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Mark Elliott: The Brighton Declaration: where now for the Human Rights Act and the Bill of Rights debate?

The Brighton Declaration, which emerged from last week’s High Level Conference on the Future of the European Court of Human Rights, has already attracted a substantial amount of comment—including by Noreen O’Meara on this Blog and Ed Bates on the UK Human Rights Blog. In this post, I revisit some of the arguments I made earlier this year, in the light of a draft of the Declaration that was leaked in February, concerning the possible implications of the Brighton process for the effectiveness of the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) and the debate about a UK bill of rights. In this piece, I argue that the final version of the Brighton Declaration—viewed from the perspective of the UK’s domestic human rights regime—is less drastic. I go on to suggest that the Brighton process has therefore failed to carve out any significant latitude that might have been exploited by those proponents of a UK bill of rights whose agenda essentially reduces to the weakening of judicial protection of human rights.

The February draft

In my post on the February draft of the Brighton Declaration, I suggested that the relative potency of the HRA is attributable to two key considerations. First, while the Act leaves the legal doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty undisturbed, the Act reduces Parliament’s political capacity to exploit that doctrine by legislating in breach of fundamental rights; this the Act achieves by enabling courts publicly to condemn ECHR-inconsistent legislation via the issue of a declaration of incompatibility. Second, the HRA permits international law to disrupt the national legal and political processes by ascribing a notably high profile at the domestic level to the UK’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

The February draft of the Declaration would, if implemented, have substantially weakened the HRA system. By diminishing (in ways outlined below) the role of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) as the ultimate judicial authority capable of policing compliance with the ECHR, the Convention would have become a less concrete legal constraint upon the UK. This, in turn, would have undermined the legal weight of domestic courts’ judgments under the HRA, because it would have been open to the government—to a far greater extent than before—to argue that such judgments might not reflect the Strasbourg Court’s view, safe in the knowledge that the Court, had the February draft been adopted, would have been less likely to have an opportunity to render a decisive judgment on the relevant matter.

What, then, of the final version of the Brighton Declaration? Is the scenario sketched above—a dystopian one for the human rights enthusiast; quite the reverse for the sceptic—likely to eventuate? The answer to that question is “no”, because the final version of the Declaration differs significantly from the February draft in three presently-relevant respects.

“Deference” at the Strasbourg level: subsidiarity and the margin of appreciation

First, the February draft set great store by the notion of subsidiarity and the doctrine of margin of appreciation. The same is true of the final version of the Declaration: but the emphasis is rather different. In the latter version, subsidiarity remains a “fundamental principle”, and reasons of “transparency and accessibility” are still said to call for explicit reference to it—but in the Preamble to the Convention as opposed to the Convention itself. An instrument to amend the Preamble, such that it refers explicitly to subsidiarity—and to the margin of appreciation—is thus to be adopted by the end of 2013. However, the February draft’s characterization of the margin of appreciation as “considerable” is nowhere to be found in the final version of the Declaration. And whereas the February draft said that the Strasbourg Court’s role was to “ensure that [national authorities’ decisions] are within the margin of appreciation”, the final Draft holds that the Court’s task is to determine whether such decisions “are compatible with the Convention, having due regard to the State’s margin of appreciation”. This implies a more marginal, albeit not unimportant, role for the margin of appreciation doctrine: in the final Draft, it is a factor to which the Court ought to have regard when deciding whether a breach of the Convention has occurred, rather than (as in the February draft) the key factor which frames the question (“Has the margin been exceeded?”) lying at the core of the Court’s adjudicative function.

These aspects of the February and final versions of the Declaration, like the differences between them, are relatively subtle—but they are certainly indicative of the State parties’ consensus view of the nature of the ECHR regime and of the Strasbourg Court’s place within it. Understood thus, the final Declaration postulates a more significant and central role for the Court than the February draft, and signals that the desire of the UK (and, no doubt, certain other States) to substantially limit the role of the ECtHR has ultimately yielded little. Of course, that conclusion can only be provisional, in that the wording of the revised Premable—and so the nature of the newly explicit textual references to subsidiarity and the margin of appreciation—remain to be seen. It is highly unlikely, however, that the revised Preamble will invest those notions with content that breathes new life into the more radical approach envisaged in the February draft. The upshot, then, is that in cases that reach the Court, its approach is unlikely to be significantly different as a result of the Declaration and the revised Preamble.

A caveat should, however, be entered. While the Brighton process may, viewed from a particular perspective, have “failed”, some aspects of the vision revealed in the February draft could conceivably be realized in other ways. Indeed, it is possible that the mere floating of the more far-reaching ideas contained in the February draft (and associated posturing) may have been influential—for example, by inviting what Helen Fenwick has called an “appeasement approach” on the part of the ECtHR. So, while the final text of the Brighton Declaration does not clip Strasbourg’s wings in the rather direct and unsubtle ways envisaged in the February draft, the possibility cannot be discounted of the (voluntary) adoption by the ECtHR of a more limited—more “deferential”, in domestic parlance—approach. The Declaration necessarily now forms part of the backdrop against which the Court will seek to understand the proper extent of its role, as in due course will the explicit references to subsidiarity and margin of appreciation that are to feature in the revised Preamble. The latter doctrine is traditionally understood as a function of Strasbourg’s political and cultural dislocation from individual States parties—and thus as recognition on its part of the limits of its institutional competence. In contrast, while the notion of subsidiarity remains ill-defined in this context, it arguably reflects something of the concerns which, at the domestic level, coalesce around the notion of the judicature’s limited constitutional competence. In other words, “subsidiarity” may very well not be a synonym for “margin of appreciation”, and its express inclusion in the Preamble will, at the least, invite fresh reflection upon the proper extent of the Court’s role.

Pending the text of the revised Preamble—and its absorption into the Court’s jurisprudence—further speculation is unwarranted. It suffices to say that while the final version of the Declaration places rather less weight on subsidiarity and margin of appreciation than the February draft, it nevertheless accords them a newly formal prominence. But even if, in the future, greater “deference” is exhibited by Strasbourg, important questions remain about the nature of such deference: in particular, does it invite the ascription of weight, or respect, to the views of domestic courts or to those of national political institutions? If the former, then this might do little to appease State governments troubled by what they perceive to be excessively interventionist domestic courts—and little to diminish the existing capacity of sufficiently interventionist UK courts to uphold fundamental rights in the face of more sceptical political branches.

Advisory jurisdiction: legal and political constitutionalism

Second, the February draft sought to change the means by which some cases reach the Court in the first place, by providing for “advisory opinions” on “point[s] of interpretation”. As I argued in my previous post, this approach, if implemented, could have blunted the ECHR as a legal constraint (at least in relation to States that accepted the envisaged optional protocol). This was so because, according to the February text, when a non-binding advisory opinion had been rendered, the right of individual petition would ordinarily have been displaced, meaning that the Strasbourg Court would effectively be denied the opportunity to render a judgment that would be legally binding under Article 46. But here, too, the final version of the Declaration adopts a more subtle approach. In particular, there is no reference to the notion contained in the February draft that the application by a national court of an advisory opinion should normally preclude the subsequent exercise by the person concerned of the right of individual petition (and hence the prospect of a binding judgment adverse to the State party concerned). Granted, the final Declaration does not rule out this possibility—but the removal from the text of any explicit reference to it, coupled with the characterization of the right of individual petition as the “cornerstone” of the Convention regime, suggests that there is no consensus in favour of limiting that right in the way proposed by the February text.

So even if the envisaged draft optional protocol on advisory opinions—which the Declaration invites the Committee of Ministers to produce by the end of 2013—were adopted, this would not in itself erode the Court’s capacity to render non-advisory judgments that would be binding upon States in the normal way. Viewed from the perspective of the UK’s HRA system, this means (inter alia) that the possibility (which the February draft would have opened up) no longer arises of the UK government disputing a domestic declaration of incompatibility on the ground that Strasbourg might not actually have found national law incompatible with the Convention had the matter reached it other than under the advisory route: use of the advisory route will not now close off the possibility of individual petition.  This, in turn, preserves the capacity of the ECtHR to inject legal force into a national human rights regime that remains ultimately wedded—in the sense that it acknowledges the authority of the UK Parliament to transgress Convention norms as a matter of strict domestic law—to the tradition of political constitutionalism.

Admissibility: the relationship between domestic courts and Strasbourg

Third, the February text proposed that Article 35 be amended “to make clear that” an application is inadmissible “if it is the same in substance as a matter that has been examined by a national court taking into account the rights guaranteed by the Convention”, unless the national court has “seriously erred” or the case raises a “serious question” concerning the interpretation or application of the Convention rights.

The relevant part of the final version of the Declaration differs in three key respects. First, no amendment to Article 35 is contemplated; rather, the Court is “encourage[d] to have regard to the need to take a strict and consistent approach” in this sphere, “clarifying its case law … as necessary”. Second, the final version affirms that an application should be regarded as manifestly ill-founded to the extent that it raises a complaint that has been “duly considered” by a national court “applying” the Convention in the light of “well-established” ECtHR case law—a formulation that draws the category of prima facie inadmissible applications more narrowly than the February text. Third, there is no reference to national courts having “seriously erred” as a trigger for treating as admissible an application relating to a matter already considered at the domestic level.

While the latter feature of the final Declaration appears to make it more restrictive than the February draft (in that a potential trigger is omitted), the broader message is clearly that consideration of a matter at the national level will less readily exempt it from consideration in Strasbourg. Against that background, a “serious error” trigger would be as unnecessary as it would be misleading—the point being that the final version of the Declaration rightly envisages a role for the ECtHR which transcends putting right domestic courts that have “seriously erred” in their application of the Convention.

The Human Rights Act

All of this suggests that the Brighton Declaration’s implication for the UK’s domestic human rights regime are decidedly modest. Nothing in the final version of the Declaration—in contrast to the February draft—significantly diminishes the effectiveness of the HRA as a real constraint upon not only administrative and other legislative bodies but the UK Parliament itself. Ostensible fidelity to the orthodoxy of parliamentary sovereignty notwithstanding, the HRA domesticates the Convention norms that bind the UK under international law in a manner that renders largely theoretical the possibility of lawfully transgressing them as a matter of domestic law. As noted at the outset of this post—and in more detail in my previous post on this topic—the HRA achieves this by puncturing both the dualist distinction between domestic and international law and the Diceyan division between legal and political modes of constitutionalism.

But as a model that is necessarily grafted onto the ECHR, the HRA’s success is ultimately contingent upon the nature of the Convention scheme to which it gives effect at the national level. The February draft of the Brighton Declaration would have altered that scheme significantly: by diminishing the role of the Strasbourg Court, it would have reduced the juridical bite of what appears at first glance (given the absence of any strike-down power) to be an ultimately supine domestic human rights system. Such a characterization of the UK system is, of course, wide of the mark. But that is, in large part, precisely because behind a British judicature lacking constitutional authority to invalidate rights-incompatible legislation stands an international tribunal willing and able to render judgments that are binding upon the UK as a matter of international law. And, importantly, such judgments are likely anticipated by national judicial decisions under the HRA that Parliament is free to ignore only when the matter is viewed through the parochial lens of purely domestic legal theory. By avoiding the substantial curbs upon the ECtHR’s role contemplated by the February draft, the final version of the Brighton Declaration thus preserves the essential characteristics of the Convention regime that underpin the HRA’s potency.

The bill of rights debate

Finally, what of the debate concerning a UK bill of rights? In a post on this Blog published in 2011, I observed that the terms of reference of the Commission on a UK Bill of Rights reveal a curious paradox. Much of the political rhetoric preceding the establishment of the Commission anticipated that a Bill of Rights would enable, or require, British courts to strike a different balance between individual rights and conflicting public interests—perhaps in order to head-off further bouts of Prime Ministerial nausea such as that which was induced by the prospect of permitting some prisoners to vote. Yet, thanks no doubt to the constraints of coalition, the Commission is in fact required to “investigate the creation of a UK Bill of Rights that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, ensures that these rights continue to be enshrined in UK law, and protects and extend our liberties”.

An obvious tension arises between, on the one hand, a Bill of  Rights Commission committed through its terms of reference to an ECHR-plus (or at least not an ECHR-minus) model and, on the other hand, politicians’ promises that a UK bill of rights would “mak[e] sure decisions are made in this Parliament rather than in the courts”. One way of resolving that tension, of course, would be to adjust the obligations deriving from the ECHR in the first place, so as to render it (from a pejorative perspective) less of a straightjacket. Brighton was the government’s attempt to do precisely that: not by explicitly amending the provisions defining the Convention rights, but by loosening Strasbourg’s grip on policing their interpretation and application. Doing so, it was presumably anticipated, would in turn have rendered domestic courts’ human rights judgments more contestable, as it would follow with less certainty than at present that Strasbourg would concretely endorse them—whether because the case would never reach the ECtHR (owing to narrower admissibility criteria), or because it would render only a non-binding advisory opinion, or because a generous margin of appreciation (or doctrine of subsidiary) would cause it to stay its hand. However, for the reasons set out above, these objectives are not actually realized by the Brighton Declaration.

The result is that the Brighton process has not created the sort of latitude that might have been exploited by those in favour of a bill of rights that takes a looser form than the HRA: it does not offer an escape route from the constraints which derive from the realpolitik of coalition and the Bill of Rights Commission’s resulting terms of reference. Political rhetoric that (perhaps paradoxically) postulates a bill of rights as a vehicle for creeping dejuridification and the elevation of the interests of the “law-abiding majority” is therefore—at least for the time being—as empty as it is misleading.

Mark Elliott is a Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Cambridge.

8 comments on “Mark Elliott: The Brighton Declaration: where now for the Human Rights Act and the Bill of Rights debate?

  1. Tony Butler
    April 25, 2012

    The EU Commission has no lawful authority whatsoever over Britain and neither it, or anyone else can alter remove or tamper with The Bill of Rights. Our, the British People’s Bill of Rights.

    (Divisional Court ruling in the case of the “Metric Martyrs” 2002, (sections 62 and 63) said:

    “We should recognise a hierarchy of Acts of Parliament: as it were “ordinary” statutes and “constitutional statutes”. The special status of constitutional statutes follows the special status of constitutional rights. Examples are the Magna Carta, Bill of Rights 1689 … Ordinary statutes may be impliedly repealed. Constitutional statutes may not…”)

    For a, Constitutional Law Group, to be ignorant of the fact that the, the 35 times ratified, British Constitution is sovereign over Parliament’s statutes, and its allowing EU laws to be applied in Britain is also unlawful, according to the Bill of Rights, i s beyond credibility, unless of course you are
    EU Constitutional Law Group?
    ” …And I do declare that no foreign prince, person, prelate, state or potentate hath or ought to have any jurisdiction, power, superiority,
    pre-eminence or authority, ecclesiastical or spiritual,within this realm. So help me God.”
    Coronation Oath, Bill of Rights

    • Xiangyi
      May 2, 2012

      I’m surprised at the blase naievete of your opening statement. Of course Parliament will try to preseve its authority, or make statements to that effect — but note what happened in Factortame, where the MCA 1988 was effectively disapplied by the courts because it conflicted with EU law. On a very factual level, the UK is bound by the ECHR as a matter if international law. That, again, is just a fact.

      Your reading of Thoburn v Sunderland CC seems very odd — 1. The comments were obiter dicta, and Laws LJ’s opinion is very far indeed from being mainstream, and 2. Thoburn could easily be read as putting a limitation on Parliament’s sovereignty — that the doctrine of implied repeal, which entrenches the present Paliament’s absolute legislative power, does not apply in certain cases.

      It is also nonsense to say the “35 times ratified, British Constitution is sovereign over Parliament’s statutes”. This is an outright lie — the courts have never overturned a law outright which acknowledging that their did so because it conflicted with the “British Constitution”, and cases like Anisminic, Factortame, Thoburn, and Jackson are interesting precisely because of how close the courts came to doing that (or, some might say, actually did that). If Parliament had actually directed the courts to overturn laws which conflicted with the “constitution”, these cases would be perfectly normal, run-of-the-mill judgements. But the UK does not at mimic the US-type model of having a Supreme Courts that can overturn laws that happen to conflict with whatever meaning the judges decide to impute to an antique constitution. So while it is interesting and encouraging that the courts are becoming bolder, your assertion is painfully inaccurate.

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  3. Helen Wildbore
    May 3, 2012

    ‘The Brighton Declaration: where now for the Human Rights Act and the Bill of Rights debate?’

    There is another angle to this interesting question. The final text of the Brighton Declaration suggests that if the Human Rights Act didn’t already exist, it would need to be written.

    See Tara Lyle’s piece ‘Nice to See Cameron and Co Standing Up for the Human Rights Act’ for the Huffington Post:
    http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/tara-lyle/amnesty-cameron-standing-up-for-human-rights_b_1464605.html

  4. Carol Harlow
    May 9, 2012

    In Mark Elliott’s very full and well-reasoned discussion, there was no room for discussion of Points 5 and 6 of the Brighton Declaration, concerning progress made in cutting the backlog and time taken to hear cases. In both European Courts, these have become very significant problems that undercut the effectiveness of the Courts. Yes, steps have been taken but more drastic measures are needed. What do readers think about a US-stye ‘no certiorari’ or ‘choose our docket, rule?

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  6. Pingback: Verfassungsblog › Prisoners’ Votes (Again) and the ‘Constitutional Illegitimacy’ of the ECHR

  7. Pingback: Colm O’Cinneide: The Commission on a Bill of Rights: Playing On Even While the Goalposts Have Shifted? | UK Constitutional Law Group

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