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.
With apologies, this post originally appeared with the wrong title
The Court of Appeal has ruled on two linked challenges to the entitlement to welfare benefits of prisoners detained in psychiatric hospitals. One claim alleged unlawful discrimination as compared with other psychiatric patients not serving sentences, in breach of Article 14 ECHR, taken together with Article 1 Protocol 1 ECHR. The other claim raised a point of construction of the relevant regulations affecting one category of such prisoners
The discrimination aspect of the case considered two categories of convicted, sentenced prisoners: those transferred to psychiatric hospitals under section 47 of the Mental Health Act 1983, and those subject to hospital and limitation directions under section 45A of the Act. Prisoners in the first category are transferred after sentence, and generally after serving time in prison, while those in the second were subject to a direction at the same time as they are sentenced. Such prisoners were to be contrasted with, on the one hand, convicted prisoners who serve their sentence in prison and, on the other, patients who have been detained under purely civil law powers or under section 37 of the Act (that is, following conviction, but without any sentence having been passed). Continue reading →
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.
Maya Evans, an activist, is brining a judicial review against the Ministry of Defence in respect of the British Army’s detainee transfer policy in Afghanistan. It is alleged that British forces knew of the torture risks when handing over prisoners to the Afghan security services.
This is the latest in a series of cases where the Government have been criticised in the courts for defence policies in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2007, the House of Lords (the old Supreme Court) inAl-Skeinieffectively opened the door to such claims by foreign nationals by holding that the Human Rights Act applies outside of the UK.
The most notable recent example is the Binyam Mohamedcase, where the Court of Appeal heavily criticised the security services. Similar issues in relation to secret evidence appear to have arisen in Evans, with The Guardian reporting:
So concerned is the Ministry of Defence about the challenge to the practice, that it is insisting that evidence it had passed to her lawyers must now be suppressed.
As a result, skeleton argument from her lawyers – a document consisting of an outline of the case – includes a number of passages blacked out at the insistence of the MoD.
Following one long excised passage, the document revealed in court today reads: “The lessons from these shocking events is … investigation by the NDS [Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security] is obviously incapable of providing any satisfaction of the UK’s human rights obligations.”
Our posts on the Binyam Mohamed litigation can be found here, here, and here
Our case comment on R (Mazin Mumaa Galteth Al Skeini and others) v Secretary of State for Defence
The University of Salford have informed us that they will be hosting the first post-election Human Rights conference, which aims to address these issues. The Conference also coincides Human Rights Act 1998’s tenth birthday.
The Conference is ‘Ten years on’: A Multi-perspective Evaluation of the Human Rights Act – Salford Human Rights Conference 2010″, at the University of Salford on Friday and Saturday 4-5 June 2010. Full details can be found here and a list of speakers here.
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:
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.
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.”
Colonel Richard Kemp, former Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan, has written in the Times that lawyers have no place on the battlefield. He said: “In the heat of battle, a commander can’t worry about the Human Rights Act. It would make war impossible”
The award of damages under the Human Rights Act – Article by Ben Collins
Article 13 ECHR requires national courts to provide an effective remedy for violations of the convention. This article examines the extent to which the UK courts are prepared to conclude that such an effective remedy should include an award of damages. As will be seen, there is a marked reluctance to award damages save in the clearest cases.
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.