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The Government’s European Union (Withdrawal) Bill: How the exception relating to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union will impact on the protection of Human Rights in UK

Introduction

 

On 13 July 2017 the Government of the UK published the long-awaited European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, a single legislative measure which is planned to enter into force in March 2019, when the two-year Brexit negotiation process comes to an end. In brief, the bill will revoke the European Communities Act of 1972 and transpose European Union (EU) law, ‘wherever practical’, into UK law. Any European Court of Justice’s case law issued until March 2019 will also acquire the legal strength and authority of a UK Supreme Court’s decision.

Although Parliament will be able to vote on it no sooner than next autumn, the publication of the Bill has already resulted in a great amount of criticisms, above all, on the exclusion of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU (hereafter, ‘the Charter’) from the application of the Bill, pursuant to its section 5 (4). This post first argues that the Charter, as many EU laws, is currently part of UK domestic law, thanks to section 2(1) of the European Communities Act 1972; which contradicts the Government’s stance in this respect; then, it argues that after Brexit, and with regard to those cases currently governed by EU law, the exclusion of the Charter would diminish the level of protection of human rights in the UK. This notwithstanding the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), incorporated in UK law via the 1998 Human Rights Act will still be enforced, but it argues that the ECHR will not grant the same human rights protection.

 

The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the European Convention of Human Rights

 

In 2000, at the Nice European Council, the EU Members States adopted the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, which in some respects is broader than the ECHR in that it enlists, in addition to civil and political rights, economic and social and societal rights. In 2009, the Charter became binding pursuant to article 6(1) of the Treaty of Lisbon, which assigned to the Charter ‘the same legal value as the Treaties.’ EU Member States have a duty to observe it only in application of the EU law, namely: when a national legislation transposes an EU directive; 
a public authority applies EU law; or a national court applies or interprets EU law.

 

The Treaty of Lisbon, under article 6 (2), provides that the EU “shall accede” to the ECHR. While the accession has not taken place yet, all EU institutions and Member States are in any case obliged to interpret the Charter in light of existing jurisprudence of the ECtHR. Under Article 52(3) of the Charter, States have a legal obligation to give the same meaning and scope to the rights of the two instruments, insofar as they correspond.

 

On the applicability of the Charter to the UK

 

In Lisbon, Protocol 30 to the treaty related to the application of the Charter of fundamental rights of the European Union to Poland and to the United Kingdom was adopted. This Protocol generated a significant confusion with respect to the legal effects on the UK. Some have argued that this implied a sort of opting out, so that the Charter has no legal value in the UK. Others embraced an opposite view, so that the Charter could have created new justiciable rights. To sort out this controversy, in 2014 the European Scrutiny Committee of the House of Commons published a report with the evocative title of ‘The application of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights in the UK: a state of confusion’. The Committee concluded that the Protocol had reaffirmed that the Charter has legal strength in so far as all national authorities had to apply and interpret EU law, but it did not create new independent rights. In this respect, the Charter is directly effective in the UK, by virtue of Section 2(1) of the European Communities Act 1972 which in its relevant parts reads as follows:

 

‘All such rights, powers, liabilities, obligations and restrictions from time to time created or arising by or under the Treaties, and all such remedies and procedures from time to time provided for by or under the Treaties, as in accordance with the Treaties are without further enactment to be given legal effect or used in the United Kingdom shall be recognised and available in law, and be enforced, allowed and followed accordingly'[emphasis added].

 

The Committee indeed recommended that, in order to disapply the Charter from the UK, ‘primary legislation be introduced by way of an amendment to the European Communities Act 1972’. Therefore, since the Charter has the same legal value as the Treaties, with respect of any EU law, it is automatically part of the UK domestic law, pursuant to the 1972 Act of Parliament. In fact UK Courts have often made reference to the Charter and checked its compatibility with the EU law as implemented in UK.[1] Furthermore, in 2013 the Grand Chamber of the Court of Justice of the EU held:

 

‘where a court of a Member State is called upon to review whether fundamental rights are complied with by a national provision or measure which, in a situation where action of the Member States is not entirely determined by European Union law, implements the latter for the purposes of Article 51(1) of the Charter, national authorities and courts remain free to apply national standards of protection of fundamental rights, provided that the level of protection provided for by the Charter, as interpreted by the Court, and the primacy, unity and effectiveness of European Union law are not thereby compromised’ [emphasis added].

 

Consequently, it is surprising that under Section 5(4) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, ‘[t]he Charter of Fundamental Rights is not part of domestic law on or after exit’ [emphasis added].

 

On the protection of fundamental rights provided by the Charter and the ECHR

 

After Brexit, as provided by the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, any public authority or national court in the UK could keep on applying or interpreting what was originally EU law, as this would become, ‘wherever practical’, UK law. However, so far, the relevant EU law has been interpreted in the case law of the Court of Justice of the EU in light of the Charter. If the Charter were not applicable to the UK any more, this might result in then-former EU law being significantly different from its ‘original’ version at the moment of its transposition; furthermore, its interpretation would be left to decisions to be taken on a case-by-case basis. These two factors taken together might have serious consequences in respect to the certainty of the law.

Concerning the application of the law, as far as the rights overlapping with the ECHR are concerned, this would result in a different kind of protection. Indeed, those civil and political rights provided by the Charter, in compliance with one of the most fundamental principles of the EU law, have a direct effect in the UK as many EU laws do. But if the Charter had no effect in the UK after Brexit, victims of human rights violations could only rely on the ECHR. Yet, under section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998, while ‘[i]t is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way which is incompatible with a Convention right’, this does not apply to an act if

 

—(a) as the result of one or more provisions of primary legislation, the authority could not have acted differently; or (b) in the case of one or more provisions of, or made under, primary legislation which cannot be read or given effect in a way which is compatible with the Convention rights, the authority was acting so as to give effect to or enforce those provisions.

 

Thus, the kind of protection provided by the ECHR is not comparable to what people in the UK currently have in the application of EU law, thanks to the Charter and the European Communities Act 1972.

The same kind of reasoning would a fortiori apply to all those rights that are not protected by the Human Rights Act, including many economic and social rights, when they already are justiciable rights in the UK and in the application of EU law. Indeed, while it is true that the Charter did not add any new justiciable right, it is currently relevant when it comes to verify whether any EU law is compatible with it; to the contrary, domestic law (as all former EU legislation will become after the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is adopted) granting the same rights will not prevail over conflicting statutes.

 

Conclusion

 

On 13 July 2017 the Government of the UK published the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which is going to be discussed in Parliament no sooner than next autumn. Section 5(2) of the Bill, which is meant to enter into force when the UK actually leaves the EU, provides for the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU not to be considered domestic law in the UK at the moment of Brexit, nor after it. This post has shown how the Charter is currently part of UK domestic law, thanks to Section 2(1) of the European Communities Act 1972. It has also been argued that, should the Bill enter into force as it stands at the moment, there may arise a problem in terms of the certainty of the law because, lacking the possibility of making reference to the Charter when interpreting and applying it, former EU law would already miss something at the moment of its transposition and national authorities would be left with the burden of filling the gaps it would leave. As for the protection of fundamental rights in the UK, this might be subjected to a considerable change too. Indeed, concerning those civil and political rights that are also provided by the ECHR, national authorities are bound not to give priority to the Human Rights Act, incorporating the ECHR in the UK system, when this is in conflict with national legislation. Thus, the protection of these rights, when violated in application of a norm incorporated by the then former EU law, will be left to a different, less incisive, kind of remedy than that offered by the Charter (and many EU laws!) at present. This would be a fortiori true with regard to those rights, including economic and social rights, which are not protected by the Human Rights Act.

[1] See, for instance, [2017] EWCA Civ 431, [2017] EWCA Civ 397 at 74; [2017] EWHC 1174 (Admin) at 100-101; [2017] EWHC 931 (Admin) at 59; [2017] EWHC 577 (Admin) at 38; [2017] EWCA Civ 35; [2017] EWCA Civ 41 at 136; [2017] EWCA Civ 243 at 1; [2017] EWHC 331 (Admin) at 17; [2017] EWHC 827 (Admin) at 30; [2016] QB 1003 at [99]; [2017] CAT 9 at 80; [2017] UKUT 125 (IAC) at 34; [2017] UKFTT 167 (TC) at 435; on the Charter not conferring new rights nor expanding those rights stemming from EU law, see, e.g., [2017] EWHC 695 (QB) at 13-16; on the disapplication of a national measures conflicting with the Charter see, e.g., [2017] EWCA Civ 121 at 60; [2015] EWCA Civ 311, [2015] 3 WLR 409. Interestingly, the First Section of the ECtHR has recently reaffirmed the legally binding nature of the Charter in a case against the UK.May

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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