(UK - Independent) Human rights: the case for the defence
The Conservative Party launched a campaign yesterday to 'curb the rights culture'. But can all their charges be taken at face value?
By Robert Verkaik and Nigel Morris
24 August 2004
VOLUME OF CLAIMS
THE CHARGE: According to David Davis, who launched the Conservatives' campaign yesterday, the Human Rights Act has been responsible for an escalating volume of 'rights' claims against the criminal justice system and other public bodies".
THE DEFENCE: Research conducted by the courts and government agencies points to no more than a small increase in the number of cases brought under the Human Rights Act since October 2000. In a report published last year, Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights reported there was nothing to suggest that human rights litigation had taken hold in Britain. It said: "We have not found evidence of the rapid development of awareness of a culture of respect for human rights and its implications throughout society, and what awareness there is often appears partial or ill-informed. We fear ... awareness of human rights is ebbing, within public authorities and the public."
THE CHARGE: The Human Rights Act has spawned too many spurious rights. "It has fuelled a compensation culture out of all proportion."
THE DEFENCE: The idea that Britain is in the grip of a US-style compensation culture has been exposed as myth. According to the Government's better regulation task force, there is no actual compensation culture in the UK. Its report earlier this year said the number of successful claims was falling at a rate of nearly 60,000 in 2003-04. What Mr Davis does not state is that many of the successful human rights cases have led to the improvement in living conditions of thousands of vulnerable people in Britain.
RISE IN CASE-LOAD
THE CHARGE: Since the European Convention on Human Rights was enshrined in British law, there has been a twentyfold rise in the number of cases in the areas it deals with, with "a serious effect on the operation of the law". Between 1975 and 1996, Mr Davis says, the convention was considered in 316 cases in the UK and affected the outcome, reasoning or procedure in 16 of those. In the 18 months after the Act came into force, it was considered in 431 cases and affected the outcome in 318 of those.
THE DEFENCE: There are no reliable figures for all cases involving European human rights law before the HRA came into force and Mr Davis does not identify the basis for his research. While it is true that in the first 18 months of the legislation coming into force there were around 431 cases, this must be taken in the context of around 200,000 Crown Court and civil cases heard every year.
THE CHARGE: "All too often [the Act] seems to give criminals more rights than the victims of crime."
THE DEFENCE: The courts - primarily due to the Human Rights Act - are now much more receptive to the rights of victims. Judges now have a duty to consider statements made by victims of crime when considering punishments for criminals.
THE CHARGE: "The Human Rights Act puts limitations on the ability to deport failed asylum-seekers."
THE DEFENCE: Legislation controlling the treatment of asylum-seekers and refugees dates to the 1951 Geneva Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights. The Human Rights Act enshrined the European Convention into British law, meaning that battles over immigrants' rights are fought in London rather than Strasbourg. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants believes that human rights legislation has been interpreted by the courts in a more draconian fashion in recent years.
THE CHARGE: The Human Rights Act allows claims that defy common sense. For example, it enabled the serial killer Dennis Nilsen to win the "right" to receive hardcore pornography in jail.
THE DEFENCE: The Act has had little direct impact on everyday regimes in jails despite several areas where the Prison Service could be seen as denying basic rights, such as the freedom to vote.
THE CHARGE: "The Human Rights Act... does not, of course, provide protection to real human rights."
THE DEFENCE: Whether it is the privacy rights of ordinary people or the rights of the homeless or mentally ill, thousands of British citizens now enjoy a better quality of life than they did four years ago.