If ever it needed reminding, the importance of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and its court in Strasbourg was underlined by the comments of the former Lord Chief Justice to MPs the other day. As it stands Sir Declan Morgan feared that Westminster’s latest attempt at a Legacy Bill would be struck down by the Court as in basic violation of human rights.
But there is an even more fundamental dimension to this. ECHR rights are embedded in the UK Human Rights Act and justiciable under UK law. The Act is entrenched in the NI Act as fulfilling the Good Friday Agreement which is an international treaty. Not a word about this was said by the Justice Secretary Dominic Raab this week as he brought forward the Conservatives’ long held long desire to restrict what they regard as perverse rights by enacting a new British Bill of Rights. The aims are clear enough:
The Bill will ensure courts cannot interpret laws in ways that were never intended by Parliament and will empower people to express their views freely.
- At the same time, it will help prevent trivial human rights claims from wasting judges’ time and taxpayer money. A permission stage in court will be introduced requiring people to show they have suffered a significant disadvantage before their claim can go ahead.
- Allows future laws to make it harder for foreign criminals to frustrate deportation process.
- Prevent human rights from being used as a way to bring claims on overseas military operations once alternative options are provided by upcoming legislation.
- Confirm that interim measures from the European Court of Human Rights under Rule 39, such as the one issued last week which prevented the removal flight to Rwanda, are not binding on UK courts.
This last one was the red rag to a bull and a gift to the Court’s critics I have some sympathy with them. For a Strasbourg judge to grant a stay at the last minute and without hearing evidence was bound to raise objections on grounds of process, apart from the issue.
The UK government are not alone in itching to restrict the range, frequency and scope of judicial review of government decisions so popular in Northern Ireland and often used by one party to challenge another in court.
So like the Protocol Bill will the UK really go unilateral again, breach international law and replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill? The gale of protest is loud. I can hear Prof Colin Harvey’s metaphorical call to arms already.
The only comment about the impact on NI I’ve registered from the government was the clipped sentence from Brandon Lewis, “ that they would “fulfil all their obligations under the GFA. “ which suggests they won’t go ahead.
So what are we left with? A British Bill for England and Wales forced on a reluctant Scotland and the retention of the Human Rights Act for NI? Or at long last to go ahead with an NI Bill of Rights opposed by the unionist parties up to now? What are the courts, the Supreme Court finally, to make of this?
To adapt the saying of the philosopher Oliver Hardy, it’s another fine mess they got us into, just when we needed it.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London