Category Archives: Human rights

David Harris, Michael O’Boyle, Ed Bates and Carla Buckley: UK withdrawal from the Convention? A broader view.

ECHRIn the following blog the authors of the third edition of a leading text on the Law of the ECHR (Harris, O’Boyle and Warbrick, The Law of the European Convention on Human Rights, David Harris, Michael O’Boyle, Ed Bates and Carla Buckley, OUP, 2014) look back to the circumstances surrounding the publication of the first edition, in 1995, as a basis for reflection for today, with talk of the UK’s withdrawal from the Convention in the air. A significant part of what follows draws on the Preface to the third edition of the authors’ book, the intention being to bring the comments made there to a broader audience than the book itself would have reached. The post that follows is written in the authors’ personal capacity.

Back in 1995 the Preface to the first edition of Harris, O’Boyle and Warbrick noted that the growth of support for a bill of rights in the UK created the possibility that the provisions of the Convention could be directly applicable in UK courts. It was also noted that ‘if this were to come about, the law of the Convention would be thrust to the fore of university legal curricula and would achieve an immediacy and relevance that would dynamise, if not revolutionize, the United Kingdom’s constitutional system’.

The Human Rights Act, and dialogue between Strasbourg and national judges

All of this has come true since the entry into force of the Human Rights Act 1998, the judicial interpretation of which has given rise to a home grown corpus of human rights law developed first by the House of Lords and, subsequently, the Supreme Court. Both of these courts have based themselves on the case law of the European Court of Human Rights and have not been fearful of pointing to inconsistencies and lack of clarity in Strasbourg law when this was called for. Strasbourg, for its part, has welcomed this new form of ‘dialogue’ inter alia with the Supreme Court and looks with admiration at the manner in which Convention principles have been applied and interpreted in an impressive body of national case law.

The relationship has run into episodic difficulties in cases like Al-Khawaja and Tahery v UK and Taxquet v Belgium (where the UK was an intervener), when, with the opportunity to reconsider the chamber judgment, the Court’s Grand Chamber listened carefully to the arguments of the UK, and adjusted its case law to take into account the specificities of the UK legal system, as pointed out by the Supreme Court, and in keeping with the principle of subsidiarity. As has been noted by many commentators, there has developed over the years a healthy cross fertilisation between the two courts and their respective judgments are eagerly and expertly parsed and dissected by each other. The same can be said for the Court’s relationship with the superior courts of other countries—Germany and France being prime examples.

The importance of this form of judicial dialogue for the orderly development of the law cannot be overstated. But it has also given rise to a realization that while the Strasbourg Court may not be able, as a judicial institution, to defend itself against the buffetings and criticisms it regularly receives from political figures, as in the UK, it can intensify its relationships with the national superior courts through the medium of ‘dialogue’ as a more appropriate and more adapted response to such criticisms. For it must not be forgotten that the essence of the notion of subsidiarity resides in the daily application by the national courts of Convention law.

More possibilities for dialogue with Strasbourg in the ‘age of subsidiarity’?

Opportunities for dialogue will be enhanced when Protocol 16 enters into force, for those States which opt to ratify it. This provides for the possibility of a national superior court to request an advisory opinion from the Court on issues relating to the interpretation of the Convention. It has been dubbed the ‘Dialogue Protocol’ because it offers the prospect of another form of adjudication in Strasbourg, distinct from individual and inter-state complaints, involving the superior courts as willing partners in the elucidation and development of the case law rather than as the potentially irritated subjects of violation verdicts.

In the meantime, and (arguably) against the background of the reform process initiated at Interlaken, including the valuable contribution made by the UK in the context of the Brighton Declaration, there are very strong signs that the Court has met the States’ request to ‘give great prominence’ to ‘principles such as subsidiarity and the margin of appreciation’. In that connection reference may be made to a recent lecture entitled Universality or Diversity of Human Rights? Strasbourg in the Age of Subsidiarity, in which the Icelandic judge in Strasbourg, Robert Spano, responded to criticism levelled at the Court by some former members of the senior judiciary in the UK to the effect that it too easily overrides the views of national decision-makers. Adopting a careful analysis of recent case law, he argues convincingly that Strasbourg has been refining its approach to subsidiarity and the margin of appreciation, ‘adopting a qualitative, democracy-enhancing approach in the assessment of domestic decision-making in the field of human rights’. Judge Spano has suggested that the next phase in the Convention’s life might come to be known as the ‘age of subsidiarity’.

The principle of subsidiarity has always been a fundamental one in the Strasbourg jurisprudence. However, the prospect that the Strasbourg system is indeed embarking on an ‘age of subsidiarity’ should be a vital consideration informing the debate with respect to its role and relationship with the UK. This point is of major significance if the time comes when the future of the Human Rights Act is reconsidered – for the Act facilitates subsidiarity as well as a Strasbourg-UK judicial dialogue – and is thus at the heart of the issue of the UK’s membership of the Convention itself.

‘Rights Brought Home’ and the Convention under attack in the UK

In 1995 the Preface to the first edition of Harris, O’Boyle and Warbrick observed that many of the issues examined in Strasbourg touch on highly sensitive subjects such as prisons, immigration and the administration of justice, and that political figures and media commentators in the UK frequently complain, in ‘strident tones of indignation, of interference in the domestic affairs of the state by uninformed and ill-qualified foreign jurists’. So it has not only been since the passage of the Human Rights Act that the influence of and jurisdiction of the Strasbourg Court has become contentious in the UK.

The politics of the day in the mid- to late-1990s were different, however, as is evident from the Labour Government’s White Paper, Rights Brought Home: The Human Rights Bill. Looking back today it is interesting to note that reference was made to the scheme of supervision provided by the Strasbourg Court as one that was ‘now well tried and tested’ it being established that Convention ‘rights and freedoms’ were ‘ones with which the people of this country [were] plainly comfortable’. Those rights therefore ‘afford[ed] an excellent basis for the Human Rights Bill’ (para 1.3).

Given the concerns recently expressed in the UK with respect to the Convention as a ‘living instrument’ the speech delivered by Jack Straw (‘Human Rights and Personal Responsibility – New Citizenship for a New Millennium’, St Paul’s Cathedral, London (2 October 2000)) then Home Secretary, on the day that the Human Rights Act 1998 entered into force, may be looked upon with some interest. He acknowledged that the Convention was not a ‘monument to history’ but that its ‘living instrument’ character was an answer to those ‘who assert that the convention has been developed in a way not anticipated by its draftsmen’. Straw stated that he had no ‘problem with the living instrument explanation’, but saw matters in ‘a slightly different way’. The ECHR he said, was ‘relevant to the UK today – and tomorrow – because the basic values at its heart are timeless’. They were ‘about the equal worth of all, and the belief in our responsibility to create a society that advances such equal worth and dignity’.

These comments could be made with respect to the judgments against the UK in cases such as Hirst (No.2) (prisoners’ votes), Vinter (whole life sentences) and Othman (Abu Qatada ) (deportation to Jordan). Yet, on the basis of such rulings, the level of criticism in the UK against Strasbourg has developed to an intensity that could hardly have been predicted back in the 1990s. As has been widely reported the point has been reached whereby certain Government ministers have suggested that not only should the HRA be repealed, but even that UK withdrawal from the Convention system should be considered, some going so far as to challenge the Court’s legitimacy as an institution.

UK withdrawal from the ECHR?

Against this background we refer back to 1995, when the Preface to the first edition of our text had asked the rhetorical question whether the Strasbourg system had developed to the point where no European state could seriously contemplate withdrawing from the Convention. What should one make of this today?

It is a measure of the continued success of the Convention system that the question remains a valid one in 2014 for the large majority of the treaty’s 47 High Contracting Parties, indeed, possibly all other States except the UK. For it is our contention that the intensity of the UK debate about the sovereignty of Parliament and the legitimacy of the Court is not replicated in other countries. Of course, there are episodes of criticism elsewhere but, as far as the authors are aware, it would appear that the UK is somewhat isolated in terms of the depth of its apparent opposition to Strasbourg. A detailed study published just last month (J Gerards and J Fleuren ‘Implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights and of the judgments of the ECtHR in national case law’) looked to the reception of the ECHR in Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK. It concluded that ‘[in] Belgium, France, Germany and Sweden, the overall legitimacy of the Court and its judgments is hardly subject to debate’ [at 369], even if the Court comes in for occasional criticism in respect of specific, individual judgments. A debate about the Court and its influence with respect to the Netherlands did gain some, initial momentum in 2011-2012, although ‘the critical wind subsided’ [at 256].

Would it be an exaggeration to say, then, that the depth and intensity of the debate about the Court in the UK, and which regularly gives rise to talk of denunciation, is a peculiarly British one? If so, one might ask, ‘why’?

It may also be asked whether opposition to Strasbourg in ‘the UK’ is genuinely replicated in large parts of the nation. That this is at least open to question is suggested by the comments made by two members of the Commission on a Bill of Rights (Baroness Kennedy QC and Professor Philippe Sand QC) who argued that it was ‘abundantly clear that there is no [lack of] “ownership” issue [as regards the HRA] in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland (or large parts of England), where the existing arrangements under the [HRA] and the European Convention on Human Rights are not merely tolerated but strongly supported’ (para 88.v).

Reform of the Court

Of course, it is not claimed that the Court is a perfect institution. Nor is it maintained that the Convention’s member States embrace everything Strasbourg does with spontaneous love and affection. Yet it was precisely to preserve the Strasbourg system and its effectiveness for future generations that there has been a determination on the part of the Contracting Parties collectively to reform the system, and to overcome the challenges resulting from the overloading of the Court that were starting to become apparent as far back as the 1990s.

The reform conferences held in Interlaken, Izmir and Brighton revealed a strong political will to put the European system on a more solid footing and to give it the tools to deal more effectively with its worrying backlog of cases without seeking, at the same time, to clip the Court’s wings or to weaken the level of protection it provides. Overall there is a clear political attachment to the ECHR amongst Council of Europe States and an endorsement of the Court’s contribution to the development of human rights law and democratic standards. The reform agenda has placed the focus on the issues inter alia of delay in the examination of applications, the margin of appreciation and the notion of subsidiarity (as discussed above), interim measures, the election of judges and the vexed problem of the enforcement of the Court’s judgments (where serious compliance problems have arisen since the first edition of the book).

From the perspective of workload and the backlog of cases, Protocol 14 has now entered into force. The reforms that it introduces, together with internal reforms such as the provisions for pilot judgments and the prioritisation of important cases, have started to ease the Court’s workload. At the end of June 2014 the number of pending cases stood at 84,850 —a considerable reduction from a figure in excess of 160,000 of some two years before.

In this regard a new mood of optimism may be emerging at Strasbourg, and one aspect of the reform debate may be coming to the fore. Noting that the recent phase of reform was commenced at Interlaken under the notion of a ‘shared responsibility’ for the Convention between Strasbourg and the member States, the President of the Court has recently stated that it is living ‘up to its responsibility to achieve greater efficiency, improve its performance, to allocate its resources more effectively and to concentrate increasingly upon priority cases, without abandoning any other cases’. For the reform process to succeed he has called for ‘improvements at Strasbourg’ to be ‘reflected by improvements at the national level, through better observance of the Convention and the existence of effective domestic remedies in case of breach’. As he puts it, ‘[e]ach State must live up to its responsibility’ and ‘the Committee of Ministers must act more effectively in supervising the execution of judgments – the joint and several responsibility of States under the Convention, as it were’.

The responsibility weighing on the UK today

In this last regard the weight of responsibility bearing on the UK during what remains a difficult time in the Convention’s life must be brought into real focus. What is at stake for the Convention system and Europe overall as a result of the hostility directed toward Strasbourg by the action of a State held in such high regard as the UK cannot be underestimated. ‘Europe overall’ – for one only has to visit the Court’s web site to appreciate the broader importance of the Court given the nature of some of the disputes it has been grappling with recently – an inter-state case brought by Georgia against Russia concerning a collective expulsion of Georgian nationals, the resolution of a long-standing dispute between a variety of Balkan states concerning foreign currency savings in the banks of the former Republic of Yugoslavia, the detention of accused persons in cages during their trial, the hospital treatment of an orphan Aids victim etc.

It is difficult to imagine that one of the leading founders of the system could turn its back on the Convention without inflicting serious damage on the entire edifice by inspiring other States, beset by more fundamental problems of human rights, to follow suit. Some of those States may be from central and eastern Europe, who were encouraged to join the Convention in the 1990s at a critical time in their history, viewing full membership of the Strasbourg system as a necessary component of the legitimacy credentials associated with a democratic, European State. The Secretary General of the Council of Europe has argued before the Parliamentary Joint Committee examining the prisoner voting issue (para 109) that the UK’s withdrawal from the Convention would imperil not just the Convention but the 47 member State Council of Europe as a whole.

Similar comments apply to the potential confrontation that lies ahead with respect to the prisoner voting issue. Former President Sir Nicolas Bratza has underlined how the position adopted by the UK is likely to have consequences for those member States whose human rights records need significant improvement. In a recent lecture he explained that he was ‘convinced… not only of the fragile nature of the hold on democracy and the rule of law which there exists’ in some of the newer member States, ‘but [also] of the vital importance of the wholehearted support for the Convention system in preserving those ideals’. The UK’s failure to implement the judgment in Hirst has had, he explains, a ‘corrosive effect in Russia and Ukraine’, demonstrating that ‘compliance with the Convention obligations by the established democracies does matter’. Fearing further ‘erosion of the hard-won Convention standards in many parts of the Continent’, Bratza maintains that ‘the damage done by the withdrawal of support for the system by one of its key players would be simply incalculable’. He concludes:

‘That system may indeed be imperfect. But it is the only one that we have. What is needed is not to turn one’s back on that system but to work within it, to make it more effective and, in doing so, ensure that, 60 years after it came into effect, the Convention becomes not a dead letter but the vital and living instrument it was always supposed to be’. [N Bratza, “Living Instrument or Dead Letter – the Future of the European Convention on Human Rights”, (2014) EHRLR 116 at 128 – based on the text of the Miriam Rothschild and John Foster Human Rights Lecture (9 November 2013)

We conclude with the following observations. While the issue of UK membership has come to the fore in UK politics in recent years in ways which could hardly have been foreseen in 1995, it cannot be predicted with any certainty what the outcome will be, either in the short or long term. But we respectfully submit that the particular constitutional difficulties encountered by the UK in recent years are straight-forwardly outweighed by the advantages of being a party to the Convention, and the important role played by the ECHR in developing human rights standards throughout Europe and beyond as part of a collective guarantee of human rights—a role that is intimately bound up with peace and security in the region as recognized in the Convention’s Preamble. That point applied back in the late 1990s when the British contribution to the Convention was a cause for celebration under the banner ‘rights brought home’. But it applies today, and with even greater force, given the reform phase that the Convention system is going through, and the strong evidence that it is indeed proving to be effective, including with respect to some of the criticism that has been levelled against the Court in the UK as regards the principle of subsidiarity and Strasbourg’s relationship with national decision-makers. To put in jeopardy what has been patiently built up over more than 60 years would be a disservice to Europe, the rule of law and to the peaceful settlement of disputes.

D Harris, M O’Boyle, E Bates and C Buckley.

 

 

(Suggested citation: D. Harris, M. O’Boyle, E. Bates and C. Buckley, ‘UK withdrawal from the Convention? A broader view.’ U. K. Const. L. Blog (24th July 2014)  (available at: http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/)

 

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Mark Elliott: Human rights reform and the role of the Strasbourg Court

MarkI wrote last week about the dismissal of Dominic Grieve as Attorney-General and subsequent indications as to the likely direction of Conservative Party policy in relation to human rights. As noted in the latter post, the plan—such as it is at present—appears to countenance the possibility of the UK’s departure from the European Convention on Human Rights, the argument being that it is intolerable for the UK to be beholden to the judgements of the Strasbourg Court. The agenda underlying agitation in favour of a UK exit is not always easy to discern, but generally appears to consist of two strands of thought that are respectively opposed to judicial “interference” in matters that are regarded as political, and to European involvement in decisions that (on this view) ought to be taken in Britain. British membership of the ECHR thus finds itself in an uncomfortable position, sitting vulnerably between the twin pincers of de-Europeanization and de-juridification.

Unsurprisingly, the Conservative Party’s nascent proposals (or, more accurately, reports of anticipated proposals) have elicited considerable criticism. However, in a thought-provoking post on The Conversation, Gavin Phillipson rightly points out that although the Conservatives’ proposals

are deeply ill-conceived and transparently political, they nonetheless deserve some intellectual reflection: in political and constitutional theory, the idea that democratically elected representatives, rather than unelected judges, should have the final say over questions of human rights is hardly the sole province of right-wing crankery.

Phillipson is right. The present position that obtains in the UK—according to which a judicial organ, in the form of the European Court of Human Rights, has the ultimate say on human-rights questions—is consistent with that which is found in some, but by no means all, developed democracies.

On the one hand, it bears some similarity to the US model, under which the Supreme Court has the final word on the constitutionality of legislation, albeit that the possibility of democratic override arises via (hard-in-practice-to-accomplish) constitutional amendment. There is no equivalent way of overriding the Strasbourg Court (subject to the ultimate possibility—now countenanced by the Conservative Party—of leaving the system altogether). Nor is the analogy with the US position by any means a perfect one: the US Bill of Rights is a domestic constitutional instrument, whereas the ECHR is a human rights treaty that is binding upon the UK as a State in international law.

On the other hand, many other developed democracies embrace human rights while according greater weight to the views of legislatures in relation to rights questions. A wide array of possibilities exists, ranging from the position found in New Zealand (where the legislature is unconstrained either by a written constitution or by an international judicial organ equivalent to the ECtHR) to the Canadian system (under which legislation struck down by judges can be reinstated by the legislature) to the Indian model (within which judicial strike-down powers are tempered by a system that is much more readily facilitative of constitutional amendment than is the US Constitution).

The diversity of practice evident within (and beyond) the common-law world means that, inconveniently perhaps, the position is far more nuanced and complex than can be accommodated by kneejerk criticism of any proposal to withdraw from or dilute the influence in the UK of the ECHR system. At the very least, such criticism must be justified by explaining why such steps would be unacceptable. As Phillipson observes:

[H]owever incoherent these particular proposals might be, we shouldn’t simply dismiss the principle behind them. Ensuring that national parliaments have the right to override or disregard decisions of a human rights court is a respectable position applied in various countries … In response to the Tories’ populist push on the ECHR, academics who defend “dialogic” or purely democratic approaches to rights protection as a matter of constitutional theory need to start thinking about why and how the ECHR system should be different from the Canadian model. In particular, if we want to defend the ECHR as it is, we need to come up with clear arguments as to why the Strasbourg court should retain the final word on questions of human rights in Europe.

One possible such argument is that the ECHR, as an international system, is not directly comparable to that found within individual states such as Canada. As one contributor put it in a conservation on Twitter, “If we don’t want [the] Belarus Parliament to have [the] final say on whether [it is] ok to torture, [the] quid pro quo is [that] ours doesn’t [either].” On this view, the absence of domestic democratic override is the price we way for being a member of a transnational human rights system that yields beneficial results by locking in other States. However, this argument only gets us so far.

International human rights systems do not have to involve the degree of domestic democratic marginalisation that is inherent in the (present) ECHR structure. For instance, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, lacking the kind of enforcement machinery that the ECHR has, entails far fewer domestic democratic implications. This is not to suggest that the ICCPR is other than binding in international law upon States parties: but it does not possess a judicial organ equivalent to the Strasbourg Court that is in a position to secure the degree of lock-in of States parties that the ECtHR is capable of securing. This explains why, for instance, New Zealand’s membership of the ICCPR system puts it in a radically different position from that which the UK occupies as a State party to the ECHR.

Nor does it follow that the ECHR itself has to adopt the approach it presently does: if it were possible to muster the political will, the Convention could be amended so as to (for example) permit (either generally or in relation to particular rights or in particular circumstances) domestic override of Strasbourg judgments. (The Brighton Process resulted in some relaxation of the relationship between the Court and individual States, but to a degree far more modest than that which critics desired.) However, the political reality is that it is unlikely in the extreme that a consensus in favour of amending the Convention in this way could be marshalled.

Nor does it even follow that the promotion human-rights standards elsewhere is necessarily sufficient to justify sacrificing the possibility of greater domestic democratic involvement in the determination of human-rights questions. It is certainly arguable the loss of domestic domestic control is a price worth paying: but this is a value judgment that is not self-evidently correct. If the argument is to be sustained, it needs to be developed. It is true, of course, that British withdrawal from the ECHR would very likely be damaging, both to the UK’s international standing and the the cause, internationally, of protection of human rights. As former Attorney-General Dominic Grieve put it in a speech in 2011, the ECHR forms “an integral part of the post-war settlement”: it has played “an important and successful role in preventing the re-emergence of totalitarianism in Western Europe” and “continues to play a pivotal role in ensuring that the new democracies of Eastern Europe respect and protect the Convention’s rights and freedoms of all their citizens”.

A final point is also worth bearing in mind. The way in which arguments for and against UK withdrawal from the ECHR play out depend, to a large extent, on what a post-ECHR UK constitution would look like. If the choice were between the status quo and simply withdrawing from the ECHR (and repealing the HRA), then that would be one thing. If, however, the choice were between (in the first place) retaining the status quo and (in the second place) replacing the ECHR/HRA regime with a domestic constitutional framework that would equip British courts with powers equivalent to those enjoyed by (say) their Canadian counterparts, then the arguments might stack up very differently. And although some of the “costs” of withdrawal can, to an extent, be assessed now, any such assessment—shorn of the context that forward-looking proposals would supply—would be inchoate at best. Withdrawal with the intention of marginalising human rights within a newly liberated domestic polity would carry different implications—and create different perceptions—from withdrawal coupled with thorough-going constitutional reform that sought to confer a high degree of legal and political security upon fundamental rights.

It is impossible, therefore, to evaluate any suggestion that the present system should be scrapped until we know what, if anything, would replace it. This means that it is incumbent upon the Conservative Party—and anyone else proposing change in this area—to spell out not only which of our existing arrangements would be dispensed with, but what, if anything, would replace them. And, just to anticipate the obvious response, it is worth concluding by pointing out that falling back upon half-baked suggestions that we should have a “British Bill of Rights” just will not do.

 

Mark Elliott is Reader in Public Law at the University of Cambridge (Twitter: @DrMarkElliott). This post was first published on Mark’s blog, Public Law for Everyone.

 

 

 

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David Mead: The Future of the HRA Under Labour

davidmeadI might have misheard but perception does seem to be nine-tenths of the law when it comes to the Human Rights Act at least. In a piece in today’s Daily Telegraph, Shadow Justice Minister Sadiq Khan outlines Labour’s plans for reforming the Human Rights Act, or one aspect of it anyway. There is a need to revisit the wording – and thus the power – in s.2 to “take account” of Strasbourg case law and decisions.

 our courts haven’t always interpreted section 2 in the way we’d intended. Too often, rather than “taking into account” Strasbourg rulings and by implication, finding their own way, our courts have acted as if these rulings were binding on their decisions. As a result, the sovereignty of our courts and the will of Parliament have both been called into question. This needs sorting out.

The solution is for guidance, in the first instance, but Khan does not rule out legislation. The aim is to

make sure it is clear to the judges what Parliament intended by Section 2 – that they’re free to disagree with Strasbourg, that it’s sometimes healthy to do so, and that they should feel confident in their judgments based on Britain’s expertise and strong human rights standing.

This very short post will consider some of the issues this proposal might throw up. First, and perhaps most obviously, it is hard to think what effect extra-legal guidance will have on the approach judges take. It is markedly different, say, to s.19 of the Immigration Act 2014 which lists clearly the factors that should and should not be taken into account in determining where the public interest sits when deciding whether or not for example to deport someone. This sets up a battle between that section and s.3 of the HRA – which requires courts to give convention-compatible meanings wherever possible. If there is a divergence on where the public interest rests between what s.19 dictates and Strasbourg case-law (which is beyond my ken, and certainly beyond the scope of this blog), then the question will be whether Parliament has signalled in a sufficiently strong fashion what its intention is as to make not following the s.19 formula a departure from a fundamental tenet of the statutory scheme.

Such questions do not arise with proposed guidance – in whatever form it may take. It is hard to think of a comparable situation – government signalling (either by means of parliament in the form of an SI or departmental circular or Code of Practice) to the judiciary what a section in an Act means. The only matter that sprang to mind were the Sentencing Guidelines but those are not a political construction but are created by the judges themselves, a form of intra-judicial dialogue. It is hard to imagine any judge actually giving airtime to the guidelines, if for no other reason – as Mark Elliott points out in his blog on the developments – of the sanctity of the separation of powers. In trying to come out victorious in what is perceived as an institutional battle between the UK and “foreign” Europe (not Khan’s words or even his sentiment I should add) Labour’s plan, if it eventuates, risks kickstarting an even more seismic inter-instituional battle, of the sort we thought we’d long left behind, centuries ago. It is something of an irony then that Labour’s proposal is steeped in history.

 We’ll use the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta – the world’s first bill of rights – to assert the role of British courts vis-à-vis Strasbourg.

To paraphrase Lord Justice Diplock in BBC v Johns in 1965, it’s now 400 years and a civil war too late for the government to be trying this sort of thing.

The second point follows on. The battle is being conceived as battle of the nation state against the supranational body – the Daily Telegraph piece has more than one mention of sovereignty. My point here is not the same as Mark Elliott – that this elides the national and the international sphere of influence, assuming they are as one (and that the UK is losing out) – but perhaps a more fundamental one. As I see it, the “real” battle of the HRA is between our domestic courts and our domestic Parliament – something this proposal simply ignores, constructing the battlefield and combatants elsewhere. I have written elsewhere (some might say extensively and mistakenly) over the past few years about what I consider to be the excessive (albeit occasional) use of s.3 to alter a clearly designed statutory scheme – and the lack of transparency that this brings, in contrast to a declaration of incompatibility under s.4. My most recent foray has been with Fergal Davis in the Common Law World Review, in the context of criminal law. Most egregious in my list is always Hammond, where the counsel for a prisoner and for the Secretary of State colluded such that very clear wording in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 – that prisoners were not entitled to an oral hearing when a judge was determining the mandatory tariff post-Anderson – was read as entitling a prisoner to one if not to allow it would be unfair. Why is this any less an attack on sovereignty? There are real discussions to be had about the future of the HRA – and its place in our legal framework and culture, but I am not at all convinced that s.2 is the best or right target. As many others have claimed today, guidance may well redundant in that judges have started to shift from the rigidity of the Ullah mirror principle, such that guidance may do little except enshrine current judicial practice. In turn, and what never seems to get much of a look in in the discourse of ministers and shadow ministers, is the noticeable placatory shift at Strasbourg: far more conciliatory and accommodating in several recent notable judgments, dating back to Austin, through von Hannover (No 2), to Animal Defenders and most recently RMT v UK. In each, we can – if not clearly and explicitly – see the Court playing a political role, seeking to staunch national discontent with judgments would appear to be more politically welcome. In the RMT case, in which the UK’s ban on secondary industrial action was held not to violate article 11, the Court said this (at [99]):

In the sphere of social and economic policy, which must be taken to include a country’s industrial relations policy, the Court will generally respect the legislature’s policy choice unless it is “manifestly without reasonable foundation”. Moreover, the Court has recognised the “special weight” to be accorded to the role of the domestic policy-maker in matters of general policy on which opinions within a democratic society may reasonably differ widely The ban on secondary action has remained intact for over twenty years, notwithstanding two changes of government during that time. This denotes a democratic consensus in support of it, and an acceptance of the reasons for it, which span a broad spectrum of political opinion in the United Kingdom. These considerations lead the Court to conclude that in their assessment of how the broader public interest is best served in their country in the often charged political, social and economic context of industrial relations, the domestic legislative authorities relied on reasons that were both relevant and sufficient for the purposes of Article 11.

There has been no discussion or mention of the RMT case in any mainstream British newspaper. This is important, and leads us into the third and last point to be made in this blog. It links back to the opening line – that it is the seeming need to be “doing something” that might here be at play. There has been a clear and constant (to use the phrase in Ullah by Lord Bingham) media narrative that must inevitably skew the public’s perception of the HRA. I am currently working on an empirical study of newspaper reporting of key ECHR and HRA judgments. Aspects of this were to have been presented at Leicester two weeks ago but I was unable at the last minute to attend. Through various techniques of misreporting – prominence, partiality, phrasing and precipitation (for example where cases are reported unfavourably at very early stages but with silence on the eventual outcome) – readers (perhaps of only certain newspapers such as The Sun and The Daily Mail) have a very misinformed understanding of the reach and scope of human rights protection and the operation of the ECHR and the HRA. In brief, readers would think the government tends to lose cases at Strasbourg. There was not a single mention in any newspaper of the UK’s success in the three most recent cases: RMT, Church of the Latter-Day Saints or Jones(though this did make it to the pages of The Guardian and The Evening Standard). A search against The Daily Mail on-line with the term “European Court of Human Rights” produced a skew towards prisoners – either voting or sentencing – towards immigration decisions, and towards criminals and terrorists, what are known colloquially as FPTs (foreigners, paedophiles and terrorists), a framing of security not equality. We certainly see nothing approaching the full panoply of human rights cases or issues. Last, readers would think that the human rights project is not about protecting victims but is a criminal’s charter. There was on 20 April a full page in The Daily Mail dedicated to the Strasbourg case arising from the civil action brought by the victims of the Omagh bomb against the alleged perpetrators who were, in turn, claiming a breach of Article 6 in the civil proceedings. The small problem was that this was simply at the stage of a communication to the government; it has not yet been declared admissible – and of course may never be, but it would be a very well-informed reader to realise the rather precipitate nature of this report. Yet, the editor chose not to mention even in passing the RMT judgments of the Court of only 10 days earlier, but instead highlighted this one at almost its earliest possible stage.

In short, while in Sadiq Khan’s words Labour’s “unswerving support for the Human Rights Act and our membership of the European Convention on Human Rights” are very much to be welcomed, as his determination to take the Tories on, perhaps a better choice of foe, as he seeks to build a new consensus, would be Michael Gove. The most recent Citizenship curriculum for 2014 onwards for KS3, 11-14 year olds, downgrades any mention of rights and instead refers to “our precious liberties”. What hope, and what price, rights in the future?

 

David Mead is Professor of UK Human Rights Law in the Law School at the University of East Anglia

Suggested citation: D. Mead, ‘The Future of the HRA Under Labour’ UK Const. L. Blog (4th June 2014) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org)

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Emily MacKenzie: The Lawfulness of Detention by British Forces in Afghanistan – Serdar Mohammed v Ministry of Defence

Emily MacKenzie-Brick Court ChambersOn 2nd May, the High Court held that the UK Government must pay Serdar Mohammed (SM) compensation because British troops detained him unlawfully in Afghanistan. The case raised a myriad of international law issues, which are dealt with elegantly in an extensive judgment by Mr Justice Leggatt. This post will attempt to summarise some of the key issues involved.

SM is an Afghan citizen, who was captured (as a suspected Taliban commander) by British forces, operating as part of the UN’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), during a 2010 military operation in northern Helmand. He was imprisoned on UK military bases for 110 days, after which he was transferred to Afghan detention where he remains to this day.

He alleged that his detention by British forces was unlawful under (a) Afghan law (which applied to any tortious action committed by UK forces under Section 11 of the Private International Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1995), and (b) the right to liberty and security under Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the Convention).

Leaving Afghan law aside for now, the Judge found that SM’s detention breached Article 5 once it passed 96 hours in duration.

Leggatt J found that the ISAF detention policy, which permitted 96 hours of detention before a detainee must be handed over to the Afghan authorities, was compatible with Article 5. However, the UK had adopted a separate national policy in 2009, which permitted detention beyond 96 hours for the purpose of “interrogating a detainee who could provide significant new intelligence” (para 4). That was the basis on which SM was held for 25 days after the initial 96 hour period. Leggatt J held that this was not a purpose permitted by Article 5. SM was then held for a further 81 days in what Leggatt J termed “logistical” detention because the Afghan authorities were struggling with prison overcrowding. Leggatt J held that this also breached Article 5 because it was not in accordance with any ISAF/UK policy for detention and so was “arbitrary” (para 356).

The substantive analysis of Article 5 aside, the most interesting issues dealt with in this judgment arose as defences the MOD raised against the Article 5 claim. This post will discuss the following issues in brief:

      1. the territorial scope of the Convention;
      2. extraterritorial derogation from the Convention;
      3. legal responsibility for the actions of ISAF forces;
      4. the relationship between UN Security Council Resolutions and the Convention;
      5. whether there was a basis for detention in international humanitarian law;
      6. the “act of state” defence.

The territorial scope of the Convention

Leggatt J found that the actions of the British troops in this case were within the territorial scope of the Convention. Many considered this to be inevitable following Al Skeini v United Kingdom and Smith v Ministry of Defence, although Leggatt J professed his own disquiet about the state of the law, stating:

I find it far from obvious why a citizen of Afghanistan, a sovereign state which has not adopted the Convention, should have rights under the Convention in relation to events taking place in Afghan territory. (Para 116)

As Marko Milanovic writes in his excellent post for EJIL: Talk!, Leggatt J’s decision puts paid (for now, and possibly for good) to the government’s strategy of attempting to distinguish the situation in Iraq (where the facts of Al Skeini and Smith took place) from the situation in Afghanistan: a strategy deployed by the MOD in this case on the grounds that the UK “did not have such complete control over the detention facilities in Afghanistan” (para 144). Leggatt J held that this distinction was “unsustainable” because

the decision of the European Court in the Al-Skeini case unequivocally decides that jurisdiction under Article 1 over an individual detained in a prison controlled by a state on foreign soil does not depend on whether the state has sovereignty over the prison, such that officials of the state on whose territory the prison is situated have no legal right to enter it. Indeed, the state’s jurisdiction does not even derive from the control exercised over the prison as such at all. In the Court’s words (para 136): “What is decisive in such cases is the exercise of physical power and control over the person in question. (Para 147)

Extraterritorial derogation

Perhaps more notably, Leggatt J went on to say that Article 15 of the Convention could be invoked in an extraterritorial context. Article 15 gives States the ability to derogate “[i]n time of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation” from some of its obligations under the Convention “to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation”.

Lord Bingham had previously expressed doubt in Al-Jedda v Secretary of State for Defence that the Article 15 conditions could ever be met “when a state had chosen to conduct an overseas peacekeeping operation, however dangerous the conditions, from which it could withdraw”, but, as Leggatt J noted, Lord Bingham was speaking at a very different time. Now it is clear that the Convention has extensive extraterritorial reach, Leggatt J considered that Article 15 must be interpreted “in a way which is consonant with that position” to permit derogation to the extent that it is strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.

This, Leggatt J concluded, “can readily be achieved without any undue violence to the language of Article 15 by interpreting the phrase ‘war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation’ as including, in the context of an international peacekeeping operation, a war or other emergency threatening the life of the nation on whose territory the relevant acts take place.” (Para 156)

The concern expressed by some is that states should not be encouraged to derogate their human rights responsibility when they have voluntarily entered conflicts which do not directly impact the “life of the [home] nation”. There are, I think, at least two counters to this.

The first is that Leggatt J’s suggestion makes practical sense. The use of the power of derogation may be the only way that human rights standards can become a workable set of norms in the context of armed conflict. The second counter is that when states derogate they formally acknowledge what human rights protections they feel able to uphold in a given situation. This pushes into the open what might otherwise be a clandestine deployment of emergency powers (see this post by Fionnuala Ní Aoláin on the Just Security Blog). It allows public debate and (potentially) judicial review of the restriction on the one hand, and the government to demand some realism from the courts on the other. It may operate to ensure that human rights are respected to the greatest extent possible; now that we know (post Al-Skeini) that the Convention obligations can be “divided and tailored”. This at least has the potential to ensure that the degree of respect for human rights in armed conflict increases in practice, if not in theory. Clearly, however, the nuances of this have yet to be worked out.

Who is responsible: the UK or the UN?

The MOD argued that the UN, rather than the UK, was responsible for the actions of the British troops because they operated under a UN mandate as part of ISAF: an argument rooted in the controversial Behrami; Saramaticase. As expressed by Lord Bingham in Al-Jedda, the ultimate test is one of “effective control”.

Leggatt J concluded that the UN Security Council did have effective control over ISAF “in the sense required to enable conduct of ISAF to be attributed to the UN” (Para 178). However, he found that the detention of SM was attributable to the UK and not the UN because it was not authorised under an ISAF detention authority, but under the UK’s own national detention policy.

The relationship between human rights law and UNSC Resolutions

Bound by Al-Jedda, Leggatt J held that the obligations imposed by the authorising UNSCRs were capable of displacing obligations imposed by Article 5 of the Convention. This occurs by virtue of Article 103 of the UN Charter, which gives Charter obligations primacy over obligations “under any other international agreement.”

Crucially, however, Leggatt J found that the UNSCRs (i) did not authorise detention for longer than necessary to pass the detainee into Afghan hands, and (ii) did not authorise detention which violated international human rights law (para 226). Here, he applied dicta of the Strasbourg Court in Al-Jedda, to the effect that:

In the absence of clear provision to the contrary, the presumption must be that the Security Council intended States . . . to contribute towards the maintenance of security . . . while complying with their obligations under international human rights law. (Para 105)

The upshot was that there was no question of the UNSCRs displacing the UK’s obligations under Article 5 as the UK was not operating within the mandate of the UNSCRs because (i) they gave no authority for detention beyond 96 hours, and (ii) the detention policy violated international human rights law.

The role of international humanitarian law (IHL)

Leggatt J reached two important conclusions on IHL. First, he found that IHL provided no legal basis for the detention of SM. Second, he found that IHL did not displace Article 5 as lex specialis.

Rejecting the arguments of some academics, Leggatt J refused to accept that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions or Additional Protocol II provide a legal power to detain, but rather found that these provisions “guarantee a minimum level of humanitarian treatment for people who are in fact detained during a non-international armed conflict” (para 251).

On the question of IHL as lex specialis, Leggatt J commented (obiter, since the question did not need to be decided given his conclusion that there was no basis for the detention in IHL) that:

At least arguably . . . the only way in which the European Court or a national court required to apply Convention rights can hold that IHL prevails over Article 5 is by applying the provisions for derogation contained in the Convention itself, and not by invoking the principle of lex specialis(Para 284)

The “act of state” defence

In relation to the claim under Afghan law, Leggatt J concluded that this was indeed barred by the defence that the detention of SM was an “act of state”, finding that the doctrine operated analogously to the conflict of laws rule. He explained that UK detention policy and practice in Afghanistan:

 . . . can be reviewed by the English courts in accordance with established principles of public law. But if and insofar as acts done in Afghanistan by agents of the UK state in carrying out its policy infringe Afghan domestic law, that in my opinion is a matter for which redress must be sought in the courts of Afghanistan. It is not the business of the English courts to enforce against the UK state rights of foreign nationals arising under Afghan law for acts done on the authority of the UK government abroad, where to do so would undercut the policy of the executive arm of the UK state in conducting foreign military operations.  (Para 396)

Because Leggatt J saw the act of state doctrine as a rule of comity, rather than a rule of non-justiciability, the logic behind the doctrine only applies where the lawfulness of an act falls to be determined in accordance with a foreign source of law. Therefore, it did not apply in relation to the claim under the Human Rights Act, which was a claim in English law.

Conclusion

In holding that SM had an “enforceable right” to compensation, Leggatt J noted that this:

. . . will not come as a surprise to the MOD which formed the view at an early stage that there was no legal basis on which UK armed forces could detain individuals in Afghanistan for longer than the maximum period of 96 hours authorised by ISAF. (Para 6 (xi))

The fact that the result was predictable will provide little comfort to those who point out that commanders are being placed in the unenviable position of having to choose whether to release a suspected insurgent back into the battlefield or to accept that he will be held illegally and entitled to compensation for that. In light of Leggatt J’s judgment, there are at least two routes, neither free from difficulty, that could be taken to avoid this in any future armed conflict. First, the government could seek to have greater powers of detention conferred under the authorising UNSCRs. Second, it could attempt to derogate from Article 5. The fall-out from such an attempt would no doubt be great. For now we will have to wait and see whether the government appeals – as it is expected to do – and, if it does, how the higher courts tackle these issues.

 

Emily MacKenzie is a barrister at Brick Court Chambers and is currently working as an International Law Fellow at the American Society of International Law

(Suggested citation: E. MacKenzie, ‘The Lawfulness of Detention by British Forces in Afghanistan – Serdar Mohammed v Ministry of Defence’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (2nd June 2014) (available at: http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/).

 

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Merris Amos: Scotland, Independence, and Human Rights

Merris Amos.jpgIn its weighty tome, Scotland’s Future, the Scottish Government promises that at its heart, an independent Scotland will have “the respect, protection and promotion of equality and human rights.” Furthermore, this will not be just an empty gesture but will be “enshrined in a written constitution to bind the institutions of the state and protect individuals and communities from abuses of power.” The promise is also made that as an independent state, Scotland will live up to its international obligations on equality and human rights. Furthermore, protections already enjoyed will continue in a written constitution. These will include the rights contained in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) but other rights will also be considered for inclusion. Specifically mentioned are the rights contained in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and principles designed to “deliver greater equality and social justice.” Any new rights or future changes will be developed in “full consultation with the people of Scotland”. It is also promised that Scotland will continue to have its own human rights body.

If the intention is to encourage a “yes” vote from those basing their vote for or against Scotland’s independence on human rights protection alone, this is a very good start. Leaders of the major political parties in the rest of the UK find it difficult to mention the words “human rights” let alone make promises to improve the legal protection of human rights or explore the possibility of adding new rights to those already protected by the Human Rights Act (HRA). Officially, the most recent pronouncement was from the Commission on a Bill of Rights which reported in 2013. Unable to agree on much, a majority of the Commission concluded that there was a strong argument in favour of a UK Bill of Rights which would build on all of the UK’s obligations under the ECHR and provide no less protection than was contained in the HRA. However, a different majority concluded that socio-economic rights were not something that should be included and that the present declaration of incompatibility contained in section 4 of the HRA should be retained as “there was no desire for conferring on courts a power to strike down inconsistent Acts of Parliament.” There has been very little progress on human rights law reform since.

By contrast, whilst the details are limited, the Scottish Government’s promises about human rights would address at least three of the problems with the current state of legal protection of human rights in the UK which the Commission on a Bill of Rights failed to do. First, as the Scottish Government itself recognised, whilst Scotland’s current equality and human rights framework is strong, that framework’s future cannot be guaranteed under current constitutional arrangements. The same goes for the rest of the UK. Once campaigning gets under way for the 2015 UK general election, it is likely that the repeal of the HRA will once again be a feature of the Conservative Party’s campaign as it was for the 2010 general election. Including human rights protection in a written constitution offers much more effective protection from the political winds of change than that offered by a mere Act of Parliament. Although it is likely that politicians would continue to criticise politically unpalatable judgments, such as those concerning prisoner voting, such criticism would be unlikely to be accompanied by promises to repeal or amend the constitution, particularly if the new constitution occupied a special place in the hearts and minds of the Scottish people. The experience of other countries demonstrates that including human rights protection as a key part of a written constitution also improves knowledge of and respect for human rights law, particularly if changes to present arrangements are developed in full consultation with the people of Scotland.

Second, whilst the details are not clear, it is likely that a written constitution containing human rights protection would mean that the legislation of the new independent Scottish Parliament would be vulnerable to legal challenge in the courts were it to be incompatible with human rights law. Whilst under the Scotland Act 1998 this is the situation at present in relation to the devolved legislation of the Scottish Parliament, it is not the situation in respect of the laws of the Westminster Parliament. Under section 4 of the HRA all a court can do is issue a declaration of incompatibility and wait for government, and Parliament, to change the law with all the delay and uncertainty that this entails. And finally, given the traditionally strong commitment to social justice in Scotland and willingness to include in the written constitution rights additional to those in the ECHR such as children’s rights and principles designed to “deliver greater equality and social justice”, it is likely that by contrast to the rest of the UK, human rights protection in an independent Scotland would extend to justiciable economic, social and possibly cultural rights. As appreciated during the lengthy process towards a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, often such rights have a more concrete meaning for people than civil and political rights and can help to muster support for human rights law generally whilst providing much needed protection for vulnerable individuals in an era of growing inequality.

Involving the people of Scotland in the future of human rights law, entrenching the outcome in a written constitution to which the legislature was subject, extending protection to economic, social, cultural and other human rights and support for a strong independent human rights commission would undoubtedly place an independent Scotland in the leading position on the protection of human rights when compared to the remaining countries of the United Kingdom. Were the HRA to be repealed following the next general election, the comparison would be even starker. But before planning a move to Scotland, it is important to be realistic about what will actually be achieved in relation to human rights protection were Scotland to achieve independence.

With a limited portfolio, it is fairly simple for the present Scottish government to be positive about human rights protection. Issues which have caused consternation for politicians at Westminster, such as the detention, control and deportation of terrorist suspects, have not arisen in the Scottish legal or political system. An independent Scotland would have responsibility for all matters including immigration and national security and much more difficult human rights questions would arise. Whilst it may be resisted, there would be a strong temptation to water down promised human rights protection in the face of public perceptions that human rights law is a “villain’s charter” an “obstacle to protecting the lives of citizens” and “practically an invitation for terrorists and would-be terrorists to come to Scotland”. Such notions have been prevalent in the UK print media over the last 14 years, including Scotland. Much initial work would have to be done to essentially rebrand the idea of human rights in the minds of the public, ensure sufficient education and promotion and encourage respect for the human rights parts of the written constitution. As the experience of other states demonstrates, the budget for an “open, participative and inclusive constitutional convention” would be considerable.

A related issue is what relationship Scottish courts in an independent Scotland would have with the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) when adjudicating on human rights claims. It is assumed that Scotland would be a party to the ECHR and thereby accept the right of individual petition to the ECtHR. Were the new constitution to be silent on the matter, it is also likely that Scottish judges would make full use of the jurisprudence of the ECtHR. Whilst there is considerable political mileage in the idea of a “Scottish” approach to human rights interpretation and application, which would garner respect and a margin of appreciation for Scotland before the ECtHR, again it is necessary to be realistic. It is only in a small minority of claims that there is actually room for a national approach. A recent example is the UK broadcasting ban on political advertising which was upheld by the ECtHR in Animal Defenders International v United Kingdom 2013. Other attempts to seek respect for a UK approach to human rights from the ECtHR, the blanket ban on prisoner voting for example, have not been successful.

In relation to the range of rights to be protected, it is important to appreciate that there exists a strong narrative force in the UK, and other national jurisdictions, against making economic and social rights justiciable in the same way as civil and political rights. As noted above, this was the conclusion of the Commission on a Bill of Rights and despite the promise of the Scottish government, the result of further consultation with powerful interests groups may mean that this promise is impossible to deliver. As it was for the HRA, a first step may be simply to offer protection to the rights contained in the ECHR and Protocol No.1, as noted in Rights Brought Home, the White Paper accompanying the Human Rights Bill, “ones with which the people of this country were plainly comfortable”. And finally, it is not clear from Scotland’s Future how the written constitution would limit the power of the Scottish Parliament to legislate. It is possible that human rights protection may afford Scottish judges something more than a declaration of incompatibility but less than a strike down power raising similar problems of delay and effectiveness which have bedevilled section 4 of the HRA.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, by making the protection and promotion of equality and human rights as a part of a written constitution one of the issues for consideration, the Scottish Government has set an excellent example. Should the vote be for independence, those with the power to embrace and reform human rights law in the rest of the UK should take careful note.

Merris Amos is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Law, Queen Mary, University of London.

(Suggested citation: M. Amos, ‘Scotland, Independence, and Human Rights’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (13th May 2014)  (available at  http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/).

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David Erdos: Mind the Gap – The CJEU Google Spain Judgment Profoundly Challenges the Current Realities of Freedom of Expression and Information Online

david.erdosCROSS-POSTED FROM OPENDEMOCRACY.NET.

The European UnionData Protection Directive of 1995 has always had lofty, and in many ways implausible, ambitions. As regards the private sector, it seeks to outlaw the input, storage or other processing on computer of any information relating to a living individual “data subject” (irrespective of whether the information is innocuous and/or widely available in the public domain) unless in each and every case that processing complies with a set of provisions put in place to ensure the protection of “the fundamental rights and freedoms of natural persons, and in particular their right to privacy” (Art. 1 (1)).

Subject to certain qualified and limited exemptions, that code requires that all data “controllers” – that is anyone who either “alone or jointly” determines the “purposes and means” of processing (Art. 2 (d)) – comply with a set of detailed rules designed inter alia to ensure fairness and transparency for the data subject and, in most circumstances, to completely outlaw processing of whole categories of “sensitive” information (for example regarding political opinion, religious belief and criminality) absent the subject’s explicit consent or unless this information is currently being manifestly made public by her (which may be taken as an albeit very tenuous kind of implicit consent) (Arts. 8, 10, 11 and 12).

In terms of legal principle, this code should have deeply structured the entire architecture of publication and dissemination of information on the World Wide Web. And yet, long before even the advent of Web 2.0, it was clear that the Web was largely operating according to an almost diametrically opposed understanding, namely, that information – in particular, publicly-available information – should, except in extraordinary circumstances, be “free”. This ethic is certainly at the heart of Google’s operations – indeed, its public mission is “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”.

The recently handed down Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) decision of C-131/12 Google Spain, Google v Agencia Espanola de Protection de Datos (2014) brings into stark relief the chasm between these two different understandings. The case originated from an attempt by a Spanish individual to use Spanish data protection legislation to get Google to delete from its search engine publicly available information relating to his bankruptcy from over ten years previously. His case, along with some 200 or so others, received the backing of the Spanish Data Protection Authority.

Google, however, contested liability on the basis that (i) it was not subject to Spanish law, (ii) it was not a “controller” of the processing and (iii) that making it comply would have a chilling effect on fundamental rights. Whilst many of these arguments received support in the advisory Advocate General Opinion of last June, the CJEU has now strikingly rejected all three. In sum it held that:

* Google search engine was bound to comply with Spanish law since the activities of its advertising subsidiary (Google Spain), unquestionably established on Spanish territory, were “inextricably linked” to the search engine itself (at 56). Therefore, all the processing was carried out “in the context of the activities” of the Spanish subsidiary. (As an aside, this implies that European Data Protection Authorities have been wrong to hold that Facebook is only subject to Irish law and can therefore ignore the data protection provisions of all the other 28 EU Member States).

* Google was clearly determining the “purposes and means” of processing data as it was deciding to create a search engine (at 33). It therefore was a “controller”. It was not relevant that the data in question had “already been published on the internet and are not altered by the search engine” (at 29).

* Far from constituting a chilling effect on fundamental rights, placing responsibilities on Google was essential to securing the “effective and complete” protection of data subjects’ rights and freedoms envisaged by the Directive (at 38). This was particularly the case since inclusion of information on a list of search engine results “may play a decisive role in the dissemination of that information” and “is liable to constitute a more significant interference with the data subject’s fundamental right to privacy than the publication on the web page” (at 87).

What was particularly striking and unexpected was that the Court went out of its way to enunciate both the ambit and substantive duties of Google in an even more expansive way than that suggested by the Spanish Data Protection Authority (DPA). As its Press Release following the judgment indicated, the Spanish DPA’s argument was limited to the idea that it was only on being asked by the data subject to remove material that Google became liable under data protection law. Moreover, Google would only have to accede to a “right to be forgotten” if its dissemination lacked “relevance or public interest” and was “causing harm to the affected individual”. On each of these aspects, however, the understanding of the CJEU was much broader.

Firstly, the Court stated that a search engine would be a controller not as a result of receiving a data subject request but merely because it was “processing” on its own behalf or, in other words, collecting and disseminating information from the web. It followed that:

Inasmuch as the activity of a search engine is … liable to affect significantly, and additionally, compared with that of publishers of websites, the fundamental rights to privacy and to the protection of personal data [as noted above, the Court found that this would often be the case], the operator of the search engine … must ensure, within the framework of its responsibilities, powers and capabilities, that the activity meets the requirements of [Data Protection] Directive 95/46 in order that the guarantees laid down by the directive may have full effect and that effective and complete protection of data subjects, in particular of their right to privacy, may actually be achieved. (at 38)

Secondly, the Court stated that there could be a valid opposition to the search engine’s inclusion of personal data irrespective of whether inclusion in the search engine results “causes prejudice to the data subject” (at 96).

Even more strikingly, the Court found that the simple making of an opposition would “override, as a rule, not only the economic interest of the operator of the search engine but also the interest of the general public in finding the information upon a search relating to the data subject’s name” (at 97). As a partial caveat, the Court did add that, at least as regards ordinary personal data “that would not be the case if it appeared, for particular reasons such as the role played by the data subject in public life, that the interference with his fundamental rights is justified by the preponderant interest of the general public in having, on account of inclusion in the lists of results, access to the information in question” (at 97). In stark contrast to the Advocate General’s Opinion, the Court made no mention at all of how the much stricter, sensitive information rules were meant to operate in this context.

The Court was right to find that Google was subject to Spanish law and was indeed a controller of its search engine results. What is surprising and more troubling were the Court’s views on the breadth and depth of search engines’ data protection responsibilities.

It is particularly striking that vis-à-vis Google the Court made no mention of freedom of expression even though this is enunciated in both Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 11 of the EU Fundamental Rights Charter. There was therefore no express attempt to balance this right against the data protection provisions set out in the Data Protection Directive and Article 8 of the EU Charter.

Instead, data protection was given priority, subject only to the partial caveat of a rather narrowly construed public interest centred on public figures. This approach can indeed be seen as required in order to secure the “effective and complete” protection of data subjects intended by the founders of European data protection.

However, such a vision is in profound tension with the whole way in which information is disseminated and sought out online including not only by large corporations such as Google but also by hundreds of millions of individuals. Much of the legal debate in the months and years to come will focus on dissecting exactly what the few limits left in play by the Court, which relate not only to public interest but also the “responsibilities, powers and capabilities” of search engines, actually mean.

But, in terms of real implementation, what is likely to matter more is how powerful the ideal of data protection enunciated in this judgment is when placed against the vast cultural, political and economic power of “internet freedom”. Whatever results from this, interesting times are ahead for the future development of this legal framework, with profound implications for the freedom of expression and information of us all.

 

David Erdos is a University Lecturer in Law and the Open Society and a Fellow of Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge.

 (Suggested citation: D. Erdos, ‘Mind the Gap’ Open Democracy (15th May 2014) (available at OpenDemocracy) OR D. Erdos, ‘Mind the Gap – The CJEU Google Spain Judgment Profoundly Challenges the Current Realities of Freedom of Expression and Information Online’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (15th May 2014) (available at  http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/).

 

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Andrew Le Sueur: Imagining judges in a written UK Constitution

Andrew Le SueurThe tide of interest (among those who care about these things) in the idea of a written, codified constitution for the United Kingdom rises and falls. At the moment the tide is quite high, but certainly not high enough to flow into the estuaries of government policy making.

In 2010, Richard Gordon QC —a public law scholar-practitioner at Brick Court Chambers, London —wrote a book length blue print for a codified constitution (though expressing himself tentatively in terms of aiming to stimulate a debate). In Repairing British Politics, he rejects parliamentary supremacy as a defining principle and envisages judges having broad and deep powers to enforce the constitution. As my Essex colleague Anthony King put it in a review of the book: “By implication — and notwithstanding a passing reference to ‘the available resources of the State’— unelected judges would even have the power to order other authorities to provide citizens with the aforementioned food, water, clothing, housing and free health and social care services”.

Meanwhile, across the road at the LSE, Conor Gearty is leading a “trailblazing project that invites members of the public to participate in, offer advice on and eventually to draft a new UK constitution through crowdsourcing”. On Thursday 26 June 2014, the project will be hosting a “Constitutional Carnival”when “All those involved in the project, and many others joining for the first time, will be invited to come together to have their say on what should be included in a UK constitution”. One session will be on “Where should judges fit in a written constitution?”. It will be interesting to see what emerges.

The latest contribution to the debate comes today from the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which publishes its report on Constitutional role of the judiciary if there were a codified constitution (14th report of Session 2013-14, HC 802). Chaired by veteran Labour MP Graham Allen, this cross-party select committee has been toiling away since it was set up in June 2010 “to consider political and constitutional reform, scrutinising the work of the Deputy Prime Minister in this area”. Two major planks of Nick Clegg’s agenda have fallen off the lorry since then: House of Lords reform and an alternative vote electoral system for the House of Commons. With time on its hands to mull over the bigger picture, the PCRC launched a wide ranging inquiry in September 2010 on “Mapping the path to codifying — or not codifying — the UK’s Constitution”, supported by researchers at the Centre for Political and Constitutional Studies at King’s College London. Today’s report on the role of the judiciary is one aspect of that inquiry.

The PCRC’s report starts by acknowledging that the British judiciary already have a role in relation to constitutional matters, quoting examples I gave in my written evidence:

determining legal disagreements about the respective powers of different institutions within the constitution, for example between the UK Parliament and the UK Government, or between the central and local government;

dealing with legal questions about the division of powers between the UK and the European Union, under the guidance of preliminary rulings by the European Court of Justice;

adjudicating on legal questions about the exercise of powers by executive and legislative institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in accordance with the devolution settlements created by the UK Parliament;

protecting fundamental rights of individuals, including those in the Human Rights Act 1998, taking into account the case law of the European Court of Human Rights. [...]

judicial review of executive action and delegated legislation, ensuring that public bodies remain within the powers conferred on them by Acts of Parliament and operate in accordance with judge-made legal principles of (for example) fairness and rationality.

The report goes on to “welcome the fact that the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 enshrined judicial independence in law”.

From there, however, the committee feels unable to say much more about what would change, in relation to the judiciary, if there were to be a written constitution:

The role of the judiciary would undoubtedly change should the UK adopt a codified constitution, but the precise nature of that change will be difficult to assess until there is an agreed definition of the current constitutional role of the judiciary. In our terms of reference we set out to explore the current constitutional role of the judiciary but this needs further work.

That’s quite right. There are a number of different ways in which the British constitution could be “written”and each model —including a non-legal constitutional code, a consolidation Act bringing together current statute law on the constitution into a single enactment, and a full blown constitution —would have different implications for the role of judges.

Having rehearsed some well trodden pros and cons of parliamentary supremacy (and whether it should or indeed could be retained in a written constitution), the PCRC expresses interest in the idea (which I share) of a “declaration of constitutionality” modelled on similar lines to section 4 of the Human Rights Act 1998, which would give courts power to declare that an Act of Parliament is inconsistent with a norm of the constitution without striking down the offending provision. It would then be left to government and Parliament to decide how to respond.

In a statement that will I’m sure provide inspiration to setters of undergraduate essay questions in years to come, the committee states “Before the UK could move towards a codified constitution there would need to be a precise definition of the ‘rule of law”’. I am not sure that is right: arguably, the committee gets this back to front. A better way of understanding the umbrella concept of the rule of law is to say that it includes what is written down in a constitution.

Sharing a view previously expressed by the House of Lords Constitution Committee, the PCRC shows little appetite courts having power to undertake  pre-enactment review of legislation. Nor is there much support for setting up a specialist constitutional court: based on the evidence received (including mine), the report concludes that “the Supreme Court could adjudicate on constitutional matters”.

All in all, it is difficult to resist the view that the PCRC’s report is a damp squib on the big issues. It offers little new on the key question of whether parliamentary supremacy could or should be retained under a new constitutional document. To be fair, it is unrealistic to expect a cross-party select committee, midway through a larger inquiry, to say much more on this contentious issue. In the press release accompanying today’s report, the committee’s chair Graham Allan is quoted as saying “The Committee expects to publish the results of its wider inquiry into codifying, or not codifying, the UK’s constitution in the summer.” Let’s see.

In my written evidence to the committee I argued for political realism in the debate about the role of the judiciary. I said that, thinking about the topic of judges in the constitution generally, it is possible to envisage a range of possible roles.

At the maximalist end of the spectrum would be a design that (for example) empowers the judges to adjudicate on the constitutionality of Acts of the UK Parliament with a remedial power to quash Acts that are incompatible with the UK Constitution; the UK Constitution might also include legally enforceable socio-economic rights (to health, housing, education and so on); there might also be ‘abstract’ judicial review of bills before they receive Royal Assent. A design of this sort would involve a shift in the balance of power to decide matters of national interest away from the UK Parliament and Government towards the courts.

A minimalist design of the judicial role in the UK Constitution would not give the courts power to quash Acts of Parliament (so preserving the existing principle of parliamentary supremacy), would avoid creating justiciable socio-economic rights (confining rights to the civil and political ones familiar from the European Convention on Human Rights currently incorporated into national law by the Human Rights Act 1998), and would not have a system for abstract judicial review of bills.

Where on the maximalist-minimalist spectrum a UK Constitution should sit has to depend on (a) efficacy and (b) political acceptability. Efficacy is concerned with what is needed, from a ‘technical’ legal perspective, for the UK Constitution to make a real improvement compared to current constitutional arrangements. Political acceptability is about being realistic as to what political elites and the general public would find attractive or tolerable.

In the current political climate it is difficult to imagine that mainstream political opinion would accept an enlargement of the role of judges in adjudicating on legal questions that relate to controversial matters of public policy. The existing powers of courts under the Human Rights Act 1998 and in judicial review claims are regularly called into question by members of the Government and have few champions within Parliament. There is little public understanding of the role of courts in these areas and the constitutional function of the judges is routinely disparaged and misrepresented in the press. This political background against which the continuing debates about a UK Constitution take place is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Politically realistic constitutional reformers should therefore favour a minimalist role for judges in a codified constitution and provide reassurance to sceptics and opponents of judicial power that adoption of a UK Constitution need not involve the judges in novel legal tasks.

I stick to that view. At a time when the government, including the Lord Chancellor, find judicial review of administrative action unpalatable, it is not practical politics to argue for greater powers for the UK courts to strike down “unconstitutional”Acts of Parliament. Anti-judicial review sentiments were not invented by the present coalition government. Under previous administrations, ministers did not see the point of it. In 2003, David Blunkett MP, when a minister in Tony Blair’s Labour government, captured what I sense to be the dominant view of all recent governments: “Frankly, I’m personally fed up with having to deal with a situation where Parliament debates issues and the judges then overturn them”.

Andrew Le Sueur is Professor of Constitutional Justice at the University of Essex and president of the UK Constitutional Law Association.

(Suggested citation: A. Le Sueur, ‘Imagining judges in a written UK Constitution’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (14th May 2014) (available at: http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/).

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Event tomorrow: ALBA/UKCLA Seminar on Right to an Oral Hearing

UKCLA logoA reminder to UKCLA members and blog readers … Tomorrow, 14 May 2014, the UKCLA will hold a joint seminar with ALBA (the Constitutional and Administrative Law Bar Association). The topic addresses questions of procedural fairness  in relation to the right to an oral hearing.  The speakers are  Hugh Southey QC and Professor David Feldman, with Mr Justice Silber in the chair. The speakers will consider recent case law in which the courts have considered the circumstances in which fairness requires (and does not require) an oral hearing. The seminar will be held from 17.45-19.15, in Gray’s Inn, in the Large Pension Room. 1½ CPD  points will be applied for. The seminar is free, but please register in advance through the ALBA website  www.adminlaw.org.uk.

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Grégoire Webber: On the ‘lawful’ premise and prostitution

gregoi7‘It is not a crime in Canada to sell sex for money.’ This factual assertion opens the unanimous judgment of the Supreme Court of Canada in Bedford v Attorney General, 2013 SCC 72. It is the first and a repeated premise leading to the judgment’s conclusions: the criminal prohibitions on keeping a bawdy-house, living on the avails of prostitution, and communicating in public with respect to a proposed act of prostitution are unconstitutional for violating the rights to life and security of the person. This post evaluates the factual premise that prostitution is a lawful activity and, more generally, the significance of liberties in the law.

The Supreme Court places much significance on the liberty in law to sell sex for money. Here is a sample:

[59] “Here, the applicants argue that the prohibitions on bawdy-houses, living on the avails of prostitution, and communicating in public for the purposes of prostitution, heighten the risks they face in prostitution — itself a legal activity.”

[60] “The prohibitions at issue do not merely impose conditions on how prostitutes operate. They go a critical step further, by imposing dangerous conditions on prostitution; they prevent people engaged in a risky — but legal — activity from taking steps to protect themselves from the risks.”

[61] “It is not an offence to sell sex for money.”

[62] “Working on the street is also permitted, though the practice of street prostitution is significantly limited by the prohibition on communicating in public.”

[87] “… even accepting that there are those who freely choose to engage in prostitution, it must be remembered that prostitution — the exchange of sex for money — is not illegal.”

[89] “The impugned laws deprive people engaged in a risky, but legal, activity of the means to protect themselves against those risks.”

The judgment’s repeated assertion that there is a legal liberty to sell sex for money draws on the unstated premise that there is a moral quality to this liberty or to all liberties in the law, such that that which is not criminally prohibited is therefore just, choice-worthy, and not to be discouraged by government or law. The unsound character of this reasoning is evident from an examination of some fundamental juridical categories.

A ‘liberty to’ is the opposite of a ‘duty not to’. That it is not a crime to sell sex for money is equivalent to the absence of a criminal duty not to sell sex for money. The absence of a criminal duty need not imply the absence of another (non-criminal) legal duty: for example, my criminal liberty to break my contract with you does not imply my legal-contractual liberty to do so. More fundamentally, the absence of any legal duty need not imply the absence of a moral duty; equivalently stated, the presence of a liberty in law need not imply the presence of a liberty in morality.

Consider how foreign the Court’s repeated emphasis on the criminal liberty to sell sex sounds when other legal liberties are substituted for it:

The applicants argue that the prohibition on assault heightens the risks they face in bullying – itself a legal activity.

Adultery is a risky – but legal – activity.

It is not an offence to lie to one’s friends.

In each of these cases, the legal liberty to engage in the activity confronts a moral duty not to. It is a moral wrong to bully another, to commit adultery, to lie to one’s friends, a wrong in no way camouflaged by the absence of a legal duty not to do so.

Of course, many legal liberties track moral liberties, among them: the liberty to contract (itself bounded by legal and moral duties not to contract with certain persons and over certain matters); the liberty to express oneself (itself bounded by legal and moral duties not to defame, to libel, falsely to shout fire in a crowded theatre, . . .); and the liberties to assemble peacefully, to associate, to practice one’s religion or none at all, to follow one’s conscience, to . . . (all bounded by . . .).

The mere presence of a liberty in the law does not conclude the question whether there is a liberty in morality. And yet, the Supreme Court of Canada’s regular reference to the legal liberty to sell sex is intended to convey that it equated the absence of a legal duty not to sell sex with the absence of a moral duty not to do so, and, therefore, the absence of any ground to discourage the sale of sex.

This resulted in a misguided characterisation of the relationship between the criminal liberty to exchange sex for money and the criminal duties not to keep a bawdy-house, to live on the avails of prostitution, or to communicate in public with respect to a proposed act of prostitution. The Court reasoned that the criminal duties rendered the ‘lawful activity [of prostitution] more dangerous’, drawing the following ‘analogy’:

[87] “An analogy could be drawn to a law preventing a cyclist from wearing a helmet. That the cyclist chooses to ride her bike does not diminish the causal role of the law in making that activity riskier. The challenged laws relating to prostitution are no different.”

The Court’s analogy is telling. One has both a legal and a moral liberty to ride one’s bike (as bounded by duties not to do so on another’s property, on the motorway, etc). The assumed persuasiveness of this analogy rests on the Court’s unstated and undefended premise that one also has a moral liberty to sell sex for money. Absent that premise, the analogy can do no work, just as it would do no work if appealed to in support of the legal liberties to bully, to commit adultery, and to lie to one’s friends.

How then to characterise the relationship between the criminal liberty and criminal duties? The Attorneys General of Canada and of Ontario argued that the criminal duties were to be understood as seeking to deter prostitution (para. 131). The Court dismissed the argument, affirming that the record established that ‘the [only] purpose of the prohibition[s] is to prevent community harms’, with ‘community harms’ to be understood as excluding any harms inherent to the sale of sex for money (para. 131; see also paras. 132, 137-138, and 146-147). This misunderstanding was directed by the Court’s unwillingness to divorce a legal liberty from a moral liberty.

Consider this alternative characterisation of the relationship between the criminal duties surrounding prostitution and the criminal liberty to sell sex for money.[1]  Prostitution is a moral wrong. It is harmful both to the prostitute and to the other engaging in the contracted sexual activity. One has a moral duty both not to sell and not to purchase sex. To do so is inimical to the community’s common good and a violation of equality and dignity. Prostitution is, therefore, an act worthy of legal prohibition. However, the act is also deeply personal and if truly private not one that the law should seek to regulate directly if undertaken between adult persons. Rather, the law should frustrate prostitution by indirect means, chief among them: prohibiting keeping a bawdy-house, living on the avails of prostitution, and communicating in public with respect to a proposed act of prostitution. Such prohibitions of relatively public acts pursuant to prostitution are not to be analogised to the reckless or purposeless regulation of a moral liberty (as would be the prohibition against wearing a helmet when riding a bicycle); their objective is to frustrate with a view to eliminating a deeply private, but immoral activity that wrongs the prostitute, the client, and the community. In doing so, the legislature can be taken to have acted on the view that failure to intervene to frustrate prostitution would be an injustice against those persons for whom it is responsible, persons including the seller and the purchaser of sex.

It may be that these prohibitions are to be abandoned in favour of an alternative approach to the wrong of prostitution. I take no position on that question, except to say this: it is a question not best approached by assuming that the criminal liberty to sell sex for money implies a moral liberty to do so.

Grégoire Webber is Associate Professor of Law at the London School of Economics.

[1] This paragraph is indebted in part to Bradley Miller ‘Proportionality’s Blind Spot: “Neutrality” and Political Philosophy’ in Huscroft, Miller, and Webber (eds) Proportionality and the Rule of Law (Cambridge, 2014) 382-383.

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Emily MacKenzie: Successful Challenge to Levels of Asylum Support – R (on the application of Refugee Action) v Home Secretary

Emily MacKenzie-Brick Court ChambersThe High Court recently upheld an important challenge in the field of asylum support. In June 2013, the Home Secretary decided that weekly cash payments to “destitute” asylum seekers in the 2013-14 financial year should remain frozen at the rate which had applied since 2011. In R (on the application of Refugee Action) v Home Secretary, Popplewell J quashed that decision, which now falls for reconsideration by the Home Secretary in light of the judgment.

The legislation provides that the cash payments are to cover “essential living needs” other than accommodation, which (including utility bills, council tax and basic furnishings) is provided for separately. However, as most asylum seekers and their dependents are prohibited from claiming benefits and from seeking work, the payments represent the sole source of income for these households.

The frozen weekly payments amount to £36.63 for a single adult, £43.94 for a single parent, £39.80 for 16-17 year olds and £52.96 for a child under 16 (although this does not apply to unaccompanied children, to whom separate provisions apply). Pregnant women and babies under the age of two receive additional payments of up to £5 weekly and pregnant women also receive a one-off maternity payment of £300.

The charity Refugee Action sought judicial review of the freeze on multiple grounds. While rejecting or declining to decide other grounds, Popplewell J upheld the claim for the following two reasons:

  1. In reaching her decision to freeze the payments, the Home Secretary left out of her consideration certain needs, which qualify as “essential living needs”.
  2. In setting the level of the payments, her analysis was flawed in several significant ways. For example, the fact that she proceeded on the “erroneous footing” that asylum support rates had increased in absolute terms by 11.5% when in fact they had decreased by that amount.

The case is an interesting read, not only on its own merits, but also because it raises at least two important constitutional issues: two-tiered standards of review and NGOs as judicial review claimants.

1. A two-tiered standard of review

In setting the level of asylum support, the Home Secretary had to conclude that the payments are adequate to meet “essential living needs”. It was therefore necessary for her to identify what living needs are “essential”. The claimants challenged her assessment, asserting that she had left out of consideration various items, which should be considered to qualify as “essential living needs.”

Faced with this challenge, the first question for the court is who gets to decide what is an “essential living need”? Is it an objective question (and thus suitable for the Court to define), or is it to be subjectively judged by the Secretary of State?

Popplewell J’s answer that it was both – and thus he outlined a two-tiered approach to reviewing the Home Secretary’s assessment.

It was an objective question insofar as the area had been the subject of an EU Directive, which imposes “minimum reception conditions” for countries receiving asylum seekers. The Marleasing principle (that national legislation must be interpreted in a manner which gives effect to EU law) therefore required that “[p]rovision for essential living needs . . . be interpreted as including, as a minimum, provision of the minimum reception conditions required by the Directive,” which conditions constitute an objective standard (para 85).

However, this is an example of a Directive setting a baseline minimum of protection. Essentially all that is required is that asylum support ensures respect for human dignity, maintenance of an adequate standard of health and that subsistence living needs are met. Most countries, including the U.K., go further in terms of providing for the destitute.

Popplewell J considered that once you exit the territory of the Directive and provide further guarantees, the question of what is an “essential” living need becomes a matter for the subjective assessment of the Home Secretary (para 90). The reason given is that what is “essential” (beyond the bare minimum, on which we can all agree) is “a criterion on which views may differ widely” and thus involves the making of a “value judgment”, which function has been conferred by Parliament on the executive.

The result of this is that, outside the territory of the Directive, the Home Secretary’s decision as to what constitutes essential living needs is only open to challenge on the Wednesbury standard of review.

The present case is an example, though, of a situation where the notoriously high Wednesbury hurdle was overcome because the Home Secretary had failed to take into account relevant considerations to a sufficient extent to vitiate her decision. Counsel for the Home Secretary accepted that certain items (including washing powder, cleaning materials and non-prescription medication) were essential living needs (para 99), yet the evidence was that they were not considered by the Secretary of State in her decision (para 100). Similarly, the provision of certain equipment for babies and new mothers was implicitly accepted as being essential because the governments asserted (incorrectly, the Judge concluded) that it was provided for by the extra payments made to pregnant women and children under the age of 2.

Further, Popplewell J was able to find that costs associated with the asylum application not covered by legal aid (para 104) and the cost of participating in social, cultural and religious life (para 113-116) fall within the ambit of the “minimum” conditions imposed by the Directive and thus are certainly deserving of consideration by the Secretary of State, if not precise delimitation by the court.

The case is thus an example of a two-tiered approach to review. Basic guarantees are not discretionary, meaning that the court can flex its interventionist muscles if it disagrees with the executive’s conclusion as to what is included. However, beyond that we are in the realm of discretionary decision-making, where the courts will back off and defer to the executive in the absence of irrationality.

This bifurcated approach to review is not particularly controversial, but is likely to structure future challenges in this sector. It will also make it very difficult to challenge a decision in the discretionary realm in a case where a proper process has been followed and errors such as were abundant on the facts of this case have been avoided.

  1. Judicial review challenges brought by NGOs

This case is an example of a successful claim by an NGO. The Government has been strident in its opposition to NGOs acting as claimants in judicial review (see Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s most recent comments on the matter in The Telegraph). The Government’s earlier proposals for judicial review reform would have seen NGOs denied standing to bring judicial review claims. Fortunately, that proposal has been abandoned in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, but the latter still introduces numerous reforms to the costs regime that will cripple the ability of many organisations to take on the risk of litigation (see this earlier UK Constitutional Law Association Blog post by Ben Jaffey and Tom Hickman).

However, one should be careful before deploying this case as an example of why squeezing NGOs out of judicial review would be a bad thing. At several stages, Popplewell J makes clear that, in his view, the challenge was hampered by the fact that it was “general” in nature, as opposed to being “brought by an individual whose personal circumstances were in evidence” (para 43). For example, he ascribes the difficulties he has in determining what local authorities provide to asylum seekers as being:

“no doubt the result of the general nature of the present challenge, which led in the course of argument to hypothetical examples of particular individual circumstances giving rise to particular needs. Such hypothetical examples would have been easier to address on a case by case basis with the assistance of the specific applicable powers and duties of local authorities, and, importantly, evidence of how they were applied as a matter of policy and practice. Local authorities might have wished to be heard on some aspects. The result is that the following analysis has been undertaken on a less well informed basis and at a higher level of generality than I would have liked, and than would have been possible in a challenge by an individual whose personal circumstances were in evidence.” (Para 43)

Similarly, the Judge was unwilling to engage in the hypothetical that some asylum seekers might fall into a “gap” in protection in the absence of evidence that an actual person in that situation existed, concluding:

“there is no evidential basis on the current generic challenge for concluding that there are infirm children of asylum seekers whose additional non accommodation related essential living needs are not being met by local authorities and whose circumstances are not to be categorised as exceptional.” (Para 82)

If this case is used, as it should be, to illustrate the role of NGOs in bringing to light faulty decision-making by the government, it is likely that these dicta will be cited in an attempt to show that NGOs should not be using judicial review in this way. The criticisms can, however, be answered.

Part of the answer lies in the judgment itself. Whilst suggesting in the passages cited above that an individual challenge would have presented fewer difficulties, Popplewell J also criticises other parts of the evidence as coming from too few affected individuals. This is in relation to material that the claimant served evidencing the problems asylum seekers encounter under the current payments, such as having to miss meals and being unable to afford adequate clothing (para 133). Popplewell J commented that:

“…it is a partial body of relevant evidence, in both senses of the word. It can not properly be regarded as conclusive. The Claimant’s survey was based on the responses of a relatively small group and did not paint a homogenous picture. None of the material could be treated as demonstrably representative or beyond doubt.” (Para 134)

What this shows is that both evidence relating to the situations of specific individuals and wide-ranging survey evidence can be useful in challenging policy decisions in this sector. An NGO such as Refugee Action is best placed to collect both kinds of evidence. It is clearly more capable of collecting the wide-ranging “demonstrably representative” evidence than an individual challenger would be. However, arguably, it is also just as – if not more – capable of collecting evidence relating to the situations of a specific individual because it is more likely to be able to locate the relevant person. Indeed, the publicity attendant with bringing the claim in the first place might bring individuals out of the woodwork, whose situations would otherwise have remained unknown to the court.

Conclusion

This case has been lauded by some commentators as a “damning” judgment for the Home Secretary (see, for example, this post by Chris Yeo on the Free Movement Blog). Not only is it a landmark decision in this subject-area, it is well worth reading for its contribution to the discussion surrounding the appropriate standard of review in relation to policy decisions. And –perhaps most importantly – it is the latest example of a successful claim by an NGO bringing to light manifest failures in government decision-making that affects some of the most vulnerable in our society.

Emily MacKenzie is a barrister at Brick Court Chambers and is currently working as an International Law Fellow at the American Society of International Law

(Suggested citation: E. MacKenzie, ‘Successful challenge to levels of asylum support – R (on the application of Refugee Action) v Home Secretary’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (8th May 2014) (available at: http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/).

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