Hate crime?

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

A famous saying about freedom of speech is often (rightly or wrongly) attributed to the eighteenth century French philosopher, Voltaire (François-Marie Aroue):

‘I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.’

Voltaire’s remark is, however, not without its problems. Freedom of speech is a contested concept. There’s no such thing as the right (in law) to say anything you like. The European Convention on Human Rights does, of course, recognise the right to freedom of expression in terms of Article 10, but European countries that are signatories to the Convention can restrict this right – quite legitimately.

Recently, in 2019, the European Court of Human Rights made it very clear that Holocaust denial is not a legitimate expression of free speech (see Pastörs v Germany ECHR 331 (2019)).

That said, the ability by signatory countries to restrict Article 10 rights are subject to very rigorous safeguards:

  • it must be prescribed by or in accordance with the law;
  • it must be necessary in a democratic society;
  • it is in pursuit of one or more legitimate aims specified in the relevant Article [of the Convention];
  • it must be proportionate.

Even in the United States of America, where lots of unpalatable things are tolerated under the free speech provisions of the First Amendment to the Constitution, there are limits (see the Miller Test formulated by the US Supreme Court in Miller v California 413 US 15 (1973)).

Our very own Miller case

In the various legal jurisdictions of the United Kingdom, there is also such a thing as hate speech (a criminal offence). No one is pretending that freedom of speech is an area of the law which is clear cut and unambiguous. It can be minefield and deciding what is legitimate (but perhaps disagreeable or offensive) expressions of free speech from hate speech can be extremely problematic.

We have just been reminded of this fact by a case which has just been decided by the English High Court.

Harry Miller, who is a former Police officer himself, was subject to Police scrutiny because he had posted a number of Tweets about proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act 2004. Let us just say that Mr Miller is clearly not in favour of changes to the legislation which would liberalise this area of the law e.g. by permitting individuals to decide their chosen gender by way of self-identification.

Someone complained about Mr Miller’s Tweets and the Police visited him at his work-place to discuss the matter. He was issued with a warning that his remarks could constitute a hate speech incident, but significantly the officers stated that no crime had been committed. This warning was issued to Miller in terms of the Hate Crime Operational Guidance 2014 (HCOG) issued by the College of Policing.

Mr Miller was not prepared to let this matter rest as he was strongly of the opinion that his right to freedom of expression had been violated by the actions of the Police.

He appealed to Humberside Police’s Appeals Body, but the appeal was rejected in June 2019. Mr Miller then commenced an action for judicial review of the actions of the Police.

Mr Justice Knowles sitting in the English High Court agreed with Mr Miller (see Harry Miller v (1) The College of Policing (2) The Chief Constable of Humberside [2020] EWHC 225 (Admin)). It is perhaps highly significant that Knowles J prefaced his ruling with a reference to the unpublished introduction to George Orwell’s celebrated novel, Animal Farm:

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

His Honour went on to highlight the remarks of Lord Justice Sedley in Redmond-Bate v Director of Public Prosecutions (1999) 7 BHRC 375:

Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative … Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having …

It was also noted that Lord Bingham in R v Shayler [2003] 1 AC 247 had stated:

The reasons why the right to free expression is regarded as fundamental are familiar, but merit brief restatement in the present context. Modern democratic government means government of the people by the people for the people. But there can be no government by the people if they are ignorant of the issues to be resolved, the arguments for and against different solutions and the facts underlying those arguments. The business of government is not an activity about which only those professionally engaged are entitled to receive information and express opinions. It is, or should be, a participatory process. But there can be no assurance that government is carried out for the people unless the facts are made known, the issues publicly ventilated …”.

A subtle judgement?

It is important to understand that the judgement issued by Knowles J is one of considerable subtlety and it is not giving the green light to people to say what they want – even if this would cause offence.

There are still limits to freedom of speech and expression. Critically, Knowles J rejected Mr Miller’s very broad challenge that his human rights in terms of Article 10 of the European Convention had been violated merely because the Police had recorded and classified the matter as a non hate crime incident.

Such measures are necessary in a democratic society (and supported by a wealth of evidence) because, amongst other things, they can:

  • provide evidence of a person’s motivation for subsequent hate crimes;
  • provide context to what divides the cohesion of communities when hate incidents take place and how the Police can deal with these matters more effectively; and
  • prevent escalation of crime particularly with school children who might be aware of the seriousness and consequences of committing hate incidents, recording of such behaviour can be a very effective educational tool.

Knowles J found in favour of Mr Miller on the basis of his narrower challenge to the Police actions. This part of Miller’s legal action could be summed up in the following terms:

He [Miller] contends that the combination of the recording of his tweets as a non-crime hate incident under HCOG; PC Gul going to his workplace to speak to him about them; their subsequent conversation in which, at a minimum, PC Gul warned him of the risk of a criminal prosecution if he continued to tweet; and the Claimant’s subsequent dealings with the police in which he was again warned about criminal prosecution, interfered with his rights under Article 10(1) in a manner which was unlawful.

In upholding part of Miller’s challenge on the narrower grounds, Knowles J explained his reasoning:

There was not a shred of evidence that the Claimant was at risk of committing a criminal offence. The effect of the police turning up at his place of work because of his political opinions must not be underestimated. To do so would be to undervalue a cardinal democratic freedom. In this country we have never had a Cheka, a Gestapo or a Stasi. We have never lived in an Orwellian society.

His Honour concluded by stating that:

“… the police’s treatment of the Claimant thereafter disproportionately interfered with his right of freedom of expression, which is an essential component of democracy for all of the reasons I explained at the beginning of this judgment.”

A link to the judgement in Harry Miller v (1) The College of Policing (2) The Chief Constable of Humberside [2020] EWHC 225 (Admin) can be found below:

https://www.judiciary.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/miller-v-college-of-police-judgment.pdf

A link to an article in The Guardian can be found below:

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/feb/14/transgender-tweet-police-acted-unlawfully

Conclusion

Proposals to liberalise the Gender Recognition Act 2004 are, undoubtedly, causing heated debate and much controversy across the United Kingdom. There are strong opinions on both sides of this debate and Knowles J acknowledged as much in the Miller case:

The Claimant’s Tweets were, for the most part, either opaque, profane, or unsophisticated. That does not rob them of the protection of Article 10(1). I am quite clear that they were expressions of opinion on a topic of current controversy, namely gender recognition. Unsubtle though they were, the Claimant expressed views which are congruent with the views of a number of respected academics who hold gender-critical views and do so for profound socio-philosophical reasons. This conclusion is reinforced by Ms Ginsberg’s evidence [CEO of Index on Censorship] which shows that many other people hold concerns similar to those held by the Claimant.”

This case is, however, not a green light for people to say what they like – no matter how offensive their remarks may be. Freedom of speech and expression carry responsibilities and people should be mindful of this. That said, cases which have at their centre arguments over freedom of expression will turn on their facts. It is useful to realise that legitimate expressions of free speech will be protected and upheld. It’s a question of balance, but this is easier said than done – much more difficult to achieve in practice.

Related Blog Articles:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/12/21/say-what-you-want/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/10/08/holocaust-denial/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/09/26/im-not-your-daddy/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/07/17/whos-the-daddy/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/06/25/gender-neutral/

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 16 February 2020

The only gay in the village?

The colours of Pride

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

The only gay in the village became a household phrase in the UK thanks to the long running Little Britain sitcom TV and radio series (which has been broadcast by the BBC since 2000).

Daffyd Thomas claimed to be the only gay person in a small, Welsh village (actually he wasn’t), but in some respects his catchphrase reflected the isolation that many people in the LGBTI communities experience – either in their personal or professional lives.

The reason that I mention this topic is because, last week, the LGBTI campaigning organisation, Stonewall, published research about the most inclusive LGBTI friendly employers in the UK (Newcastle City Council topped the list). That said, for many LGBTI employees, an inclusive work place is still a far off dream.

Please find a link to a story on the Sky News website about one employee’s decision to hide his LGBTI identity from his colleagues:

https://news.sky.com/story/i-felt-i-had-to-hide-my-lgbt-identity-at-work-so-i-decided-to-do-something-about-it-11920174

Links to Stonewall’s findings (and a Sky News article) can be found below:

https://www.stonewall.org.uk/system/files/2020_top_100_report.pdf

https://news.sky.com/story/stonewall-reveals-its-most-lgbt-inclusive-employers-11919950

A person’s sexual orientation is, of course, a protected characteristic in terms of Section 12 of the Equality Act 2010. Such individuals should not be subjected to direct discrimination (Section 13); indirect discrimination (Section 19); harassment (Section 26); and victimisation (Section 27).

Many years ago, I remember teaching a group of students who were studying for a professional qualification. Many of them were employed by recruitment agencies and it was my task to highlight the relevant provisions of discrimination law at that time. One evening, we had a discussion about discrimination on the grounds of a person’s sexual orientation – particularly in the context of the ban on gay and lesbian people serving in the UK Armed Forces. This ban would eventually be lifted in 2000 – following the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in Smith and Grady v UK (1999) 29 EHRR 493.

One of the students asked me what protection existed for gay and lesbian people in employment law generally. Very little was my response. Before the introduction of the Scotland Act 1998 and the Human Rights Act 1998, the work place could be very hostile for LGBTI people (see Macdonald v Lord Advocate; Pearce v Governing Body of Mayfield School [2003] UKHL 34).

Yes, admittedly, the UK was (and still is in spite of Brexit) a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights. In particular, Article 8 of the Convention recognises the right to family and private life. It was this Article which was used to overturn extremely restrictive laws on same sex relationships which existed in Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. Reinforcing Article 8 is Article 14 of the Convention is Article 14 which contains a general prohibition on discrimination.

The late 1960s are often referred to as the key period of the start of gay liberation in the UK with the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 which decriminalised homosexual relationships between consenting adults (aged 21 or over) and as long as such conduct was in private. What is often overlooked is that the 1967 Act applied to England and Wales only. The picture was very different (and would remain so for over a decade – sometimes longer) in various parts of the British Isles.

Homosexual relationships were decriminalised in Scotland in 1980; in Northern Ireland in 1982; the UK Crown Dependency of Guernsey in 1983; the UK Crown Dependency of Jersey in 1990; and the UK Crown Dependency of the Isle of Man in 1994. The age of consent was set at 21 for all these parts of the British Isles. Things have since moved on.

In the last 20 years, the influence of the European Union has been particularly profound regarding measures to combat sexual orientation discrimination.

In 1999, as a result of the Treaty of Amsterdam, the EU adopted two Directives which considerably expanded the scope of its anti-discrimination laws (the Racial Equality Directive (2000/43/EC) and the Employment Equality Directive (2000/78/EC). Of particular interest to this discussion is the Employment Equality Directive which made it unlawful to discriminate against a person on grounds of sexual orientation. Admittedly, this Directive was limited because it covered the areas of employment and vocational training only.

It did not extend to the provision of goods and services, so had the case of Bull and Another v Hall and Another [2013] UKSC 73 had occurred when the Directive was transposed into UK domestic law, the same sex couple who were refused a double room at the guest house in Cornwall would not have been successful in their claim for sexual orientation discrimination.

On 1 December 2003, the Employment Equality Directive would eventually become part of UK law in the form of the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003. The Regulations were repealed and replaced by the relevant provisions of the Equality Act 2010 (which came into force on 1 October 2010).

Shortly afterwards, the Civil Partnerships Act 2004 would give legal recognition (and protection) to gay and lesbian people who chose to enter such relationships. These rights would be further underpinned by permitting same sex couples to marry (in England and Wales in 2013 and in Scotland in 2014). Currently, Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK not to permit same sex marriage – although this will change from next week onwards (see link below):

Same-sex marriage: Couple ‘excited but nervous’ to become first in NI

Robyn Peoples and Sharni Edwards will celebrate their wedding on Tuesday in Carrickfergus.

This change to the law has come about as a result of the introduction of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 passed by the UK Parliament (in the absence of of a functioning devolved government for nearly the last 3 years).

The Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) is also worthy of comment. Article 19 prohibits discrimination by reason of a person’s sexual orientation and, notably, this provision is hardwired into UK law by way of the Equality Act 2010. Article 19 extended legal protection to gay and lesbian people more generally – over and above the limited areas of employment and vocational training which the Treaty of Amsterdam and the Employment Equality Directive had originally addressed.

The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (although Poland and the UK had negotiated some opt-outs) contained significant provisions on equality and non-discrimination, namely, Article 20 (equality before the law) and Article 21 (the principle of non-discrimination).

Finally, if employers want to do more to create an inclusive work place, they could start by using Stonewall’s inclusive toolkits (see link below):

https://www.stonewall.org.uk/best-practice-toolkits-and-resources

Conclusion

As a society, the UK has certainly moved on from the overtly hostile attitudes towards members of the LGBTI communities over the last 50 years or so. The legal rights and protections which LGBTI people now enjoy would have seemed unthinkable in 1967 when a limited form of tolerance was ushered in as a result of the Sexual Offences Act (in England and Wales). More recently, the UK and Scottish Governments have issued pardons to those individuals who were convicted of criminal offences under the previous laws (in 2017: the Policing and Crime Act 2017 in England and Wales (known as Turing’s Law after Alan Turing, the Enigma Code Breaker) and, in 2018, the Scottish Parliament followed suit by passing the Historical Sexual Offences (Pardons and Disregards) (Scotland) Act 2018).

Postscript

On Friday 7 February 2020, Phillip Schofield, the British TV celebrity announced that he was gay at the age of 57. Mr Schofield is married with 2 children and had lived a heterosexual life – until now. He likened hiding his sexual orientation to being in prison and being consumed by it.

A link to the story on the Sky News website can be found below:

http://news.sky.com/story/phillip-schofield-comes-out-as-gay-11928156

If anyone doubts that homophobia still exists in the UK, please see the story below:

Homophobic graffiti daubed on Polo Lounge entrance in Glasgow

Police have launched an investigation after they were alerted to the vandalism at the Polo Lounge.

Related Blog Articles:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/01/04/pansexual/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/12/31/civil-partner-i-do/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/12/08/different-standards/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/12/06/biased-blood/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/10/04/a-very-civil-partnership/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/20/love-and-marriage/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/08/the-gay-cake-row/

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 15 February 2020

Holocaust denial

Photo by Alexey Soucho on Unsplash

To deny that the Holocaust ever happened (i.e. the murder of 6 million Jews – at least – by the Nazi regime) is not and never can be a protected human right or a genuinely held philosophical belief.

Such a belief (and its expression) is not protected in terms of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (which was directly implemented into Scots Law via the Scotland Act 1998 and the Human Rights Act 1998). Article 10 protects the individual’s right to freedom of expression.

Freedom of expression is not an unlimited right and certain forms of expression which constitute, for example, hate speech will not be protected by the European Convention.

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France has just issued its ruling in this regard in the case of Pastörs v Germany ECHR 331 (2019).

Pastörs is a former member of the German regional parliament or Land for Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. He was sat in the parliament for the far right National Democratic Party (NPD). He made an inflammatory speech on 28 January 2010 about the Holocaust using expressions such:

the so-called Holocaust is being used for political and commercial purposes”.

He also stated during the speech:

Since the end of the Second World War, Germans have been exposed to an endless barrage of criticism and propagandistic lies – cultivated in a dishonest manner primarily by representatives of the so-called democratic parties, ladies and gentlemen. Also, the event that you organised here in the castle yesterday was nothing more than you imposing your Auschwitz projections onto the German people in a manner that is both cunning and brutal. You are hoping, ladies and gentlemen, for the triumph of lies over truth.”

The speech by Pastörs was particularly insensitive and offensive given that Holocaust Remembrance Day had been commemorated the day previously.

Pastörs was subsequently convicted by a German court of criminal offences i.e. “violating the memory of the dead and of the intentional defamation of the Jewish people”. This conviction was upheld on appeal.

Pastörs then lodged a case to the European Court of Human Rights on the basis that his Article 10 rights and his Article 6 rights (the right to a fair trial) had been violated by the German legal authorities.

The Court has now found that Pastörs’ legal challenge under Article 10 “was manifestly ill-founded and had to be rejected”. On the matter of the allegation that his Article 6 rights had been violated, the judges by 4 votes to 3 rejected this argument.

The judgement can be appealed to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights.

If so, it will be interesting to see how the judges respond.

As things stand presently, this judgement confirms that freedom of expression and speech are not unlimited rights.

A photograph of the press release from the ECtHR regarding the Pastörs judgement can be found below:

A link to the actual judgement of the court can be found below:

https://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng#{%22fulltext%22:[%22pastors%22],%22itemid%22:[%22001-196148%22]}

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 8 October 2019

I’m a prisoner, I want to vote!

Photo by kyryll ushakov on Unsplash

In one of my first blogs (The problem with human rights … published on 1 February 2019), I discussed the problematic nature of this area – especially when individuals who have been less than law abiding, upright citizens are attempting to argue that they deserve to have their human rights respected.

In that previous blog, I focused on people such as John Hirst (convicted for manslaughter in England); Abu Qatada (a radical Islamic preacher who promoted Jihad); and Anders Brevik (the Norwegian mass murderer); who had all pursued legal actions in terms of the European Convention on Human Rights.

See:

  •  Hirst v United Kingdom (No. 2) (2005) ECHR 681
  •  Othman (Abu Qatada) vUK (Application No. 8139/09) 12 January 2012
  • Hansen (formerly known as Anders Breivik) v Norway (Application No. 48852/17) 26 June 2018)

As I often remark to my students, people such as those listed above are not ideal ‘poster boys’ if you were going to run a marketing campaign to promote greater awareness of human rights in Scotland.

This year (in Scotland) marks the twentieth anniversary of the implementation of the European Convention via the Scotland Act 1998 (in 2000, the Convention was further implemented across the UK as a result of the introduction of the Human Rights Act 1998).

I doubt very much that supporters of the system of human rights protection will wish to dwell too long on those difficult cases involving murderers, terrorists, paedophiles etc. It rather tends to undermine the whole basis of human rights or, in other words, it’s a very difficult sell.

Yet the difficult cases keep on coming and certainly make this area a constant source of fascinating debate and argument about the rights and wrongs of human rights. They also tend to drive home very forcefully the notion that human rights is a contested concept. Not everyone agrees what should be protected or who should be protected.

In 2000, the former Scottish judge, Lord McCluskey was highly critical of the introduction of human rights to the legal system. As far back as 1986, he had made the following remarks (in his Reith Lectures) about Canada implementing its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which was based on the European Convention. In his opinion, this would lead to:

a field day for crackpots, a pain in the neck for judges and legislators, and a goldmine for lawyers.

His Lordship would make the point that the above remarks applied equally to the then Labour Government’s decision to implement the European Convention directly into the legal systems of the United Kingdom.

Whether Lord McCluskey came to regret making these remarks publicly, we can only speculate. They did, however, come back to haunt him when counsel for a number of appellants before the Appeal Court of the High Court of Justiciary argued that Lord McCluskey (and his fellow judges) should be removed from further participation in an appeal which relied very heavily on human rights arguments, in particular, the right to a fair trial under Article 6 of the Convention (see Hoekstra & Others v Her Majesty’s Advocate [2000] ScotHC 11).

John Hirst

When Andrew Neil, the well known journalist, questioned John Hirst about prisoners being given the right to vote in elections being held in the UK, he was less than subtle when he ran through Hirst’s charge sheet on the BBC’s Daily Politics Show in 2010.

Even instinctive supporters of human rights would have found it very difficult (emotionally speaking) to sympathise with Hirst’s position that the right to vote is a human right and this should be extended to those serving prison sentences.

If you want to be reminded of how awkward an interview this was, please click on the link below:

A persistent problem

The spark ignited by John Hirst smoulders on. Amazingly, we are still talking about the issue in 2019. Last month, the European Court of Human Rights (not to be confused with the EU’s Court of Justice), ruled against the UK for failure to implement its earlier decisions which came down firmly on the side of prisoners. Although the UK was found to be in breach of the European Convention, the European Court of Human Rights decided not to award compensation to those prisoners who brought the claim.

The case in question is Miller & Others v UK 11 April 2019 (Application No 70571/14) and the European Court of Human Rights is effectively declaring that UK electoral legislation does not comply with the European Convention.

Article 3 of Protocol No. 1 of the European Convention states that the signatories or High Contracting Parties (i.e. those countries, including the UK, which have signed the Convention):

… undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.”

All of the prisoners involved in this application were alleging that the UK was in breach of the above provision when they were denied the right to vote in one or more of the following elections: the European Parliament elections on 22 May 2014; the elections to the Scottish Parliament on 5 May 2016; and the UK General Election on 8 June 2017. 

Section 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 is the relevant legislation in this area. It states that:

A convicted person during the time that he is detained in a penal institution in pursuance of his sentence … is legally incapable of voting at any parliamentary or local government election.”

The above provision is known colloquially as the ‘blanket ban’ i.e. anyone convicted of a crime and imprisoned automatically loses (or forfeits) the right to vote. This is part of the convicted person’s punishment.

A link to the European Court’s judgement in Miller & Others v UK can be found below:

https://hudoc.echr.coe.int/tur#%22itemid%22:%5B%22001-192216%22%5D

As the supreme legislative body of the United Kingdom, it is up to the Westminster Parliament to rectify this situation – if it so chooses.

A political fudge

Since John Hirst won his case in 2005, successive UK Governments and Parliaments have fudged the issue. This whole area is a political hot potato because many politicians (irrespective of Party allegiance) are well aware of the dangers of standing up for the rights of prisoners. If advertising executives find it difficult to promote human rights using the inhabitants of UK prisons as exemplars, think how much more difficult it would be for politicians. They are extremely risk averse in these days of electoral volatility and they most certainly do not want to put their heads above the parapet to campaign for the rights of prisoners to be upheld. I suspect that many politicians would rather give a straight answer regarding their position raising taxes or cutting vital public services in order to avoid this particular, poisoned chalice.

Most politicians seeking re-election would not wish their opponents to level an accusation against them that they were soft on crime. Expect this story to keep on running.

Conclusion 

We have been well aware for some time that the so called blanket ban on serving prisoners being denied the right to vote is a breach of the European Convention. Put simply, this provision in the Representation of the People Act 1983 is incompatible with the UK’s obligation to uphold and protect human rights.

The consequences of declaring UK parliamentary legislation incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights can be fully appreciated if we refer to the UK Supreme Court’s decision in R (Nicklinson) Ministry of Justice (CNK Alliance Ltd intervening) [2014] UKSC 38:

An essential element of the structure of the Human Rights Act 1998 is the call which Parliament has made on the courts to review the legislation which it passes in order to tell it whether the provisions contained in that legislation comply with the Convention. By responding to that call and sending the message to Parliament that a particular provision is incompatible with the Convention, the courts do not usurp the role of Parliament, much less offend the separation of powers. A declaration of incompatibility is merely an expression of the court’s conclusion as to whether, as enacted, a particular item of legislation cannot be considered compatible with a Convention right. In other words, the courts say to Parliament, ‘This particular piece of legislation is incompatible, now it is for you to decide what to do about it.’ And under the scheme of the Human Rights Act 1998 it is open to Parliament to decide to do nothing.”

Postscript

Significantly, on 2 August 2019, Michael Russell MSP, the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Constitutional Affairs, passed what is known as a remedial order to allow prisoners whose domicile (or habitual residence) – when not in prison of course – is within the Scottish parliamentary constituency of Shetland.

Why?

A by-election is taking place because Tavish Scott, the Member of the Scottish Parliament for the Shetland constituency resigned his parliamentary seat. The remedial order is a temporary measure which will remove any accusation, for the time being, that the Scottish Government is in breach of human rights laws by depriving prisoners of the right to vote. This order by the Scottish Government is the prelude to a permanent change in the law.

Again, it’s worth emphasising that the Westminster Parliament and the UK Government can ignore declarations of incompatibility made by the courts in relation to laws which fail to comply with human rights obligations. The Scottish Government and Parliament are in a completely different legal position: all Scottish legislation and policies must comply with human rights laws.

A link to a story about the remedial order on the BBC website can be found below:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-49195360

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 1 May and 2 August 2019

There ain’t nothin’ goin’ on but the rent …

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

There ain’t nothin’ goin’ on but the rent: so sang Gwen Guthrie in her 1986 R&B hit (older readers may well remember this track). Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the UK Government which has just lost a human rights case before the English High Court (Mr Justice Spencer being the presiding judge). A link to a report on the BBC website can be found below:

this on the BBC News App and thought you should see it:

‘Right to rent’ checks breach human rights – High Court

Making landlords check the immigration status of tenants leads to racial discrimination, judge rules.

Immigration Act 2014

When Prime Minister, Theresa May was in her previous job as Home Secretary she steered legislation (the Immigration Act 2014) through the UK Parliament which obliged landlords to check the immigration status of tenants. The purpose of this part of the legislation was to create “a hostile and intimidating environment” for illegal immigrants. The scheme was known as the right to rent.

Landlords who failed to carry out this exercise or failed to do it properly, could be charged with a criminal offence in England. The right to rent scheme had not yet been introduced to Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales, but it was the clear intention of the UK Government to do this. It should be recalled that immigration policy remains an area of law reserved to the UK Parliament.

Introduction of the right to rent policy across the remainder of the UK may now be wishful thinking on the part of Mrs May’s Government. In any event, the Scottish Government had already expressed its hostility to the introduction of this policy.

Between R (Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants) (Claimant) and Secretary of State for the Home Department (Defendant) and (1) Residential Landlords Association; (2) Equality and Human Rights Commission; and (3) Liberty (intervenors)[2019] EWHC 452 

The High Court has determined that the right to rent provisions of the Immigration Act 2016 are a breach of the Human Rights Act 1998 (i.e. are incompatible) because they discriminate against individuals on the basis of their ethnicity, nationality and/or race. In terms of Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, there is a general prohibition on discrimination. There could also be a breach of Article 8 of the European Convention (right to private life and family life). The Government argued that checking the immigration status of prospective tenants was a necessary means of clamping down on illegal migrants – in other words, it could be objectively justified. The High Court did not share this opinion and stated that the compulsory background checks did nothing to combat illegal migration. In point of fact, it encouraged landlords to discriminate against British citizens from ethnic backgrounds (who not surprisingly had foreign names) and non-UK nationals who were in the country quite legally e.g. EU nationals.

The right to rent scheme also breaches Section 149 of the Equality Act 2010 (the public sector equality duty).

Mr Justice Spencer in his ruling stated:

“The measures have a disproportionately discriminatory effect and I would assume and hope that those legislators who voted in favour of the Scheme would be aghast to learn of its discriminatory effect…”

A link to the High Court’s decision can be found below:

https://www.bailii.org/cgi-bin/format.cgi?doc=/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2019/452.html&query=(joint)+AND+(council)+AND+(for)+AND+(the)+AND+(welfare)+AND+(of)+AND+(immigrants)

The consequences of the judgement?

The right to rent scheme has not yet been rolled out across the rest of the UK. The High Court’s decision (though applicable to England only) will certainly give the UK Government pause for thought. A declaration of incompatibility by a UK court is a very serious matter. Although it will not nullify the legislation (that is for Parliament to decide), it represents a significant criticism that parts of a UK Act of Parliament are not human rights compliant.

Admittedly, the High Court has stated that the Government has the right to appeal and it will be interesting to see what happens next.

Conclusion

Human rights are an area of the law which could be labelled the gift that keeps on giving to legal students and practitioners. In 2019, there is scarcely an area of UK public policy which will be immune from international human rights principles. The UK Government may choose to appeal, but if in the longer term, the decision of the High Court is upheld by the English Court of Appeal (and possibly by the UK Supreme Court), it will be up to the UK Parliament to decide whether to amend the Immigration Act 2016 so that it is compatible with this country’s human rights obligations.

As stated in previously Blogs, the consequences of declaring UK parliamentary legislation incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights can be fully appreciated if we refer to the Supreme Court’s decision in R (Nicklinson) Ministry of Justice (CNK Alliance Ltd intervening) [2014] UKSC 38:

An essential element of the structure of the Human Rights Act 1998 is the call which Parliament has made on the courts to review the legislation which it passes in order to tell it whether the provisions contained in that legislation comply with the Convention. By responding to that call and sending the message to Parliament that a particular provision is incompatible with the Convention, the courts do not usurp the role of Parliament, much less offend the separation of powers. A declaration of incompatibility is merely an expression of the court’s conclusion as to whether, as enacted, a particular item of legislation cannot be considered compatible with a Convention right. In other words, the courts say to Parliament, ‘This particular piece of legislation is incompatible, now it is for you to decide what to do about it.’ And under the scheme of the Human Rights Act 1998 it is open to Parliament to decide to do nothing.”

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 4 March 2019

Private Enterprise or Public Service?

Photo by Matthew Ansley on Unsplash

The provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (as implemented by the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Scotland Act 1998) are only enforceable against the British State or its institutions and organisations that carry out public functions, for example, universities, care homes, colleges, hospitals, housing associations, schools and local authorities.

It should be noted that a public authority or emanation of the State can have a very wide meaning in law and may cover privatized utilities companies (see Case C-188/89 Foster v British Gas [1990] 3 ALL ER 897 and Griffin v South West Water Services Ltd [1995] IRLR 15) and other private contractors delivering public services.

A recent example of a private sector company falling foul of human rights legislation occurred in the following English High Court judgement: Between LW; Samantha Faulder; KT; MC v 1) Sodexho Limited and 2) Minister of Justice[2019] EWHC 367.

The facts of the case are as follows:

Her Majesty’s Prison Peterborough is run by Sodexho, a private company, but the UK Government’s Ministry of Justice is ultimately responsible for the running of the institution. The case arose because four inmates at the prison alleged that, in 2017, they had been subjected to strip searches which had breached their human rights, namely:

Article 3 – prohibition of torture and cruel and degrading treatment

Article 8 – the right to respect for private and family life

The English Court of Appeal had ruled in a previous decision – R (LD, RH and BK) v Secretary of State for Justice [2014] EWHC 3517 – that strip searches could represent breaches of Articles 3 and 8. In the present case, however, the High Court stated that there was no conclusive evidence that the strip searches represented a breach of Article 3. That said, the manner of the searches did represent a breach of Article 8.

Conclusion

This ruling is a salutary warning to private contractors carrying out public service contracts that they must be aware of human rights considerations. Companies such as Sodexho, Group 4 and Serco are and have all been involved in carrying out contracts in relation to the criminal justice system whether running prisons or transporting prisoners to and from court hearings. Ultimately, the (Scottish or the UK) Government will have responsibility for the manner in which operations are conducted by these companies because the contracts are deemed to benefit the public in the wider sense.

A link to the High Court’s judgement can be found below:

https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2019/367.html

The case was widely reported in the UK media and a link to the story on the BBC website can be found below:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cambridgeshire-47334760

Copyright – Seán J Crossan, 1 March 2019

The “Gay Cake” Row

Photo taken from the Peter Tatchell Foundation website:

http://www.petertatchellfoundation.org/ive-changed-my-mind-on-gay-cake-row-heres-why/

In Chapter 7 of Introductory Scots Law, I looked at a case from Northern Ireland which quickly gained the unfortunate moniker or nickname of the “Gay cake row”.

The case in question was Ashers Baking Company Ltd & Others v Lee [2016] and the dispute eventually reached the UK Supreme Court for its final determination (Lee v Ashers Baking Company Ltd & Others [2018] UKSC 49).

It’s probably useful to have a brief recap of the facts of the case:

Ashers Bakery chain is owned by the McArthur family and has its operational base in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. The McArthurs are practising Christians. In May 2014, Gareth Lee, a customer, raised a complaint when his order for a cake was declined by Ashers. Mr Lee had asked for a cake depicting the characters, Bert and Ernie from the well known, American children’s television series, Sesame Street. The cake was also to have a slogan place on it: “Support gay marriage”. The bakery owners justified the refusal to make the cake on grounds of their strong religious beliefs and they could not be seen to be condoning or supporting gay marriage. Mr Lee also claimed that he had suffered discrimination due to his political beliefs – he volunteered with QueerSpace, an organisation which supports LGBT+ people.

At the time of these events (and even now in February 2019), Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom where same sex marriage is not available (although same sex couples can enter civil partnerships). QueerSpace is not a campaigning organisation, but it does have a pro-same sex marriage position. Mr Lee, supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, decided to pursue a claim for direct discrimination on the grounds of his sexual orientation and political beliefs against Ashers for its refusal to provide him with a service. The McArthur family was strongly of the view that their rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (which they enjoyed courtesy of Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights) were being infringed if they had to complete Mr Lee’s order as originally requested.

The Belfast County Court issued a judgement against Ashers finding that it had discriminated against Lee by reason of his sexual orientation and political beliefs. Ashers appealed this decision and, in October 2016, Sir Declan Morgan, Northern Ireland’s Chief Justice (sitting in the Court of Appeal) was strongly of the view that Mr Lee had suffered direct discrimination on the grounds of his sexual orientation and his political beliefs. The Court of Appeal of Northern Ireland also stated that Mr Lee had suffered discrimination by reason of his association with members of the LGBT+ community.

Ashers Bakery was then given leave to appeal to the UK Supreme Court. On 10 October 2018, Lady Hale, delivering the unanimous judgement of the Supreme Court, stated that

In reaching the conclusion that there was no discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in this case, I do not seek to minimise or disparage the very real problem of discrimination against gay people. Nor do I ignore the very full and careful consideration which was given to the development of the law in this area 

… Everyone, as article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights put it 70 years ago is “born free and equal in dignity and rights”. Experience has shown that the providers of employment, education, accommodation, goods, facilities and services do not always treat people with equal dignity and respect, especially if they have certain personal characteristics which are now protected by the law. It is deeply humiliating, and an affront to human dignity, to deny someone a service because of that person’s race, gender, disability, sexual orientation or any of the other protected personal characteristics. But that is not what happened in this case and it does the project of equal treatment no favours to seek to extend it beyond its proper scope.”

After dismissing the part of Mr Lee’s claim for sexual orientation discrimination, Lady Hale then went on to address the issue of whether the refusal by Ashers to make the cake with its slogan could be construed as a discrimination on the grounds of someone’s political beliefs.  She noted that, in Northern Ireland, political beliefs were constitutionally protected. That said, however, this part of Mr Lee’s claim should also be dismissed:

“The objection was not to Mr Lee because he, or anyone with whom he associated, held a political opinion supporting gay marriage. The objection was to being required to promote the message on the cake. The less favourable treatment was afforded to the message not to the man. It was not as if he were being refused a job, or accommodation, or baked goods in general, because of his political opinion … 

… The evidence was that they were quite prepared to serve him in other ways. The situation is not comparable to people being refused jobs, accommodation or business simply because of their religious faith. It is more akin to a Christian printing business being required to print leaflets promoting an atheist message.”

The objection [by the Bakery] was to the message, not the messenger.”

Ashers Bakery was not aware of Mr Lee’s political beliefs and involvement with QueerSpace and, therefore, it could not be said that he was being discriminated against by reason of his association with certain individuals who possessed protected characteristics (i.e. members of the LGBT+ community):

It is worth noting that the reason political beliefs are constitutionally protected in Northern Ireland has much to do with that region’s troubled history since its creation in 1921 as a result of the Government of Ireland Act 1920.

Lady Hale also noted:

The Court of Appeal [of Northern Ireland] held that “this was a case of association with the gay and bisexual community and the protected personal characteristic was the sexual orientation of that community” (para 58). This suggests that the reason for refusing to supply the cake was that Mr Lee was likely to associate with the gay community of which the McArthurs disapproved. But there was no evidence that the bakery had discriminated on that or any other prohibited ground in the past. The evidence was that they both employed and served gay people and treated them in a non-discriminatory way. Nor was there any finding that the reason for refusing to supply the cake was that Mr Lee was thought to associate with gay people. The reason was their religious objection to gay marriage.”

Conclusion

The UK Supreme Court has made quite a nuanced decision in dealing with the dispute between Ashers Bakery and Mr Lee. It will not satisfy everyone. If one had had to stare into the legal equivalent of a crystal ball before the Ashers’ decision, the logic of a previous decision of the Supreme Court – Bull and Another v Hall and Another [2013] UKSC 73 – might have led many to speculate that the Bakery would lose the appeal. This has turned out not to be the case.

In Bull (also discussed in Chapter 7 of Introductory Scots Law), it will be recalled that the Christian owners of a Cornwall B&B establishment had committed an act of direct discrimination by refusing to accommodate a same sex couple who had pre-booked a double room. The owners of the establishment had defended their decision to refuse the couple a double room on the basis of their religious beliefs. Interestingly, it was Lady Hale who also gave the leading speech in Bull.

I think we have to be very clear about the implications of the Supreme Court’s judgement: Mr Lee was not refused the provision of services by Ashers Bakery because of his sexual orientation. The Bakery was not refusing to bake him a cake: it objected to the message that he wanted to place on the cake.  As David Scoffield QC, who appeared for Ashers Bakery, submitted:

The reason for treating Mr Lee less favourably than other would-be customers was not his sexual orientation but the message he wanted to be iced on the cake. Anyone who wanted that message would have been treated in the same way.”

In the Bull decision, Lady Hale referred to Bayatyan v Armenia (2012) 54 EHRR 15, 494, where the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights made the following statement:

The Court reiterates that, as enshrined in article 9, freedom of thought, conscience and religion is one of the foundations of a ‘democratic society’ within the meaning of the Convention. This freedom is, in its religious dimension, one of the most vital elements that go to make up the identity of believers and their conception of life, but it is also a precious asset for atheists, agnostics, sceptics and the unconcerned. The pluralism indissociable from a democratic society, which has been dearly won over the centuries, depends on it. That freedom entails, inter alia, freedom to hold or not to hold religious beliefs and to practise or not to practise a religion.”

Quite simply, it would have been a grave breach of the McArthur family’s sincerely held Christian beliefs – which are protected under Article 9 of the European Convention – if they had been forced to make a cake with the particular slogan which Mr Lee had requested.

A number of links to articles on the BBC website which cover the case can be found below:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-45810720

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-45812579

Postscript

In August 2019, it was reported that Mr Lee was taking his case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

It will be interesting to see what develops from this.

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/aug/15/gay-marriage-cake-customer-takes-case-to-european-court

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 8 February and 15 August 2019