A codified list of British values might very well start with those within the European Convention on Human Rights, summarised as follows:
the right to life (Article 2)
freedom from torture (Article 3)
freedom from slavery (Article 4)
the right to liberty (Article 5)
the right to a fair trial (Article 6)
the right not to be punished for something that wasn’t against the law at the time (Article 7)
the right to respect for family and private life (Article 8)
freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 9)
freedom of expression (Article 10)
freedom of assembly (Article 11)
the right to marry and start a family (Article 12)
the right not to be discriminated against in respect of these rights (Article 14)
the right to protection of property (Protocol 1, Article 1)
the right to education (Protocol 1, Article 2)
the right to participate in free elections (Protocol 1, Article 3)
the abolition of the death penalty (Protocol 13)
This would be no coincidence. The UK was one of the founding members of the Council of Europe, which comprises 46 member states since the expulsion of Russia in March 2022. Whilst it includes all 27 EU member states it is of course entirely separate from the EU.
“The Council of Europe was founded after the Second World War to protect human rights and the rule of law, and to promote democracy. The Member States’ first task was to draw up a treaty to secure basic rights for anyone within their borders, including their own citizens and people of other nationalities.
Originally proposed by Winston Churchill and drafted mainly by British lawyers, the Convention was based on the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was signed in Rome in 1950 and came into force in 1953.”
(Equality and Human Rights Commission website)
Sad fact of human society: states and public bodies, on occasion, whether carelessly or on purpose, breach these fundamental rights. Of course when this happens there needs to be redress available, without disproportionate cost and delay. And let’s not kid ourselves via some weird form of British exceptionalism that UK institutions have ever been, are or will ever be flawless paragons of virtue.
“In its manifesto for the 1997 general election, the Labour Party pledged to incorporate the European Convention into domestic law. When the election resulted in a landslide Labour victory, the party, under the leadership of Tony Blair, fulfilled the pledge by the Parliament passing the Human Rights Act the following year.
The 1997 White Paper “Rights Brought Home” stated: “It takes on average five years to get an action into the European Court of Human Rights once all domestic remedies have been exhausted; and it costs an average of £30,000. Bringing these rights home will mean that the British people will be able to argue for their rights in the British courts – without this inordinate delay and cost.” [Wikipedia]
Back to that Equality and Human Rights Commission website:
“The Act has three main effects:
1. You can seek justice in a British court
It incorporates the rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into domestic British law. This means that if your human rights have been breached, you can take your case to a British court rather than having to seek justice from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.
2. Public bodies must respect your rights
It requires all public bodies (like courts, police, local authorities, hospitals and publicly funded schools) and other bodies carrying out public functions to respect and protect your human rights.
3. New laws are compatible with Convention rights
In practice it means that Parliament will nearly always make sure that new laws are compatible with the rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights (although ultimately Parliament is sovereign and can pass laws which are incompatible). The courts will also, where possible, interpret laws in a way which is compatible with Convention rights.”
As at December 2019, “there have been 547 judgments concerning the UK up to the end of 2018. Of these, over half (315) found at least one violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, and about a quarter (141) found no violation.” (House of Commons Library publication UK cases at the European Court of Human Rights since 1975, 19 December 2019). Have a browse – the cases do not concern trivial matters, as is sometimes made out.
In our planning world, the rights that are most frequently relevant are:
The right to a fair trial (article 6), most particularly article 6.1 which is not limited to criminal trials but any determination by a state body as to an individual’s or organisation’s rights and obligations:
“In the determination of his civil rights and obligations or of any criminal charge against him, everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law. Judgment shall be pronounced publicly but the press and public may be excluded from all or part of the trial in the interests of morals, public order or national security in a democratic society, where the interests of juveniles or the protection of the private life of the parties so require, or to the extent strictly necessary in the opinion of the court in special circumstances where publicity would prejudice the interests of justice.”
I have emboldened the key elements of interest.
The right to respect for family and private life (Article 8)
“1. Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.
2. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
The right to protection of property (Protocol 1, Article 1), particularly relevant in the field of compulsory purchase:
“Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions. No one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law and by the general principles of international law.
The preceding provisions shall not, however, in any way impair the right of a State to enforce such laws as it deems necessary to control the use of property in accordance with the general interest or to secure the payment of taxes or other contributions or penalties.”
Other rights of course are relevant in particular cases, for example the right not to be discriminated against (article 14) frequently arises in issues concerning gypsies and travellers.
Soon after the 1998 Act came into law, the House of Lords tested various aspects of our planning and compulsory purchase system as against Convention rights, in the Alconbury cases (9 May 2001), and the system was found to be compliant – as it was then at least (we must not be complacent as regards any changes).
The English courts have subsequently considered the relevance of the rights to particular planning situations in many cases but this has certainly not opened the floodgates.
R (RLT Built Environment Limited) v Cornwall Council and St Ives Town Council (Hickinbottom J, 10 November 2016) concerned a challenge to the policies in the St Ives neighbourhood plan designed to limit second home ownership by imposing residency requirements. The developer claimant sought unsuccessfully to argue that the policies contravened article 8.
The judge rejected the claim:
“Where article 8 rights are in play in a planning control context, they are a material consideration. Any interference in such rights caused by the planning control decision has to be balanced with and against all other material considerations, the issue of justification for interference with article 8 rights effectively being dealt with by way of such a fair balance analysis.
That balancing exercise is one of planning judgment. Consequently, it may be amenable to more than one, perfectly lawful, result; and this court will only interfere if the decision is outside the legitimate range. Indeed, in any challenge, the court will give deference to the decision of the primary decision-maker, because he has been assigned the decision-making task by Parliament, and he will usually have particular expertise and experience in the relevant area. Such a decision-maker will be accorded a substantial margin of discretion. The deference and margin of discretion will be the greater if he has particular expertise and experience in the relevant area, and/or if he is acting in a quasi-judicial capacity (such as an inspector).
If the decision-maker has clearly engaged with the article 8 rights in play, and considered them with care, it is unlikely that the court will interfere with his conclusion. Article 8 rights are, of course, important: but it is not to be assumed that, in an area of social policy such as planning, they will often outweigh the importance of having coherent control over town and country planning, important not only in the public interest but also to protect the rights and freedoms of other individuals. In practice, cases in which this court will interfere are likely to be few.”
In R (Moore & Coates) v Secretary of State (Gilbart J, 21 January 2015) a claim based on article 6 succeeded. This was the challenge to the then Secretary of State’s policy to recover or call-in gypsy and traveller cases, causing huge delays in decision making.
“To anyone with experience of development control and planning inquiries, it is remarkable that cases involving a modest amount of evidence, and typically taking two days at most, could then require consideration for in excess of 6 months, let alone the 10 months that has elapsed in Mrs Coates’ case. I recognise that Mrs Moore’s case has involved some complexities, but there is no evidence at all that it was anything but atypical. But as Mr Watson’s evidence showed with clarity, it is the effect of the recovering of all cases which was expected to, and has, caused significant delays in determination. It was not the issues raised by any of the cases which caused the delays but the Ministerial decision to recover them all for determination. No evidence has been put forward by the SSCLG to show that the delays were necessary in travellers’ cases, and it must again be observed that although WMS 1 sought to stress the same substantive policy message for cases in the Green Belt relating both to travellers’ housing and “conventional” housing, yet appeals of the latter kind have not been delayed whereas appeals of the former kind have been delayed, and considerably so. The pitches concerned (and certainly so in the Claimants’ cases) contain their homes where they live, or wish to live, with their children. The SSCLG has failed to show that the delays caused to the determination of the appeals was a proportionate response to the issue of giving the policy “steer.” It follows that the appeals have not been determined within a reasonable time.”
Here, the ability to use article 6 was certainly a useful hook and the reference in article 6 to decisions needing to be made in a “reasonable time” is pretty much all we have to hang on when complaining about the inevitable delays that are one of the root causes of dissatisfaction in the planning system!
Although quite dated, the House of Commons Library research briefing Human Rights and Planning (21 June 2010) is a further useful resource.
My reflection would be that in our field the Human Rights Act has operated as was envisaged. Instead of the prolonged uncertainty to everyone caused by aggrieved parties deciding to continue their battles in Strasbourg, human rights issues have been dealt with by the Planning Court, and on appeal, as part and parcel of the challenge process. Even drawing upon the ECHR jurisprudence that is regarded by our Government with such suspicion, winning on a human rights point is not exactly easy.
But when it comes to public policy, the planning system is always a sideshow. Driven by political sensitivities in relation to areas such as extradition policy and prisons, the Government has of course been intent on reducing the influence of the Convention and the risk of judgments against it by the ECHR. Hence, its consultation document Human Rights Act Reform: A Modern Bill of Rights (14 December 2021):
“We make far-reaching proposals for reform, with a particular focus on those quintessentially UK rights, such as freedom of speech and the right to trial by jury. We examine problematic areas, including the challenges in deporting foreign national offenders. We consider in detail the procedural framework of the Human Rights Act. And we look at the relationship between the UK courts and Parliament and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
We intend to revise and reform the flaws we have identified, and replace the Human Rights Act with a modern Bill of Rights, one which reinforces our freedoms under the rule of law, but also provides a clearer demarcation of the separation of powers between the courts and Parliament.
Our proposals recognise the diverse legal traditions across the UK, alongside our common heritage. We will be seeking the views of each of the devolved administrations, and across all four nations of the UK, to ensure we safeguard our human rights protections in accordance with a common framework, whilst reflecting our diversity and devolved competences.
We will carefully consider all the responses we receive, as the government takes forward the proposals in this consultation. The task of nurturing the UK’s tradition of liberty and rights is never finished. This consultation turns the first page of the next chapter in our long history of human rights – and begins the work to refine our law, curtail abuses of the system, restore public confidence, reinforce the independence of the judiciary, and shore up the sovereignty of elected law-makers in Parliament.”
The Government’s consultation response is fascinating. “Carefully consider”, my foot! The majority of respondents to each question raised favoured no change but such is the nature of consultation the Government has sailed on. (For instance 90% of respondents disagreed that a claimants should have to show a “significant disadvantage” to be able to bring a claim but the government has not backed down – in these circumstances what really is the point of consultation, or, more to the point, responding to consultation?).
From the press statement:
“This country has a long and proud tradition of freedom which our Bill enhances, for example, in respect of free speech and recognition of the role of jury trial. Equally, over the years mission creep has resulted in human rights law being used for more and more purposes, with elastic interpretations that go way beyond anything that the architects of the Convention had in mind. Following careful consideration of the responses to the government’s consultation on the Bill of Rights, these reforms reinforce our tradition of liberty whilst curtailing the abuses of human rights, restoring some common sense to our justice system, and ensuring that our human rights framework meets the needs of the society it serves. As we make these reforms, we are clear that we are committed to remaining party to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).“
For a summary of the Bill’s contents and actual implications, I urge you now at least to skim through Mark Elliott’s blog post The UK’s (new) Bill of Rights (22 June 2022). Here is an expert on the subject – Professor of Public Law and Chair of the Faculty of Law at the University of Cambridge and former Legal Adviser to the House of Lords Constitution Committee.
In summary he argues “that the Government’s strategy appears to involve making it more difficult for human rights to be enforced in UK law both by marginalising the domestic influence of the ECtHR and by limiting the capacity of domestic courts to uphold Convention rights. [He concludes] that these policy objectives form part of a wider picture according to which the present UK Government exhibits authoritarian tendencies that are in tension with British constitutional tradition.”
His conclusion is that this is “a Bill that seeks to diminish the domestic legal impact of the transnational human rights system of which the UK has chosen — and agreed in international law — to be a part, and which seeks at the same time to make significant inroads into the powers of domestic courts to uphold fundamental rights. All of this is infused with the notion of ‘taking back control’ from those — ‘foreign’ judges in particular, but also courts and lawyers more generally — who are viewed as an inconvenience at best, an illegitimate interference at worst. The Government claims to be doing this in the name of — and the Bill explicitly references — ‘parliamentary democracy’. But it is becoming abundantly clear that the true objective underpinning this Bill (and the Government’s wider project) concerns not the so-called restoration of parliamentary sovereignty or the strengthening of democracy, but the entrenchment of a form of executive hegemony — one that smacks of authoritarian resistance to scrutiny and is antithetical to the best traditions of the British constitution.”
The Bill starts with a curious “introduction” clause:
Of particular relevance to our subject area I would identify:
• Various attempts to constrain the role of the courts versus that of the Government or Parliament (starting with various passages in that clause 1, but see eg clause 7)
• Various attempts to warn the courts away from applying or expanding Strasbourg jurisprudence (eg see clause 2)
• Preventing UK courts from interpreting Convention rights so as to require a public authority to comply with a positive obligation (clause 5)
• Placing very high thresholds in the way of claimants seeking remedies in UK courts (a “victim” plus “significant disadvantage” test for standing – clauses 13 and 15 – that is tighter than the standing test in relation to judicial review)
What is this likely to mean in practice for our planning and compulsory purchase system?
• Human rights compliance cases are likely to be even more difficult to run in the UK courts, leading some litigants to resort to commencing claims in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (probably having first had to try – and fail – in the UK courts).
• In practice, weaker discipline over the behaviour of the Government and public bodies – this will be to the detriment of good governance.
• Generally, more uncertainty as to the appropriate tests for the UK courts to apply in human rights cases, as case law develops around the new tests, in some parts of the Bill expressed in curiously subjective or general language.
What this Bill most certainly does not do is give any individual or company more rights than at present; quite the contrary. If the 1998 Act brought the rights home, to use the language of the 1997 white paper, such that they could be relied upon in the UK courts, this Bill does the opposite – their utility in the UK courts is to be constrained, meaning that once again the ultimate backstop is a claim to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Whether constraining the role of the UK courts in relation to the protection of our human rights is a good thing or a bad thing might depend upon whether which side of the fence you are on – but remember: there isn’t one of us who may not need to rely on our rights as against the state at some point, whether in our personal or work lives.
And if we are going to have a Bill of Rights Act, shouldn’t we have a think about what further rights should now be included?
Topically, the application of the Convention (particularly article 1 of the first protocol – the right to protection of property) very much came into our clubhouse discussion on 15 June, Land value capture via CPO. You can listen again here.
Simon Ricketts, 25 June 2022
Personal views, et cetera