Hooligans prove rights are not equal

John Cooper says that attempts to expel English football fans from Euro 2000 infringe on human rights

There has always been a suspicion that Europe is not as united as it may seem. Criminal practitioners are being showered with opportunities to attend conferences and seminars on the European Convention on Human Rights.

For many prosecutors it is compulsory to attend Bar Council seminars and for those who defend it is highly desirable. Even judges are attending seminars on the implementation of the convention and how it impacts on our criminal jurisdiction.

The purpose of the convention is to provide basic human rights to citizens of the EU – this is not only commendable but well overdue. It is a shame that there is not a consistency in approach by other European bodies.

I refer to UEFA. The clamour from European football’s governing body for the expulsion of the England football team from Euro 2000 jars with its European administrators responsible for the implementation of the convention.

Everything that UEFA suggested was in conflict with the European Convention on Human Rights and sends out a message that bodes ill for our confidence in the impartiality of European administrators.

Article 11 of the convention guarantees every person a right to freedom of assembly and association. The article directs that “everyone has a right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others”.

Although this can be curtailed in the interests of “public safety”, we should be very loath to reject our inherent rights of assembly by kneejerk statements that may be politically motivated.

Article 14 is also of interest. The directive prohibits discrimination and establishes that “enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as race or… national or social origin.”

Observers in this country were somewhat perplexed at the differences of interpretation expressed by UEFA upon the “trouble” attributed to English supporters and the “party” of the Turkish supporters some days later. The English were thugs, the Turkish were party-goers.

To any impartial observer the pronouncements of UEFA seemed inconsistent, depending on nationality.

Under domestic law, the Football Spectators Act allows for a restriction order to stop supporters going to important matches abroad. The Government supports a 1999 Private Members Bill that gives stronger encouragement to magistrates to issue more international banning orders on convicted hooligans. The bill also enforces those subject to banning orders to hand over their passports before international fixtures.

Europe wants us to go further and indiscriminately restrict the rights of anyone who happens to be wearing an England colour. A civilised society cannot condone the behaviour of a minority of thugs who seek to cause violence. But they are a minority and for whatever dubious reason, a European institution chooses to insert a stiletto into the statute which will revolutionise UK law from October of this year.

It calls on the UK government to implement laws that are indiscriminate and repressive but then invite that same government to become a defendant in a case before the European court. UEFA’s objective may be sound but its strident style smacks of arrogance.

Despite pronouncements to the contrary, there is a great deal of resentment at grass roots level in Crown Courts as to the introduction of the convention into our criminal law.

The complaint is not that of content – the majority of court users see the considerable benefits of the rights laid out in the articles of the convention. It is the manner of its blanket, almost indiscriminate, implementation that leaves a taste of European imposition rather than an invaluable safeguard for human rights.

Section 78 of the Police & Criminal Evidence Act 1984 provides for the court to rule any evidence which the prosecution proposes to rely on as inadmissible if it will “have such an adverse effect on the fairness of the proceedings that the court ought not to admit it”. It will continue to be as influential in securing a fair trial in UK courts as any of the provisions laid out in the rights to a fair trial outlined in Article 6.

When you actually read Article 6 the response of most criminal practitioners is: “Of course, these are standards adhered to in this country for at least 20 years.”

Europe has a great deal to offer our legal system, but unlike our national football team, our legal system has much to offer Europe. Football may not be coming home, but domestic law still has much to commend it.

John Cooper is a barrister at 3 Gray’s Inn Square.