Election 2015: a human rights lawyer’s take

The legal framework of UK Human Rights protections is one of the most practical and effective mechanisms of realising individuals rights – as well as enforcing public bodies’ accountability – in the world.

Election 2015 vote

It was founded upon ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in 1951 and enhanced by the passing of the Human Rights Act (HRA) in 1998.

As a clear example of its effectiveness, the Staffordshire Hospital litigation secured not only compensation but also a full public inquiry for vulnerable adults let down by systemic and fatal health care failings.

And yet our rights’ protections have faced increasingly vitriolic press attention and hostile public opinion. Mainstream politicians have reacted: in the 2015 UK parliamentary election human rights and civil liberties are a core manifesto concern.

So what do the parties say?

Conservatives

  • Repeal of the HRA and replacement with a British Bill of Rights
  • To “break the formal link” with the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), making the Supreme Court the “ultimate arbiter”
  • Re-introduction of the “snooper’s charter” (communications data legislation) increasing the surveillance powers of the police and intelligence services
  • “Championing” equal rights

Labour

  • Retain the HRA  and “reform rather than walk away from” the ECtHR
  • “Strengthen the oversight” of the intelligence agencies, but also extend the scope of Freedom of Information legislation
  • Potential re-introduction of Control Orders to place “dangerous suspects” under “proper controls”
  • Reversal of the coalition’s main restrictions on Judicial Review
  • “Champion” the Equality Act 2010 and push for global targets to tackle inequality and promote human rights

Liberal Democrats

  • A “Digital Bill of Rights” to update data laws and protect privacy
  • A second “Freedoms Bill”  to protect freedom of expression and protect citizens from excessive state powers
  • A British “First Amendment” to force the authorities and the courts to consider the importance of the free press
  • Protect the HRA and enshrine the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in UK law
  • Take appropriate action to comply with decision of UK courts and the ECtHR
  • Full judicial enquiry into alleged British complicity in torture (potentially)

Greens

  • Push for an EU Digital Bill of Rights and support data protection and privacy legislation
  • Retain the HRA and remain signatory to the ECHR
  • Reinstate funding for the Equality and Human Rights Commission and defence of Human Rights in the UK, EU and worldwide

UKIP

  • Repeal of the HRA and replacement with a “British Bill of Rights” with the Supreme Court as final arbiter
  • Withdrawal from the ECHR and EU

What does this mean?

The post-election civil liberties landscape appears bleak; while the Liberal Democrats progressively recognise the importance of digital privacy and limits to state surveillance, both Labour and the Conservatives continue trade-off of the right to privacy in the interests of ‘security’.

However, it is on the proposed scrapping of the HRA, and potential withdrawal from the ECHR, that human rights lawyers must focus. Abolition of this fundamental and universal safeguard would be a regressive step; we risk a future rights regime which is qualified, limited in scope and conditional.

This, alongside erosion of access to justice by cuts to legal aid, proposed further restriction of judicial review and sharp hikes in court fees will mean our clients, societies vulnerable, unprotected and admittedly unpopular, have little legal claim to rights, liberties or state accountability.

The threat is significant. While citizens may be ‘British’ and secure, shamefully UK civil society will not be just, equal or humane.

Christine Baker is a trainee solicitor at Leigh Day