A UK Bill of Rights?

The Prime Minister has been a prominent proponent of repealing the Human Rights Act 1998 and replacing it with a British Bill of Rights.  This has won approval from many within the wider society and more pertinent to him the grassroots of his own party.  Such a move could be problematic for their partners in the Government who are well known supporters of the Human Rights Act.

The Human Rights Act 1998 was introduced by Tony Blair’s Government in his first term as Prime Minister and was heralded as a huge step forward in legal history.  The Act fully came into force in October 2000, but cases had come before the courts in Scotland under the Human Rights Act due to sections of the Scotland Act 1998 forcing Scottish Ministers to act in a way that is compatible with the legislation.

There have been some very high profile cases brought under the legislation such as slopping out and access to solicitors while in police custody.  Some have caused public outrage as being unpopular and has lead to sections of the population calling for its abolition and viewing it as something that protects the criminal and forgets about the victim.  The less contentious decisions don’t often reach the wider media which has resulted in a very one sided and rather biased view of the effect of the Human Rights Act.  Decisions that lack a contentious element aren’t headline news and this would go some way to explaining the biased reporting of the Human Rights Act, but doesn’t excuse it.  As the main source of information for the public the media is somewhat bound to given an accurate picture of the things they report, but inevitably editorial bias and the desire to sell as many papers, have the largest share of the viewing figures and such like get in the way and prevent sensible and accurate reporting.

We have seen some blatant misreporting of Human Rights decisions.  One example that comes to mind was the decision not to deport the individual convicted for murder Philip Lawrence.  The UK Human Rights Blog ran by the Barristers at 1 Crown Office Row published a very good article on the misreporting of this case.  The article they wrote rightly pointed out that this was not a decision based on Human Rights.  While the case had a Human Rights element to it; it was a secondary element to the case.  The main thrust of the argument was the EU freedom of movement principles.   Had the Human Rights arguments failed the outcome would not have been any different as the Freedom of Movement rules of the European Union would still have been successful resulting in the same outcome.

It is this kind of blatant false reporting and misrepresentation by the UK media that has somewhat contributed to the wider public view of the Human Rights Act.  It’s not the sole reason, but the other main reasons are largely down to editorial decisions taken by the UK media.  In my view the UK media have a lot of questions to answer in relation to much of their correspondence on legal matters, including Human Rights matters.

This year the UK Government will setup a commission to look at the issue of Human Rights in the UK and specifically whether to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a UK Bill of Rights.  I see no sense in this other than to appease the right wing media and many within the Conservative Party.  Such a commission will come at public expense at a time where we are suffering huge budget deficits and significant cuts to public expenditure.  What will the commission achieve?

The Human Rights Act 1998 gives domestic effect to important elements of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms 1950.  This is a treaty that the United Kingdom is a signatory to and as such has certain obligations under the treaty.  Any Bill of Rights introduced by the UK Coalition Government will not change these elements, and indeed, will have to include the same aspects as included within the current legislation.  Essentially it will be largely the same piece of legislation with a different name.  Governments should never be wasting public money with such pointless exercises, but at a time where the UK Government is swinging the axe over Government spending it seems odd that they would pursue a policy that they must be well aware will result in no real change.

Simply repealing an Act of Parliament and replacing it with another almost identical piece of legislation will not change things in any great way.  It’s unlikely to change the way in which the UK Courts interpret the issue of Rights in the United Kingdom as they often look to the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights when coming to their decisions.

I really do find this as being a pointless exercise in the pursuit of popularity at a time when money is tight.  The UK Government often level allegations of seeking headlines that would make them popular against the previous Administration and have often said they are about making real decisions for the long-term benefit of the whole country.  I fail to see how such a decision would be anything other than seeking popularity within certain sections of the UK media and their readerships.

The Ministry of Justice offered no comment on the allegations levelled against the Government within this article.

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