Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The lawyers' view

I have been distressed by the lack of publicity about the efforts of the legal profession in relation to threats to civil liberties in Britain. My own professional body, the Law Society of England & Wales, has a good record on the subject but seems unable to get its message over to a wider audience.

In the sidebar to this blog is a link to the one of the "Parliamentary Activity" pages on the Law Society's website. It contains links to the "briefing papers" issued by the Society to Members of Parliament before the second readings (in the House of Commons and House of Lords) of what became the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005.

Take a look. These are short documents, written down to the intellectual level of our legislators and will give no trouble to any reader of this blog. I don't think the Society went far enough in some respects, but generally I am quite proud that my profession spoke for sanity and justice amongst all the parliamentary chaos. It has also done so on other civil liberties issues recently such as compulsory ID cards linked to a central government database.

Some key quotes will give the flavour:

"It is a fundamental aspect of the rule of law that restrictions on the liberty of the individual should be made by the judiciary, and not at the behest of a member of the executive"

[on the subject of judicial review of orders made by the Home Secretary]
"Those principles are very limited, confining the reviewing court to the question of whether the Home Secretary has taken his decision properly and has not acted so unreasonably that no reasonable Home Secretary could have made the decision"

"...the proposed standard of too low a hurdle"

"...the decision to maintain the ban on the use of communication intercept evidence is puzzling...The government has not adequately explained why this cannot work in the UK when it is commonplace in other jurisdictions"

Is it because the experts in the field tend to express themselves in calm and measured terms that they cannot find an outlet for their views in the mass media? I should have thought that an interview with either of the Presidents of the Law Society or the Bar Council on these subjects would have been an effective counterbalance to the frenetic promotion of the government's bizarre position.

From another, more detailed Law Society paper entitled "Counter-Terrorism Powers - Reconciling Security and Liberty in an Open Society" (see link in sidebar) you can see that the UK is the only 1 out of 45 members of the Council of Europe which has found it necessary to derogate (i.e. opt out of)) Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It is the only country in the world to have derogated from Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights. Unless Britain operates in some other dimension to the rest of humanity, it appears that we are really losing our way on these issues.

Perhaps the most telling thing about these Law Society papers is that our legislators have no excuse for the errors they have made. They KNOW that they have done wrong, but they have cravenly obeyed their parties' orders.

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