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Parliamentary committee encourages government to drop bill of rights

Proposed human rights reforms will diminish existing protections, a parliamentary committee has forewarned, encouraging the government to abandon plans for a supposed bill of rights.

In a 93-page report published this week, the joint committee on human rights details why the government has not made a strong case for replacing the Human Rights Act with a bill of rights in the form suggested by the government.

The report unearths that plans to diminish the existing relationship between the UK courts and the European Court of Human Rights would make litigation more expensive and time-consuming. The committee highlighted that amending section 2 of the 1998 legislation, which calls for UK courts to take into account Strasbourg judgments, would expand the likelihood of cases being taken to the ECtHR, risking more untoward judgments against the UK.

The report notes: ‘During the pandemic, the government suspended jury trials before the Crown Court on the grounds of a public health emergency, which led to inevitable delays to justice. If the British bill of rights contained specific protections for the right to trial by jury, the Government may be open to challenge if they seek to reduce the scope of jury trials, or suspend jury trials, in the future.

‘The government states it is their intention to “create a bill of rights for the whole of the United Kingdom, founded on principles common to us all”. However, the right to jury trial does not exist in Scottish procedure. The bill of rights would therefore diverge from universality, as not all rights would be given effect in all four jurisdictions. It will be a matter for the Scottish Parliament to determine whether to make any amendments to their criminal justice system.’

Of opposed to introducing a bill of rights, which the report notes is a ‘rebranding exercise’, the committee suggests the government emphasises on championing respect for human rights as a main element of the country’s values and constitution.

Committee chair Harriet Harman MP commented: ‘The government’s case that human rights legislation is in serious need of reform is not proven. There is nothing in their consultation that would serve to strengthen the protections we currently have and much that would weaken them. In many cases what is described as the strengthening of rights is simply tweaking what is already protected, while at the same time making it harder for people to actually enforce their rights.’

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice stated: ‘Our proposals will strengthen quintessentially British human rights, such as freedom of expression, while staying a party to the ECHR. They will also prevent abuses of the system, adding a healthy dose of common sense and restore parliament’s rightful role as the ultimate decision-maker on laws impacting the UK population.’

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