Britain’s Justice Secretary has promised to reform the relationship between the European Court of Human Rights (pictured) and national EU parliaments in an on-going domestic row over the rights of convicts.
Three cases have attracted the attention of tabloid newspapers in recent weeks and led to calls from some quarters for Britain to pull out of the 1953 European Convention on Human Rights and draw up its own human rights bill.
First, the Strasbourg-based Court ruled that a British ban on giving prisoners the vote should be reviewed. British Prime Minister David Cameron said the ruling left him feeling “sick”. Parliament then voted to ignore the ECHR’s ruling which, while having no legal effect whatsoever, puts pressure on the government to resist European calls to change the law.
Then, the UK’s Supreme Court ruled that people convicted of sex offences can appeal against having to appear on the police sex offenders’ register for the rest of their lives without any chance of a review. The judge in this case said that under the ECHR, the British law violated the offender’s human rights. Some sections of the populist press seized on this; Britain’s biggest-selling daily The Sun described it as a ‘pervert’s charter’.
The most recent case involves convicted psychiatric patients. Five people, who have been convicted for offences including murder, rape, terrorism and child molestation, are asking the European court to grant them the right to full welfare benefits, including a pension. Their lawyers claim they are not ‘prisoners’ but rather ‘patients’ suffering from mental health problems. Again, this has riled certain newspapers including the Daily Mail and the Daily Express.
Rights groups warn that the issue risks becoming generalised as one involving only paedophiles and prisoners, rather than one involving all citizens’ rights. But pressure on the government is coming from backbench Conservative members of parliament, as well as the popular press, to withdraw from the human rights convention.
Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke said there was “no question” of that. Instead he has proposed to try and reform the way in which the European court and national parliaments co-exist. That chance will come when Britain takes the chair of the Council of Europe in November. Clarke told the BBC’s Andrew Marr:
“I think behind all the heat there is a little light to be shed on whether we shouldn’t, in the Council of Europe, address the question of how the (European) court behaves – how far does it go into things which legislatures and national courts could actually determine? Are we certain that the court operates properly? It’s got an enormous number of judges. Could it handle its caseload quicker?”
Clarke added that several other EU countries shared the same concerns as Britain.
Prime Minister Cameron has said that a commission will soon be set up to look at how an eventual ‘British Bill of Rights’ would work, insisting that if it ever did see the light of day it would not override the ECHR.
But Lord Woolf, Britain’s most senior judge from 2000 to 2005, has warned of the “complications” of having two conventions, a European one and a British one, for judges to consider simultaneously. He added that Britain ultimately faces a “stark choice” between sticking with the ECHR’s rulings or abandoning it altogether.