It’s small charity week: Why I love working at BIHR

By Stephen Bowen, Director, British Institute of Human Rights

 

Small charities are the unsung heroes of our civil society.medium_SBowen_0

In small places, close to home they have an impact way beyond their limited resources. Small national charities often lead the way in developing solutions to the challenges we face. They are remarkable for their willingness to focus on the often neglected and sometimes unpopular causes, working to champion the rights of people who are most at risk of disadvantage, poverty and exclusion.

The British Institute of Human Rights is a small national charity with a big Impact.

Across the UK, we help people and organisations understand that human rights are the standards by which a decent society should live. We help people understand that our Human Rights Act is a 21st Century Bill of Rights – a modern Magna Carta which celebrates our contribution to the rule of law over the centuries but which also recognises that we still have much to learn.

I love working for a small charity because of the sense of team work and the shared commitment that exists across the whole BIHR family. It is great to work somewhere that can respond quickly to changing circumstances, and which can stay true to its values however difficult the challenges become. And I love working for BIHR because we are connected, through our UK-wide Human Rights Tour and practice based work, to so many other people and organisations who are passionate in their belief that every member of the human family is of equal value, and that universal international human rights are ours to cherish and defend.

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The Human Rights Act: Sometimes it’s about everyday life and death decisions

By Natalie Therfall and Sanchita Hosali at the British Institute of Human Rights

 

At the end of our lives, 68% of us will die in hospital. Of that percentage, 80% will die with ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ (DNR) orders in place. These are the sobering figures Lord Dyson quoted when delivering today’s Court of Appeal judgement which confirmed that a person’s basic human rights can be breached when a DNR order is placed on a patient file without consultation.

The Case

Janet Tracey from Family Handout

Janet Tracey, photo from Family Handout

The case (Tracey v Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Trust) was about Janet Tracey, a care home manager, who was seriously ill with terminal cancer and had to be ventilated following injuries sustained in a car crash. In the course of Mrs Tracey’s treatment, when she was about to be removed from artificial ventilation, a DNR order was placed on her records. The removal of the ventilator was successful and Mrs Tracey was able to breathe unassisted. Later on Mrs Tracey’s daughter looked up what was meant by the term ‘DNR’ which she had seen written on her mother’s records. She was distressed to discover that had her mother’s heart stopped (cardiac arrest) during her treatment, she would not have been resuscitated. At the request of the family, the hospital removed the DNR order. Janet, her family and medical staff were then able to discuss end of life matters, and subsequently decided that they would place a DNR order on file. A little while later, Mrs Tracey died in hospital.

The family were concerned that the first DNR had appeared on Mrs Tracey’s records without any consultation. They asked the courts to decide whether this breached her right to respect for private and family life which is protected by the Human Rights Act (Article 8).

The Importance of the Judgment

The first judge who heard the case believed the family’s claim that the DNR order placed without permission violated Mrs Tracey’s right to respect for private and family life was academic because the order had been removed before it had done any harm. Lord Dyson in the Court of Appeal disagreed. He noted that the fact Mrs Tracey’s heart had not stopped while the DNR order was on file was fortuitous, and:

fortuity cannot bear on the question whether Mrs Tracey was sufficiently involved in the decision-making process which led to the imposition of the first notice.”

In other words, Mrs Tracey was lucky, and being lucky does not mean the decision to place the first DNR on file respected Mrs Tracey’s human rights. In the future others who may have been subject to DNR orders without consultation may not have been so lucky. The Court also said it was not enough that the DNR order was cancelled when the family raised concerns. Mrs Tracey’s human rights were engaged by the underlying policy that led to a decision being made without consulting her. It was not the refusal to resuscitate that was being challenged, but the policy that led to decision being made without involving the Tracey family.

Why is this about human rights?

The right to respect for private and family life applies to a range of decisions and issues that affect people’s private life. Crucially, this can include decisions at the end of life. Lord Dyson states in the case:

A decision as to how to pass the closing days and moments of one’s life and how one manages one’s death touches in the most immediate and obvious way a patient’s personal autonomy, integrity, dignity and quality of life.”

Clearly, the right to respect for private and family life was engaged in Mrs Tracey’s case (and other end of life decisions) and should be a vital part of the decision making process.

When deciding whether Mrs Tracey’s human rights had been breached the judge said it is clear from previous decisions in the European Court of Human Rights that the degree of patient involvement in end of life decisions required by Article 8 will depend on the particular circumstances of the case. But this right also carries with it a presumption of patient involvement, and there must be very convincing reasons for not involving the patient.

What convincing reasons?

There is a principle in common law that a patient cannot force a doctor to give them a particular treatment, including resuscitation. Lord Dyson explains this does not mean the patient is not entitled to know about the doctor’s decision, to discuss it with them and if appropriate, request a second opinion.

Importantly the Court also said that just because a patient may be distressed by a discussion about non-resuscitation, as Mrs Tracey was, does not mean they should be excluded from the decision. The doctor may only exclude a person from the decision process if “he or she thinks that the patient will be distressed by being consulted and that that distress might cause the patient harm”.

The Outcome of the Case

By the time the case was heard in the Court of Appeal, the hospital had rewritten the policy regarding DNR decisions. The Court notes that the new policy respects the Article 8 rights of patients by involving them in decisions where doctors think a DNR order is necessary. However, the previous policy which had led to a DNR order being placed on Mrs Tracey’s records without consultation had breached her human rights under Article 8.

Beyond the case – the everyday impact

The right to respect for private and family life is not absolute. It is a qualified right, which means officials can restrict it when there is a law in place to allow such a restriction and when it meets one of the aims set out in the Human Rights Act, e.g. to protect the rights of others. In any event, any restriction of the right must always be proportionate. This means all alternatives should be considered, and the decision maker should not simply jump straight to the most restrictive option.

Following Mrs Tracey’s case, when a doctor assesses whether discussing a DNR order with a patient will distress them enough to cause “physical or psychological harm”, they will have to balance this harm against the potential harm to the patient’s rights if they do not include them in the decision.

Sadly at the British Institute of Human Rights we know that MRs Tracey’s case is not a one-off. We work extensively in the health and social care sector, both with doctors and nurses and advocates supporting patients and families. The issue of DNR orders being placed on people’s files without consultation is something we hear all too frequently.

In one instance a 51 year old man with Down’s syndrome and dementia had a DNR order put on his file without him or his family being consulted. The reasons given on the form were listed as: ‘Down’s syndrome, unable to swallow… bed bound, learning difficulties’. He and his family argued that this was discrimination and that it breached his right to life under Article 2. The case was settled out of court and the NHS Trust apologised.

In another instance a worker for an advocacy group we’ve supported visited her client, an older man with dementia, on the hospital ward. She found a DNR order on his file and when she asked staff about this was she was told that everyone on the ward had a DNR automatically. The client was not aware of the DNR. However his advocate believed he had capacity to take the information on board, as well as having two daughters who had visited but were not consulted or informed. The advocate challenged the blanket use of the DNR orders with staff, explaining that she thought this raised serious human rights issues, especially the right to life not to be discriminated against. The DNR was withdrawn.

Putting human rights into practice

Clearly human rights need to be part of the decisions made every-day by staff in health and social care. A human rights approach helps staff to do this, empowering them to see the law as not merely a compliance issue for lawyers but part of their everyday practice. BIHR’s new resource The Difference It Makes: Putting Human Rights at the Heart of Health and Social Care is designed to help practitioners do this, using a range of real-life stories.

Following Mrs Tracey’s case all professionals involved in DNR decisions need to be aware of their obligations under the Human Rights Act to involve patients in these decisions. It may also be necessary for NHS Trusts and organisations to review their policies on making of DNR decisions to ensure people’s human rights are being respected. This, after all should be at the heart of our health care:

 

NHS Constitution Principle 1: The NHS provides a comprehensive service, available to all… It has a duty to each and every individual that it serves and must respecttheir human rights”

 

 If you found this blog useful please consider supporting BIHR to win a competition for Small Charities Week 16-20 June 2014. All you need to do is send a Tweet which says: #ILoveSmallCharities like @BIHRhumanrights because (and add you reason).
As a small charity we rely on the support of those who care about human rights being respected, protected and fulfilled in the UK. Your Tweet could help us to win this competition!

 

Carers Week 2014: Human rights inside the courts and everyday advocacy

By Sanchita Hosali and Natalie Therfall at the British Institute of Human Rights

 

This Carers’ Week (9-13 June) we take a look at some important court judgments affirming the human rights of carer givers and care receivers alike. These judgments highlight the role of the Human Rights Act both in challenging poor decisions and its use in the decision making process. But remember it’s not all about the courts, BIHR’s Your Human Rights: A Pocket Guide for Carers is a handy resource to help people in their day-to-day interactions with public services, outlined at the end of this blog.

When the local authority becomes involved in care at home

There have been a number of cases where the proper procedures for altering care arrangements has not been followed. Although this may seem like a box ticking exercise, the result of such procedural failures has been to separate families. In one case a family carer had not been informed where their relative has been taken. The Human Rights Act has important role in such cases, empowering carers to hold services to account when officials have overstepped the mark.

In RR v Milton Keynes Council, an 81 year old woman with dementia was removed from her home without warning and without authorisation. Her son was not informed where she had been taken and their contact was restricted. The court roundly criticised the conduct of the local authority. The authorities had violated the woman’s right to liberty protected by the Human Rights Act (in Article 5) by failing to get the proper authorisation to detain her in a nursing home. They were also found to have violated her right to respect private and family life under the Act (Article 8) by removing her from her home of 30 years and from the family that had been caring for her.

This case bears striking similarities to that of the Neary family who took action against Hillingdon Borough Council; ; where Steven Neary, a young man with learning disabilities cared for by his father, Mark, was taken into respite care and then not allowed to return home for a year. Again the court criticised the conduct of the local authority in this case, which took place 3 years before RR. The court decided that the authorities had violated Steven’s right to liberty by detaining him without authorisation, for a number of months. And both Steven and Mark’s right to respect for private and family life had been violated because Steven had been taken from the family home and they could no longer enjoy life as a family.

As well as the delays sought in authorising depriving Steven of his liberty in the care unit, the court criticised the use of safeguards.. Known as Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (DOLS, set out in the Mental Capacity Act 2005), these are intended to safeguard people who have been deprived of their Article 5 right to liberty. Mark Neary, Steven’s father, was quoted in the judgement as saying “safeguards seemed good – the reality didn’t. I didn’t know where I was”. It was clear in Neary that the safeguards had been misused. Here measures which are supposed to ensure respect for the rights of people in care were used as a tool to ensure continued detention, and risks to the right to liberty. Clearly, reason for safeguarding are about ensuring people’s basic rights to liberty and to free from harm, in practice this was forgotten, which is why the Human Rights Act was needed to challenge officials and hold them to account.

The Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards

The recent case known as Cheshire West is a significant step in recognising the human rights of those without capacity to make decisions about their own care. It concerned three adults with learning disabilities in ‘home like’ care placements who were none-the-less deprived of their liberty under Article 5. This is because, as the lead judgment by Lady Hale states, disabled people and people who lack capacity to make a decision are still protected by the same universal human rights as the rest of us. As Baroness Hale said, if a care arrangement would deprive her of her liberty, then so too would it deprive the person without capacity of theirs, it doesn’t matter what the intentions behind the deprivation are, or whether the person seems not to protest against the situation:

a gilded cage is still a cage

The case is important for carers. This test about whether a situation is depriving someone of their liberty applies whenever the state becomes involved in the provision of care. Where a local authority assumes responsibility for somebody’s care, they also assume responsibility to properly assess whether their care arrangements deprive that person of their liberty. If they do, then the proper safeguards must be applied. Baroness Hale is quick to emphasise that needing to apply the safeguards to a person’s care is not a bad thing. It is a crucial mechanism for ensuring that the person’s rights are respected while receiving care. The reviews required by the safeguards should be independent assessments which determine whether the persons rights, including to make decisions about what happens to them (Article 8) are respected to the maximum extent possible.

Respecting the wishes of the person in care

A 2013 case highlights importance of taking the wishes of the person in care into account in decisions affecting their life. The substantial issue of the case was whether an older woman with dementia could be allowed to return to live in her home for a trial period. The woman, Mrs Manuela Sykes, a former activist and politician also wished to waive her right to anonymity in order to raise awareness of her experience. The court found that at the time of the case Mrs Sykes lacked the capacity to make that decision for herself, however, taking into account her present wishes and her former strongly held values, it was decided that it was in her best interests to allow her to waive her anonymity: “by nature she is a fighter, a campaigner, a person of passion… she would wish her life to end with a bang not a whimper.”

A recent case from the European Court of Human Rights, McDonald v UK found that a woman forced to use incontinence pads when she was not incontinent had her rights to a private life engaged when she was made to live in a manner which “conflicted with [her] strongly held ideas of self and personal identity”. Once those Article 8 rights were engaged, the local authority providing overnight care had a duty to consider those rights when making their decision or else they would be in breach of them. This case highlights the importance of looking at all care decisions through a human rights lens.

Challenging discrimination against carers

The rights in the Human Rights Act are drawn from the European Court of Human Rights, which is overseen by the European Court of Human Rights. The European Union and the European Court of Justice are completely separate. However, when the ECJ was asked to look at an employment case from the UK involving a carer, they looked at human rights. In Coleman v Attridge Law the ECJ used the ECHR human rights principle of non-discrimination when deciding whether an EU directive prohibiting discrimination against disabled people in employment applied to Sharon Coleman. Sharon, the main carer for her disabled son, worked at a law firm and was denied flexible work arrangements offered to her colleagues without disabled children. The ECJ found that disability discrimination by association is unlawful in the workplace. The case ensured that UK law provides protection against discrimination on the grounds of someone’s association, including caring responsibilities, with a disabled person.

Everyday empowerment and accountability is important tooCarers Guide

Human rights have been relied on in all of the above cases to ensure that lack of capacity or a caring role do not prevent a person from enjoying and exercising their rights. This has been something of a whistle stop tour of recent case law surrounding care, but you can read about some of these cases in more detail on this blog.

Finally, it’s really important to remember human rights are not all about the courts. The Human Rights Act has an important role beyond and before legal action. The law is about our rights and it can empower us to challenge poor treatment and decisions in our everyday interactions with public officials (as well as help officials develop and deliver better services). BIHR’s project work to take human rights into the heart of everyday life has included working with carers and their advocates. In our consultation with n-compass advocacy service in the North East of England:

  • Almost half thought human rights were important to their caring role
  • But less than a third felt confident that they knew what their rights were
  • And only 15% felt confident advocating for the rights of those they cared for

That’s why we produced Your Human Rights: A Pocket Guide for Carers, to help fill that gap. The Pocket Guide is about empowering carer’s with a bit more knowledge about their rights and the rights of those they care for, and carer’s tell us how important this is:

[with BIHR’s Pocket Guide] I feel more empowered and confident on how to challenge, I see human rights can facilitate change (Carer, North East England)

The BIHR guidance helps to equip carers with the knowledge to better secure their rights as well as those of the persons they care for. It’s all about bringing rights home. (Nick Gradwell, carer and expert by expereince)

So this Carers Week let’s spread the word that human rights are what it says on the tin – getting it “right” for all “humans” including carers and those for whom they care.

 

Respecting the right to family life: the Human Rights Act, parents with learning disabilities and access to justice

By Sanchita Hosali and Natalie Threfall at British Institute of Human Rights

“Human beings are social animals. They depend on others. Their family, or extended family, is the group on which many people most heavily depend, socially, emotionally and often financially. There comes a point at which, for some, prolonged and unavoidable separation from this group seriously inhibits their ability to live full and fulfilling lives.” (Huang, 2007)

The right to respect for family life protected by the Human Rights Act (in Article 8) goes to the heart of decisions involving children and care, reminding us to consider the both the rights of a child as an individual and their rights as a member of a family. Yet it is a human right that is often misunderstood in practice (and sometimes maligned in headlines and sound-bites). A recent decision in the family court, Re DE (A Child) [2014] EWFC 6, is a reminder that the local authority and its staff need to understand that consideration of the Human Rights Act is an important part of making fair and lawful decisions that respect the rights of the child and the family.

What happened?

The case concerned D, the child of a couple with learning disabilities. D had been subject to a care plan from birth, and had been living at home with his parents who were supported by the local authority. The local authority had become concerned that D’s welfare was deteriorating and made plans for D to be taken into foster care. This would be followed by a hearing to determine the future of the care plan. The parents’ solicitors asked the courts for an injunction preventing D from being taken into care before the care plan hearing. They said the injunction should be given using powers under the Human Rights Act, because removing D before the hearing was a disproportionate restriction on their right to respect for family life. The first judge rejected this as he did not believe he had the power to grant such an injunction.

Challenging the interim care decision on human rights grounds

At the higher court Mr Justice Baker found that the first judge had limited himself and his powers wrongly when refusing to grant an injunction under the Human Rights Act. Local authorities have a duty under section 6 of the Human Rights Act to make sure all their decisions respect the rights in the HRA. In D’s case the authorities had failed to respect the Article 8 rights to the family (discussed below). Therefore the courts, which also have a duty under section 6 to respect human rights in their decision making, can rely on the Human Rights Act to prevent an unjust decision. This means if a judge has the power to grant an injunction, a power which has recently been granted to the family courts, then they can grant an injunction under the Human Rights Act.

Did the care decision therefore violate the rights of D or his parents?

The right to respect for family life is a qualified right, this means officials can restrict this right when there is a law in place to allow such a restriction and when it meets one of the aims set out in the Act, e.g. to protect the rights of others. In any event, any restriction of the right should be proportionate. This means all alternatives should be considered, and the decision maker should not simply jump straight to the most restrictive option.

In cases of removing a child from the family home, looking at the situation through a Human Rights Act lens means recognising that the child and the family have rights which should be respected unless the tests of lawfulness, legitimate aim, and proportionately justify restriction. For example, where a child is at danger of serious harm or neglect the Human Rights Act places a positive obligation on officials to step in and take action (this underpins safeguarding).

In D’s case he was not in immediate danger, nor was there any threat of future danger. Yet he was taken into foster care before the hearing to determine the future of the care plan and the child’s best interests. If, after a full and proper hearing had been carried out, it was found to be in D’s best interests for him to be taken into foster care, the interference with his and his parents’ Article 8 rights would be justified. However, to take him into care when he was not in danger and before evidence could be heard from his parents failed to take the family’s human rights into account.

What does this mean?

D’s case simply (but importantly) clarifies that in such situations parents can apply to the courts for an injunction under the Human Rights Act. Whether the removal decision breached human rights, is a matter which must be decided at a full hearing.

However, it does have a broader significance in reminding officials about the importance of taking human rights into account at every stage of the decision making process. We have blogged before about cases where decisions that drastically alter peoples’ lives have been made before their human rights have been considered and the proper safeguards put in place, such as in RR v Milton Keynes Council where the local authority failed to apply for authorisation to remove an elderly woman from her home. The decision in Re D highlights once again the weight local authorities must put on all rights when making their decisions.

Hold on, there is an access to justice issue too

D’s case also raises access to justice questions, an issue of growing concern with recent changes to legal aid, which have had a particular impact in family and civil cases. Because of the specific nature of the original care plan and the changes that were being enacted, under the Children Act 1989 the family fell into a gap that left them without non-means tested legal aid. As the father had a steady, but low paying job, he was unable to access legal aid and his solicitors and barrister acted pro bono.

Justice Baker highlights this gap as being a real barrier to accessing justice, particularly for adults with learning disabilities involved in care proceedings. Being unable to challenge a local authority’s care decision potentially leaves many families separated and unable to challenge violations to their rights. In particularly serious cases, being unable to contest life altering decisions may also risk falling foul of the right to a fair trial under the Human Rights Act (Article 6), which applies in many civil issues including family law.

At the end of his judgment, Justice Baker specifically calls this point to the attention of the President of the family courts, Sir Justice Munby. This week he made the important decision to suspend proceedings in a case where contact arrangements for a child were complicated by his father’s inability to access representation or translation services (Q v Q).

That case deals with contact arrangements between a father (who was a registered sex offender) and his child. As part of the hearing both sides put their case and evidence to the judge, however in this case legal aid for the father has been discontinued, and without translation or representation he cannot take part in the case. Justice Munby said:

“that there could be circumstances in which, without the assistance of a legally qualified representative, a litigant might be denied [their right to a fair hearing] … these are matters which are required to be investigated in justice not merely to the father, but I emphasise equally importantly to the son, as well as in the wider public interest of other litigants in a similar situation to that of the father here … there is the risk that, if one has a process which is not fair to one of the parents, that unfairness may in the final analysis rebound to the disadvantage of the child.”

As a result, he has suspended proceedings, inviting the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling to intervene in the case and explain how the costs of the case, which is “necessary and fair”, should be met. If necessary, he says, it may be the court, as a public body with a duty to respect human rights as described above, which must meet the costs of the case and ensure access to justice. We await the Minister’s response…

 

 

The Holocaust and Human Rights: A Time to Remember

 

The end of this month sees the close of the Prime Minister’s Commission on the Holocaust, which is seeking views on what further measures should be taken to ensure the permanent, fitting and meaningful memorial and educational resources around the Holocaust. With reports of increased racism in the UK and increasing negative rhetoric around our human rights law, this is perhaps the most fitting time for us to remind ourselves about the all too often overlooked relationship between the Holocaust and the legal protection of basic human rights.

Universal human rights standards
It is easy to forget that until the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted in 1948, there was almost no system that enabled criticism of – let alone action against – Government mistreatment of people within its borders, provided their own law allowed such abuses. As Professor Klug (2008) notes, “however morally repugnant, Nazi Germany’s racial purity policies were all in accordance with the law.”

Of course human history is littered with examples of the principles and values that underpin human rights – the struggle for dignity and equal respect has been the hallmark of so many social movements since the dawning of civilisation. Yet it was in “debris and ashes of a devastating world war” and the Holocaust that the world community drew up the UDHR, a document “crafted to celebrate the best that humans are capable of” (Klug, 2008).

The UDHR opens with the recognition that “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind” and that to prevent “tyranny and oppression…human rights should be protected by the rule of law”. This was a turning point in the legal recognition of the relationship between people and their governments. As Stéphane Hessel, a French-German diplomat and writer, a concentration camp survivor who helped write the UDHR said:

We had affirmed the universal responsibility of human rights… This was the innovation: we are responsible for human dignity and the rights of the person. It was democracy’s catechism. In other words, we do not govern for the pleasure of power, but to guarantee the exercise of a democratic society.

Human rights here at home
It is from the UDHR that the international system of human rights protections was born, one which heavily influenced the development of our legal framework here at home. At the same time the UDHR was being drafted, the nations of Europe, where the impact of the Holocaust was so keenly felt, also came together to say never again. Championed by leaders such as our Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the Council of Europe was founded to promote democracy and protect human rights and the rule of law in Europe. As the UDHR was being drafted European leaders drafted the European Convention on Human Rights, a legally binding document to protect a small but significant number of fundamental rights. During this time Churchill spoke about the strength derived from “our sense of common…values” and of such a Convention being “guarded by freedom and sustained by law” which ensured that “people owned the government, and not the government the people.”

When the UK parliament passed the Human Rights Act (HRA) in 1998 it made our human rights more accessible for people here at home. It means there is now a duty on all our public bodies to respect, protect and fulfill our human rights. This duty which is not just about central Government departments, but also covers the police, NHS organisations and staff, social services, housing and education officials – the types of public services that we all bump into every day.

The Commission on the Holocaust Consultation
The Prime Minister’s Commission on the Holocaust is a national, cross-party commission representing our whole society. It has been established to investigate whether further measures should be taken to ensure Britain has a permanent and fitting memorial and meaningful educational resources for generations to come.

The Commission is an opportunity to call for the continued support of our educators in teaching about the Holocaust. It is also a real opportunity to remind the Government that human rights are an integral part of ensuring meaningful education about the impact and legacy of the Holocaust.

Human rights education and the Holocaust – what is happening across Europe?
In a 2011 study about human rights within Holocaust education in 26 European countries only the governments of the UK* and the Netherlands responded that human rights education forms no explicit part of the core curriculum. The UK’s official response said that the values related to human rights naturally form a part of school education, but that there was no direct recommendation made by the Government with regard to human rights education. Additionally, all Member States except the UK and Bulgaria, said that they ‘promote projects and initiatives which expressly develop connections between Holocaust education and human rights education’. The UK only stated that the Holocaust is of ‘great importance’ in the core curricula.

The study stressed that the main responsibility for human rights education and the Holocaust lies at the school level, but that visits to memorial sites and museums only can serve as a complement to this. In went on to state that teachers should have access to training in human rights education, supporting them to make the linkages between these and the Holocaust.

Yet human rights is disappearing from the curriculum
Previously the statutory requirements for key stages 3 and 4 stated “The curriculum should enable all young people to become responsible citizens who challenge injustice, are committed to human rights, and strive to live peaceably with others.”

However, the new curriculum has removed reference to human rights at Key Stage 3, instead referring to the “precious liberties” enjoyed by those living in the UK, something which BIHR believes is too vague and uncertain. Although a reference to human rights and international law has been inserted into the final Key Stage 4 text, we remain concerned. During the consultation stages BIHR (and many others) asked the Government to reconsider these reforms and to ensure clear references to our human rights laws and systems, there is no mention of the UDHR, the ECHR, or the Human Rights Act.

Time to remember, time to make the links
Our human rights history is more relevant than ever. This week headlines have been dominated by the news that racism is on the rise in Britain; an important reminder that social progress is not a linear journey. We do not automatically become a more tolerant society as time goes on. Our human rights laws are a vital tool for ensuring everyone has their basic human rights respected and protected and they are as important now as they were 60 years ago.

Right now the Commission on the Holocaust wants to hear views about ensuring meaningful memorials and resources. Now is the time for us to make it clear that:

The legal protection of human rights for all is a direct and lasting legacy to emerge from the horrors of the Holocaust. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights opens with the fundamental commitment that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” For sixty years the European Convention of Human Rights has protected and upheld these universal values, and by 1998 these were made the law of the land here at home through our own Human Rights Act. Now is the time to celebrate and strengthen our human rights journey with better public education and ensure our leaders have the moral courage to preserve what has been so hard won and to safeguard it for future generations.

 

Take Action! The deadline for telling the Prime Minister’s Commission your views is 30 May.

 

On 29 May BIHR’s Director, Stephen Bowen, will deliver a key note speech, ‘Human Rights: Lessons for Humanity’, at the national teachers conference ‘Empowering Young People to Change the World’, hosted by Royal Wootton Basset Academy and the Centre for Holocaust Studies. You can follow the discussions on twitter using #EYP2CtW

*Explanatory note; when referring to the UK in the report it only represents England. This is because the UK as a whole is the Member State of the EU.

Human rights law protects dignity in decisions about care

By Sanchita Hosali and Natalie Threlfall

Today the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that a London borough’s withdrawal of night-time care from Ms McDonald breached her human rights for almost a year before proper processes were completed. Significantly, in McDonald v UK the Court found a breach of the right to respect for private and family life in the provision of support services for a disabled person. The Court emphasises the importance the human right to respect for private life places on dignity, a principle which now clearly applies in provision and decisions associated with welfare support.

Removing the overnight carer

The case was brought by Ms McDonald, a former prima ballerina with the Scottish Ballet. Following a stroke Ms McDonald needed help to get around her house and was unable to use the toilet at night. The local authority – Kensington and Chelsea – originally provided Ms McDonald with an overnight carer, however this care package was suddenly withdrawn and she was told instead to use incontinence pads at night. As she was not incontinent Ms McDonald refused to do this, and understandably felt that to act as though she was incontinent was an affront to her dignity.

Making the link to human rights
Ms McDonald ended up taking legal action to challenge this decision, including on the grounds that withdrawal of care was an unjustifiable interference with her right to respect for her private life (Article 8 of the Human Rights Act & European Convention). This right includes ensuring public authorities respect physical and mental well-being, that decision-making is fair and dignified and takes account of the person. Recognising that there are not infinite resources, this right can be limited provided it is a proportionate response to the situation, which means it’s both necessary and lawful.

During the course of legal action, two local authority care plan reviews decided that incontinence pads were practical and appropriate. The UK’s Supreme Court rejected her case, describing the human rights argument as ‘hopeless’, and in 2011 all night-time care was withdrawn.

Seeking justice, the long road to Strasbourg
Ms McDonald’s last avenue for challenging the decision lay with the European Court of Human Rights. The Court reinforced the need for a broad approach to the right to respect for private life. The Court stressed that respect for ‘human dignity and freedom’ are the very essence of the European Convention on Human Rights, notions which will be increasingly significant with an aging population and finite welfare resources. The Court applied the reasoning from the Pretty case, in which a disabled woman, sought to clarify whether her husband would be prosecuted for assisting her to commit suicide. Although a very different set of issues, the European Court today confirmed that dignity is not only relevant to such extreme cases, but is also important in everyday issues such as decisions about care and support services. The Court found that the local authority decision meant Ms McDonald was forced to live in a way that “conflicted with [her] strongly held ideas of self and personal identity” and therefore her case fell within the right to respect for private life.

The outcome for Ms McDonald
Following withdrawal of the care package for overnight assistance, Miss McDonald’s needs were reassessed as being met through the use of incontinence pads. The European Court ruled this was a decision the local authority was entitled to make as they had carefully weighed Miss McDonald’s needs against the economic consequences of paying for an overnight carer. However, crucially, the decision to withdraw overnight care had been made before Miss McDonald’s needs were reassessed. Therefore for the period before the reassessment, the local authority was not meeting its duty to Miss McDonald and had breached her human rights.

Dignity and the right to respect for private life back at home
In this case the later decision to withdraw overnight care was not a breach of Ms McDonald’s rights, because the proper processes were then followed, and whether this is necessary is a decision that best rests with national authorities. However, The European Court’s reliance on the concept of “strongly held ideas of self and personal identity” sends an important signal to the UK courts and local authorities to make sure people’s basic human rights are given proper consideration, and cannot simply be ignored to save money. Today’s decision, although not a resounding victory for Ms McDonald, underlines the potential power of the human rights safety-net to make sure local authorities put the protection of our human rights at the heart of decisions about care and support.

 

Read BIHR’s Press Statement in response to the McDonald case here.

For information on human rights in health and social care, including real life stories of challenge and change which use human rights without court action download BIHR’s The Difference it Makes: Putting Human Rights at the Heart of Health and Care.  You can also download our Human Rights Pocketbook for Carers, Our Human Rights Guide for Older People and tour Mental Health and Human Rights Advocacy guide here.

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Human Rights Beneath The Headlines – A view from BIHR’s volunteer Charlotte

Human Rights Benath the Headlines

Human Rights Benath the Headlines

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.

Event panellists

Event panellists

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.

Obsessed with certain papers or just a bit of balance in media reporting, including on human rights?

Today is Blog Action Day and the theme is human rights. To mark the occasion, BIHR’s Sophie Howes reflects on the role of the media in informing the public about human rights and calls for more of a balance when it comes to reporting human rights news stories.

Paul Dacre, Editor of the Daily Mail wrote a piece in last week’s Guardian entitled ‘Why is the left obsessed by the Daily Mail?’ The article is a response to the Ralph Milliband affair (where the paper claimed Ed Milliband’s father ‘hated Britain’) and puts forward the view that the widespread criticism of the Mail article was the latest attempt by the left to place limits on papers that dare to criticise:

The hysteria that followed is symptomatic of the post-Leveson age in which any newspaper which dares to take on the left in the interests of its readers risks being howled down by the Twitter mob who the BBC absurdly thinks represent the views of real Britain.

There was a bit of a furor following the Mail article about Ralph Milliband, but unlike Dacre I don’t see the BBC and Twitter as being solely responsible for this. I think the widespread media coverage was generated by a reaction from the general public and touched on something much deeper, that whilst prompted by the Milliband story was actually a response to a much wider problem. People are sick of reading misinformed and unrepresentative media reports on a whole range of issues, including human rights.

The public tell us they’re fed up with mis-reporting

There is a huge amount of misinformation about human rights reported in the media, and it is having a far more serious impact than many people realise. No one paper is responsible for this, and the media are not alone in this, some of our most senior political leaders are also perpetuating these myths. But the impact is still the same, most people get their information about human rights from the media, the media human rights story is always a bad one, leading many people to conclude that somehow human rights are a bad thing.

BIHR has been touring the country holding free to attend community workshops on human rights as part of our annual Human Rights Tour. We spend time at these events ‘fact checking’ stories about human rights in the media, to give people the opportunity to find out the facts behind human rights stories they read in the media. Here are our top three human rights ‘media myths’:

Prisoner Voting

What the media said: The European Court of Human Rights want to give all prisoners in the UK the right to vote

The facts: The Court ruled that a blanket ban preventing all prisoners from voting (a law that dates back to Victorian times) needs to be looked at again and a more proportionate response is needed. It’s up to Parliament to decide what this looks like and which prisoners would be granted the vote.

Catgate

What the media said: A migrant got to stay in the UK because he had a cat by using his right to a private and family life (Article 8 of the Human Rights Act)

The facts: A migrant was allowed to stay in the UK because he had demonstrated he was in a long term relationship with someone who resided in the UK. One of the pieces of evidence they used to demonstrate the relationship was real was the fact they owned a cat together (as per the Home Office guidelines). Owning a cat was not the reason the man was allowed to remain in the UK.

A charter for criminals

What the media said: The Human Rights Act is a charter for criminals, putting the rights of the criminal ahead of the rights of the victim.

The facts: Everyone in the UK is protected by the Human Rights Act. This means people who commit offences can have some of their rights limited or restricted but they still have basic rights and freedoms because they are human. It also means the Human Rights Act protects vulnerable groups such as older people, and victims of crime. In fact Keir Starmer, Director of the Crown Prosecution Service recently said in a media interview that the Human Rights Act has been ‘a real asset to victims and witnesses.’

Stories all about Human Rights – not that you’d know from much reporting

And here are our top three examples of the positive human rights stories we don’t see in the press:

Mid Staffordshire Hospital Scandal

The Mid Staffordshire hospital scandal was a gross abuse of human rights, where people died and were severely mistreated following extreme neglect and poor treatment in Stafford hospital. This extreme lack of dignity and respect isn’t just about values, it was also an abuse of legally protected human rights. So far over 100 of the families affected by the scandal used the Human Rights Act to get justice, to secure some accountability from those in power. Yet among the many headlines and column inches rightly generated by the Mid-Staff situation how many times do you remember reading about how important the Human Rights Act was for victims and their families?

Gary McKinnon

Our Home Secretary made no bones about relying on the Human Rights Act to prevent the deportation of Gary McKinnon to the United States to face charges of computer hacking. Theresa May said ‘Mr McKinnon’s extradition would give rise to such a high risk of him ending his life that a decision to extradite would be incompatible with Mr McKinnon’s human rights’. The role of the Human Rights Act in preventing this deportation -of a man with learning disabilities – can be contrasted with other deportation cases which more often than not seem to call for scrapping such protections

The thousands of examples of the Human Rights Act making a positive difference to people’s lives

The Human Rights Act has made the lives of thousands of people better, we just don’t read about it in the Press. Whether it is victims of violence being protected from cross-examination by their alleged attacker, or people with a mental health problem accessing their rights in hospital, there are hundreds of examples of the Human Rights Act making a positive impact to our lives.

At BIHR this is exactly what our practical work does – we help people, including those in public services and government, to take human rights beyond the courtrooms and into our everyday life. The Human Rights Act is not a magic wand, but it is an important law which can have real meaning in our everyday lives to make sure the Government plays fair and we are all treated with a bit of dignity and respect. Our work shows how the Human Rights Act helped Lisa and Ben get answers when they discovered unexplained injuries to their son during his hospital stay. Or how Mr and Mrs Driscoll, turned to the Human Rights Act to stop them from being split up and sent to separate care homes. Or the carers we work with in North-West England who can now stand up for themselves and their loved ones to get a fairer deals which makes sure everyone is treated with a bit of respect. Yet how many times do we read about these stories? It seems good human rights news just isn’t news – but is that true? Are we – the great British public – really just interested in bad news and sensationalism?

Looking forward 

The British public are a diverse bunch and no one media outlet, be it the Mail, Twitter, the BBC or otherwise represents the views of us all. Instead what we need is a more balanced view in our media of what human rights are, and what they aren’t, so the British public can engage in the important debates about the future of our human rights law that is going on at the heart of Government. After all, human rights belong to us, and it should be up to the people to decide their fate – but let’s at least try and make sure we’re having an informed debate. As things heat upover implementing the Leveson Inquiry and those in the media uphappy with proposed regulation models turn to our human rights laws to protect free speech maybe the time is coming for more balanced reporting on these issues.

Human Rights at the Party Conferences: An election battleground

With the party conferences came a fair degree of attention on human rights. One thing is certainly clear, this issue is not going away and the position on human rights will be a dividing line in the run-up to the General Election in 2015. That sounds like a good old while away, but in fact it is now that parties will be considering their manifesto commitments, now is the time that our political representatives will be having discussions about their position on the future of our human rights protections. So what exactly was said at the party conference?

Liberal-Democrats: stopping the Human Rights Act being scrappedLD

  • Nick Clegg’s speech listed “not ditching the Human Rights Act” as one of the top 16 things the Lib Dems have prevented the Conservative party from doing in the coalition Government.
  • Conference motion F41 on Human Rights was passed (proposed by Julian Huppert MP and summated by Brighton and Hove Lib Dems). The full text of the motion is here. It has 6 main points and begins with “The Human Rights Act to be retained”. It also refers to the ways the HRA protects people in everyday situations – often the examples that reflect BIHR’s practical experience of bringing rights to life beyond the court-rooms.
  • During the motion debate Lord McNally, current Justice Minister with human rights responsibility, said “So long as the Liberal Democrats are in Government there will be no repeal of Human Rights Act…I have said to my Tory colleagues – if the Tories really want to call into question our commitment to the Human Rights Act, to the European Convention on Human Rights, to the European Court on Human Rights, then let’s take that case to the hustings…I still have great faith in the value of the British people and their respect for human rights. It is an argument that we can win.”
  • At a fringe event organised by Liberty, Lord McNally said: “I want us to go out and win the argument, even in difficult places,” he said. “Of course our human rights legislation will defend criminal suspects but also the grandma in the care home, the child that has been abused; it will protect the right of people to protest against politicians. If we don’t keep to the Convention, what hope is there for the gay man in Russia, for the political activist in Belarus? We have to be resolute in taking this on. We will be at the barricades and Liberty will be there with us.

Labour: supporting the Human Rights Act, and its role in protecting peoplelabour

In his conference speech, Sadiq Khan, Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, said:

“…what if the Conservatives succeed in their clamour to abolish human rights laws? There’d be less protection for victims of crime. We’d lose:

  • Laws that halted the diabolical situation of rape victims being cross-examined directly by their attackers.
  • Laws that helped bereaved families find out how loved ones died.
  • Laws that offer protection against the grotesqueness of modern day slavery, human trafficking.

Human rights laws the Tories want to scrap. Human rights laws of which Labour is proud. Human rights laws Labour will defend.”

At a fringe event by Liberty, Diane Abbott concluded the event by noting that the test of a society’s commitment to civil liberties is how it treats the marginalised and unpopular minorities, she said “Sometimes we must take a stand in advance of public opinion because it is the right thing to do”.

Conservatives: a manifesto promise to scrap the Human Rights Act Conservative

The conference speech of Theresa May, current Home Secretary detailed plans for the future of the HRA and for the specific right to respect for private and family life (Article 8):

  • “..the next Conservative manifesto will promise to scrap the Human Rights Act…it’s why the Conservative position is clear – if leaving the European Convention is what it takes to fix our human rights laws, that is what we should do. Those are issues for the general election, when Labour and the Lib Dems will have to explain why they value the rights of terrorists and criminals more than the rights of the rest of us.”
  • “The Government will soon publish the Immigration Bill, which will make it easier to get rid of people with no right to be here.” Focus on cutting appeals, deporting with appeals from abroad and “the Immigration Bill will sort out the abuse of Article Eight – the right to a family life – once and for all.  This is used by thousands of people to stay in Britain every year.  The trouble is, while the European Convention makes clear that a right to a family life is not absolute, judges often treat it as an unqualified right.”

In addition Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling’s conference speech, focused on scrapping the HRA and altering UK’s relationship with European Court of Human Rights:

  • “never in their wildest dreams could they have imagined it would end up where it has; twisted by political correctness … with the all too familiar yob’s catchphrase ‘I know my rights’ … rulings that make our judges doubt they can say to the most heinous of murderers ‘you’re going to prison for the rest of your life’.”
  • “For me no change is not an option. One small problem.  We are the only major party committed to radical reform of human rights laws. Labour are opposed.  The Liberal Democrats are opposed.  I don’t know why.  It’s blindingly obvious the public want change.  I simply don’t believe that the majority of the people in this country think that human rights laws are fine as they are.”
  • “We will go into the next election with a clear plan for change. In the New Year the Conservatives will publish a document setting out what we will do, when we will do it, and how we will do it. And then later in the year we will publish a draft Bill which will set out in legal detail exactly how our changes will take effect. We will scrap Labour’s Human Rights Act. We will make sure that with legal rights go legal responsibilities. Our Supreme Court should be in Britain and not in Strasbourg.”

However, at a fringe event organised by Liberty, the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve said:

  • “I defy anyone in this room to read the European Convention and find a right within it with which they disagree.”
  • “That’s not to say we always get it right – we’re a human society, there will always be examples of judicial decisions which are probably wrong. But the question is how do we tackle this problem in a way which leads to a satisfactory long-term outcome for this country. That’s what I’m committed to try to help my colleagues achieve.”

What next

There can be no doubt that the future of human rights protections in the UK is set to be a key issue in the run up to the General Election in 2015. BIHR believes now is the time for people and organisations to learn more about these debates, to understand their relevance to everyday life and practice, and join with others to speak up about the importance of human rights to us all.  Watch this space for more information and resources! In the meantime you can:

Reflections from “a member of the public” on 60 years of the European Convention on Human Rights and what the future holds

Guest Blog: Paul Langton, winner of BIHR’s ECHR at 60 Blog Competition, who won a place at our recent conference on the future of the ECHR. During the political “Question-Time” panel, Paul identified himself as a “member of the public”, much to the audience’s amusement. Here Paul reflects on the event and the wider debates about the future of human rights protection in the UK

On Tuesday 3 September I had the privilege of attending a conference organised by the British Institute of Human Rights and the Law Society celebrating 60 years of the European Convention and which also asked “what does the future hold?” It was exciting to participate in this historic event which included contributions from politicians, academics, representatives from BIHR and the Law Society, including a keynote speech from the former European Court President, Sir Nicolas Bratza.

Celebration however was tempered with caution. Sir Nicolas spoke of the myths perpetuated about the Convention. Some out of ignorance, some out of malice but they contribute to a hostility that seeks to undermine the UK’s participation in the Court, the Convention and the Council of Europe. Following the event I did a quick survey of the media and for the most part – aside from those coordinated by BIHR – he anniversary was overlooked, apart from a particularly caustic piece in the Daily Mail. To reinforce the point further the following day in the House of Commons public gallery I was disheartened, but not surprised, to hear two Conservative MP’s refer disparagingly to the Human Rights Act in the same sentence as “asylum backlog”, “massive net immigration” and “uncontrolled transition” during a debate on the UK Border Force.

“…the majority of members find it hard to persuade themselves that public perceptions are likely to change in any substantial way as a result, particularly given the highly polemical way in which these issues tend to be presented by both some commentators and some sections of the media…” A UK Bill of Rights? The Choice Before Us (para 12.8), Commission on a Bill of Rights, vol 1, Dec 2012

A few days after the conference and I am left thinking that discussions about the European Convention should not be framed in terms of parliamentary sovereignty, the rule of law or our relationship with Europe. Important as these issues may be they are red herrings – and do not get to the heart of the matter.

The Convention is a challenging instrument because it asks us to face fundamental questions: To what extent are we prepared to uphold and defend an individual’s human rights and are we prepared for the moral and ethical implications if we don’t? It forces us to face squarely the discomfort in upholding those rights of an individual who may not offer us the same courtesy. Dangerous and malevolent people can be domestic citizens or entrants into the country. However should their fundamental human rights be violated because they are such a threat or because they have committed a heinous crime? These are not new questions. The London Cage established after World War Two has been documented in the National Archives, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, as the United Kingdom’s clandestine torture centre both during and after the war. I confess, to some shame, I am conflicted between a revulsion of what happened at the Cage and a sense, albeit a guilty one, that its occupants got their just desserts for participating in some of the most appalling crimes in history. And perhaps that is the weakness – I am seeking to resolve this inner dilemma by attempting to reconcile how I feel about these events when what is required is the dispassionate analysis and judgement by Convention law. Today, the Cage would be outlawed under the Convention. However the UK faces the same quandary as to what is “right”, every time it seeks to deport someone to a country where they are likely to be tortured and killed.

The possibility of votes for prisoners has proved incredibly controversial. The ruling by the European Court in Hirst v the United Kingdom (No 2) in 2005 on removing the “blanket ban” has predictably continued to receive a hostile reaction in the media and on the floor of the Commons. “If you break the law you cannot make the law” David Davis stated in a Parliamentary debate in 2011. “Votes for Villains” cried the Mirror in May 2012. “The very soul of our democracy’s at stake” exclaimed the Daily Mail in October the same year. Such reactions fail to advance the debate. The blog by Conservative MP Claire Perry in 2010 (who is cautious about the reach of the European Court) about her positive experience at a mock hustings in HMP Erlstoke, and the successful work by ex-offender led charity “User Voice” on Prison Councils are two examples of how prisoners were willing to engage in a democratic process and are able to benefit from it.

It is disappointing to think that Members of Parliament have made more of a fuss over this political hot potato, than the recent inspection at HMP Bronzefield by Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick. The inspection from this April, following an earlier one in 2010, reported that a vulnerable female prisoner had been kept in segregation for over five years to the point that her treatment was described by Hardwick as “cruel, inhumane and degrading”. These are words that were carefully chosen. As Hardwick himself stated “Much of this was outside the prison’s direct control and required a national strategy for meeting the needs of these very complex women – as exists in the male estate”. A deficient and unequal national policy present in the prison system that has been operating since at least 2010, and which led to criticisms couched in Convention language, suggests that these are the matters that Parliamentarians ought to lend their debating energies to.

Arguments abound that the European Court has strayed from its initial vision into areas that are best served by the domestic courts. The Convention was designed to prevent the atrocities of early Twentith Century Europe ever occurring again and by ruling in domestic cases brought before it by individuals it is suggested that it is attempting to micromanage member states of the Council of Europe, that its rulings are arbitrary, focus on trivial matters and that it undermines national sovereignty. These would be valid arguments if domestic law was full and complete, if parliamentary legislation always struck the right balance between state interference and personal autonomy and if representatives of the state exercised their powers without fault.

Sadly this is not always the case. The most withering criticisms made by the European Court is that there is “no remedy in law” when referring to domestic legislation, followed by the observation that powers are “neither sufficiently circumscribed nor subject to adequate legal safeguards against abuse”. The UK, as a respondent state, has been subject to both these criticisms in Court cases – and rightly so. If anything should be learned from world history it is the lesson that it is the minor infringements of the rights of individuals and communities that lead to greater injustices.

Sir Nicholas called on delegates to “rekindle the fire” and in its 60th year the Convention is likely to come even under more criticism than ever before. How that fire is rekindled is a challenge to all. Attendance at the BIHR’s Human Rights Tour, a quick note to a Member of Parliament, signing up to a human rights blog or newsletter (BIHR’s are here)  – these are all beginning steps that can help to rekindle that fire. The temptation is to allow Parliamentarians to make the choices for us or to think that the Convention has lasted sixty years – surely it could survive sixty more? However, I conclude with a thought which sprung from an opening speech at the conference by BIHR’s chair, Francesa Klug. She reminded us the Convention was “hard to achieve but would be easy to destroy”. It is a solemn warning. The UK was one of the Conventions architects – it would be a bitter irony if we were the first to begin its dismantling.