UK Constitutional Law Association

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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

5 comments on “David Mead: The Future of the HRA Under Labour

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