Lawyers divided: Has Theresa May made a U-turn on human rights?

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By Katie King on

Keeping the Human Rights Act is a Tory manifesto pledge

Eyebrows have been raised today over what some are describing as a Tory U-turn on human rights legislation.

Prime Minister Theresa May and co’s manifesto states that the Human Rights Act 1998 — a firm feature of law student syllabuses — will not be repealed or replaced “while the process of Brexit is underway.” However, this position will be reconsidered post-EU withdrawal. It also says: “We will remain signatories to the European Convention of Human Rights for the duration of the next parliament.”

Yesterday, however, May said that when reflecting on the London Bridge terror attack, she thought “things have got to change”. She wants it to be made easier for authorities to deport foreign terror suspects, to do more to restrict their freedoms. And, she concluded:

[I]f human rights laws get in the way of doing these things, we will change those laws to make sure we can do them.

A Tory U-turn? Some lawyers have floated the idea:

Other Twitter users have been more forthcoming in their condemnation:

Many newspapers seem to be taking a similar line. Huffington Post went for the headline: ‘Theresa May Vows To Tear Up Human Rights Laws To Tackle Islamist Terrorism’. The Guardian said: ‘May: I’ll rip up human rights laws that impede new terror legislation’.

Joshua Rozenberg has a different view. Writing on his Facebook page this morning, the legal affairs commentator and honorary QC said:

[H]ave the Conservatives gone back on their manifesto commitments on human rights? I think not. Let me explain why.

His persuasive piece rightly points out that May’s use of “if” is crucial. “It is by no means clear that human rights laws do prevent parliament from doing more to restrict the freedom and movements of terrorist suspects,” he adds.

Later, he noted it’s possible to amend the act without breaching the Tories’ commitment not to repeal or replace it, shining a light on article 15 of the European convention. This article allows signatory states to derogate from the convention “in time of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation.”

Rozenberg continued:

Everything we know about the human rights court suggests it would give the UK what it calls a wide ‘margin of appreciation’ in dealing with terrorism… And, as Sir Keir Starmer said this morning, there is nothing in the Human Rights Act that gets in the way of effectively prosecuting terrorism.

But while Rozenberg appears content to conclude May has not broken her manifesto promise, that doesn’t mean he agrees with her latest comments. He finishes his informative piece with this: “What’s really needed though is not more laws. It’s more enforcement.” This seems to be a sentiment shared by lawyer David Allen Green:

With hours to go before we head to the polls, we wonder whether this human rights fiasco will help or hinder May’s chances of PM glory.

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