Why hate Human Rights? Understanding the case against the Human Rights Act

This post was contributed by Dr Frederick Cowell, lecturer in Law at Birkbeck. Dr Cowell’s forthcoming book, ‘Critically Understanding the case against the 1998 Human Rights Act’ is due to be published by Routledge in February 2017. Here, Dr Cowell offers an insight into his current research project behind the book.

The 1998 Human Rights Act is one of the most controversial and misunderstood pieces of legislation in recent history. The Act brought rights contained in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), into UK law, allowing them to be used in UK courts. Britain had been a party to the ECHR since the 1950s – Winston Churchill helped shape the Convention and was one of its early supporters – but until the Human Rights Act came into force the EHCR had no force in UK courts.

The Act has come in for a wide variety of criticism on legal, constitutional, political and cultural grounds. In the late 2000s this escalated significantly when politicians seriously considered proposals for its abolition. Media stories about the Human Rights Act have assumed near mythological proportions claiming that the Act gives criminals a right to demand fried chicken from the police and prevents foreign nationals from being deported if they have a cat.

Human rights in the headlines (Images cc Huffington Post)

Human rights in the headlines (Images cc Huffington Post)

Reviewing the recent history of the Act

There was a Commission on a Bill of Rights set up in 2012 which delivered a mixed report with some members of the Commission arguing for a Bill of Rights to compliment the HRA and others arguing that there was no need. The Conservative Party’s proposals for a British Bill of Rights published in 2014 is predicated on repealing the Human Rights Act and replacing it with an instrument that would give more power to the government and limit the number and type of individuals who would be able to make human rights claims.

The Conservative Party had a commitment to repeal the Human Rights Act in their 2015 General Election Manifesto and after they won a majority committed to swiftly publishing proposals for a British Bill of Rights. This has since been pushed back and there is little certainty on when these proposals will be published.

During the debate about the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union various government ministers have expressed contradictory positions on whether the UK should remain part of Council of Europe – the ECHR’s supervisory body, which is a separate institution from the EU. On Monday the House of Lords EU Justice Committee issued a report criticising the limited aims of the bill of rights project recommending that it in its current form it should be abandoned.

About the research project ­ – What’s wrong with the Human rights Act?

This led me to launch a research project last year that asks just what is wrong with the Human Rights Act that necessitates its replacement. This is important as so much of the debate about a British Bill of Rights, and indeed a major reason why this debate is taking place in the first place, is due to the supposed inadequacies and unpopularity of the Human Rights Act. In spite of a range of hostile media coverage, which has cemented certain myths about the Human Rights Act, polling shows that the public remain broadly supportive of the Act and strongly support the universal applicability of certain rights, such as the right to a fair trial. However, in connection to certain issues, such as whether serving prisoners should have the right to vote, the public are a lot more hostile towards the Human Rights Act and human rights in general.

Dr Frederick Cowell

Dr Frederick Cowell

This project is an edited volume with contributors from academia and practice, critically analysing the arguments levelled against the Human Rights Act. There are several main strands of argument in the case against the Human Rights Act. The constitutional argument, which has been made principally by legal and constitutional experts, contends that the Act is dangerously distorting crucial elements of the UK’s constitution. Others have argued that UK’s tradition of common law rights and civil liberties make the need for rights protection by the ECHR superfluous.

Equally there has been scholarship from the other direction suggesting that the Human Rights Act has enhanced the UK’s constitution or is part of its gradual evolution. These arguments are evaluated alongside high profile issues, such as immigration and terrorism, where the Human Rights Act is widely criticised. Some of these arguments are predicated upon pervasive media misrepresentations about human rights and organisations such as Rights Info have endeavoured to unpick some of these myths. What this work aims to do is examine these arguments in depth and see how a Bill of Rights would be any different in these cases.

Whilst the plans for a British Bill of Rights remain uncertain understanding why hostility to the Human Rights Act occurs and the social and legal structures that are behind it, helps better understand the role that human rights play in society and the challenges that different mechanisms for rights protection might face.

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Why and how to study queer inheritance and will-writing?

This post was contributed by Antu Sorainen, research fellow at the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research

“Inheritance is a social and legal practice of profound significance. For many people, having control over what happens to property after death is both socially important and legally valuable.”

* Rosie Harding (2015).

gay coupleWhat does the inheritance system mean for queer people?

To provide novel empirical data to shed light on this question, I prepared a survey on queer will-writing and inheritance practices while visiting the Birkbeck Law School and the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research in November-December 2015. The 6-lingual online survey closed at the end of January 2016. The number of respondents was surprisingly high: 1007, instead of the excepted 200. The analysis of the survey results will be combined with 120 semi-structured interviews from the UK, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Romania and Hungary.

The analysis of the survey data and the 40 research interviews collected so far has just started. The initial findings suggest that friends often provide more support than relatives for queer people in life crises, such as ageing, divorce, unemployment, and housing or financial problems. It also seems obvious that queer families and relationships do not always fit in the rather narrow model of kinship presented in inheritance legislation in different countries.

A rich source of evidence about kinship

Many of the interviewees feel like Olli, a retired Finnish gay man:

“I had a gay friend who died of AIDS-related diseases and was hospitalized for several years. He would have probably suffered more if not for the circle of gay friends who took care of his practical matters, and visited him weekly to entertain and feed him in different institutions. It is our duty and also pleasure to help those members of the gay community who are dependent and willing to accept our help. We came as the supplement for the relatives who not able to provide the support he needed.”

Olli has written a joint will with his civil union partner to secure the surviving partner’s financial situation and ensure it is possible to hire care-givers during the final part of life. However, not all intimate or caring queer relations automatically turn into queer wills.

The British socio-legal researcher Sue Westwood (2015) has shown that a wide range of kinship formations and compositions – both connections and disconnections – complicate the ties of love and affection and disposal of assets in wills.

“I suggest that wills can sometimes be a rich source of evidence about kinship, but only when analysis takes into account the complexities and contingencies which can be involved”, she argues.

Top findings of the study

It is possible to suggest three things based on the initial findings of the survey and interview data.

  • First, queer people’s experiences about the inheritance system vary considerably from one country to another. North-European countries have different legal systems, such as the “testamentary freedom” UK and the “legal share” Finland. There are also extra-legal cultural differences that may influence will-writing. For example, godchildren may open up the queer inheritance debate in other ways in the UK (see Monk 2015) than in the secular Nordic countries where godparents do not figure very strongly.
  • Secondly, the inheritance system and laws, based on a relatively narrow cultural model of marriage and inter-generational succession does not always fit the life courses and relationship models of people belonging to sexually marginalized groups. For example, in Finland, many children in rainbow families are currently in an unequal position with regards to inheritance, as the co-mother is categorized as an “other” in the inheritance taxation.
  • Thirdly, some queer people, like Olli, would like the inheritance taxation system to support also activist post-life donations: “With the help of testamentary funds, we could, for example, establish pop up publishing houses that would publish such manuscripts that do not find forums elsewhere.”

When to write a will?

Rainbow flagThe Norwegian gay solicitor Halvor Frihagen strongly advices LGBTQ-people to write queer wills at a young age: “It is important to have thought through and talked about things while still friends. People do not think so much about death when one is young and healthy.” He points out that also same-sex couples should talk about who gets what if the relationship ends or one of the partners will suddenly die. (Nordvåg 2016.)

However, according to my survey data, many queer people are confused about the inheritance rules and taxation. What is more, most of the respondents in the sample have not written wills. One of the reasons for this can be a certain self-marginalisation and limited access to the legal advice, sometimes due to the bad experience with the members of the legal profession. For example, Inkeri, a 35year old queer woman, said in an interview that she would write a will would she “trust the straight lawyers to understand the specificities of queer relationships.”

The rule of blood kinship often replaces queer relations or care-givers in the passing of the LGBTQ wealth. Therefore, we have a reason to pose a serious question. In which ways lesbians, gays and other members of sexually marginalised groups as well as persons identifying as trans could get more and better information about the possibilities to arrange their inheritance, such as by writing a will or by other means?

Human life is about other people

But should we, as scholars, support the inheritance system by encouraging queer people to secure the old age of their rainbow friends, lovers and exes via queer wills? Doesn’t such a strategy strengthen the institution which so many of us in the critical troops would prefer to see abandoned and replaced by a more just system of wealth distribution?

My personal answer is this: why not to make a ‘queer use’ of the existing system while imagining more democratic forms that may have an altogether different outlook.

As Lynne Segal (2014) has pointed out, failing to “see any rainbow on the horizon, and knowing the brutal forces protecting every pot of gold, how do we nurture any hope for better times? Friends may die; political contexts change; creative challenges overwhelm us […] Human life is about other people, both the contexts and the ways in which they leave their mark on us.”

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References

Rosie Harding (2015). “The Rise of Statutory Wills and the Limits of Best Interests Decision-Making in Inheritance.” The Modern Law Review © 2015 The Modern Law Review Limited. (2015) 78(6) MLR945–970.

Daniel Monk (2015). Sexuality and children post-equality. In Robert Leckey (ed.): after Legal equality: Family, Sex, Kinship. New York: Routledge, 200-215.

Nordvåg, Hanne Bernhardsen (2016). “Advokatens råd: Skriv sameiekontrakt og testamente!”: https://www.gaysir.no/artikkel.cfm?cid=17163

Segal, Lynne (2014). Out of Time – The Pleasures & Perils of Ageing. London – New York, Verso.

Sorainen, Antu (2015a). Inheritance System and Care. http://revaluingcare.net/inheritance-system-and-care-part-2/

Sue Westwood: (2015) Complicating Kinship and Inheritance: Older Lesbians’ and Gay Men’s Will-Writing in England. Feminist Legal Studies. 23:181–197

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Structured Mayhem: Personal experiences of the Crown Court

This post was contributed by researchers Jessica Jacobson, Gillian Hunter and Amy Kirby from the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR), School of Law at Birkbeck discuss a recent collaboration with the Criminal Justice Alliance an organisation which works in partnership with 90 member organisations to promote better outcomes across the criminal justice pathway.

Structured-Mayhem-webStructured mayhem: Personal experiences of the Crown Court, is a digest of our research into what it is like to attend Crown Court as a victim, witness or defendant published in full earlier this year as Inside Crown Court (Policy Press).

The Digest describes the elaborate, ritualised and in many respects archaic nature of proceedings in the Crown Court, highlighting how these proceedings can be bewildering and alienating for victims, witnesses and defendants alike. The title of the Digest, Structured Mayhem, conveys the often chaotic nature of the criminal trial and other court hearings, and the inherent challenges involved in seeing a case through to completion. Trials often have a large cast of characters, which must be brought together along with vast documentation and a range of evidence in various forms including video or audio recordings and physical artefacts. Things often go wrong, and delays and adjournments are commonplace.

Participating in the court process

Court proceedings are highly theatrical; but these are dramas within which the legal professionals – particularly the prosecution and defence counsel – playing the starring roles, while the victims, witnesses and defendants having only minor parts. And if victims and witnesses occupy a walk-on role in proceedings, defendants could be said to take on the part of ‘ever-present extras’. Rather than being the focus of events, they often appear to be the least important characters at court: almost incidental to the proceedings that, in fact, largely revolve around them. One manifestation of this paradoxically central but marginal status in court is a marked passivity on the part of many defendants towards being in court. This passivity, which was frequently expressed in our research interviews, runs counter to the widely established principle in law that, in order to exercise fully their right to a fair trial, defendants should be able to participate effectively in the court process.

We have blogged previously about the often stressful and disaffecting experiences of Crown Court reported by victims and witnesses and also about the range of initiatives that have been introduced over recent years to help them at court. Examples include the introduction of the Witness Service, whose volunteers provide support to those giving evidence, and the ‘special measures’ made available for vulnerable or intimidated witnesses, including being permitted to give evidence from behind a screen or via a videolink. Provision for vulnerable defendants is less extensive than that for vulnerable witnesses, but it is increasingly accepted that their ‘effective participation’ in the court process often depends on adequate support and practical adaptations.

What needs to be done to improve participation?

Structured Mayhem includes a series of recommendations from the Criminal Justice Alliance for the Ministry of Justice, HM Courts and Tribunals Service and other agencies, which are aimed at improving the experience of all court users and enhancing the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system.

The recommendations include ensuring equivalence of provision of ‘special measures’ across all groups of court users; promoting the use of ‘plain English’ by professionals at court, and explanation of technical terms, to aid victims’, witnesses’ and defendants’ understanding of what is going on; greater use of restorative justice approaches to further offenders’ opportunities to take responsibility for their offending behaviour and to engage with the court process; and use of the dock during court hearings – which isolates defendants and further alienates them from proceedings – on a discretionary basis only, where the judge deems it necessary for reasons of safety.

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Research round-up: A snapshot around campus

This post was contributed by Andrew Youngson, media and publicity officer at Birkbeck, University of London

This summer, to celebrate Birkbeck’s standing as a world-leading, research intensive university, we have been looking back at some of the fascinating research activities carried out by top thinkers from across the College.

But it doesn’t stop there. Staff members across Birkbeck’s five schools and multiple institutes and centres are ever busy at the sharp edge of research. To give a flavour of activity currently going on, we spoke to a handful of researchers about their current research topics.

Conservation and heritage

Dr Diane HornDr Diane Horn is currently carrying out a study funded by NERC and Arup which aims to produce a ‘roadmap’ to guide practitioners through the process of analysing coastal flood risk in urban areas

What is challenging about this topic of research?

“It’s a really exciting project for me to be involved with – I’ve never done anything quite this applied. I’m working on adaptation options: once we know the extent of the flood risk that a particular city faces from sea level rise, I’m putting together guidance on what their options are, how to choose the most appropriate adaptation response, and how to implement and monitor the success of the adaptation response.

 

“Some cities will be able to protect against flood risk by building barriers (like the Thames Barrier) and some cities will be able to live with the flood risk through improved building codes or land use planning. The real challenge, though, is that some cities will need to make a decision to retreat from certain locations or to relocate particular assets in areas at lower risk. Identifying how this could be done, and how residents and politicians can be convinced that they need to consider retreat and relocation is proving to be the most challenging part of the research.”

Science and biomedicine

Natasa GaneaNatasa Ganea is currently conducting a study which follows the social and cognitive development of a group of sighted infants of blind parents

What kind of a research environment is Birkbeck to work in?

“Birkbeck is a vibrant research hub with curious scientists, passionate not only about their subject, but about science in general. It is not surprising that in such an environment a quick conversation over lunch break or in the evening in the Birkbeck Bar occasionally puts the basis of a new study.”

Politics, society and the law

Dr Sappho XenakisDr Sappho Xenakis’s current research project explores national and international political economies of crime and punishment, corruption, and intersections between organised crime and corruption.

Why did you choose a career in research/academia?            

“I sought a career in academia because of a desire and sense of obligation to strive to understand and engage with the complex politics of everyday life, sentiments instilled in me by my parents.”

Learning, education and development

Prof Claire Callender is currently researching prospective full time students’ attitudes towards debt.

Prof Claire CallenderWhat misconceptions are there around your discipline or area of research?

“Does fear of debt deter students from higher education?  With the escalating student loan debt arising from higher tuition fees in England, this is a key policy question. One might expect that there would be loads of research in England examining students’ attitudes towards debt and its effect on their higher education decisions.

 

“However, there are relatively few studies exploring these issues nationally among prospective students. Most existing studies on student debt are based on the views of students who are already at university. By definition, such students have largely overcome their fears of debt.

 

“Consequently, it is impossible to gauge from such studies if student loan debt actually deters would-be students from going to university. Our study, involving a nationally representative sample  of around 1,500 prospective students, will assess whether concerns over debt and the costs of higher education influence potential students’ decisions about entering higher education, where and what to study, and mode of study.”

Arts, history and culture

Dr Rebecca Darley’s current research title is: ‘A sign of God’s favour: Byzantine gold coins in the Indian Ocean’

Dr Rebecca DarleyWhy did you choose this topic of investigation?

Coins minted in the eastern Mediterranean between the fourth and seventh centuries A.D. and found in south India have usually been interpreted as evidence for trade. By studying the writings of Byzantine authors about these coins I am interested in re-focussing on the meaning they reflected back to their place of origin.

 

The relationship of the Byzantine Empire to its coinage was never purely commercial and money could often be an explicit symbol for power and virtue, as it proved when writers commented on Byzantine gold reaching India — not as a sign of economic prosperity but of divine favour and the pre-ordained superiority of Byzantine virtues over those of its neighbours.

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