Monthly Archives: October 2014

Four legs good – two legs just as good, no better, no worse

Far too much ink has been spilled in the last few days, considering – dissecting? – Chris Grayling’s plans for reform of the UK’s human rights law. Blogs by Mark Elliott, Carl Gardner, Adam Wagner Angela Patrick (of JUSTICE) and Alison Young would be but five looking at the legal illiteracy, simple fallacies and distortion. The most recent tweets and posts have been on Conservative HQ seeming dissembling over where on-line the proposals could be found.

For example, it is simply not the case (p.4 of the policy proposals) that the Misuse of Drugs Act (and here I assume they mean the 1971 Act) “provides the defence for the defendant to prove, on the balance of probabilities, that they did not know, suspect or have reason to suspect that what they had was an illegal drug.” Section 5(4) and indeed s.28(3) are absolutely silent on the standard – and indeed the burden – of proof; that is the point. To have read such words as occurred in Lambert (again, assuming the case they are referring to) would have been a gross distortion and almost certainly an excess of the interpretative power in s.3 of the HRA –and thus an arguably illegitimate power grab. Instead, the House of Lords was able to overturn many other common law cases interpreting the word “prove” in a way that was more favourable to defendants, and in keeping with Article 6.

That though is not my main concern in this blog. Instead, I plan to look at the claim – in the accompanying press release, not the actual 8-page document – that

No one would be able to claim human rights to allow them to step outside the law that applies to all other citizens, for example a group of travellers claiming the right to family life to breach planning laws.

 First, at a normative level, this obscures the fact that human rights are – or perhaps should be – avowedly anti-majoritarian, something I mentioned in a couple of posts last week. It is the task of human rights defenders to counter objections to the universality of rights – that somehow there are those deserving of protection and others who are not (which of course chimes with the theme of responsibilities in the proposals). If that view holds sway, you can bet that the targets of abuses – devoid then of protection – will be the usual suspects. Human rights protection is for all, yes, but especially for those on the margins. In short, human rights laws, it can be argued, are there and are needed precisely to exempt some people –some groups perhaps – from the bite of laws approved by the majority.

Secondly, it will simply unravel if the Tories seek to provide some flesh. Yes, travellers are an easy target – of course, it would be argued, ordinary planning laws should bind them as much as it binds “hard working families” but would we – rather would they – be so sanguine, so keen to tell Beth Warren that she should not be exempt from the normal time limits for using her late husband’s sperm? The HFEA’s decision to stick to the statutory limit was ruled an unlawful – i.e. disproportionate – breach of Mrs Warren’s right to family life under Article 8. Section 3 of the HRA was used to read the legislation (s.14 of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority Act 1990) in a way to assist, the wording of which we might reasonably conclude Parliament had already sought to balance the relevant competing tensions, interests and concerns. Of course, it helps that Mrs Warren is in Chomskyan terms, a worthy victim. What about mothers and fathers – now safe in the knowledge that the state must bear the costs of some aspects of private family law cases as a result of Article 6 and 8? That is the result of the decision taken by Munby P in Q v Q this summer but is this not, under the guise of human rights law, a different, and enhanced, outcome than the ordinary law that applies to all would seem to predict, exactly what the Tory proposals are so damning about? Last, what would the Tories say to Gary McKinnon – stepping outside the ordinary law of extradition that applies too all, unless – like him – you happen to be such a great suicide risk that to send you to face trial in the USA would likely amount to a breach of your human rights.

So the Tory policy is not only intellectually suspect but hypocritical, a divide and rule policy for temporary political advantage, and (certain) red top approval. After all, the Home Secretary’s decision in respect of McKinnon was warmly lauded by the Daily Mail seemingly without any volte face or even recognition that this was a departure from their usual line on criminal deportations. On the topic of barefaced chutzpah, let us leave it to The Sun, which this week lay claim to greater journalistic protection – having previously campaigned long and hard to deny human rights to others. What better example of someone seeking to step outside the law. Someone needs to let Chris Grayling know sharpish. Gotcha indeed!

 images.duckduckgo.com

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A few thoughts about Lord Judge judging judges

In today’s Daily Mail, former Lord Chief Justice engage again in hostile criticism of the Strasbourg Court originally made in the Bar Council magazine Counsel – and the aggrandising of power (my words, not his) by unelected judges there, over and above democratically elected Parliaments.

In this short post I plan to offer a few rejoinders, as the debate heats up.

He sets out his view that “the Human Rights Act did not give Strasbourg the right to impose its rule on Britain.” He’s quite right. It’s a domestic statute. The Act, passed in 1998, has nothing to say on the binding nature of the Convention, and more specifically Strasbourg law or judgments. It is true that s.2 requires judges to “take account” of such judgments – and there has been much ink spilled over whether this needs reform, to reclaim supremacy for the Supreme Court. The reason though that the UK is bound to implement European Court judgments in cases against us at least is Article 46 of the ECHR itself: “High Contracting Parties undertake to abide by the final judgment of the Court in any case to which they are parties.” Thus the state is bound as a result of its freely chosen and entered into international law treaty obligations in 1951 (in the second short-lived Attlee administration). That is we are – still – obliged to give some prisoners the vote i.e. we are required no longer to have an absolute voting ban that catches all, no matter the crime committed or length of sentence. It is simply arbitrary to debar or allow citizens to vote dependent solely on whether they happen to be in prison on day X.

That though is a digression. The point is that the fault lies at the door of the ECHR, not the HRA. Of course, both are under attack from certain elements in the Tory/UKIP party but a proper, and informed debate on Britain’s role in and relationship to the Council of Europe deserves better. Are we really going to join the club (current membership 1, Belarus) as the only European states not in it? The words of Groucho Marx spring to mind.

 

Another complaint is the unelected nature of the Strasbourg Court. This is simply not true. Unlike his UK brethren, European Court judges are elected by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and I’m very grateful to Andrew Cutting of the Council’s Brussels office for this link which explains it a little more.

Of course, UK judges do not need to be elected, it would be argued, as they are always subject to the overriding democratic power of the Westminster Parliament. That to me seems to be a little off the point in this context. Yes, Parliamentary Sovereignty means that whatever decision a judge reaches is subject to possible overturn by MPs but that only obtains when legislation is the subject of legal challenge. If instead judges are holding exercises of ministerial discretion to be unlawful – on standard judicial review grounds – as with last week’s legal aid challenge there is no question of Parliament’s sovereignty being impugned. In short, it seems a little rich for a British judge to complain about the powers of unelected judges when they have been not simply silent but positively approving of the expansion of judicial controls – sometimes even praying in aid the nebulous common law constitution, which – by definition – must lack any form of democratic imprimatur.

 

Last, a further implicit complaint is the undemocratic nature of human rights, something made explicit as a criticism by Chris Grayling late last year: “The European Court of Human Rights has lost its legitimacy in the UK by doing things that frankly the people of this country and their elected representatives do not want.” Surely that’s the point – if they were subject to the vicissitudes of the 51% temporarily constructed, they’d hardly be fundamental things at all, more the benefits of majoritarian largesse, at the beck and call of whoever was in power. You don’t have to be Rawls or Dworkin to think that’s nonsense on stilts!

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