In the Media

Fifty years spent in defence of our civil liberties

PUBLISHED January 16, 2007

Justice was founded 50 years ago by Peter Benenson ? later to establish Amnesty International. He devised the name ? a rather loose acronym for the Joint United Society to Protect Civil Liberties in England. He negotiated nominations to its first council from lawyer organisations of each major political party. He persuaded Lord Gardiner, as he was to become, to observe the beginning of a treason trial in South Africa and, as a deliberate balancing act, got himself to Budapest to observe one of the show trials after the failed 1956 uprising.

As first secretary of the fledgeling organisation, he encouraged participation by some of the great lawyers of his generation and negotiated Justice?s relationship with the International Commission of Jurists, of which it is the autonomous British section. 

Half a century later, Justice remains an all-party organisation with membership on its council of parliamentarians from all three major political parties. It retains its international perspective. It still works with the International Commission of Jurists. Its council still has a membership of eminent lawyers from both branches of the profession. And it is still doing what Benenson wanted ? making an authoritative contribution to the administration of justice.

Some issues of concern to Justice have remained much the same. In 1957 discussion was dominated by the Suez invasion, raising very similar questions as the Iraq war. Some issues have been through a whole life cycle: lack of access to justice was seriously addressed with the development of legal aid from the 1960s but now re-emerges as a social and constitutional problem as cuts bite ever deeper.

Some issues have fallen away. For many years, Justice was best known for undertaking miscarriage of justice cases now handled by private practitioners and the Criminal Cases Review Commission. New issues have emerged. For example, the full potential of the European Convention on Human Rights, signed by the UK in 1951, was yet to become clear.

The theme of our 50th anniversary is the defence of the rule of law. It is somewhat shocking that this should be so pressing. Alas, Guantanamo Bay is more than the ?anomaly? acknowledged by our Prime Minister: it is a monstrous assault on human rights and the rule of law. At home, domestic criminal justice policy is disintegrating ? with prisoners beginning their sentences in police cells, the condition of prisons deteriorating and their staff demoralised. Torrents of legislation are passed each year, faster than can be properly applied and much of it ? even relating to terrorism ? rushed through Parliament too quickly for considered debate, showing too much concern for political soundbite over legal substance.

The challenge for Justice in its 50th year is to supplement its usual range of activity ? which has a small staff making about 60 substantive submissions on legislative proposals a year ? with a programme of activity fit to lay the foundations for another successful half-century. We have devised three strands to our approach.

First, we have established a student human rights network to foster the breadth of interest among law students in human rights. We have begun mailing out an electronic bulletin once a term and have embarked on a series of Saturday seminars ? the first of which, in November, was attending by a heartening and diverse range of students from around the country. We need to build on this interest from the generation that will become the lawyers of tomorrow.

Secondly, we have continued Justice?s tradition of establishing committees of experts to report on major politicolegal issues. This summer, we will publish a study on the issues relating to a British Bill of Rights, as proposed by David Cameron and hinted at by Gordon Brown. In particular, what might be the scope of such a Bill, how far it could go beyond the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights; how, once passed, it might be amended; how would it be enforced; whether we really want judicial entrenchment; what procedures would be appropriate for obtaining the consent of the public; whether would it be more practical to stay with the Human Rights Act, at least for the time being? At a less ambitious level, we will publish a ?futures? series, analysing the potential development of areas of policy with which we are concerned ? from counter-terrorism legislation to EU justice and home affairs policy.

Finally, we will continue to link events to major issues of concern. If Peter Benenson looks down on his organisation 50 years to the day that Lord Gardiner reported back on his visit to Pretoria, he will see Justice launching its manifesto for the rule of law at a debate between Lord Goldsmith, QC, Dominic Grieve, MP, and Simon Hughes, MP, on Common Principles: Differing Policies ? the shared values and distinctive responses of lawyers in the main political parties. Let us hope that he would acknowledge a job well done.