Letter: Interpretations of a Bill of rights

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The Independent Online
Interpretations of

a Bill of rights

Sir: Richard Bacon (letter, 3 July) asks constitutional reformers to come clean and admit that a Bill of rights necessarily shifts power to unelected judges.

If he means that individuals would have more opportunities to sue government ministers and public officials, then he is right. By creating positive rights we do not currently have, such as the right to privacy or to demonstrate, we would obviously be able to seek remedies where they are currently denied.

If, however, he means that courts would necessarily be able to declare Acts of Parliament "unconstitutional", then he is simply wrong. Like many others he assumes that the American system with its Supreme Court empowered to overturn statutes is the only model for enforcing bills of rights. The New Zealand bill of rights explicitly prevents the courts from overturning legislation, while in Canada parliament can re-enact such laws under specific circumstances.

Whichever approach we choose, new procedures would be required to ensure that Parliament, as well as the courts and the executive, take human rights principles into account as Jonathan Cooper proposed in his letter (28 June).

Mr Bacon asks where these principles should emanate from. The answer is international human rights instruments, of which the European Convention on Human Rights is only one. These represent the best human endeavour to date to establish a common set of values - a basic framework - in which democratic governments should operate and through which the rights and responsibilities of society as a whole are established.

These values have so far proved enduring; their interpretation will change over time.


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