Sunday, 14 July 2013

Reflections on an interesting week in Strasbourg

Mordor - Lord of the Rings
This week saw the European Court of Human Rights decide two cases concerning the United Kingdom.  Vinter and others v UK (previous post) dealt with whole life orders imposed (exceptionally) for murder.  Allen v United Kingdom (previous post) was concerned with compensation for miscarriage of justice.  The British government lost Vinter (howls of Ministerial protest and headlines attacking interference by foreign court) and won Allen (Ministers enjoy a glass of Pimms on a sunny evening).

A good article by journalist Grace Dent appeared in The Independent 10th July

Dent's article - entitled - 'Appalled by the fuss over human rights for serial killers? - came after the Vinter judgment and before Allen.   Dent views basic human rights - (though she does not amplify on the word 'basic') - as a buffer zone keeping at bay the 'quiet savage lurking in all of us.'   Leaving to one side any Saints
(and I do not know any of those), who amongst us has not felt intense anger after the commission of numerous immensely serious crimes?   However, as Dent says, 'I love my country because at its heart is is civilised, fair and mindful about the concept of human rights.  It does this on my behalf, even during the times I may feel wholly savage.'  In addition, I also love my country because, amongst many other virtues, it has maintained the principle of access to justice for those who need it and not merely for the wealthy and powerful.

In Vinter, Strasbourg did not offer any prisoner even a right to be granted parole.  They are merely entitled to ask for it and, it might be added, for their request to be considered by an independent body.  Many may not want these men - (they are all men apart from Rosemary West) - to have any hope.  After all, the life hopes of their victims were cruelly extinguished and their relatives are left to mourn - perhaps for years as did the late Winnie Johnson - mother of Keith Bennett.   I have little sympathy for those properly convicted of such heinous crimes and yet, as Dent put it so eloquently, there is 'a wafer thin line in the human condition between what makes us fair, civil, humane and decent and what makes us barbarians.'   If Strasbourg has to deal with a few legally aided cases each year then that is a small price to pay for civility.

Withdrawal from the Convention is advocated by some notable members of the present coalition government.  IF that comes about, what would remain is not crystal clear.   Despite reductions in legal aid and access to justice, we might not quite descend into a kind of legal Land of Mordor.  However, when some of the illiberal laws enacted in recent years are considered, we might also be in a far worse position particularly if legal checks on that fundamental concept of the British constitution - (the Supremacy of Parliament) - were either very limited or non-existent.

Writing in The Guardian 12th July, Cherie Blair QC argues that concentration on cases such as Abu Qatada (now back in Jordan) paints a distorting picture and ordinary members of the public need the protection of human rights legislation too.  Blair offers examples of where human rights law has helped to secure justice.  Agree with her or not, the learned lady's article is worthy of consideration particularly when she says:

'Human rights are indivisible and universal. They are the most integral part of you, as a human being. They are the last (or first) line of defence between the individual and the state, and they need defending. You might not think you need them now, but you may just miss them if they're gone.'

A further excellent piece about the coalition government's stance on justice is by Francis Fitzgibbon QC - Short Cuts  - who argues that:

'A fundamental shift in the relationship between the government and the governed is taking place: by restricting access to the law, the state is handing itself an alarming immunity from legal scrutiny.'

Posts on Human Rights:

Domestic law and the European Convention on Human Rights - Part 1 - 5th May 2013

Domestic law and the European Convention on Human Rights - Part 2 - 7th May 2013

Domestic law and the European Convention on Human Rights - Part 3 - 14th May 2013

Domestic law and the European Convention on Human Rights - Part 4 - 18th May 2013

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