What is the point of the UK Bill of Rights Commission?

If this Committee really wanted to do something brave and with some sort of legitimacy it could propose a series of questions in a referendum instead

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Are we ever likely to follow the example of our transatlantic cousins?
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Julian Hunt
On 19 January 2012 13:22

On 18th March 2011 the Government announced the creation of a UK Bill of Rights Commission. This taxpayer funded body would be made up of seven lawyers, one academic human rights expert and chaired by a former senior civil servant.

Despite the Commission's revolutionary name the terms of reference for the group are wholly anodyne. It will examine the “creation of a UK Bill of Rights that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, ensures that these rights continue to be enshrined in UK law, and protects and extend our liberties".

The obvious point to make is that its grandiose title of being a “Bill of Rights" Commission, as if some sort of new constitution settlement will arise from its deliberations, is a complete misnomer. It would better have been entitled a UK Legal Review on European Commission, but that of course would not have been as politically sexy.

So far a highlight of the Commission's work has been the sending of one rather lame letter to Nick Clegg and Kenneth Clarke, the Justice Secretary, concerning the lamentable state of the European Court of Human Rights. Telling us what we already know, the Commission explained that the Court is groaning under the weight of meritless applications and requires urgent reform, especially through the development of a filtering mechanism for all those applications to the court in which individuals have alleged that the state has violated their human rights.

This could be done, perhaps, through a lawyer signing off each application or by some sort of judicial vetting process. Are these the best proposals and solutions the Commission can come up with? The United States Bill of Rights has been around for over two hundred years - a document of freedom venerated by Americans of all political and social hues. I doubt the provisional proposals of the UK Commission on a Bill of Right in their current form will be around until the end of this decade let alone two centuries' time.

There has also been created by the Commission an "easy read" document entitled "Do we need a Bill of Rights" accompanied by a cartoon character of a man with a beard holding a copy of a piece of paper (which I presume is some sort of "Bill of Rights") and his thumbs up. We learn various droplets of learning such as, for example, the important and controversial fact that "People in Northern Ireland have the same human rights as people in the rest of the UK". (I joke not).

This patronising and facile pamphlet, which would make Walter Bagehot turn in his proverbial grave, crystallises the gesture-politics, gimmicky feel of the Commission, as well as the complete dumbing down of all public political debate over any new constitutional settlement in this country.

Of course, Constitution 101 tells us that Parliament is Sovereign in this country. Whatever proposals the Committee come up with will hardly constitute a truly entrenched settlement a la the United States Constitution or the German Basic Law. All it would take is a simple majority in another Parliament and any "Bill of Rights" proposed by this Commission could - and must be - overridden.

That said, I doubt there would have been tax money forthcoming if the Commission had been given as its mandate the creation of a UK Temporary Bill of Temporary Rights Dependent on Who's In Charge.

The simple fact is that this country does not in general "do" written constitutions. What we have are certain conventions and a Parliament which we allow to govern us through the will of the people. Perhaps, if this Committee really wanted to do something brave and with some sort of legitimacy it could propose a series of questions in a referendum. That would give any Bill of Rights a hundred times more legitimacy and the chance of some sort of long life, albeit with the caveat of another legislature on another day overturning it.

But that, of course, would mean a state appointed committee trusting the public. Why on earth would they possibly do that?

Julian Hunt is a barrister and has been practising law since 2005. He was a Crown Prosecutor and Senior Crown Prosecutor for the Crown Prosecution Service between 2008 and 2011 but now defends. He lives in South London

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