Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Left out of rights?

Interesting developments in the past few weeks in relation to the UK and its membership in the European Court of Human Rights. As many of you already know the European Court of Human Rights was established by the European Convention on Human Rights which was put forward by the Council of Europe. The aim of the court was to give force to the rights articulated within the Convention. The UK was one of leading proponents of the Convention and actively helped to develop the document. However it was not to be until the Human Rights Act 1998 that its provisions were incorporated into law. Undoubtedly the HRA has played a major role in strengthening the rights enunciated in the Convention, however a number of recent decisions by the European Court of Human Rights have drawn scorn from a number of MP's in that they have gone too far and that unelected judges in Strasbourg are now having their way with the cherished doctrine of the sovereignty of Parliament.

Seemingly MP's are put out that court has stated that the blanket ban on convicted criminals being denied the right to vote violates the Convention as there has never been a proper airing of the topic in a legislative assembly. Well, that was true until a few weeks ago when there was a rather entertaining and open debate about the Court's ruling in the House of Commons. While the Attorney General was present to give the government's position and Labour was quick to provide that of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, most interesting was that it was a back bencher debate which saw much cross party support for not only maintaining the ban on prisoner voting but also sought to reaffirm the primacy of Parliament in making such decisions. Only a few brave MP's from the Liberal Democrats were bold enough to suggest that as the Court had in the past played a role in carving a path for the recognition of rights within various societies before their time, perhaps it might be worth giving them the benefit of the doubt on this issue as well.

Where does the UK stand in relation to the Convention? Can it in fact go against a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights? As far as I can tell, it can. Unlike EU law which is must be adopted by the UK, there seems to be no compunction for the Courts rulings to be treated in a similar manner. Granted the HRA requires that judges take into consideration the rulings of the HRA and also that it is illegal for public bodies not to follow principles established in the HRA, however there seems to be nothing preventing the Parliament from acting contrary to a ruling by the ECHR. Indeed, the vote which took place in the Commons specifically stated at that while they support and recognize their obligations under the Convention, they affirm that prisoners should not have the right to vote.

Perhaps the wider implications of these developments is the UK's membership in the European Court on Human Rights. While only a few call to withdraw from the Convention, there was harsh criticism of the court's workings. Some hope is pinned on correcting the weaknesses of the Court, but this seemingly opens the door for the Conservatives to possibly repeal or water down the HRA in favour of a Bill of Rights. How the courts, the legislature and most importantly the public will react to a possible lessening of rights remain to be seen.

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