Tag Archives: Human Rights Act Reform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

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David Mead: The Future of the HRA Under Labour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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Richard Cornes: 11-1 gender ratio Court’s Achilles Heel: Reporting of the Supreme Court’s start of the year press briefing

SCA relationship of cooperation but also competing interests

On October 2 at 10am, the United Kingdom Supreme Court held an hour long pre-term press-briefing to mark the opening of the Court’s fifth year. This blog looks not only at what was said by the Court, and asked by the journalists on the day, but also what was then reported.

The Supreme Court’s relationship with the media is marked by the same combination of common interests and tensions which mark the media’s relationship with any other public body. Yes the Court wants media coverage; and a function of the media is to cover the Court. The media though will always want more than its subjects are looking to give up, and not only that, will often frame how the subject is presented according to each outlet’s particular agendas. Further, the Court, and its justices, will also have their own goals about what messages should be highlighted.

The new transparency – Court opens year with press briefing

That a press briefing featured in the start of year events says something about this still new court. Unlike what went before – the Appellate Committee – the @uksupremecourt has a now seasoned press office (for previous analysis see here and here). While the Court will not rival Strictly for coverage (and likely would not want to – justice, while prepared to show a little leg, still likes to maintain some mystique), its communications operation, which continues to innovate, has made it a world leader amongst top courts for transparency and accessibility.

The President and Deputy President speak

First, what did the Court say in opening? The President and Deputy President both spoke for a total of about fifteen minutes. Lord Neuberger opened by seeking to set the boundaries of what he and Lady Hale would be prepared to say:

As judges we are constrained in some respects as to what we can discuss. For instance, it is inappropriate for judges to give opinions publically on political matters save in so far as they impinge on the rule of law. We have to be wary of expressing views on issues which we may have to decide in due course in court.

His remaining remarks reviewed the number of cases decided since October 2012 (82), and highlighted a selection before closing with a paean to the importance of open justice, including discussing elements of the Court’s communications innovations.

Lady Hale, still, remarkably, the only woman on the Court noted some of the forthcoming terms “highlights”. There’s a curiosity here, almost all cases require leave, and must therefore be “Supreme Court worthy”, and yet this trailing of cases the Court considers likely to be of greater public interest gives us a new gloss on the leave process: the “super-Supreme Court case”. Lady Hale closed with a reflection she must be tiring of making about the lack of women on the Court, and the need for greater diversity in the judiciary generally. It was a reflection though which, as we shall see, made for good press.

Questions from the press

Then came the press questions – each topic necessarily revealing of the questioners’ interests, and in places, their outlet’s agendas. The Court (its Chief Executive, Jenny Rowe, in the chair for this purpose) gave the prized first question to Joshua Rozenberg who asked for a reaction to Conservative policy on repeal of the Human Rights Act, with a techy follow up on what the Court would do if the Act were repealed: develop a common law equivalent of the s.3 obligation (my gloss on Rozenberg’s question)? Faced so directly with such a potentially politically charged question both the President and Deputy declined to speculate. However, coming back to the point later in the hour Dominic Casciani from the BBC did get a little further, eliciting this from Lord Neuberger:

I am now doing what I said I would not do – picking up on Joshua’s point… if we did not have the Human Rights Act, the common law might develop in certain directions to accommodate a degree of change because the common law does change with the times. How it would change and in what respect is pure speculation.

The subtle message being sent by the President that repealing the Human Rights act might not be the last word on human rights principles appearing in Supreme Court jurisprudence was not one which lent itself to an easy headline (the discussion was really only covered by the UKSC blog); the skill was in putting the idea on the record without providing material for “Supreme Court responds to Tory plan to scrap Human Rights Act” type coverage. And indeed, Rozenberg chose the elements of the briefing touching on open court processes for a subsequent Guardian piece.

Francess Gibb of the Times was called next and followed up Lady Hale’s comments about diversity – an issue she did choose for one of her subsequent reports, the others highlighting the concerns Lord Neuberger raised over legal aid, and the Court’s openness agenda. David Barrett of the Telegraph followed up on diversity asking Lady Hale whether she still did not favour positive discrimination (she does not). Barrett’s story on the topic ran under the headline, “Top female judge questions male ‘dominance’”. The other story Barrett chose for print concerned a series of comments Lord Neuberger made about the importance of open justice.

Jack Doyle from the Mail then followed with a question about the wearing of veils in court rooms, including whether the Supreme Court would allow veiled advocates before it – a question which the President chose, in his own words, to “duck”. The veil question did not headline in Doyle’s coverage (though it did make the Express). Like others, one of Doyle’s subsequent pieces also pursued the theme of judicial diversity, “Women not being made top judges because men ‘dominate’ the selection process, says Britain’s only female Law Lord.” Another “’I welcome increased openness unreservedly’ Supreme Court judge’s praise for Mail’s open justice fight”. While both headlines had a basis in what had been said by the two judges, both were the most tendentious of all the subsequent coverage. The open justice theme in particular being linked to a wider Mail campaign about openness in the justice system per se.

Owen Bowcott from the Guardian brought the discussion back to open justice issues, referring to the Supreme Court’s decision (on a 6-3 vote) to allow for closed sessions in connection with the Bank Mellat case. While subsequently reporting on that discussion, and a latter question about the appropriateness of judges attending an Anglican church service to mark the opening of the legal year (which Bowcott raised as a possible independence problem for a court system grappling with questions of veils in courts), the headline for Bowcott’s coverage was, “Lady Hale, supreme court’s sole female justice, calls for diversity.”

From the BBC, this time Danny Shaw, came a question to Lord Neuberger about his previously expressed concerns about cuts to legal aid. For political sensitivity – touching as it does on sensitive resource questions for the Ministry of Justice – the question was up there with Rozenberg’s gambits on the consequences of repeal of the Human Rights Act. Lord Neuberger’s comments on October 2 included:

Rights, whether human rights or other rights, are valueless if they cannot be enforced in court. Reductions in legal aid therefore inevitably cause one concern. … I think that legal aid cuts therefore do cause any person concerned with the rule of law a worry.

The President did couch his concern in an explicit acknowledgment that difficult economic times have to be taken into account; referring back to his opening comments, he provided more of an insight into his view of the wider role of a lead judge, “one of our functions is not merely to sit in court, but also to support and ensure the rule of law.” It was a potent point, subtly made.

With the clock heading towards 11am, Brian Farmer from the Press Association asked about the wearing of legal wigs in court, linking discussion about rules for dress in court back to earlier questions about veils in court. Jane Croft from the Financial Times then came in with a question about divorce cases which allowed Lady Hale, while commenting that the principles in the area were now mostly settled (and thus not likely to give rise to Supreme Court level questions) to note, “obviously, we are not law reformers.” The line, “we are a court, and not a law reform body”, it will be recalled was one strand of Lady Hale’s dissent in the Radmacher v Granatino decision. Croft’s story the next day though was the “First woman law lord Brenda Hale calls for more female judges.”

So far I have only mentioned press coverage. The only other media coverage I found was on Radio 4’s 6pm news which picked up Lady Hale’s comments about the lack of female appointments to the Court. Standing back then, what comes through? First, the event resulted in no media “gotchas.” In particular neither what was said about the Human Rights Act nor legal aid were written up in any sense as “judges criticise government (or Conservative party) policy”. Partly I suspect that is because the judges did not give their audience any suitably juicy sound-bite. Second, there were clearly other issues running of potentially greater controversy on which the press wanted comment on the day: specifically, veils in court, and general concerns about the openness of judicial processes.

Stand-out message? 11-1: the Court’s Achilles heel

The stand-out message emerging from the exercise though is that despite 13 appointments at the Law Lord level since Brenda Hale was appointed 10 years ago, Lady Hale remains the lone female voice on the UK’s top court. Lady Hale can take only some of the credit for this point dominating the next day coverage (including comments which made it online in video form). What actually gets covered from an event like this is the press’s call. And it is striking that of coverage of the briefing (I counted around 15 or so stories), about 75% headlined the diversity point. The Court’s 11-1 gender ratio is clearly of interest to a goodish cross section of the mainstream press. And if that is the message getting through to readers from the Guardian to the Telegraph (and all points in between and beyond), the Court should be worried.

Dr Richard Cornes (@CornesLawNZUK) is a Senior Lecturer at the @EssexLawSchool, and Associate Member of Landmark Chambers, London.

 Suggested citation: R. Cornes, ’11-1 gender ratio Court’s Achilles Heel:  Reporting of the Supreme Court’s start of the year press briefing’  UK Const. L. Blog (16th October 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org)

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Anthony Bradley: A Review of Jack Straw’s Hamlyn Lectures: Aspects of Law Reform: An Insider’s Perspective

abradleyAs the lecturer disarmingly tells us at the outset of the Hamlyn Lectures for 2012 Hamlyn Lectures for 2012, the illustrious procession of Hamlyn lecturers since 1949 (Lord Denning) through to 2011 (Jeremy Waldron) has ‘without exception’ comprised ‘lawyers distinguished by their practice, their academic study or both’.  Jack Straw is an exception.  Since an LLB at Leeds and two years at the criminal bar, he has made his career in politics – holding glittering ministerial office, throughout the Blair-Brown years, as Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, leader of the Commons, and Lord Chancellor.

Straw has always been interested in ‘the interaction of the work of our courts with the processes of government and the body politic’ and the lectures concern three areas in which Straw could draw on his own experiences.  Despite the responsibility that he had while a minister for ‘an extensive legislative programme’, Straw does not deal with the process of law reform or the machinery of legislation, but with three aspects of the legal system.

The first lecture, ‘The future of the criminal courts’, highlights changes in criminal justice since 1964.  These include greater legalization of policing, thanks in part to PACE and the creation of the Crown Prosecution Service, improved confidence in police integrity (Straw appointed the Stephen Lawrence inquiry), the impact of new technologies, and an improved relationship between senior judges, government and Parliament. (Straw does not claim credit, as he could have done, for his role as Lord Chancellor in the task of bridge-building between government and judiciary that was needed after this relationship reached its nadir during Lord Falconer’s tenure of the post.)  Straw asserts that the criminal justice system is now ‘more effective, more professional, more replete with integrity and more focused on the needs of victims’ than at any other point in his lifetime – but the programme of reform is ‘far from at an end’.

Those who are sceptical about these conclusions will find the third lecture (on appointing the judges) less controversial.  Straw develops two topics: the need to modify the system for appointments established in 2005 (by, among other things, sharpening up the roles of the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice), and the need for a more diverse judiciary.  But it is the second lecture, ‘The Human Rights Act and Europe’, that many readers of this blog will read most closely.

As in his memoirs,  Straw describes the happy ‘conception, birth and childhood’ of the Human Rights Act 1998 (Lord Irvine was the bill’s midwife in the Lords; Straw its midwife in the Commons).  He emphasizes the value of the preparation done before the election in 1997, by the joint Labour/ Lib Dem working party among others, especially on the issue of how to incorporate the ECHR alongside the ‘elephant in the room’ of parliamentary sovereignty.   “The result was an Act which was elegantly drafted, and which has met the test of time.  The Act has been a success.” (p 29)

Straw insists that the Act is here to stay.  But, while praising the quality of the senior British judges, he strongly endorses Lord Irvine’s criticism  of the judges for failing to understand the clear words of section 2, HRA: those words (‘must take into account’) were  ‘chosen with care’ and support neither the ‘mirror principle’ nor any suggestion that British judges are duty bound to follow Strasbourg jurisprudence.

Straw puts the blame for current political hostility to European human rights on the ‘ever-expanding remit of the Strasbourg Court for which it has no mandate’.   He argues that, while British courts have for centuries ‘sought to defend the individual against the arbitrary or oppressive power of the state’, and may make decisions that are inconvenient to the executive, Parliament retains the authority to legislate in breach of fundamental rights.  “If Parliament holds its ground, it wins, always.” (p 38)  But such an extreme position is seldom reached because British courts ‘have an intimate understanding of the cultural and political norms within which they operate’.  And the political class is sometimes ‘willing, praying, that the courts will act where they fear to tread’ (the example given is development of the law of privacy).

By contrast, the Strasbourg court ‘has set itself up as Supreme Court for Europe, and one with an ever-expanding remit’.  Straw attacks the principle that the ECHR is a ‘living instrument’, claiming that this lacks any valid basis. He accepts that there is authority in the Convention for the Court to have ‘the role of protecting basic human rights’ (emphasis supplied), but agrees with Lord Hoffmann that basic human rights cannot be stretched to include ‘detailed interpretation of the right to silence, the hearsay rule and – most preposterous of all – night flights at Heathrow airport’.  And he highlights the issue of prisoners’ voting, on which there is ‘absolutely no doubt’ that it is the will of the British people that convicted prisoners should not be able to vote.

Straw develops two further arguments.  The first (linked with an attack on the court for attempting to impose uniformity in human rights across Europe) records disappointment that the HRA has not had the hoped-for effect of expanding the ‘margin of appreciation’ that Strasbourg should allow for national practice in dealing with ‘wider human rights beyond those basic ones whose protection was the purpose of the treaties’ (emphasis supplied).

The second argument is that, unlike most national constitutions, where decisions of a supreme court are subject to a democratic override (whether by special legislative process or constitutional amendment), there is no procedure in the Convention for enabling decisions of the Strasbourg court to be subject to international legislative process.  The view that there is a ‘democratic deficit’ in the Convention system is indeed held by others in Europe.[1]   One answer to this, as Straw points out, lies in the Convention machinery for implementing decisions of the court, which is primarily a matter for political action within the Council of Europe.  But Straw does not accept that this redresses the imbalance in the Convention system and warns that the pride of the court may go before a fall.

There is of course scope for challenging the legitimacy of the court (and indeed of any court that has to hold the ring between legislative decisions and minority rights), but our national sensitivities need to be seen in the light of the case for an understanding of Europe based on a shared value of human rights.  As the Hungarian judge at Strasbourg, András Sajó, has said, the historic belief in shared rights ‘is a self-imposed vision of the member States and not an elitist view from the Court at Strasbourg’.[2]  I welcome the continuing support that Straw gives to the HRA, but I would insist, with Sajó, that the features of the Strasbourg court that Straw now blames for the current discontents were all present and clearly visible in 1997.   

Anthony Bradley is Research Fellow at the Institute of European and Comparative Law. University of Oxford, and is formerly a vice-president of the International Association of Constitutional Law.

 This is a review of Jack Straw, Aspects of Law Reform: An Insider’s Perspective (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 2013).

 Suggested citation: A. Bradley, ‘A Review of J. Straw, Aspects of Law Reform: An Insiders Perspective’ UK Const. L. Blog (7th October 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org)

[1]           For a recent collection of papers that inter alia discuss this view, see S Flogaitis, T Zwart and J Fraser (eds) The European Court of Human Rights and its Discontents : Turning Criticism into Strength  (Edward Elgar, 2013).

[2]           A Sajó, in Flogaitis, Zwart and Fraser (above), page 186.

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Helen Fenwick: Article 8 ECHR, the ‘Feminist Article’, Women and a Conservative Bill of Rights

helen1There has been a lot of commentary on the Report of the Bill of Rights’ Commission, and the ‘damp squib’ analysis of the Report (see Mark Elliott) as a whole is one most commentators appear to assent to (see eg Joshua Rozenberg for the Guardian here). My view in general is that the squib could reignite post-2015 if a Conservative government is elected, not in relation to the very hesitant ideas as to the possible future content of a Bill of Rights that the Report put forward, but in relation to its majority recommendation that there should be one (see further my previous post on the Commission Report here). If a BoR was to emerge under a Conservative government post-2015 I suggest that it would reflect the ideas of the Conservative nominees on the Commission which assumed a far more concrete form in the Report than the majority recommendations did (eg see here at p 192). This blog post due to its length is not intended to examine the probable nature of such a BoR based on those ideas in general, but to focus only on two aspects: the idea of curtailing the effects of an equivalent to Article 8 ECHR (right to respect for private and family life), and of requiring domestic courts to disapply Strasbourg jurisprudence under a BoR in a wider range of situations than at present under s2HRA (see Roger Masterman’s post on s2 on this blog here). In respect of the latter issue the potential impact of so doing will only be linked to selected aspects of Article 8 jurisprudence of especial actual and potential benefit to women.

Why concentrate on women as opposed to persons in general attempting to assert private or family rights against the state or non-state actors? That choice is partly due to the implications of EM (Lebanon) v SSHD in which the effect of deportation on the family life of a woman was found to be capable of creating a “flagrant breach” of Article 8. EM argued that such a breach would be created on the basis that shari’a law as applied to her in Lebanon would automatically grant custody of her child to the father, regardless of the child’s best interests, destroying the family life she enjoyed with her child. The basis for that finding is discussed further below. The successful claim in EM demonstrates that Article 8 can be deployed to prevent deportation to face specific instances of state-sponsored gender-based discrimination despite its apparently gender-neutral nature. The decision also led to an increased reliance on Article 8 in cases involving the deportation of parents; in that sense it lies behind the ‘attack’ on Article 8 by Martin Howe in the BoR Commission Report, in the Immigration Bill currently before Parliament, and by Dominic Grieve in 2010 (see my article, 2012 Public Law). Article 8 is concentrated on also because due to its particular ability to impose positive obligations on the state in relation to creating respect for private or family life it can require the state to create curbs on the actions of non-state actors particularly adverse to women (eg in relation to domestic violence: Hajduova v Slovakia) and ensure the efficacy of services that women in particular might need to access, such as to abortion (P&S v Poland). Women are, it is argued, more at risk than men from the actions of non-state actors within the private and family sphere (see intervention of Equal Rights Trust in Eremia and Others v Moldova on this point), so Article 8 has a particular pertinence for women (see further below), and unlike Article 14, which has not proved to have a strong impact as a means of advancing the interests of women due to its reliance on furthering formal equality (see eg Dembour Who Believes in Human Rights (Cam: CUP, 2006) Ch 7), Article 8 can address the substantive concerns of women, without the need for any reliance on a comparator.

Limiting the effects of a right to respect for private and family life in a BoR

In his separate paper in the Commission Report (A UK Bill of Rights) Martin Howe proposed limiting the effect of an equivalent of Article 8 in a new BoR by means of an accompanying clause. The clause would be to the effect that if legislation was passed determining the balance between respect for private life and various public interests, then the courts would not be able to give greater protection to privacy via the Article 8 equivalent than the legislation gave it. Such a clause would obviously be controversial since it would appear to oppose the principle generally underlying Bills of Rights – to protect persons against legislative power, thus countering majoritarianism. It would also attack the notion of universalism underlying Bills of Rights if the clause was aimed in part, which seems to be the intention, at limiting the privacy rights of non-nationals. It would disturb the carefully crafted compromise between Parliamentary sovereignty and protection for rights enshrined in the Human Rights Act, since in relation to this particular guarantee, Parliament would set out its limits in particular pieces of legislation, which would therefore be protected from the effects of mechanisms in a BoR equivalent to those of ss3, and 4 HRA – or at least such would be the intention. Thus, action by public authorities via an equivalent to s6 HRA infringing internationally recognised standards of respect for private life could be enabled by the clause, avoiding the possibility that once the legislation in question had been reinterpreted under an equivalent to s3 HRA, that would be found not to be required. Obviously this possibility raises many questions which cannot be addressed here regarding the appropriate separation of powers between judiciary and legislature and of the possible relationship between various parts of a BoR and the clause itself.

Such a clause as proposed by Howe could be deployed to limit the current impact of Article 8 in deportation decisions. Dominic Grieve has seen the decision in EM (Lebanon) as one that has resulted from a judicial desire to shadow Strasbourg under the HRA and go beyond Strasbourg (‘Proposals for a British Bill of Rights’ 8th March 2010 British Academy AHRC Forum). He had already indicated that this is a problem that he sees as one that could be remedied under a BoR (on conservativehome blog). Howe appeared to have in mind the case of SSHD v Respondent which concerned an Iraqi asylum-seeker, Aso Mohammed Ibrahim, who had brought about the death of a child, Amy Houston, in a driving accident, and fled the scene. He should have been deported previously, in November 2002, once his asylum application had failed but there were delays, meaning that he obtained a chance to establish family life in the UK (see comment here). An immigration tribunal later refused the application to deport him on the basis of his right to respect for his family life under Article 8 ECHR, a decision upheld on appeal (SSHD v Respondent). In a letter to the father of the girl in January 2010, Cameron promised that a future Conservative government would repeal the HRA, which he held responsible for the decision (reported in the Guardian). When the Court of Appeal refused leave to appeal the decision, the Immigration Minister Damian Green said “I will be raising the wider issues highlighted by this tragic case with the Justice Secretary for consideration by the commission on UK human rights law which the Government will be establishing later this year” (see BBC report). In October 2011 Grieve said: We think that the domestic courts have placed too much weight on the family rights of foreign criminals and we intend to redress the balance in the Immigration Rules (speech at Lincoln’s Inn, see transcript).

Theresa May recently said in the Mail on Sunday that new guidance approved by Parliament for judges had made it clear that a foreign criminal’s Article 8 right to a family life had limits, but she accused the judges of ignoring them. She said she now wanted to introduce a law to require most foreigners guilty of serious crimes to be deported so that Article 8 could apply to block deportation only exceptionally. The amended Immigration Rules set out an extensive, framework providing a definition of the Article 8 balancing factors, but in Izuazu (Article 8 – new rules) Nigeria the Upper Tribunal found that the new Immigration Rules do not adequately reflect the Secretary of State’s obligations under Article 8. In the recent Queen’s Speech the government promised to “give the full force of legislation to the policy we have already adopted in the Immigration Rules. The courts would therefore be required to properly reflect the balance given to the public interest when ruling on immigration cases”. In other words, the government intends to use primary legislation based on the Rules to change the weight given to the public interest under Article 8(2) when balanced against the rights of the individual in immigration cases under Article 8(1), “to limit the use of Article 8” (Adam Wagner in the New Statesman, and Mark Elliott on the UK Human Rights blog). A clause in a BoR expressly limiting the effect of a right of respect to private and family life would clearly appear to bolster such a change, as could the changes to the s2HRA equivalent put forward by Conservative nominees on the Bill of Rights Commission, considered below.

If a clause on the lines proposed by Howe was introduced in a new BoR it would protect provisions of the Immigration Bill intended to prevent judges from relying on Article 8 in relation to the deportation of non-nationals who have committed offences in the UK, but who may claim that respect for their family life under Article 8 will be breached if they are deported. But Howe’s clause would also apply to any future legislation that sought to make itself ‘Article 8-proof’. In other words, any legislation passed in order to limit the effect of an Article 8 equivalent in a BoR would, under a clause similar to the one proposed by Howe, prevent courts taking a more expansive view of the application of the Article 8 equivalent than the legislation itself allowed. The attempt to re-balance rights, downgrading Article 8 in relation to Article 10, in the HRA s12(4), signally failed (see for example Lord Justice Sedley in Douglas v Hello; Campbell v MGN). However, s12(4) did not direct judges to pay attention to the scope of Article 8 or 10 as delimited by specific pieces of legislation; further, had s12(4) been taken literally it would have conflicted with a well-established strand of Strasbourg jurisprudence which does not give Article 10 presumptive priority over Article 8 (see eg Von Hannover).

Further limiting clauses might be needed. The equivalent of Article 3 would also support recognition of positive obligations, including in the contexts considered below, although the harm threshold is obviously high. Article 8 currently may be the gateway to Article 14, the freedom from discrimination guarantee (bearing in mind that the UK has not ratified Protocol 12). In other words, if Article 8 is engaged but no violation is found a violation of Article 14 might nevertheless be found of the two read together (Van Raalte v Netherlands). But a statute finding that an Article 8 equivalent could not be engaged in relation to a particular set of facts could also be interpreted to mean that the pathway to Article 14 was blocked. Further, even if a Conservative BoR was introduced limiting the impact of Article 8, challenges could still be brought at Strasbourg unless the UK withdrew from the Convention (recently raised as a possibility by Theresa May (BBC News), but domestically the possibilities discussed below of reliance on Article 8 could potentially be stifled, depending of course on the nature of the legislation that was introduced.

Evading Strasbourg jurisprudence under a BoR

While the government is bound under Article 46 ECHR to comply with the final decisions of the Court, as a matter of international law, the executive might well prefer to delay and procrastinate in response, or to bring forward legislation to Parliament which might represent a more minimal response to the Strasbourg decision than court-based findings would or might. Or a decision might be viewed as non-dispositive in a UK setting due to its fact-sensitivity. That tendency is evident in the Conservative predilection for proposing changes to s2 HRA to create greater leeway for courts to depart from Strasbourg, possibly partly with a view to creating more ‘wriggle-room’ in relation to the Article 46 duty.

There are signs that senior Conservatives prior to the 2010 election intended to use the BoR to seek to sever or weaken the connection with Strasbourg created by the HRA, s.2.  Dominic Grieve has argued that the HRA has been “interpreted as requiring a degree of deference to Strasbourg that I believe was and should be neither required nor intended” (Telegraph). Instead, he said, a new BoR would make it clear that British courts could allow for UK common law to take precedence over decisions by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (Equality and Human Rights Commission).  Grieve’s key speech on the ECHR in 2011 targeted s2 HRA as a failing section on the basis that it allows Strasbourg interpretations of the ECHR too much purchase in domestic law. In his separate paper in the Commission Report (here at p 257), Mechanisms of a UK Bill of Rights, A Speaight recommended change to the formula of s2, echoing Grieve. He did not consider that s2 should be retained in its current form since he wanted to ensure that Strasbourg jurisprudence could not be treated as binding. Therefore he did not consider that the words ‘take into account’ in s2 should be retained – since so doing might still lead judges to come close at times to following Strasbourg. Martin Howe in his paper stated that he agreed with Speaight’s proposals as regards the s2 mechanism.

Introducing a BoR with a clause directing judges to limit the impact of an Article 8 equivalent as determined by any particular piece of legislation might place them in a dilemma if they did not find themselves within a recognised current exception to the Ullah principle as regards applicable, determinative Strasbourg Article 8 jurisprudence. Thus also directing the judges to disregard such jurisprudence might appear to be necessary to safeguard such a clause.

Using Article 8 ECHR to advance women’s interests

Under one strand of feminist thinking it might be argued that the ECHR in general has little to offer women (see for discussion Grabham and Hunter ‘Encountering Human Rights’) due to a judicial approach to it that values modes of thought that may marginalise women and which pays little attention to ideas about feminist legal method (see Samuels ‘Feminizing  human rights adjudication’), combined with the difficulty of using specific cases to address complex social problems. But, as a number of writers have pointed out, especially recently (see Bauer Documenting women’s rights violations by non-state actors), human rights principles can be used as a campaign tool in influencing and mobilizing public and community opinion, and the use of campaigning methods by feminist advocacy groups as instanced in the recent successful campaign to remove gender-based hate speech from Facebook, does not preclude mobilising legal channels as a complementary means of disrupting existing social norms adverse to women via deployment of such principles, allowing gender-specific variants of rights’ violations to be recognised. At the same time the difficulties facing women who seek to use the ECHR should not be under-stated, and Article 8’s protection for family life is gender neutral at face value, meaning that it can also be invoked in ways that could put women and girls at risk, by discouraging state actions interfering with family life that are designed to protect vulnerable women (for example, claims by family members convicted of offences relating to domestic violence, including ‘honour’ murder, that post-sentence they should not be deprived of access to surviving family members in furtherance of their family life, as occurred, albeit unsuccessfully, in Ahmad v Brent).

The possibility of using a BoR to limit the effect of a guarantee of respect for private and family life, combined with a degree of decoupling from the Strasbourg jurisprudence, could have various adverse effects which have been considered elsewhere; this blog’s concern is with the possibility that developing opportunities to safeguard and advance women’s interests using Article 8 ECHR might be stifled. So it proceeds to ask – in what ways does and could Art 8 especially benefit women and girls?  This blog obviously cannot offer by any means an exhaustive list; also each of these matters is complex and has already spawned quite an extensive literature in itself in relation to international human rights’ law, so they can only be touched on here.

Preventing deportation to face adverse treatment based on gender

EM (Lebanon) (FC) (Appellant) (FC) v SSHD concerned a woman who had suffered domestic violence from her husband; as Lord Bingham noted, he had ended her first pregnancy by hitting her on the stomach with a heavy vase, saying he did not want children (para 22). As the Lords found, under shari’a law as applied in Lebanon, during the first seven years of life, when a male child is cared for by the mother, the father retains legal custody and may decide where the child lives. The transfer to the father at age 7 is automatic: the court has no discretion in the matter and is unable to consider whether the transfer is in the best interests of the child. As a result, Lord Bingham pointed out, women are often constrained to remain in abusive marriages for fear of losing their children (para 24). The evidence was that no family life had been established in Lebanon between the child and his father or his father’s family; it was found that the father had shown no interest in him. The applicant had managed to leave Lebanon with her son and resisted deportation from the UK on the basis of her Article 8 right to respect for family life; as this was a ‘foreign’ case, she had to show that a flagrant violation of Article 8 would arise due to the impact on her family life if she was returned to Lebanon, taking into account that the only family life that had been established was between mother and son. The Lords agreed that on return to Lebanon both the appellant’s and AF’s (her son’s) right to respect for their family life would be flagrantly violated in the sense of being ‘completely denied and nullified’.

Expulsion to face the risk of extremely serious adverse treatment on grounds of gender – ‘honour’ murder (see A.A and others v Sweden) or FGM (Omeredo v Austria) – has been found to fall within Articles 2 or 3. But their status as unqualified or non-materially qualified rights inevitably carries with it the need to show a high threshold of harm, and so places women under serious evidential difficulties, meaning that bringing the claim also under Article 8 (alone and/or combined with Article 14) may be advantageous in such instances.

Domestic violence – requirement of effective investigations and prevention

Bevacqva and S v Bulgaria concerned a woman who had been attacked on a number of occasions by her husband and claimed that her requests for a criminal prosecution were rejected on the ground that it was a “private matter’. The Court found a violation of Article 8 due to the failure of the state to adopt the measures necessary to punish and control the violent behaviour of her husband. A somewhat similar situation arose in Hajduova v Slovakia the applicant’s husband had been detained in hospital for psychiatric treatment after he attacked her in public and threatened to kill her. She moved to a refuge with her children. Her ex-husband was released, without having undergone the required treatment, and renewed his threats. Reiterating that Slovakia has a duty to protect the physical and psychological integrity of individuals, particularly vulnerable victims of domestic violence, the Court found a violation of Article 8 in that, although the applicant’s ex-husband had not assaulted her following his release from hospital, her fear that his threats might be carried out was well-founded and the authorities had failed in their duty to ensure his detention for psychiatric treatment. A similar outcome was reached in Kalucza v. Hungary which concerned Hungary’s failure to protect Ms Kalucza from her violent former partner. The Court found a violation of Article 8 since the Hungarian authorities had not taken sufficient measures to provide her with effective protection against him, despite criminal complaints lodged against him for assault, repeated requests for a restraining order against him and civil proceedings to order his eviction from their flat.

These cases succeeded under Article 8, although it is readily arguable that some cases of domestic violence should rather raise issues under Articles 2 and 3, as in Opuz v Turkey which concerned the ‘honour’ murder of the applicant’s mother, who had tried to support the applicant, and repeated ‘honour’ crimes in the form of serious assaults and death threats against the applicant. The Court noted that the national authorities were reluctant to interfere in what they perceived to be a “family matter”. Turkey was found to have violated Article 2 due to its lack of due diligence in taking preventive operational measures to protect the life of the mother and therefore in failing in their positive obligation to protect the right to life of the applicant’s mother within the meaning of Article 2. Turkey was also found to have violated Article 3 due to its failure to take protective measures in the form of effective deterrence against serious breaches of the applicant’s personal integrity by her husband.

A number of highly significant findings were made in this context in the very recent case of Eremia and Others v Moldova. The judgment found that while the authorities took some steps to protect the first applicant from her violent husband, A, a police officer, over a period of time, the steps were not effective and there was reluctance to take the matter seriously enough. In other words, the failures in the case were redolent of the familiar failings in the previous domestic violence cases considered. But not only were breaches of Articles 8 and 3 (on the basis of the state’s positive obligation to protect persons from inhuman treatment) found, but the Equal Rights Trust, intervening, persuaded the Court to treat domestic violence as a form of gender-based discrimination under Article 14 read with Article 3.  The second and third applicants were the daughters of the first applicant; they complained successfully under Article 8 of the psychological effects of witnessing their mother being physically and verbally abused at their home, while being unable to help, and of verbal abuse on the part of A. The decision represents an important breakthrough in this jurisprudence since the gendered nature of domestic violence – its disproportionate and particular impact on women – was recognised under Article 14, as was the impact of such violence on children forced to witness it, under Article 8.

Recently in the UK the IPCC reported adversely on the police investigation into the murder of Maria Stubbings who was strangled in Chelmsford, Essex, in December 2008 by her former boyfriend Marc Chivers (see main findings here). Essex police knew he had killed before, and that he had served time in prison for assaulting Stubbings, but the IPCC found that they had failed to recognise the seriousness of the danger to her. As a number of journalists have recently pointed out, the Macpherson inquiry found that the police had failed “to provide an appropriate and professional service” with “processes, attitudes and behaviour” harmful to the minority ethnic community when it reported on the murder of Stephen Lawrence (see eg this recent report in the Guardian). Maria Stubbings’ family have called for a similar inquiry into failings in police investigations into domestic violence. The threat and actuality of a possible action under Articles 8,2,3 domestically or at Strasbourg, based on the jurisprudence cited, would be likely to aid campaigns focussing on this issue.

Conclusions

This blog has suggested that limiting the effects of a guarantee of respect for private and family life in a BoR, combined with seeking to create departure from relevant Strasbourg jurisprudence, could in future stifle the impact of nascent developments in human rights principles under Article 8 ECHR that reduce gender-based harm to women. So doing could also potentially derail the effect of Article 8 in domestic Constitutional terms, given that the UK has a good record on procedural propriety but traditionally a poor one on privacy. Clearly, such an attempt might fail: the fact that judges were operating under an instrument termed a BoR might encourage an activist approach that sought to circumvent attempts at giving the ‘public interest’ the opportunity to negate a right in certain circumstances – the converse of the Strasbourg approach. Nevertheless, it is worth drawing attention to Howe’s proposed clause, and to the general interest shown by senior Conservatives in minimising the guarantee of respect for private life.

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

 

Suggested citation: H. Fenwick, ‘Article 8 ECHR, the ‘Feminist Article’, Women and a Conservative Bill of Rights ‘  UK Const. L. Blog (5th June 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org)

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Scott Stephenson: The Constitutional Significance of Statutory Repeal: How Far Can Parliament Turn Back the Clock?

stephenson_scottThe current system for human rights protection in the UK is once again under siege. In the last week, statements were made indicating that the Conservative Party’s manifesto for the next election would include major reforms to current arrangements. Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor, declared that a future Conservative Government would repeal the UK Human Rights Act 1998 ‘and start[] again’, suggesting that it would be replaced by alternative legislation. Theresa May, Home Secretary, announced that the manifesto would include a promise to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights.

In response, Mark Elliott, Conor Gearty and Adam Wagner wrote that these proposals might not have the effect that many people assume they would. Some of their arguments concern the ineffectiveness of partial reform—removing one element of the scheme for human rights protection but not both. In this post, I focus on their comments that relate to reform at the domestic level—repeal of the UK HRA followed by either no replacement law or a statute that confers markedly reduced powers on courts.

Mark Elliott and Conor Gearty raise two points about repeal of the UK HRA. First, the UK HRA has expanded the protection of rights at common law. As is well known, prior to the UK HRA many rights were recognised at common law and courts developed rules and principles to give effect to them. The principle of legality is one example, which provides that ‘[f]undamental rights cannot be overridden by general or ambiguous words’. These rights, rule and principles would not only subsist after repeal but also operate in an expanded guise. Mark Elliott states that the UK HRA has accelerated the protection of rights at common law by ‘produc[ing] a kind of alchemy, leading judges to discover what was already implicit in the common law while simultaneously augmenting the common law.’ Enactment of the UK HRA has fostered an awareness of rights throughout the British legal system that repeal is unlikely to mollify: ‘To assume … that repealing the HRA or even withdrawing from the ECHR would rid domestic law of the foreign influences that have supposedly tainted it in recent years betrays a naïve misunderstanding of the nature of our common law constitution.’ This awareness will be reflected in the direction and pace of common law development.

Second, repeal of the UK HRA may prompt courts to employ alternative, more controversial, means of protecting rights. British judges have occasionally suggested that a court might decide to disapply or invalidate a statute in exceptional circumstances. In R (Jackson) v Attorney General, Lord Hope stated that the principle of parliamentary sovereignty ‘is no longer, if it ever was, absolute … It is no longer right to say that its freedom to legislate admits of no qualification whatever.’ The UK HRA has, as Mark Elliott and Conor Gearty note, reduced the need for courts to contemplate this issue with respect to human rights. Judges are supplied with a range of remedial powers to address executive and legislative actions that violate rights, obviating the need to turn to the common law to respond such as through a power of invalidation. Furthermore, Conor Gearty observes that ‘some judges might even be emboldened to strike down acts of parliament for breach of human rights, something that the current legislation specifically prohibits and so would be easier with the Human Rights Act off the scene.’ Thus, repeal of the UK HRA might, depending on what replaces it, re-agitate this controversial, untested realm of constitutional law by removing two defusing factors: the provision of statutory remedies and the prohibition on invalidation.

These comments underscore that enactment and repeal are substantively different acts—one is not the mirror image of the other. Putting the doctrine of implied repeal to one side (see Factortame and Thoburn), the UK HRA was deliberately designed not to disturb the power of express repeal. Unlike the human rights instruments of most countries, it is not constitutionally entrenched and is therefore capable of express amendment and repeal through the ordinary law making process. Yet here we see the UK HRA opening a gulf between constitutional form and substance—even if Parliament complies with the constitutional procedure for repeal, the substantive rights are not necessarily withdrawn if courts incorporate them into the common law. Parliament can attempt to abolish common law rights by express enactment, but this may only raise another set of constitutional constraints. Courts may either impede their ouster using the same techniques they have with privative clauses or invoke the second scenario mentioned above (statutory invalidation).

More importantly, the issue raises the question of how courts should interpret a legislative decision to repeal. Not all statutes are alike. Lord Justice Laws has said (in the context of implied repeal) that ‘[w]e should recognise a hierarchy of Acts of Parliament: as it were “ordinary” statutes and “constitutional” statutes.’ The UK HRA is undoubtedly a statute of this stature, even beyond the matter of implied repeal. British courts, for instance, took s 3(1) of the UK HRA to constitute a ‘strong adjuration’ to develop a markedly more expansive principle of legality, thereby augmenting the judiciary’s constitutional role.

By extension, does this mean that not all repeals are alike? If the enactment of a statute can affect the common law, should courts take the repeal of a statute, especially one that is constitutional, as an indication of how they should develop the common law in future cases? Should courts interpret a legislative decision to repeal the UK HRA as a similarly ‘strong adjuration’ to abandon the more expansive principle of legality? After all, courts could, if the UK HRA were repealed, continue to interpret statutes in the same manner and even continue to issue informal declarations of incompatibility. But if enactment of the UK HRA amounted to a legislative decision to transfer greater responsibility to courts for the protection of rights, should its repeal be understood as a reversal of that transfer of responsibility? Should the response of courts differ if repeal is accompanied by a good faith effort on the part of Parliament to increase its capacity and willingness to protect rights, for example, by strengthening the Joint Committee on Human Rights or reforming the House of Lords?

While such questions are speculative at this point in time, they raise weighty issues of constitutional law. The prospect of repeal invites us to consider the interaction between statute and common law, the difference between entrenched and unentrenched human rights instruments, the bi-directionality of law—whether it is possible for the legislature to give with one hand and take away with the other and whether that is the appropriate frame of reference for human rights—and the scope and limits of legislative power to direct and modify the role the judiciary performs in society.

 

Scott Stephenson is a Fox International Fellow at Cambridge University and a J.S.D. Candidate at Yale University

Suggested citation: S. Stephenson  ‘The Constitutional Significance of Statutory Repeal: How Far Can Parliament Turn Back the Clock?’ UK Const. L. Blog (7th March 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org)

 

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Colm O’Cinneide: Human Rights, Devolution and the Constrained Authority of the Westminster Parliament

a_ocinneideThe debate over the place of human rights in UK constitutional law continues to run and run. The Home Secretary, Theresa May MP, has recently criticised the manner in which UK judges are interpreting the right to family life protected by Article 8 of the ECHR. A private members bill tabled by Tory MP Charlie Elphicke, the Human Rights Act 1998 (Repeal and Substitution) Bill, which would de-incorporate Convention rights and replace them with diluted ‘British’ replacements, received its Second Reading on the 1st March 2013. Furthermore, at the time of writing, the Mail on Sunday is quoting Theresa May again to the effect that the next Tory election manifesto will include a commitment to withdrawing from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, de-incorporating Convention rights, or some such equivalent measure.

As a consequence, it may be a good time to highlight the fact that changing existing UK human rights law is not an easy task. Even if one leaves to one side the external diplomatic factors that may limit the UK’s freedom of action in this field, there are internal legal and political factors in play which make tampering with the HRA a more problematic project than the media headlines suggest. In particular, complex issues arise with respect to devolution and the various ways in which Convention rights have become embedded in the constitutional framework of the UK.

The HRA itself is a piece of primary legislation which applies to all public authorities throughout the UK and can be amended or repealed by the Westminster Parliament. The UK’s international relationship with the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights also comes squarely within the sphere of reserved powers. However, human rights are not per se a reserved function, and there exists a separate and distinct ‘devolution dimension’ to the UK system of rights protection. The devolved legislatures and executives in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are required to comply with ‘Convention rights’ by virtue of specific provisions set out in the devolution statues (S. 6(2)(c) and s. 24(1)(a) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998; s. 29(2)(d) and s. 57(2) of the Scotland Act 1998; s. 81(1) and s. 94(6)(c) of the Government of Wales Act 2006). They can also take measures to give further effect to the UK’s international human rights obligations when acting within the scope of their powers, including but not confined to those that arise under the ECHR (para. 3(c) of Sch. 2 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998; para. 7(2) of Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act 1998; and in general Schedule 5 of the Government of Wales Act 2006).

The existence of this ‘devolution dimension’ imposes some constraints on the freedom of the Westminster Parliament to reconstruct UK human rights law as it sees fit. For example, any change to the current requirement that the Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh legislatures must comply with Convention rights would affect the scope of their devolved powers: as a result, under existing constitutional arrangements, it would appear to trigger the Sewel Convention, meaning that Westminster would ‘normally’ have to seek the consent of the devolved legislatures before it could legislate in respect of human rights law as it applies in respect of devolved matters. Furthermore, because the devolved legislatures are able to take steps to extend human rights protection, they have the power to minimise the impact of any reduction of rights protection brought about by Westminster legislation within the sphere of devolved functions.

Thus, for example, if the Westminster Parliament wished to root out the ECHR rights from UK law and replace them with home-grown ‘British’ variants through a new Bill of Rights, it would either have to leave intact the provisions of the devolution legislation that require the Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh legislatures to comply with Convention rights, or else seek the consent of the three legislatures to the removal from Convention rights from the devolution framework. Furthermore, even if such consent was forthcoming, or the Westminster Parliament chose simply to disregard the Sewel Convention, the devolved legislatures might subsequently be able to restore much of the status quo within the sphere of devolved functions. For example, if Westminster were to repeal the HRA, the Scottish Parliament would appear to have the power to introduce a ‘Scottish HRA’ or an equivalent measure in respect of devolved matters, which could provide an equivalent or even greater level of rights protection within its sphere of application than currently available under the HRA.[1]

Furthermore, the political context is very different in the devolved regions when it comes to human rights. The recent report of the Commission on a Bill of Rights noted that ‘there was little, if any, criticism of the Strasbourg Court, of the European label of the Convention, or of human rights generally in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland’ (p. 163), while Philippe Sands and Helena Kennedy in their minority report suggest that ‘existing arrangements under the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights are not merely tolerated but strongly supported’ in the devolved regions (p. 266). In addition, as Christine Bell has discussed on this blog, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are in the course of developing their own unique approaches to human rights. This makes it unlikely that the devolved legislatures will be willing to consent to any Westminster legislation which sought to make significant changes to how human rights are protected within the sphere of devolved functions. Indeed, in giving evidence to the Commission on a Bill of Rights, the Scottish Government made it clear that it considered that the Westminster Parliament lacked the legitimacy to determine the scope of human rights protection in Scotland (see p. 166 of the Commission’s report).

Additional issues arise in respect of Northern Ireland. The Belfast Agreement specifically required that the ‘UK government will complete incorporation into Northern Ireland law of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), with direct access to the courts, and remedies for breach of the Convention’ (Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity, para. 2.). In addition, as Brice Dickson and Colin Harvey have recently discussed on this blog, a separate Bill of Rights process is underway in Northern Ireland, whose roots also lie in the provisions of the Belfast Agreement. As a result, any attempt by Westminster to alter or amend existing human rights law which applies to Northern Ireland (whether relating to devolved functions or to reserved functions such as national security) is likely to be viewed as an unwanted interference with the fragile constitutional settlement that has been constructed there on the foundations laid down by the Belfast Agreement.

Of course, the Westminster Parliament is free to alter or amend existing UK human rights law as it applies to the sphere of reserved functions, as recognised by Anthony Speaight QC in a thoughtful paper on devolution attached to the final report of the Commission on a Bill of Rights. However, even if Westminster were only to legislate in this field in respect of reserved functions (and exempted Northern Ireland from the scope of application of the proposed new law), devolution would still have the potential to create troubling inconsistencies in UK human rights law.

For example, if Westminster were to de-incorporate Convention rights and replace the HRA with a new ‘British’ Bill of Rights containing home-grown rights standards that applied in the sphere of reserved functions, Convention rights would still be applicable within the sphere of devolved functions. This could generate some complex legal issues where devolved functions in areas such as criminal justice and social welfare overlap with reserved powers such as immigration control. (These complexities would obviously be exacerbated if the entirety of Northern Irish law, including law relating to reserved functions, was exempted from the scope of the new ‘Bill of Rights’.) It would also mean that Convention rights would continue to be applied by UK courts in the context of the devolved regions, ensuring that the Strasbourg jurisprudence would continue to exert some direct influence on the development of UK law.

Alternatively, Westminster could simply choose to ignore the devolved legislatures and push through a new human rights law. However, this could generate a constitutional crisis if one or more of the devolved legislatures and/or governments were to cry foul, and it would in all probability breach the terms of the Sewel Convention. In any case, as already mentioned, the devolved legislatures might be able to limit the effects of such a measure by enacting their own devolved version of the HRA.

In general, the ‘devolution dimension’ cannot be readily ignored or sidelined in the ongoing human rights debate, as the Commission on a Bill of Rights recognised in its final report. The current parameters of the devolution settlement impose substantial legal and political constraints upon the power of the Westminster Parliament to alter existing UK human rights law. This will not come as a surprise to legal experts who are well aware of the limits to parliamentary sovereignty, as analysed by Mark Elliott, Nick Barber and others. However, discussion of these constraints have been largely absent from parliamentary or media debates on the HRA and ECHR. In particular, there has been little recognition that Convention rights have become woven into the fabric of the unwritten UK constitution in multiple different ways, which may prove very difficult to unravel.

Philippe Sands and Helena Kennedy have suggested that certain of their colleagues on the Bill of Rights Commission viewed the constraints imposed by devolution on the freedom of action of the Westminster Parliament as a case of the ‘tail wagging the dog’. There is a danger that a similar attitude may blind politicians in Westminster to the reality that the UK constitutional system is now complex, variegated and pluralist in nature. Tampering with the status of Convention rights in UK law may appease some Europhobic voters, but it risks open up some serious constitutional fractures.

Colm O’Cinneide is a Reader in Law at University College London. 

Suggested citation: C. O’Cinneide ‘Human Rights, Devolution and the Constrained Authority of the Westminster Parliament’ UK Const. L. Blog (4th March 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org)

 


[1] See the research paper written by Anthony Speaight QC and attached to the report of the Commission on a Bill of Rights, ‘Devolution Options’, pp. 243-256, especially at p. 250.

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Richard Ekins: Rights-consistent interpretation and (reckless) amendment

RichardEkins_profileDiscussion about s 3 of the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) tends to focus on the scope of s 3(1).  My interest in this post is in 3(2)’s direction that the section “applies to primary and subordinate legislation whenever enacted”.  I suggest that this decision to extend s 3 to statutes whenever enacted amounted to an uncertain and reckless amendment to the statute book (that is, to all statutes in force at the time the HRA came into effect in October 2000).

What “it is possible to do” under s 3(1) may be quite different in respect of pre and post-HRA statutes.  For statutes enacted after the HRA, the section grounds a strong presumption that Parliament intends to legislate consistently with the ECHR.  For statutes enacted before the HRA, at the time the enacting legislature acted there was no such (strong) presumption; indeed, the legislative act might well predate the ECHR, perhaps by several centuries.

If one presumes that Parliament does not intend to change the law in an unclear fashion, one might reason that in respect of pre-HRA statutes, s 3 directs judges to resolve any open interpretive question in favour of a rights-consistent interpretation, but not otherwise to overturn or change any settled interpretive judgment.  This would be all that it was “possible to do” when the enacting legislature had not acted in light of a strong presumption of conformity to the ECHR.  On this view, enacting s 3 would not change the statute book as it stood at October 2000.  However, the courts have never questioned that Parliament intended s 3 to change the meaning of pre-HRA statutes.  What argument there has been about the temporal scope of s 3 has concerned whether the new meanings its application warrants apply to actions and events taking place before the HRA’s commencement.  The judicial answer, in due course, was that they do not.  It has been common ground throughout the case law that the enactment of s 3 overturns or changes what were otherwise clear, unambiguous meanings prior to the HRA’s commencement.

There were reasons for this strong conclusion.  The section extends to statutes whenever enacted, without any qualification such as “unless the context otherwise demands”.  Qualifications of this kind are common to Interpretation Acts, which apply to statutes whenever enacted but which do not purport to amend them.  An Interpretation Act sets out a partial interpretive regime relevant to every statute, which may overturn unsound interpretive methods (say, literalism) and settle otherwise open questions, but does not purport to change the object of statutory interpretation or to change what statutes have always meant.  Having said this, one might think that in respect of s 3 any such qualification would have been redundant because the section already refers to what may be “possible”, plainly implying that not everything is possible.  Nonetheless, there are strong reasons to conclude that s 3 was intended to change the meaning of pre-HRA statutes.  The point of the HRA was to help bring the United Kingdom into line with the ECHR, understood as a body of international law authoritatively interpreted by Strasbourg, and hence to avoid the embarrassment of Strasbourg challenge.  The legislature may well have intended to change the meanings of pre-HRA statutes by extending the application of s 3 to statutes whenever enacted.  Thus, Parliament acted to amend the statute book to this extent.

It was of course open to Parliament to amend the statute book in this way.  But it was a reckless use of legislative authority.  Parliament in 1998 amended every statute to the extent of its inconsistency with the ECHR, as authoritatively interpreted by Strasbourg, subject to the limits of what was ‘possible’ under s 3(1).  It did not promulgate the law as amended.  Indeed, it did not consider the reasons for each amendment that it made and it did not choose each amendment.  Instead, it chose an indistinct set of amendments, the content of which was not open to it, considered by it, or chosen by it.  The legislators may have assumed that the United Kingdom was largely in conformity to the ECHR, so that very few legal changes would be required.  Any such assumption was irresponsible.  The legislature should grasp the content of the legal changes that it makes before it makes them.  To do otherwise is to fail to exercise its authority in response to reasons.  It is hard to imagine a less responsible legal act then to amend every statute by means of an opaque formula (the obscure s 3(1) taken together with the vague ECHR and often unstable Strasbourg jurisprudence) when one has no way of knowing, and has shown no inclination to discover, precisely how one is changing the law.

This analysis is relevant to the question of how Parliament should go about amending or repealing s 3.  If Parliament were to decide that s 3 (as interpreted) is unsound – because inimical to the rule of law say – it might choose to repeal the provision outright or to replace it with an alternative formulation.  The repeal of s 3 would revive the interpretation of pre-HRA statutes, which the enactment of s 3 had otherwise displaced.  This would be a relatively clear change and it would be open to Parliament to consider the law it would be acting to make by such an action and to choose it responsibly.  Still, for the choice to be responsible it would have to be preceded by careful deliberation about the substance of the relevant changes, for there might be good reason, in some or many cases, to preserve the post-2000 interpretation, notwithstanding the abrogation of s 3.  If such were the choice then that lawmaking choice ought to be given clear statutory effect, which would require detailed textual amendment on point.  Thus, repealing s 3 would be no simple legislative act: the rule of law would call for careful, extended thought and then precise, comprehensive action.

The repeal might be taken also to change the meaning of post-HRA statutes, removing the interpretive direction that grounds the (often surprising) interpretations of those statutes.  Alternatively, one might reason that those interpretations were grounded in inference about the intent of the enacting legislature, such that repeal of s 3 ought not to undermine that inference in respect of statutes already enacted (plainly it would remove the grounds of the inference for subsequent statutes).  Any repeal ought to settle this point clearly.

Amending s 3 to introduce some new formulation (say the choice of words in s 32 of the Charter of Rights and Responsiblities Act 2006 (Vic)) might have the same effect as outright repeal (it would depend on the terms of the new formulation) or it might substitute for s 3 some intermediary, alternative rule.  In the latter case, the amendment would change the existing statute book in ways that would be difficult to predict.  This would go the wisdom of amendment rather than repeal, for it may be that the legal consequences of the former are too opaque to undertake responsibly.  Also, at the very least and in sharp contrast to the enactment of the HRA itself, in making any such change Parliament ought to enact a detailed transitional scheme to avoid (or at least minimise) confusion.

Interestingly, s 6 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (NZBORA), which was in some ways the precursor to s 3 of the HRA, is silent on the question of whether it applies to statutes enacted before the NZBORA.  Yet the courts have never questioned that it does so apply and indeed in some cases, notwithstanding their rejection of the relevant HRA jurisprudence, have been open to understanding the NZBORA’s enactment to amend those past statutes – an amendment which is, as I say, imprecise, unclear and irresponsible.  Contrast s 4 of the Interpretation Act 1999 (NZ), which provides explicitly that the Act applies to enactments whenever enacted unless the enactment provides otherwise or its context requires a different interpretation – a formulation which is intended to disavow any intention to change the law by changing (rather: restating) some interpretive “rules”.  The Interpretation Act acknowledges what the NZBORA and HRA do not, namely that acting to change the meaning of a statute is to amend it, and amendment should not be haphazard.

Richard Ekins is a Fellow of St John’s College, Oxford.

Suggested citation: R. Ekins ‘Rights-consistent interpretation and (reckless) amendment’ UK Const. L. Blog (24th January 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org)

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Ryan Goss: What is the Bill of Rights Commission’s ‘strong argument’?

GossThis week’s report from the Commission on a Bill of Rights was entitled ‘The Choice Before Us’. In framing that choice, a majority of the Commission concluded that, ‘on balance, there is a strong argument in favour of a UK Bill of Rights’. In this post, I explore and test that ‘strong argument’ as it is developed in the Commission’s report. I ask whether the argument developed in the report is as strong as the majority might like us to believe.

The report does not articulate its ‘strong argument’ in a particularly pithy way  (perhaps this is a result of the fractured nature of the Commission’s report – there are minority views on particular points as well as separately-explained-but-concurring majority opinions, and a series of additional opinion papers). Instead, a series of constituent sub-arguments appear to form the central ‘strong argument’ spoken of by the majority. It is to these sub-arguments that I turn. In doing so I draw on the Overview and the substantive section of the report.

The majority begin by noting that ‘the other 46 signatory states to the European Convention on Human Rights generally have their own written constitution, their own national bill of rights written in their own words or both’. This observation, the majority states, would only be ‘a piece of academic curiosity, if there were widespread public acceptance of the legitimacy of our current human rights structures’. At this point we might pause briefly to wonder whether the Commission inquired into the levels of ‘widespread public acceptance’ of human rights structures in the other 46 states (the lengthy comparative sections in Chapter 5 certainly give no detailed consideration to levels of ‘public acceptance’ in other comparable jurisdictions). Without such consideration, the Commission’s sub-argument in this regard risks confusing the existence of national bills of rights with the widespread public acceptance of those bills of rights.

The report develops its concern about public acceptance by holding that ‘there is a lack of public understanding and “ownership” of the Human Rights Act’ and of the European Convention on Human Rights. The ownership argument appears to be twofold. First, the majority report concludes that there is a lack of understanding about the current human rights arrangements. Second, there is the suggestion that the current arrangements are ‘widely regarded by the public as “foreign” or European’.

Some might think that concerns about ‘lack of understanding’ and ‘regard’ could be addressed by improving understanding about existing arrangements rather than by far-reaching constitutional reform. Not the majority. Those members of the commission found it ‘hard to persuade themselves that public perceptions are likely to change in any substantial way as a result [of better public education and understanding], particularly given the highly polemical way in which these issues tend to be presented by both some commentators and some sections of the media’.

Instead of education, therefore, the majority issues a carefully-caveated call for a new British Bill of Rights incorporating and building ‘on all of the UK’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights’. Here we must pause again to consider the Commission’s logic: the problem, as identified by the Commission, is poisoned public understanding in a politicised and polemical environment. The Commission does not think a public education campaign about the existing system can overcome such politicisation, but is nonetheless apparently confident that ‘some commentators and some sections of the media’ will restrain their polemicism when it comes to a new structure built on and incorporating the old structure. A triumph of hope over experience?

Naturally the notion of a Bill of Rights built on and incorporating existing rights leaves plenty of room for ambiguity. The Commission, for example, suggests that a Bill of Rights might ‘define more clearly the scope of some rights and adjust the balance between different rights’. One wonders if such definition and adjustment could easily be done consistently with the UK’s obligations in Strasbourg. We might also wonder whether the apparent concerns about ‘Europeanness’ and ‘foreignness’ would truly be addressed by a new structure built on and incorporating the existing relationship with Strasbourg. (The separate opinion of Lord Faulks QC and Jonathan Fisher QC develops the sceptics’ arguments).

The majority also suggests that, while any Bill of Rights ‘should have at its core the rights currently in the European Convention’, the language of the Bill need not be ‘identical’ to that of the Convention. Instead, the Bill of Rights could be ‘written in language which reflected the distinctive history and heritage of the countries within the United Kingdom’. If the Commission is right and the public discourse is so politicised and polemical that the public cannot be educated about the existing system, we might wonder about the extent to which the public can be educated about the details of the language of a proposed Bill of Rights. Moreover, it is admirably optimistic for any group of lawyers to argue that two differently-drafted sets of rights could be practically identical in effect. Either the two sets of rights are different, in which case the UK risks placing itself in contravention of the UK’s obligations in Strasbourg (which may or may not be a problem, but is something which must be honestly confronted), or the two sets of rights are identical, and the British people would be being sold the same old rights in different clothing (one might wonder what the ‘polemical’ commentators and media analysts might make of such a manoeuvre).

The Commission is careful to identify reasons to proceed slowly and respectfully of existing constitutional arrangements. But if there is indeed ‘a choice before us’, the future of human rights protection in the UK deserves open and honest discussion of the alternatives, and the arguments for and against major constitutional change. Unfortunately, as the Commission itself notes seemingly without irony, ‘it is not always easy to disentangle…what are tactical positions rather than fundamental beliefs’.

There may be an argument made in the majority’s report. But is it a strong argument?

 

Ryan Goss is a Junior Research Fellow in Law, Lincoln College, Oxford

Suggested citation: R. Goss, ‘What is the Bill of Rights Commission’s ‘strong argument’?’   UK Const. L. Blog (20th December 2012) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org,

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Colm O’Cinneide: The Commission on a Bill of Rights: Playing On Even While the Goalposts Have Shifted?

a_ocinneideThe Commission on a Bill of Rights has reported. As expected, its members did not reach agreement on a common set of conclusions. Seven of the nine commissioners took the view that there were ‘strong arguments in favour of a UK Bill of Rights’, on the basis that it would represent a ‘fresh beginning’ and provide a way of  side-stepping the  ‘highly polarised debate’ that now surrounds the HRA. In their view, such a Bill of Rights should provide ‘no less protection than is contained in the Human Rights Act’, and be ‘written in language which reflected the distinctive history and heritage of the countries within the United Kingdom’ in order to attract  ‘greater public ownership’ and popular legitimacy than the HRA currently enjoys. However, two commissioners, Baroness Kennedy QC and Philippe Sands QC, disagree: in their view, the majority have failed to identify any real shortcomings in the functioning of the HRA, the case for introducing a new Bill of Rights has not been made, and there is a real risk that the majority’s conclusions will be used to justify attempts to ‘decouple’ the UK from the ECHR system of rights protection and to dilute rights protection for non-citizens and other vulnerable groups.

Media and political reaction to the Commission’s report has been largely hostile. Many commentators have already written it off in Sadiq Khan MP’s phrase as a ‘dog’s breakfast’, and it may disappear into political limbo. However, public lawyers will find much in the report to sink their teeth into, even if not everything in it will be to their taste.

To start with, the Commission’s report engages seriously with the complexity of UK human rights law while attempting to stay within its constrained terms of reference. As Adam Wagner has suggested, it has produced an ‘interesting health check of the human rights system as it is functioning today, warts and all’. It shows considerable sensitivity when it comes to the devolved regions, and correctly makes the point that any move towards drawing up a UK Bill of Rights must proceed gradually and take place within the context of a wider constitutional debate. The majority also make the important point that most Council of Europe member states have national bill of rights which often protect rights to a similar or even a greater degree than the ECHR while also attracting a high degree of ‘public ownership’, in contrast to the HRA.

However, the majority then leap to the conclusion that a UK Bill of Rights couched in suitably resonant language could come to enjoy a similar status. This is a big assumption. Not all national bill of rights have enjoyed a charmed existence – for example, the Canadian Bill of Rights 1960 failed to attract popular affection or to protect rights to any meaningful degree. Everything depends on the content of a Bill of Rights, its mode of enactment and the substance of the legal protection it provides for human rights – and the majority report is remarkably vague when it comes to these key points.

For example, the majority provide little detail as to how any UK Bill of Rights might function in concrete legal terms. They suggest that the ‘mechanisms in any UK Bill of Rights should be broadly similar to those in the Human Rights Act’ and in particular should contain a similar mechanism to the declaration of incompatibility provided for under s. 4 HRA. However, by mentioning s. 4 while conspicuously omitting any reference to s. 3 HRA, this conclusion obscures more than it illuminates when it comes to the key question of how much freedom should courts have to interpret legislation in a manner that complies with human rights principles. Crucially, the report is also silent on the key legal issue as to whether Convention rights as interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights should continue to be applied by national courts in tandem with any new national provisions, as is the case in every other member state of the Council of Europe.

The majority does reach a clear conclusion that socio-economic and environmental rights should not be protected under any future UK Bill of Rights, on the basis that it is ‘undesirable in principle to open up to decisions of the judiciary issues which, in their view, are better left, to elected legislatures’. In contrast, it concludes that a Bill of Rights could protect some additional rights such as the right not to be discriminated against on the grounds of ‘innate characteristics’, such as gender or ethnic origin. However, this specific right is already effectively protected under EU law and the Equality Act 2010, and the report sheds little light on what other rights could be protected that are not currently covered by the HRA.

In general, the majority report reads like a summary of the limited common ground shared by the seven commissioners who agreed to lend their names to it. The differences it glosses over are graphically illustrated by the separate papers written by various members of the Commission which are attached to the main report. These papers present a fascinating diversity of views, and highlight the tenuous nature of the common ground shared by the majority.

For example, Martin Howe QC sets out in detail in a paper entitled ‘A UK Bill of Rights’ how he thinks such a Bill of Rights could be worded using the language of the common law so as to provide better protection for basic civil and political rights than currently exists under the ECHR/HRA. However, he also suggests that such a Bill of Rights could legitimately grant non-nationals a lesser degree of rights protection than currently exists under the ECHR/HRA. Furthermore, in a subsequent paper entitled ‘Entrenchment of a UK Bill of Rights’, he agrees with Anthony Speaight QC that the judicial power to re-interpret legislation under s. 3 HRA should be significantly pruned back. In other words, Howe’s proposal would provide a significantly lower level of legal protection for rights than is currently available under the ECHR/HRA.

In contrast, in a joint paper entitled ‘Unfinished Business’, Lord Faulks QC and Jonathan Fisher QC show little interest in working out the intricacies of how a UK Bill of Rights might be designed. Instead, they make it clear that, in their view, the function of any home-grown UK Bill of Rights would be to limit the influence of what they consider to be the ‘judicially activist’ European Court of Human Rights. Their paper cites a grab-bag of sources, including the Mail on Sunday letters column and some rather selectively interpreted judicial writings, to make the case that the case-law of the Strasbourg Court has diminished respect for human rights in the UK, and present the proposed Bill of Rights as a first step in altering this narrative.

A third and radically different perspective is provided by Lord Lester QC in a paper headed ‘A Personal Explanatory Note’. Lord Lester both defends the Strasbourg Court against its critic and argues that the HRA is ‘a well-drafted and subtle compromise respecting both Parliamentary sovereignty and the need for effective legal protection of fundamental rights’. In his view, a home-grown Bill of Rights would build upon the achievements of the HRA, by approaching European human rights law ‘through UK law rather than around UK law’ and rooting human rights protection in deep British constitutional soil.

In other words, the majority disagree sharply on the key questions on the purpose and function of any future UK Bill of Rights and its relationship with the ECHR system of rights protection. However, they nevertheless agree that a UK Bill of Rights would represent an improvement on the status quo, on the basis that it would have a better chance of attracting public ownership. This conclusion seems to be based on a considerable faith in the symbolic appeal of any such future Bill of Rights and its capacity to bridge the current sharp divide that exist between supporters and opponents of the current state of UK human rights law. As Baroness Kennedy and Philippe Sands point out in their powerfully-argued dissenting opinion, entitled ‘In Defence of Rights’, it is ‘difficult to imagine how agreement could be reached on the idea of a UK Bill of Rights, even in principle, when views are so polarised as to what such an instrument might contain’.[1] Furthermore, as I have argued elsewhere, it remains open to question whether a UK Bill of Rights could in fact resolve all the current controversies that surround human rights law.

In general, it is hard to avoid the impression that the Bill of Rights debate has moved on from when the Commission was initially established in March 2011. It seems to have served as a learning process through which Tory politicians and think-tanks in particular have identified what they consider to be the real enemy, namely the alleged judicial activism of the Strasbourg Court. This is graphically demonstrated by an article published in the Daily Telegraph by the Justice Secretary (and Lord Chancellor) Chris Grayling MP on the day that the Commission published its report, where he promised only to ‘read and digest’ the Commission’s report while making it clear that the real problem as he sees it with human rights law is that the Strasbourg Court ’has overstepped the mark’. Mark Elliott, David Feldman and myself writing on this blog have highlighted the potentially serious consequences of Grayling’s suggestion that ‘it is time to examine how to curtail the involvement of the European Court of Human Rights in UK domestic matters’. However, it is clear that the real debate is now focused upon the UK’s relationship with the ECHR, and not on whether a new UK Bill of Rights is necessary or desirable.

Colm O’Cinneide is a Reader in Law at University College London. 

Suggested citation: C. O’Cinneide ‘The Commission on a Bill of Rights: Playing On Even While the Goalposts Have Shifted?’  UK Const. L. Blog (19th December 2012) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org,

[1] Kennedy and Sands also make the important point that political and public attitudes towards the ECHR/HRA are not as uniformly antagonistic as the majority assume, especially when viewed from the perspective of the devolved regions.

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