Row Erupts in Britain over Ensuring Civil Rights Critics Say New Law Would Give Judges Unprecedented Authority over Parliament

By Alexander MacLeod, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 3, 1997 | Go to article overview

Row Erupts in Britain over Ensuring Civil Rights Critics Say New Law Would Give Judges Unprecedented Authority over Parliament


Alexander MacLeod, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Britain is about to turn its back on a key aspect of its own 300-year-old legal tradition and embrace a human rights system that has operated in continental Europe since the end of World War II.

But the government's decision to give British judges the power to enforce a right of privacy and other fundamental civil liberties is running into fire from critics. They call it a betrayal of parliamentary democracy and a sure-fire recipe for conflict between the judicial and legislative branches of government.

Unlike the United States, Britain until now has not codified its civil rights. Journalists, for example, have no First Amendment-style guarantees of free speech and freedom of the press. Home Secretary Jack Straw declared, "This is an historic day," when the new human rights bill was published last Friday, in the first step toward legislative approval. "We are about to bring British rights home," he said. Britain signed the European Convention on Human Rights after World War II, but never incorporated the convention into its own laws. As a result, appeals against British legal decisions have to be lodged with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. Cases take an average of five years to resolve and seldom cost individuals less than 30,000 {$48,000}. "This has been a long-running scandal," says John Wadham, director of the London-based human rights organization Liberty. "The fact that there have been so many successful British appeals to the Strasbourg court proves that our own laws were unfair." Ironically, on the same day Mr. Straw published his bill, the Strasbourg court again found Britain in breach of the European convention. It awarded 10,000 compensation to a man held in a mental hospital for more than three years because there was no room for him in a supervised hostel. The court ruled that the man's liberty had been violated. The repeated defeats at Strasbourg - 50 out of 86 cases heard so far - have put pressure on Britain to change its laws. Last year, for example, the court found that Britain's home secretary had no right to detain indefinitely in prison children convicted of murder. …

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