Using the CRC to protect the child’s rights in youth crime in England and Wales

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 – and the profile of children’s rights generally – has been raised in recent years thanks to the campaigning efforts of NGOs such as the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, the Howard League for Penal Reform, and UNICEF. On 19th November 2009 a private member’s bill, The Children’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 ‘brought home’ to the UK.

The chances of the Children’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 children’s rights, especially in the youth crime context.

The leading decision is R (on the application of R) v Durham Constabulary [2005] UKHL 51, where Baroness Hale made it clear that the CRC must be used to interpret the meaning of the child’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 child’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 ‘grave doubts’ 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 child’s consent before being issued with a final warning did not breach the child’s enforceable rights under the ECHR.

Despite the unfavourable outcome for the child in this case, Baroness Hale’s dicta is permeating through into other cases. One area of youth crime where the child’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 child’s status as child – the need to care for the child as a child rather than as a ‘prisoner’. 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 [2002] EWHC 2497. In particular, the child-specific obligations such as Article 3 CRC imposed ‘on the Prison Service positive obligations to take reasonable and appropriate measures’ 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 [2008] 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 child’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 child’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 [2004] EWHC 13 a girl was being moved from a Local Authority Secure Children’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 girls’ article 8 ECHR rights were engaged, and the content of these rights could be interpreted in light of the CRC – 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 [2009] 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 children’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 child’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 child’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 child’s rights is particularly crucial given the Conservative Party’s pledge to repeal the Human Rights A
ct
a 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 Tory’s motivation for replacing the HRA in part comes from the fears that the Human Rights Act is a ‘criminal’s charter’ – it may be the rights of ‘criminals’ 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 child’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 UK’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 child’s rights in light of the CRC, regardless of the source of those rights – 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 child’s rights in area of youth crime in the last 5 years is not lost, even if the Human Rights Act is.

Commentary on Saadi v Italy

We wrote about the important Grand Chamber decision in Saadi v Italy (on Article 3, non-refoulement, and diplomatic assurances) here. CCJHR member Fiona de Londras was invited to prepare an Insight on the case for the American Society of International Law.

According to the Society, “Insights provide decision makers, the general public, and members of the legal profession around the world with brief, balanced accounts and analyses of significant legal developments and newsworthy events involving international law”.

The Saadi Insight is now published and is available here.

(UK) Court of Appeal applies Saadi v Italy and Prevents Deportation to Libya

Today the Court of Appeal (Civil Division) released its judgment in AS & DD v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2008] EWCA Civ 289, which concerned the lawfulness of the deportation of the applicant to Libya, pursuant to a Memorandum of Understanding with the proposed receiving state.

The applicant was considered to pose risks to national security in the United Kingdom. He claimed that his right to be free from torture, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment under both the ECHR and the Human Rights Act 1998 would be violated by the deportation as he faced a substantial risk of such treatment on return to Libya, and that the memorandum of understanding provided was not sufficient to discharge the United Kingdom’s positive obligations under Article 3, ECHR (on which see, esp., Soering and Chahal).

Drawing very heavily on the European Court of Human Right’s recent decision in Saadi v Italy (previously discussed on the CCJHR blog here), the Court of Appeal held that the test to be applied when considering whether deportation would constitute a human rights violation was as laid down in Saadi as follows:

Furthermore, the Court has frequently indicated that it applies rigorous criteria and exercises close scrutiny when assessing the existence of a real risk of ill-treatment … in the event of a person being removed from the territory of the respondent State by extradition, expulsion or any other measure pursuing that aim. Although assessment of that risk is to some degree speculative, the Court has always been very cautious, examining carefully the material placed before it in the light of the requisite standard of proof (see paragraphs 128 and 132 above) before indicating an interim measure under Rule 39 or finding that the enforcement of removal from the territory would be contrary to Article 3 of the Convention. As a result, since adopting the Chahal judgment it has only rarely reached such a conclusion. (paragraph 142)

The Secretary of State for the Home Department conceded that this test would have been satisfied beyond doubt in this case were it not for the fact that a Memorandum of Understanding (i.e. diplomatic assurances) had been concluded between the UK and Libya. This memorandum, the respondent claimed, was sufficient to discharge the UK’s duty of non-refoulement under Article 3 ECHR.

In this respect the Court of Appeal held that the sufficiency of any memorandum must be decided on a case-by-case basis (paragraph 75). Although the Court did not, perhaps, articulate the principles of assessing the sufficiency of particular memoranda of understanding as clearly as it might have done, it did clearly state that in assessing whether Article 3 is satisfied it is important to consider the reality on the ground in the receiving country and the extent to which – taking into account the unpredictability of the future – it is likely that treatment violating Article 3 might take place notwithstanding the memorandum of understanding.

Whether this decision will be appealed to the House of Lords remains to be seen, but as the judgment is substantively based on Saadi it seems unlikely that the Law Lords would reverse. In essence, then, the judgment outlines three principles:

  1. The protections of Article 3, ECHR are absolute and remain absolute notwithstanding the alleged misbehaviour/terrorist status/national security risk posed by the individual(s) concerned;
  2. In assessing whether deportation would constitute a violation of Article 3 a Court must consider whether there is “a real risk of ill-treatment”, taking into account all of the evidence before it and the necessarily speculative nature of the exercise;
  3. A Memorandum of Understanding/diplomatic assurance can, in principle, be sufficient to ensure compliance with Article 3, but the mere existence of such a memorandum is not sufficient in and of itself. Rather, the court must be satisfied that the situation in the proposed receiving state is such that the memorandum will be effective in protecting the individual from behaviour that violates Article 3.