The European Court of Human Rights would become an 'advisory body' to the UK government under a draft bill to be published before Christmas, the justice secretary Chris Grayling has announced.
A paper published today sets out long-trailed plans to repeal the Human Rights Act if the Conservatives win the next general election. It would be replaced by a 'British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities' which would break the formal link between British courts and the Strasbourg court.
Under the plan to 'restore common sense and put Britain first' the Supreme Court will in future be the 'ultimate arbiter' on whether human rights are being respected, the Conservatives said. If the Council of Europe refuses to accept the new arrangements, Britain will immediately withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, Grayling said.
The Conservatives' paper provoked immediate outrate in legal circles. Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general, said the paper contained 'howlers' and ignored constitutional matters such as the Scottish devolution agreement and the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland.
The Strasbourg court needs more time for reforms to come through, he said.
Law Society president Andrew Caplen said: 'The Law Society is proud of the protection that the Human Rights Act provides, of Britain's role in the creation of a European-wide Court of Human Rights, and of the decisions that have been made there. We should promote the existing act, not replace it.'
Campaign group Justice said the proposals would significantly undermine the ability of ordinary people in the UK to hold the government and public authorities to account when they overstep their powers. Director Andrea Coomber condemned the timing of the proposals' publication.
‘It is deeply regrettable that Conservative Party members were not given the opportunity to discuss and debate these very serious proposals at their conference earlier this week. This does not reflect well on the leadership’s willingness to engage critically on the future of our constitution.'
She said Conservative Party policy now says: ‘We support minimum human rights standards, but only if we define their content. We get first - and last - say on what rights mean and who enjoys them.’
Nicola Hill, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, described the proposals as 'cynical electioneering'. She added: 'If the Strasbourg court needs some readjusting – and it may - then let’s see that done through the right channels and not resort to a politically expedient ruse to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’.
One of the proposals' authors, barrister and former leader of the Conservative Party Michael Howard, said that the bill's 'democratic override' would apply to domestic courts as well as to decisions from Strasbourg.
Claiming that 'in a number of cases, Britain's courts have explicitly gone beyond Strasbourg case law' when interpreting the convention, he said the bill will set out 'very clearly for our courts when human rights laws are applicable and when they are not'.
Writing in today's Daily Telegraph he states: 'We stand by the original convention and the principles we signed up to in the forties. It contains a sensible balance of rights and responsibilities - and protecprotections for our society. That is why we will put the text of the convention into our domestic law.'