Cheltenham Festival: No action, no rights

There is plenty of talk about human rights, says Michael Mansfield, but we must ensure words become deeds
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This autumn marks an extraordinary and strange time for the development of human rights within the United Kingdom. It ought to be a time for celebration and anticipation of a fairer and more just society, as we are in the process of commemorating 50 years of the United Nations Charter of Human Rights and, simultaneously, incorporating for the first time the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law via the Human Rights Bill.

Ironically, however, there is now an even greater need than ever for concerted action to protect rights and, more particularly, to ensure their enforcement in a meaningful way for ordinary people. The need has become so pressing that nothing short of a national civil rights movement can provide the impetus to translate words into practice.

Over the last 50 years, there has been no shortage of words on the subject and the present Government employs the concepts of freedom, justice and fairness on a daily basis, both internally and with regard to its proclaimed ethical foreign policy. But for those at the sharp end of daily life, these phrases are fast becoming the mere tokens of political currency. In the USA, Martin Luther King had to lead a civil rights movement in order to achieve recognition for basic rights. Now, however, it is clear that the struggle has moved from the stage of establishing rights to enforcing them.

The predicament is best illustrated, as it was in the USA, by the plight of the black population, although it is by no means limited to them. The families who gathered in Ealing Town Hall in west London on Monday 5 October, shared a common experience. There, the audience heard from the family of Joy Gardner, who died at the hands of those seeking to deport her; from the family of Ricky Reel, whose body was found in the Thames near Kingston after being racially abused; and from the family of Michael Menson whom a Coroner's jury recently judged to have been murdered following an attack by white youths. The themes in all those cases, and many others over the last 25 years, are the same: namely stereotyping, disbelief, inaction and no apology. Somehow, it is said, the black victim has brought it on him or herself. The nature of the race attack is either not recognised, or only reluctantly recognised. There seems to have been little or no progress from similar race attacks in the 1950s - cases like that of Kelso Cochrane, who in 1959 bled to death on a Notting Hill pavement after an attack by six white men.

Despite the Scarman inquiry, race awareness training and directives, statutes prohibiting incitement to racial hatred, and anti-discrimination legislation, there remains a substantial culture of racism permeating major institutions in our state. At least the Home Office itself, in its report earlier this summer, acknowledged the scale and deep-seated nature of the problem. Other institutions have notably resisted any such recognition within their own ranks. This has been evident to the black community for generations - in Brixton, Tottenham, Bradford, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Birmingham and Cardiff. Until there is a sea change in fundamental attitudes, and a refusal to tolerate racist symptoms at any or all levels, no amount of talk about rights will suffice. A strategy of implementation is the only language worth using.

The predicament for the families is compounded by a lack of resources to raise questions, lobby and attend inquests, for example. These require time and energy at moments when a grieving family may find both are at a premium. There is still no legal aid for representation at inquests and families considering legal action are now faced with huge bills if damages are sought with a Government limiting access to legal aid in the Civil Courts. They feel isolated, ignored and unsupported. Until Nelson Mandela entered the arena in May 1993, in support of the Lawrences, it is doubtful whether public debate of the kind engendered currently would have occurred. Instead of lurching from one case to another, from the Notting Hill disturbances and the Deptford fire to the Bradford 12 and the deaths of Cherry Groce and Cynthia Jarrett, there is clearly now a need for a permanent movement to provide a sense of purpose, identity, solidarity and resources for those seeking both the truth and effective remedies.

Yet the black communities are not alone in feeling isolated. Many others can echo their feelings of injustice - Hillsborough, Lockerbie, Irish families during the Seventies and Eighties, environmental activists, animal rights protestors, Poll Tax objectors - the list is endless. A Civil Rights movement can also provide an essential monitoring service for the public, by the public, on the actions of the Government - a job that cannot be entrusted to politicians if promises and words are to be kept.

There's an interesting and trenchant example in the field of fundamental rights presently being peddled by the Lord Chancellor and others, on behalf of the Government. It is the proposal to abolish the right to jury trial upon election by a defendant with regard to hybrid offences (which include dishonesty). These represent between 20 and 30 per cent of all cases in the Crown Court. Although the Runciman Commission mooted this, they also conceded that the overwhelming results of all research, both Home Office and other, demonstrated that the public preferred trial by jury to any other method because they regarded it as fairer. Furthermore, the roots of trial by jury dating back to Magna Carta and the landmark trials of William Penn, Ponting, and Randle & Pottle, demonstrate not only the essentially democratic element but also the conscientious approach.

As EP Thompson eloquently expressed it: "The English common law rests upon a bargain between the Law and the people. The jury box is where the people come into the court: the judge watches them and the jury watches back. A jury is the place where the bargain is struck. A jury attends in judgement not only upon the accused but also upon the justice and humanity of the Law."

When Michael Howard took up the Runciman proposal to restrict the right to trial by jury just before the 1997 election, it was opposed in varying ways by the present Lord Chief Justice, Sir Paul Condon, and the Labour Opposition. Jack Straw said it was "unfair, short-sighted and likely to prove ineffective", and the then Shadow Attorney General, John Morris, proclaimed "the right to jury must be kept - it is cardinal". Barely one year later - volte face.

Meanwhile, adding insult to injury, Mr and Mrs Blair, during their visit to China and aided by the British Council, mounted a mock trial by jury in Peking to extol the virtues of British justice. They acquit! Maybe. There's the rub! The incorporation of the Convention will certainly not provide a panacea. Unlike Magna Carta (1215), and the Bill of Rights (1689) that addressed specific wrongs with specific redress, the Convention states principle and then proceeds to circumvent it with interminable provisos. Additionally, the Government is intending to further amend it to suit local circumstances. It is already apparent that Article 13, which provides for effective remedies, will be omitted. Furthermore, the Human Rights Commissions initially promised have slid off the drawing board. These were desirable in order to vet previous legislation passed by the Tories - for example, the abolition to the right to silence, public order provisions limiting demonstrations and processions - and to vet proposed legislation to ensure that it conforms with the Convention. It was also thought desirable to provide education, materials, information and training on the impact of the Convention. As Heather Hallett, chair of the Bar, rightly commented last week: "irony indeed if many of the first cases to be brought are ones challenging the legality of the Government's" own legislative programme - the restriction of jury trials, the Terrorism Bill and anti-drug trafficking measures. The simple truth is that we still have a Government that, despite all its high-sounding words, speaks in one direction and then looks in the other; a Government willing to incorporate rights into law, yet one that still frustrates every attempt to effectively implement them. They must be moved.

Last week at the festival, Michael Mansfield, QC, discussed the changing role of the British legal system with Geoffrey Robertson, QC