
On 30 April 2020, HM Treasury (the Defendant) introduced the Scheme in order to provide payments to those who carried on a business which had been adversely affected by the coronavirus emergency. The Scheme was to be based on average trading profits (“ATP”) of the individual business over the preceding three full tax years (i.e. 2016/17, 2017/18, 2018/2019).
The Claimants’ case was that the Scheme had a discriminatory impact on women who had taken maternity leave during a relevant tax year. The rationale was that trading profits for the year when maternity leave was taken would have been lower, the result being that the payments under the Scheme were less than they otherwise might have been.
The Claimants therefore challenged the Scheme on two main grounds:
The Scheme unlawfully discriminated against self-employed women who have taken a period of leave relating to maternity or pregnancy in the three preceding tax years, contrary to Article 14 read with Article 1 of Protocol 1 of the Human Rights Convention. This discrimination was advanced as taking the form of: (i) “Conventional” indirect discrimination; and/or (ii) discrimination of the Thlimmenos type: the principle that different cases should properly be treated differently.
The Defendant breached the Public Sector Equality Duty in section 149 of the Equality Act 2010.
Human trafficking is internationally recognised as threatening human rights and the fundamental values of democratic societies. States have taken action to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking and to provide support to victims of what is the third largest illicit money-making venture in the world. But what happens when the victims of trafficking commit a crime themselves? Should they be prosecuted? What factors are relevant in this assessment? And which arm of the State should the assessment of whether someone is a victim of trafficking be entrusted to? This is the first time the European Court of Human Rights has tackled these questions. The Court found that the UK had breached its obligations under articles 4 and 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights by prosecuting two Vietnamese children who were potential victims of trafficking.
It was only at the turn of the century that the first comprehensive international instrument on human trafficking was adopted. The Palermo Protocol established a number of obligations to prevent trafficking, punish traffickers and protect victims of trafficking. It defines trafficking as:
the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs
There are therefore three elements to trafficking: (i) action (recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt); (ii) means (threat or use of force or other forms of coercion etc.); and (iii) purpose (exploitation). When trafficking involves a child, the ‘means’ element of the test does not apply.
A number of legal developments put free speech under the spotlight this week.
First, media commentators disputed the significance of the Duchess of Sussex’s successful privacy claim against Associated Newspaper Limited, covered in last week’s round-up. A leader in The Times issued the grave warning that ‘Mr Justice Warby’s judgment creates a precedent that will have a chilling effect on the media,’ not least ‘given that what was at stake…were issues that affect society as whole’. Some media lawyers took a dim view of such alarm, suggesting there was little to be surprised at in Warby J’s carefully reasoned conclusion that no legitimate public interest was to be found in publishing the intimate contents of a daughter’s letter to her father.
Then came Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s announcement of a proposed free speech law targeting universities, designed to reverse ‘the chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring’. Its reception was mixed to say the least. The scheme would impose a statutory free speech duty on universities and student unions, enabling ‘no-platformed’ academics, students and visiting speakers to sue for compensation. Potential infringements would be investigated by a mandated ‘free speech champion’, empowered to recommend various forms of redress. While many academics welcomed the basic principles behind the proposal, others complained that it fomented “phantom fears” of a “cancel culture” crisis.
Having been temporarily suspended in early January as a result of an increase in COVID-19 cases, the Grenfell Tower Inquiry hearings resumed on 8 February 2021. The fire killed 72 people.
The hearings are being conducted remotely using a Zoom-based video platform, which the Inquiry describes as “a temporary measure to be used only for as long as absolutely necessary”.
The Inquiry conducted Phase 1 of the investigation, which focused on the events of the night of 14 June 2017, on 12 December 2018. Phase 2 is currently underway, which examines the causes of these events, including how Grenfell Tower came to be in a condition which allowed the fire to spread in the way identified by Phase 1.
In an earlier post I discussed the problem of “vaccine hesitancy” and written evidence to Parliament to Parliament outlining ways in which a vaccination against Covid-19 without consent could be put on a par with capacity under the Mental Capacity Act 2005 and with Section 3 of the Mental Health Act 1983.
Since the announcement of successful clinical trials for the vaccination was made in mid-December, the prospect of population-wide vaccinations has become a reality, and, whilst there are still supply problems, there is no doubt that the issue of medical intervention without consent being made mandatory either through private channels has begun to exercise legal minds across the country. Saga cruise line and the airline Qantas for example have indicated their intention to refuse non vaccinated passengers. Such private prohibitions may have almost as broad an effect as the restrictions on civil liberties passed under the Coronavirus Act since lockdown was declared on March 23 2020 (more specifically, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (All Tiers) (England) Regulations 2020).
This blog is maintained for information purposes only. It is not intended to be a source of legal advice and must not be relied upon as such. Blog posts reflect the views and opinions of their individual authors, not of chambers as a whole.