Our human rights can flourish – even when justice seems to have lost her way

Posted by Sara Ogilvie on 10 December 2014

"I call on States to honour their obligation to protect human rights every day of the year. I call on people to hold their governments to account.” – Ban Ki-moon, General Secretary of the United Nations

A fair, effective and accessible justice system is essential to protect human rights. In England and Wales, responsibility for the justice system sits with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). That department has been failing to live up to its great name for some time, and over the past week those troubles have been laid bare for all to see. But our other great democratic institutions have provided the light at the end of the tunnel, protecting those rights and freedoms that we celebrate today as part of International Human Rights Day.

On 4 December, in front of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, civil servants were forced to admit that changes to legal aid - which have made it harder for hundreds of thousands of people to resolve their legal problems - were rushed through without the department undertaking any research whatsoever. Chair of the Committee, Margaret Hodge, was scathing: “The thing that really distressed me is how you embarked on this with so little evidence…When you were changing the rules you had no idea the impact it would have.”

On 5 December, a court held that the MoJ’s ban on prisoners receiving books was unlawful. In a judicial review, Mr Justice Collins found that - despite the MoJ’s claim that its aim was not to restrict access to books – the policy in fact had that exact effect.  The judge recognised that, as well as being unlawful, the book ban was wholly counterintuitive, setting out that access to literature and ideas “may be very useful or indeed necessary as part of a rehabilitation process.”

Last night – 9 December – for the second time in recent weeks, the House of Lords delivered a series of blows to the MoJ’s proposals in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill. The Government’s untried and untested plan to build a titan prison for children was fundamentally undermined by a vote not to allow the detention of girls and boys under the age of 15 in the new facility.  And during the course of debate about judicial review, on which the government lost two more votes, it emerged that the Lord Chancellor had misled the House of Commons as to the effect of the Bill. The Lord Chancellor has written to Parliament to apologise for his error – but it is deeply disturbing that the MoJ neither understands the impact of its own policies, nor understands laws it seeks to put in place.

In the House of Lords last night, peers placed defending the rule of law above all else; principle was more important than party politics. Parliamentarians from all parties and none spoke about the communities where they live, the charities they work with, and the necessity of ensuring access to justice for all. Over the past year parliamentary committees have challenged the government to do better, and our judiciary holds public bodies to account, day in day out.

In a modern, vibrant democracy, we can all play a part in ensuring that our rights and freedoms, as well as those of people all over the world, are at the top of politicians’ agendas. That’s how our human rights can flourish every day – even when from time to time justice seems to have lost her way.