Tag Archives: European Court of Human RIghts

Alison Young: HRA Howlers: The Conservative Party and Reform of the Human Rights Act 1998

young_alison-l2It seems that a day cannot go by without another mention by the Conservative party of their desire to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998, withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights, or find a way in which the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights can be ‘advisory’ as opposed to ‘legally binding’. So much so, that it hardly seems newsworthy to report that the Justice Secretary, Christopher Grayling MP, published an 8-page strategy report setting out both why the Conservative Party felt there was a need for change and the proposed replacement for the status quo. However, what does attract attention is the reaction of the former Attorney General, Dominic Grieve MP, that the strategy document was based on ‘a number of howlers’. In agreement with Stephen Tierney, who concluded that the real winner in the Scottish Referendum was democracy, this blog post aims to further democratic participation and debate. It will do so by investigating the strategy report’s argument for the need for change. After all, if the facts on which a policy is based are ‘howlers’, we should at least question whether change is needed, and, if not, whether it may nevertheless remain desirable if unnecessary.

The strategy report begins by focusing on the flaws of the European Court of Human Rights accusing it of ‘mission creep’. It provides four examples to back its claim. First, the report points to problems arising from the European Court of Human Rights’ judgments that a complete ban on prisoner voting breaches Article 3 of the First Protocol. The report claims that it was never intended that this provision of the Convention would grant individual rights. Rather, it is designed to guarantee free and fair elections. Issues relating to the franchise in such elections are deliberately left out of the text. Second, the strategy report lists the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in 2007 which concluded that article 8 included the rights of prisoners to go through artificial insemination with their partners. Third, decisions of the European Court of Human Rights in relation to article 8 are criticised again, this time because foreign nationals who commit serious crimes in the UK can plead their right to family life in order to remain in the UK following their release from prison as opposed to being deported. Fourth, the European Court of Human Rights has banned life sentences, concluding that they are contrary to Article 3 of the Convention.

Before assessing whether these illustrations really are examples of mission creep, we need first to establish if they are true, or howlers. The first howler is the classic error of elevating the need for regulation into a ban. This is exemplified by the strategy report’s discussion of life sentences. In Vinter and Others v United Kingdom the European Court of Human Rights did conclude that life sentences could breach Article 3 of the European Convention. The important word here is ‘could’. The Court does state that ‘Article 3 must be interpreted as requiring reducibility’ of a life sentence. [paragraph 119]. But it is important to realise that by ‘reducibility’ the Court did not mean that life sentences were banned. Rather, the ‘reducibility’ of the sentence required is ‘a review which allows the domestic authorities to consider whether any changes in the life prisoner are so significant, and such progress towards rehabilitation has been made in the course of the sentence as to mean that continued detention can no longer be justified on legitimate penological grounds.’ [paragraph 119]. The Court is also careful to point out that ‘it is not its task to prescribe the form (executive or judicial) which that review should take’. [paragraph 120], save to mention consensus found in comparative and international law of support for a review ‘no later than twenty-five years after the imposition of a life sentence, with further periodic reviews thereafter.’ [paragraph 120]. As the Government itself acknowledges, Vinter v UK does not mean that life sentences are banned or that those serving life terms must be released. Rather, what is banned is a life sentence without a review after 25 years of that sentence. If there are sound penological grounds for continued detention, the prisoner remains in detention.

A second howler is found in the strategy document’s third example – the deportation of foreign criminals. This howler is more subtle. The criticism is that foreign nationals who commit serious crimes are able to remain in the UK. The strategy report sees this as problematic as ‘[t]hese judgments have apparently overlooked the very clear qualifications in the Convention relevant to the legitimate exercise of such rights.’ The document suggests that the European Court of Human Rights fails to do its job seriously, elevating qualified rights into absolute rights; exchanging “you may have a right to remain in the UK as you have a family here and the protection of your right to family life outweighs the interests of justice and the potential harm to the rights of others” for “you can remain here indefinitely as you have a family”. However, as the subtle use of ‘apparently’ makes clear, the real accusation of the strategy report is that it disagrees with the way in which the Court balances rights. The authors of the strategy report would have deported more convicted criminals. It is a subtle howler because it is not technically incorrect. But it is a howler nonetheless, as the language elevates a disagreement over issues where it is reasonable to disagree into a conclusive criticism. It is not that the European Court of Human Rights overlooks the interests of justice and the need to protect the rights of others. It is more that the Court perhaps places less emphasis on these interests and more on the right to family life than the authors of the strategy report would have done, had they been deciding the cases. This is not surprising. These are complicated issues on which it can be reasonable to disagree. That is one of the reasons why both courts and legislatures play a role in these decisions and why the European Court of Human Rights grants a wide margin of appreciation.

Howlers apart – is this a convincing argument in favour of ‘mission creep’? The document accuses the European Court of Human Rights of mission creep as it uses the Convention as a ‘living instrument’, allowing the meaning of the document to evolve over time and, therefore, drift away from the intentions of the original authors of the document. It is true that the way in which the European Convention of Human Rights has been interpreted has changed over time. This is hardly surprising. The world does not stand still. Unsurprisingly, the authors of the European Convention on Human Rights had no opinion on whether prisoners should be allowed access to artificial insemination to enable them to start a family. Artificial insemination of humans, although it existed, was not a widespread or widely acceptable practice when the Charter was drafted. It is also highly unlikely that such specific instances of application of general human rights were matters for discussion at the drafting of the European Convention of Human Rights.

The strongest example of ‘mission creep’ found in the strategy report is the argument that Article 3 of the First Protocol was not designed to provide for any specific franchise. That is correct – in part. Article 3 of the First Protocol states; “[t]he High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.” The question remains whether removing the franchise from a section of the community means that the State in question has carried out a free election. Removing the vote from all members of a particular political party, or from a certain ethnic minority, for example, would be extremely unlikely to meet the criteria of a free election. Nor would the conditions of the Article be met if you were required to cast your vote in the presence of an armed member of the secret services.

The problem is not necessarily that the European Court of Human Rights uses the Convention as a living instrument. Without doing so, human rights cannot help with novel situations – such as the growing use and acceptance of artificial insemination. Maybe the real issue is whether the Court is allowing the Convention to evolve in the right way. Is it the job of the Court to push signatory States forward in developing human rights protections, or to reflect developments in human rights found in the signatory States and elsewhere? When we look at the examples given in the strategy report, the Court appears to be more likely to follow than lead. In its most recent case on prisoner voting, for example, the Court referred to laws across a range of signatory States, in addition to the law in Canada, South Africa and Australia. It was also careful to grant a wide margin of appreciation to States when determining the specific franchise. The European Court of Human Rights does not prohibit signatory States from removing the vote from prisoners. It merely prohibits blanket bans. Signatory States have the ability to determine which prisoners should be prevented from voting and why – a process that the Westminster Parliament is slowly undertaking.

‘Mission creep’ is hard to define. Determining the relevant roles of international courts of human rights, national courts and national legislatures is not an easy task. Moreover, it is something on which one can expect reasonable disagreement. But it is important to recognise that there are mechanisms that the national courts and legislatures can use to signal to the European Court of Human Rights that it has perhaps, taken its mission too far. In Horncastle, for example, the UK Supreme Court did not follow a decision of the European Court of Human Rights, Al Khawaja, relating to whether allowing convictions based on hearsay evidence breached article 6. The decision of the European Court of Human Rights was on appeal to the Grand Chamber at the time and the Supreme Court was concerned that the European Court of Human Rights had not fully taken account of other procedural protections in the common law. In the Grand Chamber hearing in Al Khawaja, the UK Government was able to intervene and the European Court of Human Rights took account of the reasoning of the UK Supreme Court in Horncastle. In doing so, it modified its earlier conclusions, replacing a ban on convictions based on hearsay evidence for a more sophisticated position, recognising when hearsay evidence could be relied upon whilst still protecting the procedural rights of the accused. (See commentary here.) Similarly, in Animal Defenders International v UK, the European Court of Human Rights took account of a decision of the House of Lords and of reports of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. (See commentary here.) As a signatory State to the European Convention, it is also open to the United Kingdom to raise its concerns as to ‘mission creep’ in meetings of the Council of Europe.

Having accused the European Court of Human Rights of ‘mission creep’, the strategy report moves on to fire three criticisms at the Human Rights Act: (i) it undermines the role of the UK courts to decide human rights issues; (ii) it undermines the sovereignty of Parliament and democratic accountability to the public; and (iii) it goes beyond the UK’s obligations under the Convention. However, when we examine the arguments and examples more closely, more howlers appear. The strategy report argues that section 2 of the Human Rights Act 1998 undermines the role of the UK courts. As is well known, section 2(1) of the Human Rights Act requires the UK courts to take judgments of the European Court of Human Rights into account. This could undermine the role of the UK courts were they to read section 2(1) as imposing a system of precedent, with national courts being unable to give a different interpretation of Convention rights than that found in decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. However, this is not an accurate account of how the UK courts interpret section 2(1). Horncastle demonstrates how the UK Supreme Court does not always follow decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. Nicklinson contains dicta demonstrating how national courts may develop Convention rights beyond the interpretation found in the European Court of Human Rights. Moreover, recently, the UK Supreme Court has been developing constitutional rights of the common law – sometimes, preferring, as in Osborn, to refer to the common law. If the strategy report is to be believed, the role of the UK courts is being undermined. However, this does not appear to be the opinion of the UK courts. And, it is the UK courts who determine what it means to take decisions of the European Court of Human Rights into account when interpreting section 2(1).

Assessing whether the Human Rights Act undermines the sovereignty of Parliament and democratic accountability is no easy task. However, the argument used to support this claim in the strategy report contains further howlers. The strategy paper is concerned about the use of section 3(1) of the Human Rights Act, which requires courts to interpret legislation in a manner compatible with Convention rights, so far as it is possible to do so. The concern is that courts take this duty too far. Two possible howlers can be found here, the second following on from the first. First, the strategy report is selective in its choice of case used to illustrate how the courts go beyond the limits of possible interpretations. The document refers to the interpretation of the Misuse of Drugs Act in R v Lambert. This is a case from 2001. The case law has moved on since then. The strategy report makes no mention of Ghaidan v Godin-Mendoza, a more recent case which is often regarded as back-tracking from the earlier, more proactive case law on section 3, including Lambert. Ghaidan v Godin-Mendoza makes it clear that courts will not read words so as to be compatible with Convention rights where to do so would undermine a fundamental feature of that legislation. Second, the strategy report assumes that the sovereignty of Parliament is undermined as interpretations are given that are contrary to the will of Parliament. In these circumstances, there is nothing in the Human Rights Act 1998 preventing the Westminster Parliament from re-enacting legislation to reverse a section 3(1) interpretation. To do so, the Westminster Parliament would have to make it clear that this was its intention, owning up politically to its desire to reverse this interpretation, explaining its reasons for doing so, and doing so in a manner that made the Westminster Parliament democratically accountable for its actions.

Further howlers are found in the third criticism of the Human Rights Act. It is true that the European Convention of Human Rights does not dictate how signatory States are to protect Convention rights. There is no requirement that the Convention be incorporated as it was by the Human Rights Act. This is to state the obvious- after all, the UK signed up to the European Convention of Human Rights long before it enacted the Human Rights Act 1998. However, the strategy report goes on to contrast the situation in the UK with that of Germany. To quote from the strategy report: ‘The German Constitutional Court, for example, ruled that if there is a conflict between the German Basic Law and the ECHR then the Basic law prevails over the Convention. The Human Rights Act provides no such protection in the UK.’ There are two subtle howlers here. First, the ruling of the German Constitutional Court recognises the way in which Germany incorporates international law. The German Basic Law states that international law has the same status as Federal law. As such, it has a lower status than Constitutional law. In the UK, international law has to be incorporated into UK law, normally by primary legislation. Primary legislation can be overridden by other primary legislation. There is no need for the UK to provide the same protection from the ECHR as is found in the German Basic Law. The Human Rights Act can be overridden by future legislation – although the provisions of such future legislation may need to be carefully worded to achieve this effect. The authors of the strategy report must realise this as that is precisely what they propose. The Human Rights Act, even if recognised as a constitutional statute, is not the UK equivalent of the German Basic law. There is not the same need for the Act to provide the same protection as the German Basic Law.

Second, care needs to be taken over the context in which the German Constitutional Court made this statement. Two further clarifications are needed here. The statement was made in the context of conflicting rights. The decision of the European Court of Human Rights questioned by the German Constitutional Court concerned the interpretation of Article 8 requiring a granting of greater visiting rights to a child’s biological father. The German Constitutional Court expressed concern that this could interfere with the human rights of a child’s adoptive family. This stands to reason. There are only so many hours in the day. The more time a child spends with her biological parents the less time can be spent with her adoptive parents. It is one thing to be concerned about following decisions of the European Court of Human Rights when they may cause conflicts with national constitutionally protected human rights. It is quite another to want to claim the ability to ignore human rights decisions because you disagree with them.

The German Constitutional Court did rule that, where there is a conflict, the German Basic law prevails. However, the court has made similar statements with regard to directly effective European Union law. But it has never applied the German Basic law over directly effective European Union law. Nor was the German Basic Law applied over the European Convention of Human Rights. Provisions were interpreted in such way as to ensure their compatibility. What is important is how similar statements of the German Constitutional Court prompted reactions from the European Court of Justice. The Court of Justice developed protections of human rights, inter alia, in the light of such statements. This, in turn, led to the conclusions of the German Constitutional Court that it would apply directly effective European Union law, so long as the European Union continued to provide an adequate protection of human rights. The statements of the German Constitutional Court are examples of constitutional dialogue between courts. In a similar manner, the court is sending the message that it could ignore the European Court of Human Rights, but that, normally, it would follow its provisions. One could argue that the UK Supreme Court in Horncastle was sending the same message. In a similar way, we could conclude that HS2 is an example of the UK Supreme Court sending the same message to the European Court of Justice.

It is not the aim of this blog post to defend the European Court of Human Rights from an accusation of ‘mission creep’. Nor is the aim to claim that the Human Rights Act 1998 is perfect and so need not be changed. It is, instead, to clarify whether the claims of the strategy report provide a sound justification for reform. It is one thing to conclusively prove that an organisation has clearly overstepped the bounds of its legal or political authority. It is another to recognise that the boundaries of that authority are unclear, but that there are mechanisms that can be used by States to raise concerns about ‘mission creep’ and to potentially correct instances where the European Court of Human Rights has overstepped the mark. It is one thing to argue that the Human Rights Act 1998 undermines national courts and fails to protect democracy and national State interests. It is another to realise that those national courts do not appear to feel or act as if they are being undermined, or to recognise that there are provisions within the Human Rights Act 1998 to correct potential erosions of sovereignty and democratic accountability. This is not to argue against reform. It is rather to argue for further clarity as to whether reform is needed and why calls for reform are being made. That way the UK electorate is in a better position to exercise its democratic choice in the next general election.

 

 

Alison Young is an Associate Professor of Law and a  Fellow of  Hertford College, University of Oxford.

(Suggested Citation: A. Young, ‘HRA Howlers: The Conservative Party and Reform of the Human Rights Act 1998’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (7th October 2014) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org).

 

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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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Craig Prescott: Conference Report: Prisoner Voting and the Constitution 18th June 2014, Faculty of Laws, UCL

Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh_037As is well known to readers of this blog, the issue of prisoner voting has been a long running and high profile saga. The Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling has argued that it is a ‘totemic issue’ that shows how the ECtHR has ‘lost democratic acceptability’ (Guardian, 20 Nov 2013). However, this issue can only be understood against the background of concern about the Convention. David Cameron captured this feeling when discussing the Bill of Rights Commission by arguing that it is ‘about time we started making sure decisions are made in this Parliament rather than in the courts’ (BBC News, 16 Feb 2011). At its broadest level, prisoner voting shows how the core principles of the UK constitution, parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law, can collide with each other.

Given the combination of law and politics that pervades this issue, it was natural for the UK Constitutional Law Association and the Study of Parliament Group to hold a joint event to explore the issue in depth, but thankfully, one step removed from the more frenzied political debate. We were fortunate to have four speakers who have been involved in different aspects of the debate. The discussion was started by Colin Murray, Senior Lecturer at the University of Newcastle, who was the Specialist Adviser to the Joint Committee on the Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill. He was followed by Dr. Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, Senior Consultant on constitutional affairs to Policy Exchange, who was a member of The Commission on a Bill of Rights. Jeremy Waldron, Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory and Fellow, University of Oxford, All Souls College and University Professor, NYU School of Law, drew on his evidence he gave to the Joint Committee on the Draft Bill. The final speaker was Aileen Kavanagh, Associate Professor, University of Oxford and Tutorial Fellow at St Edmunds Hall College, has in her research, considered one key feature of Hirst, which is what weight the courts should place on the parliamentary discussion of human rights (or lack of) when assessing legislation for compatibility with human rights.

The aim of this event was to discuss the broader questions that surround this issue. For a discussion of the specific issue of whether prisoners should receive the right to vote, the reader should direct their attention to Alison Young’s previous post on this blog, Prisoner Voting – Human or Constitutional Right? And to the exhaustive report from Joint Committee on the Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill).

Colin Murray

Colin Murray argued that in Hirst, the ECtHR was rather careful in its judgment, and that they toned down the decision in the Scoppolajudgment that followed Hirst. The court held that the current law went too far, and hoped that the UK would respond to remove the ‘blanket ban’. In many ways, prisoner voting flags up the rigidity of the proportionality test. It is very difficult to argue that a complete ban was proportionate and necessary to achieve a legitimate aim. In this way, the proportionality test can yield some strange decisions on moral issues. The argument from the British Government in Hirst, that this was simply a political question, to be decided through the political process and not the courts, simply did not wash with the ECtHR.

Murray then discussed the legislative response, in particular the Joint Committee on the Draft Bill that reported on 18th December 2013. Their conclusion was that those sentenced to twelve months or less and those in the last six months of their sentence should get the vote. As Jeremy Waldron stated, this seems a reasonable compromise. However, we are still waiting for the government’s response to the report. It was a notable absentee in the Queen’s Speech for the last session of this Parliament, suggesting that this has been kicked into the long grass again, perhaps until after the general election in May 2015.

This issue tells us about constitutionalism in the UK, the role of principle of parliamentary sovereignty and its counterweight the rule of law. Prisoner voting tells us where that system is creaking. Fundamentally, the government’s argument is that the right to vote is different from the “right to free elections” as contained in Art 3 of Protocol 1 to the ECHR: it is a privilege granted by Parliament; but the European Court of Human Rights (‘ECtHR’) is clear that today, voting is a right, and you tamper with it at your peril. The Government thinks it has a strong hand, and can put the ECtHR in the corner, and clip the wings of the Convention, but the Government has taken a more difficult position than they believe. The Joint Committee on the Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill took the view that voting is a right, and should not be removed without a good reason. Murray argued that it is the defining legitimating factor that justifies parliamentary sovereignty. Tamper with this, even slightly, at your peril.

When the Reform Act of 1867 moved the jurisdiction of hearing election petitions (the legal process by which an election result can be challenged) from Parliament to the courts, a rash of extra cases was feared. Yet, this did not happen, and cases such as Watkins v Woolas are rare. Even then, the courts are castigated for this, just read Michael White’s comment on that case in the Guardian. Generally, courts don’t want to get involved in the political process and the line of judgments from Hirst to Scoppola in many ways follow this tradition and are timid judgments from the ECtHR. The courts, rather than undermining parliamentary sovereignty, are striving to protect democracy at all costs. A constant failure to heed warnings such as this could blow parliamentary sovereignty apart as the legitimating factor of parliamentary sovereignty is compromised.

Michael Pinto-Duschinsky

Michael Pinto-Duschinsky focused on the broader issues that prisoner voting raises and discussed the architecture of human rights protection. Drawing upon his experience on the Bill of Rights Commission, when he was ‘surrounded by lawyers’ he wanted to avoid a debate about the terms of reference and categorically stated that the issue is not prisoner voting itself.

The real issue is who makes the final decision, and the interesting aspect to this debate is that people with many things in common can have polar opposite views. Pinto-Duschinsky compared himself to Lord Lester of Herne Hill, who was one of the most vociferous campaigners for the Human Rights Act. They were both shaped by the holocaust, abhor torture, have campaigned for rights and were engaged in the battle for civil rights in the Deep South during the 1960’s. However, whereas Lord Lester sees the law as being the key to achieving human rights, Pinto-Duschinsky, while acknowledging the valuable role of courts, feels that they are no more infallible than legislatures. He argues that, in a democracy, court decisions must be capable in some circumstances of a democratic override by the legislature.

Pinto-Duschinsky highlighted how for every example in favour of the courts having the final say as opposed to the political process, an example can be found that goes the other way. The example given by Sir John Laws in his celebrated article, ‘Law and Democracy’ ([1995] PL 72) of the Athenians, under direct democracy, sentencing to death eight commanders for the loss of their crews in bad weather during the battle at Arginusae, can be can be contrasted against the verdict of the US Supreme Court in Dred Scott v Sandford 60 US 393 (1857) which was a significant contributing factor to the Civil War. The idea that judges equal good, whilst democracy equals bad, is far too simplistic. Both play a role, but issues such as prisoner voting should ultimately rest with the legislature. Courts, such as the ECtHR, which have little democratic legitimacy, should be careful when stepping into political territory such as this.

Jeremy Waldron

Jeremy Waldron agreed that prisoner voting has to be settled by Parliament, it’s not an issue like abortion which could be settled by a court: it must be settled legislatively. ‘Settled legislatively’ has a specific meaning. Although a vote was taken in the House of Commons with 234 to 22 votes in favour of retaining the ban (HC Deb, 11 Feb 2011, Vol 523, Col 492-586,), that cannot settle the issue legislatively. Settling a matter legislatively requires the due process that legislation represents, the rhythms of the legislative process, of the Second Reading, Committee, Third Reading and Report Stages in both the chambers of Parliament.

However, Parliament must acknowledge that they are talking about rights. In particular, voting has been described by some, including William Cobbett as the ‘right of rights’. When rights are at stake, Parliament should proceed more carefully. There is a need to avoid knee-jerk reactions. British justice is wonderful, but not on all matters. There is no harm in having issues flagged up by the courts, in a weak system of judicial review, where the courts do not have a final word. In this sense, judicial review is a canary in the mine, a warning system to alert parliaments to problems. .

It must be emphasised that this is a right that goes to the heart of democratic legitimacy. Parliamentary sovereignty derives its legitimacy from being elected by the citizenry, which in turn, requires that citizens possess the right to vote. Parliament depends on the rights of millions to vote for its authority and legitimacy. As John Hart Ely stated in Democracy and Distrust, there is a case for a strong form of judicial review when a discrete minority has been shut out of the representative system. Arguably, the issue of prisoner voting complies with those requirements. This does not mean that courts should consider it at the expense of Parliament, but that Parliament should consider the courts’ perspective. Majorities are not incapable of resolving flaws of a majoritarian system. However, they must avoid the knee-jerk sovereignty based attack that argues that the court is overstepping its jurisdiction at the expense of national parliaments. Such issues need to be addressed in a sober deliberative spirit, and constitutional arrangements that allow that to happen should be applauded.

Pinto-Dushinsky in response, pointed out that no such reflection took place when signing up to the ECHR in the first place, and no debate took place on Protocol 1, as under the Ponsonby Rule treaties are laid before Parliament without a debate being required (although one can be requested, now see Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, ss. 20-25). There is a conflicting debate about who has the final word, as a matter of law at a domestic level it’s clear that the last word remains with Parliament. Under the Human Rights Act, s 4 (6), a declaration of incompatibility does not affect the validity of the Act of Parliament in question. But politically, politicians treat a declaration as a strike down power. As a matter of international law, the final say appears to rest with the ECtHR, and the UK could be liable for damages for being in breach of the ECHR. However as Murray pointed out, the ECtHR has no power to compel those damages being paid. As is common with the UK constitution, it seems that the most appropriate answer would be restraint from all sides.

Aileen Kavanagh

Aileen Kavanagh raised an important question: why out of all the issues with the ECtHR has the Government and Parliament made such a big issue out of prisoner voting? Why has this been the issue over which to fight?

Firstly, the issue clearly fits into the ongoing concerns about the ECHR that a large section of Conservatives hold, in particular its consequences for parliamentary sovereignty. But also, politicians have seized upon this issue, because at the very least, they can make the argument that a prisoner, who by definition has not ‘obeyed the rules’ should have no role in formulating those rules and so should not be allowed to vote. In this sense a politician can take, what they perceive to be, a ‘respectable stance’ against prisoner voting, in a way that a politician simply cannot over an issue such as torture. A politician arguing against prisoner voting can claim that they are protecting fundamental principles such as the sanctity of the vote. There is also a basic disagreement over whether voting is a right or privilege, which is available to those who fulfill certain conditions. More generally the issue of prisoner voting fits into the broader narrative on criminal justice of being ‘tough on crime’ and no political party wants to be seen to be the softest on crime.

Kavanagh also highlighted how Art 3 of Protocol 1 to the ECHR does not explicitly provide for the ‘right to vote’. It can fit into the criticism that the court increasingly stretches its ‘living instrument’ doctrine too far, and finding a ‘right to vote’ is a big extrapolation from the text. However Jeremy Waldron flatly disagreed with this point, arguing that the Art 3 requires ‘free elections’, held by ‘secret ballot’, ‘under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the people’, in this context, he argues that the ‘right to vote’ is a necessary implication.

There are issues with the Hirst case itself. Its highly unfortunate that the domestic case only went to the Divisional Court, [2001] EWHC Admin 239, with leave to appeal refused by the Court of Appeal on the grounds of there being no reasonable chance of success, [2001] EWCA Civ 927. If more judicial muscle had been applied at the domestic level then the ECtHR might have responded differently. Aileen Kavanagh captured the impact of the ECtHR’s judgment by stating that the judges misjudged the politics on the issue. They simply thought that they were dealing with a thirty year old law, which drew on Victorian legislation and the judges did not appear to understand that reasonable people could and did disagree over prisoner voting. The Court drew on previous case law and assumed a right to vote, with little justification being given. They dismissed the fact that thirteen out of 47 member states have bans on prisoner voting, when this could have been a ground on which to apply the margin of appreciation. Another interesting feature is how the Court drew a negative inference from the lack of parliamentary debate on the issue, which, as Lord Sumption suggested in Chester,could in principle be an example of a ‘complete consensus’ [para 136] on the matter. Probably this aspect would be best viewed as a neutral consideration.

The Study of Parliament Group and the UK Constitutional Law Association would like to thank all four speakers for a clear and illuminating discussion and Alexander Horne for chairing the discussion. A special thanks should go to Liz Carter at UCL and Jack Simson Caird for organising the event.

Craig Prescott is a Teaching Assistant at the University of Manchester and Visiting Tutor at King’s College London.

Suggested citation: C. Prescott, ‘Conference Report: Prisoner Voting and the Constitution 18th June 2014, Faculty of Laws, UCL’ UK Const. L. Blog (9th July 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org)

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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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George Letsas: Lord Sumption’s Attack on Strasbourg: More Than Political Rhetoric?

a_letsasIn a lecture delivered on the 20th of November, Lord Sumption, the United Kingdom Supreme Court judge, mounted a direct attack on the legitimacy of the European Court of Human Rights. The Strasbourg Court, he claimed, makes new law by continuously expanding the scope of the rights protected under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). In doing so, Strasbourg treads on matters of policy that are not for unelected judges, let alone international judges, to decide.

Any law student who has studied constitutional law or jurisprudence will immediately recognize the age-old questions that Lord Sumption’s critique raises. Do judges make or discover law? Are drafters’ intentions relevant in interpreting legal texts? Is judicial review undemocratic? Can the meaning of fundamental rights change over time? Such questions concern fundamental political issues in any liberal democracy, issues about which reasonable people disagree. They are issues that have received extensive philosophical treatment by constitutional scholars around the world, particularly in countries, like the USA, in which judges have long exercised the power to review the compatibility of legislation with abstract constitutional rights. But this power of review is quite new for the judges in the UK most of whom have been schooled in the archaic doctrine of Parliamentary sovereignty. The power was formally introduced with the Human Rights Act 1998, which incorporated the ECHR into domestic law. Within a decade, old questions about the nature of fundamental rights and the role of judicial review came to the forefront of British law and politics.

So Lord Sumption’s questions are not new. But are there any new arguments? Lord Sumption rose to prominence by being appointed to the Supreme Court directly from the practicing bar in 2012. He was educated at Eton College and his first degree, from Oxford University, was not in law but in history. In his speech, he makes three arguments in support of his claim that Strasbourg acts illegitimately. The first is that the Strasbourg Court, by interpreting the ECHR as a living-instrument, recognizes rights which states did not intend to grant, contrary to legally binding norms of interpretation found, amongst other sources, in the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. The second is that the value of certainty requires strict construction of legal texts. The third is that the Strasbourg Court decides matters of policy that should be decided by democratically elected branches of government. Now, is there any merit in these arguments?

The view that judges should not overstep the boundaries of their jurisdiction and decide matters of policy is common ground in any debate about judicial review. Neither the Strasbourg Court nor its supporters believe that its approach to interpretation should exceed the bounds of law and lead to an abuse of judicial power. They are not cynics who knowingly flout the law as part of some anti-democratic international conspiracy. Rather, the Court holds – honestly and reasonably- a particular conception of what the EHCR rights, qua legal rights, are. It is a conception of human rights, according to which the scope of ECHR provisions may evolve over time in order to account for new or previously neglected threats to individual freedom (the ‘living instrument’ approach). It is also a conception of rights with which Lord Sumption happens to disagree. But precisely because both the Strasbourg Court and its critics agree that judges must not decide matters of policy, the allegation of Lord Sumption that Strasbourg’s ‘living instrument’ approach exceeds the bounds of law needs a further argument. Without an argument, it is question-begging; it assumes what needs to be shown. So what is the argument for why the 800 million people who live in Europe today have no legal rights against new or previously neglected threats to their human rights?

Lord Sumption appeals to drafters’ intentions, the text of the Convention and the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. But his opponents can equally appeal to all these in order to support their competing conception of the ECHR rights. Didn’t the drafters of the ECHR have the abstract intention to protect whatever human rights people indeed have, as opposed to the human rights that they, in 1950, believed exist? If the aim of human rights treaties is to protect what human rights people indeed have, based on the best available argument on the day, then isn’t Strasbourg’s ‘living-instrument’ approach compatible with the rules of interpretation of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties which prioritizes the object and purpose of treaties?

And then there is the text. Lord Sumption finds that the expansion of the scope of the ECHR to illegitimate children, criminal sentencing, immigration, extradition, homosexuality, abortion, assisted-suicide was “not warranted by the express language of the Convention”. Now, I read again the text of article 8 ECHR and it says ‘Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life”. It does not say that everyone has a right to respect for his private and family life except homosexuals, illegitimate children, criminals, immigrants, pregnant women or terminally ill patients. One can return the textualist argument to Lord Sumption: doesn’t ‘everyone’ mean everyone? No amount of strict textual construction, however ingenious, could block considering the new human rights claims of these vulnerable groups. To be sure, there may be other reasons why such claims should be thrown out. But solely appealing to the abstract language of a bill of rights, or to the specific (as opposed to the abstract) intentions of drafters, never made a good legal argument.

Lord Sumption does offer one argument in support of his claims that his opponents must reject. He appeals to the value of certainty, which, he rightly notes, is very important in law. His opponents cannot rely on it because the idea that the ECHR is a living instrument often comes with a degree of surprise: the Strasbourg Court may recognize as a human rights issue something that some or most states never expected. But is the legal value of certainty paramount? We think that it is paramount only in some areas of law, such as criminal law, where it is unfair to defeat the expectations of individuals about when the state will use its coercive force: nullum crimen et nulla poene sine lege certa. But no individual’s life plans are upset when the Strasbourg Court unexpectedly upholds new human rights claims, such as trafficking or prisoners’ rights. The only one who might be surprised and adversely affected by such holdings is the state which is held responsible for the human rights violation. And the value of certainty is meant to protect individuals from arbitrary interference by the state, not to protect the state from being scrutinized about its intrusion on individual rights. So the value of certainty, important as it may be, cannot carry the weight of a conclusive attack on the living instrument approach.

The above objections to Lord Sumption’s claims are not new. I, and many others, have made them in scholarly publications with a view to sharpen and improve the quality of the debate about the best understanding of the role of human rights and judicial review in a liberal democracy. Judges should of course take part in this debate. But they are required to do so by developing normative theories of the legal values in question (i.e. democracy and human rights) and by engaging, in good-faith with well-known legal and philosophical arguments made on the other side. No one is exempt from this requirement, just because she is a judge or just because she thinks that the debate is ‘political’. ‘Political’ does not mean devoid of argument.

We all hold the values of democracy and human rights dear and we all agree that judges, in promoting these values, must not usurp the functions of parliament. Lord Sumption’s attack on the Strasbourg Court was based on question-begging arguments that failed to address the substance of the issues involved. It was a piece of empty political rhetoric, which does not help to promote the kind of dialogue about democracy and human rights that a mature liberal democracy, like the United Kingdom, needs.

George Letsas is the Co-Director of the UCL Institute for Human Rights and a Reader in the Philosophy of Law and Human Rights at University College London.

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Helen Fenwick: Prisoners’ Voting Rights, Subsidiarity, and Protocols 15 and 16: Re-creating Dialogue With the Strasbourg Court?

helen1This blog does not intend to rehearse the merits of the prisoners’ voting rights saga. In principle it is hard to muster reasons providing a basis for banning prisoners from voting: other rights related to the democratic process, such as association and free expression, may necessarily be somewhat circumscribed by the fact of imprisonment (although probably less so in the internet age than previously), but that is not the case in relation to voting, and so the near-absolute ban, based as it is on the idea of ‘civic death’, has little to commend it. However, the merits of the case have been put forcefully by other writers (such as Colin Murray), by Liberty and by the Prison Reform Trust. The purpose of this blog is to note that while this issue has assumed ‘totemic importance’ in relation to national sovereignty (as the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling put it) it would be utterly misjudged to allow it to derail the whole ECHR project as far as a range of states are concerned (see eg Dominic Grieve on this point: Col 511-512). However, such derailment may be precisely what a range of actors may be hoping for, regardless of their views on the disenfranchisement of prisoners, while others may consider that diminution of the influence of the ECHR in some other states is a price Parliamentarians and some voters would be willing to pay to prevent Strasbourg’s interference in democratic determinations as to the democratic process in Britain. Contrary to those views, this blog will argue that the prisoners’ voting rights saga graphically illustrates the need for sensitive and subtle use of the concept of subsidiarity and reliance on a dialogic approach, in an increasingly nationalistic Europe. I argue that there are two ways forward which could put an end to this saga without creating an appearance of outright defiance of the ECHR, and that dialogue and subsidiarity might still have a part to play in so doing.

Subsidiarity and dialogue

The notion that Strasbourg should pay greater attention to the concept of subsidiarity and should promote dialogue with national authorities, especially the higher national courts, has recently gained greater currency. As I have noted elsewhere on this blog, a number of aspects of the Izmir, Interlaken and Brighton declarations (see here) were aimed at creating greater subsidiarity within the judicial process. At the same time, a number of judges have expressed their preference for viewing the interaction between Strasbourg and the UK courts as a dialogue within which both parties seek to find an acceptable balance between the rights of the applicants and countervailing considerations (for example, Lord Neuberger, Baroness Hale, and Sir Nicholas Bratza).

The Interlaken Declaration stated: ‘The Conference, acknowledging the responsibility shared between the States Parties and the Court, invites the Court to … take fully into account its subsidiary role in the interpretation and application of the Convention…[and] invites the Court to… avoid reconsidering questions of fact or national law that have been considered and decided by national authorities, in line with its case law according to which it is not a fourth instance court’ (Point 9). The Brighton declaration emphasised subsidiarity and use of dialogue: ‘The Conference therefore: a) welcomes the development by the Court in its case law of principles such as subsidiarity and the margin of appreciation, and encourages the Court to give great prominence to and apply consistently these principles in its judgments; (b) Concludes that, for reasons of transparency and accessibility, a reference to the principle of subsidiarity and the doctrine of the margin of appreciation as developed in the Court’s case law should be included in the preamble to the Convention’ (Point 12), as has now occurred in Protocol 15. The declaration further ‘welcomes and encourages dialogue, particularly dialogues between the Court and the highest courts of the States Parties’ (Point 12(c)). Subsidiarity is linked to a dialogic approach in the sense that if the Strasbourg Court perceives itself as providing a level of protection of rights that is subsidiary to that provided domestically, then it needs to pay close attention to national views as to the form of protection that the right should receive nationally and to their context, especially where such views demonstrably take account of key Convention principles at stake in the particular instance, in particular that of proportionality.

In developing some ideas on this subject, I am taking the prisoners’ voting rights saga as a currently highly significant example, to ask whether it represents a failure of the dialogic approach, and whether a similar stand-off might be avoided in future if both dialogue and subsidiarity receive greater emphasis at Strasbourg and domestically. Such emphasis might have been anticipated in this context, given the exceptionally qualified nature of Protocol 1 Article 3, the broad exceptions to the right accepted by the Strasbourg Court, its relativistic approach to it, as discussed below, and the lack of consensus on this matter in the various member states. I intend to consider whether the formal mechanisms introduced in June 2013 under new Protocols 15 and 16 ECHR will play much role in enhancing subsidiarity or dialogic opportunities, or whether informal mechanisms already under development are more significant, although there may be no necessary opposition between the two: formal and informal mechanisms may inter-react. By ‘informal mechanisms’ is merely meant mechanisms that may exist under the banner of the tags of ‘margin of appreciation’ or ‘the concept of subsidiarity’ but which need further delineation and  definition, relying on the Strasbourg jurisprudence.

Further, if the Court adheres to the concept of subsidiarity which is also intended to be linked to a dialogic approach, then might it be said that the decision triggering the prisoners’ saga, Hirst, could have been better explained, and thereby failed to adhere fully to the principles embedded in the concepts of subsidiarity and of dialogue?  Might it also be argued, bearing such concepts in mind, that in the light of the findings in Scoppola as to limitations on enfranchisement of prisoners deemed compatible with Protocol 1 Article 3, that there is room for an eventual very restrained response to Hirst at Westminster (possibly more restrained than that under the second option under the current draft Bill on prisoners’ voting) which the Strasbourg Court might well find persuasive even if it represented minimal adherence to the principle laid down in Scoppola. 

Emphasis on subsidiarity and on dialogic changes under new Protocols 15 and 16 ECHR

Protocol 15 provides: ‘Article 1 At the end of the preamble to the Convention, a new recital shall be added, which shall read as follows: “Affirming that the High Contracting Parties, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, have the primary responsibility to secure the rights and freedoms defined in this Convention and the Protocols thereto, and that in doing so they enjoy a margin of appreciation, subject to the supervisory jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights established by this Convention”.’

Protocol 16 makes provision for advisory opinions, to be sought from the Grand Chamber which will be non-binding on the state, and which must be sought in the context of a case before a domestic court or tribunal (to adhere to the in abstracto prohibition). The state in question must designate the court/tribunal able to seek such opinions (Article 10). Presumably in the UK it would be the Supreme Court. A question might arise as to the judicial response to such opinions; obviously they would be technically non-binding (s2(1)(a) HRA),  but the Supreme Court might view itself as being in a fairly difficult position if it decided to disregard such an opinion, in finding against the applicant in a Convention case. Would the Strasbourg Court then view the Supreme Court as having refused to listen to it, meaning that as the dialogue had broken down, the Court would be less likely to be influenced by the Supreme Court decision than if no advisory opinion had been sought?  If so, reluctance to seek advisory opinions might emerge, meaning that Protocol 16 could in fact encourage anti-dialogic tendencies in the UK. That issue could be of relevance in this current saga in future if the Supreme Court eventually had to adjudicate on claims from prisoners excluded from any new redrawn legislative scheme determining which categories of prisoners could vote.

Enhancing subsidiarity and dialogue?  

O’Meara in this blog argued recently that these changes under the two new Protocols will enhance dialogue. I suggest that their effects should not be over-stated, and that it is more important to examine the factors that may impel the Court to listen to the domestic authorities. What are they?  Below, examples are drawn from the prisoners’ voting rights saga where possible on the basis that some opportunities for dialogue arose, but dialogue was not established.

Democratic legitimacy given to ECHR balancing mechanisms

In Hirst v UK (No 2) the key problem, the Grand Chamber considered, was that Parliament in passing the Representation of the People Act 2000 had given no appearance – it found – of listening to Strasbourg:

“78. The breadth of the margin of appreciation has been emphasised by the Government who argued that, where the legislature and domestic courts have considered the matter and there is no clear consensus among Contracting States, it must be within the range of possible approaches to remove the right to vote from any person whose conduct was so serious as to merit imprisonment.

79. As to the weight to be attached to the position adopted by the legislature and judiciary in the United Kingdom, there is no evidence that Parliament has ever sought to weigh the competing interests or to assess the proportionality of a blanket ban on the right of a convicted prisoner to vote.”

As the dissenting judges in Hirst pointed out, there is a contradiction between the Court’s consistent case-law to the effect that Article 3 of Protocol No. 1 leaves a wide margin of appreciation to the Contracting States in determining their electoral system, and its categorical finding that a general restriction on voting for persons serving a prison sentence “must be seen as falling outside any acceptable margin of appreciation, however wide that margin might be” (para 82).  The dissenting judges noted that in Py v France (cited in Hirst at [46]) the Court stated:

 “Contracting States have a wide margin of appreciation, given that their legislation on elections varies from place to place and from time to time. The rules on granting the right to vote, reflecting the need to ensure both citizen participation and knowledge of the particular situation of the region in question, vary according to the historical and political factors peculiar to each State. The number of situations provided for in the legislation on elections in many member States of the Council of Europe shows the diversity of possible choice on the subject. However, none of these criteria should in principle be considered more valid than any other provided that it guarantees the expression of the will of the people through free, fair and regular elections. For the purposes of applying Article 3, any electoral legislation must be assessed in the light of the political evolution of the country concerned, so that features that would be unacceptable in the context of one system may be justified in the context of another”.

The dissenting judges in Hirst argued that the Grand Chamber was adopting an “evolutive” or “dynamic” interpretation of Protocol 1 para 3. If so, they found that according to its own case law it should have founded itself on “a sufficient basis in changing conditions in the societies of the Contracting States, including an emerging consensus as to the standards to be achieved” (see Hirst, Joint Dissenting Opinion of Judges Wildhaber etc para 6). Such a consensus was hard to discern (Hirst para 33).

The Grand Chamber did not fully explain why the UK’s scheme was deemed to fall so clearly outside the state’s margin of appreciation. Was it found so to fall due to the apparent failure of Westminster to engage sufficiently with Protocol 1 para 3 during Parliamentary debate, or on the basis that no possible Parliamentary articulation of the reasons for coming to the determination that was reached could have been viewed as satisfying the provision? If so, the lack of such articulation would be irrelevant, but the Court could have given greater consideration to the ways in which the UK could have met its obligations in relation to the demands of proportionality under para 3.

Judicial pronouncements in senior domestic courts

In Hirst v UK the Grand Chamber said: “It is also evident from the judgment of the Divisional Court that the nature of the restrictions, if any, to be imposed on the right of a convicted prisoner to vote was generally seen as a matter for Parliament and not for the national courts. The court did not, therefore, undertake any assessment of the proportionality of the measure itself” (para 80).

In other words, no domestic court pronouncement on the issue of proportionality was available, to guide the Strasbourg Court. In other contexts, a number of examples can be found in which, where such guidance was available, and where the consideration of the right in question was fully embedded in the judgment, the Court allowed itself to be guided towards a position in harmony with that taken by the national Court, even where that meant departing from its own previous judgment.

For example, in Von Hannover No 2 the Court did not depart from the decision of the German Federal Constitutional Court  in finding that a photograph non-consensually taken, and making no contribution in itself to a matter of public interest, had not created a breach of Art 8 due to its publication, a finding of doubtful compliance with its findings on the same point in Von Hannover no 1. In A v UK the Court was clearly influenced as to the width of the margin of appreciation to be conceded to the UK by the findings of the House of Lords in A and others as to the proportionality aspect of Article 15. In Austin v UK, as I have pointed out elsewhere, the Court in effect followed the House of Lords’ decision in respect of balancing societal concerns against liberty under Article 5, disregarding its own findings on a similar point in A v UK.  In Al-Khawaja, as others have pointed out (for example Baroness Hale), the Grand Chamber was guided by the Supreme Court in Horncastle in reaching the decision on the scope of Article 6, which was contrary to its decision in the Chamber on the issue.

Failure of dialogue and the future of the Strasbourg Court?

Obviously dialogue is not dependent purely on the proper operation of the margin of appreciation doctrine as an aspect of subsidiarity. But operating that doctrine properly provides more space for dialogue. By ‘properly’ is meant – consistently, as the Interlaken declaration pointed out, and on the basis of clearly enunciated principles. Such principles include acceptance that if, under the Strasbourg jurisprudence, a state has an exceptionally wide margin of appreciation on a particular matter, it should not be found to have over-stepped that margin unless the European consensus on the issue has changed (for example, as occurred in Goodwin).

It is fairly obvious that the voting rights’ saga does represent a failure of dialogue. It may be said that the Court in Scoppola did try to effect some form of compromise between the UK position and the one it had taken in Hirst. However, that process cannot be viewed as dialogic since the two positions are fundamentally incompatible – there cannot be a dialogue that merely destroys the basic principle underlying voting rights, adopted by the Court. Two bodies at loggerheads cannot engage in dialogue. That failure can be broken down into a number of stages. First the Westminster Parliament, in passing the Representation of the People Act 2000, did not debate the question of balancing prisoners’ voting rights against countervailing considerations in a way that – in the Court’s later view – comported with the provisions of Protocol 1 para 3, even though the Act was accompanied by a statement of compatibility under s19 HRA. Had Parliament started from the standpoint that there is a human rights-based case for prisoners to vote, but that exceptions had to be made, and had given consideration to express adherence to the principle of proportionality in the legislation, it is still unlikely that Hirst would have gone the other way in terms of outcome since the Court would still have found that Parliament had made too little effort to give legal effect to the principle it had discussed. Given the outcome in the 2000 Act, it would have been impossible for the Westminster Parliament to demonstrate to the Court’s satisfaction that acceptance of the principles underlying Protocol 1 para 3 was genuinely embedded in the Parliamentary process, and so the choice made by the UK would still have fallen outside its margin of appreciation. However, the Court could have ‘listened’ to Westminster in the sense that its judgment might have created more leeway for the UK in terms of future options to make change more palatable to the British public – as it in effect then did in Scoppola. Second, as discussed, the Court did not facilitate future dialogue between itself and Westminster in Hirst in the sense of failing to discuss ways in which Parliament could maintain its substantive restrictions on prisoners’ voting rights while putting in place a procedure able to give sufficient legal recognition to those rights (as Italy was later found to have succeeded in doing).

Could Parliament and the Strasbourg Court now extract themselves from this stand-off by a more subtle and sophisticated operation of the ECHR mechanisms of dialogue and subsidiarity that are to hand? Two ways forward are apparent. If in debating the draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill  Parliament speaks in the language of para 3 – in other words, acknowledges that prisoners have a right to participate in the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature which may be furthered by allowing some prisoners to vote, but could also be furthered in other ways (eg contacting MPs, writing to newspapers), it could then consider which exceptions to that principle should be maintained in order to further the aims the government has stated that the current prohibition is pursuing. If Parliament was prepared to vote for the second option under the draft Bill that would create an enlargement of the category of convicted prisoners who can vote that would arguably comport with the key finding from Scoppola since the restriction would not be general, automatic and indiscriminate (as recently reiterated in Soyler v Turkey and Gladkov v Russia).

Such a restriction could be viewed as falling within the UK’s margin of appreciation as delineated in Hirst, and as emphasised due to the change to the preamble effected by Protocol 15. It would arguably not be arbitrary – not for the reasons given by Lord Sumption in the recent Supreme Court decision in Chester that a prisoner might equally miss a spell of fine weather by being in prison (para 115), but because if the restriction can be viewed as rationally connected to the aims in question, then its impact on a particular prisoner who happens to miss a general election due to his/her release one day after it has occurred, is an inevitable result of operating any restriction (including those compatible with Protocol 1 para 3), and is also a result of not instituting a more far-reaching ban, affecting the prisoner after release. A prisoner under the Italian legislation upheld in Scoppola could be disenfranchised for life if serving more than 5 years; a prisoner serving 3 years could be banned for 5 years. (There are also US precedents for barring prisoners from voting after release – for example, Kentucky and Virginia). A wider range of prisoners would be disenfranchised than in Italy but that was not the key issue in Scoppola. That option would effect a fairly minor change, bearing in mind that some convicted prisoners can vote at present. It would obviously avoid the taking of the step whereby Parliament had deliberately voted to disregard a judgment of the Strasbourg Court, which would be unprecedented in the member states. That result would however be unpalatable to many, including the majority of the British public. (A recent Yougov poll indicated that the public generally do not accept that prisoners should vote). So the question, obviously, is whether Parliament would accept it.

Secondly, if the current draft Bill was modified, and the Parliamentary vote eventually takes place in, say, 2016, a modified version of the second option under the current Bill might gain public and Parliamentary acceptance – in a less forensic atmosphere. Would voters in the UK accept a new system whereby there was a much clearer link between seriousness of offence and disenfranchisement, so that certain prisoners serving longer sentences were disenfranchised even after release, while those serving very short sentences were not disenfranchised at all? For example, prisoner enfranchisement could apply to those serving any sentence of up to six months and could be dependent on the circumstances of the offence in question. Obviously that would mean that judicial consideration of enfranchisement would occur at the point of sentencing in relation to offenders in that category, meaning that the UK had in that respect exceeded the minimum demands of Scoppola (para 99). The key point for Strasbourg is obviously that there must be a real engagement of the state’s infrastructure with this issue (not necessarily at the judicial level), even if substantively there was little widening of prisoner enfranchisement as a result. Balanced discussion of the matter in the media, taking account of the value to society of rehabilitating persons in the latter group, would aid in public education on this matter and promote a more nuanced public response, but large sections of the media appear to view the whipping up of public hatred of the Strasbourg Court, using this issue as the focal point, as of greater concern.

At the present time, Parliament has been presented with an option in the draft Bill – maintaining the current prohibition – that is incompatible with the Convention as interpreted by the Court. Whatever Parliament eventually does, the fact that the government has brought the incompatible option forward at all is telling. At the same time Strasbourg has reactivated 2,281 prisoners’ voting rights cases against the UK awaiting judgment (see Firth and 2,353 others v UK in March 2013). The compensation they could be awarded (although clearly it would vary from individual to individual) is rising steadily since post-Hirst a number of them have already missed a number of elections and they could miss the 2015 General Election. It might appear that both sides are placing pressure on each other to back down, in a reversal of a dialogic stance, although there is almost certainly no apparent route by which the Court could do so. There is no political process at the international level which could be utilised. If Parliament eventually takes the ‘incompatible’ option, but there is a full debate as to the basis for the degree of disenfranchisement, taking full account of Hirst and Scoppola, it is conceivable, in accordance with the notion of enhanced subsidiarity which appeared to underlie the Brighton declaration, that the Court might in future view that option as in fact compatible with para 3. Conceivable but highly improbable. From an anti-European standpoint that would obviously be a welcome result.

Conclusions

The conclusion of this piece is that the mechanisms for dialogue and subsidiarity are already present – the UK and the Court need to learn to operate them more effectively and sensitively – although that may be too late in relation to prisoners’ voting rights. Protocol 15 does not add much, it is suggested, to that process in formal terms, but may aid in impelling the Court to take a more cautious or nuanced approach to issues of this nature (taking a Scoppola-type of stance rather than a Hirst one), and to paying greater attention to consistency in its operation of the margin of appreciation doctrine. Parliament might more readily recognise that the UK’s margin of appreciation might be more fully triggered in respect of a particular decision only if a full balancing analysis has occurred in the Parliamentary process. Protocol 16 might be of value in allowing the Court to talk to the Supreme Court at an earlier stage in potential conflicts. It is also arguable, albeit controversially, that Protocol 16 should have made provision for advisory opinions to be sought by national legislatures (and should therefore have made an exception to the in abstracto principle). Clearly, this message is unlikely to gain much purchase amid the current anti-ECHR rhetoric of a number of senior Conservatives; the project of manipulating popular perceptions of the ECHR is unlikely to be furthered by avoiding stand-offs with Strasbourg. But there are a number of possible outcomes of the 2015 general election within which such rhetoric would be politically difficult, meaning that putting more effort into fostering a dialogic approach could be valuable.

Helen Fenwick is Professor of Law at the University of Durham.

Suggested citation: H. Fenwick, ‘Prisoners’ Voting Rights, Subsidiarity, and Protocols 15 and 16: Re-creating Dialogue With the Strasbourg Court?’   UK Const. L. Blog (26th November 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org)

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Roger Masterman: A Tale of Competing Supremacies

rogerIn a recent interview in The Spectator, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling MP, was given another opportunity to recite the now characteristic Tory Siren call relating to the European Convention on Human Rights and the Strasbourg court.  In the piece, Grayling bemoans the “utterly unacceptable” and “almost unlimited” ability of the European Court of Human Rights to determine “what it thinks are human rights matters” arguing that:

“We have to curtail the role of the European Court of Human Rights in the UK, get rid of and replace Labour’s Human Rights Act.  We have to make sure that there is a proper balance of rights and responsibilities in law.”

The precise means of achieving these objectives, it seems, remain works in progress (with complete withdrawal from the Convention system still one possible outcome).  But one thing seems clear; in effecting the necessary reforms the “supremacy” of the UK Supreme Court must – Grayling claims – be restored.  Grayling is recorded as having said the following:

“I want to see our Supreme Court being supreme again.  I think people want to see the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom being in the United Kingdom and not in Strasbourg.”

Though Grayling’s hyperbole is entertaining (does anyone seriously think that we are governed from Strasbourg other than after reading occasionally inaccurate reports as to the location of the Court of Justice of the European Union? (and even then?!)), it would be glib (albeit correct) to point out that the Supreme Court has never actually been “supreme”.  The UK Supreme Court is not, and nor has it ever been, a constitutional court possessing a final and definitive authority over questions of law that is binding on the other arms of government and immune from override via the ordinary legislative process.  A Lord Chancellor who holds office by virtue of the same Act (s.2, CRA 2005) which established the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court (part III, CRA 2005) should, of course, be assumed to appreciate this (though some would argue that the same assumptions could not necessarily be made in respect of other key provisions of that Act – s.1, CRA, say).

But even were the Human Rights Act done away with and the UK’s membership of the European Convention system ended, would the UK Supreme Court be rendered “supreme”?

The UK Supreme Court is at the apex of the United Kingdom’s judicial structure with general jurisdiction as the final appellate court in matters other than those falling within the remit of the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh.  It is “supreme” therefore in the sense that it stands at a pinnacle of the domestic judicial hierarchy and – as argued in a recent piece in Public Law ([2013] PL 800) – it exercises a significant constitutional role displaying a number of the characteristics of explicitly constitutional courts elsewhere.  But the Supreme Court’s “supremacy” needs also to be appreciated in the light of a number of other considerations.

First among these is the (competing? complementary?) supremacy of Parliament.  While we might be able to say with confidence that a Supreme Court decision in a particular area represents a definitive reading of the requirements of the law, we can also say that Supreme Court decisions – including those dealing with questions of individuals’ rights – are susceptible to changes in primary legislation.  As Lord Bingham noted in the House of Lords in Re McFarland:

“Just as the courts must apply Acts of Parliament whether they approve of them or not, and give effect to lawful official decisions whether they agree with them or not, so Parliament and the executive must respect judicial decisions whether they approve of them or not, unless and until they are set aside.”

In reality there is some circularity to claims of supremacy made on behalf of courts or Parliament.  Neither can realistically be asserted without qualification of some sort, but the bare fact is the effects of judicial decisions of the apex court (eg YL v Birmingham City Council) can be amended by primary legislation (eg Health and Social Care Act 2008, s.145).

While the idea of the unbounded legal power associated with Parliamentary supremacy may have lost some of its lustre, it undoubtedly remains an important conditioning factor of constitutional practice for actors across the branches of government.  For many, it remains the “bedrock” of the constitution (Bingham, at [9]).  Yet – to muddy the waters further – even if we accept the legislative supremacy of Parliament we need also to be mindful that it acts as camouflage for the legal supremacy of the House of Commons over the House of Lords and the practical precedence of government business in the House of Commons.

The contest for supremacy does not end here; the Supreme Court currently operates within the context of the jurisdictions of the European Court of Human Rights and the Court of Justice of the European Union.  It is the former that has been most clearly the subject of the Conservatives’ ire in recent times, though the latter through which the Supreme Court is most clearly subordinated to an external source of law claiming supremacy over national laws.  As is now well-appreciated – particularly in the light of the decisions such as Horncastle – the Supreme Court is not obliged to give effect to decisions of the European Court of Human Rights in quite the same way as it must apply directly-effective provisions of EU law.  The supremacy “lost” to the European Court of Human Rights (decisions of which – at risk of sounding like a broken record – need only to be “taken into account”) is of a different order to the supremacy asserted by the Court of Justice of the European Union over national authorities.  It seems unusual then, that the target of Grayling’s indignation is the supposed denial of supremacy caused by the non-binding influence of decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, rather than the more realistic (though perhaps equally problematic) assertion that legal competence has been ceded in some way to the Court of Justice.  (This is not to suggest that the UK’s position within the EU is not perceived as being problematic – indeed Grayling’s Spectator interview alludes to an intended “renegotiation” of the UK’s relationship with the EU – rather that the legal competence of the Court of Justice has been less the subject of recent attack than that of the European Court of Human Rights, despite its greater coercive influence).

All things told this is a slightly long-winded way of saying three things: (i) that the so-called “supremacy” of the UK Supreme Court over questions of rights is a straw figure set up to demarcate a legal non-problem as a political battle-ground and (ii) that the establishment of a legally “supreme” UK Supreme Court would be every bit as constitutionally problematic as the apparent problem to which it is the mooted solution and (iii) that attempting to explain institutional relationships in the language of legal supremacy increasing offers little other than incoherence.

 Roger Masterman is a Professor of Law at Durham University.

 Suggested citation: R. Masterman, ‘ A Tale of Competing Supremacies’ UK Const. L. Blog (30th September 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org)

 

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