Tory Plans On Human Rights Shake Up

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The Conservative Party will draft proposed new laws to curtail the impact of European human rights legislation on Britain in the coming year, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has said.

Pulling out of the European Convention on Human Rights altogether is still being considered by the party, Mr Grayling added.

Other possibilities are also being reviewed as the Tory pitch for the 2015 general election is drawn up.

Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, Mr Grayling said the final proposals would emerge shortly.

He said: “Whatever we try to do as a party – because this is not an issue that unites the Coalition… the Conservative Party’s intention is to go into the next election with a clear plan for change.

“It is absolutely clear Parliament has the sovereign right to implement that change should it choose to do so.

“We have been looking at a number of options, of which leaving the Convention is one. It’s not the only option we are considering and we will bring forward plans in the next few weeks which will set out very clearly what we will do and how we will do it.

“Later in the year we will publish a draft Bill which will set out precisely how that legal change will take place.”

Mr Grayling said the original drafting of the Convention was not a problem as it included a “sensible balance” between rights and responsibilities.

But he repeated criticisms of its interpretation and implementation – and impact on the British courts.

“There are four different principles that have to underpin what we do,” he said.

“We have to curtail the role of the court in the UK, we have to replace the Human Rights Act, which as (former Lord Chief Justice) Lord Judge rightly says is one of the key reasons why the European Court of Human Rights seems to have such sway in the UK.

“We have got to ensure there is a balance of rights and responsibilities in our laws – and that balance of rights and responsibilities does exist in the original Convention.

“And above all, we have to make our Supreme Court supreme. I do not believe decisions about the way this country is governed – we are a democracy after all – should be taken elsewhere.”

Attorney General Warns Of ‘International Anarchy’ Over Prisoner Voting

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Flouting European judges over prisoner voting would risk international “anarchy”, the Government’s chief law officer has warned.

Attorney General Dominic Grieve, above, said sticking to international rules could be “irksome” at times.

But it had been the “settled view” of British governments for centuries that such obligations should be met.

The intervention came in evidence to the parliamentary Joint Committee on prisoner voting.

The MPs and peers are considering how to respond to a European Court of Human Rights ruling against the UK’s blanket ban on convicted prisoners taking part in elections.

David Cameron has said that the idea of overturning the ban makes him “physically sick”, and the Commons overwhelmingly rejected the prospect in an indicative vote.

The committee has been asked to consider three options for a draft bill: giving the vote to convicted prisoners serving up to six months, giving it to those serving up to four years or keeping the existing blanket ban.

Mr Grieve said parliament had the power to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, or any other commitment.

“Many of these international legal obligations, they impose obligations on others which we think benefit the international order and indeed us,” he said.

“But at the same time they may at times impose obligations on us.

“That obligation may at times be irksome.

“You can always withdraw from an obligation by leaving a treaty or denouncing it.

“But while you are adhering to it, it seems to me that one has to think very carefully about what the consequences are in deciding that you can cherrypick the obligations that you are going to accept.

“Whilst it may be perfectly possible to disregard them you are creating a degree of anarchy in the international order that you are trying to promote.”

The Tory MP and QC – who personally argued the Government’s case to the court – said it would be “no slight matter” to ignore the ruling.

“You can’t expect to be able to get other countries to observe international legal obligations if you choose not to,” he said.

Thorbjorn Jagland, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, told the committee it would be impossible for the UK to leave the convention on human rights and remain a member of the council.

He warned that Britain’s international influence would be diminished if it decided to go for the “nuclear possibility” of not complying with the ruling, and the whole ECHR system would be compromised.

“The implications for the Council of Europe would be… that other countries will start to do the same and it will be the beginning of the weakening of the whole convention system,” he said.

“If one says that we can pick and choose the judgments that we want to execute, then others will say exactly the same and then this convention will be another convention, for instance like they have in the United Nations.

“They are very weak.

“They are there but there is no enforcement of the standards.

“If you start to pick and choose the judgments from the court of course the court will be weakened and in the end have no meaning.”

Mr Jagland added: “The impact for Britain as I see it would be negative.

“It would harm UK reputation and influence in Europe and in the world.

“Can you imagine what would happen if the UK as the founding father of this institution is to leave it?”

Mr Jagland said: “Europe cannot afford to let the UK leave the whole convention system, which is so important.

“None of us should put that to the (test).

“We should try to avoid it.”

The strength of the ECHR was that individual citizens from member states were able to petition it on points of law, he said.

Mark Leech editor of Converse the national newspaper for prisoners in England and Wales said the issue of prisoner voting brought into focus the sharp distinction between political reality and rhetoric.

Mr Leech said: “Politicians of every colour continually tell us they want to reduce reoffending, they want to help those in prison to lead law-abiding lives both in custody and after release, in fact there is a large notice to that exact effect pinned to the front gate of every prison in the country.

“And yet, when you try and see the translation of that theory into practice it falls at the first hurdle by refusing prisoners the ability to vote, excluding them from society, refusing to follow the judgment of the highest human rights court in Europe, a court the UK has signed up to and in which we played a central part in creating – criminal justice policies on rehabilitation are, sadly, shown to be nothing more than a sham.”

Soldier do have human rights rules Supreme Court

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Families of British soldiers killed and injured fighting in Iraq were given the go-ahead today to bring compensation claims against the Government.

The Supreme Court – the highest court in the UK – ruled that damages claims could be launched under legislation covering negligence and human rights.

Lawyers representing relatives said the ruling meant that the Ministry of Defence owed a duty of care to properly equip servicemen and women who went to war.

And one woman whose son was killed said the decision – after a hearing in London – was “absolutely brilliant”.

But Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said he was concerned about the implications and warned that the ruling could “make it more difficult” for troops to carry out operations.

A group of families started legal action as a result of the deaths of a number of soldiers.

Corporal Stephen Allbutt, 35, of Sneyd Green, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, was killed in a ”friendly fire” incident in March 2003.

He died after a Challenger 2 tank was hit by another Challenger 2 tank. Trooper David Clarke, 19, of Littleworth, Staffordshire, also died during the incident.

Soldiers Dan Twiddy, of Stamford, Lincolnshire, and Andy Julien, of Bolton, Greater Manchester, were badly hurt in the incident.

Private Phillip Hewett, 21, of Tamworth, Staffordshire, died in July 2005 after a Snatch Land Rover was blown up.

Similar explosions claimed the lives of Private Lee Ellis, 23, of Wythenshawe, Manchester, in February 2006, and Lance Corporal Kirk Redpath, 22, of Romford, Essex, in August 2007.

Pte Hewett’s mother, Sue Smith, 51, of Tamworth, Staffordshire, said: “They can no longer treat soldiers as sub-human with no rights.

“It’s been a long fight but it’s absolutely brilliant. Now serving soldiers have got human rights.”

But Mr Hammond said: “I am very concerned at the wider implications of this judgment, which could ultimately make it more difficult for our troops to carry out operations and potentially throws open a wide range of military decisions to the uncertainty of litigation.

“We will continue to make this point in future legal proceedings as it can’t be right that troops on operations have to put the European Convention on Human Rights ahead of what is operationally vital to protect our national security.”

Relatives said they would prepare to launch damages claims in the High Court in the wake of the Supreme Court decision.

Lawyers said decisions on whether a duty of care had been breached and compensation was justified would be matters for trial judges considering individual cases.

The High Court and the Court of Appeal had earlier analysed issues. In June 2011 a High Court judge in London said relatives could bring negligence claims but not claims under human rights legislation. In October 2012 appeal judges came to the same conclusions.

Relatives had told judges that the MoD failed to provide armoured vehicles or equipment which could have saved lives. The MoD said decisions about battlefield equipment were for politicians and military commanders.

Both sides asked the Supreme Court to examine legal arguments.

Human rights campaigners today welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision.

“The Supreme Court’s ruling means that human rights protections have been levelled up so that we are no longer expecting our armed forces to fully respect the rights of civilians abroad while not being properly protected themselves,” said Wendy Hewitt, a deputy director of t he Equality and Human Rights Commission.

“From this basic principle it is now up to the courts to decide how this should apply in practice. This is not about interfering with the way military decisions are made in the field but how everyone serving in the armed forces is given the protections they deserve.”

Emma Norton, legal officer for campaign group Liberty, added: “Those sent abroad to fight do not leave their small bundle of fundamental rights with anxious families at home.

“It may be little consolation to those grieving for lost loved ones but it is vital to future generations of UK military personnel that they have the protection of the Human Rights Act.”

Legal Aid Cuts Threaten ‘World Renown’ British Justice System – and riots in our jails

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Government plans to overhaul legal aid threaten to destroy the “world-renowned” British justice system, barristers have told ministers – and prison experts have said the measures threaten such a level of national unrest inside our jails that they could eventually cost far more than any potential savings would ever hope to save.

The Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, has published its response to the Ministry of Justice consultation on legal aid reform, which includes paving the way for lawyers to compete for contracts.

The 150-page response said price competitive tendering (PCT) promotes the “lowest possible quality of service” and will result in further changes to civil legal aid, hitting society’s most vulnerable people.

Other changes will see criminal defendants living in households with a disposable income of £37,500 or more stopped from automatically accessing legal aid, while prisoners’ rights to the support will also would be curbed.

Maura McGowan QC, chairman of the Bar Council, said: “There is no avoiding the simple fact that these proposals would move us from having a justice system which is admired all over the world, to a system where price trumps all.

“PCT may look as though it achieves short-term savings, but it is a blunt instrument that will leave deep scars on our justice system for far longer. Further cuts to the scope of civil legal aid will limit access to justice for some of the most vulnerable. That is a legacy of which no Government should be proud.”

She added: “The proposals simply do not have a sufficient evidence base on which to attract support. We believe that if these proposals are implemented as they stand, the system will go very badly wrong. Once implemented, these measures cannot be easily reversed.”

Ms McGowan QC said Justice Secretary Chris Grayling should achieve any required reforms “without destroying a world-renowned institution”.

The Bar Council response said that the proposals would destroy the livelihoods of many smaller solicitors’ firms and the criminal defence Bar.

Criminal legal aid costs taxpayers more than £1 billion every year and the proposals should cut the bill by £220 million.

In April, reforms to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Laspo) came into effect, removing large areas of law from the scope of civil legal aid.

Some law firms estimated the reforms will reduce the number of people who qualify for legal aid by 75%, meaning around 200,000 fewer cases, while barristers warned the cuts are the biggest to civil legal aid since the system was introduced in 1949.

In its response to the consultation, the Bar Standards Board (BSB), the body responsible for regulating barristers, said plans to pay legal aid lawyers the same amount for a “guilty” or “not guilty” plea could lead to defendants being pressurised into pleading guilty.

It said cases where the defendant enters an initial guilty plea are typically shorter and so cheaper than trials to assess guilt.

Setting the same fee for cases where a defendant pleads guilty and for longer trials may create an incentive for lawyers to encourage clients to plead guilty.

Bar Standards Board chair Baroness Ruth Deech said: “These reforms may endanger the ability of our legal system to guarantee everyone a fair trial.

“While we accept that the current austerity measures are a consequence of the financial climate, protecting the public, and ensuring criminal cases are dealt with fairly and justly, remain of the utmost importance.”

Mr Grayling said: “We have one of the best legal professions in the world.

“But at a time of major financial challenges, the legal sector cannot be excluded from the Government’s commitment to getting better value for taxpayers’ money. We believe costs paid to lawyers through legal aid should reflect this.

“Professional, qualified lawyers will be available, just as they are now, and contracts will only be awarded to lawyers who meet quality standards set by the profession.

“Wealthy defendants who can afford to pay for their own legal bills should do so. Our proposal is to introduce a threshold on Crown Court legal aid so that people earning around £100,000 a year are no longer automatically granted legal aid.

“We have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world, with about £1 billion a year spent just on criminal legal aid.

“These changes are about getting the best value for the taxpayer and will not in any way affect someone’s right to a fair trial.”

The disposable income cap of £37,500 per household would impact defendants with six-figure salaries, an MoJ spokesman added.

But Mark Leech, editor of Converse the national newspaper for prisoners in England and Wales said those figures were disputed by many prison law experts, and the threatened cuts in legal aid could end up ‘costing far more than the measures would ever save’.

Mr Leech said: “Look, its not rocket science, but history shows there comes a policy tipping point where one cut too much results in a backlash inside our overcrowded powder-keg prisons, which are things that we desperately need to avoid – these things can rapidly spread nationally, caused by cuts that while understandable politically are nontheless, in practice, just one cut too many.”

Mr Leech explaned: “In 1990 the riot at Strangeways prison in Manchester spread within days to 13 other prisons, it cost the taxpayer over ninety million pounds, people died, no one wants to be seen talking these things up, and certaintly not me – but we can’t ignore history nor the facts or the consequences that we know from history are seriously likely to occur.

“The lesson now, before its too late is this: Stop, don’t pick on vulnerable prisoners any more, they’re a soft political target but history also shows that pushed too far they are a formidable resistable force which when unleashed  has an incredible national impetus – try focusing  on the bankers (or ‘Banksters’ as they’ve become known) instead – or at least as a minimum let’s have a rational national debate about its policy.

“It’s not too late – but we really do need to be now all on the same side.”