This is Part One of a personal dialogue between a former political journalist and a lawyer over the increasingly politicised question of how the UK upholds human rights law. In particular it focuses on the role of the European Court of Human Rights which is being blamed for delay and perverse decisions. While in this post I do not support the simplistic case against the ECtHR I argue that the independent judiciary ignores it at its peril, even while the political parties are in deadlock over what to do. If you haven’t already guessed, I’m the ex political journalist. Part 2 of the dialogue is by my legally qualified colleague, Patrick O’Brien.
There is a real problem about the roles of the European Court of Human Rights and Convention which judges and lawyers who live with it should not dismiss as mere ignorance and political bigotry. By itself the usual retort that such questioning only encourages dictators and damages Britain’s human rights reputation no longer carries the day. In high profile cases, appeals to the Court have lengthened the process of obtaining decisions and have delivered results which distance justice from current political and public opinion. More significantly, the Court’s very status in our system is being questioned. The new Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling, the first non- lawyer to hold the office, wishes to tilt the traditional balance between the legal and political parts of the constitution in favour of asserting parliamentary sovereignty above the authority of the Convention and the Court and to some extent, British judges.
Is there a sense in which the ECtHR is the “real” Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, as many people seem to believe? If it is not, why do we pay so much attention to it and why does it attract so much political ire? Why does it seem to be so difficult to correct misunderstandings about the Court and the Convention upon which its rulings are based? Can we clear up once for all, when we comply with its rulings and when not? Could we even ignore it altogether? Surely the Human Rights Act was intended to deliver rights based justice more quickly and more sensitively to British public opinion?
This is a problem which Parliament will not solve any time soon. With an all-party Commission on a Bill of Rights unlikely to heal a coalition split over the future of human rights law when it reports shortly, could the judiciary solve at least part of the problem themselves?
The ECtHR’s distance from British political opinion was evident over prisoners’ voting rights, when the court handed down a decision which was compatible with much practice on the continent but furiously opposed by the Conservatives with tacit support across the floor. This ruling has led to Grayling presenting for consideration the option of Parliament defying the Court and substituting new legislation which could create a constitutional impasse. To be fair, it is hard to see what British judges could do to prevent it. Of this more later.
Judges however may be able to do something about the number of appeals in controversial cases. In September the outgoing Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge expressed “real fury” that it had taken eight years to extradite the Muslim cleric Abu Hamza to the US. and gave a broad hint that the ECtHR was partly to blame.
“ I do not think, if you go through the processes, you will discover that the delays in that particular case, or in many like it, are actually to be levelled at the doors of the courts here. I cannot remember when — I was one of the judges who decided that case in the extradition proceedings. Was it 2007? So far as we were concerned, that was the end of it. That is really all I can say.”
But was it all he could say? Answering a different question, on whether in certain important cases the “real” Supreme Court was in Strasbourg, he replied :
“Well, I do not agree with the premise. The Human Rights Act is absolutely unequivocal in its language . It requires our courts to “take account” of decisions of the European Court in Strasbourg, and, properly applied, that means that the decisions of the European Court are not necessarily binding on our courts. It is inevitable that cases which involve the interpretation of the Convention will end up — go to the European Court for decision. But, as I said, the Human Rights Act itself is quite unequivocal in its language — and, if I may say so, that is as it should be.”
Another cause célèbre is Abu Qatada. A succession of Home Secretaries have been made to look like fools. In this area, ministers have become critics of the system more than its guardians. This may not be the fault of the courts alone but the timeline of the Abu Qatada case is surely unacceptable. Not only is the Court’s efficiency but its very role is questioned and not only by Conservatives.
Consider a couple of prominent responses to the Abu Qatada case. The reaction from the voluble Conservative backbencher Peter Bone is not untypical. Here, as clearly as it could possibly be put, is a bundle of misunderstandings and prejudices about the European Court of Human Rights and its relationship to British Courts. Even so, does Mr Bone have a point?
Enough is enough – put this terrorist on a plane and send him home and worry about the European Court afterwards.
.The highest court in this land, our Supreme Court, has said he can go back. Now, if the highest court in this land says he can go back, then he can go back.
We should not be kow-towing to this ‘Mickey Mouse’ European court.
More worrying because rather more sophisticated is the reaction to the prisoners’ voting rights decision from the former solicitor general Edward Garnier QC, to Joshua Rozenberg on BBC Radio 4’s Law In Action:
“If this were a decision of the Supreme Court in this country, or the high court or the court of appeal, I would feel a lot more uncomfortable, both as a politician and as a lawyer. Because it is this interesting, and strange, and somewhat small ‘p’, political body known as the European Court of Human Rights are from all sorts of different backgrounds, political and legal, the imperative to bend the knee is less.
Adhering to judgments of a court to which we are signed up by treaty is an aspect of the rule of law, which we must obey. And we can’t pick and choose the laws we want to obey. But, the prime minister has a choice to make and I suspect that the choice he will make is: ‘Thank you, Mr Attorney, for your very careful advice, but I can’t quite hear you.’”
From a former law officer, this seems like breathtaking casuistry and cynicism to this ordinary citizen. No wonder that public opinion is becoming exasperated with the criminal justice system when ECtHR decisions can be received on a take- it- or leave- it basis one day and a matter of painful compliance the next. Just as depressing is that the point doesn’t seem to have clocked with the legal establishment who seem to accept such arbitrariness as a matter of course.
What sounds like more nudge- nudge, wink- winking was apparent on 22 November when the new Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary Chris Grayling announced a joint committee of MPs and peers to consider three options, two a choice between limited prisoners’ voting rights and the third, retaining an outright voting ban. On the advice of the Attorney General he personally forbore from recommending his ideal last option of defving the ECtCR, because this could mean he was breaking the law, unthinkable for a Lord Chancellor as a leading guardian of respect for the law and judicial independence. Later he speculated that others ministers might be similarly bound by the ministerial code but the rest of Parliament he claimed, could act differently. The episode may still turn out to be no more than a melodramatic demonstration against an ECtHR ruling loathed by the Conservatives and which indeed makes the Prime Minister “physically sick.” But the world has been put on notice that a majority Conservative government would wish significantly to curtail the role of the ECtHR in the British system.
The widening gap between the “legal” and “political” understandings of the status of the ECtHR could not have been more clearly expressed than in following exchanges between Grayling and prominent lawyers at his appearance before the Lords Constitution Committee the previous day.
Lord Pannick :… This country signed up to the convention and it might be thought therefore we have a legal obligation as a matter of international law to comply with the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights—not just those that we agree with, but all of them, and not to do so, to defy the European Court, is simply a breach of the rule of law.
Chris Grayling: It is certainly the case that we have an obligation to comply with the rulings of the European Court but, as we also know, parliamentary sovereignty supersedes those rulings…. Ultimately, Parliament can say, “We are not prepared to accept that.”…
Lord Goldsmith: Can I follow that up please, Lord Chancellor, because I am a little taken aback by the way you have expressed that? The point that Lord Pannick was putting to you, with which I agree, is that the obligations that we assumed as a country when we signed up to the European convention are not political obligations, they are legal obligations, and we are therefore obliged to follow them
Chris Grayling: You would be aware that any legislative change that results from a court decision has to pass through Parliament. You talk about the legal position: the legal position as set out by Lord Hoffmann, as acknowledged and set out by the Attorney General two weeks ago, is that Parliament has the right to exercise sovereignty and to decide not to follow the instructions of the European Court of Human Rights. That is the legal position. That is a matter for Parliament to decide whether it wants to follow that route.
Lord Goldsmith: I do not agree with that as a statement of the legal position, but that may be the difference between us.
How will the judiciary respond to Grayling? Are they in any position to present a united front? They must be worried. Interpretations of Strasbourg decisions vary. British courts are obliged to “take account” of the Court’s rulings; but what does “take account” mean? In his paper “Smoke and Mirrors: the Human Rights Act and the impact of the Strasbourg case law”, Richard Clayton QC observed:
When Lord Phillips and Lord Judge gave evidence to the Select Committee on the Constitution in October 2011, Lord Phillips expressed the view that in the end, Strasbourg was always going to win because we have the HRA. Lord Judge on the other hand stressed that it is at least arguable that having taken account of the decisions of the ECtHR our courts are not bound to follow them. Lord Judge’s views were given strong support by Lord Irvine the former Lord Chancellor who presided over the enactment of the HRA, in his recent lecture, A British Interpretation of Convention Rights; and in February 2012 ,the Supreme Court appeared to welcome the possibility of going beyond the Strasbourg case law.
In his Kingsland lecture a year ago, the former Conservative leader Michael Howard said he didn’t think it would be “enough” even if British efforts succeeded to extend the “margin of discretion” for national governments to interpret the Convention. Howard called for “something more comprehensive”, such as that hinted at by the Attorney General Dominic Grieve for a British Bill of Rights to carry out a “rebalancing” of the Human Rights Act. Howard went on to observe:
Little wonder that we have already heard demands for parliamentary input into the selection of the next British judge to be nominated to the European Court of Human Rights. If present trends continue it can only be a matter of time that similar demands are made in the context of the appointment of judges to our domestic courts. After all, this is what happens in countries like the United States where the judges exercise similar power.
What effect would such a development have on judicial independence? Is it not time that the judges got their act together on the ECtHR? The prospects for Parliament acting soon are not good. In its report due out by the end of year, the Commission on a British Bill of Rights is unlikely to reconcile conflicting views on the scope of human rights. A Conservative majority government would probably try to enact a British Bill but it could be a long haul to reach the sort of consensus needed for a constitutional measure of this kind.
In the meantime with a new President of the Supreme Court in post and a new Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales imminent, is it too much to hope for, that the judges might steal a march on the politicians and reach greater clarity among themselves?
Over to you, Patrick.