I RECENTLY had the pleasure of speaking at the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice at Sheffield Hallam University. Baroness Kennedy is a great friend and inspiration to me – and we need our friends more than ever in these difficult days for human rights, especially in the UK but in the wider world as well.
Launched in January of this year, the Helena Kennedy Centre is a pioneering hub for social justice and human rights. It provides a vibrant environment at the cutting edge of legal and criminal justice practice which prepares students for excellence in their chosen professional career. The central values of the centre are those of widening access to justice and education, the promotion of human rights, ethics in legal practice, equality and a respect for human dignity in overcoming social injustice.
In discussion with Sital Dhilllon, head of Sheffield Hallam University’s Law and Criminology and Community Justice Department, I spoke of the Conservatives’ threat to scrap our Human Rights Act (HRA) – the simple piece of legislation that has allowed countless ordinary people to hold the state to account again and again – and replace it with a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.
This Bill is a dangerous confidence trick. Its introduction would undermine the universality of human rights – which earlier generations paid for with their lives, and which we hold in trust – and allow any government to pick when those rights apply, and to whom.
Among other things, it would limit the use of human rights laws to the “most serious cases”, with “trivial cases” excluded. My question is who decides which human rights claims are trivial? When Rosa Parks was told to give up her seat on the bus because she was black, was that trivial, or a grave violation of human dignity of the kind that comes with race discrimination? Fancy living in a country where a group of partisan politicians think they’re best placed to decide whether your loved one’s case is one of the “trivial” ones?
And, if the Council of Europe doesn’t agree the Bill is a legitimate way of applying the European Convention on Human Rights, the Government will pull out of that too. Churchill’s post-war legacy, drafted by great Conservative legal minds, would be sold down the river. And the UK would be lined up next to military dictatorship Belarus – the only European country not signed up.
Repercussions for the Union would be huge – the HRA underpins the Good Friday Agreement and the Scotland Act. And what a terrible message to send around the world – if the UK is happy to put limits on fundamental rights, why shouldn’t despots in Eastern Europe and beyond do exactly the same?
Human rights are for everyone and must be protected with the law. Because what politics gives, it can also take away.
The Conservatives are once again experimenting with a non-lawyer, this time Michael Gove, as Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor. Under his predecessor, Chris Grayling, we saw a continued assault on legal aid. If your ex-partner is depriving you of contact with your child, if you’re an immigrant or a prisoner who is being abused, if you’re being mistreated at work or living in poor housing, there is simply no legal aid for you, no support or advice. That’s an absolute scandal in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
The legal aid budget was never comparable to other budgets – so I’m concerned we’re seeing an ideological assault on the rule of law, rather than the balancing of budgets or impact of austerity. You cannot have democracy without fundamental rights and freedoms, access to justice for the vulnerable and the rule of law.
But there are things to be optimistic about. Law students at Sheffield Hallam offer free legal advice, pro bono, to people at Sheffield Combined Courts – a wonderful thing in this terrible legal aid climate – and have been shortlisted for a top industry award.
Universities are at the heart of their communities and can make a difference in these difficult days ahead. There’s a lot of injustice in the world to go round – and it’s our students, the future lawyers, campaigners, thinkers, writers – who need to get involved in challenging it.
And we can empower ourselves. I’d call on every person who cares about human rights to join us at Liberty. We have fought and won difficult campaigns over the years – the repeal of identity cards, the defeat of 42-day detention without charge (and that government had a much bigger majority than this). We’ve had an influx of new members in the days since the General Election – and there is a long tradition of standing up to injustice in Yorkshire. That legacy of dissent is so important right now.
People coming together can make change. Our strength comes from our numbers. There is a small group of people in Westminster who think rights and freedoms, legal aid and human rights, don’t matter. But people up and down the country know that’s not the case – and they can make a difference.
Shami Chakrabarti is the director of human rights group Liberty and an honorary doctor of Sheffield Hallam University.