Defend the Human Rights Act: the Aso Mohammed Ibrahim case shows the need for a strong response

It is time not only to defend the UK's Human Rights Act but to counter-attack the falsehoods and distortions of those who misrepresent it. The Labour Party must speak up for the Act which it courageously introduced to enable people to defend their fundamental rights from arbitrary power.

 It is time not only to defend the Human Rights Act but to counter-attack the falsehoods and distortions of those who misrepresent it. Regrettably these include the Prime Minister as well as more predictable elements of the media, particularly the Daily Mail. Furthermore, it is time for Labour to speak up for the Act which it courageously introduced in the face of bureaucratic opposition to enable people to defend their fundamental rights from arbitrary power - including, of course, the despotic power of the press.

The current incident that has unleashed misdirected criticism against the Act (HRA) is the tragic death of a child run down by a reckless motorist seven years ago. After a long campaign by the child's father, the Border Agency recently tried to have Aso Mohammed Ibrahim, the motorist, deported. But an immigration tribunal turned down their application. This produced an angry outburst from the Prime Minister "that this was allowed to happen...We have an Iraqi asylum seeker who has killed a child and there is no way he can be sent back." In a letter to the distressed father he repeated his promise that a future Conservative government would repeal the Act. Like the father, he held the HRA responsible for the decision.

The Daily Mail highlighted the Ibrahim case in support of its long running campaign against the Act. But blaming the Act for Ibrahim being allowed to remain in the United Kingdom is perverse. The Human Rights Act itself provides a set of reasons why Ibrahim could have been deported if the tribunal thought it right to order it.

The child, Amy Houston, was knocked down in 2003 and died six weeks later. The callous cruelty of Ibrahim, whose car mounted the pavement and who abandoned her lying under its wheels is no less shocking after seven years. Yet he was prosecuted only for the minor offences of fleeing the scene and driving without a licence - and not for murder, manslaughter or even dangerous driving, as one might have expected.

Why wasn't he? The family has obvious cause for complaint here, but not against the Human Rights Act. To make it worse, the court took a remarkably lenient view by sentencing him to only four months imprisonment. And this in spite of his having a whole string of previous convictions.

Understandably, the bereaved father is outraged. He has therefore campaigned over the years for Ibrahim to be deported. The immigration tribunal, which just ruled that Ibrahim should be allowed to stay in the UK, went out of its way to spell out that had deportation been sought at the end of Ibrahim's prison sentence, it would certainly have been allowed. Again, it is not the fault of the Human Rights Act that the authorities chose not to make this obvious request at the time.

The legal process has failed Amy and her family but its failures have nothing whatosever to do with the Human Rights Act.

Finally, after a far too lengthy delay, and perhaps thanks to political pressure as a result of Amy's father's campaign, the Border Agency requested deportation. But over the seven years this took Ibrahim has married a UK citizen, fathered two children and acquired two step-children.

The Human Rights Act embodies the European Human Rights Convention, Article 8 of which  protects the right to family life. The impact that his expulsion would have on these members of Ibrahim's family is what has kept him here. It is the right of the innocent children to have their father that the tribunal has upheld. Nowhere in the media accounts, or the Prime Minister's response, has this simple fact been recognised.

Article 8, which the UK has been committed to since 1950, does not put family life ahead of all other considerations. It states explicitly that an individual's right to family life can be overridden "in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, and for the protection of the rights and freedom of others."

The judges decided,rightly or wrongly, they had to put the family first. To defend the Human Rights Act is not to defend Ibrahim's appalling conduct.

The Daily Mail's distortions may be par for the course. The Prime Minister's suggestion that he will repeal the HRA to prevent anything like this happening again flatly contradicts the coalition agreement and would leave us still bound by the European Convention. He has already been told this by his lawyers 

Before the Human Rights Act came into force in the year 2000, the rights which it protects could be enforced ultimately only in Strasbourg. To repeal the Act in its entirety would only mean reverting to the cumbersome and very expensive process of taking such cases there, adding even more years of litigation. The LibDems have firmly supported the Act. The coalition agreement managed the conflict between the Lib Dems and the Tories by proposing a commission "to investigate the creation of a UK Bill of Rights" which "incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Human Rights Convention and ensures that these rights continue to be enshrined in British law and protects and extends British liberties".

Thus, notwithstanding Cameron's promise, the coalition is not seeking to remove the obligation to protect the right to family life contained in Article 8 of the Convention or the qualifications to which the obligation is subject.  And the coalition has agreed to ensure that our obligations under the Convention will continue to be enshrined in British law. It follows that our tribunals and judges will retain the function of deciding how Article 8 should be applied in any individual case.

The Human Rights Act embodies principles of fair treatment and humane behaviour that seek to protect the innocent, particularly the old,the sick, and the vulnerable. These principles can be traced back in our law to Magna Carta. Occasionally criminals try to take advantage of them. They nearly always fail. The concept of human rights is central to our democracy and builds on our tradition of liberty. When those who seek to discredit the Act distort the facts, as in this case, we need to put the record straight. What is at stake is not some 'foreign' imposition that distorts justice; it is the rule of law itself. If we do not defend our liberties we will lose them.

 

About the author

Geoffrey Bindman is a former chair and vice-president of the Society of Labour Lawyers.