'Relax, the heavens are not going to fall in'

The Human Rights Act is with us on Monday. Don't expect rampaging lawyers, says Lord Irvine.
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The Independent Online

The acquittal of Lord Melchett and his fellow GM food protesters at Norwich Crown Court last week demonstrated both the weakness and strength of the British jury system. While the verdict left many observers, including the Government and GM food companies, grasping for the reasons for the jury's decision, others were glad the jury felt under no obligation to put either of them out of their misery.

The acquittal of Lord Melchett and his fellow GM food protesters at Norwich Crown Court last week demonstrated both the weakness and strength of the British jury system. While the verdict left many observers, including the Government and GM food companies, grasping for the reasons for the jury's decision, others were glad the jury felt under no obligation to put either of them out of their misery.

Lord Melchett and his co-defendants had admitted causing damage to the crops but argued they had a valid defence in that their actions were necessary to prevent a greater harm - namely the contamination of the surrounding environment. Did the jury believe this argument? What if the case had been different and a resourceful lawyer had argued that a group of teenagers had only vandalised a car in order to prevent the vehicle's fumes from polluting the atmosphere?

Under a proposal being considered by Lord Justice Auld, in his review of the workings of the criminal courts, juries may have to give their reasons for their decisions when the Human Rights Act comes in to force on Monday. But that, say lawyers, will act as a deterrent in cases like Melchett, where the jury may have taken into account the natural justice of the case rather than the black letter of the law.

Last week Lord Irvine, who was briefing journalists on the implications of the Act, declined to say whether he thought the new legislation would make it possible for juries to give their reasons. All he would say was that he believed the Human Rights Act "will not adversely affect the jury trial system in this country."

In a sense the Lord Chancellor is right not to prejudge any of the outcomes of the new Act because from Monday all these questions will be answered by the courts. Instead the Lord Chancellor was much keener to talk up the biggest change to British law since the Bill of Rights of 1688.

Speaking at his private residence at the House of Lords, Lord Irvine appeared agitated by the doom-and-gloom merchants who have predicted the Act will bring with it judicial chaos. He urged people to "grow up" and stop being "killjoys". He said the Act, which brings into force the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), was not a "terrible downer" as some people had suggested but a "mark of real progress".

Lord Irvine said that since the HRA had come into force in Scotland last year he knew of "no complaint" about the way the cases had been finally decided. It is also true that Scottish juries haven't been asked to justify their verdicts in the name of human rights.

Yet during the past year, there have been many reports in the media of lawyers taking far-fetched or unusual cases in anticipation of the Act. Lord Irvine said there would always be, and always had been, lawyers who "would argue hopeless points" but he and other senior judges had made it clear these would be given "short shrift". History had shown that similarly far-reaching legislation, such as sex and race discrimination laws, had led to lawyers running hopeless cases. "But the heavens never fell in and the heavens are not going to fall in as a result of the Human Rights Act," he said.

To those critics who argue that Britain's institutions would be radically changed under the Act, he said this was not the intention of the ECHR. He also made it plain that just because a court declared a law to be incompatible with the Convention, as it had the power to do so under the HRA, the Government and parliament were under no obligation to set aside that piece of legislation aside. However, he accepted that in the "overwhelming" number of cases parliament would follow the courts declaration and change the law.

"We have to be grown up about the Act and its implications. Over time we will see it operate in a partnership between the Government and the judiciary." The last thing Lord Irvine wants is a lawyer with a hopeless case persuading a court that the role of the Lord Chancellor is an offence to the principle of the "appearance of impartiality".