BLOG: The importance of defending our human rights infrastructure
To mark UK Pro Bono Week 2023, The PILS Project’s team are sharing our reflections on 3 key topics: climate justice, demolishing the hostile environment, and protecting our human rights infrastructure.
Our Pro Bono Coordinator Kate Barry is the central link in all PILS’ pro bono partnerships, connecting member organisations with supportive pro bono lawyers. Her Pro Bono Week blog focuses on the work that PILS are doing to protect our precious human rights infrastructure.
From the Home Secretary’s threats to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to the potential reaccreditation of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) as a result of funding cuts, our human rights infrastructure is under pressure, under attack even, in a manner not seen since the 1998 peace agreement. The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act 2023 (the ‘Legacy Act’) and the Illegal Migration Act 2023 have demonstrated that this government has scant regard for the value of human rights.
In the Good Friday Agreement, the British government agreed to incorporate the ECHR into Northern Irish law, effected under the Human Rights Act 1998. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 gave us the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. The peace process is underpinned by a commitment to, and a structure to monitor and protect our fundamental human rights.
This was reinforced in the negotiations to leave the EU and the Northern Ireland Protocol obliges the British government to “ensure that no diminution of rights, safeguards or equality of opportunity, as set out in [the Good Friday Agreement] results from [the UK’s] withdrawal from the Union”.
However, our constitutional reality is that our human rights are entirely at the discretion of the sitting government or Executive (when it returns…). Legislation can be repealed or amended and new legislation can be passed at pace. Sometimes, this results in positive change such as the decriminalisation of abortion and the achievement of equal marriage.
On the other hand, we have also seen the Legacy Act pass at Westminster despite and in spite of the widespread opposition of civil society and politicians in Northern Ireland, and in the face of concerns raised by the Council of Europe and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The government may have withdrawn wholesale legislation to repeal the Human Rights Act, but it does not mean that the rights protected are not being chipped away at through piecemeal legislative reform. For example, ouster clauses designed to limit the scope of judicial review, and in doing so reducing the scope for challenging the decisions of government and other public bodies, are already being introduced and have begun to receive judicial approval.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 introduced new protest laws to England and Wales, which do not extend to Northern Ireland, but send a strong warning as to how easily our rights can be curtailed. In their policing of Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020 and their application of lockdown regulations, the Police Ombudsman found that the PSNI “failed to demonstrate regard to” citizen’s rights of freedom of expression, their rights to protest and to peaceful assembly.
In the current climate, where the Home Secretary has suggested to Chief Constables that chants in support of Palestine may be considered public order offences, and the Prime Minister appears to be leaning on the Metropolitan police to ban peace marches on Armistice Day, we need to understand the fragility of our rights and the importance of defending them. History has taught us that times of crisis are often also times of opportunity for the politics of fear, and our rights and freedoms can all too quickly be taken away in the name of security.
PILS has supported and will continue to support a number of cases defending our human rights infrastructure.:
We have helped to facilitate advice on the policing of environmental activists, cross-border immigration checks and reproductive rights, as well as legacy cases and the implementation of elements of the Good Friday Agreement, such as language rights, amongst many other cases. You can read about some of these momentous cases in the PILS anniversary Impact Report.
We can facilitate pro bono advice from legal experts in these matters, practitioners who are leading the way in human rights cases. We can help our members to access legal representation or training to build capacity to recognise the cases which can change the law. We also provide critical financial support to address power imbalances between parties, from court fees and disbursements to indemnities against adverse costs orders. Pro bono support should be a place of last resort because access to justice should be properly funded; however, for now we will do our best to provide timely, expert, end-to-end support for those who are using the legal system to advance human rights and equality.
We are only one line of defence, but while we are needed, we don’t intend to back down. PILS is here to change the law for good.
- If you are one of our members and you think that we might be able to assist you with a case, please don’t hesitate to contact us. We’re always happy to have a chat about prospective applications.
- If you are not already a member and think that we might be able to help you, please do get in touch if you have any queries about how we work. We would love to hear from you.