One of Europe’s most eminent jurists has warned that the UK will set a bad example to countries with dubious human rights records if it withdraws from the European Convention on Human Rights.
Sir Francis Jacobs QC (pictured), former advocate general at the Court of Justice of the European Communities (now the CJEU), also voiced his ‘inevitable regret’ that the country which has ‘led the way on the rule of law’ is attracting criticism for measures which are restricting access to the English courts.
He cited swingeing legal aid cuts and reform of judicial review.
It could be regarded as ‘ironic’ that the UK is presently engaged in a high-profile celebration of Magna Carta, he declared.
Sir Francis, professor of law at King’s College London and past president of the European Law Institute, was speaking last night at a panel discussion in Brussels held to celebrate the 25th anniversary of The Law Societies' Joint Brussels Office.
Alluding to government plans to scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British bill of rights, Sir Francis insisted this would entail ‘denouncing’ the ECHR and withdrawal from the Council of Europe – ‘with implications for the future of the EU’.
‘The government is setting an unfortunate example to other countries – even Russia,’ he said. ‘There is value to the UK itself where human rights are protected in every country.’
Withdrawal from the convention would have been ‘inconceivable a few years ago’, he said.
Sir Francis also argued that the rationale for change is fundamentally flawed and reflects an imperfect understanding of how the rule of law is applied in liberal democracies. ‘There is a feeling that issues of human rights should be resolved by parliament. But the problem is parliament is not always a reliable arbiter on questions of human rights.’
In liberal democracies it is commonly the courts which 'make the decisions’, he added, a fact ‘not well understood’ in the UK. A recent change of tack has seen the government insist (as stated in the Conservative party election manifesto) that the Supreme Court should be the ‘ultimate arbiter of human rights matters in the UK’.
‘This overlooks the point that our own judges are very much in line with Strasbourg, so it [would make] little practical difference,’ said Sir Francis.
Solicitor, MEP and former home office minister Timothy Kirkhope, Conservative spokesman for the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, was also on the panel. He said there is a fundamental distinction between the convention and the Human Rights Act 1998, which he described as a ‘parliamentary interference’ that ‘sounded the half-death knell of common law’.
‘I have no problem with the convention and I hope my party and colleagues will differentiate between the two,’ Kirkhope said.
Prime minister David Cameron told the House of Commons earlier this month he would be prepared to withdraw from the ECHR if proposed changes to Britain’s human rights laws are rejected by Strasbourg.