The Cake Bill

The flaws in the UK government’s two-faced Bill of Rights Bill

The UK government has introduced its Bill of Rights Bill: a long, if not exactly eagerly, awaited replacement for the Human Rights Act 1998, which gives effect to the European Convention on Human Rights in UK law. The Bill will limit the ability of the UK courts to enforce rights protections in the UK in various ways, some of them arguably defensible ― at least in the abstract ― and many not defensible at all. In this, I offer my initial thoughts on some of the Bill’s most salient aspects. My overarching theme will be that the government is trying to have its cake ― or rather, several different cakes ― and eat it ― or them ― too.

It may be worth briefly noting where I’m coming from on this. I think that I am more sympathetic to the concerns with judicial overreach in the implementation of the Convention and the Human Rights Act 1998 than many, perhaps most, UK public law academics. Moreover, I have no particular attachment to the Convention and especially the European Court of Human Rights, whose judgments consistently strike me as unimpressive or worse. At the same time, as readers of this blog will know, I do strongly favour protections for individual rights vigorously enforced by an independent judiciary. So if the point of human rights law reform were for the UK to go its own way and even leave the Convention so as to reject the Strasbourg Court’s mistakes, while making robust arrangements to secure rights, I would be quite happy.

But that is not at all what it is proposed. It would be an exaggeration to say that the Bill embraces the worst of both worlds ― the Convention/Strasbourg world and that of UK parliamentary sovereignty ― but it blends them in a way that strikes me as remarkably inelegant and unattractive.

For all the talk of a “British bill of rights” over the years, the Bill of Rights Bill remains closely tethered to the Convention. It (largely) eschews any definition of rights, and in clause 2 tamely incorporates by reference the substantive provisions of the Convention (which are also set out in a Schedule), just as the Human Rights Act had done. It also refers to various other definitions and provisions of the Convention. Perhaps this was the path of least resistance, but if the idea was to produce a statement of the UK’s own commitment to rights, this is a missed opportunity. Perhaps, on the contrary, the government wanted to signal that rights are simply alien to the UK’s legal system. That would be a deplorable distortion of the (admittedly complex) historical and constitutional truth. Either way, this is an example of the government trying to have it both ways: both distancing the UK legal system from that of the Convention and the Strasbourg court, but also remaining bound to it.

The main apparent exception to this refusal to articulate a distinct list of rights concerns clause 4 of the Bill, which refers to “the right to freedom of speech”. The Convention itself refers, instead, to the freedom of expression. But this distinction is mostly for show. Subclause 2 clarifies that “‘the right to freedom of speech’ means the Convention right set out in Article 10 of the Convention (freedom of expression) so far as it consists of a right to impart ideas, opinions or information by means of speech, writing or images (including in electronic form).” Again, the Bill is acting like Very Grownup child who will not stray out of mommy’s sight.

More importantly, clause 4 is mostly just for show substantively. Its first subclause says that “a court must give great weight to the importance of protecting” free speech. Put to one side the question of what this even means, and whether courts now fail to “give great weight” to the freedom of speech. This hardly matters, because subclause 3 excludes most conceivable use cases from the scope of clause 4’s application. Freedom of speech is not to be given great weight in deciding “any question [regarding] a provision of primary or subordinate legislation that creates a criminal offence”, or questions about contractual or professional duties of confidentiality, or immigration, citizenship, and national security cases. Just that! What’s left? So far as I can tell, defamation and privacy issues (and note that clause 22 of the Bill puts a thumb on the scale against pre-trial restraints on publication ― though it does not prevent them entirely). It’s not nothing, I suppose, but a provision that grandly announces the importance of an English-sounding freedom of speech (rather than the dastardly Latinate “expression”) only to clarify that it applies only to fairly narrow categories of cases is another example of the Bill’s two-facedness.

I turn now to a different aspect of the Bill, the one to which I have at least a modicum of sympathy: its interpretive provision, clause 3. The Bill does away with one of the contentious elements of the Human Rights Act, section 3 (coincidentally), which provided that “[s]o far as it is possible to do so … legislation must be read and given effect in a way which is compatible with the Convention rights”. Courts took that pretty far, holding at one point that even unnatural readings of statutory provisions were “possible”, provided they did not mess with the main thrust of the legislation at issue. Where primary legislation was concerned, such re-interpretation was the only remedy that could do an applicant some tangible good, and moreover it avoided the need to declare legislation incompatible with convention rights. But by my own lights it was inappropriate nonetheless, and I am not sorry to see it go. I wish the UK allowed the courts to disapply legislation incompatible with rights, but I don’t think that judicial re-writing is an appropriate substitute for such a remedy (see e.g. here).

I also appreciate the Bill’s gesture at textualism and perhaps even an originalism of sorts with its requirement, in clause 3(2)(a) that courts interpreting a Convention right “must have particular regard to [its] text … and in interpreting the text may have regard to the preparatory work of the Convention”. As an abstract matter, this is the right approach to interpretation. More on whether it makes sense in the context of UK human rights law presently. First, let me note that the Bill doesn’t actually embrace originalism, because it also allows the court to “have regard to the development under the common law of any right that is similar to the Convention right”. Contrast this with the Supreme Court of Canada’s rightful scepticism of jurisprudential developments post-dating the framing of the Charter in Quebec (Attorney General) v 9147-0732 Québec inc, 2020 SCC 32 (on which see here).

Anyway, the trouble is that this provision is another show of rigour and independence that will do no one much good. To the extent that the courts will follow it and adopt readings of Convention rights that are tethered to the text and “that diverg[e] from Strasbourg jurisprudence” as contemplated by clause 3(3)(b), they simply ensure that the Strasbourg court will find that the UK has violated its Convention obligations as interpreted by Strasbourg itself. It will be a pain in the neck for claimants, and it might allow the government to rage at those unconscionable European judges ― indeed, it is hard not to wonder whether this, as much as anything else, is really the point ― but that’s about it. The UK cannot unilaterally change the way the Convention is interpreted, even if its proposed interpretive methodology is better than the one endorsed by the European Court of Human Rights, and it cannot escape its Convention obligations by proclaiming that Strasbourg jurisprudence is no part of UK law.

Other interpretive provisions aren’t even well-intentioned. Clause 3(3)(a) makes adjudication of Convention rights into a one-way-ratchet by providing that courts “may not adopt an interpretation of [a] right that expands the protection conferred by the right unless the court has no reasonable doubt that” Strasbourg would do the same. While I understand discomfort with the idea that rights can be ― seemingly ― forever expanding by judicial fiat, this is unambiguously bad, though not unambiguously much else. The Bill doesn’t explain what it means by “expand” ― notably, what is the baseline? The existing Strasbourg jurisprudence? The original meaning? The original expected applications? Just what is “the protection” that must not be expanded? Does a new factual scenario count? And, fundamentally, whatever this all means, why is that (by implication) restricting the scope of a right is permitted but expanding it is not? If rights are in some sense fixed, they must be fixed against restriction as well as expansion; indeed, this is an important argument for originalism (see e.g. here), though not the most important one.

Another largely arbitrary limitation on the way rights are to be interpreted and applied is clause 5, which prohibits interpretations of Convention rights that would impose “positive obligation[s]” on public authorities ― i.e. simply require them “to do any act”. (The prohibition is categorical for the future cases, while existing interpretations that would fall afoul of it can only be retained on some stringent conditions.) Now, here too, I have some sympathy for the underlying motivations: so far as I can tell, the Strasbourg court can be fairly cavalier with demands that authorities do this or that, and its conception of the limits of the judicial role is different from that which you will find in common law jurisdictions. The Convention itself protects primarily what are known as negative rights ― that is, “freedoms from” rather than “rights to”. But understandable motivations aren’t enough.

The lines drawn by the Bill are too rigid. While it can be a useful guideline, the distinction between positive and negative rights is not nearly as clear-cut as the Bill’s drafters seem to assume. Sometimes, this is a textual evidence. Take Article 3 of the First Protocol to the Convention, by which the UK “undertake[s] to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot”. This is manifestly a commitment to “do acts”, lots and lots of them, and if the UK should fail to live up to it, I don’t understand how a court ― let alone a court having “particular regard to the text” can decline to order the government to get on with it. Once again, Strasbourg, here we come. But this is only the most obvious example. Even a seemingly purely “negative” right, say to be free from a random arrest by a rogue police officer, can have a positive corollary ― namely, to be promptly released if so arrested. Does the government really think a UK court should not be able to infer such a right (assuming it has not already been inferred ― sorry, I am far from being fully caught up on Convention jurisprudence) from Article 5 of the Convention? Meanwhile, the Bill doesn’t address what might actually be a more disturbing aspect of Strasbourg’s positive obligations jurisprudence: the indirect imposition of such obligations on private parties, who are thus burdened with duties the Convention quite clearly didn’t intend to impose on them.

I finally turn to the last issue I want to discuss at some length: the Bill’s attempt to force courts to defer to Parliament. Specifically, clause 7 provides that, when determining whether a statutory provision is incompatible with a Convention right and, in the course of doing so, “decid[ing] whether the effect of the provision … strikes an appropriate balance between different policy aims [or] different Convention rights, or … the Convention rights of different persons … [t]he court must regard Parliament as having decided … that the Act” does strike such a balance. The Court is, further, to “give the greatest possible weight to the principle that, in a Parliamentary democracy, decisions about how such a balance should be struck are properly made by Parliament”. One problem with this is that it is all quite vague. Indeed, perhaps all this bluster means nothing at all. A court may well stipulate that Parliament decided that its law was fine and dandy and conclude that the greatest possible weight to give to this decision is precisely zero. On its face, the clause doesn’t actually preclude that.

But of course that’s not the interpretation the government will be hoping for. So let’s try taking this clause more seriously. So taken, clause 7(2)(a), which deems Parliament to have appropriately balanced all the rights and policy considerations involved is reminiscent of the late and unlamented “presumption of expertise” in Canadian administrative law, whereby courts were required (albeit by judicial precedent, not an Act of Parliament) to pretend that administrative decision-makers were experts regardless of whether the decision-maker in question had demonstrated any expertise bearing on the issue or could be plausibly expected ever to do so. I have called this “post-truth jurisprudence“, and I regard clause 7(2)(a) as a specimen of similarly post-truth legislation. It demands that the courts accept for a fact something that will by no means always be true. Many rights issues are unanticipated ― indeed, they arise precisely because they were not thought of when the legislation was being drafted. To the extent that, as the Bill’s drafters want us to believe, Parliament does take rights seriously, it will usually redress the issues it can anticipate before enacting legislation. It is no calumny against Parliament, however, to say that it cannot foresee all the problems that can arise. If anything, the calumny is to insist that whatever problems do occur, Parliament must have intended them to.

And then, there’s the matter of the assertion in Clause 7(2)(b) that decisions about balancing rights, or rights and policies, “are properly made by Parliament” “in a parliamentary democracy”. The “parliamentary democracy” bit is either a red herring or a misnomer. There are parliamentary democracies with robust judicial review of legislation ― Germany and India come to mind. What the Bill really means, but doesn’t quite want to say, is something like “a constitution based on parliamentary sovereignty”. Indeed, clause 7(2)(b) is reminiscent of the language in the preamble of Québec’s anti-religious dress code statute, which proclaims that “in accordance with the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, it is incumbent on the Parliament of Québec to determine the principles according to which and manner in which relations between the State and religions are to be governed in Québec”, by way of foreshadowing exclusion of judicial supervision of this law’s compliance with constitutional rights. I cannot help but suspect that the UK government is deliberately less forthright than its Québec counterpart because, yet again, it is trying to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to make courts to rubber-stamp parliamentary legislation instead of passing their own judgment on its compliance with rights, but it doesn’t want to admit that it is undermining the (already weak-form, and often quite deferential!) judicial review that UK courts have been engaging in. It might even be hoping to trade on the respect the European Court of Human Rights has developed for UK courts over the years to persuade the Strasbourg judges that legislation they rubber-stamped was really alright. I doubt it will work very well.

There would be a lot more to say. Much ― really, a shocking part ― of the Bill is devoted to nipping various claims in the immigration and refugee context in the bud. Some ― though less ― also tries to stick it to prisoners. I don’t like that one bit. As the most intelligent and principled opponent of judicial review of legislation, Jeremy Waldron, has come to recognise, if anyone has a claim to the assistance of the courts in order to defend their rights, it is precisely these groups, often unpopular and politically voiceless. Instead of being granted special solicitude, they are disgracefully singled out for special burdens. That said, in various smaller ways the Bill gets in the way of other rights claimants too.

But this is already a long post, and it should be clear enough that, in its present form, the Bill is not much good. To repeat, I’m no great fan of the Human Rights Act that it is meant to replace. That law’s weaknesses are mostly baked in for as long as the UK remains party to the Convention, but perhaps some of them could have been ameliorated. Instead of trying to do that, the government came up with a set of proposals that will, if enacted, make everything worse. Quite radically worse for some people, and less radically, but just enough to be noticeable, for everyone else. And for what? Chest-thumping now, and lost cases at Strasbourg later. Even a sovereign legislature in a parliamentary democracy can only ever say that it will have its cake and eat it too; it cannot actually do it.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law at the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and did graduate work at the NYU School of Law. I then taught in New Zealand before taking up my current position at Reading.

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