This blog post was contributed by Dr Kathryn Hollingsworth, Senior Lecturer in Public Law at King’s College London
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is not domestically enforceable in England and Wales, but its profile â€“ and the profile of childrenâ€™s rights generally – has been raised in recent years thanks to the campaigning efforts of NGOs such as the Childrenâ€™s Rights Alliance for England, the Howard League for Penal Reform, and UNICEF. On 19th November 2009 a private memberâ€™s bill, The Childrenâ€™s Rights Bill 2009, had its first reading in the House of Lords. The Bill, if passed, will have the effect of incorporating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into UK domestic law, using procedures which mirror those set out in the Human Rights Act 1998 by which the European Convention on Human Rights was â€˜brought homeâ€™ to the UK.
The chances of the Childrenâ€™s Rights Bill making its way onto the statute book are slim. But that does not mean that the CRC has no place in English law. In the last five years, the judiciary in England and Wales have increasingly drawn on the CRC in order to interpret the rights of children in domestic law. Lady (previously Baroness) Hale and Lord Justice Munby have been particularly instrumental in this regard. This has had an important and positive impact on the protection of childrenâ€™s rights, especially in the youth crime context.
The leading decision is R (on the application of R) v Durham Constabulary  UKHL 51, where Baroness Hale made it clear that the CRC must be used to interpret the meaning of the childâ€™s enforceable rights under the ECHR. The case concerned the system of diversion in England and Wales and specifically the question of whether the absence of a requirement for a child to consent to a reprimand or warning constituted a breach of the childâ€™s Article 6 ECHR right. Baroness Hale drew on Article 40(3)(b) and 40(4) CRC, as well as the Beijing Rules and the Riyadh Guidelines, and expressed her â€˜grave doubtsâ€™ as to whether the system of diversion in England and Wales complied with the CRC (because of its rigidity and because it propels the child more quickly through the criminal justice system). Crucially, however, Baroness Hale pointed out that the lack of a requirement to gain the childâ€™s consent before being issued with a final warning did not breach the childâ€™s enforceable rights under the ECHR.
Despite the unfavourable outcome for the child in this case, Baroness Haleâ€™s dicta is permeating through into other cases. One area of youth crime where the childâ€™s CRC rights are of particular importance is where the child is detained in a custodial institution. Here the CRC can be used to emphasise the childâ€™s status as child â€“ the need to care for the child as a child rather than as a â€˜prisonerâ€™. Article 3 CRC can be especially useful here. For example, Mr Justice Munby (as he was then) drew on the CRC in his landmark judgment in R (on the application of Howard League) v Secretary of State for the Home Department  EWHC 2497. In particular, the child-specific obligations such as Article 3 CRC imposed â€˜on the Prison Service positive obligations to take reasonable and appropriate measuresâ€™ designed to ensure that children in YOIs are treated with humanity and with respect for their dignity, and that they are not subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment. In particular, when balancing the interests of the child against the wider interests of the community and other inmates, Mr Justice Munby argued that regard should be had to the inherent vulnerability of children in a YOI, and also to the principle that the best interests of the child should be a primary consideration. This approach was followed very recently by the Court of Appeal in R (C) v Secretary of State for Justice  UKCA Civ 882, a judicial review case brought to challenge the regulations which allowed restraint to be used in Secure Training Centres for the purposes of good behaviour and discipline. In this case, the application was successful and the regulations were quashed for breaching Articles 3 and 8 ECHR, both of which were interpreted by taking account of the CRC.
These are just a handful of cases where the CRC has been used successfully to protect the childâ€™s rights in the prison context. But, the Convention has certainly not proved to be a panacea. Even where it is used by the judiciary as an interpretative tool, it can only extend as far as the childâ€™s rights in domestic law or under the ECHR allow. For example, in R (on the application of DT) v Secretary of State for the Home Department  EWHC 13 a girl was being moved from a Local Authority Secure Childrenâ€™s Home into an adult female prison because of shortage of space. The judge held that an apparent breach of Article 37(c) CRC was irrelevant here (not least because the UK had derogated from that provision but nonetheless it is not directly enforceable) but that the girlsâ€™ article 8 ECHR rights were engaged, and the content of these rights could be interpreted in light of the CRC â€“ though only Article 3 because of the derogation from Article 37(c). Although the judge agreed that her Article 8(1) rights were engaged when she was transferred to an adult prison, the restriction was deemed justifiable under Article 8(2) ECHR. More recently in R (on the application of London Secure Services) v Youth Justice Board  EWHC 2347, a JR challenge was brought against the Youth Justice Board for its decision not to re-commission 28 beds in local authority secure homes (the preferred type of institution from a childrenâ€™s rights perspective for children detained in the secure estate). The challenge was not successful despite Mr Justice Forbes claiming to take into account the childâ€™s rights under the CRC in determining the content of the relevant ECHR rights.
There appears to be only so much the judiciary can do to protect the childâ€™s CRC rights in youth crime. But, although limited, the willingness of the judiciary to draw on the CRC to interpret the meaning of a childâ€™s rights is particularly crucial given the Conservative Partyâ€™s pledge to repeal the Human Rights A
cta if they are elected in 2010. If this happens, the rights under the ECHR will no longer be domestically enforceable and the judgements of the European Court of Human Rights will presumably decline in relevance to rights protection in England and Wales. This could have serious implications for children in trouble with the law for three reasons: firstly because the Toryâ€™s motivation for replacing the HRA in part comes from the fears that the Human Rights Act is a â€˜criminalâ€™s charterâ€™ â€“ it may be the rights of â€˜criminalsâ€™ which are thus most restricted in any new bill. Secondly, the ECHR has been an invaluable tool in protecting the rights of children detained in custodial institutions. And thirdly, the justification Lady Hale gave for interpreting the childâ€™s ECHR rights in light of the CRC in the Durham Constabulary case was that this is the approach taken by the European Court of Human Rights.
It is crucial that the CRC is seen as an over-arching and consistent presence that is founded in the UKâ€™s ratification of the Treaty and not in the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. If so, the English judiciary can continue to interpret a childâ€™s rights in light of the CRC, regardless of the source of those rights â€“ whether it be the ECHR or a domestic bill of rights. Clearly, the reach of such an approach will depend on the particular bill of rights in force but at the least it should help to ensure that the progress made in the interpretation and enforcement of the childâ€™s rights in area of youth crime in the last 5 years is not lost, even if the Human Rights Act is.