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Category Archives: Human rights law

Dominic Raab: leave gangsters to kill and be killed

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It’s a bleak Raabian vision of an apocalyptic post-ECHR world in which gangsters are able to murder one another, scattering their rivals’ bodies around Britain’s cities while the police ignore them because they have better things to do. And apparently, the UK Justice Secretary is all in favour of it.

Here’s Dominic Raab’s logic: the European Convention on Human Rights  requires states to protect their citizens’ right to life (Article 2). The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has ruled this requires, in some circumstances, proactive actions by state agents such as the police. British police are therefore running around to gangsters’ houses bearing warnings that other gangsters are planning to off them. Raab wants to spare the police this job so they can concentrate on rapes (an unfortunate choice on Raab’s part: there is also ECHR law on police not properly investigating rape – the John Worboys cas: see below.)

Raab explained all this on Radio 4’s Today programme on 22 June,  the day he was introducing his “British Bill of Rights bill” (sic) to the House of Commons. He pointed to a 1998 ECHR case, Osman v UK, in which Ali Osman was shot dead and his son wounded. They weren’t gangsters, nor was the killer, who was a teacher with a disturbing fascination for the boy. The police had been made aware of “a series of clear warning signs” of the killer’s intention. The court was told no further attempt was made to find the man after an attempted arrest failed and he disappered – only to emerge and shoot Osman and his son.

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Right to rent ruled discriminatory – an innovative judgment

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If ever there was a petty-minded, oppressive and irrational notion it was former British prime minister David Cameron’s “right to rent” crackdown on illegal immigration, now ruled incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights by the High Court. The 2014 legislation turned everyone letting residential property into an arm of the UK Border Agency – or an unprofessional and arbitrary backstop when the immigration authorities had failed. It even sought to give landlords supra-legal powers of eviction, to throw tenants out without a court process if the tenants could not prove their immigration status was in order (see this Al’s Law piece).

And of course landlords were likely to take the easy option of renting only to those who could produce a British passport – hence the legal claim that the whole scheme was had discriminatory effects and was therefore contrary to the ECHR.

But the judgment raises the intriguing issue of how far legislation, not in itself discriminatory or unlawful, can be deemed discriminatory when it simply prompts the discriminatory (and unlawful) behaviour of others – the landlords meant to operate the scheme.

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Grenfell effigy bonfire and Section 4A – a flawed piece of legislation

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Was a criminal offence committed when a group of friends took it into their head to mock up a Grenfell Tower cardboard effigy and set it ablaze on Bonfire Night? The short answer would seem to be … it’s complex – and that the law six of them have been arrested on is deeply flawed and potentially oppressive.

The question for the police is: did their action amount to causing intentional harassment, alarm or distress according to Section 4A of the Public Order Act 1986? This says:

  1. A person is guilty of an offence if, with intent to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress, he—
    (a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or
    (b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,
    thereby causing that or another person harassment, alarm or distress.

The cardboard Grenfell Tower is a “visible representation” and setting it alight is “behaviour”. But the issue is the motivation of those doing it. Leaving aside the social media issue, the burning of the effigy was in a private garden – possibly among like-minded friends. Can the police show intention to cause  harassment, alarm or distress to a particularly defined group? Can they also show that such harm was, in fact, caused?

The Section 4A provision of the Act that the police are using is something of a confused botch-up. Significant parts of the Public Order Act are very much about public, open places or public buildings. It is about avoiding public disorder: riot, affray, provocation of violence; that sort of thing.

But Section 4A was introduced in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, at a time when a new sense of public threat was abroad under a tough new Home Secretary, Michael Howard (the 1994 Act also cracks down on trespassers and squatters). The political focus was on victims and toughening up the law dealing with the remarkably subjective harms of “harassment, alarm or distress” (wording also in Section 5, and controversially so; see Harvey v DPP 2011; see here) but not explicitly in a there-and-then public space.

In contrast, Section 4 (part of the original Act) on provocation uses similar wording, criminalising threatening, abusive and insulting words and behaviour and visible representations etc but only insofar as there is “intent to cause that person [the victim] to believe that immediate unlawful violence will be used against him or another by any person”.

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Can Sir Philip Green suppress media interest in his ‘banter’?

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So it was just banter. That is how British entrepreneur Sir Philip Green is defending his behaviour towards employees – and presumably defending his right to keep his behaviour secret with the full weight of a permanent High Court injunction. But hasn’t his statement to the Mail on Sunday (“There has obviously from time to time been some banter, but as far as I’m concerned that’s never been offensive”) rather undermined his case for such an injunction?

The essence of the case is that his behaviour, as covered by non-disclosure agreements with alleged victims, is a private matter. It comes within the English Common Law “equitable doctrine of confidence”, that is to say confidentiality, particularly applicable to the relationship between employer and employee. “The doctrine serves the public interest by encouraging trust, candour and good faith in legal relationships,” as Mr Justice Haddon-Cave expressed it in the original High Court injunction case (which Green and two associated companies lost).

One has to ask, of course, whether Sir Philip’s “banter”, was likely to encourage “trust, candour and good faith” with his employees. He insists: “I’ve got a good relationship with all my staff” – though some would seem to disagree. But the legal point is that Green and his lawyers have to establish the issue as one of confidentiality/privacy since that is the only way they can exercise power over the media to bar publication. This is the reason for his rather carefully worded (and hence rather odd) statement when his name was revealed in the House of Lords by Peter Hain:

“to the extent that it is suggested that I have been guilty of unlawful sexual or racist behaviour, I categorically and wholly deny these allegations”.   

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What if James Eadie was right about Brexit?

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Pity poor James Eadie QC, the lawyer tasked with swaying at least six Justices of the UK Supreme Court to his rather unappealing view that David Davis can sweep away 40-odd years of EU rights with the scrawl of his crabbed hand on an Article 50 notice.      

When smooth-as-silk Silk Lord Pannick stood to address their Lordships and Ladyship in the Gina Miller Brexit case, one could sense the hearts aflutter and knees atremble in chambers up and down the country as he caressed the precedents and drove his points home with firm but gentle force. Expect the CSI-effect to kick in during the next round of university applications – an upswing in applications to law schools from 18-year-olds who suddenly really want to be constitutional lawyers. There is, in contrast, no such thing as the Eadie effect.     

Where Pannick was a gallant schooner expertly managing the light zephyrs wafted his way by the assembled justices, deftly avoiding the gentle sandbanks and glittering coral reefs to reach his haven, Eadie was an oil-bespattered tramp steamer buffeted by blizzards, bouncing of rocks and barely making it into port.   

He found his craft beached in his final gasping moments on a very poor (and probably unconstitutional) point in which he seemed to suggest the Justices check what MPs had been doing in the Commons the night before (passing the Brexit motion) and somehow take it into account in their judgment.   

But what if (one can put it no higher) – what if Eadie turns out to be right? Even half right might be good enough. So, what does his somewhat incoherent case amount to?   Read the rest of this entry

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 court case (Miller/Santos): Link to extracts

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Our sister blog Thinking Legally has published digested versions of the Brexit High Court case R (Miller and Santos) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. 

First day: Thinking Legally 1

Second day: Thinking Legally 2

Third day: Thinking Legally 3.

Here are some Brexit pieces on Al’s Law.

The High Court case: full (uncorrected) transcripts
The first day transcript 13 Oct of the Miller/Santos court case is here (MoJ pdf).
• The second day transcript: Full day transcript for 17 October 2016.
• Third day Full day transcript for 18 October 2016.
• All available at the Ministry of Justice

The High Court case has now been superseded by the Supreme Court case (December 2016). Transcripts and other material can be found here on the Supreme Court site. A report/analysis of the Supreme Court case is here: What if James Eadie was right?

The Brexit Great Repeal Bill – a rather cunning ploy

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Note: The High Court has been unpersuaded by the sort of arguments set out below and has now ruled that the Government does not have power to issue its Article 50 notification. The post nevertheless remains relevant regarding the background and possible political implications of the judgment. The 3 November 2016 judgment is available here.

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s announcement of a Great Repeal Bill to set the seal on Britain’s march out of Europe has not received much good press (or good blog, if that’s a thing) among the legal pundits. “No news here”, “inevitable, really”, “bound to have happened at some point” – this has been the general tenor of informed opinion on the matter.

Yet for some reason informed opinion has failed to recognise it as a remarkably clever wheeze that manages to shoot a number of Opposition and Anti-Brexit foxes with one twitch on the trigger. It has undermined the legal case for giving Parliament a direct say on whether Britain leaves the EU and helped shift the political debate to whether Parliament should merely have “oversight” of the process or a say in the final form Brexit would take.

So Ed Miliband’s comments this week included this: “It would be a complete outrage if May were to determine the terms of Brexit without a mandate from parliament. There is no mandate for hard Brexit, and I don’t believe there is a majority in parliament for [it] either.” This is far from a demand for an In/Out vote for parliamentarians before Article 50  notification of EU exit is issued under Royal prerogative in March.

Brexit Secretary David Davies was at pains in his statement this week (October 10) to point out that a vote on the Great Repeal Bill will involve plenty of debate on the issue – but not offer MPs to vote against Brexit: “This Bill is separate issue to when Article 50 [notice of EU exit] is triggered … it [the Bill] won’t take us out of the EU.”  Read the rest of this entry

Bonfire of EU rights: Bring on the Brexit bureaucrats!

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So Britain is out of the European Union. How do we get rid of all that pesky EU legislation on standards, the environment, workers’ rights, consumer law etc etc that has been holding back Global Britain?  A disturbing prospect has arisen of a bonfire of legal rights currently held by British citizens that could be brought about on little more than the say-so of government ministers. No parliamentary debate, little likelihood of votes by MPs, rights lost by administrative order or government “Henry VIII” powers, rather than new laws passing through both Houses of Parliament.

Here is the plan: Given there are many legal rights enshrined in UK law that derive from the European Union and which remain in effect post-Brexit, an efficient way must be found to comb through them and disapply them where necessary. It could take mammoth parliamentary sessions passing complex repealing legislation. Instead, and rather chillingly, Conservative barrister Martin Howe QC (among others) has said ministers should be “given powers” to disapply them bit by bit as and when it is deemed appropriate.

So Parliament could be asked to pass a piece of primary legislation , a “Brexit Freedoms Bill”, handing those powers to ministers, in other words allowing the ministers to repeal or disapply European law at will through secondary (delegated) legislation, probably statutory instruments (see below). It will be “the quickest way of taking the necessary decisions … to reemploy or replace them” Howe told BBC Radio 4’s Unreliable Evidence 14 Sept 2016.  

But giving such powers to the Government could leave whole areas of law at the mercy of ministers including employment and equality rights, privacy and consumer rights, environmental law, copyright protections, safety law, food hygiene and many laws affecting business. It is difficult to establish how much British law is driven by the EU but FullFact.org says this:

“An estimated 13% of Acts [primary legislation] and Statutory Instruments have an EU influence, whereas that rises to 62% when EU regulations are included in addition to Acts and Statutory Instruments.”

So, if all this were open to repeal or amendment by delegated legislation, MPs may as well go home for the duration. There will be hardly any other business, and in effect the Government will be able to pass wholly new legislation in large areas of law – presumably not quite the victory for  the sovereignty of Parliament (not Government) that some Brexiters said they wanted. The proposal is constitutionally dubious, impractical – and wholly oppressive.

But would this idea even make sense? In particular what about all the EU law that is not part of the 13% that has been rendered into British legislation – the Regulations, Decisions and rulings of the Court of Justice of the European Union at Luxembourg? If FullFact is right, this must make up getting on for 40% of UK law – yet it is not written into our legislation and so can’t obviously be “repealed” by Parliament or government ministers. What will happen to it all? Read the rest of this entry

(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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