Read Lady Hale's full speech here

Last night everything seemed to be up against us. The rain was pouring down, suspended tube lines, and the rail service was well, the rail service.     

Come 6pm, when the doors opened at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP, we were relieved to see that all 70 of our guests had made the journey. With one soaking wet solicitor telling me he’d walked for 40 minutes to get there. As the event begun, we were immediately reminded why.

The lecture was chaired by Sir Nicolas Bratza, Chair of our Board of Trustees and, described by our wonderful speaker as one of the greatest human rights judges of all time. Sir Nicolas opened by thanking BIHR for being at the forefront of protecting our Human Rights Act.

“Through their teaching, resources and policy work, BIHR have made the promise of the Human Rights Act and the European Convention of Human Rights real.”

Sir Nicolas then introduced our guest speaker Baroness Brenda Hale, President of the Supreme Court. He described Baroness Hale’s contribution to upholding our human rights laws as characterised by, “wisdom, fearlessness and crystal clear clarity.”

Lady Hale’s lecture commenced and it felt as though no one moved an inch until she’d finished. Gripped by to her ability to tell the stories of crucial human rights judgements with clarity, critique, empathy, and when appropriate a sharp wit.

Lady Hale began by referencing BIHR’s work and the universality of human rights, in particular noting that human rights are something for everyone. They protect the majority as well as the minority, the  popular and the unpopular. Sharing a recent conversation with a taxi driver, she flagged how the HRA was vital in securing justice for the women who survived attacks from John Worboys, “the black cab rapist”. This was something the driver very much agreed with, after some initial scepticism about human rights. (This is certainly something we find at BIHR – travelling across the UK working with people to increase their practical understanding and use of the HRA – making the law real and relevant breaks down the barriers that sometimes exist.)

Lady Hale touched on various cases, weaving together the richness of how the Human Rights Act (HRA) has touched on so many aspects of our lives. Some highlights included Bellinger v Bellinger (2003) which lead to the first gender recognition laws in the UK, and more recently Lee v Asher (2018) dealing with the balance between the right to respect for religious beliefs and to non-discrimination for same sex couples. Every case reinforcing the crucial point that our Human Rights Laws are the vehicle to ensuring that dignity, respect and non-discrimination are upheld in our courts.

“There is a good deal of evidence to show that the HRA has succeeded in its principal aim of bringing rights home.”

More than just her encyclopaedic knowledge of HRA case law, Lady Hale shared the crucial role of empathy. Speaking about the UK Supreme Court decision in the Northern Irish McLaughlin case (2018) about discrimination in the provision of Widowed Parents Allowance for an unmarried mother, Lady Hale spoke about her own family’s reliance on widow’s allowance when her father passed early in her childhood.

Moving to the more technical side of the law, Lady Hale discussed how the various interpretative clauses have been applied in the courts. Like Sir Nicolas, she drew on the relationship between the UK Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights, noting where each has taken a lead on progressing the interpretation of human rights protections, all the while engaging in a constructive dialogue on the law. Lady Hale also dealt with the issue of Declarations of Incompatibility, and how this mechanism has been used 40 times over the last 20 years. In particular she noted how this compromise fits with the UK’s constitutional traditions; not a strike down power, but a way to flag human rights incompatibility of UK law.

A lively exchange of questions and discussions followed. Probing into how the Supreme Court makes proportionality assessments, the appetite for using international human rights law to help interpret the HRA, and whether a strike down power would have lead to bolder or more restrained judgements. Finally Baroness Hale was asked what her prediction was for the future of the Human Rights Act, and whether it would make it to 70 years like the UDHR. With inimitable style, Lady Hale refused to be drawn into the politics of the question. She ended our lecture with her hope that the Human Rights Act will continue on, and that the sometimes noisy debates about its future should not detract from the impact of the law.  

We’d like to offer our sincere gratitude to Lady Hale, to Sir Nicolas Bratza and to everyone who braved the elements to be there to celebrate universal human rights.

Watch this space; we will be releasing a transcript of the lecture in the coming weeks.

*Finally, if, like us, you believe in human rights for everyone, join with us in Celebrating 70 years of universal human rights.