Bang to human rights

Government’s plan to introduce a UK Bill of Rights could have hit a wall

On the one hand the former Lord Chancellor Ken Clarke declared London’s courts to be among the best of British exports, while on the other the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) tore up the legal aid budget. Then there was the proposed crackdown on judicial reviews, while the personal injury sector has seen its business model declared dead, with no detail on an alternative forthcoming.

Then, in the final days of 2012, the commission established to look at whether there was a need for a UK Bill of Rights published its report. The outcome of this £700,000, 21-month undertaking, which took the efforts of six silks as well as chairman Sir Leigh Lewis KCB and Professor Sir David Edward KCMG, QC, was, well, divided and inconclusive.

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, a Labour peer, and Philippe Sands QC of Matrix Chambers, refused to join the other seven members in signing up to the merits of such a bill. Writing in The Independent on the day of the report’s publication, they said a Bill of Rights would “be used to strip people of basic rights and decouple the UK from the European Convention”.

Some commentators said expectations of the report were not high. That ignores some of the brouhaha around the commission when it was being put together.

Speaking in February 2010 Prime Minister David Cameron said: “It’s your life that’s affected by political decisions and the people who make those decisions should answer to you – that’s why we need accountability… And it’s why we will abolish the Human Rights Act and introduce a new Bill of Rights, so that Britain’s laws can no longer be decided by unaccountable judges.”

However, Matrix Chambers’ Ben Emmerson QC speaks for many when he states: “Pushing through new legislation at this time will be hugely contentious and fiercely opposed by all those concerned with the administration of justice, including the majority of the senior judiciary.”

Emmerson slams Tory policy towards the Human Rights Act, continuing that the real reason for public hostility toward the HRA is political. The Prime Minister, Home Secretary and Justice Secretary, he says, “have behaved with staggering irresponsibility in threading to openly flout judicial rulings that are binding on the UK”.

Political bashing of the HRA is a favourite governmental pastime and no doubt will continue. The alternative to the act, however, is proving too difficult to contemplate.