“For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, The insolence of office and the spurns That patient merit of the unworthy takes…”
*Biff* In your face, Hamlet. Who says judges lack nimbleness? The spry old customers can get a fair head of steam behind them when they want to. Earlier this month, the Inner House of the Court of Session knocked back an appeal by two prisoners against their exclusion from the franchise in the independence referendum, upholding Lord Glennie's decision - if not all of his reasoning - at first instance. Although the conclusion reached by the Inner House is almost certainly the right one, the judgment left a lot to be desired, and it was inevitable that the disappointed litigants - with legal aid behind them - would take their judicial review all the way to the top.
What was less clear was the timetable for the UK Supreme Court hearing. We're a gnat's crotchet away from the referendum, which was bound to focus the Justices' minds - but with remarkable swiftness, they've already summoned the lawyers down from Edinburgh to make their case. The hearing is scheduled for this Thursday, before Lords Neuberger, Kerr, Clarke, Wilson, Reed, Hodge and Lady Hale. As the Supreme Court note on the case neatly summarises, the case turns on the answers to five main legal questions.
- Are the provisions prohibiting prisoner voting contained in the Scottish Independence Referendum (Franchise) Act 2013 (the "Franchise Act") incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (the "Convention"), in particular Article 3 of Protocol 1 and Article 10 thereof?
- Do the provisions prohibiting prisoner voting contained in the Franchise Act breach a fundamental common law right to vote?
- Do the provisions prohibiting prisoner voting contained in the Franchise Act breach a common law constitutional principle of the rule of law?
- Does the Scottish Parliament have an obligation, enforceable in the domestic courts, to comply with the United Kingdom’s international obligations?
- Are the provisions prohibiting prisoner voting contained in the Franchise Act incompatible with the requirements of EU law?
I would be very surprised if the prisoners prevailed on any of these grounds of argument, but as I argued earlier this month, the issues are arguable and important points of principle are engaged. Under the European Convention heading, isn't an independence referendum more akin to a "choice of legislature" question than the Court of Session recognised, when you take Strasbourg's "practical and effective" approach to human rights protection into account? Shouldn't our courts have the confidence at least seriously to consider the question?
The idea of a challenge to Acts of the Scottish Parliament on "rule of law" grounds popped up in Lord Hope's opinion in AXA. Moohan represents an opportunity to put some more flesh on the bare bones of Hope's largely unexplained aside in a fashion neither Lord Glennie or the Inner House attempted. From a wider public law perspective, however, perhaps the most interesting dimension of the appeal is the common law fundamental rights questions.
Although largely unnoticed in the mainstream media, as the Conservative Party continue to denigrate the European Convention on Human Rights, and the Human Rights Act 1998, our top judges are beginning to talk more about the fundamental rights protected - not by the ECHR - but by the common law.
Handing down the Court's judgment in the recent case of Osborn, which concerned when folk up before the parole board should receive an oral hearing, Scottish judge Lord Reed based his decision, not on Convention rights, but on cardinal principles of fairness under the common law. The upshot? Even if the Human Rights Act is repealed and the Convention denounced, the courts will continue to enforce fundamental rights rooted in the common law tradition. Although Osborn drops hints, the extent to which judges will expand their thinking about fundamental common law rights remains an open question.
The Scottish prisoner rights case which will be heard this week is a clear invitation to the Supreme Court to extend this kind of thinking, and recognise a fundamental right to vote under the common law, distinct from the voting rights set down in successive iterations of the Representation of the People Act. Canvassing the jurisprudence of courts elsewhere, Lord Glennie was persuaded last December that we do have a fundamental common law right to vote - but held that this didn't extent to referendums, saving the Scottish Government's bacon.
The Inner House were entirely unpersuaded, holding earlier this month that there are no such fundamental rights, and the franchise is governed entirely by statutory rules emanating from parliament. If parliament decides not to recognise your right to vote? Tough luck. Your only solution is to traipse off the Strasbourg, and argue that your Convention rights have been violated. Although I fully expect the justices' answers to this question to be largely neglected in the mainstream press, they promise to be fascinating and important indicators about the vexed question about the future direction of fundamental rights in UK law.
For those of us who despair about the anti-rights drift in British political discourse, it is a flickering candle at the windowsill, increasingly buffeted and deprived of oxygen by illiberal discourse of the Home Secretary and her newly-promoted Europhobic Tory colleagues, reshuffled into the deck. Sometimes, you tremble for this (dis)United Kingdom.