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The Bill of Rights: has it been abandoned?

Posted on 21 September 2022

In June 2022, Dominic Raab, then Justice Secretary, laid the draft Bill of Rights Bill before Parliament.  The Bill had been widely criticised for, as I. Stephanie Boyce, President of the Law Society, put it: "represent[ing] a lurch backwards for British justice which would disempower people in Britain while giving the state more unfettered authority".  This firm has written extensively on the subject of the proposed amendments to the Human Rights Act 2008 (the HRA); including submitting a response to the Independent Human Rights Act Review panel, a response to the Government's consultation on proposed amendments to the HRA and various articles on the subject. 

As we set out in this article, the Bill set out to remove the requirements for UK courts to interpret our laws compatibly with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), as is currently required by the HRA. This would have effectively ended the oversight of the European Court of Human Rights, based in Strasbourg, on human rights claims.

But on 7 September 2022, just days before the Bill was due to be given its second reading in Parliament, it was announced that the Bill was to be abandoned.

The Bill was widely acknowledged to be the brain-child of Dominic Raab. With the shake-up of Cabinet that followed Liz Truss assuming her premiership, it is perhaps unsurprising that the new Government's appetite for pursuing the Bill has fallen away.

What comes next, however, remains unclear. According to a source who spoke to the BBC, the new Prime Minister is said to be "reviewing the most effective means to deliver objectives through our legislative agenda". Whilst the Bill itself is unlikely to progress, that is an indication that the principles it sought to enshrine – including the erosion of the role of the ECHR in UK courts – may yet survive.

Commentators have speculated that its principles may be pursued through smaller pieces of legislative change, seeking to achieve the same ends via less headline-grabbing means. There are also concerns that the Home Office may seek to disapply the HRA in immigration and asylum cases. Whilst the UK remains a signatory of the European Convention, claims may proceed to Strasbourg. Accordingly, such a policy shift would be fairly toothless, but it would signify that the changes outlined in the Bill of Rights will not disappear with Mr Raab's relegation to the backbenches.

Renewed efforts to reawaken the Rwanda policy seem indicative of the new Government's priority.  It has been suggested that proposed reforms by the new Government are likely to be driven by the Home Office (rather than the Ministry of Justice) and if the now Home Secretary's previous statements are anything to go by, Ms Braverman intends to take dramatic action to further the Government's agenda.  In July this year, Ms Braverman wrote (in relation to the challenges to the Government's Rwanda policy) "Leaving the EHRC is the only solution which solves the problem, and is entirely consistent with international law."

We are, therefore, left anticipating the new Government's next move in relation to the future of human rights protections in the UK.  Whilst the HRA appears to have been granted a temporary reprieve, it is yet to be seen whether future reforms will seek to go even further (in terms of a withdrawal of human rights protections) than those in the current draft Bill. 

There is, however, the question of timing. Even if the Government's appetite for reform continues, it remains to be seen how much time the new Government will have to implement such change, in whatever form that may take.

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