The Human Rights Act 1998: past, present and future

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The UK government intends to replace the Human Rights Act with a new ‘British bill of rights’. However, any change to existing human rights law promises to be a complex and difficult project. On March 7 Dr Jeff King, Senior Lecturer at UCL Faculty of Law, explored the current state of play and considered the past, present and future of the HRA. Laëtitia Nakache reports.

After the 2015 general election David Cameron said that the repeal of Human Rights Act (HRA) would be brought forward rapidly. The Conservative party had pledged in their 2015 manifesto to abolish the HRA and replace it with a British bill of rights, in order to ‘break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights, and make our [the UK] Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter of human rights matters in the UK.’ Since then the government’s plan to scrap the HRA has been delayed a number of times, with the consultation on the proposed British bill of rights now not expected to be published until after the EU referendum. In this political climate, Dr Jeff King came to the Constitution Unit on March 7 to discuss the past, present and future of human rights law in the UK.

The past: genesis, aims and impact of the HRA

The United Kingdom acceded to the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) in March 1951. Though it was obliged under Article 46 to give effect to judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), it was not until the 1960s that British citizens were able to bring claims in the Strasbourg court. Since then, the evolution of the UK law has been influenced by the Strasbourg jurisprudence and by 1998 a broad political consensus existed that UK involvement in the Strasbourg system was politically desirable.

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Human rights, the judiciary and the constitution: Past and future challenges

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At the Constitution Unit’s 20th anniversary conference Dawn Oliver, Stephen Sedley and Richard Cornes assessed the Unit’s contribution to debates around human rights and the judges in the UK, and how it can feed into the challenges that lie ahead. Juliet Wells offers an overview of the session.

This is the second of a series of posts based on presentations at the Unit’s 20th anniversary conference, held on 23 June 2015.

Professor Dawn Oliver took the lead in the session reflecting on the Unit’s wide-ranging contribution to political and legal discourses on human rights and the judiciary, while the respondents were Sir Stephen Sedley and Richard Cornes (who was unfortunately unable to attend on the day, but sent a statement read by the session chair James Melton). The panel therefore reflected rich expertise across public law and offered a thoroughly engaging range of perspectives on the Unit’s impact, and on the possible future direction of these vitally important areas.

Human rights figured particularly prominently in the discussion, and much was coloured by the existential threat now posed to the Human Rights Act 1998. Looking back, Dawn Oliver emphasised the prescience of Nicole Smith’s 1996 report, Human Rights Legislation, in anticipating not only that the Human Rights Act would need a ‘champion’ in future years if it was to survive in the long-term, but also that the legal implications of repealing the Act and replacing it with a ‘home-grown’ bill of rights would be profoundly complicated by the effects of having incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law. In particular, it was identified that the long-term consequences of the relationship between Strasbourg and the domestic courts that the Act set up would generate real controversy, even as it would affirm and entrench the importance of Strasbourg jurisprudence in cases before the UK courts. Looking forward, she reflected on the possible consequences of repeal, as well as on the causes of the apparent ‘tidal wave’ of hostility towards the Act. In considering both of these issues, she suggested that a lack of respect for the rule of law, manifested most conspicuously in the shift towards the view that the courts should not be accorded any responsibility for the UK’s compliance with its international treaty obligations, was at work. This, she thought, could be traced back to the 9/11 attacks, which did much to ‘shake people into hostility’ towards the Human Rights Act. Richard Cornes built upon this by suggesting that enacting a British Bill of Rights, which would in many ways be essentially similar to the Human Rights Act, will serve only to refocus the attention of rights-sceptics onto the UK courts, and thus to intensify claims that judges are ‘self-aggrandising’.

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Imagining a British Bill of Rights

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On 30 June 2015, Martin Howe QC gave a talk at the Constitution Unit on what human rights protection in the UK might look like in the event that the Human Rights Act 1998 is repealed. It was a topic that sought to stand apart from mainstream discussions on human rights reform, by engaging directly with the possible content of a British Bill of Rights rather than concentrating on the intellectual and political legitimacy of the case for repeal. Begum Icelliler and Juliet Wells report on the event.

Much of the debate over the future of human rights legislation in the UK has been preoccupied with the merits of the cases for and against repeal – hardly surprising, given the political, constitutional and legal significance of the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA). Nevertheless, the subject of Martin Howe’s lecture represented a welcome reorientation of that debate: by focusing on the possible content of a British Bill of Rights, it provided an opportunity to begin to examine and question the coherency of the government’s proposals.

The focal point of Howe’s proposals consisted in recasting the relationship between the UK courts and the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg. He suggested that the UK courts show ‘excessive deference’ towards the judgements of the Strasbourg court, and that this is to be attributed to Section 2 of the HRA, which requires UK courts to ‘take into account’ the judgements of the Strasbourg court. In his view, this produces a situation in which, de facto, UK case law is ‘overwhelmed’ by an incoming tide of European jurisprudence. This is problematic because it is not sufficiently attuned to domestic concerns. As such, his contention was that a British Bill of Rights must aim, first and foremost, to ‘sever the links’ between the UK courts and Strasbourg, by removing the Section 2 requirement.

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Will plans for a British bill of rights be reduced to a bill for England only?

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Opposition from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales could pose a serious challenge to Conservative plans to scrap the Human Rights Act. Robert Hazell and Bob Morris write that if the new government tries to push ahead regardless, it may only be able to create an English bill of rights, with potentially negative consequences for the UK as a whole. 

This is the first in a series of posts based on the Unit’s latest report, Devolution and the Future of the Union, published here.

The Conservative manifesto, building on pledges in previous manifestos, contained these statements about replacing the Human Rights Act with a British bill of rights:

  • We will scrap Labour’s Human Rights Act and introduce a British Bill of Rights which will restore common sense to the application of human rights in the UK. The Bill will remain faithful to the basic principles of human rights, which we signed up to in the original European Convention on Human Rights (p.73)
  • The next Conservative Government will scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights. This will break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights, and make our own Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter of human rights matters in the UK (p.60).

We have not yet seen the detail, and the draft bill which the Conservatives promised to publish before the election never materialised. The plans are likely to raise a whole series of difficulties, with the judiciary, with the House of Lords (where the bill will have a very difficult passage – see here and here), and with the Council of Europe, if the UK tries to remain in the ECHR but somehow leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. But this blog concentrates on a further difficulty closer to home, which is opposition from the devolved governments and assemblies.

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The new government’s constitutional reform agenda – and its challenges

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Following the surprise election of a Conservative government with a small majority, Meg Russell and Robert Hazell offer an overview of the constitutional reforms which are likely to be prioritised and the associated difficulties that may arise.

Now that the election result is clear, it’s possible to start thinking through the likely constitutional reforms on the new Conservative government’s agenda. Some of these items are obvious, and others less so. Many of them are very challenging, as we explain below – and will expand in more detail on this blog in the coming days and weeks.

Scottish and Welsh devolution

The biggest story in this election, including as the results came in, has been Scotland. The challenge for Prime Minister Cameron is to hold the UK together, at the very moment when the SNP has almost swept the board in terms of Scottish seats. The Conservative manifesto, like those of the other UK-wide parties, committed to implementing the recommendations of the Smith Commission to devolve further fiscal and welfare powers to Scotland. The Scottish people have been led to believe that will happen easily and early in the new parliament. But this may be difficult. The Smith proposals were strongly criticised by two parliamentary committees – in both Commons and Lords. The SNP will press for more, in pursuit of full fiscal autonomy; while devo-sceptic Conservative backbenchers may argue for less. The sensible thing may be to introduce proposals via a draft bill, to see whether middle ground can be found.

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Student protests in Venezuela: how is the government manipulating the Constitution for political ends?

The Venezuelan Constitution is ranked fifth in the world in terms of the number of rights it guarantees. Yet the use of the constitution as a political crutch only underlines the government’s failure to uphold and respect these rights, writes Annabelle Huet.

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In February 2014 student protests against the democratic legitimacy of the Venezuelan government and high crime rates erupted in Caracas. Two months on over 40 people have died, more than 70 have reported being abused and the opposition leader has been jailed. The Venezuelan President, Nicolás Maduro, accused the international community of conspiring to overthrow his government in an op-ed in the New York Times and qualified the actions of those inciting violence in Venezuela as “unconstitutional”. Yet it is interesting to note how the government has consistently referred to the constitution not only when denouncing the actions of the opposition but also when seeking to justify its own actions. Examining the constitution might therefore help us gain a better understanding of the dynamics of the conflict.

1. Comparative perspective

According to data collected by the Comparative Constitutions Project (CCP), the Venezuelan Constitution is ranked fifth in the world in terms of the number of rights it guarantees. In total, it protects 81 of the 116 rights coded by the CCP, which is consistent with the Latin American tradition of constitutionalising rights. It also contains some features which are unusual even for a Latin American constitution, such as gender inclusive pronouns and nouns for job titles and the recognition of the right to social security for homeworkers. However, in order for rights to be fully protected, the country needs a strong and independent judiciary willing to enforce them. Unfortunately, Venezuela scores very poorly on the CCP scale for judicial independence (1 out of 6), especially when compared to other Latin American countries such as Peru (6 out of 6), Bolivia and Chile (4 out of 6).

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2. Judges and the European Convention; or we need to talk Abu Qatada!

This post is part two of a dialogue with Brian Walker on the Human Rights Act and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Brian raises three points that deserve close attention. Firstly, what is the status of the relationship between the ECtHR and Britain? Secondly, why do cases take so very long to get to Strasbourg? Thirdly, what can be done when British political and moral norms conflict substantially with the decisions made by the ECtHR – can Britain ignore Strasbourg? I will look at this problem through the prism of the Abu Qatada case in particular.

1. What is the status of the European Court of Human Rights in Britain?

The European Convention on Human Rights is an international treaty signed in 1950 which contains a bill of rights (such as the right to life and the right to a fair trial) that each Government that ratifies the Convention promises to protect and to respect. The role of the ECtHR is to enforce the Convention. Individuals who feel that their Convention rights have been violated by a signatory state may take a case to the ECtHR. None of this has anything to do with the EU, although the two are very often confused which leads to the Convention system suffering by association with the desperately bad press the EU gets in Britain.

Decisions by international courts such as the ECtHR bind Britain in international law but not in domestic law and it is possible for the two systems to conflict. If there is a conflict, international law requires that Britain change its domestic law but it is for individual countries to choose how they resolve these conflicts. Because of the way our system of government works, it is for the Government and Parliament to solve the problem – generally through legislation. The role of the courts in our system is simply to obey whatever legislation is passed by Parliament. As a result British courts are not obliged to follow the decisions of the ECtHR directly.

There is of course a ‘but’. The Human Rights Act (HRA) 1998 changed this situation somewhat by incorporating the European Convention into British law. Parliament enacted the HRA to allow people in Britain to make rights-based arguments in Britain. For the first time British domestic courts were empowered to take account of the human rights in the Convention in their decisions. I said above that it is for individual countries to choose how to apply international law in their own legal systems; the HRA was the means chosen by Britain to do so, an independent decision made by Parliament. Prior to the HRA, British cases with human rights elements tended to go to the Court in much larger volumes than from other countries because Britain had no domestic human rights legislation and so the courts could not protect rights as such directly. With the HRA human rights became domesticated: the bill of rights contained in the Convention is now also a bill of rights in domestic British law. We can truthfully, if a bit mischievously in light of current debate, call it a British Bill of Rights (one deserving of capitalisation).

The HRA states (in section 2(1)) that British courts are obliged to ‘take into account’ decisions made by the ECtHR. What does this mean and how can two of our most senior judges disagree about it? This goes back in part to the fact that we are dealing with two independent systems of law – international law and British law – that we are trying to fit together. From the perspective of international law decisions of the ECtHR bear directly upon the country to which they are addressed. So if the court decides that Italy must allow prisoners to vote the judgment of the court is addressed to Italy and no one else. Further, and unlike most British domestic courts, the ECtHR is not obliged to follow its own precedent. It can and occasionally does reverse itself. So a judgment that is made against Italy in one case might not necessarily be made against Britain in similar circumstances. An interesting feature of the ECtHR’s approach is that it applies what it calls a ‘margin of appreciation’ and a doctrine of proportionality in its decisions. It acknowledges that culture and moral norms are not quite the same in all the countries that are party to the Convention and that the way in which human rights are applied and realised may reasonably vary from country to country.

Against these facts we can set the practical reality that the ECtHR generally does follow its own precedents and so previous decisions of the ECtHR are strongly persuasive for all signatories to the Convention. Put simply if the Court decides in a case against Italy that prisoners should have the vote, it is probably going to decide the same in a case involving Britain. So there are good practical reasons to comply with judgments of the ECtHR even if they are not specifically addressed to Britain.

Here we return to British domestic law and the HRA and we can, I hope, begin to see an answer – or at least why the question does not admit of a straightforward answer. When Brian refers to Lord Phillips and Lord Judge disagreeing in front of the House of Lords Constitution Committee about whether British courts must follow the ECtHR they are really taking slightly different views about what is important. When Lord Phillips points out that, in the end Strasbourg ‘will win’ I take him to be making the practical and prudential point that the British courts should follow the case law of the ECtHR because if they don’t there will ultimately be an appeal by a disappointed litigant to Strasbourg which Britain is likely to lose, leading to Britain being obliged (in international law) to fix the problem (no doubt after a wasteful and rather expensive delay of several years). He is not saying that the HRA obliges British courts to follow the ECtHR as a matter of law, merely that it is better all-round if they generally do so. When Lord Judge says that once the British courts have taken account of the decisions of the ECtHR they are not actually obliged to follow them he is stating the legal position: section 2(1) of the HRA obliges British courts simply to take account of these decisions. Neither British law nor international law requires the courts to go any further (remember that a decision that is not directly addressed to the UK does not directly bind the UK).

So what this boils down to is that following the ECtHR is not simply a legal question. It is also a policy question and one that does not admit of easy resolution. What is not a matter of doubt is that the United Kingdom has a duty in international law to comply with the European Convention and decisions of the ECtHR that are addressed directly to it. To say, as the Lord Chancellor did on 22 November before the Constitutional Committee, that parliamentary sovereignty supersedes the rulings of the ECtHR is incorrect. We are dealing with two separate legal systems. The fact that Parliament may choose to disobey the international legal obligation created by an ECtHR ruling does not extinguish that obligation.

2. Why do cases take so long to get to Strasbourg?

The answer to the first question was complex. This question is mercifully straightforward. Strasbourg takes appeals from 47 different countries and has a backlog of 150,000 applications (half from just four countries: Russia, Turkey, Italy and Romania). The ECtHR has become very popular. Between 1955 and 1998 it received just 45,000 applications but it received 64,500 in 2011 alone. The result is that it can take years to get a decision from the ECtHR. Delay does not just upset politicians – judges are often just as critical of the way the Court processes its caseload.

This problem could be resolved by dealing with the way the Court processes its cases. In April the Council of Europe Conference agreed the Brighton Declaration (partly as a result of significant lobbying from the UK) in which members of the Council agreed to amend the Convention to ensure that the ECtHR deals only with serious violations of human rights rather than trivial ones and to recognise the principles of subsidiarity and margin of appreciation within the text of the Convention.

The agreement made in Brighton, assuming it is implemented, will still not completely eliminate delay. Delay also arises because of the way cases get to the ECtHR in the first place. Applicants must exhaust all remedies in their home country before they can file an appeal to Strasbourg. In Britain this will generally mean that a litigant will have to go all the way the Supreme Court – and lose – before he or she can go to the ECtHR. (Although not always: if the litigant can show that because of settled law they have no prospect of success at home this may not be required.) The legal process in Britain can take a long time, although there are procedures for fast-tracking urgent cases, so this can add to the delay taken to get to a final resolution from Strasbourg.

Finally, delay can be caused by changes in circumstances. In January in the Abu Qatada case (formally Othman v. UK, as Abu Qatada’s real name is Omar Othman), the ECtHR decided that the UK Government could not deport Qatada to Jordan for trial because there was a risk that evidence to be used in his trial was obtained by torture, which would violate his right to a fair trial. Following Othman the Home Secretary obtained assurances from Jordan regarding the trial process and then ordered that Qatada be deported. Qatada’s lawyers then launched an appeal against this last decision to extradite him, which was granted on the basis that the assurances from Jordan were not good enough. Put simply, the facts changed. While it is possible to limit the length of legal proceedings and the number of appeals that may be made on the basis of the same set of facts, where there is a significant change of circumstances it is hard to see how the right to appeal could be curtailed without fundamentally affecting the right to a legal hearing.

3. Can Britain ignore Strasbourg? And would a British Bill of Rights Make any Difference?

No and no. Or at least, not without breaking the law.

Staying with Abu Qatada, the most recent decision affecting his case was made by the British Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC). SIAC was following the Othman decision, but it was doing so in respect of a principle that is so central to modern human rights law that no plausible bill of rights could fail to enshrine it: the prohibition on torture. Othman followed from an older ECtHR decision called Chahal, in which the Court held that Britain couldn’t deport Mr. Chahal to India because there was a real risk that he would be subjected to torture if they did so.

The right not to be subjected to torture is one of the few absolute human rights (perhaps the only absolute right) and it follows from a generally accepted belief that there can be no legitimate reason for torturing anyone. If there can be no legitimate justification for torture it follows that evidence obtained by torture must be obtained illegitimately and so any evidence obtained through torture must be excluded. If the Human Rights Act were replaced with a British Bill of Rights it would also have to respect this principle. Any bill of rights that did not would – and should – be a laughing stock.

If the new bill of rights did not respect these principles, British judges could no longer order British ministers to comply with human rights but the United Kingdom would still be obliged in international law to comply with decisions made against it by the ECtHR. It is true that it might not be easy to force the UK to comply with its obligations if the Government set its face against doing so. But this is not the same as saying that the legal obligation would cease to exist. The Government would find itself under domestic and international political pressure to comply and the Government did indeed comply with the original Chahal case and all the other judgments made against it by the ECtHR prior to the enactment of the HRA.

4. What happens now?

The Qatada case has dragged on for a very long time and there are two ways of looking at the problem. The first is that the courts, including the ECtHR, are repeatedly frustrating the will of the UK Government to remove a dangerous terrorist from Britain. The other way of looking at it is that the Government has quixotically pursued extradition to Jordan as a solution again and again in the face of objections that the trial process in Jordan is simply unsafe because of the use of torture. Previously it pursued internment until the House of Lords ruled that that was also unacceptable. There is another option: try him in Britain. The things of which Abu Qatada are accused by the Government (involvement in and direction of international terrorism) are certainly crimes in Britain. Allegations in the public domain suggest that there is the possibility that he could be charged with conspiracy to commit some fairly serious crimes, if nothing else. If he were convicted of them there would be no human rights obstacle to his being imprisoned for a very long time, perhaps for life. The difficulty appears to be that some of the evidence is secret and either too weak to secure a conviction or too sensitive to be made public (or both). Without being privy to the information it is impossible to know whether the Government’s claim is legitimate: we cannot know whether the judgment that prosecution is impossible is reasonable, although a succession of Home Secretaries and others seem to have been convinced that it is. But the security services have not historically had these kinds of difficulties in prosecuting Northern Irish terrorism. Indeed as the layers of secrecy have gradually been peeled away from the awful decades of conflict in Northern Ireland one thing that has become apparent is just how thoroughly the various terrorist groups were riddled with informers and spies seeking intelligence and evidence for prosecution. This appears to have continued with the dissident remnants of those organisations. Why can he not be prosecuted for terrorism in Britain?

But we need not go even that far. Has Qatada never been caught speeding, or jaywalking, or even stealing a library book? Famously, the US authorities eventually caught up with Al Capone by laying charges of tax evasion against him. Why has Britain not tried something similar against such an allegedly dangerous man? Put another way, are the ECtHR and – to a lesser extent – the British legal system taking the blame for the failure by the Government to deal sensibly with the problem posed by Qatada and a small group of dangerous men in a similar position?

In the last few days the Home Secretary has lodged an appeal against SIAC’s decision to stop Qatada’s extradition. Rightly or wrongly the ball is now back with the courts and, as Brian suggests, they will need to tread very carefully.