Hacking trial cut

Press outside Hacking trial, by Isobel Williams, www.isobelwilliams.blogspot.co.uk

EVENT: ‘A unilaterally imposed, politically structured set of rights which privilege the type of people the Conservative party like over the kind of people they don’t like’, was the characterisation of Tory proposals for a British Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act (HRA) put forward by barrister Adam Wagner at a debate on Monday night.

The debate – From Magna Carta to ECHR: Do we need a British Bill of Rights? – was organised by the Battle of Ideas and chaired by Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas. Wagner shared a panel with barrister and writer Jon Holbrook; Martin Howe QC, a member of the government’s Commission on a Bill of Rights; Helen Mountfield QC, a barrister at Matrix chambers in London and civil and commercial litigation barrister Rupert Myers.

Responding to the question posed in the title of the debate, Wagner declared: ‘We have a Bill of Rights – the Human Rights Act. It is not particularly beautifully drafted but it smells like a Bill of Rights, it looks like a Bill of Rights, it tastes like a Bill of Rights – it is a Bill of Rights.’

The Human Rights Act is a ‘decent piece of legislation,’ continued Wagner.  ‘It could be tweaked but in its short history it has secured significant wins for liberty.’ Responding to Daily Mail-esque portrayals of the HRA as a ‘human rights farce’ , Wagner added that by ‘wins for liberty’ he did not mean ‘prisoners getting porn in jail’ but rather ‘fundamental liberties’ that the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) was designed to protect.

An ‘unreformable’ court
While the ECHR was ‘well-drafted’ and contained a ‘statement of rights that we all agree with’, we are no longer left with the Convention itself, argued Martin Howe QC – a long-standing proponent of replacing the HRA with a British Bill of Rights.

Howe accused the European Court of Human Rights of ‘using specious arguments to make up new laws’ which ‘bear no resemblance to the wording of the Convention.’ The European Court’s interpretation of the ECHR has become ‘absurd’ and ‘ludicrous’, he said, before concluding that the Court had reached a stage where it had become ‘unreformable’.

‘We need to move to a situation where the power of interpretation of the ECHR is moved from Strasbourg into this country…so that delicate decisions are dealt with on our shores by people who understand our culture and our norms.’
Martin Howe QC

Bringing rights home
Wagner hit back at Howe’s ‘non-sequitur’ argument that we need a British Bill of Rights because the European Court is delivering ‘bad judgments’. ‘The Human Rights Act brought rights home – the vast majority of human rights judgments every year are happening in our courts here,’ said Wagner.

Adding that there are only about ten judgments per year from Strasbourg, with two or three of those on ‘highly controversial’ issues, Wagner said: ‘but they are not perverse judgments’. ‘Judges in the UK have the power to ignore Strasbourg,’ he said. ‘But they have been following it because they have decided it’s a pretty decent way of running the human rights system.’

A wrong turning point
Barrister and writer Rupert Myers echoed Martin Howe QC’s contention that British judges should be the final arbiters on British laws. Describing the Tories’ proposals for reform as nothing more than a ‘modest tweak’ to the current system, Myers argued that the best place to balance rights against national responsibilities is ‘at a national level.’

Quoting Lord Justice Laws, Myers added that when judges decided to treat Strasbourg decisions as authoritative it represented an ‘important wrong turning point in our common law’. He welcomed the ‘one thing of any major significance’ contained in the proposals – that decisions of the European court will be treated as ‘advisory’, not ‘binding’. ‘This is not about not trusting Europe,’ said Myers. ‘It’s about trusting British judges.’

Puerile proposals
Britain needs a Bill of Rights because ‘states are so much more powerful than they ever were,’ argued public law specialist Helen Mountfield QC at the debate. But the Human Rights Act is a ‘perfectly good constitutional settlement’, she added.

‘The language of the ECHR represents a profound belief that the best foundation for justice and peace is maintained on the one hand by effective political democracy and on the other, by the understanding of human rights.’
Helen Mountfield QC

The anti-European Court ‘howls’ from the Daily Mail, The Sun and the Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling, suggest that the ‘ballot box is the only legitimate form of accountability’, said Mountfield. ‘But democracy is more than a ballot box: it’s the underpinning rules, such as freedom of expression, and the rule of law, and the ballot box.’

‘The ballot box hasn’t provided for the rights of everyone,’ she added – citing the example of Irish republicans during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, who ‘weren’t protected from torture’. Agreeing with former Attorney General Dominic Grieve’s forthright criticism of the proposals, Mountfield concluded: ‘this is puerile.’

Rights growing like topsy
Barrister and writer Jon Holbrook – who argues for the expansion of lawyer-free zones, and fewer laws – told the debate that although he is ‘against human rights’, that does not mean he is ‘in favour of torture’.

Different views exist on how prisoners and travellers should be treated, argued Holbrook. ‘Because I don’t want to give prisoners the vote doesn’t mean I want to string up all prisoners,’ he said, arguing that the ongoing prisoners’ voting debacle was a ‘good illustration of that great poverty of reasoning in a great many Strasbourg judgments.’

Holbrook argued in favour of ‘natural rights’ such as free speech, a free press and the right to freedom of association, where ‘the state stays out and the individual has freedom to do things.’

Such rights are ‘wholly different’ from the sorts of rights everyone talks about now as human rights under the HRA, he said. Today’s rights, which have ‘grown like topsy’, do not restrict state power but expand the state, argued Holbrook, citing the right to welfare benefits as an example. ‘If you want liberty, tear up human rights legislation,’ he concluded.

Despite the Chair’s attempts to have both sides of the debate aired, proponents of the reforms were few and far-between. Rounding off the evening, Adam Wagner pointed out that the greatest supporters of the plans to scrap the Human Rights Act were justice secretary Chris Grayling, ‘who is in charge of prisons’, and Home Secretary Theresa May, ‘who is in charge of immigration.’

’Do the maths,’ said Wagner. ‘We’d have fewer immigrants and harder prisons if the Human Rights Act was gone. This is all about power.’

Profile photo of Mary-Rachel McCabe About Mary-Rachel McCabe
Mary-Rachel McCabe is a pupil barrister at Doughty Street Chambers. She tweets @MaryRachel_McC

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9 Comments

  • Jon Holbrook October 8, 2014 5:19 pm

    My arguments are set out more fully in various articles that you can access:

    http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/author/Jon%20Holbrook

    • George Gretton October 10, 2014 10:10 am

      Thank you, John,

      For me you cut the quick in your article.

      Law and politics are getting muddled up.

      UTTERLY BONKERS conclusions result, which bring both the Law, including Judges, and politics into disrepute, as when those that make a “living” out of grossly violating the natural rights of others, such as by physically attacking them, or by robbing / thieving / defrauding other more decent and honest human beings demand their “rights” the DEMAND their RIGHTS. But they have FORFEITED their own RIGHTS, by trampling on those of OTHERS…

      To them I say; “You should have thought of the impact of your crime on your rights before you trampled over the rights of another human being. You are a scammy, devious and two faced hypocrite. You want one law for you, and another for everybody else. Please remember that you are a convicted CRIMINAL”. Wow, how polite I am today.

      In this area the Law seems to have its Cranium stuck up its Rectum; and it’s perfectly obvious to people with common sense that that is the case.

      One wonders about the Psychological health of the relevant Legislators. It is not unreasonable to speculate that they have unresolved guilt problems handing around; they do not like the idea of the guilty being appropriately deprived of their normal rights, such as their physical liberty, as in being imprisoned.

      If they have been IMPRISONED on account of their OFFENCES TOWARDS SOCIETY, in their ANTI-SOCIAL crimes, why in Codd’s name should they have a VOTE? Who do we think that criminals are going to VOTE for? The people that are going to de-criminalise burglary?

      For me there is a slippery slope of value-mangling to be carefully avoided – whose ultimate form is that “Death is the most rewarding version of life.”

      We can see the effects of that in the psychopathic “Islamic State”, yet another version of Fascism…

      Natural values have been perverted to death…

      Yours,

      George on the Rant… but not on the Run, Band…

  • Brian Johnson October 8, 2014 6:12 pm

    The Magna Carta was basically a Bill of Rights for the Barons, not the people.
    I get the impression that the Conservative Party also want a Bill of rights to maintain the privileges of the privileged.

    Nothing has changed in 800 years.

    • George Gretton October 9, 2014 10:44 pm

      Hello Brian,

      “Nothing has changed in 800 years.”

      With your defeatist and accepting frame of mind nothing will EVER change…

      When I don’t like or agree with something, I see what I can do about it, including engaging in debate, and taking responsible actions..

      What are you actually going to DO in respect of your concerns about a Tory Bill of Rights?

      Why can’t you only see it as a threat, and not as an opportunity?

      Yours, George

      • Brian Johnson October 10, 2014 1:08 pm

        Hi George
        I’m not defeatist, just pessimistic about the way things are going.

        As an individual there isn’t a lot I can do but I have occasionally been in contact with my MP and Government ministers on matters relating to human rights and the abuse of power by the authorities and have assisted with British Naturism and Naturist Action Group in their campaigns on human Rights issues.

        “Power corrupts, absolute power………”

        British politicians like to damn foreign Governments for their lack of human rights. Perhaps they should look closer to home.

        • George Gretton October 10, 2014 5:11 pm

          Hello Again Brian Johnson;

          I enjoy gently joshing with you… we have mutual respect..

          After Surviving my own painful life, I am an optimist, and a relentless opportunist.

          I do my thing as an individual co-operating with others; all sorts of people, in all sorts of stations of life.

          I encounter truly good people in positions of power, and I compare notes with them – some Public Accounts Committee Members, a lovely Police and Crime Commissioner, some decent and honest bods that I have tracked down at “my” ICAEW.

          I have all the time in the world for the Wondrous MP, with OCD, who described, in a specially allowed Commons Debate, what daily work and home life is like, when you have to turn light switches on and off a certain number of times; and if you blow it, you have to start again.. Now he is NEITHER insane, NOR disturbed; he is a lovely husband, dad, and MP, that SERVES his community.

          While MANY are Corrupted by Power, or sought power so as to be able to abuse, NOT ALL POWERFUL PEOPLE ARE CORRUPT.

          The trick is to identify them, and form alliances with them.. and ENCOURAGE THEM, appreciate them, egg them on…. and kick the others in the arse..

          Yours, George

  • George Gretton October 8, 2014 7:44 pm

    I only ask for even some semblance of balance, of the balance of supply and demand.

    If so many more RIGHTS are around, who is going to SERVICE those rights? Which Group of Super-Men and Super-Women will make is so that the ever increasing demands ate actually MET?

    I know that Maggie Thatcher made a right cock-up with her attempt to make some balance between RIGHTS on the one hand and RESPONSIBILITIES and CONTRIBUTIONS on the other; but can we try again? It we fan demand without similarly increasing supply, then we have a problem, Houston…

    I quote Dear John Francis “Jack” Kennedy, who set the first moon landing in motion: “Ask not what your Country can do for you, but what you can do for your Country.”

    DEMAND less, and GIVE more…

    Yours, George the Nut Nemesis…

  • Jon Holbrook October 8, 2014 11:15 pm

    You can listen to the whole debate as a podcast here:
    http://instituteofideas1.podbean.com/feed/

  • Jon Holbrook October 10, 2014 10:46 am

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