In the Media

We should be able to defy European Court of Human Rights, says Attorney-General

PUBLISHED October 25, 2011

There is ?no question? of Britain scrapping human rights laws or pulling out of the jurisdiction of Strasbourg, the Government?s chief law officer said last night.

But British courts and Parliament should have greater freedom to decide social policy issues, such as prisoners? voting rights, Dominic Grieve, QC, the Attorney-General, said. He insisted that UK courts should have a right to dispute rulings of the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

?If the current system is not working, we could positively provide for a right of rebuttal,? he said. That would allow the UK Supreme Court to say to the ECHR that it had misunderstood national law or the impact of its decisions on the UK legal system, he told lawyers.

The robust intervention of the Attorney-General at a lecture last night at Lincoln?s Inn, Central London, is the latest to fuel debate about the role of the human rights court.

It came just days after the Lord Chief Justice said that UK courts should be free not to abide by Strasbourg rulings.

Lord Judge, the most senior judge in England and Wales, said last week that it was ?arguable? that having taken account of Strasbourg decisions, ?our courts are not bound by them?.

Mr Grieve said that it was ?not clear? whether Parliament intended courts to follow Strasbourg judgments when it enacted the Human Rights Act. But, calling for a ?better definition of the very important relationship between the national courts and Strasbourg?, he said: ?We need clarity.?

The Attorney-General added that he personally was intervening on November 2 on behalf of the Government in an Italian case before the ECHR on prisoners? voting rights.

He would be arguing that the legal principle of subsidiarity meant that on social policy issues such as prisoners? voting rights, it was down to the Parliament and the courts of that member state to decide was appropriate.

?The court should not interfere with that judgment unless it is manifestly without reasonable foundation,? he said. But that could not be argued in the case of Britain, Mr Grieve added.

?Of course the United Kingdom should still be subject to the judgments of the Strasbourg court but the court should not normally need to intervene in cases that have already been properly considered by the national courts applying the [European] Convention [on Human Rights].?

When Parliament enacted the Human Rights Act in 1998, the UK could have ?made it clear that the national courts must follow the jurisprudence of the international court?, he said. But, Mr Grieve added, ?it chose not to do so?.

Earlier, he insisted that although there was a commission looking at whether the Human Rights Act should be replaced by a UK Bill of Rights, there would be no ?erosion? of human rights.

He acknowledged that UK courts had placed ?too much weight on the family rights of foreign criminals?, which ministers intended to address.

Mr Grieve said he was ?proud? of the legacy that had led to the European Convention on Human Rights, which reflected ?hard-won? rights and freedoms.

MPs overwhelmingly voted in February to keep the ban on prisoners voting, in defiance of a Strasbourg ruling. That prompted David Cameron to set up the commission to consider a British Bill of Rights and the future of the Human Rights Act, which enshrines the Convention in UK law.

The Attorney-General added that while there was no question of Britain withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights, he suggested that no such guarantees existed for the Human Rights Act in its present state, which was ?not synonymous with the Convention?.