Challenges put human rights law to its toughest test

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The Independent Online

Three critical legal challenges being heard over the next few weeks are expected to question the Government's commitment to human rights, a year after the European legislation was made law in England and Wales.

Three critical legal challenges being heard over the next few weeks are expected to question the Government's commitment to human rights, a year after the European legislation was made law in England and Wales.

The Government also faces fresh challenges in the next few months from asylum-seekers, gypsies and widowers, who all claim that it has committed breaches of human rights.

Next week, Diane Pretty, who suffers from motor neurone disease, will begin a "right to die" case under the Human Rights Act while the full judgment in the case of Louis Farrakhan, the American leader of the Nation of Islam, who is barred from Britain, will be delivered later this month.

What may be the most crucial case takes place today when a special Data Protection Act appeals panel is expected to rule that the Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker can have access to any files compiled on him by MI5 when he was involved with environmental protests during the 1980s. The Government had imposed a blanket ban on access, rather than allow MI5 to consider individual applications

The implication of the ruling, which is expected to be appealed, is that the secret services would have to make a case for not disclosing the contents of some 300,000 files held on British citizens if they made an application under the Act.

Michael Mansfield QC said yesterday that the Government had shown itself to be opposed to the spirit of the Human Rights Act by ministers' failure to prosecute more suspected war criminals and its controversial role in the return to Chile of the former dictator Augusto Pinochet, who faced extradition demands from Spain.

He asked: "How much do they really care about human rights? If it was not for a Spanish magistrate, Pinochet would have come in and out of this country without a blush."

The Home Secretary's suggestion last week that new powers to counter terrorism may require a dilution of the Human Rights Act has also angered many civil liberty lawyers, as well as prompting the Lord Chief Justice to warn ministers to be careful to act within the law. Lord Lester of Herne Hill, recognised as one of founding fathers of the Human Rights Act and a member of the parliamentary select committee overseeing the new law, said: "It is very sad to see his [the Home Secretary's] reference to the [human rights] issues being decided by politicians, and not judges. In the last resort it is the role of the courts to decide where a state's power ends and where individual freedom begins." He also described politicians who tried to make new laws "judge-proof" as enemies of the Human Rights Act.

Mr Mansfield said politicians had shown themselves unable to "protect people's rights" and that new counter-terrorism proposals could further denigrate human rights.

The human rights group Liberty blamed an "ambivalent" government for a disappointing start to the biggest constitutional change since the Bill of Rights in 1688.

The director of Liberty, John Wadham, said: "We hoped the Act would be used as a vehicle to promote human rights and that the convention would be used as a floor to protect rights, rather than as a ceiling to our aspirations."