Category: UK Supreme Court

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.