Why our Human Rights Act Matters...to Coventry Citizens Advice
Edward Hodson is Research & Campaigns Co-ordinator at Coventry Citizens Advice.
Please note, this is a guest blog and views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of BIHR.
From our perspective, as a local charity trying to support local residents most in need, there is no mystery to the value of the Human Rights Act and human rights in general; they are there to protect the powerless from the arbitrary actions of the powerful. They are a, largely invisible, “thin blue line”.
Coventry Citizens Advice is a local independent advice agency that has been supporting struggling Coventry residents for more than 80 years. We are affiliated to the national Citizens Advice network, and we are partly funded by Coventry City Council, but we are independent of both in our day-to-day work.
We don’t provide legal advice nor, with the exception of some Benefit Appeals Tribunal cases, represent our clients in court. However, we do provide ‘all-but’; information, advice and guidance on a range of social welfare rules, regulations and procedures from benefits and debt to housing and employment.
In an average year we support about 9,000 different clients with about 30,000 issues. We prevent evictions, we manage debts and we ensure those on low incomes receive their publicly available rights and entitlements. In short, we fight for those with little power against those with, it often seems, all the power.
This is no better illustrated than in our work over previous years to help refugees from war-torn parts of the world resettle and integrate into our community. Many recent refugees have come from Syria and Afghanistan but over the years we have supported the most vulnerable from many parts of the world.
Coventry’s reputation as the “city of peace and reconciliation” is reflected everyday by our, and others’, efforts to ensure refugees understand and exercise their legal rights in this country; sometimes in a hostile atmosphere. Refugees reside in this country, by definition, legally, but do not always understand their rights and can’t always exercise them. They need a sympathetic State that upholds these rights and entitlements and does not wield arbitrary power against them. That State has to be kept accountable.
The British State is powerful, and rightly so. It is tasked with delivering vital functions on a massive scale to every resident in the UK. For the most part it works on behalf of, and at the behest of, “the people” and with the clear authority of the law behind it. But not always.
State action is not always transparent, is not always unambiguously grounded in the law, and does not always seem to be working in the general interest. Consequently, accountability is key and that’s where the Human Rights Act comes in.
If the State cannot be held accountable under the law for its actions, if emergency relief in response to calculated breaches is not available, if those in breach of the law cannot be punished or made to put right what they have done wrong, then there is no justice in any meaningful sense.
In the current obsession with ‘individual liberty’, translated by some into being able to do whatever you want regardless of the effect on others, it is often forgotten that freedom without justice, as the song lyric goes, is ‘’freedom for a few who have bought the right to tell us that their freedom lie is true. Freedom without justice grows up into slavery if you’re not a credit card carrying member of the free’’.
In our work we engage with ostensibly powerless people every day fighting to exercise their rights and obtain entitlements granted by Parliament but denied them for various reasons by “officers of the State”. We also engage with those who should have rights but don’t.
In a democratic system of government we look to Parliament to hold the State, particularly the government-of-the-day, to account for potential breaches of identified human rights. But Parliament does not always hold government or the State to account efficiently or effectively, and harm is done.
Parliamentary scrutiny can be captured by the ruling party. State action can occur in secret. Due process can be fudged in favour of the ends justifying the means.
If equality under the law, and equal access to the law, are to be fundamental building blocks for an open pluralistic democracy, State action must be accountable to an independent judiciary. This should not be a party-political question.
If there is concern that the independence of the domestic judiciary is under threat from political interference in the UK, adherence to an independent, accredited and credible international set of legal principles must be considered, adopted and protected.
As a local ‘citizens rights’ organisation we need to be able to hold the State to account.
The alternative to accountability for the State by an independent judiciary is an unaccountable State. Game over.
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