It’s rare for a section of an Act of Parliament to arouse as much ire as s2 does, or for it to be asked to play such divergent roles by various commentators. S2 HRA provides that a court or tribunal ‘determining a question that has arisen in connection with a Convention right must take into account’ any relevant Strasbourg jurisprudence. So at face value the intention was that the judges could not ignore it, but did not need to follow it. Further, the term ‘relevant’ implies that if there is no relevant jurisprudence, the court should determine the question re the right by other means.
But as is of course well known, the obligation to take the jurisprudence into account was rapidly transformed by the judiciary into an obligation akin to being bound by it if it was clear and constant, although as the President of the Supreme Court has said (in his oral submission to the JCHR, HC 873-ii, 15 November 2011, Answer to Question 64), that might have occurred in any event; if the words “take account of” had not been included the jurisprudence might have been given greater weight (Answer to Question 64). Some of the significant decisions will be mentioned, to indicate the stance being taken to s2. Lord Slynn in R (Alconbury)(at )found thatcourts should follow any clear and constant jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights (at ). In R (on the application of Ullah) v Special Adjudicator, in the context of s2, Lord Bingham followed that finding, on the basis that: “While [Strasbourg]…case law is not strictly binding, it has been held that courts should, in the absence of some special circumstances, follow any clear and constant jurisprudence of the Strasbourg court (at ; his Lordship relied on the above para in Alconbury). In Manchester City Council v Pinnocka nine member panel of the UK Supreme Court unanimously accepted that the Strasbourg case law in question was ‘now… unambiguous and consistent’ and that it was therefore right for English law to follow it (see also Ambrose v Harris). In B and another v Secretary of State for Justice ( 1 W.L.R. 2043, para 60) the principle that settled jurisprudence should be followed was reaffirmed, although Parliament’s intention that the legislation should be ECHR-compatible was also viewed as important
The Court in R (on the application of Quila) v SSHD, declined to follow the elderly Strasbourg case of Abdulaziz v UK, but on the basis that there was no ‘clear and consistent jurisprudence’ to follow (per Lord Wilson ). On the other hand, in R v Horncastle, in the context of Article 6, the Supreme Court considered that departure even from clear jurisprudence was exceptionally acceptable under s2 HRA, as s2 originally intended (see also R v Spear  1 AC 734). The Supreme Court decided that the European Court’s decision (Al-Khawaja) insufficiently appreciated or accommodated particular aspects of the domestic process, and determined that in those rare circumstances it could decline to follow the decision, as it did. The domestic provisions in question, the Court found, struck the right balance between the imperative that a trial must be fair and the interests of victims in particular and society in general; the Strasbourg test did not strike the right balance since it gave a higher value to Article 6 standards than those provisions did, and therefore was not applied. The UK at the time of Horncastle was appealing the Strasbourg decision in question to the Grand Chamber, and the result in the Grand Chamber (Al-Khawaja and Tahery v UK 15.12.11 (Applications nos. 26766/05 and 22228/06)) later largely vindicated the Supreme Court’s stance, an interesting instance of dialogue between the two in action.
Where there is no clear jurisprudence to follow or the Court has relegated, or is likely to relegate, a matter to the state’s margin of appreciation, the majority in the Supreme Court recently decided in Ambrose v Harristhatin such circumstances the intention behind s2 was not that the domestic court should outpace Strasbourg. Lord Hope, giving the leading judgment, said, “Lord Bingham’s point, (from Brown v Stott 2001 SC (PC) 43, 59 and from Ullah  UKHL 26,  2 AC 323, para 20) with which I respectfully agree, was that Parliament never intended to give the courts of this country the power to give a more generous scope to those rights than that which was to be found in the jurisprudence of the Strasbourg court. To do so would have the effect of changing them from Convention rights, based on the treaty obligation, into free-standing rights of the court’s own creation” (at ).
The roles s2 is expected to play
So what’s the problem with the interpretation that has been imposed on s2 and what should it be doing? Various divergent opinions have been offered in 2011 and 2012 from politicians and judges. According to Dominic Grieve (European Convention on Human Rights – current challenges 24.10.11, at Lincoln’s Inn, London) it’s in effect a rogue section; it’s out of control, a section gone mad. It needs to be drastically reined in, not just returned to its original conception since it has gone far too far in allowing Strasbourg decisions to re-shape domestic law. But among supporters of the HRA, there is a polarisation of opinion, between those who want the section to be used as it was originally intended – the “take into account only” group and in the opposing camp the “mirror principle” group. The mirror metaphor is often used to indicate that s2 requires the domestic courts to ‘mirror’ Strasbourg’s approach – to adopt the approach Strasbourg has adopted and to hold back if it has not spoken on an issue, since its approach cannot be mirrored.
But this question and the terms used require further elaboration. This blog will identify 3 models. Adhering to the first (‘anti-mirror principle’) model are HRA-supporters who want the judges to depart from Strasbourg where there are good reasons to do so, such as that basis of the domestic law in question (such as balancing the rights of suspects and of victims) have not been fully appreciated by Strasbourg. Obviously the position is not that the Strasbourg jurisprudence, if relevant, potentially dispositive, clear, consistent, should just be ignored; it must be taken into account, but clearly that suggests that it need not be followed. Those in this camp also want the domestic judges, since under this model they are not anchored to Strasbourg, to ‘outpace’ its jurisprudence – which tends to mean according an extended ambit to a Convention right even where Strasbourg has not yet spoken, or not spoken clearly as to such extension. Members of that camp include the original architect of the HRA, Lord Irvine as he indicated in a recent lecture (“A British Interpretation of Convention Rights”  P.L. April 237) Lord Hoffman, and most academics writing on the subject (see for example Francesca Klug and Helen Wildbore).
Adhering to the second (‘partial or semi-mirror principle’) model are those who consider that the domestic courts’ judgments should sometimes outpace Strasbourg, but if Strasbourg has spoken, they should normally follow suit; departure should be entirely exceptional. Baroness Hale, speaking extra-judicially, appears to place herself in that camp (an address, ‘Argentoratum Locutum: Is Strasbourg or the Supreme Court Supreme?’ delivered on 1.12.11 as the Human Rights Law Centre Annual Lecture 2011, University of Nottingham), and her judgment in Re G (below) in particular adopts that stance. At the risk of a gross over-simplification it is suggested that most academics and some judges, but mainly – not always – speaking extra-judicially, are in the first or second camps. For example, Lord Kerr in the recent Ambrose judgment adopted the second position.
Supporters of the third (‘full mirror principle’) model consider that the domestic courts’ judgments should not outpace Strasbourg and should mirror those where Strasbourg has spoken, with exceptional departure. The third camp appears to include the President of the Supreme Court (Answer to Question 67) and most of the senior judges, according to their judgments (in particular the well-known comment of Lord Rodger in AF(No3), ‘Strasbourg has spoken, the case is closed’) as indicated in the cases mentioned above. Sir Phillip Sales recently articulated this position extra-judicially. Some, such as Lord Hoffman in particular, have been at times very reluctant members of this camp, as he made clear in AF (no 3).
What are the merits of the three models? They will be considered in relation to the two key questions to which s2 gives rise, as follows.
Should the Supreme Court go beyond Strasbourg?
Members of the first camp would obviously say yes. So would members of the second – when there is no clear and constant jurisprudence to follow. Both camps on this point find that the judges need not be curtailed by the particular point Strasbourg has reached, or by the operation of the margin of appreciation doctrine, in striking out on their own in a determination to create expansive interpretations of Convention rights (see eg Masterman), and in the process creating a more exciting, creative and imaginative domestic human rights’ jurisprudence.
At first glance it might appear that such creativity is in practice only likely to arise in the less politically difficult areas of human rights’ law. Where has it occurred post-HRA? Various examples come to mind. In the cases of Re G and of Campbell the House of Lords gave a more expansive interpretation to Article 8 than Strasbourg at the point in question had done. But Re G concerned the question whether an unmarried couple should be subjected to an absolute bar to adoption in favour of married couples (in the case in question the adoption of the mother’s own child as part of an unmarried couple). Campbell of course concerned the question whether Article 8 ECHR applied via s6 HRA to a private body which had invaded the privacy of Naomi Campbell. In Campbell the Lords, broadly speaking, answered yes, to the question posed, but domestic and Strasbourg case-law was nearly at the point of recognising that that should be the case, at the time, in any event. In Re G the House of Lords found unsurprisingly that Ireland was discriminating on grounds of marital status in relation to Art 8 – due to an absolute ban on adoption by unmarried couples – even though no Strasbourg decision had clearly established that marital status was a protected ground of discrimination under Art 14. That was relatively uncontroversial since Northern Ireland was clearly out of line with the rest of the UK. Neither decision was in a highly sensitive area of executive decision-making.
On the other hand, a decision in such an area, countering the argument that domestic judges are over-deferential in such areas, is R (Limbuela) v Secretary of State for the Home Department. The same can be said of EM (Lebanon) which has certainly attracted strong censure from Grieve, and its effects, according to the current Home Secretary, are to be reined in via legislation on family immigration. A and others also arguably falls into the category of judgments that have out-paced Strasbourg as regards the reasoning on the deogation, and of course it cannot be seen as a decision outside the politically difficult areas.
A member of the third camp might counter by relying on the various decisions in which Strasbourg has had to ‘correct’the House of Lords or Supreme Court, in furtherance of an argument that the judges should be anchored to Strasbourg via s2 because on the whole Strasbourg shows a greater determination to hold the executive to account.Gillan v UK departed from the interpretation of Article 8 adopted in R (on the application of Gillan) v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis 2006 UKHL 122006 UKHL 122006 UKHL 12. A v UK upheld a higher due process standard than the previous House of Lords’ decision in Secretary of State for the Home Department v MB ( AC 440) had done in relation to Article 6. A v UK was then absorbed directly into domestic law via ss2 and 3 HRA in AF No3 ( UKHL 28). In R (S) v Chief Constable of the South Yorkshire Police and R (Marper) v Chief Constable of the South Yorkshire Police the claimants sought judicial review of the retention by the police of their fingerprints and DNA samples on the grounds inter alia that the practice was incompatible with article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The majority of the House of Lords held that the retention did not constitute an interference with the claimants’ article 8 rights, but they unanimously held that any interference was justified under article 8(2). The ECtHR disagreed: S and Marper v United Kingdom. Similarly, the Strasbourg judgment in the Qatada case (Othman v UK (2012) 55 EHRR 1) departed from the House of Lords’ findings (in RB (Algeria) and OO (Jordan) v SSHD in which it was found that Qatada could be deported)as regards Article 6, taking a more expansive view of the Article 6 requirements.
But those decisions might support adherence to the second model – ie partial acceptance of the mirror principle as in AF, but don’t fully support its acceptance in a context where Strasbourg has not yet spoken. It should also be pointed out that reliance on the third model tends to preclude a dialogic stance – ie dialogue between the domestic courts and Parliament is stifled, and between the domestic courts and the Strasbourg Court. For example, Lord Neuberger said in Manchester City Council v Pinnock that following all Strasbourg decisions ‘would destroy the ability of the court to engage in the constructive dialogue with the European court which is of value to the development of Convention law’ ( 3 WLR 1441 at ). Although judgments on this model contain some potential dialogic elements (see Ambrose v Harris  1 W.L.R. 2435; Lord Kerr’s dissenting judgment could potentially influence Strasbourg (see para 60). See also Sir Phillip Sales ‘Strasbourg jurisprudence and the Human Rights Act: a response to Lord Irvine’ P.L. 2012, Apr, 253 at 264), it is harder for any dialogue in any real sense to occur.
Should the Supreme Court follow clear and constant Strasbourg jurisprudence even where it disagrees with it?
The second and third camps would clearly say yes, with some exceptions, while reiterating that judges are not bound by Strasbourg. In other words, domestic judges should follow the mirror principle in trying to resolve the issues in a case before them in order to ‘Strasbourg-proof’ the case: if the applicant would probably win at Strasbourg they should win domestically. Baroness Hale has said on this: ‘it is more a question of respect for the balances recently struck by the legislature than a question of the extent of our powers. One reason for this is that an aggrieved complainant can always go to Strasbourg if she disagrees with our assessment, but the United Kingdom cannot’ (Human Rights Law Review (2012) 12 (1): 65-78 at 72). That would appear to avoid the institutional imbalance that might otherwise occur. But that argument does not take account of the fact that governments have methods open to them which victims do not, to seek to influence the interpretation and application of the ECHR, via the European institutions. For example, the UK’s Chairmanship of the Council of Europe allowed it at Brighton in 2012 to seek to increase the margin of appreciation member states enjoy.
Overall it does not appear that the senior judges espouse the mirror principle out of a conviction that the Strasbourg jurisprudence is of superior quality to their own. Sale argues that rule of law principles of certainty and predictability support the principle, which of course does not mean judges simply follow Strasbourg in all circumstances. But his position could be attacked on the basis that the Strasbourg jurisprudence is not always of high enough quality to satisfy such principles.
The idea that the interpretation of the ECHR should be uniform throughout the member states supports the stance of the second and third camps in answer to this question. But it does not support that of the third in relation to refusing to out-pace Strasbourg, since inevitably uniformity cannot be achieved at the point in question. Acceptance of the full or partial mirror principle might also appear to mean that Article 46 ECHR, binding states to accept Strasbourg decisions, is satisfied. But Art 46 is directed to states and does not necessarily mean that the judges have the responsibility for ensuring that Strasbourg rulings are implemented.
The first camp would obviously say no to the question posed. But clearly, that model must encompass acceptance that a ruling clearly or probably contrary to clear and constant Strasbourg jurisprudence might well lead to a successful application to Strasbourg, which would mean that the HRA had failed to achieve its aim of avoiding delay, leaving human rights’ breaches to subsist for significant periods. The eventual Strasbourg ruling could be reacted to by the executive; s10 HRA includes provision to do so. In other words, a trialogue between the judges, Strasbourg and the executive could occur. But for, at best, a significant period of time that would be of little value to the applicant, and those in his or her position.
The first camp could however point to other disadvantages of the use of the mirror approach in relation to clear Strasbourg jurisprudence. It creates an idea of alien European human rights’ standards being imposed by a distant court on the UK, and allows the domestic judges to displace responsibility for challenging the government onto Strasbourg. Strasbourg is already in a difficult position, partly due to its immense case-load and back-log of cases, and so is vulnerable to attack and a certain amount of reining in. The Conservative government had a go at such reining in, no doubt partly as a result of the A v UK and Qatada judgments, recently, at Brighton at the high level conference in 2012 on the future of the Court. The declaration that emerged, originally intended from the Conservative perspective to create enhanced subsidiarity, was not on the whole radical (although of course the devil will be in the details to be worked out). But it is arguable that the Court has recently shown a tendency, perhaps in anticipation of what might occur at Brighton and what might occur in future, to seek to appease member states, and Britain in particular, by less confrontational judgments (eg Hamza – Babar Ahmed and others v UK (App nos 2402/07, 11949/08, 36742/08, 66811/09 and 67354/09) and also recent refusal (25.9.12) of leave to appeal to the Grand Chamber).
Pragmatically, it could be argued that placing a stronger emphasis on the ability of domestic judges to depart from Strasbourg could be part of a project of saving the HRA. Or if that is viewed as over-stating the position – of maintaining the idea that the HRA was never intended to disturb Parliamentary sovereignty. It is fairly clear why it is the case that de-emphasising s2’s current ability to place curbs on Parliament’s decisions might to an extent neuter objections to the HRA. Those objections, mainly from Conservatives, largely rest on anger at its ability to facilitate European interference with Parliament’s decisions.
Emphasising the dialogic opportunities that exist – creating in Baroness Hale’s words ‘an even more lively dialogue with Strasbourg in future’ (Human Rights Law Review (2012) 12 (1): 65-78 at 78) – could be viewed as part of that project or, more positively, of demonstrating that a new Bill of Rights is unnecessary. It is reasonably clear that if instead the judges merely implement a Strasbourg judgment, as in the most obvious example – AF No3, such a dialogue is not promoted. As Lord Irvine said in his lecture: ‘A Court which subordinates itself to follow another’s rulings cannot enter into a dialogue with its superior in any meaningful sense’. Such subordination tends to mean that the domestic judges remain outside any process of development of a European jurisprudence to which they contribute a fresh voice.
Objections to departure from Strasbourg where it has spoken appear far less strong than objections to outpacing Strasbourg where it has not, or where its voice is unclear. So it is important to disentangle the two approaches – as under the second model. Clearly, one consequence if the judges were to move towards this position, and away from Ambrose, is that while HRA-sceptics favour a return to s2’s original conception in relation to instances in which Strasbourg has spoken, they are hardly likely to welcome furtherance of the other aim of the anti-mirror principle camp where it has not – to develop a vibrant domestic human rights’ jurisprudence. Such a development would probably only hasten the repeal of the HRA, if a Conservative government was elected in 2015.
The second camp might usefully consider what ‘out-pacing’ or ‘going beyond’ Strasbourg means, and whether that terminology is helpful. It is usually assumed that it means giving an expansive interpretation to a Convention right, where Strasbourg has not yet accepted that interpretation, as in Re G. But it might also mean adopting a ‘balancing’ approach that Strasbourg might not accept, as occurred in effect in A v UK as compared to MB. On the other hand, that approach may already be taking root at Strasbourg (Al-Khawaja and Tahery v UK Applications nos. 26766/05 and 22228/06) appears to indicate such a tendency, as does Austin v UKand the Hamza case – above). I have previously suggested on this blog that Strasbourg shows signs more recently of acquiescence in such an approach. That could be viewed as an appeasement approach, emerging in part via dialogue with the UK courts.
As a final thought – arguably, the words “take account of” in s2 should go – they create a fig-leaf for the judges to hide behind since they create an impression they don’t fulfil. If s2 was repealed, and nothing was said in the HRA about the stance that should be taken to the Strasbourg jurisprudence, it’s quite probable that the current interpretations of s2 would barely change: but its repeal would say to the Supreme Court – we want you to sort this out, in detail in a suitable case – to enumerate the types of situation in which departure from Strasbourg should occur. Alternatively, and a better solution in theory – Parliament could deal with this by amendment to s2 instead of ducking it as it did in the first place.
Helen Fenwick is Professor of Law at The University of Durham.
Suggested citation: H. Fenwick, ‘What’s Wrong With S.2 of the Human Rights Act? ’ UK Const. L. Blog (9th October 2012) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org