On Thursday the 30 January Leigh Day Law, in London, kindly hosted the British Institute of Human Right’s (BIHR) event Human Rights Beneath the Headlines. With so much swirling about in the UK’s media on human rights BIHR decided to respond to the people who want to know more, who read the headlines and wonder if there is more to the story. The audience were invited to send in questions beforehand or to just throw out their must ask issue on media stories during the Q and A style event.
Helen Wildbore, Human Rights Officer at BIHR, was in the chair and joined by Adam Wagner, Barrister and founder and editor of the UK Human Rights Blog, Benjamin Burrows solicitor at Leigh Day and his colleague Elisabeth Andresen, who have worked on a range of cases including prisoner’s rights, the Dale farm eviction and health abuse issues, plus BIHR’s Deputy Director Sanchita Hosali. The panel shared their expertise to look behind some of the cases most often featured in the headlines, as well as shining a light on those human rights cases that rarely make it into the media. The headlines came from a variety of UK newspapers, broadsheets and tabloids, which ran stories on human rights issues.
Read all about it!
To start we looked at headlines relating to prisoner’s voting rights asking questions such as, ‘Why should judges in Europe be able to force us to give prisoners the vote?’ The panellists looked at the legal issues behind the prisoner voting cases and what the ECHR said in its judgement – that the blanket ban on prisoner voting was unlawful rather than all prisoners should be given the vote. The negative headlines on the issue also highlighted the continued confusion between the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights when it comes to human rights law – some questioned whether this was deliberate or not.
Other headlines posed the question – ‘It seems like the Human Rights Act is really only about helping people who should be punished not given more rights?’ As panellist Adam flagged these aren’t cases about damages, they are about justice, often for people who have been at the sharp end of Government decisions. As Sanchita noted, one of the functions of human rights is to help ensure justice and the rule of law in democracies, to protect us all including those who the majority or those in power might deem unpopular. This was echoed by Elizabeth who spoke about cases on Mid-Staffordshire and other major healthcare failings where the Human Rights Act provides families with a vital way of holding the authorities to account. Again, what human rights helps them with is to get an apology for the infringement of their rights or the abuse of their loved ones. In many cases if damages are rewarded they are often small and only in grievous cases.
Immigration and deportation was another hot topic, with so many headlines leading to questions like ‘Is it true that human right’s stops us deporting people like criminals and from having control over immigration? We need to be able to set the rules.’ The panel spoke about how the figures on these issues are fairly complicated and often not as clear cut as presented. The law allows deportation if a person has been sentenced to more than twelve months. In the experience of the panellists successful human rights cases preventing deportation tended to be the exception rather than the norm and often involved issues like the rights of the children of those involved, including British children. Also, stories on this issues can mix up immigration and migration with deportation based on criminal conviction.
Similar issues about facts and figures were flagged when we looked at the UK’s relationship with the European Court of Human Rights. As figures that had been released on the day of the event revealed the ECHR grants very cases against the UK and in general the UK Government does fairly well at the ECHR. The ECHR’s annual statistics showed that 98.85% of the 1,652 UK cases brought to the court in 2013 were declared inadmissible or struck out. Of the remaining cases it found the UK had breached human rights in 9 cases and had not in 10.
The final set of headlines focused on the issue of ‘stories about leaving the European Convention/ Court of Human Rights and maybe having a British Bill of Rights, how would this be different?’ Sanchita spoke about how in these debates in the UK what is often ignored is that the Human Rights Act is important not for its own sake but because it is the promise of international human rights made our law. All the panellist were cautious about debates on a new British Bill of Rights. In principle sounds like a great idea, but is the political climate of negativity about human rights the context for a new law? Some questioned how different a new law to make human rights sound more appealing would be.
Putting the confusion to bed
The event certainly helped to clarify some of the facts behind the headlines. It also gave the opportunity flag up the kinds of cases where the Human Rights Act helps people in everyday life get justice. It was revealing how there are news stories where human rights are of central importance but are never mentioned. Perhaps the media and political debates would be very different if these stories also mentioned how human rights laws help people, such as enabling those subjected to inhuman and degrading circumstances in hospitals and care homes to seek accountability and better treatment. Until then events like BIHR’s Human Rights Beneath the Headlines are very much needed!
NOTE: BIHR would like to thank to everyone who came along, to our panellists and especially Leigh Day for hosting the event.