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Opting out of human rights agreement disproportionate and dangerous

31 March 2017

Proposals to opt out of international human rights agreements in future conflicts are misguided and risk stripping people - including British troops - of their rights, the Law Society of England and Wales said today in its response to the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) consultation on derogating from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in future conflicts.

"The proposal to opt out of an international human rights agreement to prevent false legal claims is not only disproportionate, it is dangerous," said Law Society president Robert Bourns.

"This could stop genuine claims ever being heard and would undermine hard-won international accords that protect our most fundamental shared values.

"Even claims for negligence brought by our own armed forces against the Ministry of Defence, for instance for providing inadequate equipment, could be blocked.

"In no other area of law would it even be considered that all cases be shut down in order to prevent false claims or save money. It is the role of the justice system to determine the merit of each case, a function that is and must remain separate from government.

"Moreover, the right to access to justice for all depends on everyone being represented within our framework of laws, no matter how they or their case may be perceived by the public, media or government."

Being able to opt out of the ECHR (derogate) in time of emergency and 'when the life of the nation is threatened' is already written into the ECHR (Article 15), which all signatories agree to when they join.

An intention to derogate in future, unknown, circumstances - such as that expressed by the government - is either spin as it restates an already agreed position, or it is premature because derogation requires certain perilous conditions as yet unmet. It is unlikely that a future conflict such as the ones that took place in Iraq or Afghanistan, for instance, would fall within the remit of Article 15.

The convention was born out of the atrocities of the Second World War and it sets out fundamental principles of human rights, including the right to life and freedom from torture. The Law Society is proud of the protection the convention provides, and of Britain's role in its creation.

Key articles of the convention - the right to life and freedom from torture, inhuman and degrading treatment - cannot be derogated from: we cannot remain a party to the accord and reject these rights at any time or under any circumstances."

Robert Bourns added: "Britain’s recognition of human rights and the rule of law is respected across the world. We must not forego these guiding principles in order to tackle a small number of false claims.

"If the UK is seen to reinterpret international conventions unilaterally, we risk undermining our standing internationally, our ability to hold other states to account and we will disrupt a far wider culture of international cooperation that has been built over many years."

Ends

Notes to editors

Law Society evidence on derogating from the ECHR.

About the Law Society

The Law Society is the independent professional body that works globally to support and represent solicitors, promoting the highest professional standards, the public interest and the rule of law.

Press office contact: Harriet Beaumont | Harriet.Beaumont@LawSociety.org.uk | +44 (0)20 7320 5830