LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s new government wants to rewrite national human rights law to reduce the influence of a European court under an election promise which has divided the ruling party and prompted warnings that basic rights are under threat.
The Conservatives, who won an outright parliamentary majority last week, aim to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights and “break the formal link” between the country’s courts and the European Court of Human Rights.
Though not connected to the European Union, the court based in the French city of Strasbourg has become a lightning rod for many Britons’ frustrations about perceived meddling by Europe.
Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU and then hold a referendum by 2017 on whether to stay in or leave.
His party, which has a strong Eurosceptic wing, argues that the Bill of Rights would “restore common sense to the application of human rights” and stop “mission creep” that has allowed dangerous foreign criminals to use spurious rights arguments to avoid deportation.
But some lawyers and Conservative dissenters say such changes would weaken protections for vulnerable people, damage Britain’s reputation and cause trouble between London and the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
“The Human Rights Act isn’t perfect, but the danger of these plans is that they play politics with fundamental rights,” said Adam Wagner, a human rights lawyer and blogger.
“Antipathy towards Europe, immigrants and prisoners should not be the driving force behind a Bill of Rights which affects the entire country,” he told Reuters.
The Human Rights Act, introduced in 1998, incorporated into domestic law the European Convention on Human Rights, drawn up after World War Two in response to Nazism and Stalinism. Wartime leader Winston Churchill, a Conservative, inspired the project.
Under the Act, claimants can invoke convention rights in British courts, where most human rights claims are resolved. If unhappy with the outcome, they can turn to Strasbourg.
Human rights groups say Britain would send out a terrible signal by rejecting the court, putting it on a par with Belarus, the only European country not to accept the court’s rulings.
But the proposed changes are popular with many Conservatives and members of the public who think the Strasbourg court encroaches on British sovereignty and takes bad decisions.
“It’s not getting rid of the rights, it’s (the rights) being interpreted in this country by our judges ... not a European court” Conservative legislator Peter Bone told the BBC.
New Justice Secretary Michael Gove, a close Cameron ally, must get the Bill of Rights through parliament where the government will have only a slim majority in the lower house. He needs to win over Conservative critics such as former Attorney General Dominic Grieve and ex-Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke.
Both broke ranks when the party’s detailed proposals came out last October. Grieve called them “a recipe for chaos”.
Another difficulty is that the Human Rights Act is embedded in legal arrangements underpinning devolution in Britain.
“People in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales feel considerably warmer towards the European Court in Strasbourg than they do to the UK’s highest courts in London,” wrote lawyers Helena Kennedy and Philippe Sands after taking part in a government commission on the Bill of Rights idea in 2011-2012.
In Northern Ireland, the Act is part of the peace deal known as the Good Friday Agreement which ended a 30-year conflict.
Scrapping the Act would be a “flagrant breach” of the Good Friday Agreement, according to Belfast-based human rights group the Committee on the Administration of Justice.
Scotland’s entire relationship with London is up for renegotiation after it was promised new powers to help persuade Scots to vote against independence in a referendum last year.
Scrapping the Human Rights Act would undoubtedly complicate that renegotiation. The Scottish National Party, which runs the government in Edinburgh and has just won 56 out of Scotland’s 59 House of Commons seats, is implacably opposed.
“Human rights protections, and the Human Rights Act, are central to the law of Scotland and we intend to do everything within our power to ensure those protections remain in place,” the Scottish government has said.
In England, where hostility toward Europe is deeper than in Scotland, many feel differently.
Critics of the Strasbourg court cite Abu Qatada, an Islamist cleric accused of terrorism in Jordan who resisted deportation for eight years by arguing that a trial there would use evidence obtained by torture. He was finally deported in 2013.
The Strasbourg court has also made a series of unpopular rulings against Britain’s blanket ban on prisoners voting in elections. That issue has yet to be resolved.
Defenders of the status quo cite other cases where the Human Rights Act has been used to defend more popular causes.
It was invoked by relatives of people who died in a sub-standard state-run hospital to force the government to launch a full public inquiry. Relatives of soldiers who died in Afghanistan while using faulty equipment also used it to bring claims against the Ministry of Defence.
Lawyers say human rights must apply to all people, no matter how unpopular. Nevertheless press reports about “human rights gone mad” regularly appear, influencing public opinion regardless of their accuracy.
One story, cited by Home Secretary Theresa May, was of an illegal immigrant who could not be deported because he had a pet cat. The real reason was British authorities failed to follow procedures correctly.
“Human rights is not a joke. And it hasn’t ‘gone mad’. It’s a vital idea,” wrote Daniel Finkelstein, a Conservative member of the House of Lords who opposes the proposed changes.
editing by David Stamp