Yesterday, Theresa May announced that the Conservatives would pledge to scrap the Human Rights Act (HRA) in their next election manifesto. This has popular support mainly because of one high-profile recent case, in which the deportation of Abu Qatada, a suspected terrorist, was delayed due to concerns about the use of torture in Jordan. This caused huge embarrassment for May (already red-faced after the cat debacle of 2011). But scrapping the HRA could be a disastrous response.
The HRA is the vehicle through which the European Convention on Human Rights is incorporated into British law. Opposition to it is grounded in the idea that it reduces our sovereignty—the British government was unable to deport Qatada, for example, because this action was blocked by the European Court. The Conservatives would take us out of the European Convention and replace the HRA with a British Bill of Rights.
To begin with, it is not clear how the Bill of Rights would differ from the HRA. The rights protected under the European Convention—the right to life, the prohibition of torture and slavery, the right to a fair trial—are presumably all rights that we would like to enjoy and to be included in the new bill. Calling it “British” instead of “European” does not change the content of the law, and it is not possible to include an exemption for “foreign criminals,” which is what many of the Convention’s opponents would like. Whatever the flaws of the Qatada case, if I ever find myself facing deportation to a country that may torture me, based on evidence of a crime probably extracted by torture, I would like the law to be there to protect me. I’m glad that the UK would have to ensure that evidence obtained through torture would not be used against me before they could deport me.
But on top of that, there are good reasons why we might want an outside adjudicator to keep an eye on the behaviour of our government. For a claimant to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights, they must have exhausted the legal options in the UK. If their case has been rejected by the domestic courts right through to the highest level possible, but there are still grounds to argue that the case constitutes a violation of human rights, only then may the claimant appeal to the European Court.
This court of…