RightsInfo reaches #1 in countdown of 50 most important human rights cases

Adam Wagner
Adam Wagner

The website RightsInfo has produced a series on the 50 most important human rights cases “that transformed Britain” translated into “plain-English short stories”.

Rightsinfo is the brainchild of barrister Adam Wagner, founder of the UK Human Rights Blog.

Today, the countdown has reached case number one in the series: A and others v Secretary of State for the Home Department UKHL 56.

RightsInfo states: “Terrorists target people and buildings, but they also attack freedom. The freedom to go about our lives without fear. This case, the top of our list, is about the right to liberty – the right to freedom – one of the most fundamental in the European Convention.”

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, Parliament declared a state of emergency which afforded the Home Secretary new powers to detain terrorism suspects – without charge or trial – indefinitely.

The European Convention of Human Rights permits laws that violate human rights so long as they are strictly necessary.

Eight people were held indefinitely in Belmarsh prison in December 2001 under the new powers even though none of them had been charged.

Three of them were still in prison in 2004 without any charge or a trial. They challenged the decision to jail them in a case that reached the House of Lords.

The question for the Appellate Committee, comprising Lord Bingham of Cornhill (pictured), Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead, Lord Hoffmann, Lord Hope of Craighead, Lord Scott of Foscote, Lord Rodger of Earlsferry, Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe, Baroness Hale of Richmond and Lord Carswell was whether there actually was a public emergency and, if there was, whether the suspects’ indefinite imprisonment was a necessary and lawful response.

Nearly all of them agreed there was a “near permanent” state of emergency and that the UK did not need to observe some human rights obligations in order to tackle the threat of terrorism.

However, they also determined that indefinite imprisonment without trial was a disproportionate measure insofar as it “wholly negated” the right to liberty.

The powers were also held to be unreasonably discriminatory in that they only applied to foreigners even though British citizens could, of course, be a terror threat.

As such, the law was declared incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998 and, while this did not invalidate it, Parliament later repealed it.

Lord Hope of Craighead said in his opinion: “… the function of independent judges charged to interpret and apply the law is universally recognised as a cardinal feature of the modern democratic state, a cornerstone of the rule of law itself.”

50 Human Rights Cases that Transformed Britain

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