Bill of Rights
6 December 2011
Behind the Times paywall Anthony Lester today declares that “Sniping at Strasbourg will only hinder reform”. In his guest column, he says that Court is suffering unfair criticism from “sections of the British media” and “politicians who accuse it of over-reaching its power”. That may well be the case, but the most searing and authoritative criticism comes not from politicians or the press but from Lord Lester’s own profession – see Jonathan Sumption QC’s recent broadside (and our post) and Lord Hoffmann’s much-discussed analysis (posted here).
If the Court is indeed hobbled by unfair squibs and arrows from a resentful sector of the British populace, as Lord Lester suggests, why is the prisoner votes example the only one he can come up with? That is an important fight, at least from a constitutional angle, but not the only flashpoint; the Court’s tendency to act as fourth instance appeal tribunal particularly on deportation and terrorism cases is arguably far more “dangerous” and certainly of concern to more people than votes for prisoners.
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8 November 2011
The Commission on a Bill of Rights consultation on whether we need one (a bill, not the Commission) closes this Friday 11 November.
The consultation document is here: Do we need a UK Bill of Rights. You can respond by email or to the Commission’s address. Our posts on the commission are here and listed below for background – you can also read our existing Bill of Rights, from 1689, here, the Magna Carta here and the Human Rights Act here.
I intend to collate responses and summarise them once the deadline passes, so please feel free to email your responses (ideally as an MS Word document or PDF) to email@example.com .
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25 October 2011
At around the same time that 79 Conservative Party MPs were rebelling over a European referendum, the Conservative Attorney General was giving a very interesting speech entitled European Convention on Human Rights – Current Challenges.
In a month in which the Justice Secretary called part of the Home Secretary’s speech on human rights “laughable” and “childlike”, Dominic Grieve presented a refreshingly grown-up argument on human rights reform.
The speech is worth reading in full. Grieve presented the Government’s arguments, most of them already well-known, on why the Human Rights Act needs to be replaced by a Bill of Rights. There were no big surprises; his central theme, subsidiarity, that is the European Court giving member states more space to set their local social policy, is something which the Justice Secretary has spoken about – see my post on his evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee.
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18 March 2011
The much trumpeted commission on a UK Bill of Rights has been launched by the Ministry of Justice. It is pretty much as was leaked last week, although it will now have 8 rather than 6 experts chaired by Sir Leigh Lewis, a former Permanent Secretary to the Department of Work and Pensions.
The commission is to report by the end of 2012. Its members, described as “human rights experts”. Are they? The roll call, made up mostly of barristers, is:
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30 July 2010
Morley & Ors v. R  EWCA Crim 1910 – Read judgment
Four former Members of Parliament have failed in their appeal of a Crown Court ruling preventing them from claiming parliamentary privilege in criminal proceedings arising from the parliamentary expenses scandal.
The appeal was of Mr Justice Saunders’ ruling in the Southwark Crown Court that the parliamentary privilege enshrined in the 1688 Bill of Rights does not extend to protecting the four ex-MPs, Elliott Morley, David Chaytor, James Devine and Lord Hanningfield, from prosecutions for claiming inflated expenses. He had said that he could “see no logical, practical or moral justification for a claim for expenses being covered by privilege; and I can see no legal justification for it either.”
The Lord Chief Justice gave the judgment of the court, and made clear that Parliamentary privilege was simply not designed to protect these four men from the allegations currently against them:
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14 June 2010
Morley & Ors, R. v  EW Misc 9 (EWCC) (11 June 2010) – Read judgment
Four former Members of Parliament have failed in their initial bid to claim parliamentary privilege in criminal proceedings arising from the parliamentary expenses scandal. The case has highlighted constitutional principles which reach back hundreds of years to the time of Oliver Cromwell, and raises questions of whether parliamentarians are above the criminal justice system.
This will not be the end of the affair, however, as leave to appeal has been granted with the case to be heard by the Court of Appeal as early as before the end of this month
Mr Justice Saunders sitting the Southwark Crown Court ruled that the parliamentary privilege enshrined in the 1688 Bill of Rights does not extend to protecting the four ex-MPs, Elliott Morley, David Chaytor, James Devine and Lord Hanningfield, from prosecutions for claiming inflated expenses.
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1 June 2010
We have been following the debate on whether Britain will opt to supplement the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights. In a wide-ranging article published today, Geoffrey Robertson QC, a barrister specialising in human rights, has advocated “moving on from the Euro Convention – building on it, but not abandoning it.”
In the article, he concludes:
Despite these inadequacies, there is ample evidence that the Human Rights Act has measurably improved the level of dignity and decency accorded by the state to its most-vulnerable citizens, and for that relief much thanks to the Blair government which enacted it with cross-party support in 1998. But it has not, as its proponents hoped, conduced to a “culture of liberty”….
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29 April 2010
The ghost of Cromwell?
With all of the talk of the Conservative Party’s proposed new Bill of Rights, it is easy to forget that we have had one on the statute books since 1688. This will now be brought into sharp focus through the Parliamentary expenses scandal, where three ex-MPs are planning to use the 322-year old Act to argue that their prosecutions should be dropped as they have Parliamentary privilege.
The 1688 Bill of Rights (passed by Parliament in 1689) established many of the democratic rights which now find form in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and other similar sources, such as the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Some of the language is familiar, such as the provision against “cruel and unusual punishments”, which foreshadows Article 3 of the ECHR.
The intention of the 1688 Act, which is still in force, was to establish rights seen as essential to restricting the power of the monarch, and bolstering the power and independence of Parliament. The Sovereign was restricted, for example, from establishing new courts or act as judge.
The key provision in respect of the three ex-MPs is:
That the Freedome of Speech and Debates or Proceedings in Parlyament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any Court or Place out of Parlyament.
Joshua Rozenberg, in a very interesting Law Society Gazette article, outlines the main issue:
The 1688 act is still in force, and there is no doubt that it protects MPs and peers from legal action over what they say in parliament. But what is meant by ‘proceedings’? Does it cover a claim for parliamentary expenses? The defendants say it does.
And who should decide such a question? The former MPs are expected to argue that leaving it to the courts would interfere with separation of the powers, a fundamental constitutional principle under which the judges do not question the way in which parliament conducts its affairs.
The Bill of Rights is still occasionally cited in court. One notable example was during the “cash for questions” affair in the 1990s. Neil Hamilton, then a member of Parliament, brought an action in libel against The Guardian newspaper. The trial was stopped, as Mr Justice May considered that the prohibition on courts questioning Parliamentary proceedings would prevent The Guardian obtaining a fair trial. This led directly to the drafting of s.13 of the Defamation Act 1996 which allows someone being sued for defamation to waive “the protection of any enactment or rule of law which prevents proceedings in Parliament being impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament.”
In his article, Rozenberg goes on to discuss what he considers to be the comparative case of Les Huckfield, a Member of the European Parliament who was accused of dishonestly obtaining expenses of over £2,500 by deception.
Old and new
Clearly the battle lines are now being drawn in what will be interesting and potentially important litigation from a perspective of constitutional law. It is also an odd coincidence that three ex-MPs may save themselves from prison by citing a 322-year-old bill of rights at the same time that their Parliamentary ex-colleagues are attempting to enact a brand new one.
28 April 2010
Three interesting press articles on proposals for a Bill of Rights:
The Northern Irish perspective – Monica McWilliams, chief commissioner for Human Rights in Northern Ireland writes in The Guardian: “The Human Rights Act is central to the constitutional DNA of the UK. It underpins the devolution settlements while simultaneously elucidating the common values of the constituent nations. It also provides a necessary platform from which the sense of autonomy that devolution brings can be further built upon.” (see our post on the subject)
The NGO perspective: Qudsi Rasheed, Legal Officer for JUSTICE, the human rights NGO, writes in The Guardian: “The Conservative party’s approach to this issue has been cloak and dagger. The commission of lawyers set up by David Cameron to consider the bill of rights has been extremely secretive and none of its work has been published. Short of vague and often contradictory statements and political rhetoric by various members of the party, there has been very little in the way of concrete proposals and suggestions.”
The Australian perspective: The Australian Newspaper editorial on why the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, was right to reject proposals for an Australian Bill of Rights: “The Rudd government’s decision last week to reject the idea of codifying rights is a recognition that Australia’s robust constitution, its strong parliamentary tradition of lawmaking, its independent judiciary, and its intelligent civic culture are the best protections for citizens. Far from protecting minority rights, statutory codification risked pitting the judiciary against the parliament by, in effect, becoming a third house of parliament.“
23 April 2010
Lord Phillips, the head of the Supreme Court, spoke to lawyers this week on the future of the Human Rights Act 1998, which the Conservative Party have threatened to repeal. He said that now that the Act is in place, it would be very difficult to imagine a court ignoring the rights enshrined by it, even if it were repealed.
We will post the full speech if and when it becomes available. In the mean time, Afua Hirsch writing in the Guardian summarises his argument (reproduced after the page break below).
On a second-hand reading, it does seem somewhat hopeful to assume, as Lord Phillips appears to, that if the Act were repealed courts would still place rights in anything like the central position they have been since the its passing, largely through momentum. Lawyers tend to concentrate on points which win cases, rather than on first principles, and whilst human rights were a relevant consideration before the Act’s passing (judgments of the European Court of Human Rights were persuasive but not binding), they amounted to little more that.
That said, the Conservative party have pledged to replace the Act with something similar, a Bill of Rights. It is not yet clear what form it will take, but it is highly likely that the European Convention on Human Rights will be the starting point for its drafting, and it is likely to be a recalibration rather than a replacement. As such, human rights are most probably “here to stay”, but we should not overestimate the constitutional power of judges, or underestimate the power of Parliament to set the legal agenda.
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21 April 2010
One of the main human rights debates of the General Election is whether the Human Rights Act 1998 will be replaced with or bolstered by an American-style Bill of Rights. One aspect of the debate which has been mostly ignored in the British media has been the impact which a Bill of Rights would have in Northern Ireland.
In November 2009, the Northern Ireland Office published A Bill of Rights For Northern Ireland: Next Steps, an interim report proposing that a separate Bill of Rights be drafted for Northern Ireland, on the basis that:
The need for an additional human rights framework that reflects the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland was recognised in the Belfast Agreement and given shape through the commitment to set up a Bill of Rights Forum as part of the St Andrews Agreement… The fundamental principle of mutual respect for the rights and freedoms of all the people of Northern Ireland has been at the heart of this progress, and still has a crucial role to play in its future success.
The Northern Irish Human Rights Commission responded in February, welcoming the proposal to produce a separate Bill of Rights. However, the Commission was sharply critical of the tone and content of the substantive proposals. Amongst other things, it accused the proposal of failing to take appropriate account of international standards and of suggesting that existing human rights standards are actually lowered.
The Committee for the Administration of Justice (CAJ), an independent human rights organisation, have also recently published their own response to the interim report, and have also argued that the proposals are too weak and do not go far enough in increasing human rights protections. CAJ say:
A Bill of Rights is one of the final parts of the human rights jigsaw; it ensures that rights currently enjoyed cannot be taken away at the whim of any government. It is intended to ensure, in a divided society, that whoever exercises governance over this disputed ground cannot rule without respecting the rights of everyone who lives here. It also ensures that those who are not or do not identify primarily as part of the two main communities will have their rights respected also.
The Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland is clearly in its early planning stages, and may not go ahead at all. That said, it is more advanced than English and Scottish proposals, which, if they ever happen, will certainly not do so until long after the Election.
- Well informed posts on the topic on the Human Rights in Ireland Blog can be found here, here, here, here, here and here
- Relatedly, the Chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission writes in the Guardian about the Bill of Rights and his fears that it may create a “two-tier” system
15 April 2010
The three main political parties have now have set out their stalls on human rights in their election manifestos, and the future of the Human Rights Act is very much in the balance.
We have been following the arguments for and against a Bill of Rights, which has been proposed either as a replacement for or supplement to the Human Rights Act 1998.
After a period of uncertainty, now only the Conservative Party say they will actually replace the Human Rights Act, with both Labour and the Liberal Democrats committing to keeping it on the statute books. The Conservatives have not spelled out how or within what time frame their plans will take shape. Dominic Grieve, the shadow justice secretary, spoke to lawyers recently on the issue but provided little further detail.
The Human Rights Act 1998 came into force in October 2000, and despite approaching its 10th birthday, it still inspires strong views either in support or opposition. As Francis Gibb writes in The Times, “it… became derided by the Government’s own ministers as well as by the Conservatives as a “charter for the undeserving” and for criminals.”
The two parties which support keeping the Act may be reluctant to raise the issue over other more obvious vote winners, and as such it remains to be seen how much it will feature in debate leading up to the election. However, whether or not it becomes a key issue on the soap boxes, the fate of the Human Rights Act will be one of the important lasting effects of this election.
The manifestos can be found (in alphabetical order) below:
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9 April 2010
The Bill of Rights will be one of the major issues in the May 6th Election, even if it may not capture as much public attention as crime or the NHS. Whichever party (or parties) takes control after May 6th, their attitude towards the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) will have significant and long lasting consequences for the UK.
Joshua Rozenberg blogs today on his verdict of Labour’s record from 1997-2010. He says that the HRA is “what legal historians will remember as the defining reform of Labour 1997-2010 (if this year does, indeed, mark the end of an era). Even if the Human Rights Act 1998 is modified by an incoming government, it will not be repealed. There would be little point in doing so; no government would withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, jeopardising the UK’s membership of the Council of Europe and even of the EU.”
I am closer to Dominic Grieve than David Cameron on this one. I don’t regard Labour’s “incorporation” of the convention into domestic law as a disaster. I saw it as a political imperative – although it was one that would never have happened if Lord Irvine of Lairg, who became Lord Chancellor in 1997 – had not hit the ground running. It is he, I believe, who devised the subtle “declaration of incompatibility” on which the entire Act rests, preserving parliamentary sovereignty while giving judges strong powers to “read down” legislation in a way that complies with human rights standards.
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5 April 2010
The Scottish and Northern Irish Human Rights Commissions have issued a joint statement responding to the Conservative Party’s plans to repeal the Human Rights Act and introduce a British Bill of Rights.
Professor Alan Miller, Chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission (SHRC), is quoted on their website. Interestingly, he makes the link between the HRA and devolution for Scotland: “The Human Rights Act in combination with the Scotland Act is an important pillar of devolution for Scotland. Rather than needing to be repealed it needs to be progressively built upon in Scotland.” Justice, a Human Rights organisation, made the same point on devolution in a recent report.
Professor Monica McWilliams, Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission said: “Nowhere in the world has the repeal of existing human rights protections been a starting point for discussing a proposed Bill of Rights.”
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30 March 2010
We have been following with interest the debate over the proposed “Bill of Rights” which all of the major parties are considering in some form. Dominic Grieve QC, the Shadow Justice Secretary, gave a speech last week to the Human Rights Lawyers Association which touched upon the Conservative Party’s proposals. Francis Klug wrote in The Guardian that:
Some of us asked Grieve to clarify the effects of these proposed interpretation clauses at yesterday’s meeting. I am not sure we were any the wiser. The purpose appears to be to free our judges from the approach of the Strasbourg court (they are already free from slavishly following the case law) where rights are not absolute. The text of the ECHR could still be used, Grieve says (although he suggests this is only his personal preference, not necessarily his party’s). But it is not at all clear that the human rights framework for balancing or limiting rights – based on preventing harm rather than creating eligibility criteria – will survive these suggested “interpretation clauses”.
The text of the speech has not been published, but Mr Grieve has published a speech on the same topic on his website, given in November 2009. In that speech he made clear that the Human Rights Act would not be replaced without a wide public consultation. However, he did provide some clues as to the nature of the “interpretation clauses”, saying:
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