The government has this week been criticised by a wide range of organisations for launching a review into human rights in the middle of a pandemic.
On Monday (07 December 2020), the Ministry of Justice announced that an independent review into the Human Rights Act (HRA), led by former judge Sir Peter Gross, has been launched.
Although the government insisted it remains “committed” to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), it asked Sir Gross and his team to consider whether the way in which UK courts apply case law borne out of the European Court for Human Rights (ECtHR) can be reformed.
The review will also look into the question of “whether domestic courts are being unduly drawn into areas of policy” – an investigation likely prompted by rulings that have found government actions to be unlawful.
Further, it has been asked to consider whether there is a “case for change” around the HRA applying to events that occur outside of the UK – a question most likely focused on passing the Conservative Party’s Manifesto pledge to exclude Irish families from the right to take legal action against the British army for its conduct during The Troubles. Former Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, has already warned that reforming the HRA in this way would break the European Convention on Human Rights and force the UK to withdraw from that treaty.
The Review is expected to report in the summer of 2021 and runs alongside a similar review into the right of British citizens to challenge the lawfulness of government policy via Judicial Review.
“Any review of the Human Rights Act would have implications for every single one of us,” President of the Law Society, David Greene, said, warning that the review must ensure no human rights are “compromised” or “rolled back”.
“Most of us will never have to resort to the Human Rights Act because the rights it protects are so embedded in our culture and legal system. But if a loved one’s rights, or our own, are overlooked or violated, then the Act is there to protect what we hold most dear – life, free speech and belief, privacy and family life, a fair trial.”
Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, David Lammy, said the government’s decision to launch this review in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic is “bonkers”.
Accusing the government of “prioritising launching an attack on human rights”, he argued that there is “no need for a review into the rights and freedoms that underpin our democracy and all of us enjoy”.
Human rights organisations also raised concerns about the review, with Amnesty UK Director, Kate Allen, warning that access to human rights is more critical now than ever.
“From Hillsborough to Grenfell to the appalling mishandling of the recent Covid crisis in care homes, we have never so badly needed a means to hold the government to account,” she said, warning that the review looks “worryingly like the latest power-grabbing move from a government that doesn’t like limits on its powers or judges who tell them when they break the law.”
Sam Grant, Head of Policy and Campaigns at Liberty, agreed. “For years our laws and legal processes have made sure governments and public bodies can be challenged when they make bad decisions,” he said. “The plans announced today … are focused on limiting our ability to do this.”