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Category Archives: Court procedure

Bedroom tax case: don’t forget the ECHR

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Not enough has been said about the human rights legal dimension to the successful bedroom tax cases in the Supreme Court. It is important for two reasons:

  1. The cases succeeded thanks to Britain’s adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights where homegrown “British” law was unable to help (apart from the Human Rights Act, giving access to ECHR remedies). Neither English Common Law nor British parliamentary anti-discrimination legislation could assist either the Rutherfords or Jacqueline Carmichael gain exemption from having housing benefit docked  for their “extra” bedrooms.
  2. An earlier judgment of one of the cases, when it came before Lord Justice Laws, was intended to place a clear marker down discouraging such  cases based on ECHR rights on the grounds that “the courts are not the proper arbiters of public controversy”. The Supreme Court has therefore repudiated Laws’ attack on ECHR remedies.

The legal cases
The cases challenged the bedroom tax regulation on the grounds that it failed to give entitlement to an extra bedroom (without having housing benefit reduced) in cases where the bedrooms were needed for disabled people. The regulation restricts exemptions to “a relevant person … who requires overnight care; or a relevant person [who] is a qualifying parent or carer” (Regulation B13 (6). The relevant person (in paragraph 9) is the housing benefit claimant, his/her partner or another person liable to pay rent and his/her partner (see regulations below in full). But, as Lord Toulson noted in the latest case: “A person who requires overnight care is defined in Reg 2(1) in terms which have the effect of not including any child”.
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The Brexit High Court case: actually Parliament already holds all the cards

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There is a paradox at the centre of the great Brexit High Court case. The applicants demanding a parliamentary vote on leaving the EU assert the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty – yet to gain their point they have to prove a piece of parliamentary legislation can be overthrown at the whim and say-so of the Prime Minister – by issuing her EU exit notification under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

But Brexit cannot occur in any effective form without Parliament’s clear and overt agreement – enshrined in legislation. A pro-EU Parliament is in a powerful position, but Theresa May and her Three Brexiteers are not rushing to inform MPs and Peers of the strength of their hand.

The point is that the European Communities Act 1972 is a piece of sovereign legislation – and it will remain intact after the Article 50 notification goes out – and even after Britain leaves the EU if Parliament decides to leave it there. If Parliament says so, it will remain good law, actionable in the British courts and indeed in the Court of Justice of the European Union.

Mrs May can issue her Article 50 notice under Royal prerogative, break with the EU if she wants, but the legislation stays in place – forever, if that is what Parliament wants. Furthermore it can continue to be effective law for as long as the EU continues to exist if that is the will of Parliament. Britain could be outside the EU – yet governed by its treaties, laws, Court of Justice decisions. It could all continue to apply and the UK courts will (or should) apply it insofar as it is practical to do so.

That is because, to hammer home the point, Parliament is sovereign – and the meaning of parliamentary sovereignty is that British courts will recognise the legislation that passes through Parliament and is signed into law by the Monarch (see Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway Company v John Wauchope).

Now, Mrs May has offered a Great Repeal Bill so Parliament can sweep aside the ECA – but she hasn’t pointed out that Parliament need not sweep it aside at all if it doesn’t want to (otherwise why have a “repeal” Act?). If Parliament wants Britain to be governed by EU law it can be. Which puts Parliament in a powerful position to amend the ECA (via the Great “Repeal” Bill) to dictate the nature of Britain’s continuing relationship with the EU – soft Brexit, hard Brexit, European Economic Area membership or some other system. Or it can leave Britain in the, admittedly anomalous position, of being a sovereign nation governed in part by foreign law. Read the rest of this entry

Why the sovereign UK Parliament has no backdoor exit out of Brexit

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Note: The High Court has now ruled that the Government does not have power to issue Article 50 notification. The 3 November 2016 judgment is available here.

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May has said there will be “no attempts to sort of stay in the EU by the back door”. She’s right. Those anti-Brexit voices hoping that a “sovereign UK Parliament” has a constitutional right to halt May’s European Union exit plans are wrong. A debate and vote by MPs would have no more constitutional weight than, let us say, the “advisory” referendum of June 23 (arguably rather less). Nor does the Prime Minister have a duty to give MPs a vote before she issues her withdrawal notice to the European Council under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

But if and when May does that, she will be entering a complicated constitutional maze – rooted in a treacherous political quagmire – with no predictable way through. Britain could be in limbo with Parliament and Government unable to agree, judges unable or unwilling to give clear guidance, a crisis “Brexit election” – which will resolve nothing and will not get May out of the hole left by her predecessor.

Wiser heads than this blogger have written at length on these issues, particularly regarding whether Parliament has a final say in taking Britain out of the EU. Unfortunately they have come to diametrically opposed views – with others taking up positions of various polarised degrees around the unsquared circle that is Britain’s Brexit crisis. What follows is simply an attempt to give some guidance through the maze.
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(Alleged) torturers welcome to Britain – just pick up your certificate of immunity

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The lives of high profile war criminals, torturers and despots have just got a little easier. No longer need they strike Britain off the list of destinations when they fancy a foreign jolly out of fear that some officious busybody will spoil their fun by having them arrested for their crimes.

All they have to do is get the Foreign Office to declare them on a “special mission” and they become untouchable. They have immunity, not because the UK Parliament has given them immunity through a statute fully debated and passed by MPs and Peers. Instead a couple of High Court judges have declared they have immunity as part of English Common Law. As such immunity for those on special missions has always been the law.*

The High Court case was prompted by a visit to Britain by Lieut General Mahmoud Hegazy, the director of the Egyptian Military Intelligence Service blamed for the “atrocities” that arose from the crushing of a demonstrators opposing the coup against Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. Hegazy came to Britain in 2015 to meet government ministers, but part of his “official” mission was a visit to a London arms fair, according to the Guardian.

On the face of it the judgment (R (Freedom and Justice Party) v the Foreign Office) – in favour of the Foreign Office position – flies in the face of the Government’s insistence in 2013 that it had the “firm policy of ending impunity for the most serious international crimes and a commitment to the protection of human rights”. On the other hand it does get the Government and state agents such as the police and Director of Public Prosecutions off an embarrassing hook when a torturer or despot comes calling on “official” business.

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Home Office plays the long – and costly – game to deport 70-year-old widow

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In these straitened times the Ministry of Justice has had to crack down on the costs of the UK legal system. But there is one area where apparently money is no object: chasing 70-year-old Pakistani widows from Britain’s shores.

Even when their chums at the Home Office are on a two-year losing streak during which judges twice rejected the case for removing Razia Begum as “disproportionate” given she retains no ties in Pakistan, one last desperate (and expensive) throw of the dice was bankrolled by the public purse. 

Thus it was that Home Office lawyers fetched up at the Court of Appeal a couple of weeks ago demanding another go at removing Mrs Begum, even though they had missed an appeal deadline a year and a half ago – owing to “mere oversight”. Their claim for an extension was based on the notion that they “had a good case” against Mrs Begum.

But “the need for litigation to be conducted efficiently and at proportionate cost” is a principle of legal procedure far pre-dating current MoJ rigours. So the notion that the Home Office could, at great expense, lay out its case before two Lord Justices to persuade them it was good enough for it to proceed, then at some later point lay out the whole case again before yet more learned justices during the substantive appeal was not one likely to find favour in the Court.
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The Extradition Act law reform that could – but won’t – help Assange

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Why on earth isn’t the UK Home Secretary banging on the doors of the UK Supreme Court, the European Court of Human Rights, the Swedish Högsta domstolen – whatever it takes – to get Julian Assange released from his (somewhat self-imposed) “arbitrary detention” in the Ecuadorian embassy in London? Theresa May and the Government she serves knows a terrible travesty of justice has occurrred – so much so that they have passed a law to ensure it should never happen to anyone else again.

This, at least, is how the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) explains a new section, 21A of the 2003 Extradition Act, inserted “as a result of perceived abuses raised by Sweden’s European Arrest Warrant” in the Assange case. It adds that, since the Section was added in 2014 “if requested, Mr. Assange’s extradition would not [now] have been permitted by the UK”. The section, added by S.157 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act allows for a “proportionality test” before someone can be extradited under a European Arrest Warrant. So a judge can ask whether there might be a less coercive alternative to extradition – such as interviewing a suspect in Britain rather than in the “requesting state” (ie the one that wants the extradition – Sweden in Assange’s case).

But there is more. Section 156 of the 2014 Act also introduced a new Section 12A to the Extradition Act (below) – which allows a UK judge to assess whether the supect’s presence in the requesting country is really necessary – specifically if investigations have not come close enough to completion to require that presence. This is eerily like Assange’s case since the EAW was issued by prosecutors seeking to interview him, not by judges wishing to arraign him on a criminal charge.

Sadly for Assange, he was not apparently the inspiration for the new legislation – and the Government has insisted it is not retrospective so is unavailable to his cause – though the UNWGAD panel believes it should be. Their thinking, presumably is that if a terrible injustice to suspects has been discovered it should be put right for those who continue to be embroiled in that injustice, not just for the future.

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Rutherford and Others bedroom tax case: hold the celebrations

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Anti-bedroom tax campaigners are very pleased about the Court of Appeal case that has found unlawful discrimination in an element of the Government’s policy to punish “under-occupiers” of social housing. Sadly their joy may be premature. The Court of Appeal’s ruling in Rutherford and Others v Secretary of State [2016] EWCA Civ 29 was very much a holding judgment. When the case is reviewed in the UK Supreme Court (Note: the Rutherfords have now won their case in the Supreme Court: see note at end) the issues of right and wrong about how we treat disabled people or rape victims will be largely overlooked. Instead issues of legal proceduralism, high policy (plus low politics) and constitutional wrangling are likely to hold sway.

The essence of the case for the Rutherfords, who care for a disabled grandson, and for “A”, a rape victim (who has a son by her rapist) and has a panic room in her house, is that their situations should have been covered by exceptions to the Bedroom Tax provisions (ie the cut in Housing Benefit when a family has “extra” rooms).

If the benefit claimant is disabled or has a disabled partner an exemption might apply (if overnitght care is required). But not if a benefit claimant is caring for a disabled child. And there is no mention of rape victims in fear of further attack. There is, though, a system of Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP) for those who might have needs “which could be met by DHP”. They are administered by the relevant local authority.

The claimants’ case is that their exclusion in the legislation (Regulation B13, set out here) from the categories whose position “has to be taken into account” (in the clumsy phraseology of the regulation) is unlawful discrimination under Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) (and under public sector equality duty under s.149 of the Equality Act 2010) – on grounds of sex for A and disability for the Rutherfords and their grandson.

The Secretary of State, Iain Duncan Smith, acknowledges the prima facie discrimination. The issue therefore became: is there an “objective and reasonable justification for that discrimination which was not manifestly without reasonable foundation”. Broadly the defence is that the DHP is there to cover categories of people who don’t have to be taken into account under Regulation B13 but may have good cases for an exemption. Although their housing benefit would be reduced, DHP might (if the local authority agrees) fill the gap.

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