Moral outrage or political posturing?

18 February 2011

Author: 
James Welch, Legal Director

Two weeks ago David Cameron said that the thought of giving prisoners the right to vote – in response to a judgment six years ago by the European Court of Human Rights – made him feel sick. This week he turned on our own Supreme Court, saying that he was “appalled” by a judgment concerning the sex offenders’ register. Delayed reaction again – the judgment he was responding to was handed down almost a year ago. Is our PM engaging in some judge / human rights bashing? Are we being softened up for an attack on the Human Rights Act?

The case the Prime Minister was referring to was brought by two people who are on the sex offenders’ register for life as a result of being convicted for sex offences for which they were given custodial sentences of more than 2½ years.  One of the two claimants, known as F in the proceedings, was only 11 when he committed two admittedly horrific offences of rape on a six year old boy.       

It’s hard to see why Mr Cameron finds the judgment in the F case so offensive.  Far from suggesting that the Human Rights Act would prevent people being on the sex offenders’ register for life – the way the case is being spun in the media – the case confirms that this can be justified in many cases.  The limited point on which the Supreme Court found against the Government was the absence of any mechanism under the current law for someone to be released from the very onerous reporting obligations imposed on those on the register if they can show that they no longer pose a risk to others.  It was the lack of any opportunity to argue at some point in the future that they should come off the register because they were no longer a danger that led the Supreme Court to uphold the rulings of the lower courts that there was a violation of the claimants’ right to respect for their private lives protected by Article 8 of the Human Rights Act.  The Court stressed that it was not ruling on whether the two claimants should ever succeed in such an application.

You can see why this ruling makes sense.  Imagine someone who is put on the sex offenders’ register for life but then suffers a debilitating injury or illness that means that he can’t do anything for himself let alone cause any harm to others.  What is the justification for keeping that person on the register?  Under the law as it currently stands he would have to stay on for the rest of his life.  Or to take a less extreme example, a person who commits a nasty sexual offence as a teenager but then, possibly with therapy, deals with the issues that led to his offending and having grown up clearly no longer poses a risk to others.  What is the point in making him report regularly to the police – with all the paperwork for the police that that entails – for the rest of his life?