Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Our Human Rights (we need to watch this space)

Yesterday, Monday 24 October, Dominic Grieve, Conservative Attorney General, gave a speech at Lincoln’s Inn. Legalweek.com hails it as ‘a refreshingly grown-up speech on human rights reform’ (as opposed to the Home Secretary’s ‘laughable’ and ‘childlike’ comments at the Conservative Party Conference).

I’m not so sure. A wolf is still a wolf even if it’s dressed in sheep’s clothing.
Mr Grieve’s speech was designed to reassure, but in doing so it delivered a conscious oxymoron -- the Bill of Rights will be a change which won't change anything.
The term ‘sleight of hand’ comes to mind.

Reform, not replacement
First of all, Mr Grieve assured us that the government did not intend in any way to undermine the European Convention on Human Rights. Britain was proud of its role in the creation of the Convention.
Explicit statement:

‘There is no question of the United Kingdom withdrawing from the Convention’,

and again:

‘The Government is not intending to limit or erode the application any of the rights and freedoms in the Convention including the right to respect for private and family life…’

The government DOES, shared Mr Grieve, have reservations about whether the European Court of Human Rights is ‘sustainable’ (there’s that word again!) But the actual reforms he suggested we ought to seek turned out in the end to be very minor:
• A screening mechanism to weed out vexatious cases
• A way to reconsider the calculation of damages
• The selection of judges.
So, apparently, nothing to worry about there!

And as for the working of the European Court, the government does not want to overthrow the Court, but merely to revisit the concept of ‘subsidiarity’ – the principle whereby member states have a latitude in interpreting to their own situation the general statements of the Court (particularly where those statements are unclear or contradictory, as for example in the matter of prisoner voting).
So, apparently, nothing to worry about here, too!

Preserving our Human Rights
Even in the matter of abolishing the Human Rights Act, Mr Grieve was assiduous to set our minds at rest. The Human Rights Act, he assured us, was not the source of human rights in this country – the European Convention – the Convention he had promised never to abrogate – was the primary embodiment of our human rights.
No, said Mr Grieve, the Human Rights Act was merely the mechanism which applied the principles of the European Convention into British law.
Thus, as long as the European Convention of Human Rights remained, suggested Mr Grieve, we do not need to worry about our human rights – which will be protected by the new Bill of Rights as they are now protected by the existing Human Rights Act.
So, apparently, nothing to worry about here, too!

Indeed, Mr Grieve was concerned to assure us that the Bill of Rights will be every bit as good as the Human Rights Act.
Here is what he said about how the government is making sure that this is the case:

‘As a part of this process every department is required to produce a memorandum containing a full and frank legal analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the human rights issues raised in the Bill and an indication whether the Minister in charge of the Bill can make a statement that in his or her view the provisions of the Bill are compatible with the Convention rights as required by section 19 of the Human Rights Act.’

So, apparently, DEFINITELY nothing to worry about here as well!

So everything is hunky-dory … isn’t it?

My Problem
I just have one question:
• IF… we are committed to full human rights as enshrined in the European Convention.
• IF… we are not renouncing the European Court’s authority but merely seeking a few minor reforms.
• IF… we are not addressing our concerns about the Convention by withdrawing from its rules, but merely under the existing principle of subsidiarity.
• And IF… the Bill of Rights will enshrine all our rights unscathed in British Law…

Why do we need to abolish the Human Rights Act, which achieves all this already?

If the government does not intend to change our rights in the Human Rights Act, why are we changing it?
What is the point of changing the Human Rights Act if you don’t intend to change anything?

Mr Grieve must think we were born yesterday.
Mr Grieve is a very clever man; he must know that what he is saying doesn’t add up.
All those lawyers who were listening to him make their living by debating the exact meaning of obscure terms; they must have known that what he was saying didn’t add up.
It was one of those situations where we, the people, are being stared in the eye and hard-balled out of it.

My fear – my guess – is that, when it appears, the Bill of Rights will replace the few simple statements which currently enshrine our human rights with a mountain of verbiage with enough loopholes to drive a coach-and-horses through.
My fear – my guess – is that people like you and me won’t be clever enough to catch the tricks, and that we’ll find out over the next 20 years how the apparently simple principles of our human rights don’t actually amount in the detail to what we thought they did.

I hope I am wrong. But even so, according to Mr Grieve, the Bill of Rights Commission is due to report at the end of the year, and I think it would be wise to keep a keen watch-out for it.

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