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UK unveils bill to overrule European human rights decisions

June 22, 2022

The new Bill of Rights could see the UK refusing to follow certain rulings by the European Court of Human Rights. The move comes after a judge in Strasbourg stopped flights from removing asylum-seekers to Rwanda.

The judge's hammer is pictured at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg
The ECHR issued last minute injunctions to prevent a handful of asylum seekers being sent to Rwanda Image: Jean-Francois Badias/AP Images/AP Photo/picture alliance

The British government on Wednesday announced plans for a bill that would mean British courts do not have to follow decisions by the European Court of Human Rights.

The move comes just over a week after the ECHR blocked ministers' efforts to send people seeking asylum in the UK to Rwanda.

What is the UK government saying?

Announcing the plans for a new Bill of Rights, UK Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said Britain would not abandon the European Convention on Human Rights. 

He said, however, that the bill would assert that the UK Supreme Court in London is the ultimate arbiter on human rights issues.

Raab said the legislation would "curb abuses of the system and inject a bit more common sense into human rights law."

He told lawmakers that it was intended to curb "elastic interpretations'' of human rights that have developed through court rulings. He said these had developed without "meaningful democratic oversight'' by Parliament.

The legislation, which would replace the current UK Human Rights Act, would need to be passed by Parliament. It would mean that interim measures issued under the Strasbourg court's "Rule 39" are not binding on UK courts. 

It would also raise the threshold for bringing certain human rights legal claims that the government describes as "trivial'' and "frivolous."

The bill would also reduce the ability of foreign nationals convicted of a crime in the United Kingdom from challenging deportation on the basis of their human rights.

What do rights groups say about the bill?

Rights groups say the legislation would take away some of the main tools the public has to hold the government and other public bodies to account, by raising the bar for claims. 

They also say doing away with the UK Human Rights Act would mean that public bodies would have less obligation to actively protect human rights.

Sacha Deshmukh, chief executive of Amnesty International UK, said Raab's Justice Ministry had "taken a hatchet to the single most powerful rights tool this country has ever had."

Amnesty says the name Bill of Rights is misleading, and that it should instead be named the "Rights Removal Bill."

Stephanie Boyce, president of the Law Society of England and Wales, said the legislation represented "a lurch backwards for British justice."

"Authorities may begin to consider some rights violations as acceptable, because these could no longer be challenged under the Bill of Rights despite being against the law," she said.

How is the new bill linked to Brexit?

The UK government says the Bill of Rights is an assertion of sovereignty in the wake of Brexit.

Although Britain has departed the 27-member European Union, it remains subject to decisions by the ECHR. 

The court in Strasbourg is not part of the EU but an international tribunal supported by some 46 countries, including Britain. 

The UK was among the first states to sign the human rights convention that the ECHR is tasked with upholding. One of the convention's key writers was British lawyer and Conservative politician David Maxwell Fyfe.

The convention has faced condemnation from some on the right of British politics. Certain Conservative Party lawmakers have pushed for the UK to leave the court's jurisdiction altogether.

While Raab has so far resisted this, the move to override court rulings could put Britain on a collision course with the Council of Europe, which oversees the ECHR.

rc/rt (Reuters, AFP, AP)