Senior lawyers blast PM’s human rights outburst

Lawyers have launched a torrent of criticism at the Prime Minister after he suggested that the Human Rights Act (HRA) could be amended to overrule court decisions.

Tony Blair made the comment in a letter to the new Home Secretary John Reid last week (15 May).

“We will need to look again at whether primary legislation is needed to address the issue of court rulings which over-rule the Government in a way that is inconsistent with other EU countries’ interpretation of the European Convention on Human Rights,” wrote Blair.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC, the legendary human rights practitioner and Liberal Democrat peer, told The Lawyer: “I think that the Prime Minister is in danger of destroying confidence in one of the best measures introduced by his government. He’s making human rights a dirty word by constantly sniping at the courts and the Human Rights Act.”

Lord Lester added that there was “no basis” for Blair’s assertion that the UK interprets the convention more narrowly than other European countries.

“I think it’s little more than a smokescreen to cover Home Office incompetence,” said Roger Smith, director of legal and human rights campaigning organisation Justice.

Smith said the UK should either “shut up” or withdraw from the Council of Europe, the organisation that defends human rights across the Continent.

Blair’s letter came shortly after High Court judge Mr Justice Sullivan ruled that nine Afghan aeroplane hijackers could remain in the country. The judgment also prompted Conservative leader David Cameron to announce that his party would “scrap, reform or replace” the HRA if it came into power.

Lord Lester said: “I deplore the fact that the Prime Minister criticises the judgment of Mr Justice Sullivan without reading the judgment and without allowing his new home secretary time to appeal.”

Clifford Chance public policy head Michael Smyth agreed with Lord Lester, saying: “The proponents of the Human Rights Act in Mr Blair’s first administration said that it would help establish a human rights culture in this country.

“It’s therefore particularly odd that substantially the same administration is now running so fast to distance itself from that rhetorical claim.”