On 23 and 24 February 2022, the Global Justice Academy, together with the Strathclyde Centre for the Study of Human Rights Law and Newcastle Forum for Human Rights and Social Justice, and other partners in the Northern UK Human Rights Network, held two webinars that gathered human rights experts to provide insights to the questions set out in the Ministry of Justice Human Rights Act Reform Consultation. The idea behind the webinars was to help the public — especially those who are not experts but are interested in protecting human rights — to respond to the Consultation, which puts forward ideas contrary to the Human Rights Act and may have devastating effects on human rights.
This GJA blog post presents the common themes and shared concerns that get to the heart of why experts find the Consultation proposals problematic and regressive. The post contains four parts, each focused on a central issue raised by the expert panellists.
The mismatches between the IHRAR and the Consultation
In 2019, the Conservative Party claimed the necessity to update the Human Rights Act (HRA) to modern times. The Secretary of Justice then set the terms for the Independent Human Rights Act Review (IHRAR), which commenced in December 2020. The IHRAR examined independent expert opinions and many submissions from civil society, ultimately completing its work in October 2021. The IHRAR recommended some changes but overall concluded that the HRA led to positive outcomes to human rights protection in the UK. However, the Ministry of Justice only published the IHRAR report in December 2021 together with the Consultation document, which no longer proposed to update the HRA but rather substitute it for a ‘Modern Bill of Rights’. Human rights experts are sceptical of the government’s claims to legitimacy of the Consultation as a follow on to the expert panel. Experts understand that the Consultation does not follow the IHRAR as it ignored several IHRAR recommendations and introduced a series of new issues that will significantly diminish human rights protection.
Priority of freedom of expression when in conflict with the right to respect for private and family life
One of the Consultation proposals is to create a legal provision to direct courts to prioritise the right to freedom of expression when in conflict with the right to respect for private and family life. The Consultation outlines that the European Court of Human Rights (or Strasbourg Court) has shown priority to privacy over freedom of expression, which has had a negative repercussion on the protection of rights related to the press. However, human rights experts disagree with this observation. Experts concluded that both the UK Supreme Court and the Strasbourg Court treat freedom of expression and the right to privacy equally when in conflict, without generally prioritising one over the other. The current provision of article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which contains the right to freedom of expression, has been effective in protecting journalists and their sources. Although it is important to widen the protection of rights related to the press, the way to do so is to enhance the HRA provisions instead of substituting them.
The permission stage and access to justice
One central issue in the Consultation is the belief that ‘frivolous or spurious’ human rights claims, which do not ‘merit court time and public resources’, has undermined public confidence in human rights. The Consultation aims to create a permission stage for human rights claims that requires demonstration of ‘significant disadvantage’, or, exceptionally, a matter of ‘overriding public importance’, for human rights claims to be brought before UK courts. Human rights experts strongly disagree with adding a permission stage. Article 34 of the Convention, incorporated into the UK by the HRA, together with extensive legal texts, have already established who is a victim and who can be a human rights claimant. Further requirements for initiating human rights actions would restrict judicial protection of rights. The permission stage proposal closely relates to the (deeply) problematic question 10 of the Consultation, which states that courts should only focus on ‘genuine human rights abuses’, perpetuating the false perception that many human rights claims are not genuine. Human rights experts fear that the vague and potentially discriminatory ‘genuine’ standard for human rights abuse and the unnecessary permission stage will diminish human rights protections, especially for those in vulnerable situations.
The mischaracterised relationship between the UK Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights
A major theme throughout the Consultation — which some experts believe is the central political motivation leading to the Consultation— is the relationship between the UK Supreme Court and the Strasbourg Court. The Consultation presumes that the Strasbourg Court has been improperly intervening in the UK jurisdiction. On the basis of this unsupported presumption, the Consultation proposals point to the government’s desire to distance UK law from the Strasbourg Court. Nevertheless, the experts highlighted that the government’s desired distance between jurisdictions, together with the regressive protection of rights, will backfire. The Consultation was clear that the UK will not withdraw from the Convention or the Strasbourg Court. Thus, if human rights claimants are unsuccessful in bringing their cases to UK courts because their claims are not considered ‘genuine’, they can still go to the Strasbourg Court for their claims to be heard. This possible scenario would weaken UK human rights protections as domestic courts would not have the first say in interpreting ECHR cases in the UK though the UK would remain bound to give effect to eventual Strasbourg’s judgments that find the UK in breach of the Convention rights.
Ultimately, the webinar offered insight and assistance to people developing their responses to the Ministry of Justice Consultation. Although embedded in a language of protection of rights, the Consultation’s proposals will produce harmful effects for human rights in reality. Therefore, the webinar highlighted that it is important that as many people as possible engage and respond to the Consultation until its deadline on 8 March 2022 in order to oppose Consultation’s proposals and fight against the undermining of human rights.
The Global Justice Academy’s response to the consultation can be found here: March 2022 – GJA – Consultation Response – HRA Reform
This post is authored by Helena de Oliveira Augusto. Helena is currently undertaking the Human Rights LLM at the University of Edinburgh. Helena is from Brazil, where she completed a Bachelor of Laws degree at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo.
 Ministry of Justice, Human Rights Act Reform: A Modern Bill of Rights – A consultation to reform the Human Rights Act 1998, available at <https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1040409/human-rights-reform-consultation.pdf> accessed at 27 February 2022, p. 65
 Ibid p. 65
 Ibid p. 66