It seems that a day cannot go by without another mention by the Conservative party of their desire to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998, withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights, or find a way in which the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights can be ‘advisory’ as opposed to ‘legally binding’. So much so, that it hardly seems newsworthy to report that the Justice Secretary, Christopher Grayling MP, published an 8-page strategy report setting out both why the Conservative Party felt there was a need for change and the proposed replacement for the status quo. However, what does attract attention is the reaction of the former Attorney General, Dominic Grieve MP, that the strategy document was based on ‘a number of howlers’. In agreement with Stephen Tierney, who concluded that the real winner in the Scottish Referendum was democracy, this blog post aims to further democratic participation and debate. It will do so by investigating the strategy report’s argument for the need for change. After all, if the facts on which a policy is based are ‘howlers’, we should at least question whether change is needed, and, if not, whether it may nevertheless remain desirable if unnecessary.
The strategy report begins by focusing on the flaws of the European Court of Human Rights accusing it of ‘mission creep’. It provides four examples to back its claim. First, the report points to problems arising from the European Court of Human Rights’ judgments that a complete ban on prisoner voting breaches Article 3 of the First Protocol. The report claims that it was never intended that this provision of the Convention would grant individual rights. Rather, it is designed to guarantee free and fair elections. Issues relating to the franchise in such elections are deliberately left out of the text. Second, the strategy report lists the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in 2007 which concluded that article 8 included the rights of prisoners to go through artificial insemination with their partners. Third, decisions of the European Court of Human Rights in relation to article 8 are criticised again, this time because foreign nationals who commit serious crimes in the UK can plead their right to family life in order to remain in the UK following their release from prison as opposed to being deported. Fourth, the European Court of Human Rights has banned life sentences, concluding that they are contrary to Article 3 of the Convention.
Before assessing whether these illustrations really are examples of mission creep, we need first to establish if they are true, or howlers. The first howler is the classic error of elevating the need for regulation into a ban. This is exemplified by the strategy report’s discussion of life sentences. In Vinter and Others v United Kingdom the European Court of Human Rights did conclude that life sentences could breach Article 3 of the European Convention. The important word here is ‘could’. The Court does state that ‘Article 3 must be interpreted as requiring reducibility’ of a life sentence. [paragraph 119]. But it is important to realise that by ‘reducibility’ the Court did not mean that life sentences were banned. Rather, the ‘reducibility’ of the sentence required is ‘a review which allows the domestic authorities to consider whether any changes in the life prisoner are so significant, and such progress towards rehabilitation has been made in the course of the sentence as to mean that continued detention can no longer be justified on legitimate penological grounds.’ [paragraph 119]. The Court is also careful to point out that ‘it is not its task to prescribe the form (executive or judicial) which that review should take’. [paragraph 120], save to mention consensus found in comparative and international law of support for a review ‘no later than twenty-five years after the imposition of a life sentence, with further periodic reviews thereafter.’ [paragraph 120]. As the Government itself acknowledges, Vinter v UK does not mean that life sentences are banned or that those serving life terms must be released. Rather, what is banned is a life sentence without a review after 25 years of that sentence. If there are sound penological grounds for continued detention, the prisoner remains in detention.
A second howler is found in the strategy document’s third example – the deportation of foreign criminals. This howler is more subtle. The criticism is that foreign nationals who commit serious crimes are able to remain in the UK. The strategy report sees this as problematic as ‘[t]hese judgments have apparently overlooked the very clear qualifications in the Convention relevant to the legitimate exercise of such rights.’ The document suggests that the European Court of Human Rights fails to do its job seriously, elevating qualified rights into absolute rights; exchanging “you may have a right to remain in the UK as you have a family here and the protection of your right to family life outweighs the interests of justice and the potential harm to the rights of others” for “you can remain here indefinitely as you have a family”. However, as the subtle use of ‘apparently’ makes clear, the real accusation of the strategy report is that it disagrees with the way in which the Court balances rights. The authors of the strategy report would have deported more convicted criminals. It is a subtle howler because it is not technically incorrect. But it is a howler nonetheless, as the language elevates a disagreement over issues where it is reasonable to disagree into a conclusive criticism. It is not that the European Court of Human Rights overlooks the interests of justice and the need to protect the rights of others. It is more that the Court perhaps places less emphasis on these interests and more on the right to family life than the authors of the strategy report would have done, had they been deciding the cases. This is not surprising. These are complicated issues on which it can be reasonable to disagree. That is one of the reasons why both courts and legislatures play a role in these decisions and why the European Court of Human Rights grants a wide margin of appreciation.
Howlers apart – is this a convincing argument in favour of ‘mission creep’? The document accuses the European Court of Human Rights of mission creep as it uses the Convention as a ‘living instrument’, allowing the meaning of the document to evolve over time and, therefore, drift away from the intentions of the original authors of the document. It is true that the way in which the European Convention of Human Rights has been interpreted has changed over time. This is hardly surprising. The world does not stand still. Unsurprisingly, the authors of the European Convention on Human Rights had no opinion on whether prisoners should be allowed access to artificial insemination to enable them to start a family. Artificial insemination of humans, although it existed, was not a widespread or widely acceptable practice when the Charter was drafted. It is also highly unlikely that such specific instances of application of general human rights were matters for discussion at the drafting of the European Convention of Human Rights.
The strongest example of ‘mission creep’ found in the strategy report is the argument that Article 3 of the First Protocol was not designed to provide for any specific franchise. That is correct – in part. Article 3 of the First Protocol states; “[t]he High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.” The question remains whether removing the franchise from a section of the community means that the State in question has carried out a free election. Removing the vote from all members of a particular political party, or from a certain ethnic minority, for example, would be extremely unlikely to meet the criteria of a free election. Nor would the conditions of the Article be met if you were required to cast your vote in the presence of an armed member of the secret services.
The problem is not necessarily that the European Court of Human Rights uses the Convention as a living instrument. Without doing so, human rights cannot help with novel situations – such as the growing use and acceptance of artificial insemination. Maybe the real issue is whether the Court is allowing the Convention to evolve in the right way. Is it the job of the Court to push signatory States forward in developing human rights protections, or to reflect developments in human rights found in the signatory States and elsewhere? When we look at the examples given in the strategy report, the Court appears to be more likely to follow than lead. In its most recent case on prisoner voting, for example, the Court referred to laws across a range of signatory States, in addition to the law in Canada, South Africa and Australia. It was also careful to grant a wide margin of appreciation to States when determining the specific franchise. The European Court of Human Rights does not prohibit signatory States from removing the vote from prisoners. It merely prohibits blanket bans. Signatory States have the ability to determine which prisoners should be prevented from voting and why – a process that the Westminster Parliament is slowly undertaking.
‘Mission creep’ is hard to define. Determining the relevant roles of international courts of human rights, national courts and national legislatures is not an easy task. Moreover, it is something on which one can expect reasonable disagreement. But it is important to recognise that there are mechanisms that the national courts and legislatures can use to signal to the European Court of Human Rights that it has perhaps, taken its mission too far. In Horncastle, for example, the UK Supreme Court did not follow a decision of the European Court of Human Rights, Al Khawaja, relating to whether allowing convictions based on hearsay evidence breached article 6. The decision of the European Court of Human Rights was on appeal to the Grand Chamber at the time and the Supreme Court was concerned that the European Court of Human Rights had not fully taken account of other procedural protections in the common law. In the Grand Chamber hearing in Al Khawaja, the UK Government was able to intervene and the European Court of Human Rights took account of the reasoning of the UK Supreme Court in Horncastle. In doing so, it modified its earlier conclusions, replacing a ban on convictions based on hearsay evidence for a more sophisticated position, recognising when hearsay evidence could be relied upon whilst still protecting the procedural rights of the accused. (See commentary here.) Similarly, in Animal Defenders International v UK, the European Court of Human Rights took account of a decision of the House of Lords and of reports of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. (See commentary here.) As a signatory State to the European Convention, it is also open to the United Kingdom to raise its concerns as to ‘mission creep’ in meetings of the Council of Europe.
Having accused the European Court of Human Rights of ‘mission creep’, the strategy report moves on to fire three criticisms at the Human Rights Act: (i) it undermines the role of the UK courts to decide human rights issues; (ii) it undermines the sovereignty of Parliament and democratic accountability to the public; and (iii) it goes beyond the UK’s obligations under the Convention. However, when we examine the arguments and examples more closely, more howlers appear. The strategy report argues that section 2 of the Human Rights Act 1998 undermines the role of the UK courts. As is well known, section 2(1) of the Human Rights Act requires the UK courts to take judgments of the European Court of Human Rights into account. This could undermine the role of the UK courts were they to read section 2(1) as imposing a system of precedent, with national courts being unable to give a different interpretation of Convention rights than that found in decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. However, this is not an accurate account of how the UK courts interpret section 2(1). Horncastle demonstrates how the UK Supreme Court does not always follow decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. Nicklinson contains dicta demonstrating how national courts may develop Convention rights beyond the interpretation found in the European Court of Human Rights. Moreover, recently, the UK Supreme Court has been developing constitutional rights of the common law – sometimes, preferring, as in Osborn, to refer to the common law. If the strategy report is to be believed, the role of the UK courts is being undermined. However, this does not appear to be the opinion of the UK courts. And, it is the UK courts who determine what it means to take decisions of the European Court of Human Rights into account when interpreting section 2(1).
Assessing whether the Human Rights Act undermines the sovereignty of Parliament and democratic accountability is no easy task. However, the argument used to support this claim in the strategy report contains further howlers. The strategy paper is concerned about the use of section 3(1) of the Human Rights Act, which requires courts to interpret legislation in a manner compatible with Convention rights, so far as it is possible to do so. The concern is that courts take this duty too far. Two possible howlers can be found here, the second following on from the first. First, the strategy report is selective in its choice of case used to illustrate how the courts go beyond the limits of possible interpretations. The document refers to the interpretation of the Misuse of Drugs Act in R v Lambert. This is a case from 2001. The case law has moved on since then. The strategy report makes no mention of Ghaidan v Godin-Mendoza, a more recent case which is often regarded as back-tracking from the earlier, more proactive case law on section 3, including Lambert. Ghaidan v Godin-Mendoza makes it clear that courts will not read words so as to be compatible with Convention rights where to do so would undermine a fundamental feature of that legislation. Second, the strategy report assumes that the sovereignty of Parliament is undermined as interpretations are given that are contrary to the will of Parliament. In these circumstances, there is nothing in the Human Rights Act 1998 preventing the Westminster Parliament from re-enacting legislation to reverse a section 3(1) interpretation. To do so, the Westminster Parliament would have to make it clear that this was its intention, owning up politically to its desire to reverse this interpretation, explaining its reasons for doing so, and doing so in a manner that made the Westminster Parliament democratically accountable for its actions.
Further howlers are found in the third criticism of the Human Rights Act. It is true that the European Convention of Human Rights does not dictate how signatory States are to protect Convention rights. There is no requirement that the Convention be incorporated as it was by the Human Rights Act. This is to state the obvious- after all, the UK signed up to the European Convention of Human Rights long before it enacted the Human Rights Act 1998. However, the strategy report goes on to contrast the situation in the UK with that of Germany. To quote from the strategy report: ‘The German Constitutional Court, for example, ruled that if there is a conflict between the German Basic Law and the ECHR then the Basic law prevails over the Convention. The Human Rights Act provides no such protection in the UK.’ There are two subtle howlers here. First, the ruling of the German Constitutional Court recognises the way in which Germany incorporates international law. The German Basic Law states that international law has the same status as Federal law. As such, it has a lower status than Constitutional law. In the UK, international law has to be incorporated into UK law, normally by primary legislation. Primary legislation can be overridden by other primary legislation. There is no need for the UK to provide the same protection from the ECHR as is found in the German Basic Law. The Human Rights Act can be overridden by future legislation – although the provisions of such future legislation may need to be carefully worded to achieve this effect. The authors of the strategy report must realise this as that is precisely what they propose. The Human Rights Act, even if recognised as a constitutional statute, is not the UK equivalent of the German Basic law. There is not the same need for the Act to provide the same protection as the German Basic Law.
Second, care needs to be taken over the context in which the German Constitutional Court made this statement. Two further clarifications are needed here. The statement was made in the context of conflicting rights. The decision of the European Court of Human Rights questioned by the German Constitutional Court concerned the interpretation of Article 8 requiring a granting of greater visiting rights to a child’s biological father. The German Constitutional Court expressed concern that this could interfere with the human rights of a child’s adoptive family. This stands to reason. There are only so many hours in the day. The more time a child spends with her biological parents the less time can be spent with her adoptive parents. It is one thing to be concerned about following decisions of the European Court of Human Rights when they may cause conflicts with national constitutionally protected human rights. It is quite another to want to claim the ability to ignore human rights decisions because you disagree with them.
The German Constitutional Court did rule that, where there is a conflict, the German Basic law prevails. However, the court has made similar statements with regard to directly effective European Union law. But it has never applied the German Basic law over directly effective European Union law. Nor was the German Basic Law applied over the European Convention of Human Rights. Provisions were interpreted in such way as to ensure their compatibility. What is important is how similar statements of the German Constitutional Court prompted reactions from the European Court of Justice. The Court of Justice developed protections of human rights, inter alia, in the light of such statements. This, in turn, led to the conclusions of the German Constitutional Court that it would apply directly effective European Union law, so long as the European Union continued to provide an adequate protection of human rights. The statements of the German Constitutional Court are examples of constitutional dialogue between courts. In a similar manner, the court is sending the message that it could ignore the European Court of Human Rights, but that, normally, it would follow its provisions. One could argue that the UK Supreme Court in Horncastle was sending the same message. In a similar way, we could conclude that HS2 is an example of the UK Supreme Court sending the same message to the European Court of Justice.
It is not the aim of this blog post to defend the European Court of Human Rights from an accusation of ‘mission creep’. Nor is the aim to claim that the Human Rights Act 1998 is perfect and so need not be changed. It is, instead, to clarify whether the claims of the strategy report provide a sound justification for reform. It is one thing to conclusively prove that an organisation has clearly overstepped the bounds of its legal or political authority. It is another to recognise that the boundaries of that authority are unclear, but that there are mechanisms that can be used by States to raise concerns about ‘mission creep’ and to potentially correct instances where the European Court of Human Rights has overstepped the mark. It is one thing to argue that the Human Rights Act 1998 undermines national courts and fails to protect democracy and national State interests. It is another to realise that those national courts do not appear to feel or act as if they are being undermined, or to recognise that there are provisions within the Human Rights Act 1998 to correct potential erosions of sovereignty and democratic accountability. This is not to argue against reform. It is rather to argue for further clarity as to whether reform is needed and why calls for reform are being made. That way the UK electorate is in a better position to exercise its democratic choice in the next general election.
Alison Young is an Associate Professor of Law and a Fellow of Hertford College, University of Oxford.
(Suggested Citation: A. Young, ‘HRA Howlers: The Conservative Party and Reform of the Human Rights Act 1998’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (7th October 2014) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org).