A Charter for Jailbirds?




A Charter for Jailbirds?


Liberal propagandists strive to create the impression that ‘human rights’ forms one of the fundamental bases of British liberty and democracy. Did you know that it is of fairly recent origin, if we discount the ramblings of some French and American 18th century philosophers? The European Convention of Human Rights was drawn up in 1947, under the shadows of recent Fascist horrors and a rising tide of brutal Communist totalitarianism, in a worthy attempt to provide the remaining free countries of Europe with a libertarian bulwark. These shadows have long since passed, and Britain, with ‘habeas corpus ‘and its long pedigree of civil liberties, was always one of the least likely countries to succumb to home-grown totalitarianism. Nonetheless, Prime Minister T Blair and his Government saw fit, in 1998, to pass the Human Rights Act, enshrining the contents of the European Convention almost word for word, in our law. So, after a few years experience, how have we fared following the introduction of this foreign import?

In 2008, even one of its promoters, the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, said that the Human Rights Act might need to be re-balanced since “there is a sense that it is a villain’s charter, or that it stops terrorists from being deported. “ Needless to say, nothing has been heard since of any ‘re-balancing.’ Let us see, however, how far the facts bear out Straw’s remark, in relation to criminals. (The impact of the Human Rights Act on deportation and on anti-terrorist measures will be examined in later articles).

One consequence of the Act is that convicts under consideration for parole are now entitled to a barrister, paid from legal aid, to represent them at their hearing before the Parole Board.  As a result, the legal aid bill for prisoners has risen from £1m to £19m over the past 6 years, fuelled by a big increase in human rights claims. Even more disturbingly, there are indications that human rights law, and human rights lawyers, have placed the Parole Board under increased pressure. Critics have suggested the Board, not wishing to have its decisions overturned, is paying more attention to the rights of the criminal than of the public.

Such criticism is substantiated by the highly alarming figures for crimes committed by criminals released on probation. Over the past 2 years alone, such criminals committed 121 murders, 44 manslaughters, 103 rapes and 80 kidnappings. In total, they were responsible for over 1000 serious violent or sexual offences during April 2006-08, while over 400 more suspects are awaiting trial. Focussing in particular on the 65 murderers freed from (mandatory) life sentences between 1997 and 2009, these committed at least three further murders, one attempted murder, three rapes, a paedophile attack, two woundings causing grievous bodily harm and three offences of kidnapping, false imprisonment or abduction. Other crimes included burglary, robbery, drugs and firearms offences, threats to kill, indecent assault and violence.

The last non-judicial safeguard for the public against premature release was removed earlier this year, when the High Court stripped the Justice Secretary of his power to reject the recommendations of Parole Boards to release prisoners on parole before serving their full sentence. Lord Justice Latham said that ‘the law as it stands was incompatible with the Human Rights Act. It left the decision as to the release in the hands of the Executive and is therefore capable of being applied arbitrarily.  A prisoner is entitled to have his release date determined speedily, by a court’. The case which prompted this judgement involved the recommended release of a ‘dangerous and ruthless’ armed robber which the Minister had rejected ‘in view of too great a risk of re-offending.’

Lord Latham’s judgement appears questionable, particularly if it relies on Article 5(4) of the Convention as the verbiage suggests. Neither that section nor any other part of it explicitly refers to or creates a ‘right’ to parole, enforceable under the Act. Lord Latham thus seems to have created a new ‘right’ to parole through interpretation of the Act, to be judged by the courts within its terms and under formal legal procedure. This supersedes the present flexible and pragmatic process under which the courts are deemed to have had their say once a verdict has been reached, sentence passed and avenues for appeal exhausted; and early release is determined by the Parole Board subject to ministerial veto. In future, the Parole Board will be even less inclined to refuse parole, for fear of ensuing court cases; and Ministers will be less likely to intervene where there is a risk of re-offending, both because of the astronomical cost of fighting individual cases in court and the slim prospects of success, given the courts’ tendency to give individual ‘rights’ priority over the safety of the public .

A further recent case, where the Human Rights Act inhibits protection of the public, involves the scope for tightening release on bail prior to trial. This was considered after a man charged with killing his wife murdered his mother-in-law while free on bail. It was concluded, however, that the Act would only permit minor changes.

These recent cases amply illustrate the extent to which the Human Rights Act tends to operate in favour of the criminal and to the detriment of the safety of the public. Our conclusion is that the jailed criminal reaps substantial benefits from the Act at the expense of ordinary law-abiding citizens, both as taxpayers and as potential victims of the serious crimes catalogued above, which ill-judged leniency can only increase.

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