Category: UK Supreme Court

UK Supreme Court Upholds Trial with no Jury

On 6 June 2019, the UK Supreme Court ruled, unanimously, in the case of In the matter of an application by Dennis Hutchings for Judicial Review (Northern Ireland) [2019] UKSC 26, that trials with no juries could continue for terrorism-related offences committed in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. The Court held that juries were neither indispensable for securing a fair trial, nor required under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Trials with no juries were introduced in Northern Ireland by the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973 in response to a report prepared in 1972 by Lord Diplock. They came to be known as Diplock trials and continued until 2007. Diplock trials were meant to ensure that defendants guilty of terrorism-related offences could not escape punishment because of biased juries. In 2007, the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act 2007 effectively abolished Diplock trials but allowed the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland to bring back this mode of trial on an exception basis.

Under section 1 of the the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act 2007, a trial without a jury can take place where “there is a risk that the administration of justice might be impaired if the trial were to be conducted with a jury” (s1(2)(b)), “the offence or any of the offences was committed to any extent (whether directly or indirectly) as a result of, in connection with or in response to religious or political hostility of one person or group of persons towards another person or group of persons” (s1(6)) and there is no evidence of bad faith or dishonesty (s7(1)(a)&(b)). Such a trial also cannot violate the defendant’s right to a fair trial under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (s7(2)).

The Applicant in In the matter of an application by Dennis Hutchings for Judicial Review (Northern Ireland) [2019] UKSC 26, Mr Hutchings, commanded a patrol of Life Guards regiment of the British Army in 1974 which routinely engaged in combat against the Provisional Irish Republican Army. On 15 June 1974, a Life Guards patrol encountered a man, Mr Cunningham, who seemed startled and, seeing the patrol, climbed a gate into a field and started running away. Mr Hutchings, together with two other members of the patrol, pursued the man and after shouting a number of commands to stop, Mr Hutchings and another soldier fired shots at Mr Cunningham who, as a result, was killed. Subsequently, it turned out that Mr Cunningham had limited intellectual capacity, was unarmed and was running towards his home.

In 2015, following a review, Mr Hutchings was charged with the attempted murder and the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland certified his case under section 1 of the the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act 2007 as appropriate for a trial without a jury. Mr Hutchings filed a Judicial Review challenging this decision and the case eventually reached the Supreme Court.

On the relationship between a fair trial and juries, the Supreme Court ruled:

“34. It is important to focus on the need for a fair trial. Trial by jury is, of course, the traditional mode of trial for serious criminal offences in the United Kingdom. It should not be assumed, however, that this is the unique means of achieving fairness in the criminal process. Indeed, as the Court of Appeal’s statements in Jordan show, trial by jury can in certain circumstances be antithetical to a fair trial and the only assured means where those circumstances obtain of ensuring that the trial is fair is that it be conducted by a judge sitting without a jury.

“35. So-called Diplock trials took place in Northern Ireland between 1973 and 2007. No one suggests that this mode of trial failed to deliver fairness of process, by reason of the fact that the trial took place before a judge sitting without a jury. Although Article 6 of ECHR (which guarantees a right to a fair trial) is not prayed in aid by the appellant in this case, it is interesting to reflect that it has been held that this article does not require trial by jury. As the European Commission of Human Rights observed in X and Y v Ireland (Application No 8299/78) (1980) 22 DR 51, para 19, “… Article 6 does not specify trial by jury as one of the elements of a fair hearing in the determination of a criminal charge”.

“36. It is, of course, to be remembered that the system of trial introduced as a result of Lord Diplock’s report (Report of the Commission to consider legal procedures to deal with terrorist activities in Northern Ireland (1972) (Cmnd 5185)), required the trial judge to give a reasoned judgment if the defendant was convicted. And that a defendant, upon conviction, was entitled to an automatic right of appeal, not only on points of law but on the factual conclusions reached and inferences drawn by the trial judge. These remain features of trials without a jury since the 2007 Act – section 5(6) and (7).

“37. The statement made by Lord Judge CJ in R v Twomey [2010] 1 WLR 630 at para 10 (relied on by the appellant) that, “[i]n this country trial by jury is a hallowed principle of the administration of criminal justice … properly identified as a right, available to be exercised by a defendant unless and until the right is amended or circumscribed by express legislation” must be viewed against this background. In the first place, although the Lord Chief Justice described entitlement to trial by jury as a right, he did not suggest that this was an absolute right; indeed, he accepted that it could be constrained in certain circumstances…”

Diplock trials were introduced at the time when the UK was struggling with biased juries refusing to convict defendants guilty of violent offences committed as part of a religious unrest in Northern Ireland. Interestingly, a similar struggle took place in the 50s and 60s in Southern States in the US where all white juries often refused to convict defendants guilty of violence against African-Americans. However, the US Federal Government, unlike the UK Government, was not in the position to interfere with jury trials as this would have been contrary to the principle of federalism and would have also violated a constitutional right to being tried before a jury guaranteed by Article Three of the Constitution as well as the 6th Amendment (applicable to States by virtue of the 14th Amendment). Instead, the Federal Government often tried defendants acquitted in State Courts in Federal Courts on other charges, such as ‘violation of civil rights’. The UK Government, on the other hand, was never constrained by a written constitution and was able to introduce trials without juries to address the problem of biased jurors. In fact, biased juries is not the only reason a trial without a jury can take place in the UK. Apart from trials involving terrorism-related offences committed in Northern Ireland, trials without juries are also allowed in the UK in complex fraud cases and where there is a risk of jury tampering (sections 43-44 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003).

Surveillance Court Rulings Subject to Judicial Review (UK Supreme Court)

On 15 May 2019, the UK Supreme Court ruled 4-3, in R (on the application of Privacy International) v Investigatory Powers Tribunal and others [2019] UKSC 22, that rulings of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal are subject to the supervisory jurisdiction of the High Court on the point of law. In its ruling, the Supreme Court discusses a common law presumption against clauses restricting access to judicial review and, more crucially, the limits of the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty.

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal is a specialist tribunal created by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA 2000) and tasked with supervising intelligence surveillance and other conduct of the Security Service, the Secret Intelligence Service and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). Under RIPA 2000, s 67(8), rulings of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal seem to be final:

“Except to such extent as the Secretary of State may by order otherwise provide, determinations, awards and other decisions of the Tribunal (including decisions as to whether they have jurisdiction) shall not be subject to appeal or be liable to be questioned in any court.”

However, Lord Carnwath, in his Majority Opinion, held that judgments containing errors of law were not ‘determinations’ within the meaning of RIPA 2000, s 67(8) and the supervisory jurisdiction was therefore not ousted. This interpretation flows from the old decisions of the House of Lords in Anisminic v Foreign Compensation Commission [1969] 2 AC 14 and O’Reilly v Mackman [1983] UKHL 1 which established that:

“…If a tribunal whose jurisdiction was limited by statute or subordinate legislation mistook the law applicable to the facts as it had found them, it must have asked itself the wrong question, ie, one into which it was not empowered to inquire and so had no jurisdiction to determine. Its purported ‘determination’, not being a ‘determination’ within the meaning of the empowering legislation, was accordingly a nullity…” [para 54]

Therefore, Lord Carnwath held that ‘…a determination arrived at on an erroneous view of the relevant law was not a “determination” within the meaning of an ouster clause...’ [para 54]. This approach is consistent with a general common law presumption against ousting the jurisdiction of the High Court [para 107].

However, in his Majority Opinion, Lord Carnwath moves beyond the common law presumption against clauses restricting access to judicial review and the concept of ‘nullity’ determinations and suggests that the question of the supervisory jurisdiction of the High Court should come down to the concept of the rule of law:

“This proposition should be seen as based, not on such elusive concepts as jurisdiction (wide or narrow), ultra vires, or nullity, but rather as a natural application of the constitutional principle of the rule of law (as affirmed by section 1 of the [Constitutional Reform Act] 2005), and as an essential counterpart to the power of Parliament to make law. The constitutional roles both of Parliament, as the maker of the law, and of the High Court, and ultimately of the appellate courts, as the guardians and interpreters of that law, are thus respected…” [para 132]

Furthermore:

“…Arguably, following the logic of the reasoning in R (Cart) [v Upper Tribunal [2011] UKSC 28], it may be thought implicit in the constitutional framework for the rule of law, as established by the Senior Courts Act 1981 and the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, that legal issues of general importance should be reviewable by the appellate courts; and that an ouster clause which purports to exclude that possibility cannot, consistently with the rule of law, be upheld…” [para 142]

Consequently, Lord Carnwath concluded that:

“…[A]lthough it is not necessary to decide the point, I see a strong case for holding that, consistently with the rule of law, binding effect cannot be given to a clause which purports wholly to exclude the supervisory jurisdiction of the High Court to review a decision of an inferior court or tribunal, whether for excess or abuse of jurisdiction, or error of law. In all cases, regardless of the words used, it should remain ultimately a matter for the court to determine the extent to which such a clause should be upheld, having regard to its purpose and statutory context, and the nature and importance of the legal issue in question; and to determine the level of scrutiny required by the rule of law.” [para 144]

The Majority Opinion in R (on the application of Privacy International) v Investigatory Powers Tribunal and others [2019] UKSC 22 constitutes a vital part of UK constitutional jurisprudence on the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty as it seems to suggest that there are some ultimate limits as to what Parliament can and cannot do. The Supreme Court appears to suggest that the concept of the rule of law might pose limits to the Parliament’s power to regulate access to judicial review. It is not clear what those limits are but the Court points to the fact that unlike the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, which are the creation of statutes, the High Court enjoys the original common law jurisdiction [para 141] and, although there is no constitutional right of appeal form the High Court, its supervisory jurisdiction is somehow special because ‘[a]t least since the time of Blackstone, this has been a central part of the function of the High Court as constitutional guardian of the rule of law’ [para 139]. The Supreme Court therefore recognises the long history of the supervisory jurisdiction of the High Court which was established at the end of the 13th century as the King’s Bench and its ‘supervisory role was preserved by section 16 of the Judicature Act 1873 which vested the common law powers of the Queen’s Bench in the newly created High Court. Those powers were in turn preserved by section 19 of the Senior Courts Act 1981‘ [para 33].

Although the Supreme Court points to the Judicature Act 1873the Senior Courts Act 1981 and the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 as a potential source of the rule of law, those statutes only recognised the powers of the High Court and the concept of the rule of law, rather than created them. The Judicature Act 1873 combined the Court of Chancery, the Court of Queen’s / King’s Bench, the Court of Common Pleas, the Court of Exchequer, the High Court of Admiralty, the Court of Probate and the Court of Divorce and Matrimonial Causes into the Supreme Court of Judicature, composed of the High Court with original jurisdiction and the Court of Appeal with appellate jurisdiction. The Senior Courts Act 1981, s 19 provided that ‘(2) [s]ubject to the provisions of this Act, there shall be exercisable by the High Court – (b) all such other jurisdiction (whether civil or criminal) as was exercisable by it immediately before the commencement of this Act…’  while the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, s 1 provided that ‘[t]his Act does not adversely affect – (a) the existing constitutional principle of the rule of law…” None of these Acts created supervisory jurisdiction of the High Court, nor did they established the rule of law as one of the principles of UK constitutional law but rather recognised what had already existed.

Finally, the Supreme Court confirmes that as ‘constitutional statutes’, the Judicature Act 1873the Senior Courts Act 1981 and the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 are immune to implied repeal by Parliament [para 120]. Consequently, Parliament cannot implicitly modify rules governing the supervisory jurisdiction of the High Court. The question remains, what would happen if Parliament was to expressly abolish that jurisdiction or the concept of the rule of law in its entirety. It is not clear from the judgment whether Parliament can abolish something that it has not created but only recognised as already in existence.

UK Supreme Court Limits Compensation for People with Quashed Convictions

On 30 January 2019, the UK Supreme Court held 5-2, in the case of R (on the application of Hallam) v Secretary of State for Justice [2019] UKSC 2, that people convicted of criminal offences, who have their convictions subsequently overturned, had no right to compensation unless they could demonstrate that the new evidence proved ‘beyond reasonable doubt‘ that they had not committed the offences.

The Appellant in this case spent about seven years in prison before his conviction was eventually quashed for being unsafe in light of newly discovered evidence. He then applied for compensation under section 133 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (as amended by section 175 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014). The entitlement to compensation under Section 133 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 is based on the concept of ‘miscarriage of justice’ which is defined under section 133(1ZA) of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 as occurring ‘if and only if the new or newly discovered fact shows beyond reasonable doubt that the person did not commit the offence‘. The Appellant’s application for compensation was refused by the Secretary of State for Justice on the grounds that, inasmuch as newly discovered evidence cast doubt on his conviction as to render it unsafe and therefore resulted in quashing, it did not prove beyond reasonable doubt that the Appellant had not committed the offence. The Appellant brought judicial review proceedings against the decision claiming that the requirement contained in section 133(1ZA) of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 was incompatible with the presumption of innocence under Article 6(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In the majority opinion written by Lord Mance, the five Justices held that based on the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights, most notably the case of Allen v UK (App. no. 25424/09), the requirement contained in section 133(1ZA) of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 did not breach Article 6(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights. The case was concerned with claims for compensation where new evidence rendered the conviction unsafe because, had it been available at the time of trial, a reasonable jury might or might not have convicted. This type of claims also falls short of the requirement contained in section 133(1ZA) of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, yet the European Court of Human Rights did not consider it incompatible with Article 6(2) of the ECHR. Even though Allen v UK (App. no. 25424/09) was never concerned with the requirement to prove innocence beyond reasonable doubt itself, the reasoning of the European Court of Human Rights prompted the majority in R (on the application of Hallam) v Secretary of State for Justice [2019] UKSC 2 to uphold section 133(1ZA) of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 and confirmed that the Appellant had no right to compensation despite spending seven years in prison.

Lord Reed and Lord Kerr dissented. Lord Reed, with whom Lord Kerr agreed, accepted that compensation could be denied under Allen v UK (App. no. 25424/09) in cases where new evidence rendered the conviction unsafe because, had it been available at the time of trial, a reasonable jury might or might not have convicted, but argued that section 133(1ZA) of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 was nevertheless incompatible with the presumption of innocence under Article 6(2) of the ECHR, because it effectively required the Secretary of State for Justice to decide whether persons, whose convictions had been quashed, established that they were innocent (para 187).

Given the outcome of the case, it is possible that the European Court of Human Rights will have a final say on the issue.

Assisted Suicide Remains Unlawful (UKSC)

On 27 November 2018, in the case of R (on the application of Conway) Secretary of State for Justice [2018] UKSC B1, the UK Supreme Court refused to consider an appeal from the High Court (Divisional Court) where the Court had upheld the ban on assisted suicide as compatible with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Assisted suicide remains illegal in the United Kingdom under the Suicide Act 1961, s2(1), despite numerous attempts to overturn the ban as in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. In its short opinion, the Supreme Court relied on previous precedents from the European Court of Human Rights leaving the question of the so called ‘right to die’ for states to decide. As the decision was merely on the application for permission to appeal, the Claimant had to demonstrate only a ‘prospect of success’ upon a full hearing that would justify giving the permission. Nevertheless, the Court held “not without some reluctance […] that in this case those prospects are not sufficient to justify giving permission to appeal” (at para. 8).

Since the enactment of the Human Rights Act 1998, rendering the European Convention on Human Rights directly applicable in the United Kingdom, there have been several challenges to the Suicide Act 1961 as incompatible with the Convention. Most notably, in the case of Pretty v United Kingdom (2002) 35 EHRR 1, following a dismissal by the UK House of Lords, the European Court of Human Rights also ruled that Article 2 of the Convention could not be interpreted as containing any right to die. It was further held that although the ban on assisted suicide interfered with the right to private life under Article 8(1) of the Convention, it could be justified ‘for the protection of the rights of others’ under Article 8(2). 13 years later, a similar challenge was mounted in the case of Nicklinson v United Kingdom (2015) 61 EHRR SE7 but the European Court of Human Rights maintained its position from 2002 relying on a wide margin of appreciation states enjoyed on the question of assisted suicide. Interestingly, before the case reached the European Court of Human Rights, the UK Supreme Court (having succeeded the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords), had followed Pretty only 7-2, with Lady Hale and Lord Kerr dissenting. In her Dissenting Opinion, Lady Hale “reached the firm conclusion that [the] law [was] not compatible with the Convention rights […and…] little [was] to be gained, and much to be lost, by refraining from making a declaration of incompatibility.” (R (Nicklinson) v Ministry of Justice [2014] UKSC 38 at para. 300).

Paradoxically, Lady Hale and Lord Kerr, who were both willing to hold the ban on assisted suicide incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights in 2014, constituted the majority of the Supreme Court panel (along with Lord Reed) refusing the permission to appeal in Conway. In fact, they were in the position to accept the case on behalf of the Court, even in the face of opposition of Lord Reed.

UK Supreme Court Aligns with US Supreme Court on ‘Gay Cake’

On 10 October 2018, the UK Supreme Court unanimously ruled in the case of Lee v Ashers Baking Company Ltd (Northern Ireland) [2018] UKSC 49 that the business’s refusal to bake a cake with a message supporting gay marriage was completely lawful and not contrary to the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 (made under the Northern Ireland Act 1974) or the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006 (made under the Equality Act 2006), as claimed by the Claimant. Writing for the Court, Lady Hale argued that “obliging a person to manifest a belief which he does not hold has been held to be a limitation on his article 9(1) rights” under the European Convention on Human Rights (Buscarini v San Marino (1999) 30 EHRR 208) and that “the freedom not to be obliged to hold or to manifest beliefs that one does not hold is also protected by article 10 of the Convention” (RT (Zimbabwe) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2012] UKSC 38; [2013] 1 AC 152) [at 50-2]. However, Lady Hale expressly distinguished between refusing to serve a customer based on his or her sexual orientation and forcing a business owner to prepare a product promoting a message he or she profoundly disagreed with [at 55]. Consequently, the Court was cautious not to create the impression that the ruling was a free pass to discriminate against homosexual consumers. Ultimately, the Court was of the opinion that forcing Ashers Baking Company to supply the requested cake would be a disproportionate limitation on the exercise of their rights to free speech and religion under Articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The decision of the UK Supreme Court comes not long after the US Supreme Court ruled in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 584 U.S. (2018) that the decision of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission forcing a baker to supply a cake with an analogous message supporting gay marriage was unlawful. In June 2018, the Court held 7-2 (over the dissent of Justice Ginsburg and Justice Sotomayor) that in considering the case, the Commission had been guided by a prejudice towards religion and therefore its decision violated the First Amendment. The case was therefore decided on very narrow grounds and does not definitely resolve the question whether there is a right under the First Amendment to decline to provide a service on sincerely held religious grounds. Only Justice Thomas in his concurrent opinion argued that the Cakeshop owner was fully within his right to refuse to prepare a cake which would violate his religious beliefs. It seems that this question is bound to return to the US Supreme Court in the near future. In fact, shortly after the ruling, in August 2018, the Masterpiece Cakeshop owner sued the State of Colorado in a federal District Court claiming religious persecution involving another incident of a refusal of service, this time in relation to a cake with a transgender message (The Denver Post).

The issue of ‘gay cakes’ has become symbolic of a wider legal debate both in the United Kingdom and the United States on circumstances in which a business can refuse to serve a customer on the grounds of religious beliefs. The two recent judgments by the highest courts of both countries seem to tilt towards prioritising religious liberty over non-discrimination. It remains to be seen whether this will become a trend in both courts’ jurisprudence and to what degree their reasoning will overlap. Interestingly, in its ruling, the UK Supreme Court expressly relied on the approach taken by the US Supreme Court in its general First Amendment jurisprudence:

The respondent suggests that the jurisprudence in relation to “compelled speech” has been developed principally in the United States as a result of the First Amendment. There is indeed longstanding Supreme Court authority for the proposition that “the right to freedom of thought protected by the First Amendment against state action includes both the right to speak freely and the right to refrain from speaking at all”: see Wooley v Maynard 430 US 705, 714, per Burger CJ, citing Board of Education v Barnette (1943) 319 US 624, 633-634. But in the light of Laramore and RT (Zimbabwe) , and the Strasbourg case law on which they are based, it cannot seriously be suggested that the same principles do not apply in the context of articles 9 and 10 of the Convention.” [at 53]

On other hand, and in somewhat usual manner, the Ashers Baking Company judgment of the UK Supreme Court contains a postscript where Lady Hale addresses the Masterpiece Cakeshop judgment of the US Supreme Court:

“After the hearing in this case, while this judgment was being prepared, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down judgment in Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd v Colorado Civil Rights Commission (unreported) 4 June 2018. The facts are not the same. A Christian baker refused to create a wedding cake for a gay couple because of his opposition to same sex marriage. There is nothing in the reported facts to suggest that the couple wanted a particular message or decoration on their cake. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission, upheld by the Colorado courts, held that the baker had violated the Colorado law prohibiting businesses which offered sales or services to the public from discrimination based on sexual orientation. The baker complained that this violated his First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and the free exercise of his religion… The majority recognised that businesses could not generally refuse to supply products and services for gay weddings; but they acknowledged that the baker saw creating a wedding cake as an expressive statement involving his First Amendment rights; and contrasted the treatment that he had received, which they perceived as hostile, from the favourable treatment given to three bakers who had refused to produce cakes with messages demeaning gay persons and gay marriages. Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor, in dissent, drew a clear distinction between an objection to the message on the cake and an objection to the customer who wanted the cake. The other bakery cases had been clear examples of an objection to the message rather than an objection to the customer. In their view the objection in this case was to the customer and therefore a violation. Justices Kagan and Breyer, who voted with the majority on the lack of neutrality point, also accepted that the Commission could have based its reasoning on that distinction – the other bakers would have refused to make cakes with the demeaning messages for anyone, whereas this baker had refused to make this cake because it was a gay couple who wanted it. Justices Thomas and Alito, on the other hand, considered that to make a cake for a gay wedding was expressive in itself and thus compelling it required strict scrutiny. Justice Gorsuch would also not have distinguished between a cake with words and a cake without. The important message from the Masterpiece Bakery case is that there is a clear distinction between refusing to produce a cake conveying a particular message, for any customer who wants such a cake, and refusing to produce a cake for the particular customer who wants it because of that customer’s characteristics. One can debate which side of the line particular factual scenarios fall. But in our case there can be no doubt. The bakery would have refused to supply this particular cake to anyone, whatever their personal characteristics. So there was no discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. If and to the extent that there was discrimination on grounds of political opinion, no justification has been shown for the compelled speech which would be entailed for imposing civil liability for refusing to fulfil the order.” [at 59-62]

In any event, the inherent conflict between religious rights and the ban on discrimination will inevitably prompt similar cases in both the United Kingdom and the United States within the foreseeable future.

Payment of Widowed Allowance to Spouses Only Violates Human Rights

At the end of August 2018, the UK Supreme Court ruled In the matter of an application by Siobhan McLaughlin for Judicial Review (Northern Ireland) [2018] UKSC 48 that the current rules for the payment of Widowed Parent’s Allowance (WPA) violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights read in conjunction with Article 14. WPA is a contributory-based social benefit offered under s39A of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits (Northern Ireland) Act 1992 to widowed parents with dependent children whose spouse or civil partner has died. The Court ruled that the requirement of a formal marriage or civil partnership as a precondition for receiving WPA discriminated against couples who although had children together, never formalised their relationship.

The Court was however cautious to say that not every type of social benefit requiring a formal union is necessarily incompatible with the Convention. It was held that WPA could not be dependent on the prior existence of marriage or civil partnership because it was designed to benefit children who have lost one of their parents rather than to make any form of compensation to the surviving parent him or herself. Accordingly, to condition the payment of WPA on the existence of a formal union between parents is to effectively discriminate between the so called legitimate and illegitimate children – a policy which was declared unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Marckx v Belgium (App. no.: 6833/74), back in 1979. It is on this basis that the Lady Hale, writing for the majority, attempted to distinguish the case of Shackell v United Kingdom (App. No.: 45851/99) where the European Court of Human Rights had held inadmissible complaints that the lack of a formal marriage should not deprive the surviving widow of an analogous benefit (paras. 25-28). The attempt was nevertheless not entirely convincing and Lord Mance in his Concurring Opinion (with which Lady Hale agreed) further elaborated on this point ultimately considering the reasoning in Shackell to be simply unsatisfactory (para. 49).

This approach of the majority however prompted Lorde Hodge to claim, in his Dissenting Opinion, that the majority was departing from a settled line of case law of the European Court of Human Rights which had recently been confirmed in the case of Burden v United Kingdom (App. no.: 13378/05). Moreover, Lord Hodge pointed out that although the WPA could be construed as designed to ultimately benefit children, it was nevertheless payable directly to the surviving spouse and depended heavily on his or her circumstances so that “if she remarries or enters into a civil partnership, so long as she cohabits with a partner of either gender, or if she dies, the WPA ceases to be payable” and “the sums payable to the Survivor are not related to the children’s needs or increased by reference to the number of children for whom she is responsible.” (paras. 76-78). At the end of the day, the UK Supreme Court under the presidency of Lady Hale again took an active approach to the protection guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights.

Withdrawal of Life-sustaining Treatment outside Courts’ Compulsory Jurisdiction

On 30 July 2018, the UK Supreme Court ruled, in the case of NHS Trust v Y (by his litigation friend, the Official Solicitor) [2018] UKSC 46, that not all decisions concerning a withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment require the Courts’ approval. Unlike euthanasia or assisted dying, neither of which is legal in the United Kingdom (Suicide Act 1961,s 2), a withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment from a patient in a vegetative state is treated as an omission (as opposed to an ‘act’) conducted in the best interest of the patient and therefore does not incur any criminal liability (Airedale NHS Trust v Bland [1993] 1 All ER 821 HL). Up until now, however, any such decision was believed to require a declaration from a Court, usually the Court of Protection, that the withdrawal of treatment resulting in death would be lawful. In its opinion, the UK Supreme Court concludes now that such a procedure is only required where there is no agreement between the doctors and the family as to the withdrawal of treatment but where such an agreement has already been reached, no separate approval from any Court is needed.

In the recent years, there have been several attempts to legalise assisted dying in the United Kingdom, both through legislation and various Courts’ cases. However, in the 2014 case of R (Nicklinson) v Ministry of Justice [2014] UKSC 38), the UK Supreme Court refused to recognise the right to assisted dying under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights basing its decision on the 2002 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Pretty v. United Kingdom (App. No.: 2346/02) and Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill was defeated in Parliament in 2015 (BBC). The decision in NHS Trust v Y does not change the status of assisted dying in the United Kingdom but it does remove most of life-death decisions from the immediate supervision of the Courts, at least where both the patient’s doctors and family members agree to withdraw the treatment. This decision should relieve the Courts from a considerable chunk of their workload in the area of medical treatment applications while at the same time reinforce the rights of family members of patients in a vegetative state by allowing them to make those critical decisions in the privacy of hospital rooms, without any state interference.

Civil Partnerships for Everyone

On 27 June 2018, the UK Supreme Court ruled unanimously, in the case of R (on the application of Steinfeld and Keidan) v Secretary of State for International Development (in substitution for the Home Secretary and the Education Secretary), that the unavailability of civil partnerships to heterosexual couples was incompatible with Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights read in conjunction with Article 8. The Civil Partnership Act 2004 was introduced by the Labour Government to offer some form of formalised unions to homosexual couples at the time when British society was not ready for ‘gay marriage.’ Since it was designed to introduce formal relationships akin to marriage, the Act expressly applied to same-sex couples only as heterosexual couples could enter into actual marriage instead. This rationale was justified so long as same-sex couples could not marry. But this changed with the introduction of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013. Since then, homosexual couples have been able to choose between civil partnership and actual marriage while heterosexual couples could only marry. This has been challenged as a form of direct discrimination based on sexual orientation contrary to Article 14 of the Convention as applied by virtue of Article 8. Now the UK Supreme Court held that the need to “wait and evaluate” before enacting any reform, an argument the Government put forward to justify the discrimination, does not, in this case, constitute a legitimate aim under the Convention as this is not an instance of a discrimination with a long tradition which is only gradually becoming unacceptable but rather a novel issue whose discriminatory nature was apparent as soon as it was introduced (paras. 42-43). At the end, the Court did not hesitate to issue a declaration of incompatibility explaining that absent any legitimate aim, deference to a parliamentary process is not justified (paras. 54-57). The ruling goes a step further than the hitherto jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights which held in 2013, in the case of Vallianatos v Greece (App. Nos.: 29381/09 and 32684/09), that the availability of civil partnerships to heterosexual couples only violated Article 14 of the Convention read in conjunction with Article 8 because homosexual couples were not in a ‘comparable situation’ as they could neither marry nor enter into civil unions while heterosexual couples could do both (paras. 78-79). The same, however, could not be said about the situation of heterosexual couples in the United Kingdom. Moreover, the European Court of Human Rights ruled, in April 2018, in the case of Ratzenbock and Seydl v Austria (App. No.: 28475/12), that the unavailability of civil partnerships to heterosexual couples did not violate the Convention given that they could enter into marriage while same-sex couples could not. The Court was of the opinion that “the institutions of marriage and the registered partnership are essentially complementary in Austrian law.” (para. 40) – the same state of affairs one could observed in the UK between 2004 and 2013 but not since then. Accordingly, the judgment of the UK Supreme Court appears to have been built on the existing jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights while shrinking any deference to the legislature within the presumed margin of appreciation. Now it is only a matter of time before Parliament amended the Civil Partnership Act to remedy the injustice.

The End is Near for Strict Northern Irish Abortion Laws

Northern Ireland has one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe. It also differs from the rest of the United Kingdom where abortion is easily accessible under the Abortion Act 1967. But Northern Irish women can only access abortion where the mother’s life or health is in danger. This has recently been challenged by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission as incompatible with Article 8 and Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In 2015 the Commission won a surprising victory at the Northern Irish High Court ([2015] NIQB 96) where the Court held that Northern Irish law failed to strike a fair balance between the right of the mother to private life guaranteed by Article 8 of the Convention and the need to protect the life of the foetus, in cases of pregnancy resulting from sexual crimes (prior to the point of viability) and foetus deformity (throughout the pregnancy). But this ruling was subsequently overruled by the Northern Irish Court of Appeal ([2017] NICA 42). Finally, on 7 June 2018, In the matter of an application by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission for Judicial Review (Northern Ireland), the UK Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that the Commission had no legal standing to bring the case in the first place and therefore the original ruling was void. However, at the same time, and somewhat unusual, it was held that had there been jurisdiction, the Court would have found the current Northern Irish abortion law incompatible with Article 8 of the Convention in cases of rape and incest (4-3 vote) and fatal foetal abnormality (5-2 vote).

This line of cases dating back to 2015 is extraordinary for at least three reasons. Firstly, the European Court of Human Rights has never found that strict abortion laws comparable to Northern Irish statutes, as a matter of substance, violate any Article of the European Convention on Human Rights, even when it was expressly invited to do so in A, B, C v Ireland (2011). For a domestic Court to find a violation of any Convention right in this situation is to curtail a wide margin of appreciation given to states by the European Court of Human Rights in relation to abortion regulations, at the expense of the legislature. Secondly, Northern Irish society is known to be extremely prone to social unrest and given how controversial the abortion debate is, the Courts have shown real courage by stepping into this debate so decisively. Thirdly, even though the case was ultimately thrown out on procedural grounds, the UK Supreme Court has sent a clear message that the Northern Irish abortion law must be liberalised as it considered it incompatible with the Convention. It is inconceivable that this unequivocal message could be ignored and as such, it is now a matter of time before Northern Irish abortion laws undergo a deep reform.