10 December is the 70th anniversary of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). As Liberty said recently: it is a time for celebration but no time for complacency.
To mark the anniversary, the leaders of the 47-nation Council of Europe have issued a statement which includes these words: ‘The European Convention on Human Rights came into being against the dreadful background of the devastation of the Second World War, reflecting a determination on the part of European leaders to learn from the mistakes of the past and to help protect individuals from State abuse. Peace and stability could only be achieved by the consolidation of democracy and the rule of law. Inspired by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the Convention is a unique, legally-binding treaty, overseen by an independent international court, which safeguards people’s basic rights and fundamental freedoms.’
A powerful force for good when signed by the founding 12 countries, the Convention now protects over 830 million people in 47 European states. The United Kingdom should be proud to have helped mould the work of the European Court of Human Rights by making a contribution to ground-breaking cases; it has also been a leading state in taking seriously decisions of the court that have helped shape the lives and protections of millions of people in our country.
Human rights have impacted many aspects of the Bar Council’s work this year – not least in reacting to coronavirus. Where the proper balance lies between individual freedoms and collective health has been a weekly and sometimes daily challenge for the government in imposing the right level of restrictions to manage the pandemic. Achieving the right balance between courts remaining open and accessible and justice being available to the public has proved a complex challenge when considering the health and safety of those who must attend court. It was a drastic but necessary step for the Bar Council to call for courts to be closed until we could be sure they were safe for practitioners. But, looking at it now, unpopular as it was for a time with some people, it was undoubtedly the right thing to do – both to close the courts to assess their safety and to open them as quickly as safely and practically possible. I am proud of those barristers who helped to set the line in the right place for in-person/remote hearings, who went to court when required and equally of those who took the brave, and often selfless, decision to challenge the correctness of that line. I am also proud that the profession collaborated with HMCTS, the Ministry of Justice, the judiciary, the CPS and the Law Society to adapt so quickly to change for the benefit of our clients. Praise is due to all involved but it is one thing to ride out a pandemic with the institutional structure of a corporate or government department behind you – paying your wages, providing your technology; it is quite another when you are a self-employed barrister with no access to government support and no idea when you will be able to get your practice back.
And, in the middle of it all, the terrible killing of George Floyd, which was not just a shocking demonstration of what the absence of human rights can look like, but a pivotal moment of realisation that, despite our efforts at the Bar Council to improve equality, diversity and inclusion, we had not done enough to address the daily problems and the career trajectories for many of our talented Black members. If ever we need a reminder of why we need laws to enshrine the protection of human rights and freedoms, 2020 has provided the evidence.
So, my biggest challenges of 2020:
- the chaos of the pandemic;
- the frustration at lack of communication from a government and judiciary who were often doing more than they were prepared to say – with consequent unnecessary stress to many – not least themselves;
- keeping diversity, inclusion and the interests of all court users, including barristers who were vulnerable, home-schooling or shielding, at the centre of government and judicial decisions over court recovery plans;
- the government’s failure to allow young barristers to benefit from the SEISS scheme because they were too junior to have the required tax return, when the Bar Council had offered to provide alternate evidence of earnings;
- advocating the right way to address the ever-increasing backlogs;
- the glacial pace of CLAR 2 (Criminal Legal Aid Review);
- the government’s willingness to sacrifice our country’s global reputation as a world-leading legal centre, following the Internal Market Bill clauses that breach international law.
And my biggest positives of 2020:
- collaborating with colleagues right across the justice system, to get cases up, running safely and in growing numbers;
- the Bar Council Leadership Programme;
- the Accelerator Project and the Race Working Group;
- improvements to legal aid in civil, family and crime;
- the Bar and Young Bar Conference;
- the extraordinary dedication of hundreds of barristers to pro bono in a year when access to justice seemed more precarious than ever;
- close working relations with international colleagues and Bar associations to keep justice available and enforceable once we have left the EU.
There are so many other good things that happened in my year as Chair of the Bar that I know will continue to flourish and develop in 2021 under Derek Sweeting QC – who has been such a wise counsellor and support. Unfortunately, word count prevents me elaborating! But, most positive of all has undoubtedly been the unstinting commitment, drive and good humour of everyone at the Bar Council and all those barristers and chambers professionals who have helped us get to where we are. That, I will miss.
Published on 18/11/20. This will appear in the December 2020 issue of Counsel.