Like most people who’ve had a legal training, I was baffled why David Cameron is so triumphant about scrapping the Human Rights Act (1998). The legal position is that “British citizens would still be able to take cases to the European court of human rights, and its case law and the principles of the convention would still be in force in UK courts.”
This is stated correctly here.
Leading commentators such as Joshua Rozenberg, Britain’s best known legal commentator, have previously advised that the debate must be conducted in a different light from the political grandstanding (article here).
When Dominic Grieve, the previous Attorney General, was asked at a fringe meeting for his reaction to May’s speech, he insisted he was “completely comfortable” with the idea of replacing the existing legislation with a British bill of rights.”
At the time, it was observed that Ken Clarke QC MP, like Dominic Grieve QC MP, was a keen supporter of human rights.
In 2011, when I was studying my Master of Law, I attended discussion at the Honourable Society of Inner Temple last night. The seminar is jointly hosted by the Constitutional and Administrative Bar Association (ALBA) and the new Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law. The speakers included Lord Justice Laws, Lord Pannick QC and Professor Philip Leach, London Metropolitan author, and author of numerous publications including the book “Taking a case to the European Court of Human Rights”. The session was totally packed out, and the speakers took many questions from leading practising international barristers and academics.
It is perhaps easy to overstate the opposition towards the Human Rights Act, but it was pointed out only two countries are openly questioning the legitimacy of the European Convention of Human Rights – Russia and the United Kingdom.
LJ Laws has long been in favour of developing domestic jurisprudence in the context of the Human Rights Act and common law.
He opined at this event that “the cases were beginning to speak, but the Convention was an useful guidance”, and reaffirmed the influence of a graduated approach to proportionality, an argument which Laws noted had been accepted by Bingham (see for example Regina v. Secretary of State For The Home Department, Ex Parte Daly). Laws reminded the legal audience that we, as a country, have always been in a position to influence Strasbourg, as for example the Pretty v United Kingdom case.
Laws further mooted, however, why should the judges be deciding upon social policy. Considering particularly articles 8-12, Laws provided that often lawyers had to decide where to strike the balance in certain issues between competing interest, but fundamentally lawyers were there to establish the framework and issue – however Laws warned that the nature of this exercise in jurisprudence gives rise ultimately to issue of a philosophical nature. I found this academic exploration by Laws interesting in light of how human rights law might impact on aspects of health and care policy in England.
Lord Pannick charted the history of the reaction to our history right legislation, in relation to Strasbourg. Pannick reminded the audience that criticising the Human Rights Act, in relation to Europe, was not a recent phenomenon.
In relation to the Gilbraltar incident, Michael Heseltine – as far back as 1995 – said, “We shall do nothing. We will pursue our right to fight terrorism to protect innocent people where we have jurisdiction, and we will not be swayed or deterred in any way by the ludicrous decisions of the Court.”
According to Lord Pannick, prisoners’ voting rights and the use of hearsay have also produced conflicting opinions from the UK and Strasbourg, and indeed these legal conflicts appear to be ongoing (see for example the present case of Zainab al-Khawaja, where the original argument was heard by the Court in 2010).
Lord Pannick proposed that this conflict arose from various sources. Firstly, Lord Pannick felt there is a general resentment of European law amongst Conservative “elements”, and many of the population. Secondly, the objection to the European Convention of Human Rights could part of a wider objection to foreign law. Lord Pannick indeed reminded the audience that a Conservative MP, lawyer and judge, David Maxwell-Ffye, was instrumental in drafting the European Convention of Human Rights. Lord Pannick then identified a possible perception from the UK voting public, that judges should not be deciding on social policy: for example, the argument for prisoner voting is not a matter for judges, but should be a matter for parliament.
Lord Pannick did not feel fundamentally that the criticisms of the HRA amounted to much. For example, the HRA expressly recognises that the UK Parliament is not bound by the Convention. If Parliament wishes to exclude voting by prisoners, the Human Rights Act does not prevent this. The judges can decide whether the defendants comply, but, according to Lord Pannick, it is equally important that the last word lies with parliament. Lord Pannick instead felt that a much more difficult issue is the relationship between parliament and the Strasbourg Court.
A future ‘all Conservative’ government, even if it repealed the HRA would still leave the jurisdiction of the Strasbourg Court intact – our own judges have no effect on the jurisprudence.
If the 1998 Act were to be repealed, as parliament is overeign, the number of British cases to Strasbourg would increase according to Lord Pannick. Lord Pannick felt that an useful to look at the relationship between our Supreme Court and Strasbourg would be to look at the ‘control of its docket’ jurisprudence, in other jurisdictions of international law.
Lord Pannick ultimately felt that the power of our parliament to define power Strasbourg as a body is limited. It would be unprecedented for us to withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights, incompatible with membership of the EU, or Council of Europe. According to Lord Pannick, the concept of European minimum standards is of vital importance to us. There may be be occasions when national or international considerations are that our judges do not originally recognise that human rights are being breached (e.g. gays in the military) It would be difficult for us to expect that other countries such as Russia should comply with the Convention, if we do not. Lord Pannick therefore felt that the situation now required an accommodation on both sides.
The Strasbourg is supposed to overrule a National court only in cases of fundamental significance, where the national supreme court has made an error of principle. If Strasbourg does not follow this principle, it may risk the growth of political opposition. However, likewise, Lord Pannick identified that the Supreme Court should not supinely follow Strasbourg, either. The Government for example accepted the DNA ruling in preference ot the House of Lords. If the Supreme Court were to be asked if the voting rule asked about the prisoners’ voting again, Lord Pannick felt that the Supreme Court would be unlikely to say it is compatible with the European Convention of Human Rights.”
The Human Rights Act (1998) is also relevant to aspects of policy relating to people’s health: there have been concerns whether the ‘welfare reforms’ have offended human rights legislation.
There have also been concerns whether the fitness to practise procedures of the GMC need to be explored with the human rights lens?
There are also further issues, unresolved as yet, about whether the Health and Social Care Act (2012) offends humans rights legislation.
Most of this blogpost was first published on Dr Shibley Rahman’s legal blog here.