RULESWATCH

March 25, 2009

UK Green Paper on proposed, written (!) British “Bill of Rights!”

Filed under: 1 — ruleswatch @ 11:58 am

The government of the United Kingdom has just released a Green paper entitled “Rights and Responsibilities: Developing Our Constitutional Framework” intended to move the country toward a documented Bill of Rights. The idea of a written UK Bill of Rights has formed part of broad government moves, since at least the fall of 2007, toward reform of institutions fundamental the rule of law. Legal change has been increasingly organized through steps in the administration of Justice (a Justice Ministry has been established) and basic changes are coming to the organization of the country’s court system.

 

“Rights and Responsibilities” makes extremely useful reading. In clearly setting out the ground work for the shape of its own proposals, the paper brings together discussion of fundamental liberal democratic constitutional and rights theory. It does so, citing lessons learned and ideas generated from the Magna Carta to the Constitution of South Africa, and from Edmund Burke to the House of Lords’, Lord Hoffman.

 

The paper also points out the symbolic and political utility of declarations of rights from the US Declaration of Independence and the 1680’s English Bill of Rights. Our own Charter for example is said “…[s]ince its inception ..[to have]…become a symbol of Canadian identity.”

 

The Green Paper matches these broad functional contributions a Bill can serve with current, urgent needs:

Expressing …freedoms and duties in a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities and the values which give rise to them (in a Statement of Values potentially serving as a preamble to such a Bill), could act as an anchor for people in the UK as we enter a new age of anxiety and uncertainty.

Equally interesting, in calling for Responsibilities to be recognized side by side with Rights in a prospective Bill, the policy paper acknowledges what it describes as the effect of broad based shifts in fundamental legal-social values:

“..social and economic change has altered public attitudes. It has encouraged the rise of a less deferential, more consumerist public. In this more atomised society people appear more inclined to think of themselves and one another as customers rather than citizens. People are more independent, more empowered. But these developments can pose problems too, especially when viewed in the context of liberal democracy and the way people look upon rights. To an extent, rights have become commoditised. This is demonstrated by those who assert their rights in a selfish way without regard to the rights of others.

Some commentators have suggested that an over-emphasis on rights, to the exclusion of notions of responsibility, can lead to a ‘me’ society rather than a ‘we’ society, in which an unbridled focus on our own individual rights and liberties risks overtaking our collective security and wellbeing, and respect for others.

The observation primes the pump for what seems to be a major new development in how Rights are to be presented. “Responsibilities and rights are equally necessary for a healthy democracy.” The Green Paper sets out. “…it may be desirable to express succinctly, in one place, the key responsibilities we all owe as members of society, with a view to reinforcing the imperative to observe them…Responsibilities relating to the criminal justice system extend beyond an implied duty to obey the law. There are a number of duties that may be said also to imply an obligation to uphold the law.”

“Rights and Responsibilities: Developing Our Constitutional Framework,” highly readable and well-presented is worth a close and considered read.

Go to: www.justice.gov.uk/docs/rights-responsibilities.pdf

UPDATE:

Response to the proposal has not been universal acclaim. The Independent newspaper’s “lead article” (editorial) of March 23 sees politics at work. It growled, in part, “For all the grand constitutional clothing of this Green Paper, it is essentially a political exercise. The idea of a new Bill of Rights and responsibilities was first proposed by Mr Brown when he was Chancellor, to counter a Tory criticism that the Human Rights Act was impeding Britain’s ability to deal with illegal migrants and imposing unacceptable costs on business.

Yet what has emerged from this political calculation looks like a half-baked – and possibly dangerous – attempt to create a legacy by a struggling government. Our freedoms, stated or unwritten, should not be used as party political weapons.”

More on UK Human Rights Act, complaints later

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1 Comment »

  1. Most interesting …particularly the notion of individual responsibilities to be referenced in some, yet to be defibed fashion, as a constitutional value, I gather. Some of the specifcally noted are

    “Such responsibilities could include treating National Health Service and other public sector staff with respect; safeguarding and promoting the wellbeing of children in our care; living within our environmental limits; participating in civic society through voting and jury service; assisting the police in reporting crimes and co-operating with the prosecution agencies; as well as general duties such as paying taxes and obeying the law”

    (I think the author could have used a better ordering)

    Comment by the Observer — March 25, 2009 @ 5:33 pm


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