There is a long history of crossover between lawyers and politicians; more members of parliament come from the law than almost any other profession. But the relationship – never totally tranquil – has become more strained in recent years.
On 12 October 2020, the Prime Minister made a statement in Parliament and addressed the nation to announce a new three tier lockdown system would be introduced across the country. The Secretary of State for Health introduced three statutory instruments before Parliament which came into force two days later.
In oversimplified terms, the restrictions in place in each tier are as follows:
The ‘second wave’ of UK coronavirus cases is continuing to surge. The government’s scientific experts have warned that we are at a ‘critical moment’ for handling the pandemic, after daily case numbers doubled this week. In anticipation of a difficult winter, the provisions of the Coronavirus Act 2020 have been renewed for another 6 months; local lockdowns continue in Scotland and in large parts of Wales and the North of England; and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak has set out a rescue package for businesses, under which the government will cover 2/3 of salary payments for businesses forced to close.
Meanwhile, we may finally be about to see the contents of Operation Cygnus, the influenza pandemic readiness exercise undertaken by the government in 2016. NHS doctor Moosa Qureshi made a freedom of information request to see the report more than 6 months ago. Following the government’s delays in responding, the Information Commissioner has now taken a dramatic step in ordering the Department of Health and Social Care to provide the document, or explain its reasons for refusing to do so, by 23rd October.
On 1 October 2020, the Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland QC, gave a speech at Temple Church to mark the opening of the legal year. He praised the “enduring success” of our legal system, our “healthy democracy”, and the “commitment to the Rule of Law” which steered the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Lord Chancellor delivered his speech two days after the controversial Internal Market Bill cleared its final hurdle in the House of Commons with ease, by 340 votes to 256. Earlier in September, Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, told the House of Commons that the government’s plans would “break international law in a very specific and limited way.” On September 29, the Lord Chancellor voted against a proposed amendment to the Bill “requiring Ministers to respect the rule of law and uphold the independence of the Courts.” He was joined in doing so by the Attorney General, Suella Braverman, and the Solicitor General, Michael Ellis.
This week, 6 months after it was passed, the Coronavirus Act 2020 is due for a review in Parliament. In advance of that review, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights has published a report on the human rights implications of the government’s response to COVID-19. In the report, the committee highlights a wide range of failings, including in particular: widespread confusion over what is law and what is guidance; police failing to fully understand their powers under coronavirus legislation; privacy, data protection and discrimination concerns about test & trace; reduced access to justice; disproportionate harm to school children with special educational needs and disabilities; and harms inflicted by blanket bans on visits to people in care homes, prisons, and mental health facilities. The report can be viewed here; the JCHR’s proposed amendments to the coronavirus legislation to be discussed this week are here.
The JCHR is also due on Monday to scrutinise the government’s Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, which proposes a presumption against prosecution for service personnel and veterans. Concerns have been raised about the risks of the UK contravening its international legal obligations, and creating impunity for serious war crimes and torture.
Concerns about surveillance in the UK continue, as it was revealed this week that surveillance cameras manufactured by Chinese company Hikvision are being used across the UK; their use has expanded in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hikvision was blacklisted by the US government for human rights violations in connection with the Uighur concentration camps in Xinjiang. Hikvision says it has been engaging with the UK and US governments to “clarify misunderstandings”, and claims it is “committed to cybersecurity standards which are compliant with the most rigorous certifications and best practices.”
The Prime Minister has courted controversy yet again this week with a new Brexit bill that appears to violate international law. The proposed Internal Markets Bill would give ministers certain powers relating to Northern Ireland in respect of customs rules and state aid. In particular, it would give them powers to modify or “disapply” rules relating to the movement of goods which will come into force from 1st January 2021, if the UK and EU are not able to agree a trade deal. These were key issues under the Northern Ireland Protocol that was negotiated as part of the Withdrawal Agreement concluded on 31 January this year. In a striking admission, Northern Ireland Minister Brandon Lewis stated in Parliament that this breach of the Withdrawal Agreement does indeed breach international law, but only “in a very specific and limited way”. The bill is to be formally debated by MPs today.
In a further move to avoid the UK’s international law obligations, the Government has indicated that it is planning to “opt out” of parts of the European Court of Human Rights. This proposal is apparently made in order to enable the Government to accelerate deportation of asylum-seekers, and to minimise legal action against British forces overseas, which the Government identifies as key areas where the judges of the European Court have “overreached”. The proposals have provoked outrage from Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights’ inquiry into racism and human rights in the UK heard evidence this week from ClearView Research. The evidence provided from surveys indicates that black people in the UK overwhelmingly do not think they receive equal human rights protection. According to the data, 75% of black people in the UK do not believe their rights are equally protected compared to white people; 85% are not confident they would be treated the same as a white person by the police; and 60% do not believe their health is equally protected by the NHS compared to white people.
The British Institute of Human Rights has released a report which raises new concerns about the operation of the care sector during the pandemic. The report states that more than 75% of social care staff were not given proper training to deal with the impact of COVID-19, in particular in relation to human rights law and coronavirus emergency powers – despite the wide-ranging changes made by the government to the legal framework which governs the care sector, including suspending duties under the Care Act, changing vulnerable individuals’ care packages, and banning non-essential visits to care homes. The report also noted that more than 60% of vulnerable individuals with care and support needs were not informed of the legal basis of the drastic changes made to their care packages.
As the school year gets going again, grammar schools will need to be cautious in complying with their duty to make reasonable adjustments, following a legal challenge funded by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The challenge was brought by a visually impaired student who was unable to sit an 11+ entry exam for a Berkshire grammar school when the school refused to make adjustments specified in his Education Health and Care Plan, on the basis that they were too expensive; the First-tier Tribunal found for the student.
In the courts
With the UK courts in recess, there are very few reported judgments this week. However, there are some noteworthy judgments from the European Court of Human Rights:
GL v Italy: a child diagnosed with nonverbal autism was entitled to specialised assistance under Italian law. The local authorities did not provide this for 2 years, while she was in primary school, on the basis of lack of resources. The ECtHR found that there had been a violation of Article 14 read with Article 2 of Protocol 1 (right to education). In particular, the court noted that the Italian courts had failed to consider whether there was a fair balance between the child’s educational needs and the authorities’ capacity, and did not verify how the effect of budgetary restrictions compared for non-disabled and disabled children. The court further observed that the national authorities had not considered the possibility that they could address their lack of resources by reducing their educational offer accordingly, such that it could be distributed equitably between non-disabled and disabled students. In giving judgment, the court emphasised that budgetary restrictions must impact the education available for disabled and non-disabled pupils the same way; and that discrimination of this kind is all the more serious when taking place in compulsory primary education.
NS v Croatia: the applicant’s daughter and partner had died in a tragic car accident, but their daughter survived. In the aftermath of the accident, there was a custody battle between the applicant and the child’s uncle; following confidential court proceedings, the uncle was given custody. The applicant subsequently appeared on a national TV show, where she discussed the proceedings, and expressed criticism of the Croatian child protection system on a TV show; she was convicted of a criminal offence for breach of confidentiality in respect of the court proceedings. The court held that there had been a violation of Article 10. The domestic courts should have considered the fact that most of the information disclosed in the TV report was already known to the public, and that the applicant had been appearing on TV in good faith to raise serious concerns about the malfunctioning of the country’s social welfare services.
Yordanovi v Bulgaria: two Turkish-Muslim brothers decided to set up an association for the integration of Turkish-speaking Bulgarians. In pursuit of this aim, they built a monument on private land to commemorate soldiers killed in the 19th Century Russo-Turkish War, and set up the ‘Muslim Democratic Union’ at an assembly in the centre of town. Police told them the assembly was illegal, but it went ahead; criminal proceedings were subsequently brought for setting up a political organisation on a religious basis, and for breach of the peace in setting up the monument. The brothers were given a suspended prison sentence. The court held that this was a violation of Article 11. The authorities had many other options: they could refuse to register the would-be political party, without which registration the party would not be able to engage in any official activity; and they could have dissolved the party if it were declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court. A criminal sanction had been a disproportionate interference with freedom of expression and freedom of association, and was not ‘necessary in a democratic society’.
Timakov and Ooo Id Rubezh v Russia: the applicant and his newspaper had published an article making allegations of corruption against the Governor of the Tula region in Russia. The Governor brought civil and criminal proceedings, and substantial damages awards were made – sufficiently substantial that some of the applicant’s household items were taken to fulfil them. The Governor was ultimately found guilty of bribery and corruption and sent to prison. The court found that there was a violation of Article 10. In reaching this conclusion, the court noted a laundry list of failings in the Russian courts: the courts had not sought to balance the governor’s interest in protecting his reputation against the importance of public transparency and accountability; the courts had not considered the applicant’s role as a journalist, that these were matters of public concern, or that he had acted in good faith; the courts had not attempted to consider whether the statements complained of were statements of fact or value judgements. The court further emphasised the chilling effect of such disproportionately high awards, with the awards from the civil proceedings having been substantially higher than the fine in the criminal proceedings.
BG and others v France: Eastern European asylum-seekers with young children were accommodated by the French authorities in a set of tents in a parking lot, for a period of approximately 3 months. They alleged that there had been a violation of Article 3 and 8, insofar as they had not benefited from the material and financial support provided for under national law. The court rejected their claim, noting that the applicants had received constant food aid; medical monitoring, vaccination, and education had been provided for their young children; and their asylum application had been examined under an accelerated process.
Shuriyya Zeylanov v Azerbaijan: this case highlights serious failings in the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan. The applicant’s son had been charged with treason, having been accused of collaboration with Iranian intelligence forces, and died in custody from an alleged pulmonary embolism. The applicant claimed that the government had violated Articles 2 and 3. The court upheld his claim, under both the substantive and the procedural limbs. The government had failed to convincingly account for the circumstances of the victim’s death, and it appeared likely that injuries visible on video footage of his body had been occasioned by torture. Likewise, the government had failed analyse the causal links between his injuries and his death, or to cooperate with the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture or Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; and it appeared that the government had attempted to prevent an effective investigation into the matter, by levelling accusations of defamation against the deceased’s family.
On the UKHRB
Sapan Maini-Thompson discusses a High Court challenge to conditions at Brook House Immigration Removal Centre
Philippa Collins considers the implications of the new pattern of home working for privacy rights under the European Convention of Human Rights
Elliot Gold examines a judgment of the European Court of Human Rights on Article 3 ECHR in the context of a rape investigation
Image: Screenshot of the Home Office’s twitter feed (now deleted).
It was not an overly exerting bank holiday weekend for the author of this week’s round-up. The influence of the summer holiday appears to have resulted in relatively few judgments from the senior courts, with particularly little in the field of human rights law. However, the week was not wholly without incident…
In response to the growing numbers of migrants seeking to cross the English Channel in small boats, the Home Office tweeted a short video explaining that “current return regulations… (allow) activist lawyers to delay and disrupt returns”. The video was helpfully illustrated with little pictures of planes taking off from the English coast bound for Europe, although why the Home Office would seek to return migrants to Europe following the UK’s withdrawal from the Dublin Regulations was unclear.
In the interests of fairness, despite being removed from the Home Office’s twitter feed following numerous complaints, the video can still be viewed here. Readers will without doubt form their own opinions. It is submitted however, that the following statements are uncontroversial:
Conor Monighan brings us the latest updates in human rights law
In the News:
Internationally there were a number of developments which have significant consequences for human rights. In Russia a prominent critic of Vladimir Putin has allegedly been poisoned. Alexei Navalny, who is known for exposing corruption within the country, suddenly fell ill last week after drinking tea.
Supporters claim the Russian state has tried to silence Mr Navalny’s criticism of President Putin, and then attempted to cover up its actions by stopping Mr Navalny from being treated abroad. Despite initial resistance from doctors, who said that Mr Navalny was too ill to be moved, the leader has now been flown out of Russia. Critics say the developments are part of a wider crackdown on freedom of speech within the country.
This week has been awash with controversy over an unexpectedly harsh set of A-level results, with GCSEs set to follow this Thursday. Because students could not sit exams this year due to COVID-19, results were calculated on the basis of an algorithm taking into account mock exam results, predicted grades, and schools’ past performance. As a result, 40% of students have had their predicted grades lowered, with many losing university places as a result. Yet in a tour-de-force of algorithmic elitism, the number of independent school students securing A* or A grades has increased by 4.7%, compared to only 2.2% at state schools, and 0.3% at further education colleges. Multiple legal challenges are in contemplation; Jolyon Maugham QC’s Good Law Project is supporting 7 students in a judicial review of the exam regulator Ofqual’s failings.
Algorithmic injustice has been in the courts this week too, as civil liberties campaigner Edward Bridges won an important victory in the Court of Appeal against the use of facial recognition technology by the police.
Mr Bridges had launched a judicial review against the use of ‘AFR Locate’ facial recognition technology by South Wales Police after being photographed by automated cameras when Christmas shopping and subsequently when involved in a peaceful protest. His challenge had been dismissed by a Divisional Court in September 2019. The original decision was covered on the blog by Sapan Maini-Thompson here.
British SAS soldiers in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Credit: The Guardian
The final week of the legal term was set against the backdrop of new restrictions on the ability of different households to meet across a large part of northern England. The main restriction takes the form of a prohibition on individuals entering households other than their own to visit friends and family. As has become traditional over the last few months, the guidance was announced with a promise to bring forth new laws in the future, to confer actual powers of enforcement.
In addition, many of the week’s dominant news stories carried a prominent legal flavour:
Enables ministers to use regulation to add to the list of possible ‘victims’ of hate crime. There are already suggestions that misogyny will be added.
The definition of hate crime is extended to include ‘aggravation of offences by prejudice’.
Creates a new crime of ‘stirring up hatred’ against any of the groups which the Bill protects.
Updates and amalgamates existing hate crime law.
Abolishes the offence of blasphemy.
In addition, a new offence of misogynistic harassment is being considered.
The Bill was created following Lord Bracadale’s independent review of hate crime law. Official figures show that hate crime is on the rise in Scotland and the Bill seeks to address this.
However, the Bill has caused considerable concern. Many have suggested that the Bill unduly restricts freedom of speech. The President of the Law Society of Scotland, Amanda Millar, said she had “significant reservations” and indicated that “views expressed or even an actor’s performance” could result in a criminal conviction.
Groups ranging from the Catholic Church to the National Secular Society have also spoken against the plans. The Scottish Newspaper Society expressed reservations.
Some have claimed that JK Rowling, who recently tweeted her views about transgender rights/ feminism, could be imprisoned for 7 years under the Bill. Opponents also point to the experience of Threatening Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act 2012, which sought to target football hooliganism. The Act was later repealed due to concerns about freedom of speech and its ineffectiveness.
James Kelly, Labour’s justice spokesman, has pointed out that the Bill would not require ‘intention’ in order for criminality to be found. He suggested that religious views could be negatively affected by the proposals.
In response, the Scottish government points out that the Bill makes clear that criticising religious beliefs or practices does not, in itself, constitute a criminal offence. Ministers have also emphasised that the draft legislation seeks to protect minorities and oppressed groups.
The future of the UK response to COVID-19 remains uncertain. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has hinted that things will be ‘significantly normal’ by Christmas, and has emphasised his reluctance to impose a second national lockdown, comparing such a threat to a ‘nuclear deterrent’. Yet the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance says there is a risk we will need another national lockdown in the winter months. Mr Johnson has said the advice on working from home will change on 1st August to ‘go back to work if you can’; Sir Patrick Vallance says there is ‘no reason’ to change that advice. Confusion continues to reign.
Access to justice has been a major casualty of the pandemic, with jury trials suspended and a steady backlog of cases building up in the courts. To address that backlog, the government is now opening 10 temporary ‘Nightingale Courts’, which will hear civil, family, tribunal, and non-custodial criminal cases. Chair of the Criminal Bar Association Caroline Goodwin QC says that these courts are ‘just a start’, and that further buildings and a renewed focus on criminal trails will be needed to clear the backlog. Justice Minister Robert Buckland has already warned that the backlog may not be cleared until 2021.
The Court of Appeal has granted Shamima Begum leave to enter the UK in order to pursue her appeal against the Home Office’s decision to remove her British citizenship, overruling part of the decision made by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission. The court’s ruling is discussed in more detail below, and in an article by Marina Wheeler QC.
In a recent report entitled “It Still Happens Here”, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) and the anti-slavery charity Justice and Care have found a rise in incidents of domestic slavery, and warned that the problem is likely to intensify in the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis.
It has been a quiet week in the courts from a human rights perspective. The Supreme Court gave judgment on a divorce case and a social security fraud, and whilst the Court of Appeal and High Court were more forthcoming in terms of the number of decisions made, family law and commercial cases dominated. Legal buffs may however be interested to note Scales v Motor Insurers’ Bureau  EWHC 1747 (QB), in which the High Court applied Spanish law in a road traffic accident case, whilst celebrity watchers and students revising for their civil litigation exams may appreciate seeing how the court applied the test from Denton to grant Johnny Christopher Depp II relief from sanctions (who knew there was a Johnny Christopher Depp I?) – Depp v News Group Newspapers Ltd & Ors  EWHC 1734 (QB).
A quiet week in the courts did not however extend to a quiet week in the news…
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