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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“In the absence of facts, myth rushes in”: Considering the consequences of a hung parliament in May 2015

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On 15 April 2015, Professor Robert Hazell, Director of the Constitution Unit, and Peter Riddell, Director of the Institute for Government, spoke at a Constitution Unit seminar entitled ‘Coalition or Minority Government in May?’ Juliet Wells comments on the event.

With a fortnight remaining before polling day, and national polls steadfastly suggesting that neither of the two principal political parties will now succeed in achieving a ‘lift-off’ in popularity, the prospect of another hung parliament looms large. It is a possibility with which pre-election commentary has increasingly been preoccupied: as Jonathan Freedland has noted, ‘the focus is not on the parties so much as the likely ruling blocs’. Against this background, Robert Hazell and Peter Riddell’s seminar on government formation after May 7 shone a welcome light onto the processes by which the ultimate ‘ruling bloc’ might come to be.

From this perspective the utility of the seminar was threefold: first, it represented an opportunity to debunk some commonplace misunderstandings about the consequences, in practical and constitutional terms, of a hung parliament; second, it provided a comparative overview of experiences in forming minority and coalition governments, both within the UK and abroad, and highlighted in particular the likely differences between 2010 and 2015; and third, it touched upon the possible deeper implications for British democracy of yet another equivocal general election result.

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