The Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) is a piece of legislation incorporating the rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law. The Act allows individuals to challenge a decision of a public authority within UK Courts, on the grounds that it violates their rights under the ECHR. It places upon domestic courts the duty to interpret all existing legislation in a manner that it is compatible with the ECHR. Whenever this is not possible, the Act allows for a ‘declaration of incompatibility’ to be issued by the UK Supreme Court; however, this declaration does not affect the validity of the legislation contested. This remains exclusive competence of the Parliarment.
The Act was passed into law in 1998 with overwhelming cross-party support and the backing of the then Conservative Party leadership. However, today, the same Act is at the centre of a hot debate originating in the Conservative Party’s intention to repeal this piece of legislation. The Conservative Manifesto 2015 promised to “scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights” and statements have been made by Prime Minister David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May to the effect that the Act constitutes an unbearable intrusion by a foreign Court into UK politics and affairs. Furthermore, Prime Minister David Cameron has declared that the UK may even consider withdrawing from the European Convention system. The upcoming referendum on ‘Brexit’, althought formally unrelated, will probably revive the debate on both issues.
The present post wishes to contribute to the debate on the possibility of repealing the Human Rights Act by discussing its role in relation to the case law of the European Court of Human Rights (EctHR), with specific reference to two recent judgments in which the HRA has played a substantial role.
Hutchinson and Hammerton
Only a very small percentage of the applications lodged against the UK before the ECtHR passes the initial threshold of admissibility: between 1999 and 2010, the estimated number was around three per cent.1 Among inadmissibility decisions, many are motivated by the non-exhaustion of domestic remedies. The exhaustion rule, set forth in Article 35 of the European Convention, expresses a general principle of international law2 and is grounded in the principle of subsidiarity, according to the notion that “it falls, firstly, to the national authorities to redress any violation of the Convention.”3 The rationale behind the rule is to grant national authorities the opportunity to prevent or put right the alleged violations of the Convention.4 Thus, the ECtHR declares inadmissible applications which are not preceded by the activation of available and effective domestic remedies designed to redress the violation(s) contested.
The case law of the ECtHR demonstrates that non-exhaustion of remedies provided by the Human Rights Act often constitutes the ground for the inadmissibility of complaints lodged against the UK.5 Whenever claimants lodge an application against the UK, they must have relied, at least in substance, on the Human Rights Act before British courts in order for their application to be admissible. Accordingly, the Human Rights Act represents an important “filter”, which is capable of preventing the European Court of Human Rights from finding against the UK. British courts, well-aware of the importance of this filter, make use of their powers to interpret domestic law in accordance with the Human Rights Act so as to prevent the possibility that a certain piece of legislation gives rise to a violation of the European Convention.
This happened, for instance, in the recent Hutchinson case, whereby the European Court of Human Rights found no violation of the Convention thanks to the interpretative developments achieved at the domestic level by the Court of Appeal.6 The issue at stake was the indefinite duration of life sentences which, according to the European Court of Human Rights’ case law, is compatible with Article 3 of the Convention (prohibition of torture and inhuman and degrading treatments) only where there is both a prospect of release and a possibility of review.7 In the UK, the Secretary of State has the discretion to release a whole-life prisoner under Section 30 of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997. However, chapter 12 of the so-called Lifer Manual provides that release can be only ordered if a prisoner is terminally ill or physically incapacitated.8 This restrictive provision has been at the centre of a debate between UK Courts and the European Court of Human Rights.9 Eventually, in R v. Newell; R v. McLoughlin, the Court of Appeal supported a wide interpretation of Section 30, allowing the Secretary of State to exercise his power of release outside the strict limits of the Lifer Manual.10 Acknowledging the importance of such an interpretation, the European Court of Human Rights concluded, in Hutchinson, that “the power to release under section 30 of the 2003 Act, exercised in the manner delineated in the Court of Appeal’s judgments in Bieber and Oakes, and now R. v. Newell; R v. McLoughlin, is sufficient to comply with the requirements of Article 3”.11
The case law of the ECtHR also demonstrates that flaws in the system delineated by the Human Rights Act may result in adverse judgments against the UK. An example can be found in the recent Hammerton case, which originated in a violation of the due process of law: the applicant had been sentenced for contempt of court after a committal hearing where he had not benefitted from the assistance of a lawyer.12 The Court of Appeal acknowledged that the lack of legal representation constituted a violation of the right to legal assistance set out in Article 6 § 3 c ECHR. However, the High Court dismissed the applicant’s claims for damages under common law, noting the lack of malice of the County Court. Furthermore, it refused the applicant’s claim for damages under the Human Rights Act 1998, noting that section 9(3) precludes damages in respect of a judicial act done in good faith, with the exception of damages required by Article 5 § 5 of the Convention, which was deemed not to be applicable in the applicant’s case because the irregularity was not so gross or obvious as to be not in accordance with the law.13 Thus, the applicant had not been afforded appropriate redress, nor it was possible for him to argue that the relevant legislation ought to be read in a manner compatible with Article 13 ECHR (right to an effective remedy) or to seek a declaration of incompatibility, because the Human Rights Act excludes from the scope of “Convention rights” the right guaranteed by Article 13 ECHR. Because of this lacuna in the British system of protection for human rights, the ECtHR dismissed the Government’s objection as to non-exhaustion of domestic remedies and eventually found a violation of Article 6 ECHR (fair trial), because “the domestic remedies available to the applicant in relation to his complaint under Article 6 were not fully “effective” for the purposes of Article 13, since they were not capable of affording adequate redress for the prejudice suffered by him in the form of the lengthened deprivation of liberty”.14
The Human Rights Act and the case law of the ECtHR.
The above mentioned decisions demonstrate the by the Human Rights Act: on the one hand, it represents a valuable tool for adjusting the British legal system to the values enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, thereby avoiding adverse judgments by the European Court; on the other hand, it encourages domestic authorities to step in to protect citizens where a lacuna in the domestic law endangers their rights.
A recent study has underlined that the number of adverse judgments against the UK has shown a slight downward trend since 2005, possibly motivated by the entry into force of the Human Rights Act.15 Even though the same study warns that the annual figures are so low that it is not possible to discern a clear trend pre- and post- Human Rights Act, the figures for the years following the release of this study appear to confirm the existence of such a trend. Indeed, in 2011, only eight adverse judgments were released, against 1,553 applications allocated to a judicial formation; in 2012, there were ten adverse judgments against 1,732 allocated applications; in 2013, eight adverse judgments against 912 allocated applications; in 2014 four adverse judgments against 720 allocated applications; and in 2015, four adverse judgments against 575 allocated applications. These numbers confirm the downward trend noted by the study, and also a slight downward trend in the number of allocated applications. It would be beyond the limits of the present contribution to investigate elements such as the number of inadmissibility decisions grounded on the presence of an effective remedy provided by the Human Rights Act: however, the two judgements analysed above clearly demonstrate the relevance that the Act plays in the determinations reached by the European Court of Human Rights.
On a general note, it is worth reiterating that the Human Rights Act was adopted by the UK Parliaments with an overwhelming cross-party majority and that the same European Convention on Human Rights has been the result of the work of prominent British lawyers, such as Sir David Patrick Maxwell Fyfe, a Conservative politician who was the Chair of the Committee on Legal and Administrative Questions of the Council of Europe’s Consultative Assembly from 1949 to 1952. Repealing the Human Rights Act might risk not only increasing the number of adverse judgments by the ECtHR, but also undermining the prominent position established by the UK within the Council of Europe and taint its international reputation as a pioneer in the protection of human rights. Using the words of human rights lawyer Jonathan Cooper, “there is nothing more British than the Human Rights Act. And through it, our values are being woven into human rights law across the globe.”
A. Donald, J. Gordon, P. Leach, The UK and the European Court of Human Rights,Equality and Human Rights Commission Research report 83, 2012, p 34
ICJ, Interhandel (Switzerland v Unted States) Judgment of 21 March 1959; Article 41(1)(c) ICCPR; Article 46 American Convention on Human Rights; Articles 50 and 56(5) African Charter of Human and People’s Rights
Gafgen v Germany (GC), App no 22978/05, 1 June 2010; Siliadin v France, App no 73316/01, 26 July 2005
Practical Guide on Admissibility Criteria, CoE, 2014, p 22
Amongst many others, see: Peacock v UK (Decision), App no 52335/12, 5 January 2016; Bahmanzadeh v UK (Decision), App no 35752/13, 5 January 2016; Roberts v UK (Decision), App no 59703/13, 5 January 2016
Hutchinson v. UK, App no 57592/08, 3 February 2015
Kafkaris v Cyprus [GC] Application no. 21906/04, 12 February 2008
Indeterminate Sentence Manual (the Lifer Manual), issued as Prison Service Order 4700
R v Bieber  1 WLR 223; R v David Oakes and others  EWCA Crim 2435,  2 Cr App R (S) 22; Vinter and others v UK [GC], Apps nos 66069/09, 130/10, 3896/10, 9 July 2013
Hutchinson v. UK, App no 57592/08, 3 February 2015
Hammerton v UK, App no 6287/10, 17 March 2016, paras 6-15
Hammerton v UK, paras 26-35
Hammerton v UK, paras 146-147
A. Donald, J. Gordon, P. Leach, The UK and the European Court of Human Rights, Equality and Human Rights Commission Research report 83, 2012, p 36