The precarious future of human rights in the UK 

“The vitriolic – and I’m afraid to say, xenophobic – fury directed against the judges of my court is unprecedented in my experience as someone who has been involved with the convention system for over 40 years.”

The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom

This was the condemnation by Europe’s most powerful judge regarding the UK government’s recent hostility to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

In July, two of the UK’s most senior judges, Lord Phillips, the president of the supreme court, and Lord Judge, the lord chief justice, argued that the UK follows the European Court of Human Rights too strictly – and that they should adopt a more critical approach towards Strasbourg.

Theresa May has been busy plotting to reform immigration rules, which will ensure that Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights  – the right to a family life – can’t be used by criminals in order to avoid deportation. During the Conservative party conference she notoriously claimed that one illegal immigrant managed to appeal against being deported by citing a relationship with his cat. These claims were later revealed as grossly false.

The Human Rights Act has been criticised by many for being too “European.”  Some would argue that withdrawing from the ECHR would necessitate withdrawal from the EU too (which many Euro sceptics would be delighted about).  Others argue it would be possible to withdraw from the jurisdiction of the Strasbourg based European Court of Human Rights without pulling out from the ECHR altogether.

A commission has been set up in order to investigate whether the Human Rights Act should be replaced by a bill of rights – so far they have squabbled a lot and not really got much done.

In theory it is possible to establish a bill of rights that adds our current Human Rights Act which would maintain rules against torture, slavery and arbitrary detention – added to the protection of fair trials, privacy, conscience, free speech and association and equal treatment under the law.  However, this consultation is now closed and as evidenced from Theresa May’s rhetoric – any inclusion of more “rights” within this bill is highly unlikely.

By the end of this year’s parliament, the protection of rights in the UK is set to look very different.  Whilst the Conservatives vow to replace the Human Rights Act, the Liberal Democrats promise to defend it (which, based on their previous track record doesn’t stand for much).

Abandoning the current legislation doesn’t necessarily mean we will lose many of the rights that we are entitled to at present. However, the recession has led to increasing pressure from politicians, the press and the public for harsher treatment to be imposed on those seeking asylum, those claiming benefits and those most vulnerable in society more generally. From what can be seen in recent years, it seems we are at risk of sleepwalking into a country which fails to protect civil liberties.

 

Sarah Story

Image Credit- Hogweard