Exit the Bill of Rights house...

12 March 2012

Author: 
Mairi Clare Rodgers, Director of Media Relations

Over the weekend, the news “broke” (perhaps “cracked” or “seeped” is a more appropriate metaphor?), that a certain Dr Michael Pinto-Duschinsky will no longer be part of the Government’s Bill of Rights’ Commission. There are conflicting reports as to whether the good doctor walked or was pushed and sadly, we may never know whether Professor Plum did it in the library with the lead piping.

What we can tell from his exit interview (with Andrew Neil - Davina McCall was unavailable) is that Dr P-D’s beef appears to be that the Human Rights Act gives too much power to “unelected judges” and the other housemates lacked his moral fibre.  This causes more confusion than consternation to anyone who has actually read the HRA. Austerity notwithstanding, perhaps someone could actually give this poor gentleman a copy of the much-maligned document in question?

In contrast with other Bills of Rights across the democratic world (including the USA), the HRA does not give the courts any power to strike down primary legislation. Rather, it adopts a rather uniquely British compromise between parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law, setting up a vital dialogue between the courts and the legislature. Under the HRA, if one of the higher courts finds an Act of Parliament to be incompatible with human rights, it can only issue a “declaration of incompatibility”. Such a declaration has no legal force but only persuasive effect - leaving it up to Parliament to decide if, and how best, to respond.

Liberty has no problem with honest debates about why we should have human rights at all. Liberty constantly engages in discussions about how best these precious values can be protected by politics as well as law. But before some of the most powerful elites in our country criticise the role of the independent judiciary in holding them to account, they might actually read the Human Rights Act and acknowledge that it leaves the final word, not to the Courts but to Parliament.