Human rights review shows areas governments need to consider

Consultation is good but urgent action is needed on some issues, writes Marina Sinclair-Chin

The Scottish Government decided to close ten sheriff courts and seven justice of the peace courts. Picture: Jayne Wright
The Scottish Government decided to close ten sheriff courts and seven justice of the peace courts. Picture: Jayne Wright

If you could tell the government one thing about human rights, what would it be? The question appears simple enough. The answer is more complex. We recently gave written evidence to the British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR) to contribute to their report for the Universal Periodic Review on human rights. Every United Nations member state takes part in the four-and-a-half-year cycle of the review to help improve human rights around the world. It is an opportunity to examine issues across the full range of United Nations human rights agreements and make recommendations for improvement. We said that both the Scottish and UK governments must advance and enhance the protection of human rights for everyone.

They must also consider the constitutional implications of law reform proposals. Effective access to justice is a critical element of a properly functioning justice system. Care must be taken to ensure that access to justice, on a fair and affordable basis, is a reality for everyone who needs it.

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The Scottish Government decision to close ten sheriff courts and seven justice of the peace courts raised a number of human rights questions, particularly over access to justice.

Another crucial issue in Scotland is the steady decline of the Legal Aid budget. The £126.1 million budget for 2016-17 is the lowest for well over a decade and we do not see how this target can be achieved without seriously damaging both access to justice and the justice system.

In terms of children’s rights, the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 means that Scottish ministers must consider the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child when designing and delivering policies and services. The Act also introduced the role of the Named Person, which has generated ongoing controversy over the right to private and family life. Meanwhile, Scotland’s minimum age of criminal responsibility, at eight, is one of the lowest in the world and we’re pleased plans are progressing to increase this to 12.

Our mental health and disability law committee has called for major changes to the law for adults with incapacity after reviewing the legislation and human rights standards intended to protect vulnerable people. The current position under the Adults with Incapacity (Scotland) Act 2000 is inefficient and the system frequently lets down vulnerable people, their families and carers.

Elsewhere, we believe the jurisdictions, currently fragmented across courts and tribunals, should be consolidated within a single tribunal. We also believe the introduction of significant tribunal fees has created a barrier to access to justice. The Scottish Government has committed to abolishing employment tribunal fees when the power is devolved and we’ve encouraged them to do this as soon as possible.

Finally, no review of current human rights issues would be complete without reference to UK government plans to repeal the Human Rights Act 1988 (HRA) and replace it with a UK Bill of Rights. The HRA provides an effective means for individuals to challenge the actions of the state. It allows people to seek redress in a more accessible, timely and affordable way than was possible before the European Convention on Human Rights was incorporated into domestic law.

We support its retention but believe there is room to build on and enhance current protections. For example, providing greater parliamentary accountability and a stronger judicial role.

So, considering all of the different ways that human rights impacts on the many different aspects of our lives, what is the one thing that the government needs to hear?

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• Marina Sinclair-Chin is head of international at the Law Society of Scotland